Many American experts and fans of the President Donald Trump had counted on his administration following through on his campaign pledges by curtailing Iran’s deepening military grip on Syria and blocking its drive for a land corridor via Iraq to Damascus and the Mediterranean.
Trump was expected to depart radically from Obama’s policies, which gave Tehran the gift of Iraq, and on no account let Iran hijack Syria as well.
That is why many informed Americans were bowled over when they heard the US Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesman for the anti-ISIS coalition last week: He said: “If they [Assad regime] want to fight ISIS in Abu Kamal and they have the capacity to do so, then that would be welcomed. We as a coalition are not in the land-grab business, We are in the killing-ISIS business… and if the Syrian regime wants to do that and they are going to put forth a concerted effort and show that they are doing just that in Abu Kamal or Deir ez-Zour or elsewhere, that means that we don’t have to do that in those places.”
Many people were taken aback by this statement, because it offered an American license for the Syrians – and hence the Iranians - to grab Abu Kamal on the Syrian-Iraqi border. This would be tantamount to a permit for Iran to take over 70 percent of that strategic border and so gain its coveted control of cross-border traffic.
The CENTCOM statement had people in Washington wondering who was formulating Syrian policy: the White House or US Central Command HQ in Tampa? Commander-in-Chief Trump or Gen. Joseph Votel, head of CENTCOM?
Frederic C. Hof, a noted American expert on Syria, commented: “The Trump administration correctly views Iranian domination of Syria – undertaken to secure and reinforce Hizballah in Lebanon – as contrary to American interests. Yet Tampa articulates a policy that seems to be fully at peace with Iran and Assad dominating eastern Syria… If the CENTCOM approach is good enough for Washington, it will be good news indeed in Tehran and Damascus, to say nothing of Moscow.”
On Monday, June 26, the White House warned Bashar Assad against again attacking his people with chemical weapons. According to DEBKA Weekly’s sources, that warning was put out on the initiative of concerned quarters in the National Security Council who were desperate to recall President Trump’s attention to the situation in Syria before it slipped out of control.
However, Defense Secretary James Mattis stepped in at that point: Speaking to reporters aboard a flight to Brussels on Wednesday June 28, he put a stop to the speculation about Washington’s next step by announcing: “They didn’t do it,” implying that the Assad regime had backed away from its alleged attack plan, deterred by Washington’s warning.
There is no evidence that this happened. Analysis of the broader statement delivered on the same flight by the Defense Secretary, indicates that if anyone backed down, it was not Assad, the Russians or the Iranians, but the Americans. This episode was used by Mattis and CENTCOM chiefs to roll out their plans for Syria. He made the following points:
Do we hear echoes of Obama in the Mattis outline of Syrian policy? It is universally acknowledged that the former administration’s handling of the Syrian crisis ended in catastrophe. Will Trump leave the Syrian crisis in the hands of Mattis and risk reaching the same disastrous dead end?
Turkey, the Middle East’s perennial odd man out, has just jumped into bed with his latest significant other, Iran. Their fast-moving military and economic rapprochement is having instantaneous effect on the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the crisis over Qatar and the competition between the US-led Sunni Muslim and the Russian-led Shiite blocs.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that Turkish forces occupying northern Syria are in offensive mode against the Kurdish enclaves in Efrin and the Sheba region, with the first exchanges of fire reported. The big difference now is that for the first in the seven-year Syrian civil war, Turkey is bashing the Kurds in operational coordination with two active partners: the Syrian army and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers serving with the Syrian armed forces.
The brittle façade of Turkey’s alliance with the United States began cracking after the failed coup against, President Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016. He has since harbored a deep grudge against Washington, accusing first Barack Obama, then Donald Trump, of colluding with the alleged plotters-in-exile.
Since then, relations have gone from bad to worse, dipping again in recent weeks after the Trump administration authorized the flow of US arms to the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia to support their battle for Raqqa against the Islamic State.
Tuesday, June 27, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that Washington would continue to provide weapons to Kurdish-led Syrian forces after the Raqqa battle was over.
This further incensed the prickly Turkish leader against America and gave him another incentive to take Tehran as his partner.
Also in steep decline are the personal relations between Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the degree that Berlin plans to soon withdraw its air force units from Turkey to new bases in Jordan.
Turkey’s changing sides is of fundamental concern to NATO, especially in the event of the Northern Alliance or members thereof deciding to dive into the war on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, or the outbreak of a military clash between the US-led Sunni bloc and the Russian-Iranian-Shiite alignment.
These eventualities are far from hypothetical given the military presence in Syria of three rival powers, the US, Russia and Iran and their surrogates. (See a separate article on this.)
This week, the Turks pushed heavy weapons, including T-155 Firtina howitzers and ACV-15 armored vehicles, into the vicinity of the Kurdish-held town of Azaz in the northern Aleppo province. New Turkish army headquarters are going up in Azaz and Marea, with another YPG-held town, Tell Rifat, next in their sights.
To help the Turks, the Syrian army has closed off the Aleppo-Efrin road at Nubul and Zahra villages, holding Efrin under virtual siege. People trying to leave the town are arrested by Syrian soldiers. Turkish Howitzers and other long-range weapons are in position to bomb the center of Efrin as a softening up tactic ahead of an invasion with tanks, panzers and mortars across the Kurdish region.
Russia has not said a word about the Turkish offensive building up against the Kurdish canton, although the Efrin operation is located not far from the Russian special forces stationed near the Syrian-Turkish border. But Ankara certainly briefed Moscow along with Damascus about what it is up to.
Another facet of Turkish-Iranian cooperation is evident across the border in the Irbil, capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. In their drive to cut the Syrian Kurds down, Ankara and Tehran have found an ally in KRG President Masoud Barzani, who is worried that US support for his Syrian brethren will leave the Iraqi Kurds behind and of little account.
Like Russia, Turkey has also lined up behind Iran in its campaign for control of the Syrian-Iraqi border region, in which the Syrian army, Hizballah and pro-Iranian militias are heavily engaged. They were joined earlier this month by the Iraqi Population Mobilization Units (PMU), an Iraqi army outfit which stands at the disposal of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Ankara has also planted two feet into the dispute between four Arab nations and the Gulf emirate of Qatar. Exploiting its role as the only Muslim nation to back Qatar against the Saudi-led Arab boycott, Ankara has deployed Turkish troops in the Gulf region for the first time ever. At least five armored personnel carriers with their crews have been flown to Doha, described by the Turkish high command as the vanguard of larger contingents due within days.
Turkish exports to Qatar, including foodstuffs, have increased threefold, greatly easing the shortages generated by the boycott. It is beginning to look as though the Gulf feud has opened Qatar’s door wide for Iranian and Turkish influence to break through into the heart of the Arabian Gulf region. Riyadh’s calculation in going head to head with Qatar may turn out to have been a strategic blunder that Tehran and Ankara were quick to seize on.
The new French president Emmanuel Macron is clearly feeling his way towards new ground on the longstanding issues surrounding the Syrian conflict and the urgent war on terror.
In his first remarks on June 22, Macron said “Bashar is not our enemy; he is the enemy of the Syrian people… I haven’t stated that Bashar Assad’s departure is a necessary condition for everything because no one has shown me a legitimate successor.”
He also maintained, “Foreign powers collectively committed an error in focusing on a military solution in Syria,” then adding that, instead of pushing for Assad’s departure, Macron would prefer to work more closely with Russia for a solution in Syria.”
Five days later, on Tuesday, June 27, after a telephone conversation with US President Donald Trump, the French leader sounded quite different. He agreed to France working with the United States against Syria if there was another chemical attack. A French official amplified this by saying that the Franco-US accord on this also carried a message to Moscow: Paris was now available to work with Washington on military action against the Assad regime.
This turnabout should not surprise anyone keeping track of Macron in the bare month since he entered the Elysée Palace or his successful election campaign. On the stump, he frequently qualified his pledges with the phrase “en mȇme temps” (at the same time), thereby giving himself leeway for U-turns.
Revealing too was his appointment of Bernard Emié as head the Direction Générale de La Sécurité Extérieure, France’s foreign spy service.
Ernié was French ambassador to Beirut in the years 2004-2007 and present there when former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated in February 2005, a crime for which Syria and the Hizballah were generally blamed, and which led to a UN Security Council resolution compelling Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and the Hizballah terrorist group to disarm.
Ernie then served in Turkey and Algeria. The latter served as his listening post for the goings-on in former French territories in North Africa, especially the Sahel wasteland. In recent years, French forces have been deployed to help local government in those former colonies fight the Islamist groups threatening their stability and sending out branches of terror into Europe.
President Macron appears to be aiming for a balancing act in his policies, while at the same time about to come down hard on the war on jihadist terror. He regards this as his first priority and vital for national security, which deteriorated significantly under his predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande.
This predilection also ties in with his special interest in North Africa.
Macron traveled to Mali on his first visit outside Europe, just a week after his election. There, he inspected France’s only anti-terrorist base. This gesture highlighted his administration’s determination to use military force to strike out against any terrorist organization posing a threat to France. He next visited Rabat to meet the King of Morocco.
In the Gulf dispute between Qatar and four Arab governments, the French President offered to try his hand as a mediator. Here too he needs to strike a balance between two contrasting policies he inherited in a key world oil region: Sarkozy preferred Qatar, while Hollande tilted toward Saudi Arabia.
On another Middle East conflict, the young president took a step back from Hollande’s decision to unilaterally recognize Palestinian statehood, which Israel resented, in order to win credibility for France’s pretentions as an honest broker.
Three weeks into the Gulf dispute sparked by the decision of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE to impose a trade, aviation and diplomatic boycott on Qatar, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson embarked on a mission as broker.
On Tuesday, June 26, he met in Washington with two distinguished Gulf visitors: Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister, and Sheik Mohammad Abdullah Al-Sabah, Kuwait’s Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs and Acting Minister of Information.
Tillerson had thrown his support behind Kuwait’s efforts to mediate the dispute, but was quickly discountenanced. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir declared that the only way out of the crisis was for Qatar to buckle under and accept the 13 conditions laid down by its four opponents.
The trouble is that Jubeir has the full backing of President Donald Trump and the Saudi strongman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
So where did that leave the secretary of state? Not very far. As DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report from Washington, all the parties know that Qatar has flatly rejected every condition laid down in the secret negotiations brokered by the Americans and Kuwaitis.
Our sources can publish the specifics of the Qatari response for the first time:
1. Doha is willing to sever diplomatic ties with Iran (as demanded) provided all the Gulf nations follow suit and expel all 800,000 resident Iranian passport holders.
2. Doha will break up the Turkish military base going up in the emirate and throw out all the Turkish troops provided that the other GCC nations evacuate all foreign bases (US, French and British) on their soil..
3. Qatar denies any ties with terrorist organizations (as accused). No United Nations or any other international body has ever proclaimed the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. There are therefore no grounds for demanding its leaders’ deportation.
Doha presented a counter-list of organizations and individuals whose removal from Gulf nations is demanded. They include Yemeni Houthi insurgents, pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militias, Gen. Khalifa Hafter from Libya, and the Palestinian Mohammed Dahlan from Abu Dhabi.
This list appears designed as a counterweight to the demand to boot the Muslim Brotherhood television preacher, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, out of Qatar.
4. Qatar’s actions are governed by its constitution - not by foreign dictates laid down by Gulf nations.
5. Its media (notably the Al-Jazeera TV station) are subject to the Qatari constitution and receive the same treatment as all other Arab publications operating out of the emirate, such as the Saudi Al Arabiyah TV channel.
6. Qatar does not meddle in the affairs of fellow Gulf emirates.
7. All demands for restitution payments to Gulf emirates are rejected.
8. Qatar meticulously upholds every clause of the agreements it signed in Riyadh in 2013 and 2014 with regard to Gulf security.
The beleaguered emirate is therefore offering a tough, uncompromising face to Secretary Tillerson’s effort to find a diplomatic way out of the Gulf crisis. This is partly accounted for, DEBKA Weekly’s sources report, by the fact that an older and tougher generation has taken charge of the crisis and removed it from the hands of the young crown prince, Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. Running the show now are his father, ex-Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, whom he deposed, and mother Sheika Moza bin Naser Al Misned.
They have recalled their influential cousin, ex-prime minister Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani, from London, where he has been living since the young prince came to the throne, and asked him to steer the emirate through the crisis.
These tough-minded elders have no intention of being cowed into accepting their opponents’ demands, particularly since the boycott and blockade imposed on Qatar are not biting. The shelves in the shops of Doha are stacked with goods, some of which are donated by Iran and Turkey and handed out free of charge, in order to counter the punitive measures and bring them to naught.
The Israel Defense Forces recently completed a military exercise on the island of Cyprus, according to a rare disclosure by the IDF. It took place in the Trodos Mountains where the terrain resembles parts of Lebanon.
Taking part were some 500 soldiers of the IDF Commando Brigade, including the Egoz Unit (which specializes in operating on rough terrain, field craft, camouflage, and counter-guerrilla warfare); teams of dog handling soldiers; combat engineers; and 200 Air Force personnel.
C-130J Super Hercules aircraft flew in from the Nevatim Air Base to join up with Black Hawk helicopters.
The soldiers practiced incursions into mountain regions covered with trees and dense vegetation, as well as urban warfare tactics, capturing villages, roads and bridges and the sources of rocket fire, as well as tunnel warfare.
The Israeli units were joined in the exercise by 100 fighters from the special forces of the Cypriot National Guard.
The war game was obviously staged in areas of Cyprus, whose topographical and climate features approximate closely to the mountain regions of Lebanon and Syria. The tunnel warfare drills developed tactics for seizing the hidden tunnels the pro-Iranian Hizballah has been digging under the Lebanese-Israeli border.
In addition to the Cypriot venue, the IDF has also been staging exercises in combat against the Syrian army and Hizballah in the United States, Greece and the Black Sea, where they operate out of air bases in Romania.
In Greece, the war games conducted jointly with the local air force focused on practicing long-range missions and developed capabilities for facing the Russian-made S-300 air defense batteries fielded by Syria and Iran.
Six months ago, the elite Maglan Unit of the Commando Brigade carried out a smaller training exercise on the Greek island of Crete.
Limited by the narrow scope of Israeli air space, air force pilots are able to practice long-range missions by flying both ways to and from Greece and Romania.
Israel is also busy fortifying its border defenses with additional walls – one enclosing southern Gaza Strip and the other along the Lebanese border.
The “slurry pit” method is being used to build strong walls with foundations deep enough to impede the secret tunnels sunk by terrorist organizations for cross-border covert penetration. This advanced engineering project entails digging trenches down to depths that are classified by the IDF, filling them with slurry (heavy muddy liquid) which is later displaced by concrete. This method, used widely in the construction of mining shafts and tunnels, strengthens and stabilizes the pits’ linings against water seepage that would otherwise weaken the walls’ foundations.
To cut down on construction time and costs, factories have been set up in northern and southern Israel to keep the wall builders supplied with the necessary materials on tap on the spot. The tender put out for contractors left out such classified specifications as the length of the walls, their exact location and the depth of their foundations, although it was open to outside bids, including firms from Turkey and China.