For Bashar Assad, the Syrian army’s capture of the ancient town of Palmyra from the Islamic State with Russian air and artillery support was a ground-breaking victory.
For President Vladimir Putin, it was a stepping stone to his next stop, which is disclosed by DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources as Raqqa, 167 kilometers away. He seeks total victory over the Islamic State in Syria by smashing its command and nerve center.
Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Col. Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, commander of Russian forces in Syria, have got their orders to prepare to drive northeast to Raqqa.
Radical changes will not be necessary, say our military sources. The two fundamental elements of Russian strategy, clearly visible in the video footage of the Palmyra battleground against ISIS forces in the last few days, stand ready for reuse: They were:-
1. Round-the-clock carpet bombing of ISIS bases and positions within and around the targeted city.
2. The massive use of MLRS mobile artillery batteries for non-stop pounding of ISIS forces.
No military force – certainly not one the size of ISIS, which is more a militia than a standard army – can possibly stand up to this volume of firepower
In the wake of the Russian “scorched earth” assault, Syrian tanks were able to roll calmly into Palmyra, confident that all potential resistance had been pulverized.
In fact, the artillery batteries were not operated by Russian troops but had been transferred to Syrian units, which fired them under the command and guidance of Russian officers and surveillance.
For the Raqqa offensive, the Russian command is tasking three forces:
- A squadron of Su-34 fighter-bombers and a brigade of MLRS artillery batteries operated by the Syrian army. Russian transport planes began landing Wednesday, March 30, at Palmyra air base, to test its use for the Raqqa operation.
- The Syrian army’s 17th Reserve Division, armed with Russian weaponry and trained by Russian officers. This division, which is responsible for the northeastern part of the country, consists of the 154th Special Forces Regiment, the 93rd Armored Brigade, the 121st Artillery Regiment and the 137th Mechanized Brigade.
- About 50,000 Kurdish fighters, members of the People’s Protection Units of the Kurdish YPG militia, which is the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, also known as the PYD.
To carry out their mission, the YPG will need a good supply of tanks, artillery and assorted missiles for its forces, including short-range and medium-range ground-to-ground ones.
In short, Putin will now equip the YPG with the very heavy weaponry denied by President Barack Obama for five years.
He knows perfectly well that going after Raqqa would bring him in breach of his December 2015 Euphrates pact with Obama, which assigned to the US the eastern side of the river where the ISIS stronghold is located, and the west to Russian forces. (DEBKA Weekly 688: “The Secret Euphrates Pact between Obama and Putin”)
He is therefore treading warily, taking care to gain Obama’s nod for the Raqqa campaign even before he sets about arming the Kurds and goes forward.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources, Moscow’s plan of campaign is far-reaching. The ISIS Syrian stronghold is to be shattered by air strikes coming from three directions – Hmeimim air base near Latakia, in the west, Hassakeh air base in the north and, in the east, the Kurdish air force base in Irbil, capital of the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region.
This would carry Russia’s military intervention in Syria across the border onto Iraqi soil. By this means, Putin hopes to acquire an airbase in Iraq pending Obama’s approval.
The Iraqi angle of the Russian leader’s next plans is addressed in the following article.