On Tuesday NATO Sec.-Gen. Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Turkey could "rely on NATO solidarity" and that "We have all necessary plan in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary," the Associated Press reported. -- "At least 25 additional F-16 fighter jets were deployed at Turkey's Diyarbakir air base in the southeast late Monday," Barbara Surk and Slobodan Lekic said. -- Meanwhile Lebanon's Daily Star reported that "Twin suicide bombings hit a Syrian air force compound near Damascus killing dozens of people" on Tuesday, and the number of casualties from suicide attacks in a town northeast of Damascus were still unknown. -- AFP reported that the strategic town of Maaret al-Numan on the road from Damascus to Aleppo had been retaken by Syrian rebels who had lost control of it in August. -- Late Tuesday the New York Times revealed that the U.S. has since this summer been expanding what has become "a task force of more than 150 planners and other specialists" in Jordan to be "positioned should the turmoil in Syria expand into a wider conflict." -- The task force is in place "at a Jordanian military training center built into an old rock quarry north of Amman" less than 35 miles from the Syrian border, Michael R. Gordon and Elisabeth Bumiller said. -- U.S. officials declined to comment....
NATO READY TO DEFEND TURKEY AGAINST SYRIAN ATTACKS
By Barbara Surk and Slobodan Lekic
October 9, 2012
BEIRUT -- NATO is ready to defend alliance member Turkey amid artillery and mortar exchanges with Syria, its top official said Tuesday, as Ankara sent additional fighter jets to reinforce an air base close to the Syria border where tensions have escalated dramatically over the past week.
Turkey and Syria have exchanged fire across their common border since errant Syrian shells killed five Turkish civilians last week, sparking fears of a wider regional crisis.
The comments by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen were the strongest show of support to Ankara since the firing began Wednesday -- though the solidarity is largely symbolic. Turkey has sought NATO backing but not direct intervention and the alliance is thought to be reluctant to get involved military at a time when its main priority is the war in Afghanistan.
Ahead of a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, Fogh Rasmussen backed Turkey's right to defend itself.
"Obviously Turkey can rely on NATO solidarity," he added. "We have all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary."
"We hope that all parties involved (in the Syrian crisis) will show restraint and avoid an escalation of the crisis," Fogh Rasmussen said.
NATO officials said the plans have been in place for decades and were not drawn up in response to the Syria crisis. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
In an address to lawmakers from the ruling party, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated that Ankara will continue retaliating for attacks from the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"Every kind of threat to the Turkish territory and the Turkish people will find us standing against it," Erdogan said. "Soldiers loyal to Assad threw shells at us, we immediately reacted and responded with double force. We shall never stop responding."
Analysts say Syria appears to be intentionally escalating tensions along the border with Turkey to send a message to its northern neighbor that it will pay a high price for its support of the Syrian rebels, hoping that will deter any foreign military intervention in the 18-month-old civil war.
At least 25 additional F-16 fighter jets were deployed at Turkey's Diyarbakir air base in the southeast late Monday, Turkey's Dogan news agency said, quoting unidentified military sources. The military's chief of staff inspected troops along the border with Syria on Tuesday.
The reinforcement of the Diyarbakir base also bolsters Turkish forces along the volatile Iraqi border. Turkish jets struck Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq in two separate cross-border raids Sunday despite recent warnings from Baghdad against any military operations on its territory.
Turkey has frequently struck targets in northern Iraq of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which seeks autonomy for Turkey's Kurdish minority. Relations between Turkey and Iraq have also been deteriorating over a Turkish decision to shelter convicted Iraq's Sunni vice president on charges of running death squads.
Activists estimate more than 32,000 people have been killed since March 2011 when the uprising against Assad's regime began. Initially, regime opponents launched a wave of peaceful protests that were met by repeated attacks by security forces, and the conflict has gradually turned into bloody civil war that has prompted tens of thousands of civilians to flee Syria. The fighting has devastated entire neighborhoods in Syria's main cities, including the northern city of Aleppo. Syria's government has always blamed the uprising on what it calls foreign terrorists.
A Sunni extremist group called Jabhat al-Nusra claimed responsibility for an attack on Syrian air force intelligence compound in the Damascus suburb of Harasta Monday evening. A statement on a militant website by the group's media arm, Al-Manara al-Bayda, said the bombing aimed "to avenge the killing of Muslims and those who suffered injustice."
The Syrian state run news agency did not report the explosion and there were conflicting reports on how badly the compound was damaged. There were no official reports on casualties, but the pro-government Al-Ikhbariya channel said on Monday the blast was heard across Damascus.
Syrian rebels are increasingly targeting security compounds and symbols of the regime in and around the capital.
Jabhat al-Nusra said it sent two suicide bombers to hit the compound, which it called " a bastion of tyranny and injustice." The compound, headed by Maj. Gen. Jamil Hassan, a top Assad security aide, contains prisons where activists say hundreds of people have been held and interrogated by security services during the uprising.
There were fears that detainees inside could have killed or wounded in the blast, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group. It said that so far it could not confirm casualties from its sources on the ground.
One woman who has a friend currently imprisoned in the compound told the Associated Press she is concerned. "I don't know whether he still alive or he died from the explosion . . . I pray to God to save him," she said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of harassment from authorities.
On Tuesday, a roadside bomb attached to an electricity pole detonated as a packed commuter bus passed by in the Damascus neighborhood of al-Zablatani neighborhood, injuring a civilian, a Syrian official told the A.P. The official blamed "terrorists," the regime's term for rebels. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Rebels frequently complain that their weapons are no match for the military's artillery and fighter jets. The British Broadcasting Corp. said it had uncovered evidence that appears to suggest that weapons intended for the Saudi military have been diverted to Syrian rebels. Three crates from an arms manufacturer, addressed to Saudi Arabia, were seen by a BBC correspondent in a base being used by rebel fighters in the war-ravaged city of Aleppo.
The BBC said it was not allowed to film their contents.
Meanwhile, two Syrian rebels told The Associated Press that seven military and intelligence officers belonging to Syria's ruling Alawite minority have defected to Jordan. The rebels said they helped the seven cross into Jordan on Monday, and that the highest-ranking figure among them was an army colonel.
Defections by Alawites, who make up the backbone of Assad's regime, are relatively uncommon. Almost all the defections have been from Syria's Sunni majority, who dominate the rebellion.
Three other Alawite intelligence officials came to Jordan three weeks ago, said the two rebels, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the Assad regime. Jordanian officials declined comment.
The new arrivals join more than 3,000 other Syrian army and police defectors who are housed in a secret Jordanian desert installation. The Syrian regime has seen a steady stream of defections in recent months, including former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who broke with the regime and fled to Jordan in August.
--Lekic reported from Brussels. AP writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.
BLASTS AT SYRIA AIR FORCE COMPOUND KILL DOZENS: NGO
Daily Star (Lebanon)
October 9, 2012
DAMASCUS -- Twin suicide bombings hit a Syrian air force compound near Damascus killing dozens of people on Tuesday, monitors said, as rebels took a key town on the road between the capital and second city Aleppo.
Turkey, meanwhile, again warned Syria it would not hesitate to retaliate for any strike on its soil as the country's top military commander visited troops stationed along the reinforced border.
And with fighting spilling into both Turkey and Lebanon, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon urged President Bashar al-Assad's regime to declare a unilateral truce while NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged restraint.
On the increasingly bloody battlefield, state television said troops entered a rebel district of central city Homs and were "pursuing the remnants of the terrorists" -- the regime's term for rebels.
Pro-government media remained silent on Monday night's suicide attacks in Harasta, a town northeast of Damascus, but a security source said the assault had been largely foiled, although some people were hurt when one vehicle blew up.
The blasts were claimed by the jihadist Al-Nusra Front, which said one attacker drove a booby-trapped car and a second an explosives-packed ambulance.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman said "dozens of people" died in the bombings, and that the fate of "hundreds of prisoners" held in the building's basement was unknown.
"The regime has not said a word about what happened last night. I hold the regime responsible for the fate of the prisoners. They shouldn't be holding all of these people in the first place," he told AFP.
AFP was unable to verify either of the widely differing accounts due to severe restrictions on journalists.
The Observatory said the attacks sparked intense fighting in Harasta between rebels and the army, which at daybreak pounded the town with shells.
It said Syrian forces on Tuesday also rained shells down on rebel belts in Aleppo, which has been fiercely contested since mid-July, and in Idlib province near the Turkish border.
REBELS SEIZE KEY TOWN
Rebels took control of Maaret al-Numan, a strategic Idlib province town on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo, after a fierce 48-hour gunbattle, the Observatory said.
"This is your tank, O Bashar!" a group of about 20 rebels shouted in a video posted by activists online as they fired off celebratory gunfire at a captured army checkpoint in the town.
The reported seizure came as soldiers moved into the central city of Homs, farther south on the same highway, in a bid to finish off insurgents there and free up forces for battle zones like Aleppo.
State television, meanwhile, said troops entered the rebel district of Khaldiyeh in the besieged city of Homs.
An activist confirmed the army had "stormed part of Khaldiyeh," but the Observatory said the neighborhood remained in rebel hands, although fighting was intense.
"The catastrophe is that there are 800 families trapped in Homs. It will be an unprecedented massacre if they take over the district," said the activist who identified himself as Abu Bilal.
A security official told AFP on Monday the army hoped to eliminate the last pockets of resistance in Homs and nearby Qusayr by the week's end to free up troops for battle zones in the north, such as Aleppo.
U.N. chief Ban urged a unilateral truce by Assad's regime.
"I have conveyed to the Syrian government (a) strong message that they should immediately declare a unilateral ceasefire," he said.
Ban urged "the opposition forces to agree to this unilateral ceasefire when and if the Syrian government declares it," and appealed for countries to stop arming both sides.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned of retaliation against Syria's "aggressive position."
"It has become inevitable for our armed forces to retaliate in kind . . . as the Syrian administration maintains its aggressive position," he told lawmakers.
Erdogan spoke as his armed forces chief inspected troops on a tour of the heavily fortified border after a number of shells landed on Turkish soil, including one strike that killed five civilians last week.
The Observatory said violence across Syria killed at least 72 people on Tuesday. It said more than 32,000 people have died since the revolt against Assad erupted in March 2011.
The conflict has also driven tens of thousands of people from their homes, and the first formal camp inside Syria for the displaced began admitting families on Tuesday, just a stone's throw away from the border with Turkey.
SYRIA REBELS TAKE KEY TOWN ON ALEPPO HIGHWAY, ACTIVISTS SAY
October 9, 2012
Syrian rebels took control Tuesday of Maaret al-Numan, a strategic Idlib province town on the highway linking Damascus with second city Aleppo, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
"Regular forces pulled back from all of their checkpoints around Maaret al-Numan, except for one at the entrance of the town," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
"This is a strategic location on the route from Damascus to Aleppo. All the regime reinforcements headed to Aleppo must pass through Maaret al-Numan."
The rebels' reported seizure of the town came as soldiers moved into the central city of Homs, farther south on the same highway, in a bid to finish off insurgents there and free up forces for northern battle zones like Aleppo.
In a video released by activists on Tuesday, about 20 fighters belonging to the Martyrs' Brigade can be seen gathered around a tank at a captured army checkpoint in Maaret al-Numan shooting into the air in celebration.
"This is your tank, O Bashar!" they cried out.
Maaret al-Numan had originally fallen under rebel control on June 10, but it was retaken by the army in August, said the Observatory.
Tuesday's rebel advance came after 48 hours of fierce fighting and army bombardments.
The Observatory said one child died in shelling on Maaret al-Numan on Tuesday, while 12 rebels and 10 civilians, including six women and three children, were killed the day before.
Nearly 80 percent of towns and villages along the Turkish border are outside the control of Damascus, said the Observatory.
"The areas to the east and the west of Maaret al-Numan were already under rebel control," Abdel Rahman told AFP.
AFP correspondents have passed through large swathes of territory in the northern Idlib and Aleppo provinces that are outside government control, with residents managing their own affairs.
U.S. MILITARY IS SENT TO JORDAN TO HELP WITH CRISIS IN SYRIA
By Michael R. Gordon and Elisabeth Bumiller
New York Times
October 9, 2012
WASHINGTON -- The United States military has secretly sent a task force of more than 150 planners and other specialists to Jordan to help the armed forces there handle a flood of Syrian refugees, prepare for the possibility that Syria will lose control of its chemical weapons and be positioned should the turmoil in Syria expand into a wider conflict.
The task force, which has been led by a senior American officer, is based at a Jordanian military training center built into an old rock quarry north of Amman. It is now largely focused on helping Jordanians handle the estimated 180,000 Syrian refugees who have crossed the border and are severely straining the country’s resources.
American officials familiar with the operation said the mission also includes drawing up plans to try to insulate Jordan, an important American ally in the region, from the upheaval in Syria and to avoid the kind of clashes now occurring along the border of Syria and Turkey.
The officials said the idea of establishing a buffer zone between Syria and Jordan -- which would be enforced by Jordanian forces on the Syrian side of the border and supported politically and perhaps logistically by the United States -- had been discussed. But at this point the buffer is only a contingency.
The Obama administration has declined to intervene in the Syrian conflict beyond providing communications equipment and other nonlethal assistance to the rebels opposing the government of President Bashar al-Assad. But the outpost near Amman could play a broader role should American policy change. It is less than 35 miles from the Syrian border and is the closest American military presence to the conflict.
Officials from the Pentagon and Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East, declined to comment on the task force or its mission. A spokesman for the Jordanian Embassy in Washington would also not comment on Tuesday.
As the crisis in Syria has deepened, there has been mounting concern in Washington that the violence could spread through the region. Over the past week, Syria and Turkey have exchanged artillery and mortar fire across Syria’s northern border, which has been a crossing point for rebel fighters. In western Syria, intense fighting recently broke out in villages near the border crossing that leads to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. To the east, the Syrian government has lost control of some border crossings, including the one near Al Qaim in Iraq.
Jordan has also been touched by the fighting. Recent skirmishes have broken out between the Syrian military and Jordanians guarding the country’s northern border, where many families have ties to Syria. In August, a 4-year-old girl in a Jordanian border town was injured when a Syrian shell struck her house, and there are concerns in Jordan that a sharp upsurge in the fighting in Syria might lead to an even greater influx of refugees.
Jordan, which was one of the first Arab countries to call for Mr. Assad’s resignation, has become increasingly concerned that Islamic militants coming to join the fight in Syria could cross the porous border between the two countries.
The American mission in Jordan quietly began this summer. In May, the United States organized a major training exercise, which was dubbed Eager Lion. About 12,000 troops from 19 countries, including Special Forces troops, participated in the exercise.
After it ended, the small American contingent stayed on and the task force was established at a Jordanian training center north of Amman. It includes communications specialists, logistics experts, planners, trainers and headquarters staff members, American officials said. An official from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugee Affairs and Migration is also assigned to the task force.
“We have been working closely with our Jordanian partners on a variety of issues related to Syria for some time now,” said George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, who added that a specific concern was the security of Syria’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. “As we’ve said before, we have been planning for various contingencies, both unilaterally and with our regional partners.”
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta met in Amman in August with King Abdullah II of Jordan and at that time pledged continuing American help with the flow of Syrian refugees. Mr. Panetta was followed in September by Gen. James N. Mattis, the head of Central Command, who met with senior Jordanian officials in Amman.
Members of the American task force are spending the bulk of their time working with the Jordanian military on logistics -- figuring out how to deploy tons of food, water, and latrines to the border, for example, and training the Jordanian military to handle the refugees. A month ago, as many as 3,000 a day were coming over the border. But as the Syrian army has consolidated its position in southern Syria, the number of refugees has declined to several hundred a day.
According to the United Nations, Jordan is currently hosting around 100,000 Syrians who have either registered or are awaiting registration. American officials say the total number may be almost twice that.
The American military is also sending medical kits to the border and has provided gravel to help keep down the dust at the Zaatari refugee camp, which the task force helped set up and is now home to 35,000 Syrians. It has also provided four large prefabricated buildings to be used at Zaatari as schools. One official estimated the cost so far at less than $1 million.
--Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Ranya Kadri from Amman, Jordan.