The secret deal for a political solution for the Syria conflict reached by Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Antalya over the weekend has radically changed and intensified Russia’s air strike tactics in the last 24 h ours.
For the first time since the intensified Russian military intervention in the Syrian civil war in the last week of September, Russian air force planes took off Tuesday, Nov. 17 for attacks on Syrian rebel and ISIS targets, from a home base, the Morozovsk airbase in the southern Rostov district. Until now, the Russian bombers had taken off from Hmeymim airbase near Latakia.
Also for the first time, they lofted Tupolev Tu-160 and Tupolev Tu-95 bombers. The Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack is a long-range strategic bomber and the biggest combat aircraft in the world, while the Tu-95 Bear is a huge strategic bomber with four turboprop-powered engines that is also used to launch missiles.
debkafile’s military sources note that that the entry of these heavy bombers marks an increase in the frequency of the attacks and in the firepower used by Russia against the rebels and ISIS. Together with the firing of advanced Russian Kalibr cruise missiles at targets in Syria – also for the first time on Tuesday – these changes substantially escalate the Russian military effort in Syria.
Western sources take these changes to mean that Putin is driving hell-bent to settle accounts with the Islamic State after the downing of the Russian plane over Sinai on Oct. 31, and that he will coordinate this effort with French President Francois Hollande, who is due in Moscow in the coming days.
However, debkafile reports that the new, stepped up Russian aerial offensive is fact bringing forward certain – not necessarily jihadist – Syrian rebel groups as Moscow’s priority targets, with ISIS only in second place.
In their 30-minute conversation on Sunday, Nov. 15, our sources reveal, Obama secretly accepted most points of Putin’s plan for a political resolution of the Syrian conflict (first revealed by DEBKA Weekly earlier this month), with the exception of the point relating to Bashar Assad’s future.
The White House and the Kremlin consequently announced a joint decision on a cease-fire in Syria to be followed by UN-mediated negotiations between the rebels and the Assad regime.
The first point of the Russian blueprint called for intensified air strikes by the US and Russia against rebel groups refusing to enter into these negotiations in order to force them to toe the line.
As a result of the deal between the two presidents, 75 percent of Russian attacks in Syria Tuesday were aimed against various rebel groups (around Hama and Aleppo), and only 25 percent against ISIS (at its Raqqa headquarters) and Al-Nusra Front targets.
Obama agreed to Russian expanding its air campaign to this end for at least three weeks. It was also decided that Russia would beef it up with another 25 heavy bombers and addition warplanes.
Meanwhile, also on Tuesday, Russia released the findings of its investigation into the downing of a Russian airliner on October 31 in the Sinai Peninsula that caused the deaths of all 224 passengers and crew.
Putin and the heads of the Russian intelligence community have concluded that the destruction of Metrojet Flight 9268 soon after takeoff from Sharm El Sheikh was the result of a bomb planted on board by terrorists. Egypt quickly rejected the conclusion, claiming there was no proof of it whatsoever. But thes conclusion led Putin to offer an unprecedented $50 million reward for information leading to the capture of those who planted the bomb.
According to our counterterrorism sources, Russian intelligence chiefs are convinced that certain top Egyptian military and security service officers know exactly who was responsible. The enormous reward was offered to draw them out and tempt them to break ranks with Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi’s dogged resistance to the charges of a terrorist hand at work behind the Russian air disaster. After all, 50 million dollars must be hard to resist.