The death on Sept. 23 of Russian Lt. Gen Valery Asapov, 51, and two colonels in an unusually precise ISIS mortar attack on their eastern Syrian command post at Deir ez-Zour may be evolving into a watershed moment for the already troubled Russian-US interaction in Syria.
The loss of the highest ranking Russian military officer to be killed in the Syrian war so incensed President Vladimir Putin that he and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu vowed high-stakes military retribution against the party which tipped off the ISIS mortar crew with pinpoint intelligence for the attack.
Their first suspect was the United States, although a Russian intelligence probe of the episode also spoke of “betrayal’ by an unidentified party.
Speaking at his funeral on Thursday, Sept. 28, at the Federal Military Memorial Cemetery in Moscow, Russia’s chief of staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, lamented the life “cut short by a treacherous shell.” He also revealed that General Asapov had been secretly seconded to the Syrian army as commander of the Syrian Fifth Attack Troop Corps of volunteers. This corps was formed in late 2016, and equipped and advised by the Russians. But neither Damascus nor Moscow had revealed it had been under Russian command.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that, while the danger of a direct Russian-US clash in Syria under the initial impact of the deaths has abated somewhat, it is still acute.
The Russians are pumping reinforcements of special forces into eastern Syria, telling them to stand by for orders – either to strike US special operations units in the region or the US-backed SDF (Syrian and Kurdish militias) – or both.
The general and the two colonels were killed at the secret command post they set up to oversee the crossing by Syrian and Hizballah forces to the eastern bank of the Euphrates River over bridges provided by the Russians, and under their air cover.
The Defense Ministry in Moscow announced on the same day: “Lieutenant General Valery Asapov was at a command post of Syrian troops, assisting the Syrian commanders in the operation for the liberation of the city of Deir al-Zor, when he was mortally wounded by mortar shelling by the extremist group Islamic State-ISIS. He will be posthumously decorated for his service.”
Just 24 hours later, on Sept. 25, Russian media were throwing out anti-American accusations.
“A Russian general and two colonels were killed in what appears to be a very precisely targeted mortar attack. Just as in the case of the Russian military police unit recently attacked near Deir ez-Zor, Russia is accusing the Americans of being behind the attack. To make things even worse, the Russians are now also officially accusing the Americans of actively collaborating with ISIS.”
Some media ran aerial photos dated to September 8-12 of ISIS locations in eastern Syria, claiming to show “a large number of American Hummer vehicles, which are in service with the American SOF (Special Operations Forces). The shots clearly show the US SOF units located at strongholds equipped by the ISIS terrorists… “, said one report, adding: “This suggests that the US troops feel safe in terrorist-controlled regions,” and concluding: “What this seems to point to is that the Pentagon has now apparently decided to attack Russian forces directly, albeit unofficially.
“From the Pentagon’s point of view, this (almost) makes sense,’ said this Russian comment. “First, by now it is pretty darn clear that the ‘good terrorists’ and the ‘bad terrorists’ have lost the civil war in Syria. Simply put, the USA has been defeated, Syria, Russia, Iran and Hizballah have won and the Israelis are freaking out.
“Hence, the US has apparently taken the decision to directly target Russian military personnel and they are using their considerable reconnaissance capabilities combined with US Special Forces on the ground, working side by side with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists, to target and attack Russian military personnel. “
DEBKA Weekly’s sources disclose this accusatory line against America as coming directly from President Putin and Gen. Shoigu.
However, a Russian Military Intelligence (GRU) report to the Kremlin on the investigation into the attack, which cost the three Russian officers their lives, was less specific. The authors concluded that an unnamed military entity in eastern Syria had contacted ISIS commanders in the Deir ez-Zour region and handed them the precise location of the secret Russian command post.
Only a military entity possessed of highly advanced intelligence capabilities could have uncovered this location, said the report, and such capabilities are only possessed by the US Air Force and special operations forces.
The authors of the Russian intelligence report did not say explicitly that the Americans passed the information directly to ISIS – only that they had the capacity to do so. But Putin and Shoigu pounced on this conclusion to point the finger at the United States.
The Russian president took Asapov’s death personally and very hard. But, say our sources, not only on account of the loss of a highly valued general.
(Up until July 2015, Asapov commanded the 68th Army Corps, which is composed of infantry, artillery and heavy machine gun divisions. He was then transferred to the Southern Military District and, according to Ukrainian Military intelligence, participated, under the codename “Primakov,” in the Russian military intervention Ukraine as commander of the 1 Army Corps in Donetsk, Ukraine.)
Putin could not have missed the word “betrayal” occurring repeatedly in the GRU’s description of how ISIS was able to pin down Asapov’s whereabouts down to exact coordinates. Whoever passed them this information “betrayed the Russian Army in Syria,” said the report – a strong hint at an inside traitor.
This has confronted Putin with one of his toughest predicaments since embarking on his comprehensive military intervention in the Syrian conflict. The general’s whereabouts were undeniably known to others closer to home than the Americans – first and foremost, the high officers of Moscow’s allies, the Syrian army and Hizballah. They were in direct contact with the Russian command on the spot during the Euphrates crossing. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards officers may also have been in on the secret when they coordinated the Iraqi and other foreign Shiite militias moving across the Euphrates.
Clearly, the Kremlin badly needs to find out who betrayed Russian forces in Syria and, in so doing, exposed them to their deadliest blow since they arrived in the country. If the Americans were not the culprits, then Russia’s allies in Syria must be in the frame.
But if the Syrians, Iranians or Hizballah were ready to betray the Russians – and go so far as to collude with ISIS to this end – then the entire rationale of Moscow’s military intervention in Syria falls down, and Putin’s standing among his own generals and intelligence community is in grave jeopardy.
The last word on this mysterious affair has not yet been said. While the probe continues, Putin has vowed to deal harshly with the hand – whether the US or a treacherous allied insider – whose tip-off to the Islamists was responsible for bringing about the general’s untimely death.