November 22, 2011
Big power gunboat diplomacy is in full spate in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. Washington is underscoring its military option against Iran’s nuclear program, while Russia is demonstrating its resolve to prevent NATO attacking Syria after Libya and defending Bashar Assad’s regime. Monday, Nov. 21,
Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov accused Western nations of “political provocation” by urging the Syrian opposition to refuse to negotiate a settlement with Assad.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, for his part, advised Assad: “You can only continue with tanks and guns to a certain point, the day will come when you will go.”
DEBKAfile’s military sources note that Russia and America adopted aggressive postures on Nov. 12, when two American carriers, the USS Bush and USS Stennis sailed through the Strait of Hormuz side by side and took up position opposite the Iranian coast.
That was also the day when a mysterious explosion at the Revolutionary Guards base near Tehran wiped out the entire leadership of Iran’s ballistic missile program.
Five days later, on Nov. 17, the Syrian news agency reported three Russian naval vessels on the Mediterranean were heading toward Syria.
Monday, Nov. 21, presidential sources in Damascus announced three warships had entered Syrian territorial waters outside Tartus port.
Those sources stressed the Russian ships would not anchor in the Syrian port, indicating that their mission was not just to show the flag for the Assad regime but was on operational duty along its coasts to resist any foreign intervention in Syria unrest.
Our military sources are watching to see whether the Russian flotilla targets the small craft transporting arms from Lebanon and Turkey to Syrian rebels fighting the regime. If so, Moscow would be able to present these strikes as actions against piracy which would fall under a UN Security Council resolution.
While Moscow and Damascus kept the identity of the Russian warships dark, Arab sources said at least two of them are equipped for gathering intelligence and electronic warfare.
As the Russian warships entered Syrian territorial waters, Canadian Defense Minister Peter McKay announced that in the light of the Syrian crisis, the Royal Canadian Navy would keep back in the Mediterranean until the end of 2012 certain vessels which took part in the Libyan campaign.
DEBKAfile’s military sources report he was referring to two frigates:
HMCS Vancouver will stay in the Mediterranean Sea until early next year,” he said, taking part in “locating, tracking, reporting (and) boarding vessels of interest suspected of international terrorism.” It would be relieved by HMCS Charlottetown until the end of 2012.
Defense Minister Mckay explained: “…a lot of dictators are on notice that this type of behavior isn’t going to be tolerated. How we go about it and what comes next is done on… an escalating scale before making any final decisions about intervention.”
The Canadian defense minister was the first prominent Western official to admit the possibility of Western military intervention in Syria.
Three more events affecting the fate of the Assad regime, Tehran’s closest ally, followed in quick succession Monday:
British Foreign Secretary William Hague received a delegation of the opposition Syrian National Council in London. Shortly before the interview the SNC published its plan for the transition of power from the Assad regime in Damascus, calling also for “international protection for Syrian civilians.”
In Syria itself, three buses carrying Turkish pilgrims home from Mecca were accosted by a Syrian checkpoint at Cizre near Homs. The passengers were ordered to disembark for their papers to be inspected. The Syrian soldiers then started shooting at them, injuring a passenger and one of the drivers.
This incident will not be treated lightly by the Erdogan government.
Until now, despite vocal threats, Ankara has not intervened directly in the nine-month Syrian uprising aside from arming and training rebels.
Also Monday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II paid a surprise visit to Ramallah for talks with the Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas. One of the items on his agenda was an attempt to find out where the Palestinian leader stands vis-à-vis the Arab Revolt, especially on the conflict in Syria.