DEBKA Weekly reveals exclusively that Iran has stolen a march on all the players in the moves to resolve the Syrian conflict by persuading Bashar Assad to secretly sign Presidential Decree No. 1445, for the “Re-organization of the Military Militias in Syria.”
Under its first clause, all the Shiite militias of app. 110-120,000 members fighting for his regime are gathered together under the central command of the Iranian military mission permanently posted at Syrian High Command headquarters in Damascus. The mission head, usually a high-ranking Iranian Revolutionary Guards general, does not defer to President Assad, but serves under the Supreme Commander of Iranian frontline forces in Syria and Iraq, Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
This quiet Iranian coup has outmaneuvered Russian President Vladimir Putin, who co-sponsored the fourth round of the Astana conference for talks between the Assad government and the Syrian opposition, taking place on Tuesday, May 2; US President Donald Trump’s phone conversation with Putin that day on cooperation with Russia in Syria; and the plans discussed with Putin by Turkish leader Reccep Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during their visits to his Black Sea residence at Sochi.
Tehran made them all look as through they were running in circles by stepping forward as the proper address for dealing with the Syrian crisis. This authority was conferred by the decree Assad was persuaded to sign.
The measure permitted Iran to create a Shiite military force, under a single central command, which exceeds the Syrian army in size by 40-50,000 troops. It is made up of an estimated 80,000 Syrian Shiites, 25,000 Afghans, 5,000 Pakistanis and some 8,000 Hizballah combatants.
Our military and intelligence sources reveal that the Syrian government’s army has been whittled down to less than 70,000 fighting men by progressively smaller recruitment figures; it is shrinking further as young Syrians desert the ranks to join the pro-Iranian militias. They are attracted by better service conditions, higher pay and promised transport to hospital in Iran, if they are injured.
Syria is therefore undergoing the same sort of military Iraniization that overtook Iraq in the years 2014-2016, when Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Muhandis gathered 40 militias to create the Popular Mobilization Units, most of them Shiite, but some also Sunni, Christian and Yazidi.
The PMU gained Iraqi state sponsorship, and in December, 2016, was incorporated in Iraq’s national armed forces.
Since then, the US commanders leading the war on ISIS have had little choice but to cooperate with this Iraqi militia force – even for the Mosul operation - and overlook the fact that it defers directly to Iranian command. The American officers have been unable to prevent Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) staff setting up offices in the parts of Mosul liberated by US-led forces from Islamic State occupation, because the Iranian staff come in the guise of Iraqi PMU personnel. They are also assisted by Iran’s ally, the former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The Iraqi war arena is fast settling into a pattern in which Americans win the war on ISIS, only to have the fruits of victory snatched up by Tehran. This situation replicates America’s success in defeating Al-Qaeda in the 2003-2007 conflict, only to see Baghdad dropping into Iran’s lap
These tactics are beginning to work for Iran in Syria too, with two major differences: One, Hizballah is an integral component of Iran’s amalgamated Shiite army; and, two, Iran’s military takeover of Syria brings a couple of archenemies into menacing proximity to Israel’s borders.
Furthermore, a US-led offensive against ISIS is till in the making.
Exactly a year ago, the commander of Hizballah forces in Syria, Mustafa Badreddine, was assassinated.
On March 31, Lt.-Gen. Gady Eisenkott, chief in staff of Israel’s armed forces, said Israeli intelligence had corroborated reports that Hizballah had assassinated him.
“Badreddine was killed by his superiors, which points to the cruelty, complexity and tension between Hizballah and is patron, Iran,” he said.
According to information reaching DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources, Hizballah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah sought to appoint Talal Hamiyah to replace him. As chief of Hizballah’s External Security Organization, Hamiyah is in charge of orchestrating the organization’s operations abroad.
Iran flatly opposed this appointment, and so its Lebanese surrogate’s expeditionary force in Syria was left without a commanding officer for a whole year.
This problem is now solved. Hizballah, like the other Shiite militias in Syria, comes under the Iranian commander of the new Syrian army.
A meeting in Washington scheduled for May 16 is raising suspense to fever pitch in more than one world capital. It brings together two exceptionally unpredictable and strong-willed leaders, US president Donald Trump and Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, a headstrong ruler who has brought relations with Washington into collision over the Kurds.
Each is capable of dropping an unexpected pre-emptive bombshell, political or military, on the other’s head.
Both bombshells are already primed to detonate.
US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commanded by the Kurdish YPG militia, stands ready to lead the long-awaited offensive for liberating Raqqa from the Islamic State. Trump is capable of giving the SDF the green light to go forward while Erdogan is airborne, so that when the Turkish president arrives at the White House, he will find a fait accompli waiting for him.
Erdogan, for his part, while still aboard his the presidential flight to Washington, may order the Turkish army to open two fronts against Kurdish militias in Syria and Iraq, including the YPG which is backed by America.
In Iraq, Turkish forces stand ready for their mission, which is to attack Sinjar, the northern Iraqi Turkman-Yazidi town, where the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) has set up a headquarters. (See attached map.)
Erdogan confirmed this when he said on April 29 “Turkey knows what to do and when to do it. We may come there to Sinjar overnight all of a sudden.”
Four days earlier, Turkish air strikes against Sinjar left six Kurdish Peshmerga dead and eight wounded.
The Turkish president later expressed “condolences for martyring a number of Peshmerga” in the attack on PKK bases, stating “it happened by mistake.” (The Peshmerga are the fighting force of the semiautonomous Kurdish Republic –KRG - of northern Iraq.)
But he also insisted that the PKK presence in Sinjar was unacceptable and “all the parties should get together to drive them out.”
That is not the only Erdogan war initiative in the works.
He has launched a cross-border operation to seize the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad north of Raqqa. Located on the Balikh River, Kurdish-ruled Tel Abyad is the Syrian twin of Akcakale just across the border in Turkey. Turkish forces are shelling the town. Local witnesses report Turkish air force over-flights, albeit without dropping bombs as yet.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources say it is hard to see how the small group of US Marines rushed to the Syrian-Turkish border aboard eight-wheeled Strykers on Friday, April 28, can halt the Turkish army’s advances. The Turks could bypass them or hem them in, treating them to the sort of siege they inflicted last summer on the US air base at Incirllik in southern Turkey in the course of a failed coup against Erdogan.
For now, relations between the two presidents are so chaotic and inflammable that they could simultaneously order their respective troops to launch conflicting offensives – the US-led Kurdish-Arab, on the one hand, and the Turkish anti-Kurdish assault on either or both Tel Abyad and Sinjar, on the other.
Erdogan is offering Trump a deal, which is quite simply to cut the Kurdish YPG out of the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition for Raqqa and replace it with Turkish troops.
But his previous offer of 3,000 troops was flatly rejected by the US president, who said that he needs at least 30,000 fighting men for the Raqqa offensive. Even then, Trump was talking off the cuff; neither Defense Secretary James Mattis nor national Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is willing to even consider any Turkish option. Indeed, not a single American general in the Syrian and Iraqi commands would agree to dismantle the Kurdish-Arab force they have built from the bottom up for the Raqqa campaign and implant Turkish soldiers in their stead.
Turkey’s last-ditch bid for a role in the operation came in the form of a proposal that would leave Turkish troops out of the fighting to capture Raqqa and restrict them to imposing a siege on the ISIS stronghold. By this tactic, Ankara hoped to minimize the scale of the Kurdish force engaged in the Raqqa offensive.
That offer was also dismissed out of hand in Washington.
The American equation for the Raqqa assault still has a big X factor. How will the Kurdish YPG militia conduct itself if the Turks choose that moment to hit its centers? Will the Kurds abandon the Raqqa front line and rush to the aid of their comrades in Sinjar or Tal Abyad?
Since no one knows the answer, a back-up plan was prepared by administration officials in Washington and CENTCOM officers on the spot, who obtained the consent of the KRG President Masoud Barzani and his Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani for Peshmerga forces to be deployed to fight off any Turkish aggressors.
But that deal is not waterproof either, given the delicate ties between the KRG capital of Irbil and Ankara and the economic crisis besetting the Kurdish republic.
The Kurdish problem looms large over Washington, Ankara and Irbil, especially because Kurd fighters are irreplaceable for the campaign against ISIS, as the only armed force with proven success in defeating the jihadis in Syria.
Two new security and ceasefire zone plans are afloat over Syria, proposed by Russia and the US to stem the warfare now its sixth year, while a third entity is fighting to stall both.
One of those plans, the Houran Document, is of unacknowledged parentage, but its content betrays experimental feelers by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel.
The second plan was openly fathered by Moscow.
On Monday, May 1, during a preparatory session of the Astana peace summit in Ankara, Russia presented all 15 opposition groups, including the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, with a paper proposing four “de-escalation” or “reduced tensions” zones in Syria. It was combined with a recommendation to create a joint working group - which too would represent rebel groups - to prepare an war plan for driving the Islamic State and the Nusra Front out of those zones.
This document was leaked before its presentation at the fourth round of the Astana conference which opened Tuesday in the Kazakh capital.
The Russian proposal aims to de-escalate the violence between the Syrian rebel groups and Bashar Assad’s regime, by drawing “safety lines along all the borders” of these “reduced tension zones” and appointing officers of the “guarantor countries” to monitor the cessation of hostilities.
The zones proposed are in Idlib in the northwest up to the Turkish border; Homs in central Syria (including the Al-Sharyat airbase attacked by US Tomahawks); the East Ghouta suburb of Damascus (where the military airfield is located); and the entire South up to the Syrian borders with Jordan and Israel.
The Hourani and the Russian documents have one factor in common: Both were rejected out of hand by Damascus and Tehran.
The Houran Document had, moreover, the deleterious effect of triggering a new joint offensive by Syria, Hizballah and Shiite militias under Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers for a pre-emptive grab of the Syrian borderlands abutting on Jordan and Israel.
Their targeted area ranges from the town of Daraa up to the trilateral border junction and their destination is Quneitra on Israel’s Golan border.
This joint force has been on the move for some days, advancing on two axes:
1. The eastern route from Daraa has brought them up to Inkhil, which lies 30km southeast of Quneitra. To remove obstacles in their path, their officers have been negotiating a deal for the local militias to lay down their arms and grant them right of passage.
2. The segment following the northwestern route through the Syrian Hermon and the village of Hader has come as far as Naba al-Fawwar, which is 13km from Quneitra. They are negotiating the same deal with resident militias.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report that this force was sent on its way after Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, supreme commander of Iranian forces in the Middle East, for the goal of killing the Houran Document before it is born.
He explained to his bosses in Tehran that its underlying purpose was to shut off southern Syria as a “security zone” and place it under the rule of Syrian rebel groups aligned with Israeli intelligence, under US, Jordanian and Israeli air cover.
That zone would be awarded similar status to the autonomy the Americans were planning to extend to the Kurdish enclaves in northeastern Syria, Soleimani said. Eventually, after the Americans and Kurds moved southeast and extinguished the ISIS presence, the two pro-American enclaves would link up and form a barrier down the full length of the Syrian-Iraqi border.
That barrier would bury Iran’s hopes of coming out of the Syrian war with a land bridge to Damascus and the Mediterranean via Iraq.
The triple Syrian-Hizballah-Iranian force’s push towards Golan is designed to pre-empt this plan – while also planting a presence on the Israeli border.
The Assad regime’s stake in this effort was laid out under the heading “The assault plan in South Syria won’t pass” by its mouthpiece the Al-Watan daily on April 25.
Damascus was determined to defeat the scheme for, “… breaking the Syrian south away from the nation in order to establish an Israeli security belt there under different headlines; … now that Jordan’s role has been revealed under this vicious plan that is supposed to be implemented through an Israeli, Jordanian, terrorist partnership and an American leadership, through the use of the Military Operations Command room in Jordan...“
As for Moscow’s role in this move, our military sources report that the Russian air force has held its fire after conducting a single supportive strike at the start of the Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah offensive: SU-35 bombers struck Syrian rebels pouring in from Jordan and taking over parts of Daraa.
Since then, the Russians have stayed out of it, in respect of their own interests and plans. The three forces moving on Quneitra would only disrupt Moscow’s ceasefire zones program while there is still hope of bringing it to fruition.
That was certainly a central theme of Vladimir Putin’s phone conversation with Donald Trump Tuesday, May 2. He clearly sees cooperation with the US as a way of advancing his plan in one form or another. “A ceasefire is the first priority and cooperation with Washington is critical,” The Russian president said after the conversation.
However, the next day, our sources learned that the conversation ended without agreement, due to the Iranian stumbling block. Putin proposed adding Iran to the guarantor countries monitoring the “de-escalation zones’ in the face of Trump’s persistent demand for Iran’s removal from Syria, along with its proxies. The Russian leader’s new plan for Syria was seen in Washington and Jerusalem as a ploy to gain Iran’s presence through the back door.
The question now is how critical is cooperation with Washington for Putin when it comes to the crunch.
Until now, Putin had two compelling reasons for withholding air support from his allies:: a) He decided not to annoy Washington and therefore ordered his military to keep its distance from areas in which the Trump administration claims influence and an interest in Syria. The South is one of those areas. b) He has no wish to strain ties with Saudi Arabia, Israel or Jordan at this point in the Syrian crisis.
Tarabin, the most important Bedouin tribe in Sinai, has declared total war on the Islamic State’s local affiliate.
This local vendetta might not be of great consequence, except that these Arab nomads are reported by DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism sources to have managed a feat which has so far eluded every conventional army: They have finally got the jihadists running scared.
In the first rounds of this feud, the Sinai Bedouin have come off best by turning the jihadists’ most brutal tactics against them. Without many thousands of troops and billion-dollar budgets, the Bedouin have proved that the jihadists are just as crushed as their victims when subjected to their own murderous atrocities. In one instance, the Tarabin burned an Islamic captive alive.
And using inhuman acts to instill fear and dread in their prey works both ways.
The Trump administration is investing $1.3 billion a year in military assistance for the 450,000-strong Egyptian army. President Abdul-Fatteh El-Sisi says this is not enough to sustain the war on terror.
This aid package, awarded for more than two decades, was designed to keep Cairo within America’s sphere of influence in the Middle East, preserve the 38-years old Egyptian-Israeli peace accord and secure international shipping on the Suez Canal.
But since 2014, a large portion of US assistance to Egypt is dedicated to the Egyptian army’s war on the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis extremist organization, which in 2016 pledged loyalty to ISIS and was renamed the ISIS Sinai Province. Egypt has assigned its Second and Third Armies, along with 22,500 members of the Border Guard commando unit, to defeating ISIS and rooting it out of its Sinai strongholds. Israel has extended permission for Egyptian air force combat operations in the peninsula, although the territory was demilitarized under their 1979 peace accord. The United and Israel both provide intelligence support.
But notwithstanding the funding, the air support and the intelligence input, the Egyptian army has so far failed to thrash a gang of terrorists estimated to be no larger than 600 to 1,000 fighters, many of them local Bedouin tribesman.
Worst still, the terrorists have been able to go from strength to strength. Their three-year record of wanton death and destruction is impressive:
In 2014, they downed an Egyptian mi-17 transport helicopter over the peninsula, reportedly with a surface-to-air missile, killing five persons.
In 2015, they destroyed an M60 battle tank, going on to sink an Egyptian patrol boat off the northern Sinai coast of El-Arish, using Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles against both targets. The same year, ISIS took responsibility for blowing up the Russian MetroJet airliner in midair, killing all 224 civilians and crew aboard on their return from a holiday at the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Following those “coups,” the jihadis began leaping out of Sinai for raids in Egyptian cities, seeking prey among Egyptian security personnel and the indigenous Christian Coptic community, Egypt’s largest minority of 12-15 million souls.
On April 9, 2017, the Islamist terrorists hit Coptic churches in Cairo and Alexandria, slaughtering 47 Christians.
Then, on April 18, ISIS-Sinai made its first major mistake. An armed gang, confident of the Islamic State’s unchallenged sway over central Sinai, went after Saint Catherine’s Monastery with a view to massacring the monks and burning down the ancient shrine.
Built in 548 and 565 at a location considered by Jewish and Christian tradition to be the foot of Biblical Mount Sinai, it is one of the oldest continuously working Christian monasteries in the world, part of the Eastern Orthodox Church and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Posted around Saint Catherine’s is a tent encampment. It is the dwelling of the Tarabin tribe, which cherishes its historic role as guardians of the Sinai monastery.
For weeks, ISIS had been burning Tarabin tents in this vicinity and poaching from their flocks. The tribesmen put on extra guards. When those guards identified the assailants, they tipped off Egyptian security forces, which lay in wait for them to strike.
That ambush trapped the jihadists in time to save the ancient monastery, the monks and the priceless relics they guard.
However, it was also the match that kindled a major conflagration in the Sinai Peninsula, leaving the organized players on the sidelines. Their pride and honor as guardians impugned by the monastery attack, the Tarabin had long been seething over ISIS inroads on their tribal lands in northern Sinai for hounding Egyptian forces and butchering Christians.
The Tarabin there and then declared war on the Islamic State, determined to give no quarter.
This was no idle threat. From the 19th century, this tribe has been counted the most powerful and populous Bedouin community in the region; its estimated half a million members branch out into the Negev of southern Israel and are to be found in the Egyptian towns of Cairo, Ismailia, Giza, Al Sharqia and Suez; as well as in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gaza Strip.
In 2004, Israel built a township called Tirabin al-Sana to accommodate members of the al-Sana clan of the Tarabin tribe.
Their methods of warfare are no less barbaric than the infamous practices of the Islamic State. They rarely take prisoners. Video clips of a jihadi being burned to death and other atrocities are making the rounds across Sinai. In the last few days, these tribal fighters planted hidden ambush squads to waylay the enemy as it moves across the Peninsula. The tribal fighters’ knowledge of every rock, cranny, path and cave in a land which is mostly unpopulated wilderness is intimate and unmatched.
On Tuesday, May 2, Sinai Tarabin tribal fighters caught a group of ISIS terrorists unawares in northern Sinai, not far from Rafah on the Gaza Strip border. They killed eight of the trespassers. This time, they took prisoners to an unknown fate.
Turkey has taken another big step away from NATO.
When US Secretary of Defense James Mattis held talks in Ankara with Turkey’s Defense Minister Fikri Isik on April 13, most of their conversation focused on Turkey’s bid for a role in the coming Raqqa offensive, which was flatly thrown out by Washington. A side topic of their talks now assumes prominence. Isik disclosed that his government had decided to discard its air defense missile system, which is hooked into the NATO network, and strike out for an independent defense array, based on Russian radar and S-300 and S-400 anti-missile batteries.
Turkey will be the first member of the North Atlantic Alliance to ditch its share in the organization’s defenses in favor of the opposition’s hardware.
Its action throws the entire NATO missile shield for Europe out of kilter, by shifting its defense line to the west of Turkey up to US air bases in Greece and Romania. A whole region from Turkey up to East Europe including Hungary and Bulgaria will be left exposed to ballistic missile attack.
The missile shield strategy, pursued by the United States since 2012 against a potential Iranian ballistic missile attack on Europe, collapses with the desertion of the forward point of this defense line, Turkey.
Washington and NATO Headquarters in Brussels are now concerned that Ankara’s next step may be to shut down the US X-band station located in South Turkey, which is the forward eyes of the US-Israeli shield against Iranian ballistic missile attack. This X-band station is linked to another station in southern Israel opposite the Egyptian border.
For some years, Turkey has complained that the US Patriot anti-missile missiles do not meet its military requirements and that on the whole, the NATO air defense systems are outdated, slow, cumbersome, and generally inferior to the Russian product.
Another grievance was that before firing an anti-air missile, Turkey was required to first apply to the US command center in Germany, which would then order the launch of a US missile from a base in Romania.
This process, said the Turks, does not meet the requirements of current war arenas in the Middle East.