After the downing of the Russian airliner over Sinai on Oct. 31, Moscow moved into positon to lead the offensive against the Islamic State in Syria. The Russian air force transferred a large number of assault helicopters out of its enclave in Latakia province over to two Syrian air bases east of Homs on the front lines against ISIS, debkafile’s military sources report. From the T4 (Tiyas) and Shayrat Airbases, the Russian command will lead the battle against the Islamic State over Homs, a city of one million inhabitants and the hub of central-eastern Syria. As the Russians move over from air strikes to the offensive against ISIS, they know their combat helicopters are now exposed to being shot down.
Homs came under direct threat on Nov. 1, when Islamic State forces captured the village of Mahin south of the city, cutting down the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Syrian army and Hizballah forces standing in their path and inflicting heavy casualties. Control of Mahin opened the way for ISIS and Syrian rebels to reach the southern suburbs of Homs and seize control of the strategic M5 Highway linking the city to Damascus.
Another group of Russian combat helicopters is now deployed at Hama Military Airport to block off the offensive ISIS and the Nusra Front are preparing to launch in the northern Idlib Province. There too jihadist forces have made advances. On Nov. 5, they snatched from the Syrian army the strategic town of Morek which commands the routes from the north to central Syria.
According to intelligence reports from southern Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, more Russian combat helicopter units are under orders to stand ready for transfer to Syria. Moscow is evidently preparing to take over from the Iranians, the Syrians and Hizballah the heavy-lifting of the war to stop further ISIS advances. More helicopters are needed to support this offensive if it is to go forward on all fronts.
Other intelligence sources report Russian “volunteer” units getting organized for departure to Syria from southern Russia and eastern Ukraine, detached from fighting alongside pro-Moscow separatists.
Their arrival in Syria would deepen Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian conflict and also mark its first participation in ground combat, contradicting President Vladimir Putin’s earlier pledge against putting Russian boots on the ground in Syria.
While intensifying the war on ISIS, the Kremlin is also pushing forward its plan for a political solution of the Syrian crisis, to be discussed at the forthcoming multinational conference in Vienna.
Tuesday, Nov. 10, a number of Western media claimed to “reveal” some of its key points, although the full seven-point blueprint was first published by DEBKA Weekly 684 on Oct. 30, under the heading:
Revealed: Russia’s Syrian Peace Plan
1. Russia and Washington will draw up an agreed “target list” of parties standing out against a political resolution of the conflict. They are to be attacked jointly by US and allies and Russian forces. The proposal does not go into the nature of a bilateral mechanism for determining who figures on the “target list.”
Moscow would really prefer the Russian and the US-led coalition air forces not to confine their attacks to ISIS, but extend them also to Syrian rebel groups. Russia could then refute US and NATO allegations that only one out of every nine Russian air strikes is directed against an ISIS target, with the majority aimed at Syrian rebel groups.
As DEBKA Weekly reported in its previous issue, the Obama administration did not reject a priori the proposed US-Russian air force collaboration in Syria and Iraq, but requested additional clarifications from Moscow.
2. Moscow proposes an immediate cease-fire on all Syrian army-rebel warfronts. The proposal does not say if it should apply to the foreign forces fighting in the country, such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hizballah, the pro-Iranian militias and the Russians themselves.
3. Once the cease-fire goes into effect, all the parties and organizations involved in the war will be convened for a national dialogue. This round-table conference will have three main goals:
A. Release of all prisoners and hostages held by the various sides.
B. Preparation of parliamentary and presidential elections with a general amnesty for political prisoners.
C. Establishment of a new government committed to implementing agreed constitutional reforms that center on the transfer of presidential powers from Assad to the designated prime minister.
In other words, Assad will not be made to step down as president at once, but will have to give up his presidential powers, including control of the military and intelligence services.
It is assumed that Putin put this clause before the Syrian ruler in Moscow as a diktat he had no choice but to accept.
4. The Russian president offers a personal guarantee that Assad will not be permitted to run for president in the coming elections, but he has accepted the Syrian ruler’s proviso that members of his family and ruling caste will be eligible for election.
5. All the rebel groups and militias that take part in implementing the Russian plan will be absorbed into Syria’s military or other security services and place themselves under their orders.
6. Governments and other bodies outside Syria will undertake to halt weapons supplies to all combatant forces. This provision applies not only to the US and Saudi Arabia with regard to rebel groups, but also to Russia and Iran as sponsors of the Syrian army.
7. Russia will continue to maintain military force in Syria as security for the agreement’s full implementation, contingent on UN Security Council endorsement of its presence.