Moscow and Washington have jointly announced on May 9 that they were committed to the ceasefire in Syria and would ramp up efforts for its implementation. “We demand that parties cease any indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including civilian infrastructure and medical facilities,” the statement said.
On its part, Russia said it would work with the Syrian regime “to minimize aviation operations over areas that are predominantly inhabited by civilians or parties to the cessation.”
Our sources in Washington and Moscow report exclusively that there are secret negotiations underway between the two powers regarding the future of US and European sanctions on Russia over its military intervention in the Ukraine and its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
According to our information, the Kremlin has sent messages to the White House saying that Moscow would be more cooperative regarding Washington’s position on Syria if the sanctions were eased or lifted.
That is the reason why the Russian media, on May 8, gave wide coverage of a statement by Alain Juillet, former director of intelligence at France’s General Directorate for External Security. In an interview with French weekly Paris Match, he said “The French were certainly wrong on Syria and Ukraine” due to inaccurate intelligence and politicians’ misunderstanding of the reality.
The statement followed France’s lower house of parliament vote on April 28 not to extend EU sanctions on Russia over the annexation of Crimea. Parliaments in other European countries passed similar measures.
On April 24, during a news conference in Hannover with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the last day of a six-day foreign trip, US President Barack Obama said “Sanctions on Russia can and should only be lifted once Russia fully complies with its commitments under the Minsk (peace) agreement.”
But he did not make any connection between the sanctions and the fact that the Russians are not pressuring the Syrians and the Iranians to scale down or halt the battles in Syria, especially those around Aleppo.
The bottom line is that as long as the White House and the Kremlin do not reach agreement on Ukraine and on the lifting of the sanctions, Moscow will not restrain the Aleppo offensive by Syrian and allied forces.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Washington report that the Obama administration is convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin is very interested in reaching an agreement that will essentially be “Syria in exchange for Ukraine”. In Washington’s opinion, the most conspicuous sign was the arrival of Russian generals in Geneva to meet with high-ranking US officers and hash out details of the bilateral military agreements on Syria.
Another reason for the continuation of the battles in Aleppo is the fact that they are being fought mainly by Iran’s standing army, the Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hizballah, while the Syrian army avoids direct involvement (an aspect which will be covered separately).
ISIS forces in Libya launched a surprise attack last week on local militias, enabling it to capture several towns southwest of its stronghold, the city of Sirte. As a result of the May 5-6 offensive, it gained control of Al Washka, Abu Njeem, Wadi Bey, Al Balgha, and Wadi Zamzam, among others. The Islamists fighters have reportedly reached the Harouge and Al-Rouagha mountains about 250 kilometers from the city.
Meanwhile, what are the US, Britain, France, and Italy, which all have special forces troops in Libya, doing to stop the advance of the terrorist organization?
There are two answers:
1. Since the April 27 battle between ISIS and special forces troops from Italy and Britain halfway between Sirte and Misrata, in which the Europeans suffered a major blow, all special forces have been ordered to avoid contact with ISIS and not engage in any clashes with its forces.
2. The four countries are continuing to exchange plans for an invasion of the country.
The following is an exclusive report by DEBKA Weekly’s military and counterterrorism sources on these plans.
NATO – The alliance’s military strategists believe that two steps must be taken immediately in order to stop ISIS in Libya.
1. Deployment of a large number of Western navy vessels to the Gulf of Sidra where they will positioned in tight formation to prevent the flow of migrants from Libya to Europe. These migrants pay ISIS between $3,000 and $10,000 per person to cross the Mediterranean by ship, providing one of the main sources of foreign currency for ISIS in Libya.
2. Once the naval blockade is in place, there will be no other choice but to land large NATO forces in Libya and carry out a ground operation to capture Sirte and destroy ISIS's hold in the country.
Where will these NATO forces come from? It is still unknown.
United States – The Obama administration is not ready to assume responsibility for organizing the naval and ground attack on Libya, or allocate military forces to carry it out.
France – President Francois Hollande, who was ready at the beginning of the year to instruct his country’s army, navy, and air force to spearhead the attack on Libya, has started to backtrack from that position over the last few days. It is not even clear whether the French are ready to command the operation.
Britain – Prime Minister David Cameron informed other European countries and the US that he will not deal with the problem of Libya until his country’s June 23 referendum on leaving the European Union.
Italy – Discussions have started at the highest government and military levels on whether the country should take France’s place in leading the attack on Libya. The consultations are only in the very early stages and no decision is expected anytime soon.
Tensions have heightened between Damascus and Tehran over the last few days over Syrian President Bashar Assad’s demand that Iran send more forces to Aleppo in order to defeat the rebels in the key northwestern city.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and Iranian sources report that Iran’s political and military hierarchies oppose the demand, mainly because of the heavy losses that Iranian forces are suffering in the battles around the city.
Instead of additional troops, Tehran has decided to dispatch Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Al Qods Brigades and of Iranian troops in Syria and Iraq. Since arriving in the Aleppo area on May 5, he has been making a series of visits to raise the morale among Iranian standing army and Revolutionary Guard troops, pro-Iranian Shiite militias and Hizballah units. He has not visited Syrian units on the front due to the tension between Tehran and Damascus.
Soleimani was given three missions:
1. Raise the morale among the Iranian and pro-Iranian soldiers on the ground. While suffering a daily average of eight to ten killed and dozens wounded, the only assistance they are receiving on the battlefield is from Hizballah, as the Syrian military is not participating in the Aleppo campaign. This leads the troops to question their alliance and reasons for fighting others' battles.
2. Try to reach understandings with Syrian commanders on the ground, despite their open hostility to Iranian officers during the last few days.
3. Try to find new common ground between Russian, Syrian and Iranian forces in an attempt to prevent a rupture in the various fronts around Syria.
Soleimani is aware of the huge gap between the positions of Tehran and Damascus regarding the war.
President Assad does not make any clear statements to the Iranians, but there is no doubt that he is not interested in deploying large forces from the Syrian army to Aleppo. He fears that the Russians and the Iranians will intentionally widen the war in the north in order to remove as many Syrian forces as possible from Damascus. He believes that such a situation would leave him and his regime exposed to Russian and Iranian steps resulting in him relinquishing power.
Assad’s orders to the Syrian military, except the air force, to pull out of the battles around Aleppo were intended to minimize the fighting, while Soleimani’s orders from Tehran were exactly the opposite.
Assad wants most of the Syrian army to remain intact in the areas of Damascus and Latakia in order to defend his regime, even at the price of leaving Aleppo in rebel hands.
Our sources report that these Syrian and Iranian military maneuvers related to Aleppo sparked anger in Moscow and resulted in the decision to halt Russian air strikes in northern Syria towards the end of last week.
Russia’s defense minister, Gen. Sergei Shoigu, reported to Russian President Vladimir Putin that neither the Syrian forces nor the Iranian forces took advantage of the Russian air raids on the rebels since the beginning of the month, and did not send forces to take control of areas that were bombed. He said the Syrian and Iranian forces ignored the opportunity allowed by the bombings to advance in Idlib province and capture parts of it. They could have cut off Aleppo from Idlib as well as sever the rebels’ supply routes from Turkey.
Amid this situation in which the three main allies, namely the Russians, Iranians and Syrians, are no longer on the same page, there seems to be no chance that the offensive will result in the capture of Syria’s largest city.
According to a growing amount of information gathered by US and European intelligence agencies, ISIS is plotting a series of major terror attacks on Central European and Middle Eastern cities. These preparations are taking place mainly at the ISIS capital in Syria – Raqqa. Each attack is being planned at a separate headquarters with terrorist cells that have arrived from Europe to train for the assault. Among the selected targets are major Egyptian and Israeli cities. The Raqqa cells do not communicate with each other due to security reasons, and are familiar only with their trainers, who go by pseudonyms.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources reveal that this information has altered the American plans for an attack on Raqqa. Until recently, the mission to capture the city was delegated to local militias headed by the Syrian Kurdish YPG. After receiving the latest intelligence, the US administration now favors a siege of Raqqa in the hope of obtaining the following objectives:
As a result of these developments, intensive negotiations are underway between Washington, Ankara, London, Berlin and Paris in an effort to persuade Turkey to allow the YPG militia to capture the ISIS enclave (please see map). Since all parties understand there is almost no chance that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will allow Syrian Kurdish forces to reach his country’s southern border, a compromise has been prepared: The Kurds will drive ISIS back into a narrow strip 10 km from the Turkish border, but they will not enter the strip or reach the frontier.
During April, US President Barack Obama had two positions regarding the fate of Mosul, the ISIS capital in Iraq. At first, he said the city would be captured before the start of 2017. But on April 19, he said “My expectation is that by the end of the year, we will have created the conditions whereby Mosul will eventually fall.”
The following month, Obama said in closed-door meetings at the White House that in the best case scenario it would be possible to place a siege, possibly a partial one, on the city by the end of the year.
In other words, ISIS will continue to control Mosul at the end of 2016 and in the beginning of 2017.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources report that there were six main considerations behind the shift in the administration’s stance.
1. Mosul has one million residents. No military force, whether American, Iraqi or Kurdish, can take upon itself the huge challenge of capturing the city.
2. Intelligence bodies carried out a secret poll among the population of Mosul in the last week of April. Two thirds of respondents said they would support the fight against ISIS even if the forces attacking the city include pro-Iranian Shiite militias. An absolute majority of about 90 percent were opposed to the entry of Shiite forces into the city.
3. DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that following the poll, Americans planning the siege decided that two to three Iraqi divisions would make up 75 percent of the force, with Kurdish Peshmerga militias accounting for the remaining 25 percent. There will be a total of 50,000-60,000 troops.
4. The Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers will be supported by a large force of US attack helicopters that will start arriving in Iraq over the next few months.
5. In order for the Peshmerga to be ready for urban warfare, and for holding the siege lines, the Obama administration agreed to transfer $500 million to the Kurdish autonomous government in Irbil.
6. DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that the administration and the US military circles' doubt regarding the ability to liberate Mosul, is also reflected concerning the ability to impose a siege.
Besides the weak position of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and uncertainty whether he would order the Iraqi army to participate in such an operation, Baghdad does not agree with or accept Washington’s priorities. It wants the Iraqi army to liberate Fallujah, capital of the Anbar province, before Mosul. One of the main reasons is Iranian pressure to include pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militias, such as the Popular Mobilization Units and the Badar Brigades, among the forces designated to capturing the city.
However, US military commanders on the ground in Iraq do not believe that those forces are capable of dislodging ISIS from Fallujah.
Russia pulled out all the stops last week to honor an officer from its special forces who was killed in Syria.
Alexander Prokhorenko died during the fighting in Palmyra in March. After being surrounded by ISIS forces, he ordered an airstrike against himself rather than being killed or captured. The 25-year-old was dubbed the “Russian Rambo” by his country’s state media.
His body was flown to Moscow upon Russian President Vladimir Putin's orders, who posthumously awarded Pokhorenko the country’s highest medal, Hero of the Russian Federation. The body was received by an honor guard at a Moscow airport, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other top brass paid their respects.
The body was then flown to Prokhorenko’s home village of Gorodki, 1,200 km east of the Russian capital, where it was laid to rest.
What made the “Russian Rambo” so important? None of the other Russian soldiers who died until then in Syria have received the honors he did. Moscow has not even released the number of solders killed.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources and its sources in Moscow report that the gesture was Putin’s way of informing his people that Russian ground troops are taking part in the war, even though he had promised they would not be doing so, and that there are losses.
Prokhorenko was a member of Russia’s Spetsnaz special forces that arrived in Syria in the first half of October 2015 at the start of Moscow’s military intervention in Syria. At first, the Kremlin claimed they were only deployed to protect the Russian bases and units, and not to fight in the war. Shortly afterwards it became clear that the Spetsnaz troops were the ones directing the airstrikes by Russian bombers and warplanes around the country.
There is no doubt that the battle for the capture of the city of Palmyra from ISIS was a turning point in the involvement of Russian ground troops in the war. It was clear to the Russian commands in Moscow and Latakia that Syrian President Bashar Assad was not ready to allocate the forces needed for the campaign. They also suspected, as they still do today, that Assad has secret understandings with ISIS under which the two sides will avoid attacking each other. Either way, it was clear that if they wanted to capture Palmyra and the surrounding area they would have no choice but to use Russian ground troops.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources disclose that the fight for the city was completely different from its description in the Western and Russian media. There were no Russian or Syrian attacks in the conquest of Palmyra. Whenever ISIS saw Spetsnaz forces, they took flight.
It was not by chance that on May 6, the same day Prokhorenko’s funeral was held, the Russian air force flew the country’s premier orchestra, the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra, and a group of famous conductors led by the well-known Valery Gergiev, to Palmyra for a gala concert at the ancient city’s Roman amphitheater.
Putin wanted to show that Russia is ready to make sacrifices in order to restore civilization in Syria, but people in Russia and the West showed little interest.
ISIS was not impressed. As the Russian fiddled the Islamists lunched on Wednesday May 11 a surprise offensive to retake Palmyra.