Both the Trump administration and the ayatollahs in Tehran were being careful this week not to tip their feud over the brink into a clash of arms.
Pouring oil on the troubled relations, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday, Feb. 7: “Unlike what US President Trump thinks, the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers was a win-win-accord. Everyone benefits from it… the nuclear negotiations can be used as an example for other talks to bring stability and security to the region.”
(Republican) House Speaker Paul Ryan, catching the drift from the White House, commented: Trump has decided not to tear up the Iran nuclear deal. He would have concluded that even a bad deal is better than no nuclear deal.”
But then, at a meeting with military commanders in Iran, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ranted furiously in response to Trump’s sharp warning to stop Iran’s missile tests: “No enemy can paralyze the Iranian nation. Trump says ‘you should be afraid of me.’ No! The Iranian people will respond to his words on Feb, 10 (the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution) and show how they stand up to such threats.”
To notch up the suspense, an Iranian Safir launch vehicle, previously used to put a satellite into orbit, was caught by US satellite imagery – first being prepared on a launch pad and, a few hours later, inexplicably removed.
US officials were left scratching their heads over Iranian plans for Revolution Day: Were they preparing to stage a multiple satellite launch or some other stunning spectacle from a hidden site? Or were they just intent on keeping America guessing?
For now, Tehran has chosen to confine its military provocations against America and its allies to an arena which stirs little international media attention, the conflict in Yemen.
Saturday, Feb. 4, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels were instructed to shoot a missile into Saudi Arabia, Although the Saudis omitted mention of the incident, social media revealed that the Borkan, a Scud- type missile manufactured in Iran with a range of 800km, exploded at a Saudi military facility near the town of Mazahimiyah, 40km west of Riyadh.
US Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis remained cool: “I don’t see any need to increase the number of forces we have in the Middle East at this time,” he said. “That’s not in the cards right now. We always have the capability to do so, but right now I don’t think it’s necessary.”
The general impression gained this week by DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and military sources was that, while the top men in Washington and Tehran were breathing fire, their senior advisers were at work to stanch the flames.
Both the Trump administration and the ayatollahs in Tehran were careful not to tip their feud over the brink – at least not until they determined what side Moscow would take in the event of a descent into full-blown combat.
Russian President Vladimir Putin could if he wanted act to cool tempers, or even try his hand at discreet peacemaking through diplomatic back-channels. But he is staying out of it, although Kremlin officials found time for a mild rebuke of US officials’ remarks.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday, Feb. 6, that the Kremlin does not agree with US President Donald Trump that Iran is a terrorist state. “It’s not a secret,” he said,” that Moscow and Washington’s views on many international issues are diametrically opposed. However, he also said, “Russia and the US should continue building a mutually beneficial relationship, despite their differences.”
Moscow understands that Trump has gone against Iran as far as he intends for the moment, and is not on the verge of military steps. His sanctions against 25 Iranian individuals and entities were not a setback for Iran’s economy - or even its ballistic missile program. Boeing’s $16 billion civilian aircraft deal with Iran was not cancelled.
The White House has understood that a return to the full sanctions regime is not on; Russia, China and the European Union would not go along with it. A US embargo would be ineffective, after the International Atomic Agency in Vienna certified that Iran is abiding by the nuclear agreement with the 5+1 group and its missile program and tests are not in violation of this agreement.
The Russians have noted that Tehran, too, is keeping its provocations over America’s horizon.
So long as the row between the Trump administration and Tehran is essentially a war of words, Putin will bide his time to see what develops.
Turkish-led troops are racing Bashar Assad’s army to be the first to capture the northwestern Syrian town of Al-Bab, the Islamic State’s last stronghold in the northern Aleppo region, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report.
Both claimed advances on Sunday, Feb. 5.
The force made up of Turkish and Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel troops claimed to have captured the village of Bzaah east of Al-Bab, while pro-Assad troops moved into Aran, 6km to the southwest.
The US-led coalition initially approved Turkey’s invasion of Syria last year to fight ISIS forces close to its border, but the Obama administration withdrew this support in December, when Turkish troops launched their offensive to capture Al Bab, which is located 30km deep inside Syria.
Since then, the ISIS defenders using suicide car bombs and improvised explosive devices have repeatedly thrown back waves of Turkish military assaults. Our military sources note that the Turkish army’s failure to break through ISIS defenses at Al-Bab in nearly 10 weeks of fighting indicates that something is amiss in its military machine.
Early on, the Turks tried to break down Islamist resistance with a barrage of heavy artillery, followed by a tank assault for storming the town, but fell back after sustaining a cruel toll of casualties.
In early January, the Turkish high command tried concentrating elite commando units around the targeted town in an effort to break through the fortifications ISIS had set up in the surrounding villages. This strategy also failed.
Last week, Assad’s generals, seeing the Turkish army’s still struggling against the odds, decided to launch a rival operation. They soon claimed to have recaptured 32 towns and villages from ISIS’ grip and gained control of a 16-km stretch of the highway linking Al-Bab to Aleppo city.
Hoping to scare the Turks off the battlefield, pro-Assad military sources threatened to directly confront the FSA rebel militia fighting alongside the Turkish army. They also tried diplomatic warfare. The foreign ministry in Damascus complained to the UN that foreign Turkish troops and FSA rebels had overrun villages around Al-Bab, and denounced their “repeated crimes and attacks on the Syrian people and violations of Syrian territory.”
Ankara, for its part, announced that Turkey would not let the Assad regime get its hands on Al-Bab before a political settlement was finalized.
Turkey, however, is in no position to decide who gets its hands on the ISIS bastion. On Monday, Feb. 6, its troops suffered another battlefield setback. After holding Bzaah for just one day, the Turkish-FSA army lost it with heavy casualties following an Islamist State counterattack, backed by three suicide car bombs.
At the same time, pro-Assad forces continued their relentless advance from the southwest.
Nonetheless, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus unequivocally denied having agreed in December to cede Al-Bab to the Assad regime.
Russia, which holds the key to yet another Syrian dispute, is not showing its cards.
Ankara doesn’t know if Moscow, its close partner in the Syrian peace process, will be supportive if and when Turkish troops manage to grab the disputed town from ISIS before Assad’s troops get there.
The Syrian ruler, equally perplexed, will think twice before confronting Turkey over Al-Bab, in the absence of assured Russian support.
But Moscow’s top priority at this time is not to settle the quarrels of its allies but to preserve the ceasefire it brokered two months ago, as a step towards a political settlement of the Syrian conflict, although the cessation of hostilities is not complete, so long as it excludes the Islamic State and the Nusra Front.
With the approach of another round of Syrian peace talks, the extravagantly touted united front between Bashar Assad’s co-sponsors, Russia and Iran, is developing large cracks.
They are not on public display. Nonetheless, Sunday, Feb. 5, Russian special envoy Alexander Lavrentiev and Iran’s Secretary of the National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, put out separate statements after their talks in Tehran. .
Shamkhani noted that, while his government remains “committed to pursuing a political solution” for ending the Syrian crisis, “political approaches” cannot resolve the Syrian conflict, so long as “terrorist groups” such as the Islamic State and the jihadists of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Nusra Front) are in the country.
This was a signal from Tehran that the continued use of force may not be ruled out in some cases and that Iran is not at one with Russia’s resolute pursuit of a pause in military operations.
Lavrentiev declared nonetheless that “his country will continue its cooperation with Iran and Syria in the fight against terrorists and the groups refusing to commit to a political solution to the Syrian crisis.” He also “reaffirmed Moscow’s support for Tehran’s constructive role in the campaign to bring peace to Syria.”
While both powers are taking care to paper over their disagreements in public, Iran’s “constructive role” is decidedly moving away from cooperation with Russia.
It is digging in its heels over Assad’s future at the head of the regime, unlike Russia, which is cautiously contemplating him stepping aside at some point, while keeping his regime in place under a political settlement.
But most of all, Tehran is furtively stealing a march on Moscow inside Syria by grabbing positions of strength within “useful Syria” - as Assad refers to the parts of the country under his control. These steps are developing into an unacknowledged cold war with Moscow.
debkafile’s military and intelligence sources have discovered Iran setting up a kind of shadow government within the Assad regime’s ruling institutions. It is in position for sabotaging Russian and Syrian government efforts to sustain the nearly two-month ceasefire.
Also in position is an array of Iranian tools of influence outside the Syrian government, which are being polished for subversion against both Moscow and Damascus:
Iran has therefore stockpiled an arsenal for upending any agreements that may be reached in the coming peace negotiations on Syria’s future - in case its interests are not fully respected.
The campaign for the recovery of Syrian Raqqa from the Islamic State’s clutches faced a fresh delay in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s first phone conversation with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan overnight Tuesday, Feb. 7.
Their wide-ranging call included a decision for the US and Turkey to campaign together against ISIS in Raqqa and Al Bab, the jihadists’ last stronghold in the Aleppo region - but only after a host of obstacles were removed. They also discussed the issue of a safe zone in Syria, the refugee crisis and the fight against terror.
Erdogan made a point of asking the US not to support the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, despite its proven military prowess against ISIS.
The new CIA Director Mike Pompeo arrived in Ankara Thursday, Feb. 9 on the first foreign trip since his appointment for talks with Erdogan and his Turkish counterparts..
On Sunday, Feb. 6, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an army of 45,000 soldiers – most of them Kurds - clamed to have embarked with 13,000 Arab tribesmen on a “new phase” of the operation to root ISIS out of Raqqa. They announced they were aiming to complete the encirclement (of Raqqa) and cut the road to ISIS strongholds in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zour. The SDF statement added that they were backed by air strikes and “several hundred US special forces soldiers on the ground.”
Raqqa is situated on the northern bank of the Euphrates. On Feb. 3, its two bridges were destroyed, six months after all the bridges connecting East Raqqa with the Iraqi border were knocked down.
Most Western intelligence sources discount the claims of a “new phase” in the Raqqa campaign as implausible. And DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources found no evidence to support them.
The plan to encircle Raqqa and cut it off from Deir ez-Zour was first compiled last year by former President Barack Obama’s team of advisers. By the time they had hashed out its operational features and ready to go, it was mid-January and the swearing-in of a new president was just days off.
Obama’s planned campaign for Raqqa was accordingly dropped in the laps of the incoming national security team.
They turned it down; forcing the troops marshaled for the operation to stop in their tracks to await a decision from Washington.
On Jan. 29, President Trump signed an executive order directing the US military to develop a preliminary plan for defeating the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. The order said: “It is the policy of the United States that ISIS be defeated. Within 30 days, a preliminary draft of the plan to defeat ISIS shall be submitted to the president by the secretary of defense.”
Secretary James Mattis still has three weeks left to develop a new war plan for ISIS and submit it to President Trump. The draft will then have to go through all the channels of deliberation before it is presented to the president for approval. It will be up to him, as commander-in-chief, to make the tough decision about whether to put American boots on the ground for this anti-terror campaign, or veto that option, as his predecessor did.
In their phone conversation Tuesday night, Erdogan tried without success to convince Trump to go forward with the Raqqa operation without delay. But, according to our Washington sources, Trump is holding his horses for four reasons:
1. He was convinced by the Turkish president to deny the Syrian Kurdish militia a dominant role in the war on ISIS, to avoid encouraging their national aspirations to self-rule. Defense Secretary Mattis is therefore saddled with the task of finding a substitute force to fill the Kurds’ role as operation spearhead. An alternative force, if mustered, may require special training, a time-consuming process.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources note that, even if the Pentagon could scrape together a coalition force for the Raqqa offensive, the US command in Iraq and Syria can’t promise enough troops to hold the town for long enough to ward off an ISIS counterattack to recover its lost domain.
2. The decision to drop the Kurds from the lead role also derives from their performance in the still ongoing US-led Iraqi offensive to liberate Mosul from ISIS. The Peshmerga troops provided by the semi-autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq deserted the operation as soon as they had captured the outlying villages they had marked for annexation to the KRG. Trump’s advisers were concerned that the Kurds might repeat this conduct in Syria.
3. Prior intelligence surveillance of the Raqqa region showed most of the native Arab tribes to be strongly opposed to US special ops forces entering their turf and determined to withhold cooperation. Some of those tribal chiefs are in clandestine cahoots with ISIS behind false identities. Others are against any Kurdish presence on their lands.
4. Raqqa has a civilian population of 300,000 mostly Sunni Arabs. Who will look after their humanitarian needs and supply them with such essentials as food, water and medicines? That question too remains to be answered before the operation can go forward.
The Pentagon and National Security Council are racing forward on President Donald Trump’s plan to create safe zones in Syria, in conjunction with Moscow, according to an exclusive DEBKA Weekly report from its military and intelligence sources. The plan may be ready for approval as soon as the end of next week.
The president made it clear to Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis and National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn that he wants the safe zones to start operating at once, even if this requires the deployment of additional US ground and air force units to Syria.
For Trump, it is important to establish facts on the ground as a priority, before broaching final decisions on future joint US-Russian-Turkish-Jordanian military operations against ISIS.
He summarily dismisses the criticism leveled against his safe zone plan by certain Republican circles and Middle East experts, who call it a recipe for major military and political disaster that will condemn America to dire consequences in the long term.
Administration officials told DEBKA Weekly that Trump regards his cooperation pact with Vladimir Putin for Syria is an accomplished fact to which he is unshakably committed.
The president this week picked a group of three seasoned Middle East military and diplomatic hands with distinguished records in the field and academe. The three former colonels, who served under Gen. David Petraeus, former head of the US Central Command, will support the efforts of the administration’s two generals for moving Trump’s plans towards fruition. Two of them were in the team that designed the successful troop surge which turned the tide of the Iraqi war against Al Qaeda.
Their new tasks in the National Security Council are commensurate with their expertise and experience.
Col. Derek J. Harvey, the new Senior Director for Middle East policies, retired from US army service in 2006 after 26 years as an intelligence officer and Middle East Foreign Area Officer. Before that, Col. Harvey was Senior Analyst for Iraq at the Joint Staff Directorate for Intelligence from 2004 to 2005.
He came from a stint as Chief, Commander’s Assessments and Initiatives Group/Senior Intelligence Analyst for MNF-Iraq.
Harvey participated in the Joint Strategic Assessment Team established by Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Petraeus to assess the situation in Iraq and develop their combined campaign plan.
Col. Joel Rayburn will be one of Col. Harvey’s deputies for the tasks of developing US policy towards Iraq, Syria, Iran and other Middle East hot spots.
He has published articles about the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its consequences, and a book titled “Iraq after America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance,” which told the story from the Iraqi perspective.
Chapter 5 is frequently cited in support of President Trump’s claim that the war to topple Saddam Hussein promoted Salafi extremism and laid the groundwork for the rise of the Islamic State and related insurgency.
Col. Michael S. Bell takes charge of the NSC Saudi Desk. His record in command of field units in several places includes serving as Special Assistant to the Commanding General, US Army Europe/Peace Stabilization Force; Futures Chief, III Corps G-3; and strategist in the Directorate of Strategic Plans and Police (J5), the Joint Staff.
At Joint Staff (J5), Col. Bell’s main projects included work on the National Military Strategy and National Defense Strategy. He was lead writer for the National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism and staff lead for the Joint Strategic Planning System.
The new director of the Saudi Desk was also a member of the Kuwait Strategic Review team, lead writer for Kuwait’s National Security and Defense Strategy and lead writer for the National Military Strategy of the Kuwait Armed Forces.
The Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, the military link with academic studies, published Bell’s monograph, The Exigencies of Global, Integrated Warfare: The Evolving Role of the CJCS and his Dedicated Staff.