|The Stinger (top) and SA-7|
Damascus presumably knows why U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is now saying plans to set up a no-fly zone over parts of Syria are “not on the front burner.”
Without referring to Panetta’s remark, Nasser Sharara, writing today for the staunchly pro-Assad Lebanese daily al-Akhbar, says Washington and Turkey’s game plan at this point is not to use air assets to protect Syrian rebel forces from escalating regime airstrikes.
Instead, he says, Washington and Turkey are planning a deny-flight operation, whereby the American shoulder-held Stinger surface-to-air missiles -- also known as MANPADs (man-portable air-defense systems) -- would be deployed in parts of Syria to create a safe haven for the rebels.
Sharara says Damascus’ intended counterpunch is to supply “Ankara’s enemies” in Syria’s Kurdish areas – read the PKK or Kurdistan Workers’ Party -- with a new generation of Russian man-portable SA-7s.
Iran is working to establish in Syria a militia that is loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, Panetta said Tuesday, warning that Tehran’s growing presence could only aggravate the situation on the ground.
“It is obvious that Iran has been playing a larger role in Syria in many ways,” Panetta said at a joint press conference with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.
There is now evidence that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are “trying to develop, trying to train a militia within Syria to be able to fight on behalf of the regime,” Panetta said.
“So we are seeing a growing presence by Iran and that is of deep concern to us. We do not think that Iran ought to play that role at this moment in time, that’s dangerous... it’s adding to the killing that’s going on in Syria.”
“The Syrian people ought to determine their future, not Iran,” he added, before he played down options for a no-fly zone over Syria.
“With regards to the no-fly zone, that is not a front-burner issue for us,” Panetta said.
Dempsey, speaking at the Pentagon on Tuesday, said Jordan and Turkey had both examined the possibility of a safe haven with which “would probably come some form of no-fly zone.”
“But we’re not planning anything unilaterally, if that’s what you’re asking,” he said, just before Panetta said a no-fly zone wasn’t a front-burner issue.
Sharara, in his front-page lead for al-Akhbar, recalls Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pledging last Saturday more military and intelligence cooperation with Turkey on Syria.
“We have been closely coordinating over the course of this conflict, but now we need to get into the real details of such operational planning… Our intelligence services, our military have very important responsibilities and roles to play so we are going to be setting up a working group to do exactly that,” she said.
Sharara quotes an unnamed diplomatic source as saying Clinton’s talk of “operational planning” and military and intelligence cooperation “precludes the use of American, Turkish or even NATO air assets to create a no-fly zone over parts of Syria.
Instead, “the plan is for an opposition-controlled haven in a predominantly Sunnite area stretching from eastern Idlib to the northern half of Aleppo and upwards to the peripheries of al-Hasakah and Qamishli.”
The American-Turkish scheme is to deny flight to the Syrian air force over the said area through the hush-hush deployment there of Stinger-armed Turkish operators, lest the surface-to-air missiles fall into al-Qaeda hands.
But Sharara says Damascus is not expected to stay its hand while Ankara and Washington deploy Stingers, which “allowed the mujahedeen to defeat the Soviet army in Afghanistan,” to create a safe haven for the Syrian opposition.
Damascus, he says, is moving to cede control of northern Syria’s Kurdish areas (along the borders with Turkey) and equip “Ankara’s (PKK) enemies” there with a new generation of SA-7s “capable of downing Turkish fighter jets not only over Syrian Kurdistan” but over Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast as well.