British and Qatari special operations units are operating with rebel forces under cover in the Syrian city of Homs just 162 kilometers from Damascus. The foreign troops are not engaged in direct combat with the Syrian forces bombarding different parts of Syria's third largest city of 1.2 million. They are tactical advisers, manage rebel communications lines and relay their requests for arms, ammo, fighters and logistical aid to outside suppliers, mostly in Turkey.
Two foreign contingents have set up four centers of operation - in the northern Homs district of Khaldiya, Bab Amro in the east, and Bab Derib and Rastan in the north. Each district is home to about a quarter of a million people.
The military sources also report that Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 8, Assad sent the 40th Mechanized Brigade of heavy T-72 tanks to Homs for an all-out effort to beat the rebellion, counter the foreign contingents and reinforce the 90th Infantry Brigade commanded by his kinsman, Gen. Zuhair al-Assad, the backbone of the military force battering the city for the past five days at the cost of hundreds of dead.
The presence of the British and Qatari troops was seized on by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan for the new plan he unveiled to parliament in Ankara Tuesday, Feb. 7. Treating the British-Qatari contingents as the first foreign foot wedged through the Syrian door, his plan hinges on consigning a new Turkish-Arab force to Homs through that door and under the protection of those contingents. Later, they would go to additional flashpoint cities.
In the close to eleven months of the Syrian revolt, Erdogan has hatched more than one scheme for countering the Assad regime's savage crackdown on dissent. His most persistent was a plan for the creation of military buffer zones to shelter rebels and civilians persecuted by the Syrian authorities. But nothing came of those plans because, every time they came up, Assad reinforced his contingents on the Turkish border and deployed air defense and surface-to-surface missile batteries. He made it clear that the first Turk crossing the border would spark a full-scale war.
It is hard to say at this point whether the latest Turkish leader's current plan is any more practical than his earlier schemes. For now, he has put the ball in the American court. Wednesday, Feb. 8, he sent Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Washington to ask for the Obama administration's cooperation. The Turkish prime minister is also in urgent consultation with Saudi and several other Gulf rulers in the hope of bringing them aboard.
The British-Qatari troop presence in Homs was at the center of Assad's talks in Damascus Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian SVR intelligence chief Mikhail Fradkov. Senior Syrian intelligence officers laid their updates from the field before the Russian visitors and received SVR data and evaluations in return.
Western intelligence officials familiar with the talks describe the atmosphere between Assad and the Russian officials as uneasy and tense. Later, Lavrov reported optimistically that he had received assurances from the Syrian ruler of an end to the violence, talks with all Syrian parties and an early referendum on a new constitution for political reforms. His account was no more than prevarication to conceal the opposite outcome of their talks. In fact, their conversation focused on more violence, namely, Assad's plans for his next assault on rebels and protesters and his military response to the rising covert presence of foreign Western, Arab and Muslim troops in Syria.