US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump dropped another controversial bomb – this one nuclear - when he told a campaign rally in Wisconsin on April 2 that South Korea and Japan should have their own nuclear weapons for their protection.
(Three days later, Trump himself was bombed in the Wisconsin primary).
America cannot police the world’s conflicts, he argued. “I would rather have them not armed, but I’m not going to continue to lose this tremendous amount of money.”
He was also talking about the cost of maintaining 28,500 US troops in South Korea and 54,000 in Japan.
President Barack Obama issued a stinging rebuttal. Winding up a two-day nuclear security summit in Washington with over 50 world leaders, he said, without mentioning Trump by name: “The person who made the statements doesn’t know much about foreign policy, nuclear policy or the Korean Peninsula, or the world generally.
The US president preferred to ignore a couple of disquieting facts.
As the experts know full well, Japan already has a “bomb in the basement” – namely the means and materials for assembling an atomic bomb within months. South Korea too is heading fast towards a nuclear capability.
In other words, a nuclear arms race is already underway in the nether regions of the Asian continent, with the existing nuclear powers, North Korea, India and Pakistan, deep in intense efforts to top up their programs.
The Republican contender went on to argue that if Tokyo and Seoul nonetheless want to keep their nuclear capabilities under wraps out of domestic considerations - fine, but they should pay for US military protection.
Trump spoke from the perspective of a businessman, who has a hard time understanding why the US should have to bear the cost and responsibility for the permanent presence of 82,500 troops in Asia, when Japan and South Korea are able to produce nuclear weapons for their own defense at short notice.
At last week’s nuclear summit in Washington, President Obama addressed the topic of nuclear policy for the Korean Peninsula only in general terms. He preferred to avoid baring the real state of the nuclear race in full spate in Asia.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources touch the high points:
1. Japan has managed to convince North Korea and China that it has a nuclear bomb. Beijing swallowed this line and publicly called on Tokyo to abandon plans to build a breeder reactor and to dispose of its huge stockpile of plutonium.
Japan has indeed stockpiled 46 tons of the radioactive material, including 35 tons stored in the UK and France, as well as 1.5 tons of enriched uranium.
The experts say Japan has enough raw plutonium to build a bomb at just four-to-six months notice from the moment of a decision. A senior US official recently confirmed that a six-month production timeline made sense given Japan’s high-quality nuclear engineering infrastructure.
2. Japan is currently reprocessing plutonium from spent nuclear reactor fuel by means of its fast-breeder plutonium reactors.
Assistant US Secretary of State Thomas Countryman asserted on March 31 that such activity had little economic justification and was raising security concerns in Asia. “I would be happy to see all countries get out of the plutonium reprocessing business,” he said at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
That wish is unrealistic, our sources say, when India, Pakistan and both Koreas are working to upgrade their nuclear capabilities.
3. The consensus taking shape in both Tokyo and Seoul is that the policy of relying on the US nuclear umbrella is antiquated and no longer meets the exigencies of the nuclear arms race overtaking the region. The time has come, therefore, to turn to independent nuclear deterrents.
This sentiment was voiced last week by Won Yoo-cheol, floor leader of the ruling Saenuri party in South Korea’s National Assembly: “We cannot borrow an umbrella from a neighbor every time it rains. We need to have a raincoat and wear it ourselves,” he said in a speech.
4. The Obama administration tried and failed to convince India to halt its construction of a top-secret complex for producing thermonuclear weapons. The Americans were also unsuccessful in persuading Pakistan to halt or scale down its development of nuclear weapon delivery systems, such as cruise missiles and close-range missiles, to supplement its ballistic missile arsenal.
Russia and Turkey pulled the strings behind the clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan on April 2 over the long-disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabach. What really happened was that Russian President Vladimir Putin opened a second front against Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
He is still settling accounts for the downing of the Russian Su-24 by a Turkish warplane last November over the Syrian-Turkish border.
Nagorno-Karabach (see map) is awkwardly wedged inside Azerbaijan, but the Armenian majority runs its own affairs with military and financial backing from the Moscow-backed Armenian republic. Baku and Yerevan have squabbled over control of this enclave for 22 years with periodic outbursts of fighting.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources point to the many similarities between the military deployments Moscow has since November built up in Armenia, on Turkey’s eastern border, and since October in Syria, on its southern border.
The following Russian forces are now massed at the 102nd military base Moscow maintains at Gyumri in the republic of Armenia, opposite the Turkish border and across from Nagorno-Karabach.
Bolstered now with advanced T-90 tanks, they have been augmented by the following units:
1. Elite VDV airborne troops: the best-trained and most combat-ready contingent of the Russian military also serves the Russian Supreme Commander as his mobile reserve corps.
2. A squadron of MiG-29 fighters
3. SA-6 medium-range air defense systems and S-300V long-range missile and air defense systems
4. S-300V long-range air and missile defense systems combined with SA-6 medium-level air defenses.
5. Airlifted into Gyumri: Tornado-G multiple rocket launchers and SS-26 Iskander-M short-range tactical missiles, which can reach nearly all Turkish military formations in eastern Anatolia.
The setup at the Armenian Gyumri base strongly mirrors the weapons complex the Russians have put in place at Syria’s Hmeymim airbase near Latakia.
Missing only are S-400 antiaircraft missiles, but Western intelligence sources attest to preparations underway to send them over at Russia’s Caucasian bases.
The S-300 missiles at Gyumri base operate under joint Russian- Armenian command, according to a defense pact the two nations signed last December.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources note that the Russian military concentration of sophisticated weaponry in Syria has effectively created a no-fly zone (anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) bubble) over northern Syria and southern Turkey, keeping Turkish warplanes at bay and tightening the Russian military encirclement of Turkey.
Ankara, however, is not without resources for countering Moscow’s tactics.
Despite its heavy troop commitments along the Syrian border, Turkey’s Third Army, a large and formidable fighting force, guards its eastern borders with Georgia and Armenia from positions at Argadan, Kagysman and Erzurum. It is made up of the 48th Separate Infantry Brigade, the 4th Separate Army Brigade, and the 8th and 9th Army Corps.
Ankara’s military assistance to Azeri contingents in the enclave of Nakhichevan (see map), which borders on Armenia, Turkey and Iran, has made those units the most combat-ready of Azerbaijan’s armed forces.
However, Russia’s Gyumri buildup allows Putin to juggle two fronts against Turkey – in Syria and Armenia. DEBKA Weekly’s military sources say he has the options of activating both, or just one, the while holding the second dangling ominously over Erdogan’s head.
Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin are rumored by intelligence circles in Washington and Moscow to be secretly conferring on ways to bring about Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s ouster. He is viewed as having driven himself into a corner as a major nuisance for their forthcoming drive for the Islamic State’s extinction in Syria and Iraq,
It is the ultimate irony that the US and Russia have tentatively agreed to leave the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in place for an undefined transitional period, while they are bent on dislodging the one Muslim leader who, along with Obama, vowed to remove him.
Last year, the US and Russian presidents got together under the radar for a political resolution of Iran’s nuclear threat through a landmark deal with six world powers. They then quietly continued their diplomatic and military partnership for moves to end the five-year Syrian war. Now, they are quietly discussing ways and means of vanquishing the Islamic State once and for all in Syria and Iraq, whether jointly or in separate operations.
(See the separate item in this issue on the state of that campaign).
Those same intelligence circles conclude that the success of the anti-ISIS campaign hangs heavily on Erdogan’s removal from the scene, for the following reasons:
1. The Turkish leader refuses to give an inch in his war on the Kurds.
2. Obama and Putin have agreed to assign the Syrian Kurds a key role in their campaign to eradicate ISIS, for which they have promised this minority a self-ruling territory in northern Syria up to the Turkish frontier. Attached to this promise is a tacit pledge of US and Russian military protection against a Turkish attack.
3. On April 5, Erdogan sent his prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, to state in comments addressed to Washington and Moscow that Ankara’s policy regarding the Kurdish people is uncompromising.
Davutoglu said “Nobody should expect from us to address the terror organizations which have arms and blood on their hands as an interlocutor. From now on, we have a single interlocutor; that is our nation and each individual of our nation.”
“Terror organization” was a direct reference to the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party). But Turkey has also declared Kurdish separatists in Syria enemies. Erdogan is willing to go to war on this issue, even if this brings Turkey into confrontation with the American and Russian forces running the Syrian Kurdish militias against ISIS.
The Turkish president said himself the day before: “Those who are currently meeting with the terrorist organization (namely, the US and Russia) speak of ‘negotiation’. But there are no issues to be negotiated.”
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that, straight after returning home from the Washington Nuclear Conference last week, Erdogan called a meeting of Turkish military and intelligence chiefs. He informed them that Turkey was on the threshold of the harshest period in his 13 years in power and that they should prepare for the worst. The Turkish president is obviously in no mood for compromise on his single-minded focus on the Kurdish foe.
Just over a year after ascending the throne, Saudi King Salman Bin Abdelaziz, paid his first visit to Cairo on Thursday, April 7, thereby affirming that the richest Arab nation and the most populous one (90 million) were still brothers, although not always on the same page.
As the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi put it: “It is like a married couple who argue but decide to stay together for the sake of the children.”
Abdullah, Salman’s predecessor as king of Saudi Arabia, held Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi in high esteem as an Arab national hero. The current regime in Riyadh is less admiring, eyeing him warily as an unpredictable factor.
Specifically, the Egyptian president and Saudi rulers are seriously at odds on four pivotal issues:
1. First and foremost, Syrian President Bashar Assad. President El-Sisi persists in staying in secret touch with Assad and opposes his ouster, while the Saudi throne wants him to sever those ties and line up behind Riyadh’s demand for his removal.
2. Riyadh disapproves of the close ties the Egyptian president has formed with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, although the Saudis were responsible for forging those ties in the first place: In the summer of 2013, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, then head of Saudi intelligence, spearheaded King Abdullah’s ambition to distance Riyadh from the Obama administration and engage Moscow instead.
The bride money Riyadh offered Moscow for the match was a huge arms deal.
The Saudi royals leaned hard on the Egyptian army chief, who was then Gen. El-Sisi, to overhaul the armed forces and switch from US arms to Russian weaponry. Riyadh offered $1.4 billion to cover the purchase.
The arms deal fell through because Cairo wanted to buy weapons systems that Moscow was not prepared to sell.
But the episode led to El-Sisi and Putin forming close ties of friendship, which have grown stronger over time and mainly account for the Egyptian president’s support of Assad.
3. Riyadh resented Cairo’s refusal to contribute large-scale Egyptian forces to the Saudi-led war on Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. El-Sisi agreed to back the Saudi campaign so long as no Egyptian soldier set foot on Yemeni soil.
The Egyptian air force and navy took part in Saudi operations in the Yemen theater and then went straight back to home base. Egyptian commandos also took part in combat – but only in battles on Yemen’s offshore islands, such as an operation in the last week of March 2015, which ended in the Egyptian navy’s capture of the strategic Bab Al-Mandeb Straits.
Denied Egyptian troops, Riyadh hired Colombian and Sudanese mercenaries for ground operations against the Yemen rebels.
King Salman got his own back in early 2016: When El-Sisi asked for Saudi troops for an Egyptian-led invasion of eastern Libya to destroy ISIS and Al Qaeda forces, Salman not only withheld troops but also funding
4. Another big bone of contention between the king and the president is Salman’s policy of engagement with El-Sisi’s greatest enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, whom Cairo has banned as a terrorist organization and whose leaders were put on trial.
The king has tried hard to change the Egyptian president’s mind on this – in vain.
Notwithstanding these deep-rooted differences, Salman’s powerful son, Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad, was able to persuade his father to make the gesture of a visit to Cairo in an effort to bury the hatchet and open a new chapter in their bilateral relations. A realistic politician, Muhammed explained that if Saudi Arabia aspires to head a Sunni bloc against Iran-led Shiites, it can’t manage without Egypt and its large army.
Salman arrived in Cairo armed not only with good intentions but a check book, namely a pledge of $21.5 million for the needy Egyptian exchequer - $20 billion worth of Saudi oil to cover five years’ consumption and $1.5 billion under the euphemistic heading of “Sinai Peninsula development.”
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources disclose that the latter sum was allocated entirely for beefing up the Egyptian army’s campaign against the scourge of ISIS terrorism besetting Sinai and paralyzing its tourist industry.
The day before the Saudi king landed in Cairo, it was leaked in Washington that the Obama administration is pondering ending or reducing the US-led Multinational Force and Observers operation in Sinai. The peacekeepers have become sitting ducks for Islamist terrorists, it was said.
The White House has still not answered El-Sisi’s urgent plea for US military back-up to support Egypt’s foundering effort to curb ISIS in the peninsula.
But Saudi Arabia now appears willing to step into the breach left by the indifference Washington evinces to the rampant ISIS threat to Egypt, despite President Obama’s repeated declaration of war on terror.
It is no longer doubted that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is falling back in Iraq and Syria.
In his testimony to Congress this week, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter sounded optimistic: “The momentum of the campaign against ISIS is clearly on our side,” he said. Allied forces are “systemically eliminating” the ISIS cabinet.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified, “This is a long fight and I’m confident in telling you we have the momentum.” Six months ago, that momentum belonged to ISIS. Since then, “they not only have less territory, they have less resources; they have less freedom of movement.”
At the same time, Washington is only very slowly beginning to build on these advantages because it is held back by political and military complications in both Iraq and Syria.
Elite Iraqi forces trained by the US have started an operation to force ISIS out of a number of cities in central and western Iraq, especially Hit and Fallujah. Those cities are not about to fall yet; the attackers are moving into their outskirts and taking up positions for an all-out attack at some future date.
Last month, a key US forward base was set up at Makhmour. This was a big step on the way to a major offensive for the recovery of Mosul, 66 kilometers to the southeast, which the Islamic State has made its capital in Iraq.
This week, in the early morning hours of April 5, an Iraqi force made up of the infantry Brigade 91 and other troops deployed outside al-Nasr, an ISIS-held strategic village north of Makhmour, where fighting had been raging for almost a week. Here too, they stood poised for the big offensive.
The Pentagon and US generals in Iraq (there are at least 12) are sticking to a cautious strategy of advancing on Mosul and other ISIS strongholds in small steps, lest they be caught out by sudden setbacks.
At least two are all too predictable:
1. Iraqi forces may cave in and flee in the face of an ISIS counterattack. In the summer of 2014, under the initial Islamic State’s assault, seven Iraqi army divisions scattered and fled, dumping their shiny new American equipment and arms for the jihadists to collect.
2. Neither can any US field commander rule out a possible political crisis in Baghdad causing the Iraqi assault force to turn tail on the way to Mosul and head back to Baghdad. The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, already in shaky position, could summon the troops to the capital to save his regime. That contingency would blow the entire Mosul offensive off-course. So too could a power struggle among Iraqi generals, if it caused their followers to desert the battlefield.
In Syria, the war on ISIS is by and large going well, but DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report growing unease over the Palmyra operation.
The Russians and the Syrian army captured that historic city in a blaze of victory. But intelligence experts who took a second look at the operation discovered two disturbing facts:
a) Visitors after its capture found plenty of damage to relics caused by ISIS in nearly a year of occupation, but were struck by finding no sign that a battle had been fought in the town or its environs - aside from the craters left by Russian bombers. No dead or wounded ISIS fighters were to be found.
b) ISIS forces retreated from Palmyra in two orderly columns, one heading northwest toward Raqqa headquarters and one south (as we reported in the last issue of DEBKA Weekly).
But strangely enough, they did not cover their exit with defensive measures; neither were they subjected to Russian or Syrian air strikes on the roads out of the city.
Those discoveries have sparked speculation among rebel officers that the Russian and Syrian commanders conspired with ISIS for a truce which allowed its fighters to leave the city without a battle and unscathed.
If proven, this conspiracy would mean that, instead of going all out to vanquish ISIS forces in Syria, the Russians and/or the Syrian army let the jihadists off the hook to carry on fighting.
A week after the Palmyra victory on March 27, Islamic State forces relinquished their grip on the Christian town of Qaryatain,100km to the west. It is suggested that this small town was part and parcel of the suspected Palmyra deal with ISIS.
Otherwise, it is also worth noting that the Syrian army, fighting with Hizballah and foreign pro-Iranian Shiite militias, has made no real advances on the battlefield since Palmyra and fighting without Russian air support. Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to trying to teach Syrian President Bashar Assad that, without Russian help, he faces certain defeat.
Hamas Political Bureau Chairman Musa Abu Marzuk led a delegation to Tehran last month in a desperate effort to persuade Iran to end its boycott and renew the flow of funds and weapons to the Gaza Strip. But on April 4, the delegation returned home empty-handed.
This was a last-ditch effort since the Palestinian fundamentalist Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip is flat broke.
Since March 1, it has been forced to slash by two-thirds the wages paid to members of its military wing, the Ezz-a-din Qassem Brigades: each fighter now takes home $200 instead of $600 per month, and officers used to earning $1,000 must be satisfied with $350.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources add: The terrorist group has moreover halted recruitment for lack of funds to pay, accommodate or train new fighters.
The cash crunch has also hit the Hamas government. Most of Gaza’s municipal services are suspended because city officials have not been paid.
Iran’s boycott on military and financial assistance to the Gaza Strip was clamped down in mid-2015 over Hamas’ refusal to line up behind Iran’s unqualified endorsement of its allies, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
Since then, Hamas has spared no effort to end the shutdown. Its leaders even tried asking their friend and ally, Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah, to intercede on their behalf with his masters in Tehran. Nasrallah pulled some strings, suggesting that his group would be allowed to renew military and intelligence operations in Gaza to make it worthwhile for Iran to restore its support.
But that proposition like all previous applications was thrown out.
This time, the Hamas visitors were initially received by high Iranian officials, including Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, and Ali Larijiani, chairman of the Shura Council. Abu Marzuk asked them to put the case for ending the boycott before Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
After the Palestinian officials cooled their heels for two weeks, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Al Qods Brigades, finally gave them a hearing.
But, according to DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources, he told them bluntly that no more largesse would be forthcoming from the Islamic Republic until Hamas publicly declared its support for Syrian President Assad and ordered its fighting assets in Lebanon to join Hizballah’s military campaign in support of the Syrian ruler.
This confrontation has broad ramifications over and above Iran’s relations with the Palestinian terrorists.
1. Tehran demonstrated that its support for Assad is absolute and brooks no opposition. This should dash any hopes underlying the US-Russian understanding for a political resolution of the Syrian conflict that Assad would at some point agree to hand over power to a broad coalition.
Iran is ruthless in bending all its allies and dependents into toeing its line in defense of the Syrian ruler
2. Gen. Soleimani has resurfaced after a five-month disappearance from public view. Rumors abounded that he had been seriously wounded in a Syrian battle, or else fallen into disfavor with Khamenei and cast aside. His reappearance in Tehran with the Hamas delegation means he has been reinstated to the command of Iran’s forces in Syria and the role of operations coordinator with the Russian military.
3. After Iran’s door was slammed in their faces, Hamas leaders reluctantly tried patching up their tattered ties with Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi.
But a delegation to Cairo found Egyptian military and intelligence officials as tough-minded as the Iranians. Hamas terrorists were put on notice that, to mend relations, they would have to prove their good faith by cooperating with Cairo in the war against the Islamic State in Sinai. Specifically, the Palestinian terrorists must hand over to the Egyptian army all the intelligence data they had accumulated on the ISIS networks in Sinai with whom they were playing ball.
Though insolvent, Hamas decided it could not afford to comply with Egypt’s terms for assistance. As DEBKA Weekly’s sources explain, breaking up with the Islamic State affiliates in Sinai, would also snap Hamas’ last remaining conduit for the receipt of smuggled funds and weapons from Islamist sources in Libya.
Having burned their boats to Tehran and Cairo, the Palestinian terrorists have run themselves into a dead end.