Putin’s N. Syria Plans Elbowed Aside by US, Turkey, Iran, Israel and Their Duels

A large roadblock looms in the way of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans for northern Syria and the completion of his Middle East flagship project – the restoration of all Syria to the rule of President Bashar Assad. He believes that President Donald Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of northeastern Syria will go through – but can’t be sure when; he can be sure that Turkey means to grab this piece of land. The Russian president needs the Assad regime to assert its authority in this key region because he has big plans for the oil fields of the Deir Ez-Zour province, which lies up against Syria’s borders with Iraq and Jordan.

While Syrian oil fields are fairly small, producing no more than 400,000 bpd before the war, Russian energy experts estimate that investment and development can jack up production to 1.5 bpd. The quantitative consideration aside, Putin is looking across the border to bring his master plan to fruition. Russian oil companies have already gained control of some of northern Iraq’s oil fields and pipelines in the Kurdish region centering on Kirkuk. Adding on the oil fields of the Syrian Kurdish region will round out his masterplan. Pipelines from both regions would carry their oil to the Mediterranean coast, relieving them of dependence on Turkey. And, in the long term, Iran could also send its oil by the same Russian-controlled pipeline network through Iraq and Syria up to Mediterranean outlets.

That is the Russian president’s grand plan – only he can’t do much about it while US troops linger in the key neighborhood of Deir ez-Zour, even in small numbers (See DEBKA Weekly 832 of Jan. 18: US Intelligence bases go up in Manbij and Tanf). In the meantime, DEBKA Weekly’s sources reports that Putin is promoting another pet project: reconciliation between the longtime foes, President Assad and the Kurdish YPG militia, which leads the US-backed opposition Syrian Democratic Army (SDF). Moscow is offering guarantees to bolster their negotiations for a military and diplomatic peace accord.

This project gained impetus from Trump’s decision in December to pull US troops out of Syria soon. It was set back sharply, along with Putin’s other plans, by Trump’s assurance to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call on Jan. 14, that he was in favor of a 32km-deep buffer zone in northern Syria. This proposal made way for Turkey to step in and raised another big roadblock in the way of the Russian president’s plans for Syria and the Kurds to move in.

Putin then tried his luck with Erdogan. After snubbing the Turkish president’s attempts to fish for an invitation to Moscow, the Kremlin invited him for a visit on Jan. 23. He explained that, even if Trump did open the door to Turkish domination of northern Syria by means of a “security zone,” the US president was not exactly reliable. However, much more maneuvering will be needed to bridge the gap between them: Putin insists on all parts of Syria reverting to Assad’s rule, while Turkey is just as determined to walk in to areas abandoned by US troops.

Appealing to Washington, Putin said on Wednesday, Jan. 23, that if the US goes through with its plan to pull out of Syria, “it may positively affect the stability” in the north-east of the Arab Republic. “It will help stabilize the situation in this troubled region of the Syrian state, which is currently under control of Kurdish forces.”

Our Washington sources trace the White House vacillations to a dispute between two top officials: James Jeffrey, Trump’s special adviser for Syria and coordinator of the war on ISIS, and John Bolton, National Security Adviser. The former persuaded the president to give Turkey the advantage in northern Syria and work with Moscow for resolving the Syrian dispute – against the latter’s argument for neutralizing the Turkish interest there while boosting Israel’s military offensive against Iran.

Outfaced by Jeffrey, Bolton has lately dropped out of sight

Putin also finds his plans obstructed by the escalating Iranian-Israeli duel over Syria

DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources can disclose that a secret Iranian military intelligence delegation landed in southern Syria on Jan. 18, joined there by Tehran’s supreme Middle East commander, the Al Qods chief Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The visitors were on a mission from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to check out Soleimani’s advice for Tehran to capitalize on the disarray surrounding the Syrian issue. Not only is the White House divided on the scale and pace of the US pullback, he said, but Israel is at sixes and sevens, with Netanyahu facing election under a cloud of corruption charges and the Israel’s Defense Forces undergoing a changing of the guard with a new chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi. Soleimani also noted that the Trump administration is inching towards a deal with Turkey in northern Syria.

Soleimani therefore advised striking while the iron is hot for expanding Iran’s military grip on Syria.

He asked the ayatollah for permission to order the 10,000 troops of the powerful Iraqi Mobilization Units (PMU), he had massed on the Iraqi-Syrian border opposite Deir ez-Zour (which is also coveted by Putin), to cross over and deploy 20km from the Israeli Golan. This permission was withheld.

He also asked to be allowed to launch multiple surface missiles into Israel for every IDF air or ground missile attack on Iranian targets in Syria. He got permission to fire a single missile into Israel, which until then had been denied, but not the three to five he had requested. Multiple launches were subject to special permission from the supreme leader. Soleimani acted at once, launching a single Fatteh 110 surface missile against the Israeli Golan on Jan. 21. It was shot down.

The Russian president took extreme umbrage over the shooting of the missile by his ally without a word to Moscow. He therefore held back for two days from condemning Israel for its massive assault on Iranian sites. But the last thing Putin needs for getting his Syrian scenario off the ground is an explosion of violence between Iran and Israel. He tried rapping Israel on the knuckles. On Wednesday, Jan. 23 Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman MariaZakharova called a press conference to warn Israel that it must “rule out” airstrikes in Syrian territories. But Moscow understands that this warning will go unheeded. Indeed, both Jerusalem and Tehran appear to be intent on a course of their own in total disregard of Russia, is the same way as Ankara and Washington.

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