Paradoxically, President Donald Trump found the furor he raised by defending President Vladimir Putin against US intelligence findings of Russian campaign manipulation, to be useful. The sound and fury that raged on, even after he tried stepping back from that statement, diverted attention from the momentous deal he secretly sealed with Putin at their July 16 encounter in Helsinki.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources reveal here the substance of that deal for the first time. President Trump agreed to hand over to Russian control of southern and southwestern Syria, including key surveillance elevations from which intelligence observation systems can view all Syria, Iraq Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and the eastern Mediterranean. This awarded Putin a controlling stake in a vital piece of territory for strengthening Russia’s military dominance in Syria and the Middle East.
This deal capped negotiations between Trump, Putin and Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. It was finalized during the Israeli leader’s Moscow trip on July 11, five days before the Helsinki summit.
The high points are disclosed hereunder:
- Israel calls off its military campaign against Iranian, Hizballah and Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan troops, who are fighting for Bashar Assad in Syria.
- Israel reserves the right to strike any Iranian deliveries of new, advanced weapons systems to Syria. Russian forces will continue to turn a blind eye as before.
- Israel will refrain from attacking the Syrian government forces moving in on the provinces of Daraa and Quneitra on the Jordanian and Israeli borders.
- Both Netanyahu and Assad are committed to upholding the 1974 Separation of Forces accord between their governments. This provides for a three-strip buffer zone running the length of their 80km long border (see map): The first strip – 235km wide and situated on the Syrian side of the Golan border – is to be manned by UNDOF monitors and Russian military police. In the second strip to the east, the Syrian army may maintain 350 tanks and 3,000 soldiers; and in the third, 650 tanks and 4,500 soldiers.
- Small units of Russian military police (mostly Chechens) will head the Syrian government forces pushing into Daraa and Quneitra as guarantors of Syrian compliance with the trilateral US-Russian-Israeli accord.
- After Daraa and Quneitra regions are captured, Russian officers will occupy a chain of positions inside the UNDOF-monitored strip adjacent to the Israeli border. They will anchor Russia’s pledge to the US and Israel to prevent Iranian and its allied militias from moving into the border regions for attacks on Israel.
- Russian forces will remain in some enclaves of the southwest after Syria’s takeover. (a) To buttress Russian military control of southern Syria; (b) As a provisional safeguard against a Syrian army massacre of the local population. These Russian restraints were assigned to two towns under this threat: Tal Al-Harrah and Nawa. (see attached map.)
Situated atop a 1,200 meters-high hilltop, Tal Al-Harrah lies 37km from Daraa City and 14km from the Israeli Golan. Its exceptional location makes it a unique observation post for intelligence eyes to range over broad sections of the Middle East. Up until 48 years ago, a large Soviet Russian intelligence station perched atop Tal Al-Harrah. Fortifications encircled a series of radar stations geared for early warning and equipped with full signals (SIGINT) communications. From this point, Moscow watched Syria, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the eastern Mediterranean, up to and including the eastern coast of Turkey and Cyprus.
In 1967, during the Six-Day war, Israel captured this strategic hilltop, dismantled the Russian gear and sent it over to US intelligence by special flight. This was a rare bonanza for the US in the Cold War against Soviet Russia. Tal Al Harrah reverted to Syria when the Begin government restored Quneitra to Syria. Three years ago, it fell into rebel hands.
Russian intelligence is bound to again seize on Tal Al-Harrah as a choice site for installing its most advanced intelligence systems. Its handover will reduce US Middle East forces and intelligence to an inferior position compared with Moscow and strengthen Trump’s demand for the withdrawal of US troops from Syria against the wishes of US intelligence and military leaders.
As to Nawa, just a kilometer northwest of Tal Al-Harrah, Russia is concerned that this town of 100,000 inhabitants will be subjected by Bashar Assad to a massacre.
- The Russian army, hand in hand with local militias, will continue to rule Daraa province. These militias draw their support and funding from Saudi and United Arab Emirates intelligence. This role, with the support of the US and Israel, makes them partners in the US-Russian-Israeli deal for southern Syria.
- President Trump, after conferring with Putin, promised Netanyahu that Israel would be compensated for its consent to hold off from attacking Iranian and Hizballah forces in Syria with formal US recognition of the Golan as a part of Israel, in the same way as he recognized Jerusalem as capital of Israel. (See a separate item.). When this subject was raised with the Russian leader, he did not voice objections – possibly because of the way it was presented. Trump argued that it would be no more realistic to restore to Syria a territory populated by tens of thousands of Israelis than it would be to hand the Crimea back to the Ukraine after its annexation by Russia.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that Putin is believed to have put the issue before Assad, but his answer is not known. Even a noncommittal response on his part could set the stage for negotiations on the Golan.
But meanwhile, before any part of the trilateral deal went into effect, the Syrian army late on Tuesday, July 17, launched heavy air strikes on the city of Nawa and reportedly inflicted dozens of civilian casualties – in defiance of Damascus’ commitment to the Russians to halt aerial bombardments over Quneitra and Daraa. That commitment also obligated Syria to pull its troops back from the first buffer strip for its handover to UNDOF and Russian monitors. On Monday, the same day as the Helsinki summit, the Syrian army pulled back from Beit Jinn, an enclave opposite an Israeli Hermon outpost, but typically, 800 troops remained there disguised as local farmers.
Late News: Syrian rebel resistance to the Syrian Army’s advance on Quneitra opposite the Israeli Golan crumbled on Thursday, July 19, in the absence of Israeli military support. The terms of surrender that rebel leaders signed with Syrian army officers obliged them to hand over all their strongholds, including the town of Quneitra. The Syrian army was able to return to the positions they held before the 2011 uprising without a shot, thanks to Israel’s consent to refrain from fighting for Quneitra under the secret Trump-Putin-Netanyahu accord for Syria. (See Point 3 in this article.)