Russian President Vladimir Putin, worried by the scaling back of America’s military role in Syria, appears to be trying to goad the Trump administration into signaling its intentions. Amid increasing acrimony, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov alleged on Tuesday, Oct. 10 that America and its coalition were only “pretending to fight the Islamic State, above all, in Iraq.”
The result, he said, was that “militants had moved in large numbers form Iraqi border areas to Deir ez-Zour, where they were trying to dig in on the left bank of the River Euphrates.”
The riddle Konashenkov posed revealed how far Moscow is at sea about US intentions in Syria and Iraq:
“Is their change of tack a desire to complicate the Syrian army’s operation, backed by the Russian air force, to take back Syrian territory to the east of the Euphrates?
Or is it an artful move to drive Islamic State terrorists out of Iraq by forcing them into Syria and in the path of the Russian air force’s pinpoint bombing?”
The Kremlin may be trying to shake the White House’s top ranks out of its seeming inertia, an affliction apparently affecting the five top Americans: President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and chief of staff John Kelly.
For more than a month, Putin has plied Washington through back channels with message after message demanding enlightenment on Trump’s plans in Syria. But no answers came back.
The Russians understand that Trump is weighed down heavily by foreign and domestic policy dilemmas, especially decision-making on Iran and North Korea, while plagued by assaults on his personal standing from all sides of Washington’s political establishment, including his own Republican Party.
Nevertheless, the Russian president is feeling the heat in Syria and holds Trump responsible.
Putin aims to bill the “Syrian project” his crowning achievement in the military and international spheres. Ignorance of US intentions at this delicate stage of the project leaves him on shaky ground and places his high-stake personal investment in its success at risk.
When they met in Hamburg on July 7 at the G-20 summit, Trump and Putin reached an understanding whereby the US and its Syrian allies would take charge of the eastern bank of the Euphrates River and broad areas of the Syrian-Iraqi border and tackle the Islamic State strongholds in Mayadin and Abu Kamal. US-backed Kurdish forces would advance from Raqqa to lead those battles.
Putin was nonplussed when, instead, he saw US forces drawing down their military presence and support for local allies in southeastern Syria in recent weeks, letting Iran achieve its strategic goal of an open overland bridge from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and strengthen its military grip on Syria. This was contrary to the Hamburg understanding between them.
(DEBKA Weekly 764 of July 28 first disclosed this in an article captioned: US Starts Drawdown in Syria and Iraq, Scales Down war on ISIS.)
The Kremlin is trying to figure out what went wrong: Is the White House sunk in complete paralysis – which is not borne out by Russian intelligence sources – or is it playing a devilish trick to trap Putin and the Russian military into drowning in the Syrian quagmire?
Putin and the Russian army feel that the Trump administration has left them high and dry, forcing them to shoulder the full burden of the next stage of the war on ISIS.
Moscow first responded by helping the Syrian army and Hizballah with pontoon bridges to cross the Euphrates to the east bank and take over the war on ISIS in the Syrian-Iraqi border region, with Russian air support.
When this week Hizballah faltered in its first operation to capture Mayadin, Russia supplied them with the fearsome TOS-1A rocket launchers, which are rated the most powerful conventional weapons in the world.
Konashenkov’s rancorous comments came from the bitter disappointment and deep distrust engendered in Moscow when the US was seen to be cutting down on air strikes against ISIS, reducing its bases in eastern Syria and withdrawing its support from some American-backed rebel groups. The brunt of America’s military effort against the Islamic State was left to the local Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia and small Arab tribal groups.
Saddled with the anti-ISIS mission in eastern Syria, Putin must urgently find more troops. The Russian command in Syria does not possess the right kind of fighting strength and both the Syrian army and Hizballah are seriously depleted. Therefore, to follow through in the war for the liberation of eastern Syria and its towns, Moscow must either call up Russian infantry from home, or ask Tehran to send over the Iraqi Shiite militias under Iranian command.
A request to Tehran would overturn all Putin’s maneuvers for downgrading Iranian influence in Syria.
Our sources report that the Kremlin has decided to wait a few days – up until next week at the latest – for word from the Trump administration. If the silence persists, Putin faces the critical options of either ordering the Russian army to be reinforced for taking over the missions originally assigned to the US military, or of following Trump’s lead and dropping out of the Euphrates Valley showdown with ISIS.
On Tuesday, Oct. 10, a small group of Russian special forces (Spetsnaz) was seen for the first time in the Deir ez-Zour region, rallying in support of Hizballah. This may be a one-off or it may signal a decision by the Russian president to stick to his guns and confront ISIS in eastern Syria, after all.
Clearly, Russia’s abandonment of the challenge would give the jihadists fresh opportunities for regeneration – more about which in a separate article in this issue.