A mysterious hand is knocking over the Russian and Hizballah military commands at the head of a major push into eastern Syria and stalling their advance. Last week, two top Russian commanders were killed in an Islamic State shelling; this week, a pack of Hizballah elite fighters and their commander were wasted.
The last DEBKA Weekly issue, no. 771 (Putin Vows Harsh Punishment for the Hand behind Russian General’s Shocking Death), described how Russian intelligence was baffled in its probe into the source of the tip-off which guided an Islamic State’s mortar crew to the exact whereabouts for the Russian command post near Deir ez-Zour on Sept. 23. Lt. Gen. Valery Asapov, commander of Russian forces in Syria was killed and Col. Valery Fedyanin, commander of the 61st Russian Marine Brigade, later died of his wounds. A third colonel was injured. The entire Russian command center went up in smoke.
On Monday, Oct. 2, an unidentified drone struck a Hizballah position in another part of the Deir ez-Zour province. At least ten members of the Lebanese Shiite elite force, including high field commanders, were killed.
The diverse reports on the attack pointed to more confusion. Some claimed it was friendly fire from a Russian drone, which occurred in eastern Homs; another placed it east of Palmyra. Hizballah itself tried to hold back the number and identities of the victims to hide the scale of its losses.
But on the same day, Ali al-Asheq, the commander of Hizballah’s Intervention Unit, which spearheads the Russian-backed Syrian government campaign in eastern Syria, was driving out of the wrecked position in convoy, when his vehicle ran over an ISIS mine. He was killed on the spot.
The precise targeting of these attacks, which decimated the entire campaign’s core assets, raised suspicions of a mysterious hand at work.
The fury in Moscow brought forth a blast against the United States from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday, Oct. 3. He bluntly accused “the United States and its allies” of orchestrating “deadly provocations” against Russian troops in Syria.” He suggested that they either “accidentally bomb Syrian troops, after which Islamic State militants launch an offensive; or they get other terrorists to attack strategically important projects… or they stage deadly provocations against our military servicemen.”
Lavrov commented that according to international law, the US and its coalition are “unwelcome guests in Syria.”
Last week, his deputy, Sergei Ryabkov, directly blamed US “two-faced policy” for the death of Gen. Asapov. This was flatly denied by Washington.
The outraged backlash from Moscow was a mark of Russian intelligence frustration over its inability to pin down the hand or hands behind the decapitation of their top combat command in eastern Syria. DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources don’t imagine that the killer-blows could have come in such quick succession at random. Despite the absence of solid evidence, it must be presumed that they were guided by the same mysterious hand.
Russian anti-US reports continued to be published on Thursday, Oct. 5 when the defense ministry in Moscow charged that an offensive launched by Al Qaeda’s affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front, to capture a unit of the Russian military police in Idlib, was orchestrated by US security services. Notwithstanding US denials, the Russian MoD released aerial intelligence which they say shows US Army Special Forces equipment in an Islamic State-held area north of Deir ez-Zour. This too was denied by the US.