Putin – Outfaced by Trump’s New Sunni Bloc – Conducts Strategic Troop Movements in Syria
No one in Washington or the Middle East expected President Donald Trump’s visits to Riyadh and Jerusalem to go unnoticed by the Russians – especially when they turned out to be a spectacular triumph.
DEBKA Weekly’s Moscow sources report that President Vladimir Putin was rocked back to discover the sudden emergence of a US-Sunni, anti-Shiite, anti-Iran bloc taking shape in Riyadh under Trump’s hands, shored up by the military and intelligence assistance the US president promised Israel would provide.
The Russian president was piqued to discover that Trump’s move had tossed him onto the unwanted seat of leader of the Shiite Iranian-Syrian alignment, in opposition to the new bloc headed by the US and Saudi Arabia.
That was not the role Putin wanted.
He does support the Iranian-Syrian alliance, but only in so far as he controls its boundaries and its members follow his rules. He maintains a free hand for bringing in certain Sunni Arab powers, especially from the Gulf.
In this way, Putin had made himself the leading candidate as honest broker for bridging the rift between the Sunni and Shiite Arab rulers. He never dreamed for a moment that President Trump, less than six months in the White House, would walk in and in a trice throw open the doors open for America’s return to the Middle East to fill the half-empty void left by Barack Obama.
At the same time, America’s “return to the Middle East” was enthusiastically embraced by Saudi King Salman, Egyptian President Abdul-Fatteh El-Sisi (who decided at the last minute to attend the summit of 50 Arab rulers convened in Riyadh to meet the US president) and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. They were not just uttering polite words. They were genuinely delighted to hear Trump’s plans.
As DEBKA Weekly disclosed in its recent issues, the president meant what he said when he pledged America’s proactive return to the region. Indeed, he promised not just to deploy American boots on the ground, but to soon bring along detachments from NATO member-nations. In other words, NATO foot-soldiers were about to actively join the coalition fighting ISIS.
And they also stood ready to stand up, as needed, to the Iranians and Shiite militia forces operating in Syria and Iraq, as well as the Syrian army and Hizballah.
Moscow foresaw a US-led NATO army going into combat with Russia’s Middle East allies, thereby slamming the brakes on Russian expansion in the region – a painful turnaround from the zero opposition the Russians faced after 2015.
And so a bizarrely skewed equation is unfolding in Washington and Moscow: Donald Trump’s adversaries at home pillory him for allegedly collaborating with Moscow, whereas the Kremlin accuses him of isolating Russia and elbowing Putin aside.
Furious over this perceived affront, the Russian leader was bent on settling the score:
1. Last week, he transferred Russian troops from western Syria to Suweida in the south east, near the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border triangle. They began approaching the important Al-Tanf crossing, which his held by US and Western special forces and a Syrian rebel contingent. The Russian unit consisted of the 31st Paratroop Brigade, augmented by Spetsnaz fighters.
By this deployment, Moscow warned Washington that it would not tolerate any attempt to block Tehran’s lines of supply and personnel transfers from Iran and Iraq to Syria.
2. Russian forces – a battalion of the Mountain Operation Brigade – were also moved to the Deraa region of southern Syria directly opposite northern Jordan, where large-scale American ground and air force units are massed.
3. The Russian Grigorovich and Admiral Essen guided missile and landing frigates sailed at speed from the Black Sea to Syrian waters, where the marines aboard climbed out to perform a series of landing drills on Syria’s Tartus coast. This step was Putin’s way of notifying Washington that if matters deteriorated to a military clash, pitting Russian troops and their Syrian and Iranian allies against US and other Western forces holding the Syrian-Iraqi border, Moscow would not hesitate to land Russian reinforcements by sea.
To ease some of the pressure on US special forces in southern Syria, US Defense Secretary James Mattis, sent the US air force to conduct a bombardment on Tuesday, May 23 of the Syrian Army’s 17th Reserves Division, which was deployed in the Raqqa region ready to move southeast towards Deir ez-Zor and the border. This was the second US air strike on a Syrian government army target in the last ten days.