Last week, DEBKA Weekly 690 revealed the identity of the C-in-C of Russian forces in Syria as Col. Gen. Alexander Dvornikov. This week, we can name Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s choice of new commander for the Iranian forces in Syria, with his background.
The picture shows the new commander, Gen. Gholam-Hossein Gheyb Parvar, on the left, with Gen. Qassem Soleimani (as he looks today) at bottom right and the TV satellite dishes he ordered smashed in the background.
Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) Gen. Gholam-Hossein Gheyb-Parvar arrived in Damascus last week to take up his new task, our military and intelligence sources disclose. He filled the gap left after Gen. Hossein Hamedani was assassinated by the Islamic State in October near Aleppo.
In his new position, Gen. Gheyb-Parvar ranks fourth in Iran’s military hierarchy, after Adm. Ali Shamkhani, head of the Supreme National Security Council, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jaafari, commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Gen. Qassem Soleimani, chief of the Al Qods Brigades.
The Syrian post is more important than ever for Tehran, which is why the supreme leader handled it in person
The assassination in Damascus of the high-profile Iranian agent, Samir Quntar, on Sunday, Dec. 20, was a direct Israeli challenge to Iran in the five-year Syrian conflict, which Tehran is counting on to achieve its strategic goals: a land bridge from Iran and the Gulf to the Mediterranean, and dominant influence in Damascus, Beirut and Baghdad for “exporting” its Shiite revolution.
Khamenei was much impressed by Gheyb-Parvar’s performance as IRGC commander of the southern Fars Province. Last January, he crushed a local uprising against the regime.
This religious fanatic also ordered Guardsmen to smash 6,000 satellite dishes in the provincial capital of Shiraz to halt a “silent invasion” that he believed was undermining “religious values.”
The West never heard of this episode because the Obama administration did not want Tehran upset at a sensitive point in the nuclear negotiations.
Khamenei is counting on the general to deal with the Syrian rebels against Bashar Assad with the same dispatch as he dealt with Fars insurgents. Gheyb-Parvar retains command of Fars Province, assuming he finds it feasible to hold two senior command posts that are 1,600 km apart.
He arrived with a plan in hand for sweeping changes in the disposition of Iranian forces in Syria after their disappointing performance in battle. He has also designed a new body called Kashab for recruiting and training young Syrians of all religious denominations to fight for the Assad regime.
Russian forces in Syria saw the Israeli Air Force take off for the rocket strike that killed an old enemy, Samir Quntar, head of Iranian and Hizballah terror networks in southern Syria early Sunday, Dec. 20.
Some of the 10 Russian military satellites hovering overhead were alerted, like the radar systems of the recently deployed Russian S-400 antiaircraft missiles. They all tracked the planes from that moment.
The Russians also noted that the Israeli warplanes did not fly beyond the Sea of Galilee of northern Israel, which is just a short hop - 105 kilometers (65 miles) - from Damascus.
Their sophisticated weaponry could have aborted the Quntar hit by shooting down the Israeli planes before they loosed rockets against the terrorist’s secret abode in a six-story residential building in the Jaramana district, just south of the Syrian capital.
But they watched and did nothing.
Defending Damascus and propping up Bashar Assad were the primary goals of Moscow’s military intervention in Syria and the reasons why they deployed such high-tech antiaircraft systems as the S-300, S-400 and the Buk-M2-SA-17 Grizzly.
Their arrival in Syria transformed the broad arena from end to end. Last week, without prior notice, the US discontinued its air strikes over Syria against Islamic State forces. Thursday Dec. 17, the dozen US F-16 fighter jets were moved out of Turkey’s Incirlik airbase back to their hangars in Britain, just a month after their deployment.
Moscow appears, however, to have separate game rules for Israel, judging by the way Israeli rockets were allowed to go through to the Syrian capital and end the life of an infamous enemy without interference, or even a complaint on the hot line linking the Russian and Israeli air commands.
This episode was revealing in five military and strategic respects, say DEBKA Weekly’s Middle East sources:
1. The Russian-Israeli military coordination accord, set up to avert clashes in Syrian airspace, has quickly evolved into a broader arrangement: tacit agreement to avoid interfering with each other’s military operations so long as neither jeopardizes the other’s military interests.
2. The Russian pass for the Israeli operation punctured the premise that Moscow’s air force umbrella over the Assad regime and its capital was watertight. Moscow proved willing to let an Israeli offensive action go through, even up to Damascus, against an object defined by the Jewish state as a terror target.
3. For Assad, this was very bad news. The Russians stood by as Israeli rockets headed for Damascus without intercepting them, although they did not know where they were heading. Those rockets might just as well have been aimed at Assad’s presidential palace or Syrian general staff headquarters and reached their mark.
4. The leeway granted Israel for the assassinations of Samir Quntar and Farhan Issam Shaalan, a senior commander of the “Syrian National Resistance on the Golan” - a militia established by Syrian intelligence to carry out terrorist attacks in Israel - proved that Russian protection does not cover the terrorist branches of Hizballah’s military and intelligence outfits in Syria.
5. Samir Quntar served both Hizballah and the Iranian military command in Syria, under its overall chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani. His assassination therefore revealed that Iran can’t count on unreserved Russian protection in Syria, any more than Hizballah.
6. At the same time, Moscow relies heavily on ground troops from Syria, Iran, Hizballah and their Shiite militia proxies for their complex air and ground operations.
So, President Vladimir Putin, when he saw how furious his partners were, notably Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Assad, about the free Russian pass for the Israeli assassination of Quntar, he put in a call to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Tuesday, Dec. 22 and cautioned him that Russian forces must receive prior notice of future Israeli operations, else they were not responsible for the consequences.
Tuesday, Dec. 22, as 10,000 US-trained Iraqi soldiers went into battle to drive 600 Islamic State fighters out of the city of Ramadi, Gen. Sabah al-Numani, a spokesman for the Iraqi counterterrorism unit leading the charge, said confidently: “We went into the city center from different axes, and we started clearing residential areas. The city will be cleared in 72 hours.”
Wednesday, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was back in Iraq for the second time in a week, this time arriving in Irbil, capital of the Kurdish autonomous region. He wanted to make sure that Kurdish peshmerga forces would block any Islamic State reinforcements on their way from Raqqa, their Syrian headquarters, to the Ramadi battle arena.
Last weekend, US generals were stunned to discover that, ahead of the battle, several hundred ISIS fighters had slipped past US and Russian surveillance and reached Iraq from Syria.
(Note DEBKA Weekly 689 of Dec. 11: “How ISIS Evades Air Strikes”)
They brought their beleaguered comrades new supplies of arms and ammo and even evacuated sick and wounded combatants before taking their place.
Carter was anxious to ward off any more unpleasant surprises, because President Barack Obama views the Ramadi operation as the test of his doctrine, which is to leave the fight against ISIS to regional armies and keep US and Western boots off the ground.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shares this principle with regard to Russian troops in Syria and Iraq.
The operational plan drawn up by the Pentagon and US Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida awarded the Iraqi army the lead role for driving ISIS forces out of central Ramadi and gave them an overwhelming advantage in numbers: 16 Iraqi soldiers for every ISIS fighter.
The US air force and the pro-Iranian Shiite militias were cast in supporting roles, such as artillery or aerial attacks.
But even if the combined offensive succeeds, the planners know that their victory will be incomplete because of the formidable ISIS strategy for fighting on after defeat. In Tikrit and the Baiji refinery town, the jihadists sowed the towns’ ground surface with mines and remotely detonated explosive trucks and roadside bombs, while hiding themselves in deep, interconnected tunnels, from which they spring for night raids.
Those tunnel systems have defied every Iraqi army or local militia attempt to destroy them, forcing the “liberated” towns to live with a hidden jihadist presence lurking somewhere under their feet.
Israel’s intelligence and air force again displayed their best skills for pinpointing and reaching very small targets in the operation conducted on Dec. 20 to blow away the Hizballah arch terrorist Samir Quntar.
Quntar, head of Iranian and Hizballah terror networks in southern Syria up to the Israeli border, and his deputy, Farhan Issam Sha’alon, chief of the National Syrian Opposition group on the Golan, lived and worked in two secret apartments on the first floor of a residential building in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, 10 km southeast of the capital. One apartment served as living quarters, and the other as operations center for running their terrorist networks.
The four missiles that Israeli warplanes launched Sunday from a point over the northern Israeli Sea of Galilee destroyed the entire first floor of that building. Nothing could have survived the blast.
The technology used by Israeli Air force bombers and drones for threading rockets through a small window or hatch for precisely targeted assassinations was last demonstrated during the IDF’s Gaza campaign in the summer of 2014.
Information had been received that Muhammad Deif, head of the Hamas military wing, the Ezz-e-Din al-Qassam Brigades, had arranged to visit his wives and children at the home of a trusted associate in the Sheikh Radwan district of Gaza.
On Aug. 19, after he entered the building, a series of at least four one-ton bombs were released. The building collapsed, but the master terrorist survived, thanks to a mechanical malfunction and Deif’s own ruthless egotism.
A joint Israeli air force-military intelligence probe subsequently established that, after the first bomb failed to detonate, the quick-witted Deif decided to get out fast and sacrifice his family. And indeed, when the second bomb exploded, it destroyed his family, but he had escaped to safety.
That episode demonstrated that even the most superior technology and intelligence cannot be guaranteed to work one hundred percent, and all such operations are touch and go.
For the Quntar hit, Israel military intelligence made elaborate preparations:
1. To locate his secret residence known to be in or near Damascus.
2. To determine whether he worked from home or another location to prepare Hizballah’s terror networks in southern Syria for attacks deep inside Israel.
3. Since Quntar’s movements could not be tracked electronically from the air, the Israeli planners needed clandestine eyes on the ground to signal his entries and departures from his apartment, to shadow his movements outside and identify the signs showing he was at home.
He was therefore under constant surveillance for a considerable period leading up to the assassination.
4. Dozens of undercover agents and local informants were employed in Damascus for this task. One used a laser beam to guide Israeli warplanes to the Quntar abode.
That Israel was able to run an undercover operation on this scale, without discovery by Syrian, Iranian or Hizballah intelligence, attests to the depth of Israeli clandestine penetration of the Syrian capital and its environs.
5. The blow for Iranian intelligence was painful: Iran relied on Quntar for its terror and intelligence operations even more than Hizballah. They kept dark the deaths of his two Iranian controllers in the same rocket attack. Our intelligence sources name them as Mohammed Reza Fahmi and Mir Ahmad Ahmadi.
6. This in-depth penetration of Damascus is not new. Undercover cells have been there for at least eight years.
One such deep-cover Israeli spy network engineered the targeted assassination on Feb.12, 2008 of Imad Fayez Mughniyeh, Hizballah’s military chief, who was the top Iranian intelligence and terror operative in the Middle East. He was knocked off outside his home in the exclusive Damascus suburb of Kafr Sousa.
Mughniyeh was a trusted favorite of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his status in Tehran at the time comparable to that of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Al Qods Brigades, whose current whereabouts are meanwhile unknown. (See last week’s DEBKA Weekly issue: ”Who Made the Iranian Al Qods Chief Disappear?” )
To kill Mughniyeh, Israel’s agents snuck into the garage of his home and planted explosives in the driver’s headrest of his car. When he started the engine, the headrest blew up and decapitated him.
The modus operandi for the Quntar hit was different. When spies had confirmed he was asleep in bed, the deadly rockets were released. They flew through the windows to kill him, his deputy and their Iranian controllers.
Western military and intelligence sources recently warned Washington that ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are teaming up for the first time for simultaneous attacks on Saudi Arabia from two different directions: Iraq and Yemen. (See map). Their offensive will take advantage of the current US focus on fighting ISIS in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Syria.
This switch in Islamic State strategy is signaled to DEBKA Weekly’s military and counterterrorism sources by three new developments:
1. In contrast to the Tikrit, Baiji and Sinjar fronts in Iraq, where ISIS went underground rather than fight head-on, the jihadists are resolved to make a stand in Ramadi (see separate item) and prolong the fighting.
2. An ISIS suicide bomber killed at least six Saudi soldiers on Dec. 12 at the Hafr Zawiyah border post between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Clad in an Iraqi military uniform, he drove an explosives-packed vehicle into the center of the border post, where he blew himself up in order to cause maximum Saudi army casualties.
3. An ISIS operational delegation secretly visited AQAP headquarters in Mukalla, capital of Yemen’s Hadramauth province, in early December, to discuss a joint campaign against Saudi targets.
They saw their chance from the Saudi-led coalition’s decision to refrain from attacking AQAP, believing the jihadist group to be a secret ally in its war on the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Our intelligence sources report that President Barack Obama was warned of an order issue by the Saudi Defense Minister Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to hold off air strikes and not to halt the AQAP advance toward Aden, while grabbing territory from the Houthis on the way.
Riyadh stuck to this tactic, even after AQAP declared in a Twitter posting on Dec. 1. “We will not enjoy life unless we get the necks of the Al Saud rulers,” and the assassination of Aden’s provincial government by a car bomb.
The Arabian branch of Al Qaeda is counted by counterterrorism experts to have become as dangerous as ISIS. A large force armed with advanced weaponry, AQAP gangs now race around Yemen in convoys packed with armed fighters, exactly like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The danger now is that armed AQAP convoys will drive into the desert and link up with ISIS trucks from Iraq, catching both the Saudis and the Americans off-guard.
Before going on his Christmas vacation, US President Barack Obama held a most unusual press conference on Dec. 18 at the White House. It was mostly a long monologue - in essence, a catalogue of the decisions he made for the Middle East in 2011-2012 and how justified they were in the light of the events he predicted would unfold in 2015.
But his version did not quite fit the facts, and there are enough leaders, politicians, military officers and intelligence officials still around in the region, who were directly involved or affected by those decisions. They have a different version of what happened. Some even bear the scars of those decisions and policies and admit that in consequence, they lost faith not only in Obama but in America.
For instance, the president’s denial of a US hand in the “Arab Spring” which swept across the region three years ago is countered by evidence in a number of intelligence files of how the Obama administration prompted and promoted those uprisings, with the intention of liberating Middle East peoples from authoritarian rulers, especially in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria.
The regimes he envisaged rising in their place would be led by moderate Muslims, like the Muslim Brotherhood, who would be America’s future allies in fighting the spread of radical Islam.
In the first three, their rulers were outsted, but in Syria he was finally stopped short, with calamitous consequences.
So he could not expect to get away last week with this claim: “We did not depose Hosni Mubarak. Millions of Egyptians did, because of their dissatisfaction with the corruption and authoritarianism. The notion that somehow the US was in a position to pull the strings on a country that is the largest in the Arab world, I think is – is mistaken.”
This claim was refuted by his own worlds on Feb. 5, 2011, when Obama said publicly: “The key question he [Mubarak] should be asking himself is, ‘How do I leave a legacy behind in which Egypt is able to get through this transformative period?’” he said. “He needs to listen to what is being voiced by the Egyptian people and make a judgment about a pathway forward that is orderly but that is meaningful and serious.”
In other words, your time is up.
By then, US agents in Cairo had meanwhile enlisted Mubarak’s own Intelligence Minister, Gen. Omar Mahmoud Suleiman, as the key figure for their contacts with the Egyptian Military Council. So, when the Egyptian ruler asked Obama for just one more week to suppress the Tahir Square riots and reestablish order in Cairo and other Egyptian cities, Obama turned him down. He was already in negotiation with the Military Council on the procedures for the Egyptian president’s resignation and handover of transitional power to the generals.
They were intended to keep the seat warm for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Egyptian ruler’s close friend Saudi King Abdullah, who died last January, laid the blame for his ouster and disgrace squarely at Washington’s door. Appalled by the way Mubarak was treated, he refused to talk to Obama for two years. On Aug. 19, 2013, the king alleged that American “ignorance” and “interference” caused the Egyptian crisis and that Washington had played with fire, so it got burned.
America’s role in deposing Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi blew back on the Middle East in the turbulence that is still ongoing in 2015.
Syrian President Bashar Assad determined that, come what may, he would never suffer their fate - a decision that has cost an estimated half a million Syrian lives, displaced many millions and ruined his country.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin has stood foursquare behind Assad. He was determined that the US and NATO would never again inflict on any Middle East leader the fate that befell the Libyan ruler.
In September 2015, Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict and is expanding its military input up until the present.