Under the protection of the United States, Turkey, Britain, France, Italy, Qatar and the UAE, the first Red Cross convoys reached Homs Friday, Feb. 24. They began evacuating untreated injured victims and bringing medical aid to the city devastated and beleaguered by Bashar Assad’s troops. This ICRC corridor marked the first step toward foreign intervention in the Syrian crisis.
DEBKAfile’s military sources report exclusively that it came about after Washington and Ankara warned Assad through confidential channels that if his forces interfered with the emergency medical route for Homs, US and Turkish warplanes would take off from air bases in East Turkey and give the medical convoys air cover, thereby opening the door for a Western-Arab plan for resolving the Syrian crisis (which was first revealed exclusively in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 530 out Friday, Feb. 23.)
Assad’s response to the warning is unknown.
Early Saturday, US President Barack Obama delivered his harshest denunciation yet of the Assad regime.
The International community must continue sending the message to Syria’s president to step down, and “use every tool available to prevent the slaughter of innocents. It is time for a transition and time for that regime to move on.”
Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, addressing the Friends of Syria conference in Tunis Friday, said: “I am convinced Assad’s days are numbered, but I regret there will be more killing before he goes.”
Neither spelled out the manner of the Syria ruler’s exit but it was clear from Clinton’s words that Washington did not expect him to go without a fight.
Our intelligence sources report that expectation of international protection for Homs was signified Friday by the insistence of two injured Western correspondents, Paul Conroy of the Sunday Times and Edith Bouvier of La Figaro, that they would only leave the battered city if evacuated by the International Red Cross.
They were injured in the same bombardment of the Baba Amr district of Homs which last week killed Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik in their clandestine press center.
Conditions of the 20,000 to 30,000 people trapped in Bab Amr are worsening by the hour, the Red Cross spokesman in London reported, as sensitive negotiations take place between the ICRC and the Damascus government. They aim at gaining protection for the city of Homs and an aid corridor through which to evacuate the wounded to Turkey and bring in essential supplies, granting them the status of “safe havens” free of a Syrian military presence.
In the initial stage of this plan, Western officials are talking about cooperation between the Syrian Red Crescent and the International Red Cross. Such cooperation if it took place might signify Assad’s willingness to go along with the international effort – or at least tolerate it without resistance.
The creation of a safe haven in Homs, initially to provide the distressed populations with medical and humanitarian aid, would serve as a precedent for other parts of Syria and obviously diminish the regime’s control over the country. This is clearly more than Assad is willing to accept as of now.
There was no sign of a ceasefire Saturday morning; no letup in Syrian military shelling of Homs or savage assaults in other parts of the country after some 200 deaths were reported in the last 48 hours..
A group of Arab medics waiting in Jordan with medical supplies was refused entry to Syria. They declared a hunger strike until the Syrian authorities let them in.
The Tunis conference’s formal decisions as articulated by Clinton focused on diplomatic pressure and sanctions for bringing the Syrian ruler to heel. Arab diplomats, led by the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, took exception to this line, demanding direct action and a major international effort to arm and reinforce the anti-Assad rebels who are hopelessly outgunned by Assad’s forces.