“Izra” Is the Secret Code for US-Russian exchanges on Syria
Izra is a small town of 45,000 inhabitants, mostly Christian, north of the southern Syrian town of Daraa. On its outskirts, the Syrian government’s army (SAA) has located the 7th division’s headquarters and barracks.
While Izra is a faint mark on today’s maps, its history goes back thousands of years. A Canaanite city important enough for mention in the Bible, it was also referred to in the ancient Tell Armarna Letters exchanged in 1334 BCE by the rulers of Egypt and Syria. The Romans attested to Izra’s importance during their occupation of the Bashan.
Present-day Izra lies 80km south of Damascus, 25km northwest of Daraa and 35km east of the Israeli Golan. (See attached map). But its disproportionate strategic importance stems from its juxtaposition between the positions of two great powers: the US garrison at the Al Tanf crossing in the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border triangle, 250km away; and the new Russian air base at Khirbat Ras al-War, 55km away as the crow flies.
(See a separate article.)
Izra was therefore chosen as a convenient venue for a top-secret joint Russian-US operations command center, whose existence is revealed now for the first time by DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources.
It is in this hidey hole, behind the façade of Syrian 7th Division headquarters, that the two powers lay out deals for working together in Syria. And it is there, we can also divulge, that American and Russian officers drew up the Syrian dossier for the face-to-face between President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg on July 7, including the outline of the ceasefire they announced for southwestern Syria.
Those same officers undertook to jointly fill in the details of the limited deconfliction accord and supervise its implementation.
There is no telling how far the winds gusting in from the storm in Washington over Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya last June will affect the discreet US-Russian deliberations in Izra. Visible for the first time are the innards of the domestic political-media machine grinding away at the Trump presidency and aimed at undermining any prospects of Trump and Putin getting together for constructive work on the Syrian conflict or any future US-Russian collaboration.
It is bound to take its toll on any joint initiatives developed at Izra. But for the time being, DEBKA Weekly notes US-Russian interaction is still alive in a number of spheres:
They are coordinating their efforts to breathe life into a limited ceasefire in southwest Syria. It was scheduled to go into effect on Sunday, July 9, towards eventual expansion to the rest of the country. But first the truce must be nailed down at three southwestern focii: Quneitra, Daraa and Al- Suweida.
Contrary to German press reports, Hizballah, the Shiite militias and the Iranians were not required by the ceasefire deal to withdraw from their positions in the most sensitive border areas abutting Jordan and Israel.
Seven widely disparate entities needed therefore to be brought on board to agree on which parties would be entrusted with marking out the deconfliction (ceasefire) area and policing it. The task of bringing together the US, Russia, Syria, Iran, Jordan and Israel, as well as Hizballah, would have fazed Hercules.
Jordan meanwhile decided to bypass this tangle by striking out for a secret deal with the Assad regime.
This week they agreed to Syria restoring its authority at the Nasib crossing point and raising its flag over the building. Amman agreed to security and civilian teams operating the crossing ahead of its opening up to the reciprocal traffic of goods and people between the two countries.
On Wednesday, July 12, our sources learn, Jordan and Syria began negotiations for the reopening of a second crossing-point.
Washington and Moscow are going along with this move, recognizing it as the first step towards restoring Syria’s neighborly relations and trade with Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon, whose potential volume is worth at least a billion dollars a year. The Hashemite Kingdom, sunk in deep unemployment, is also desperate to throw off the burden of some 150,000 Syrian refugees held in dire conditions..
That was the plan. But less than 24 hours after the ceasefire started, it faced its first setback: On July 10, Damascus sent its army’s 5th Armored Division along with a large Hizballah contingent to blast Syrian rebel positions in the Al-Suweida province.
No publication divulged this offensive other than debkafile hours after it began. A blackout was clamped down on the news in the interests of rescuing the truce. Meanwhile, the US and Russia agreed. with Jordan’s consent, for Russian troops to take charge of embattled Daraa and order the Syrians and Hizballah to curtail their offensive and pull back
On Wednesday, a Russian force, made up mainly of Chechen commandos clad in Russian military police uniforms, drove into Daraa just a kilometer from the Jordanian border, as Syrian and Hizballah troops withdrew to the north.
The US-Russian deal for Daraa was the first crack in the stalemate which threatened to drop the entire US-Russian ceasefire project in the mud. Moscow was turned down flat when it approached Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan for ceasefire monitors. Neither Bishkek nor Astana were willing to put their troops at risk so long as the truce’s sustainability and the future of Trump-Putin cooperation in Syria were in question.