US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came close to the truth when on April 4 he held Russia and Iran accountable for the poison gas attack perpetrated by a Syrian Air Force SU-22 bomber against the men, women and children of the Idlib town of Khan Sheikhoun.
The view in Trump administration circles, according to DEBKA Weekly’s Washington sources, is that Moscow and Tehran contrived the outrage to deflect President Donald Trump and the US army from the sweeping plans already in the making for Syria.
Those plans revolve around an offensive to evict ISIS from Raqqa, its Syrian stronghold. If Trump’s planning only stopped there, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Bashar Assad would have no quarrel with it.
But Raqqa is just one element of a much bigger and grander concept. Trump’s strategic advisers led by Defense Secretary James Mattis have resolved to convert the ruined former ISIS capital after its capture into one of the biggest US bases in the Middle East. Toward this end, several US engineering teams are working night and day to expand the Tabaqa air base, 45km west of Raqqa, and make it serviceable for a variety of warplanes, including heavy bombers.
Indeed, once the work is finished, Tabaqa will not only become the launching pad for air strikes against ISIS in Syria, it will replace the giant US base at Incirlik in southern Turkey.
The resulting all-American Raqqa-Tabaqa military hub promises to end up much bigger than the Russian military base at Khmeimim in Latakia, which currently holds 30-35 bombers and fighter jets.
Trump’s Raqqa grand project has three overarching strategic objectives:
1. To raise a barrier against Russian-Iranian-Syrian plans for an Iran-to-Syria land bridge leading to the Mediterranean. The US president had genuinely hoped to work with Putin in Syria, only to discover to his surprise (possibly out of political inexperience) that the Russian president was playing a double game: Behind his back, Putin intended leveraging US-Russian cooperation in Syria for boosting Iran’s influence in the region. That game, Trump decided to cut short.
When the US President declared Wednesday at his joint press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah that his “attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much,” he was also poking a finger at Russia and Putin.
2. Once a massive US military presence in Syria becomes permanent, the Iranians and Hizballah will understand that their overland and air links to the country are severed and they will start withdrawing their forces.
3, Establishing a replacement for Incirlik at Tabaqa will bring US-Turkish relations to the worst crisis in their history, not only because America will no longer depend on Ankara for a strategic air base in the region, but because Washington will be in position to guarantee and safeguard Kurdish independence in northern Syria.
This deal was sewn up on Tuesday, April 4, when Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff and President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner called on President Masoud Barzani of the semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdish region (KRG) in his capital, Irbil. Present too were Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani, the Peshmerga commander in chief Mohammad Haji Mahmoud and other officials.
When they saw Trump’s grand scheme moving forware, the rulers of Russia, Iran and Syria decided to torpedo it before it was too late. They devised the sarin bomb attack in which scores of Syrian civilians were to perish as a shocker for deflecting the Americans from their forward impetus. They reckoned that Trump would not be able to resist the pressure for his administration to punish the Assad regime by a small military operation with unpredictable consequences.
Trump gave the trio a lesson in unpredictability. Before deploying a single American troop, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence source reveal that he turned round and slapped down an ultimatum for Putin to either publicly renounce his support of Bashar Assad for criminally using a chemical weapon, or get ready for a large-scale US military operation in Syria.
Trump is sending Secretary Tillerson to Moscow this weekend to collect Putin’s answer. But before he set out, President Putin announced Thursday night that “Russian support for Bashar Assad is not unconditional.” Will this be enough to meet the US president’s ultimatum?
US President Donald Trump has given himself six months to pull off a venture which has burned a record number of aspiring Middle East peacemakers, high and low. He has made September 2017 his deadline for convening an American-Arab-Israeli conference to formalize a Middle East peace pact bearing his name. A frenetic surge of diplomacy is underway with envoys and messages flying back and forth, both openly and through back channels, among the lead players, the US, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as Israel and the Palestinians.
In a major breakthrough for the president’s plans, his special adviser for peace negotiations, Jason Greenblatt became the first US official envoy ever allowed to attend an Arab League Summit. The administration tactfully defined his status at the conference in Jordan last month as “observer.”
The process gained initial momentum from the concessions offered by Israel. Most are outlined in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s “Economic Peace” program for raising Palestinian living standards and stabilizing the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah – both before and after a negotiated peace. It includes such steps as developing infrastructure and industry in Palestinian-ruled areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with the US, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia expected to foot most of the bill.
More Israeli jobs will also be made available for Palestinians on top of the estimated 200,000 already employed. Permits are much sought after, since jobs in Israel pay more than double the average wage on the West Bank.
Netanyahu also put his political weight behind the Trump initiative (under the euphemism “coordination”), when he informed the security cabinet on March 30 that the settlement to go up near Nablus - as per his promise to the evacuees of Amona - would be the last one built on the West Bank. All new settlement construction would henceforth be kept within the boundaries of existing Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and not allowed to spill out of current built-up lines. The Prime Minister added an assurance that Israel had made no binding commitments in advance of final-status negotiations.
A new term was added to the dictionary of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The “built-up line” is about to run over the historic, albeit ephemeral, 1949 armistice lines and 1967 lines. Last week’s Arab League summit notably omitted for the first time any reference to Israeli borders and so opened a door to the process going forward for normalizing relations with the Jewish state.
The new term translates in territorial terms to Netanyahu’s willingness to reach a deal that keeps 10 percent of Judea and Samaria for Israel and cedes the rest for an independent Palestinian state, under the two-state solution of the dispute – a move that may yet rock his cabinet coalition.
The proposed solution would limit the jurisdiction of Palestinian security and intelligence services to domestic security and law and order, and assign Jordan to safeguard the demilitarized Palestinian state’s external security. The Egyptian armed forces and intelligence would undertake the same function for the Gaza Strip.
The territory retained by Israel will be annexed and come under full Israeli sovereignty.
Jerusalem has for centuries defeated all attempts at accords. The current peacemakers have not surprisingly put off raising it with the parties. Ideas are nevertheless being tossed back and forth. The heaviest weight has been thrown behind leaving most of the city under Israeli sovereignty, except for two corridors already used in practice to connect the Palestinian neighborhoods to Ramallah.
The southern corridor runs through the Palestinian village of Abu Dis; the northern corridor leads to Al Aqsa on Temple Mount via the Palestinian districts of East Jerusalem including Shuafat and the Mount of Olives.
All these plans are still in the ideas stage. They will be thrashed out in the coming months among the concerned parties.
Such incendiary issues as Temple Mount, the Christian Holy Places and the Mount of Olives are still wide open. International jurisdiction is a non-option for all practical purposes, after being easily swept away each time it was tested in the Middle East.
The nascent peace process is making its mark on steps on the ground - some positive; others avoided for their negative impact.
Worth mentioning here is an Israeli plan for a new railway to link Haifa port with Arab countries via the West Bank and Jordan, which Transport Minister Israel Katz unveiled Wednesday, April 5. He sketched the route as running through Irbid in northern Jordan and linking up with the network to Saudi Arabia and on to the Gulf. This new rail link offers them all direct access to the Mediterranean and promises the Palestinian and Jordanian economies an important shot in the arm.
Greenblatt promised to enlist Trump’s support for the project.
It is now left to the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to decide if he wants to step into the ring after ducking all the peace initiatives presented him by the last two US presidents and other peace brokers. He gave a positive hint this week with the appointment of his new senior adviser, Husam Zomlot, 43, as unofficial Palestinian ambassador to the United States.
Ambitious, qualified and comparatively youthful compared with the jaded Palestinian leadership, Zomlot is a deft networker - not just in Ramallah, but also in the Western corridors of power, where foreign policy is made.
The young Zomlot turned his back early on his place of birth, a Gaza Strip refugee camp, and set about climbing the academic ladder. At Birzeit University near Ramallah, he joined the ruling Fatah party and led its campus faction, then moved on to the London School of Economics on a UK government scholarship. He turned in a thesis called: Building a State under Occupation for his doctorate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
Abbas has deployed this fresh face to Washington, replacing the veteran Palestinian General Intelligence Director Gen. Majid Fares, in a bid to lift Palestinian interaction with the Trump administration onto a more agreeable plane than hitherto. The new Palestinian envoy was approved by CIA Director Mike Pompeo and presidential envoy Greenblatt when he visited Ramallah last month.
By this step, the Palestinian leader hopes for a warm reception when the White House finally sets a date for his visit later this month. He won the invitation with a gesture of good faith by signaling certain Arab rulers that he was finally quitting years of stalling and ready to move forward on an accommodation with Israel.
DEBKA Weekly’s Washington sources report that President Trump found Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi optimistic about the prospects of a positive outcome, when they sat down for the first time at the White House on Monday, April 3. Jordan’s King Abdullah was more skeptical when he arrived in Washington Wednesday.
Common features were exhibited by two apparently different solo terrorists: Khaled Masood, 53, who murdered five people and injured 50 near the British parliament on March 22, and Akbarzhon Jalilov, 23, who blew up a metro train at St. Petersburg on April 3, causing 14 deaths and inuring fifty.
Masood was born in Britain and Jalilov was a Russian.
Nevertheless, although they belonged to different generations and their attacks were staged 2,000km apart, the features and deadly agenda they shared must give anti-terror agencies pause.
Neither figured on their governments’ respective security agencies’ watch lists of suspicious Islamic extremists. No evidence was found of associates or accomplices for their attacks in Britain or Russia – nor, according to the British and Russian intelligence agencies, outside their countries.
Both sought out government or spectacular targets for maximum international exposure. Jalilov, like Masood, was reconciled to not coming out of his attack alive.
The British terrorist, using a car and a knife as weapons, managed to enter the Parliament compound, though not the building, while Prime Minister Theresa May was announcing she had triggered Article 50 for the UK’s formal exit from the European Union.
The officials in charge of her safety bundled her out of the House, showing signs of panic and confusion, and drove her to safety away from Parliament and her 10 Downing Street residence.
The Russian terrorist detonated a bomb on the St. Petersburg subway, which serves two million commuters a day, when President Vladimir Putin welcomed the Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko to his home town. Both used the most basic, easily available weapons of death.
Russian security forces, caught unawares, reacted in the first two hours much like their colleagues in London with panic and confusion.
The two investigations into the attacks came up with similar results, although the Russian and British terrorists had never met, nor did they share any contacts. Their relatives, friends and acquaintances did not have a clue that Masood and Jalilov were hatching terrorist plots.
Shortly before they struck, the two men moved to rented accommodation easily accessible to their targeted arenas. The British terrorist moved to Birmingham, 40 minutes drive to London; Jalilov rented a flat in northeastern St. Petersburg, 20 minutes from the Tekhnologichesky Institute station where he caught the train which he blew up.
Both men were subsequently found to have had close ties with radical Islamist circles outside their countries that were never discovered by Russian and British intelligence. Those covert contacts are now believed to have secretly radicalized the two men.
Masood made those contacts during the two visits he paid to Saudi Arabia, staying long enough during one to work as an English teacher, despite his lack of training.
Jalilov was at home in the southern Kyrgyzstan town of Osh.
This town is situated in the Fergana Valley which straddles Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, whose predominantly Uzbek populations have a tradition of Islamist radicalism. Hundreds have joined the Islamic State jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq.
This green and fertile valley also provides safe hideouts for the hundreds of Uyghuris on the run from their homes in the north Chinese Autonomous Region-XUAR.
Khaled Masood and Akbarzhon Jalilov have given the standard “lone wolf” terrorist a special guise. This new species of jihadist killer took the stage on two continents in two world cities, London and St. Petersburg, just twelve days apart.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said of Oman, aged 76, has been under treatment for colon cancer since at least 2014, with long, unexplained absences from his country. In March 2015 he returned home to Muscat from eight months in a German hospital; last year, he was away for two months, from mid-February to mid-March.
This year, rumors that his days are numbered abounded, especially after he failed to turn up at the Arab League Summit in Jordan at the end of March and his seat was taken by the Omani Minister of Heritage and Culture Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said.
A member of the Al Said royal family, Sayyid Haitham, 63, won close attention as the prospective successor to the dying sultan. His name was then put down as Oman’s top representative by the organizers of the Global Cultural Leadership Summit taking place in the Abu Dhabi-UAE oil emirate on April 9-13.
According to arcane customs still practiced among the Emirates’ ruling castes, this act confers a form of recognition of Sayyid Haitham as the next Sultan of Oman by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
The crown prince owns a special interest in Muscat’s affairs.
While Abu Dhabi-UAE and Oman share a common border, they are divided by their support for the opposing sides of the Yemen war: The former is aligned with Saudi military intervention on behalf of the Yemeni government, while Sultan Qaboos secretly backs the Houthi rebels. His army turns a blind eye on the Iranian truck convoys rumbling through Oman heavily laden with missiles, artillery pieces and radar for the Yemen insurgents, as though they are just another mirage frequent seen in these desert regions.
Oman’s affinity to Iran also stems from religion. Most Omanis belong to a form of Islam called Ibadi after its founder Abd Allah ibn Ibad, which is separate from Shiism and “orthodox” Sunnism, although closer to the former and to Yemeni Houthi Zaydism.
Religion too sets the sultan and the majority of Omanis (only 25 percent are Sunnis) at odds with the strictly Sunni religious Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report that the UAE-Abu Dhabi ruler therefore chose to expand undercover operations against his rivals in Oman, spying also on its army and security services. His agents came back with a report that Sayyid Haitham has the succession in the bag.
As the coming man, the Abu Dhabi-UAE ruler will greet his Omani visitor with an olive branch and an offer to bury the hatchet over Yemen – or at least lay down ground rules for managing their differences.
Sayyid Haitham‘s claim to the throne in Muscat is supported by solid credentials: Before his current post, he served as Undersecretary for Political Affairs at the Foreign Ministry (1986-1994) moving up to Secretary General. He is a member of the Abu Said dynasty which has ruled Oman for 14 generations.
Its customs may seem odd in the present day. Sultan Qaboos, for instance, is reputed to have placed the name of his successor in a sealed envelope hidden in his palace, and deposited a second envelope in a different royal palace in the southern city of Salalah, in case the first one is lost.
They are to be opened only if the family council convened after his death is unable to agree on a candidate for the succession.
However, these once sacrosanct customs of obedience to elders committed to the old tribal ways are fast peeling away in the Gulf region like other parts of the world. The tendency in recent years is increasingly to bring young blood to the top echelons of power, as in Qatar, Abu Dhabi and even in the hidebound House of Saud. The Sultanate of Oman may yet hold surprises.
Iran is raising the stakes on two major Middle East warfronts by shipments of its new Qaher ballistic missile to the proxies fighting in Iraq and Yemen, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report.
Last week, Col. Fawzi al-Hassani, commander of the Iraqi army’s Nineveh Operation noted that “missiles from a number of countries, including Iran and the US, were being sent to the Iraqi army.”
Tehran has sent the Qaher-1 missile to the pro-Iran Iraqi Shiite Hashid al-Shaabi militia, which first came into being in 2015 to defend Baghdad, after the Iraqi army caved in against the ISIS sweep across the country. Although the Americans excluded this militia from the Mosul offensive against ISIS, its Shiite fighters last week started firing Qaher missiles at the town’s Old City from a distance as a reminder of their existence.
The Qaher-1 is described by military experts as a ballistic missile with a range of 400km, weighing 350 kg and a target accuracy of 5-10 meters. It is based on the Iranian Tondar-69 which itself was developed in 1992 from the Russian S-75 SAM missile.
The Iran-backed Houthi rebel forces were given a more advanced version, the Qaher-M2, which intelligence experts say is more accurate than the Qaher-1.
On March 28, the Houthis displayed a Qaher-M2 in a parade outside the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. Its appearance put the record straight on the Houthi missile attack against a mosque in a government military camp in the Al-Maarib province of eastern Yemen. Launched on March 17 during Friday prayers, the missile caused the deaths of 26 pro-government soldiers.
Yemen’s vice president Lt. Gen Ali Mohsen Saleh Al-Ahmar condemned the “heinous terrorist crime.” The Houthi rebel news agency claimed to have fired an older Iranian missile, Zelzal-1, as well as artillery fire. However, analysis of missile fragments identified it as a Qaher-M2.
In the last week of March, Tehran stepped up the quantity, variety and sophistication of its arms shipments to the Yemeni rebels. The latest included advanced Iran-made Ababil unmanned aerial vehicles fitted with high explosive warheads, which the Houthis are now using against high-value targets such as radar and Patriot missile defense batteries.
The US, Saudi and United Arab Emirates fleets, which back government forces against the pro-Iran insurgency, are helpless to put a stop to this flow of arms to the rebels. Last year, their patrols of Yemeni shores stopped them getting through by sea. However, Tehran has now developed an overland route. Unmarked truck convoys carrying war materiel roll across the border through Oman and into Yemen away from hostile fire.