Russia Moves S-300 Battalion to Deir Ez- Zour Opposite US Al-Tanf Base
Five momentous events in Syria – three reported and two first revealed in this article – sent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flying to Brussels on Monday, Dec. 3, for an urgent, unannounced conference with US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. With him were Mossad Director Yossie Cohen and National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabat. He took off amid a domestic media frenzy over the just-published police recommendation to the state prosecutor to indict him for bribery.
Netanyahu returned home on Tuesday, shortly after the launch of a military operation to clear Hizballah’s secret cross-border tunnels, his second step since taking over as defense minister last month.
The three known events are outlined here by DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and military sources, together with hitherto classified details:
- On Thursday night, Nov. 29, Israel staged its most comprehensive surface missile attack ever against Iranian, Hizballah and Shiite militia targets and their Syrian hosts. They knocked out 15 command posts, bases and arms stores ranging from Zabadani northwest of Damascus near the Lebanese border down to Daraa in the south near the Syrian-Jordanian border. In between those two points, IDF missiles struck the Iranian command center at Al Kiswah south of Damascus and its satellite bases, as well as the Syrian-Iranian command center in Quneitra opposite the Israeli Golan, and its subsidiary facilities. This massive assault left 30 Iranians, Hizballah, Syrians and Pro-Iranian Shiite militiamen dead and dozens wounded.
- The following day, on Friday, Iran successfully tested a Khorramshahr medium-range ballistic missile (1,800-2,000km range) capable of carrying multiple warheads to objectives anywhere in the Middle East and parts of Europe. This missile can also carry a nuclear warhead.
- A day later, on Dec. 1, US Marine forces based at the strategic Al Tanf garrison, which is wedged in the junction of the Syrian, Jordanian and Iraqi borders, launched an artillery attack on a Syrian military convoy driving near the base, setting several trucks on fire. The convoy withdrew.
However, the next two events went unreported until their publication in this issue:
- A high-ranking military Gulf delegation, accompanied by American officers and under cover of coalition jets, is reported by Syrian sources as having visited Ayn Arab in the northern suburbs of the Syrian city of Aleppo for confidential talks with leaders of the US-Backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This visit took place after Washington asked Saudi Arabia and the UAE for billions of dollars to fund war damage reconstruction in northern Syria and deploy a detachment of troops there.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that a small, even token, presence of US-allied Arab forces in that part of Syria could lay the first bricks for a NATO-like local force to fill the vacuum in areas liberated from ISIS. Washington wants Islamic State pockets eliminated quickly in the east, so that the SDF with Arab backing can put a stop to Iranian forces and their proxies’ control of the Syrian-Iraqi border.
Some intelligence sources report that the first Arab troops have arrived and are manning the American observation posts going up along the borders of the US-controlled region, which extends from the Eastern Euphrates to Manjib in the norther suburbs of Aleppo (See DEBKA Weekly 826: US Maps out Area of Influence in NE Syria, Anchored on New Kurdish-led Political Entity and Army).
- Shortly before the G20 leaders gathered in Buenos Aires last Friday and Saturday (Nov.30-Dec. 1), the Russian military, on orders from the Defense Ministry in Moscow, transferred 100 S-300 missile batteries from the Masyef area in the west to a Syrian military brigade stationed at Deir ez-Zour in the east. For the first time since Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian war nearly three years ago, Russia moved S-300 air defense systems over to the Syrian-Iraqi border.
As recently as Nov. 20, Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon remarked, “Russia’s S-300 air defense missiles systems in Syria have no impact on the United States’ operation in the country.” He added: “Any additional arms sent into Syria only serve to escalate the situation at this point.”
Moscow cynically heeded this warning: But instead of sending additional arms to Syria, Russia moved those air defense missiles to the east to open a new front in close proximity to US bases there. Russia’s real motivation for deploying S-300s in Syria after the downing of their spy plane on Sept 17, was finally laid bare. It was less to thwart Israeli air strikes, as generally assumed, and more to plant a Russian air defense shield in eastern Syria and breathe down the necks of the US air force and coalition units moving into Syria through Iraqi airspace. Until now, Moscow took good care to stay out of the way of US aerial operations in Syria.
No longer. On Tuesday, Dec. 4, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, nominee to head US Central Command (CENTCOM), said: “The S-400, once activated, will increase the threat to our forces and our coalition partners flying over Syria,” he said. “We are still working out on how it is going to be executed.” He spoke during his confirmation hearing in the US Senate in reference to the S-400 mobile missile batteries Russia has deployed at its Khmeimim Airbase in Syria but not yet activated.
With this recently-deployed air defense system, Moscow presents its first direct challenge to the US military presence in eastern Syria. It plants a bomb under Washington’s road map for establishing a Syrian-Kurdish ruling entity there under US influence, and shields the Iranian Al-Qods Brigades, the pro-Iranian Shiite militias and Hizballah forces stationed in Deir ez-Zour. Not least, the Russian defenses inhibit Israeli air operations against those very forces.