If Russian President Vladimir Putin thought that air strikes in Syria would achieve his goals, he was mistaken. He admitted in an interview on Russia’s state run TV station on Oct. 11 that his goal was to “stabilize the government of President Bashar Assad.” But then, when he was asked about a Russian ground operation, he replied: “We’re not going to do it, and our Syrian friends know this.”
In this respect, Putin is no different from US President Barack Obama. Instead of Russian boots on the ground, he has rounded up surrogates by importing Cuban front line troops for the Syrian front - borrowing the Soviet tactic of the 1970s - and fielding Iranian Revolutionary Guards combatants.
(More details in a separate article in this issue.)
For his second goal of smashing the Islamic State and its infrastructure, the Russian president began courting partnerships with moderate Syrian rebel groups and their sponsors.
Putin faced the same setbacks in Syria as the US-led coalition
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that Moscow’s Syrian campaign started out last month on the initial premise that a new Russian military enclave in the coastal Latakia province would be the launching pad for its planes and helicopters to support the ground operations of the Syrian and Iranian armies, pro-Iranian militias and Hizballah forces.
The thinking was that, after driving back and cornering the al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra front and the Islamic State, Moscow and its associates would go forward and capture Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria. Putin would then show the world that the Russian army had achieved more in a month than the US-led 65-member coalition had in a year of air strikes.
But that plan did not work out. Putin ran into the same obstacles as the multinational anti-ISIS venture launched by Obama last year, when the Islamic State moved in on Iraq and Syria.
On Oct. 6, Moscow and its allies launched its an offensive to dislodge rebel positions from the Hama area and their threat to the strategic Highway 5 link between northern and central Syria to Damascus.
In the ensuing ten days, the Russian leader made the same discovery as US, Saudi, Israeli and Jordanian strategists: any military progress in the intractable Syrian conflict would be slow and never gain enough traction to bring his goals to fruition.
The first bricks for a political resolution that kept Assad in power
He therefore sat back and reassessed at his options.
Putin is no more inclined than Obama (see separate article on US Syrian policy) to deploy large numbers of his own troops on the Syrian battlefield. So he set about seeking partners and proxies, starting with the
Middle East sponsors of certain anti-Assad militias - Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Israel, and Kurdish leaders in and outside Syria – to try and pry them away from backing the rebel groups fighting Assad and ISIS. Instead, they were invited to cooperate with Russia.
By this approach, Moscow hoped to achieve two tactical objectives:
1. To relieve Syria, Iran and Hizballah of the burden of fighting rebels who were free of links to Al-Nusra Front or ISIS, leaving them able to devote all their resources to the recovery of lost territory and an offensive against ISIS headquarters in Raqqa.
2. To lay the first bricks for an agreed political resolution of the Syrian conflict that would keep President Assad in power.
Hard talk in Sochi with two Gulf players
Putin’s feelers netted their first catch last weekend. On Oct. 10, against the background of the Formula One Grand Prix race in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, Vladimir Putin sat down and talked to two racing enthusiasts: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, and the Saudi king’s son, Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman.
Both are highly influential in their capitals. The crown prince is the deputy commander of the UAE armed forces and in charge of Syrian affairs, while the Saudi prince is a senior player at the table in Riyadh which lays out the kingdom’s regional security policy, including Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow had sought to allay Riyadh's concerns, and that all the parties wanted to prevent a “terrorist caliphate" rising in Syria.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir remarked that his government, as a member of the US-led coalition, stood by its demand for Assad's removal, but hoped that talks with Moscow continue.
According to our sources, the two comments were sugarcoating for the hard substance of the Sochi discussions.
Moscow seeks help in splitting the Islamist rebel camp
Putin demanded a halt to the Gulf kingdoms’ military and economic assistance for Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), a coalition of Syrian Islamist rebel factions active mainly in the northern province of Idlib adjacent to the Turkish border, but also in such places as Hama and Latakia, which adjoins Russia’s military enclave.
The largest segment of the Jaish al-Fatah coalition is Ahrar ash-Sham; its other members are the Al-Nusra Front and the Sham Legion, an affiliate of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
This Islamist alliance also works with rival moderate factions of the Free Syrian Army, such as the Knights of Justice Brigade.
Putin proposed a tripartite alliance of Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whose first task would be to split the Jaish al Fatah’s moderate factions away from the radical Al-Nusra Front.
Once that was done, Moscow would stop its aerial bombardment of the moderate rebels in Hama and Idlib. Moscow would also hold back Syria, Iranian and Hizballah forces from attacking them.
In the third stage, commanders of the rebel forces would negotiate with representatives of Assad’s regime under the Russian aegis.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources disclose that both Gulf rulers refrained from any commitment to the Russian plan, but agreed to continue talking about it.
Israel asked to pull its support from S. Syrian rebels
Those sources also revealed that Putin’s plan for dividing Syrian rebel ranks also came up in the talks Russia’s deputy chief of staff, Gen. Nikolay Bogdanovsky held with his Israeli counterpart, Gen. Yair Golan, in Tel Aviv on October 7-8.
While Israeli and Western media reported that the two generals confined their talks to steps for averting collisions between the Israeli and Russian air forces in the fog of war over Syrian airspace, the main topic, according to our sources, was Israel’s backing for rebel groups in southern Syria, including some militias which are members of the Jaish al-Fatah coalition.
In broad outline, those talks advanced on similar lines to those the Russian president held in Sochi with the two Arab rulers. Israel was asked to persuade the rebel militias in southern Syria to desist from attacking the Syrian army and Hizballah; if they refused, Moscow asked Israel to terminate its supply of financial assistance, weapons, and logistical infrastructure for their operations.
The quid pro quo offered by Moscow was an assurance that Moscow would ascertain that Iran and Hizballah refrain from launching attacks on Israeli military and civilian targets – on the Golan too - from areas they control in Syria, especially Quneitra and the Syrian Golan.
A Russian-guaranteed Iranian-Hizballah-Syrian ceasefire with Israel
If Moscow keeps its side of the bargain, Israel will have gained a Russian-guaranteed ceasefire with the Assad regime, Iran and Hizballah.
Thursday, Oct. 15, Russia's defense ministry confirmed the establishment of a "hotline" for averting clashes in the sky with Israeli planes. The spokesman said mutual information sharing would take place through a hotlilne between the Russian aviation command center at the Hmeimim air base near Latakia and a command post of the Israeli air force.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources add that if Putin’s military strategy succeeds in northern and southern Syria, it would allow the Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah forces to turn their attention to ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front.
However, to achieve this goal, he needs the support of another key player in Syria – the Kurds. That facet of Putin’s strategy will be covered in a separate article. Meanwhile he is preparing his next offensive to take the Ghab Plain – the key to pulling the Hama operation out of the sand.
The Syrian civil war is entering a new and pivotal stage as Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah armies gear up for their first battle under Russian command to capture the Ghab Plain in northwestern Syria. It was revealed in Washington Wednesday, Oct. 14, that the Russians had secretly airlifted 2,000 Cuban troops to Syria to join those armies.
(Cuban troops were last deployed in the Middle East in the seventies by the USSR to act as proxies on the Syrian front against Israel and fight under Russian officers from the Golan and Mount Hermon.)
The importance of this fertile plain lies in its location in the Al-Suqaylabiya District, 25 km northwest of Hama (see attached map), between the coastal Zawiyah mountains to the west and a heartland plateau to the east.
These mountains provide a buffer for government-held coastal cities, including Latakia, and for the new Russian military enclave in that district.
The capture of the 63-km-long and 12-km-wide Ghab valley would give Russia and its allies a major advantage for driving back rebel forces in other areas, as well as helping to secure the western territories of President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect.
The Ghab battle is seen by Moscow as the most important Syrian battle in store this year and a potential groundbreaker for three reasons:
First ground op for Russian commanders and Iran Rev Guards
1. It will be the first battle to be fought by Russia - not just by air but also on the ground - with small units of Russian marines specializing in operations behind enemy lines.
2. It will also be a first for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) troops, 3,000 of whom were carried into Syria in the last few days by a special Iranian airlift. These forces specialize in armored vehicle and assault operations, reconnaissance and ground warfare. They include field intelligence teams for keeping the units updated on enemy movements and relaying data gathered by Russian aerial reconnaissance.
Russian officers will directly command Iranian forces for the first time since the war began.
3. It will also be the first time Russian officers have commanded Hizballah units in battle, their men actually fighting shoulder to shoulder.
On October 10, the commander of the IRGC’s Qods Brigades, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, arrived in Syria to inspect the preparations for battle. He then traveled to Russian command HQ at the Hmeimim airbase near Latakia to discuss coordination with Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, the Russian Airborne Forces chief who will command the Russian troops in the upcoming battle.
The Ghab battle for rolling the enemy back from northern Syria
This confrontation aims to pull the Syrian government-Hizballah military out of the sand in which it is stuck. This combined force has until now focused on southern rural Idlib, Jisr Al-Shughour, Hama and Highway No. 5, but failed to unlock the grip on northern Syria of rebel forces, including the Army of Conquest and the Al-Nusra Front, or dislodge the Islamic State presence.
Russian tacticians reckon that the conquest of the Ghab Plain will restore Syrian government control to rural Hama, parts of Idlib province, northeastern Latakia and northern Homs, rolling back a large area of the north up to the Turkish border. It might even be possible to reach terms with the anti-Assad Kurdish YPG militia which rules the border regions.
President Vladimir Putin and his military advisers have tagged a deal with the Kurdish YPG high on their scale of priorities. Prevailing on the Kurds to change sides, would gain the Russian-led alliance 30,000 battle-hardened troops and the only military force to have repulsed and vanquished Islamic State forces. It would also be a large saving for Moscow in troops and treasure.
(Rival pursuit of the Kurds by Moscow and Washington in a separate article.)
Although the Kurdish YPG (the Democratic Forces of Syria) is a professional fighting force and the only one in Syria to have recovered ground from and vanquished the Islamic State, both the US and Russia are hesitating before seeking to use its military capabilities. The Kurdish leaders’ price for their cooperation is stiff enough to give them pause.
Salih Muslim, Co-Chair of the Democratic Union Party (the PYD), and lham Ehmed, a senior member of the PYD and its messenger to Washington are driving a hard bargain with both powers for the services of the movement’s military arm, the YPG.
Still, both are seriously vying for the services of the 30,000-strong Kurdish militia, realizing that it would be their trump card for defeating ISIS, a goal which they hold - albeit separately - in common.
The PYD is an offshoot of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish Worker’s Party, also known as the PKK, and shares its separatist aspirations. Any power which fostered those aspirations would find an enemy in Ankara.
Syrian Kurds want autonomy as their price for smashing ISIS
On a number of occasions, DEBKA Weekly’s sources have underscored the linkage between the autonomous Kurdish Republic of Iraq, the Kurdish-populated regions of northern Syria, and the Turkish PKK. Strengthening that linkage would lead the three separatist movements to establish an independent Kurdish state stretching contiguously from northern Iraq to the Mediterranean coast with a population of 10 to 12 million inhabitants.
The roughly 3 million Syrian Kurds control three northern pockets: Qamishli-Hasakeh near the Iraqi frontier; Kobane on the Turkish border; and Afrin, their regional capital, in the northwest. (See attached map.)
Their militia may well be the game changer for determining whether the US or Russia finally beats ISIS in Syria.
There is no question that the YPG is the only force able to undertake an offensive against Raqqa, the Islamic State’s center of rule in Syria, and hope to break through its defensive lines. This ability was demonstrated in the ferocious battle for Kobane that raged from September 2014 to January 2015. The city was almost completely destroyed and most of the population fled across the border to Turkey but, in the end, ISIS was driven out of the city and its outlying areas by the Kurdish militia, with the help of US air strikes and Turkish tank fire.
Short of arms, the Kurdish militia relies heavily on three clandestine units
Just as significant is the Kurdish militia’s success in keeping ISIS at bay from the town of Hasakeh in the past three months. Not only are their defensive lines intact, but every few days the Kurds improve their positions and gain fresh territory, a feat achieved with nothing but light weapons and grenades.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources estimate that with sophisticated heavy weapons, these Kurdish fighters would finally be able to launch the first major counterattack against ISIS forces and open the road to Raqqa, 230 kilometers to the south of their domains.
At present they are fighting with little but a few hundred PK DShK and ZU-23 machine guns, rocket propelled grenades, Kalashnikovs and some 62mm, 82mm and 120mm mortars. The few heavier items they have were captured from ISIS. Their six T-55 tanks break down frequently and a handful of Humvee light trucks are reserved for evacuating the wounded.
The YPG produces its own missiles and when it needs fresh supplies, turns to the Iraqi black market.
This arsenal is obviously no match for the Islamic State’s advanced American tanks, missiles and heavy MRLs and certainly not up to the job of an all-out showdown for finally vanquishing the jihadists. Their tactics against ISIS therefore rely heavily on three small undercover units - a military intelligence branch, “special forces” for operating behind enemy lines and a counter-terror unit.
Separate Kurdish conditions for Washington and Moscow
Kurdish leaders are prepared to place their combat resources for a quick victory against ISIS at the disposal of either the US or Russia - depending on which of the two powers meets their conditions.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that the Kurds have drawn up two separate lists of demands for each of the two powers:
For integration in the US-led coalition, the Kurds are demanding:
The Kurdish conditions for an alliance with Russia are:
DEBKA Weekly’s Kurdish sources report that this week, when Russia and the Kurds seemed to be getting close to an understanding, Washington moved in. To persuade the Kurds to hold back from a commitment to Moscow, US forces on Oct. 10, conducted an air drop to YPG forces in northern Syria of small arms ammunition. A US official said this was part of the newly-crafted Washington strategy for helping the Kurdish militia fight ISIS.
Kurdish leaders were meant to understand from this gesture that, before coming to terms with Moscow, it was worth their while to carry on talking to Washington.
Iran’s parliament, the Majlis this week went through the motions of ratifying the nuclear agreement with the world powers. But the truth is that the document ratified was not the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in Vienna in July. It was a doctored version which may be loosely defined as a license for Tehran to have its cake and eat it.
Even so, the session was raucous and the lawmakers were divided, voting 161 in favor, 59 against and 13 abstaining.
The version approved leaves Iran the option of disavowing the nuclear deal at any moment and fully reverting to its nuclear program. As the six world powers and Iran set about implementing the JCPOA, significant differences of interpretation crop up at every stage.
Tehran will continue to interpret the clauses in a way that preserves its interests while keeping its options open, convinced that intransigence works with the Obama administration, forcing it to capitulate and yield more concessions.
This is why the Iranian parliament did not actually ratify the internationally negotiated nuclear deal, but endorsed a list of conditions for its implementation.
As DEBKA Weekly has reported before, the Iranians never referred to the deal as an agreement, an accord, a treaty or even a commitment. No signing ceremony took place.
Iranian implementation on a purely “voluntary” basis
The first clause tagged on to the paper endorsed by the Majlis says that implementation of the nuclear deal will be accompanied by parallel Iranian action in all the relevant international institutions to strip Israel of any nuclear option.
In the third clause, Iran vows to renounce all its commitments and fully resume its nuclear programs in the face of any steps for restoring sanctions.
This is Iran’s rejoinder to the JCPOA clause, which provides for sanctions against Iran to be “suspended” but re-imposed if Iran is caught out in violation of its obligations.
The Majlis version underscores Iran’s refusal to sign any commitments or formal acceptance of the Additional Protocol of the Nonproliferation Treaty, which permits snap international inspections of nuclear sites, and Iran’s execution of “understandings” under the JCPOA will be entirely “voluntary.”
If Tehran judges that its partners to the nuclear deal are in breach of its terms, it will consider itself free to resume its nuclear program and has already set a new goal: the manufacture 190,000 SWU of enriched uranium per year. This fast production tempo would call for the activation of 60,000 centrifuges of the 8-IR type and enable the manufacture of several nuclear bombs in a short period of time.
Arak is unlikely to be converted from plutonium production
Under clause 5 of the Majlis version, the conversion of the heavy-water reactor in Arak to a light-water facility is contingent on the signing of international accords granting Iran certain benefits. Iran’s hardliners are counting on the JCPOA failing to survive the process of implementation so that the Arak plant will never be converted and continue is use for producing plutonium.
The sixth clause states that all inspections, not just of military sites, are subject to permission which must be requested in advance from Iran’s Supreme Council for National Security.
This provision reduces to nil the International Atomic Energy Agency’s usefulness for monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities, because the members of council are all appointees of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The seventh clause obliges Iran to substantially build up its offensive and defensive capabilities on land, sea and air, to confront threats and generate deterrence.
Along with the deal’s “ratification” by the Majlis, Revolutionary Guards chiefs and generals stressed that Iran totally rejects any limitations on its development of missiles and other weapons.
Chinese technology for Iranian missiles
Last week, Iran tested the new “Imad” ballistic missile, for which Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan and Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jaafari claimed high precision by virtue of its cruising and navigation systems.
DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources report that “Imad” is in fact based on Chinese technology which Tehran purchased last year for a cool $1 billion. The amount was taken out of Iranian oil revenues of about $30 billion deposited in China to escape international sanctions.
The close ties between the two countries were accentuated this week by the visit to Tehran of a high-ranking Chinese military delegation led by Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army.
Diary of Terror
Curfews and Internet restrictions can’t be avoided for reining in Palestinian street terror
After nearly a month of rampant Palestinian violence and murder, Israel’s leaders and its forces of law and order were Saturday, Oct. 10, fast approaching an unavoidable decision to impose a curfew on the Old City of Jerusalem - both to bring the stabbing attacks at every corner under control, and to isolate this source of contagion from the disorders spreading to the West Bank and Israeli Arab locations. To disrupt their orchestration, it is necessary to block Palestinian cell phone networks and inciters’ Internet IPs.
Palestinian knives out in Jerusalem ahead of Israeli Arab general strike
The Palestinian knifing spree in Jerusalem Monday, Oct. 12, the day after an Israeli Arab from Umm al-Fham mowed down, then stabbed, four Israelis in central Israel, put the Palestinians on the same bloody course as Israeli Arabs. For Wednesday, Israeli Arab MKs scheduled a grandstand performance at Al Aqsa Mosque, which has served the Palestinians as their most evocative and unifying emblem for most of the past century.
Other News of the Week
October 9, 2015 Briefs
Israel is braced for Russian aerial intrusions over its Golan border
Uncertainty hangs over Moscow’s intentions regarding its air force flights near the Israel’s Golan border – even after two days of discussions ended in Tel Aviv Thursday, Oct. 8 between the Russian Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Nikolay Bogdanovsky and his Israeli counterpart Maj. Gen. Yair Golan. A coordination mechanism between the two air forces was left as unfinished business for further discussion, debkafile reports. So it is still not clear to Israel what happens if Russian warplanes, while covering a Syrian-Hizballah operation in Quneitra, slip over into Israeli air space.
October 10, 2015 Briefs
October 11, 2015 Briefs
October 12, 2015 Briefs
October 13, 2015 Briefs
October 14, 2015 Briefs
October 15, 2015 Briefs
Israeli perturbed by the arrival of 3,000 Iranian troops in Syria with 2,000 Cubans
Israel was uncharacteristically forthcoming by revealing Thursday, Oct. 15, that 3,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards troops had secretly landed in Syria - the largest Iranian ground force ever to set foot there. This disclosure attests to Israel’s grave concern that Iran may take advantage of the IDF’s transfer of forces from its northern borders to the domestic fronts for quelling the current outbreak of Palestinian terrorist violence, to go for territorial gains on the Golan and the Israel-Lebanon border.