No Pause in Moscow’s Drive for Strategic E. Syria Foothold – despite Major Losses

Up until now, Moscow is driving forward relentlessly towards its objective in eastern Syria, regardless of serious losses. A large Russian Air Force battalion of engineers is hard at work quietly building a large Russian base in this sensitive border region, heedless of the surrounding turbulence..

On Sept. 9, a mixed Syrian-Hizballah force, with substantial Russian air support, successfully lifted the two-year Islamic siege on Deir ez-Zour in eastern Syria – most particularly the ruined Syrian air base.

On Sept. 13, the assault force crossed the Euphrates to the east bank, with the help of Russian-supplied floating bridges.

But then came the setbacks.

On Sept. 23, heavy Islamic State shelling killed the top Russian commander Gen. Valery Asapov.

On Oct. 1, Col. Valery Fedyanin, one of the two Russian high-ranking Russian officers hurt in the attack, died of his wounds. He was the commander of the 61st Russian Marines Brigade. A second colonel was injured.

Moscow accused the United States of tipping ISIS off on the precise whereabouts of the secret Russian command in the Deir ez-Zour province for the direct hit.

On Oct. 2, Ali al-Asheq, commander of the Hizballah’s Intervention Unit, was killed by an exploding land mine planted by ISIS near Deir ez-Zour, not far from the location where the two Russian officers were killed.

That unit spearheaded the joint anti-ISIS operation with the Syrian army in eastern Syria

(Hizballah’s role on this front is assessed in a separate article.)

Still, President Vladimir Putin was not sidetracked from his plans for eastern Syria. His military engineers were not just repairing the wrecked Syrian air base; they were building a new one.

Our military sources reveal that the construction teams are lengthening and widening the existing base’s two runways and possibly adding a third; building a command center and a brand new control tower, and constructing hangars to accommodate Russian bombers and fighters, large fuel tanks and barracks to house several air crews.

In short, the Syrian air facility at Deir ez-Zour base is being remodeled as Russia’s second largest air base in Syria, after the Khmeimim Air Base at Latakia in the west, to meet four strategic objectives: (See attached map.)

  1. Its location 272km as the crow flies from the US Special forces Ayn al-Asad Airbase in western Iraq is close enough to challenge America’s aerial dominance of western Iraq. From Deir ez-Zour, the Russian air force is potentially capable of narrowing the US jets’ freedom of action over the Iraqi and Syrian border regions.
  2. The Russians will rule the skies over the Iraqi-Syrian border, including the Euphrates River Valley.
  3. Moscow is compensating itself at Deir ez-Zour for the denial of an air base in Iraq, a goal which Putin never conceded even after he was repeatedly thwarted. The new base will jump his air force eastward to within 500km of Baghdad.
  4. It will also put Russian forces no more than 450km flying distance from the US special operations and air force units based in northern Jordan. They will therefore to be able to seriously hamper US aerial operations out of Jordan as well as Iraq.

DEBKA Weekly’s military sources note that, since crossing to the east bank of the Euphrates, Syrian government and Hizballah forces, along with their Russian umbrella, have halted their push toward the Iraqi border.

Moscow may have decided to hold back from further breaches of the informal deal struck with Washington in 2015, which assigned the eastern bank of the Euphrates to American control. But another cause is outlined in a separate article in this issue.

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