Sarin Gas Bomb: Russian-Iranian Distraction from Grand US Raqqa Plan
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came close to the truth when on April 4 he held Russia and Iran accountable for the poison gas attack perpetrated by a Syrian Air Force SU-22 bomber against the men, women and children of the Idlib town of Khan Sheikhoun.
The view in Trump administration circles, according to DEBKA Weekly’s Washington sources, is that Moscow and Tehran contrived the outrage to deflect President Donald Trump and the US army from the sweeping plans already in the making for Syria.
Those plans revolve around an offensive to evict ISIS from Raqqa, its Syrian stronghold. If Trump’s planning only stopped there, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Bashar Assad would have no quarrel with it.
But Raqqa is just one element of a much bigger and grander concept. Trump’s strategic advisers led by Defense Secretary James Mattis have resolved to convert the ruined former ISIS capital after its capture into one of the biggest US bases in the Middle East. Toward this end, several US engineering teams are working night and day to expand the Tabaqa air base, 45km west of Raqqa, and make it serviceable for a variety of warplanes, including heavy bombers.
Indeed, once the work is finished, Tabaqa will not only become the launching pad for air strikes against ISIS in Syria, it will replace the giant US base at Incirlik in southern Turkey.
The resulting all-American Raqqa-Tabaqa military hub promises to end up much bigger than the Russian military base at Khmeimim in Latakia, which currently holds 30-35 bombers and fighter jets.
Trump’s Raqqa grand project has three overarching strategic objectives:
1. To raise a barrier against Russian-Iranian-Syrian plans for an Iran-to-Syria land bridge leading to the Mediterranean. The US president had genuinely hoped to work with Putin in Syria, only to discover to his surprise (possibly out of political inexperience) that the Russian president was playing a double game: Behind his back, Putin intended leveraging US-Russian cooperation in Syria for boosting Iran’s influence in the region. That game, Trump decided to cut short.
When the US President declared Wednesday at his joint press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah that his “attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much,” he was also poking a finger at Russia and Putin.
2. Once a massive US military presence in Syria becomes permanent, the Iranians and Hizballah will understand that their overland and air links to the country are severed and they will start withdrawing their forces.
3, Establishing a replacement for Incirlik at Tabaqa will bring US-Turkish relations to the worst crisis in their history, not only because America will no longer depend on Ankara for a strategic air base in the region, but because Washington will be in position to guarantee and safeguard Kurdish independence in northern Syria.
This deal was sewn up on Tuesday, April 4, when Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff and President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner called on President Masoud Barzani of the semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdish region (KRG) in his capital, Irbil. Present too were Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani, the Peshmerga commander in chief Mohammad Haji Mahmoud and other officials.
When they saw Trump’s grand scheme moving forware, the rulers of Russia, Iran and Syria decided to torpedo it before it was too late. They devised the sarin bomb attack in which scores of Syrian civilians were to perish as a shocker for deflecting the Americans from their forward impetus. They reckoned that Trump would not be able to resist the pressure for his administration to punish the Assad regime by a small military operation with unpredictable consequences.
Trump gave the trio a lesson in unpredictability. Before deploying a single American troop, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence source reveal that he turned round and slapped down an ultimatum for Putin to either publicly renounce his support of Bashar Assad for criminally using a chemical weapon, or get ready for a large-scale US military operation in Syria.
Trump is sending Secretary Tillerson to Moscow this weekend to collect Putin’s answer. But before he set out, President Putin announced Thursday night that “Russian support for Bashar Assad is not unconditional.” Will this be enough to meet the US president’s ultimatum?