It did not take long for Russian President Vladimir Putin to start putting to the test the provisional understandings on Syria that he reached secretly with US President elect Donald Trump in mid-November.
Those understandings, which came out of their first phone conversation on Nov, 14, were first disclosed by DEBKA Weekly 732 on Nov. 18, after incoming National Security Adviser Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and Russian Security Council head Nikolai Patrushev had thrashed out some of the details.
The framework was anchored in two points of assent: The Trump administration and Moscow would work together to defeat ISIS and other radical Islamist groups, including Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front – was one. The second was the Syrian army’s partial inclusion in this campaign, which was tantamount to accepting Bashar Assad’s survival in power.
The deal they reached was not completely sealed. Additional players in the Syrian arena needed to be taken into account. Therefore, requests went out to Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, asking them to adapt their policies and military operations to the new principles governing the Syrian stage.
To win their compliance, Iran was carefully excluded from the agreed framework.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources tracked this process as it unfolded:
All these elements were assembled into a cohesive framework designed to bring the Syrian conflict under some sort of rational control and prepare a combined force for a comprehensive assault on ISIS.
The scent of détente briefly permeated the air. But it quickly evaporated, when the Russians started playing fast and loose with the new understandings, taking steps back which the new American national security team and intelligence agencies interpreted as probes to test the new American president’s mettle and find out if he was as tough and decisive as he sounded.
DEBKA Weekly lists four of those steps:
Putin’s double-cross of the US president elect embarrassed him in the eyes of Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE as showing him to have subscribed to a leaky deal with Moscow. They are all now waiting to see how Trump handles this setback to his first venture into international relations.
One of the Islamic State’s most ambitious plots for a major terror offensive during the coming holidays in West and East Europe may have been foiled by the breakup of a brand-new network put in place in three Black Sea locations.
It was there that the jihadists were discovered revving up for an organized campaign of terror, over and above the lone-wolf attacks perpetrated by individual jihadis, like Abdul Razah Ali Artan, the 18-year old Somali student, who ran over and slashed 11 people at Ohio State University on Tuesday, Nov. 28. ISIS later acknowledged the Somali as one of its “soldiers.”
Another terror conspiracy was aborted when the French authorities rounded up seven suspects, who were plotting coordinated attacks during the Christmas holidays in Paris and Marseille under the direction of senior ISIS figures in Syria.
In separate statements, French and Belgian anti-terror officials announced they had identified an ISIS figure directing operations against both countries.
Then, in Germany, a domestic intelligence agency employee was identified this week as an Islamist and arrested for spreading radical propaganda on the Internet. He was also suspected of planning to explode a bomb at the agency’s central office in Cologne.
But the most elaborate of these terrorist projects for the coming holidays was uncovered earlier this month in the planning stage, according to DEBKA Weekly‘s exclusive intelligence and counterterrorism sources. The network had three branches in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, its Caucasian breakaway province of Abhazia and Istanbul, Turkey.
These launching pads around the Black Sea were the clandestine regional headquarters, the largest ever uncovered outside the Middle East, for orchestrating coordinated strikes on both sides of the European continent, including a mega-attack in Russia.
It was Iraqi intelligence which picked up the first lead. Baghdad had mounted an intense manhunt for high-profile jihadist wire-pullers, fearing terrorist disruption of the Iraqi military offensive to retake Mosul from the Islamic State. Earlier this month, Iraqi suspicions fell on a man who arrived in the Kurdish Republic’s capital of Irbil from Tbilisi via Turkey. He introduced himself as Hamid Nasser, a businessman. A round-the-clock surveillance team caught the “businessman” from Georgia making contact with ISIS intelligence agents.
At that point, the Iraqis brought US and other Western agencies into the case.
The suspect was kept under close surveillance for a few days. When he tried to leave Irbil, Iraqi and Kurdish officers pounced and arrested him. Under questioning, Hamad Nasser broke down and confessed he belonged to ISIS. He was then given the option of going home and working as a double agent, in return for clemency and political asylum in a Western country.
The subterfuge worked. The information he passed back to his handlers led to the exposure of the Islamic State’s entire Black Sea network. According to our sources, most of its members were rounded up, although some got away, including the leader, who goes under the name of “Karatilus.” His real identity is unknown.
In a closed, wide-ranging lecture to a select Israeli business and academic audience in Tel Aviv this week, IDF Military Intelligence Chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevy stepped out of the accepted purlieu of Israel generals to voice his views on the election of Donald Trump as US president.
“Trump was elected because he was against the system,” he sad. “The question is: how will he carry his ideology into the White House?”
Showing a slide depicting the Trump victory and the Brexit referendum in Britain, the military spy chief saw “more ultra-nationalists ascending in the West” and predicted, “The institutions of state will grow stronger and the walls between nations higher.”
Some eyebrows were raised among his Tel Aviv listeners. Armed forces officers are not generally authorized to voice their opinions on American or any other international political processes, unless they directly impinge on Israeli security. It is the job of the cabinet to outline policy. The last military officer to step across this line was Ariel Sharon, 50 years ago. A general at the time, who later became prime minister, he advanced the doctrine of the three strategic cycles for buttressing Israel’s security.
Gen. Halevy’s comments at this time reflected a certain sense of unease in the upper circles of Israel’s military, intelligence and government about some of the candidates in line for top jobs in the Trump cabinet.
Gen. James Mattis’s candidacy as defense secretary is not popular in those circles – and not just because of past remarks negating the settlements and other Israeli policies. He is seen as downgrading Israel’s status as a leading American strategic ally, and reducing the IDF to just another Middle East military force.
As one IDF officer put it to DEBKA Weekly, Mattis’ view may be understandable in American terms, but it clashes with the high qualitative appreciation Israeli generals have of the IDF - and especially its Air Force and elite Special Operations units.
As for Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the incoming US president’s National Security Adviser, Israeli leaders are not comfortable with the impression that he is putting too many eggs in the Russian basket, by counting Moscow in as America’s senior partner for eliminating ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups in the Middle East.
Although Binyamin Netanyahu has developed a seemingly warm working relationship with Vladimir Putin - in apparent harmony with the Trump approach - that relationship is handled on the quiet with kid gloves, because no one can be sure which way it will head tomorrow.
Israeli policymakers are not entirely happy with Flynn’s close ties with Turkey either. This distrust surfaced in the pessimistic note sounded by Gen. Halevy, when he said: “We [are witnessing] a process of religious radicalization in Turkey.” While Israel’s relations with the Turkish ruler, Recep.Tayyip Erdogan, were on the mend, he urged the government “to play hard to get and go forward with extreme caution.”
The argument between the US Central Command and Iraq’s senior staff and air force chiefs has not so far filtered down to the lower ranks, but it is already throwing the coalition offensive to retake Mosul from the Islamic State off track, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report.
American generals advance these complaints:
The US officers are so frustrated with their Iraqi comrades’ performance and handling of their duties that they have shut them out of the CENTCOM aviation control room, which manages the air campaign over Mosul.
The Iraqi generals have an even longer list of gripes against the Americans:
Given this state of relations between the American and Iraqi high air force commands, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources find it hard to see how the Mosul campaign can last much longer or get very far.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi marked the sixth week of the offensive to recover Mosul from the Islamic State with an astonishing comment on Monday, Nov. 27:
“We have seen the whole [ISIS] organization collapsing in terms of standing in the face of our own armed forces. The success of liberating a huge area indicates that ISIS does not have the guts now or the motivation to fight as they did before.”
While the Iraqi prime minister was talking out of his hat, ISIS released its first video since the US-led coalition launched the Mosul operation. The slickly-produced and edited tape depicted a highly competent defense infrastructure that was devised by the jihadist organization against attack. It consisted of commando forces, sniper positions, fleets of car bombs and well-fortified streets.
DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism sources find in this film a pointer to radically revised ISIS war tactics.
In the face of an imminent US-led offensive to throw them out of Mosul, their strategists charted an orderly retreat for most of the city’s defenders to eastern Syria or the Anbar province of western Iraq. However, when the Iraqi army kept on failing to break through into Mosul and push them out, Islamic State chiefs turned around and decided to stay put. They were now sure they could continue to rule Iraq’s second largest town.
In the light of this reassessment, many jihadist evacuees are on their way back to the city, including administration bureaucrats, who took off ahead of the coming offensive.
The Iraqi army, after gaining just one-tenth of the territory required for capturing Mosul, appears to have lost its first impetus and the will to fight on.
They are fighting without the Kurdish Peshmerga which, as we reported in previous issues, turned back from the advance on Mosul three weeks ago. The Kurds are now busy building a fortified line of defenses 60km north of their capital Irbil and 45km south of Mosul, to fend off what is turning out to be a permanent Islamic State presence and realistic threat to the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government.
The only proactive army still fighting in the vicinity of Mosul is the Iraqi Shiite Popular Mobilization Units PMU). After taking Tal Afar airfield, this militia did not dare invade the town itself, for fear of Turkish intervention and resistance from the Turkmen and Sunni inhabitants.
The PMU boasted that its operation had cut ISIS supplies between Iraq and Syria. But there is no sign of any slowdown in the flow of jihadist supplies and fighters between their two bastions.
Plans for an offensive to capture the Islamic State’s Syrian bastion at Raqqa have also petered out – this one, unlike Mosul, before it even began. Most of the Syrian rebel groups which had promised to take part have made themselves scarce. The Kurdish YPG, the supposed spearhead is, like the Iraqi Peshmerga, fully occupied with building defensive fortifications against another foe, the Turkish force which invaded northern Syria and continues to pose a menace.
Jihadist leaders, having survived all threats to forcibly displace them from their Iraqi and Syrian strongholds, feel safe enough to proceed with their next campaign of terror against Western and Russian targets, more about which in a separate article.
There was no apparent tactical reason for Russia to suddenly resume air strikes in southern Syria Sunday, Nov. 26 after a three month pause. Nothing amiss was happening on the ground. Still, the Russian jets targeted Syrian rebel concentrations outside Daraa and Jasim to the north, causing heavy casualties.
It was clear that President Vladimir Putin was moved by his own strategic calculations, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report. His purpose was to put the United States and Israel on notice that, after the substantial headway made by Russian-backed Syrian government forces against rebel-held parts of Aleppo this week, South Syria was due next for the same treatment. Moscow remained determined to restore the Assad regime’s authority to southern Syria as well as the north.
At the same time, it is worth noting that, while the Syrian army and its pro-Iranian Hizballah and other allies could, had they wished, have wiped out all the rebel positions in Aleppo, they held back from going all the way to victory by an order from the Russian military command in Syria. They were told instead to split the shrunken rebel-held areas into two enclaves and keep them under siege, to prevent the transfer of weapons, ammunition and fighters between them. The insurgents would remain extremely vulnerable to the coup de grace.
Moscow was acting in response to a request from US President elect Donald Trump’s transition team (that was first revealed by DEBKA Weekly 733) not to let the Syrian army and its allies win the day in Aleppo, but to keep situation a hairs’ breadth short of the final decisive blow.
But Assad’s generals are meanwhile querying this restraint and threatening to move forward
Another of Moscow’s rough messages was addressed to Ankara.
On Nov. 24, Turkish troops outside Al-Bab, an Islamic State-occupied town 55km north of Aleppo, were suddenly bombed from the air, sustaining several fatalities.
It is not clear which air force bombed them, the Russian or the Syrian.
But President Recep Tayyip Erdgoan understood he was being cautioned by Moscow against moving his army south towards Aleppo. To underscore the warning, Putin picked up the phone to the Turkish president and made himself clear.
Similarly, the heavy Russian air attack in the south looked like a signal to the incoming US president, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah II of Jordan, urging them to make haste and agree on an arrangement for he South, or else Moscow would step in to impose its will, like in Aleppo.
The Russian step is fraught with menace for Israel and Jordan. Lacking troops on the ground, Moscow is liable to open the southern floodgates for the Syria army to surge in, along with Hizballah and the other pro-Iranian Shiite militias imported by Tehran from Pakistan and Afghanistan. These Shiite groups are commanded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Israel would find a Hizballah terrorist presence reaching its border through the Syrian back door, with Russian connivance. A new Russian-trained and armed Druze militia is also being prepared for this front.
This hot brew is the last thing the US, Israel and Jordan need in southern Syria’s incendiary border complex.