Vladimir Putin blatantly defied US warnings against supporting the Syrian army’s drive south, violated his own 2017 de-escalation deal with Donald Trump, gave Iran another leg up in Syria – and after all that, bagged a summit with the US president. Moscow and Washington announced Thursday that the two presidents would hold their first full summit in Helsinki on July 16.
Putin calculated correctly, as it turned out, that Trump would not risk the summit by hitting back for the 25-30 Russian air strikes on June 24 inflicted on the rebel forces defending the southern Syrian town of Daraa on the Jordanian border, even though they voided the de-escalation zones he and Trump agreed to set up during a brief encounter last year.
Futile expressions of concern about the downturn of their security came from Jordan and Israel. King Abdullah scrambled on a plane to Washington, and Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu secretly called US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But the administration in Washington and most Middle East capitals turned blank faces of indifference as the Syrian army bludgeoned its way through civilian populations to reach its southern borders.
Syrian President Bashar Assad acted to nip potential interference in the bud. According to the information reaching DEBKA Weekly, he sent back-channel messages to King Abdullah and Prime Minister Netanyahu assuring them his current military offensives were aimed purely at recovering territory from rebel hands along his borders with Iraq, Jordan and Israel and restoring them to central government rule. He had decided against co-opting his Iranian, Shiite militia or Hizballah allies to the operation, he explained, because he was confident his own army could manage without help.
A high-ranking Syrian military delegation delivered this message to Amman over last weekend and the Russians were asked to carry it to Jerusalem.
Judging from the lack of a military comeback, Assad’s ruse worked, although his pledge soon proved hollow. Indeed, Israel leaders, from hitherto solemnly pledging almost daily to fight Iran’s bid to establish a military presence in Syria at any cost, had fallen silent. From an almost certain major clash with Iran in Syria, Israel had suddenly stepped back from the brink, although by Wednesday, June 27, Iran’s Shiite militiamen were not only on the scene in Daraa but depicted celebrating their victory.
Although preparations for the Putin-Trump summit were on the fast track, Moscow and Assad pushed forward with their plans, which focused additionally on removing obstacles from Iran’s path to a ramped-up presence in Syria. The US was to be forced to abandon its military bases and influence in northern and eastern Syria; Israeli and IDF ties with Syrian rebel groups in the Quneitra border region were to be smashed; and the Jordanian military intelligence lose its foothold in southwestern Syria.
Correspondingly, the Russians were seen from Washington to be beefing up Iran-led Shiite forces in Syria and tightening as never before the military cooperation between their air base at Khmeimim and naval command and Iran’s forces and proxies in Syria.
It was Moscow which took an active hand in getting Maj. Gen. Suheil al-Hassan from the Iranian Republican Guards appointed to lead the current Syrian offensive for capturing the Syrian South from rebel hands – up to the Jordanian and Israeli borders. This Iranian general, nicknamed “The Tiger,” has a personal admirer in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin. By the grace and favor of the Russian president, Tehran has been elevated to a dominant voice in the most critical decisions of the Syrian war, including efforts to negotiate the peaceful surrender of rebel forces holding the governates targeted by the new offensive, Daraa, Deir ez-Zour and Suweida.
In the absence of effective opposition, Moscow is making good progress in its goal of extending Syrian military control over the borderlands with Israel and Jordan, say DEBKA Weekly’s military sources; and the Russians are poised ready to throw US military forces out of eastern and northern Syria. The dual process is fast-moving. As the Syrian army and allies drive south, Russian forces, most of them hired mercenaries, are massing in the east and north, alongside pro-Iranian militias, ready to knock over the US-backed SDF and its Kurdish component, the YPG.
Local tribal chiefs were mustered for this eastern front at a large gathering called by Assad’s agents on June 2. According to Syrian state media, the chiefs of 70 clans arrived from the Aleppo, Raqqa, Hasakah, Daraa and Deir ez-Zour provinces. There were unconfirmed reports of the SDF arresting dozens of tribal representatives in the northern Hasakah province to prevent them from reaching the meeting. The chiefs were quoted as denouncing the presence of the US, France and Turkey in Syria and calling on all the tribal militias in the east to mobilize and fight for Bashar Assad.
The Russians contributed to the operation an Arab tribal force they had bought, as well as another group they had adopted, which called itself the Syrian ISIS Hunters. The latter was given Russian training and had fought in the past alongside Russian mercenaries. Some of the ISIS hunters were grouped in the southeastern Deir ez-Zour province since early June.
All this intelligence data undoubtedly landed on President Donald Trump’s desk in the Oval Office, and certainly reached the ears of his security advisers. It is no secret to them that Putin is aggressively consolidating his stake in Syria and promoting the Iranian footprint there, ready to put the Russian fait accompli on the table as part of the global order when he meets the US president in Helsinki. Trump has seemingly decided to overlook Putin’s conduct, and turn aside from US allies, for the sake of getting their first tête-à-tête off the ground. Trump may also incidentally be pleased to prove he was right when he said earlier this year that American troops in Syria ought to come home.