Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and the former Iraqi generals who chart his strategy, this week abruptly reversed the orders issued to the fugitives escaping from the various fronts in Syria and Iraq. Instead of fleeing east as usual - and heading for the jihadist bastions in Deir ez-Zour in eastern Syria and Abu Kamal in western Iraq - they were instructed to take the opposite route and head west for a new destination: Lebanon.
This change in tactics is momentous and far-reaching, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report.
Defeated ISIS fighters on the run from embattled Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, previously reassembled in the two towns straddling the Syrian-Iraqi border: Abu Kamal in the Deir ez-Zour Governate of eastern Syria, and Al Qa’im in the Anbar Province of western Iraq, 400km from Baghdad. (See attached map.). The Al Qa’im border crossing, one of the major Middle East supply routes, was captured by ISIS in June 2014.
This safe haven for ISIS fighters escaping from warfronts was bombed by US warplanes on Saturday, March 11. The US Central Command said an “improvised weapons factory” was struck in Al Qa’im and a gas and oil separation plant in neighboring Abu Kamal.
These primitive oil and gas installations provide the Islamic State with its main source of revenue. American and Iraqi intelligence agencies are sure that Al-Baghdadi and his top lieutenants are hiding in one of the two towns or in a safe house between them.
The two towns’ other advantage for the terrorist organization is their geography: both are situated in sparsely populated mostly desert regions with few approach roads. Intruders driving along them are clearly visible from afar. Moreover, the dense vegetation of the Euphrates river banks and nearby forests provide effective cover for surreptitious movements against aerial and satellite surveillance.
So why has the ISIS turned its attention to new turf, instead of consolidating the two heavily-invested strongholds straddling one of the most strategically important borders in the world, which also offers a safe hideaway for fugitives?
DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism sources also reveal that jihadists on their way to fight for the black flag in Syria from the Caucasians republics were ordered to turn back.
Angry denials from Moscow and Cairo greeted reports of Russian special operations forces landing Tuesday, March 14, at the Egyptian air base of Sidi Barrani on the Mediterranean coast. This base lies notably 95km from the Libyan border ad 340km from the Libyan oil port of Tobruk.
“Russia did not do that. The defense ministry does not confirm it. It’s fake news that we don’t need to pay attention to,” said Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy chairman of the Federation Council’s Committee for International Affairs.
But the lawmaker gave it plenty of attention, declaring that such “throw-ins” are part of “the information war that is now being fought against everyone.”
An Egyptian official who preferred not to be named had this to say: “This report is totally incorrect,” calling it a “fabrication meant to tarnish Egypt’s image” and adding “Egypt is a sovereign country and does not accept the deployment of foreign troops on its territory.”
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources characterize these denials as a smoke screen. They confirm that the Russians not only landed troops at Sidi Barrani this week, but began clearing the ground for the construction of a large Russian air base there, to be modeled on its Syrian Khmeinim Air Base in Latakia.
The plan is to expand the small air base into a large facility, able to accommodate Russian bombers, fighter jets, assault helicopters, special operations units and advanced S-300 and S-400 air defense missile batteries. Moscow is also planning to set up at Sidi Barrani the headquarters of a new African Command, corresponding to the US African Command. The Kremlin expects to end up with two large eastern Mediterranean air bases 1,013km apart and separated by only one country, Israel.
The Russian Air Force is on its second sojourn in Sidi Barrani, having used the base in the 60s for the Russian fighter jets which supported Egypt and Syria in the Arab wars against Israel as part of the Cold War. They exited the base in 1972.
The Russian teams went to work immediately on arrival, preparing the attack drones they brought with them for action and landing Russian engineers and weapons. The weapons were loaded on Egyptian trucks and rolled across the border for the 670km trip to Benghazi and delivery to Gen. Khalifa Hafter’s Libyan National Army (LNA).
The Russians were in a hurry to provide support for this ally. On Friday, March 3, his LNA suffered a defeat in a central Libyan battle at the hands of the rival Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB), which was able to seize five towns and the big Es Sider and Ras Lanuf oil terminals in the main exit points for Libyan oil exports.
The BNB fought with the advantage of advanced tanks delivered by sea from Germany and Italy in the last fortnight. This week, Moscow transferred to Sidi Barrani the weaponry Hafter’s troops needed to recover the oil terminals. The United Arab Emirates footed the bill. Results were almost immediate.
US Africa Command spokesperson Robyn Mach disclosed Tuesday, March 14, that Libyan National Army forces under Gen. Hafter had begun a ground assault against the Benghazi Defense Brigades around Ras Lanuf oil port. “We are monitoring the situation,” he said.
By Thursday, March 16, the LNA had managed to turn the military situation round, retaken the two oil export terminals, and driven further west toward Sirte.
Hafter’s forces took little more than a day to recapture the two oil ports after ten days of airstrikes against the BDF, mostly by the Egyptian air force.
Just as the Russians stepped up their military intervention in Syria in September 2015, at the height of its civil war, so too they are throwing their full support behind Gen. Hafter at a climactic moment of the Libyan conflict.
Although the battle for Mosul is still unfinished, US President Donald Trump has summoned Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi for a visit to Washington next week to discuss Iraq’s future after the fall of the key ISIS bastion in Iraq.
Wednesday, March 14, Iraqi government forces took control of the Tigris bridge, and so shortened the distance to a key mosque, whose capture would give Baghdad an important symbolic victory. It was there that in 2014 Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph of the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, after a string of sickening atrocities that shocked the world.
Without waiting for the end of combat in Mosul, President Trump compiled a to-do list for its aftermath ready to present to the Iraqi prime minister:
1. The forthcoming defeat of ISIS will make the pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militias numbering some 100,000 fighters redundant. They are organized in the following groups:
2. The Iraqi prime minister will be asked to accept and comply with Ayatollah Sistani’s Fatwa 2 (as revealed in a previous DEBKA Weekly issue) ordering Shiite fighters to go AWOL from their units and return home. The ayatollah’s purpose was to draw pro-Iranian elements out of the Iraqi army. How successful this measure is remains to be seen.
3. Mosul is a Sunni town and should be governed by Sunnis. The US President will put this demand before Abadi to save Mosul and Washington from unwelcome surprises, such as the overnight appointment of an Iraqi Shiite governor, or the handover of some of the town’s neighborhoods to Shiite militia control.
4. The non-Muslim minority groups inhabiting the Nineveh plains to the east and northwest of Mosul, who were viciously persecuted by ISIS, should be accorded semi-autonomy status or some form of self-rule, in Trump’s view.
The ancient city of Nineveh stood on the bank of the Tigris River on the site of the outskirts of contemporary Mosul. Assyrian Christians, along with Turkmen and Yazdis, inhabit the eastern part of the Nineveh plains, the historical homeland of the Assyrian people and the crucible of pre-Arab, pre-Islamic Mesopotamian civilization.
5. The US president will ask the Iraqi prime minister for a pledge to keep his hands off the Kurdish oil town of Kirkuk and refrain from any attack or attempt by Baghdad too seize control of the city.
It is hard to see how an armed clash between Israel and Hizballah - or even Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and imported Shiite proxies - can be avoided in the light of their latest military moves in Syria, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned President Vladimir Putin when they met at the Kremlin last Thursday, March 9.
He pointed to the dangers inherent in the chain of new military bases (see attached map) Hizballah is building from north to south in the Syrian Qalamoun mountains.
Netanyahu shot down Hizballah’s pretexts for this operation. They include the argument that the new bases will be a defense line for eastern Lebanon and the northwestern approach to Damascus, comparing them to Turkey’s grab last summer for over 6,000sq.km of northern Syria, as necessary for defending its own border.
Israel’s generals view the bases as new Hizballah jumping-off points ready to attack their country at such time as Hizballah’s masters in Tehran see fit.
“We don’t intend to sit around and wait for this to happen,” the prime minister told his Kremlin host. “We may be compelled to go into action against those bases before long.”
He likewise rejected the “safe zone” scheme Hizballah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah and his bosses in Tehran have cooked up to cover the Qalamoun mountain bases and villages on the Syrian-Lebanese border.
This was just a ruse, Netanyahu explained, to save those hostile military facilities from an Israeli strike.
A glance at the map, said the prime minister, reveals the method by which Hizballah or Iran – or both – are working to achieve total control of the land bridge linking their expeditionary forces in Syria to Lebanon.
However, the Russian president, though polite and friendly, showed little interest in his Israel visitor’s presentation, as our sources reported after their encounter.
Five days later, Netanyahu understood why.
On Monday, M\arch 13, an armored Hizballah convoy with hundreds of soldiers was seen heading out of the Shiite group’s stronghold in Zabadani, which lies halfway on the Damascus-Lebanese highway, in the direction of the northeastern slopes of Mt Hermon, southwest of the Qalamoun range and close to the Israeli border.
The roughly 30 villages situated on this mountainside are home to some Syrian rebel groups. Israel keeps them supplied covertly with arms, funds and medicines. Hizballah is clearly on the way to seizing control of those villages and so clear a path for another Iranian-initiated bid to occupy Quneitra on the Syrian side of the Golan border with Israel.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that the villagers have turned to Israel for urgent military back-up, but so far with no response.
Israel can still stop the Hizballah advance on this flashpoint location by one of - or all - three steps:
1. By arming the Syrian rebels in those villages with heavy anti-tank weapons to block the Hizballah advance.
2. By deploying an Israel Defense Forces unit across the border to stand in the path of the Hizballah convoy. Thus far Israel has avoided openly sending troops into Syria.
3. By an air force bombing sortie against the convoy.
Either of those steps may well spark a limited or wide-scale collision between Israel and Hizballah on Syrian soil.
Israel is in the grip of election fever. A long line of politicians, both leading lights of opposition parties and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s own Likud, are convinced that he is on his way out, because a snap, mid-term election before the end of the year is inevitable and will sweep him away after three terms in office.
The media are running hard with this forecast, boosting the swelling list of claimants. Some hail from the most unlikely quarters. DEBKA Weekly points for instance at President Reuven Rivlin, aged 77.
In Israel’s short 69-year old history, the presidency is traditionally a ceremonial post, awarded at the end of a distinguished career. It has never been used as a stepping stone for a return to political office. Yet a band of Likudniks is trying to persuade Rivlin that, despite his frail health and new pacemaker, he should lay claim to the party leadership and premiership “as the only figure capable of uniting the right wing factions and leading Likud to another election victory.”
A couple of other bidders make no bones about their ambition. One is Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, 62, who does not mind being nicknamed “the bulldozer” for his herculean feats in building a countrywide net of modern highways and resuscitating the defunct rail system. He has turned three sluggish railway lines into a multi-branched fast train system, which connects the northern and southern regions to the national commercial and financial capital, Tel Aviv.
At the same time, Katz also built himself a personal support system for his candidacy as next prime minister, by taking control of the Likud’s powerful central committee. He insists that he is running to succeed Netanyahu not displace him and will wait for the prime minister to retire before stepping up. Despite his party following and excellent performance, Katz is not a captivating public speaker and has yet to make his mark with the general public
Likud presents another three lesser contestants for party leader and future prime minister. They are Yuval Steinitz, Minister of Energy; Former Shin Bet Director Avi Dichter, who is Chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee and threw his hat in the ring last month; and a veteran Netanyahu loyalist Tzachi Henegbi, Minister for Regional Cooperation and Communications. He is respected inside and outside the party. All three are in their sixties.
The group challenging Netanyahu outside Likud is led most vigorously and brashly by would-be prime minister Naftali Bennett, 45, Education Minister. He heads the pro-settlement, national-religious Jewish Home party. An outstanding officer in the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal, he went into politics after making a fortune as a high-tech entrepreneur. Bennett’s clashes with Netanyahu on an array of issues, including military controversies, are a regular feature of national politics.
He is widely credited as aspiring to take over Likud and place himself at the head of the national right-wing camp. His critics disqualify him – both on the grounds of his uncompromising, nationalist outlook and the speed with which he operates on thorny domestic and foreign policy issues, which often cause him to stumble into errors.
Bennett may decide to impede a US-brokered peace deal with the Palestinians if, in the course of the Trump administration’s peace effort, Netanyahu agrees to give away what he sees as too much land and control to the Palestinians, at the expense of the half a million Jews who have made their homes in Judea and Samaria.
Another right-wing leader in the running is Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, 59, founder of Israel Beitenu. He started out as chief of staff during Netanyahu’s early days as prime minister and Likud leader, then broke away from the party to found Israel Beitenu. He has held one cabinet post after another, including foreign affairs in 2009-2012.
Lieberman’s party started out with 15 Knesset members (in the 120-seat House) and dwindled to seven in the last election two years ago. Netanyahu lifted him off the opposition benches in 2016 to take over as defense minister after Moshe Ya’alon resigned this post. He is now back at center stage of national politics.
Ya’alon, who is seething over losing his cabinet seat, this week formally quit Likud, founded a new party and launched a campaign for national leadership. He has his work cut out to win a national following. – certainly in time for snap election, if the forecasts pan out and a vote takes place before the end of 2017.
The only serious contender for national leadership outside the right-wing camp is Yair Lapid, 54, founder and leader of Yesh Atid (Future), who switched to politics from a successful career as a popular TV presenter. As finance minister in Netanyahu’s second cabinet, his first foray into executive office, he did not exactly shine.
Although Future tops the latest opinion polls ahead of Likud, Lapid’s past reputation as a playboy is hard to live down. In most parts of the population, he doesn’t make the grade as a serious national leader capable of managing Israel’s complex social problems and profound security issues, although his main appeal is to seekers of change.
While the queue of pushers for the prime minister’s job grows, Netanyahu shows no sign of relinquishing the helm of government. They are all avidly watching the police investigations against him on charges of improperly accepting or soliciting gifts from friendly tycoons and conducting negotiations with the publisher of the Yedioth Aharonot tabloid, hoping they will end in an indictment and force his resignation.
However, the prime minister has made it clear that he will fight any charges against him from the prime minister’s office. The longer the list of bidders scrambling for his job, the more stubbornly he sticks to it.