President Donald Trump doubled down on his pressure for Vladimir Putin to give up his planned Idlib operation. But his tweeted warning – “Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed” – came at the 11th hour. Warnings of hundreds of thousands of deaths are a well-worn, cynical cliché in Syrian war parlance and invariably support political agendas. However, Trump is serious about seeking to avert the Idlib offensive, as DEBKAfile reported in the last fortnight, and has been using every military and diplomatic tool to hand to this end. This could be a slaughter, he warned, referring to some three million people packed there, including a large colony of rebels who were defeated on other Syrian battlefields and assembled with their displaced families in the last place of refuge, Idlib.
Trump believes furthermore that the Idlib offensive needs to be deflected as the designated cornerstone of Russia’s strategy for Syria, for which Putin had called an important summit with Iranian and Turkish Presidents, Hassan Rouhani and Tayyip Erdogan on Friday, Sept.7.
The Trump administration set three moves in play for disrupting Putin’s plans:
- A secret directive to ramp up air and missile attacks on Iranian targets in Syria.
- The dispatch of top diplomats, the US president’s new Special Representative fo Syria Engagement, Ambassador James Jeffrey and Special Envoy for Syria, Joel Rayburn, on visits to Jerusalem, Ankara and Amman.
- Quiet steps to mend US fences with Turkey after relations dropped to freezing. Jeffrey was chosen as emissary because of his long experience as US ambassador to Ankara, during which he cultivated warm personal relations with Erdogan, who is known to heed his advice.
At their first stop, on Sunday, Sept. 2, the two US envoys were closeted for hours with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Their arrival coincided that morning with the second of a string of air and missile attacks on Iranian-Syrian targets: Surface missiles launched from Israel blew up ammunition depots belonging to Iran and Hizballah at the Mezzeh air base outside Damascus. shortly after Iranian freight planes unloaded a new shipment of missiles from Tehran.
This assault came shortly after a US air strike pummeled a Syrian-Iranian military convoy, that include Afghan Shiite militia troops, as it drove not far from Al Tanf, the main US base in eastern Syria which straddles the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border. A US directive has enclosed an area of 55km around the base as a no-go zone, but the convoy was attacked 80km from the Al Tanf base, to signal Tehran that this Iraqi-Syrian corridor was now slammed shut in both directions.
The next day, no sooner had Jeffrey and Rayburn left Jerusalem, when Israeli warplanes were back in the sky, this time with US air cover, for an attack on the Al-Khalkhalah air base in southeastern Syria on the western slopes of Jabal Druze. The Syrian force has used this base to launch strike helicopters on attacks in the region, but more recently, Iran has located large weapons stores there to serve the Iraqi Shiite militias assembling in the Anbar province of western Iraq, ready to push across the border into Syria. These stores were blown up from the air, the explosions heard 30km away as far as Sweida.
Therefore, while published rhetoric and analysis all focused on the coming Idlib offensive in the north, plenty of action was going forward in the southeast as well, pitting the US and Israel against Iran and Syria in a direct military duel. DEBKA Weekly’s sources report
During their visit to Israel, Jeffrey and Rayburn had a chance to see the new US-Israeli coordination deal tested in action against Iranian and Syria military assets. The deal was mapped out during National Security Adviser John Bolton‘s four-day stay in Israel when he briefed Netanyahu on the Trump administration’s next political steps in the region. This week, the two US envoys presented the prime minister with the administration’s three-point plan for transforming the situation in Syria. Its main points disclosed here by DEBKA Weekly consist of –
(a) Harnessing the Turkish president to the US goal of preventing the Idlib offensive when he meets his Russian and Iranian opposite numbers in Tehran on Friday. To turn Erdogan around, the following steps were to be taken;
- A ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurdish PKK terrorist movement on which US brokers have been working in secret for some weeks.
- Terminating the hostility between Turkey and the Syrian Kurdish PYD party and its military wing the YPG.
- Opening the Syrian-Iraqi border for linking the Syrian Kurdish cantons in the north with the semiautonomous Kurdish State of Iraq.
- Easing US sanctions pressure on the Turkish lira, which continued to slump against the dollar on Monday ahead of the release of August data, as investors continued to mistrust Erdogan’s monetary and other policies. The Turkish currency’s loss of 42pc this year was accelerated by the row with Washington over Turkey’s detention of the American pastor Andrew Brunson.
- First steps for Brunson’s release and repatriation.
(b) Jordan will continue to keep the Naseeb border crossing – Syria’s main export corridor to the Gulf – shut, notwithstanding the Amman-Damascus agreement to keep it open. No progress can be made for Syria’s economic recovery without this corridor.
(c) The US and Israel will keep on revving up their attacks on Iranian military targets in Syria.
Putin looks like sidestepping these hurdles and pressing on with the Idlib offensive – even at the risk of tangling with US troops in a military clash in Syria. Washington believes that Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan holds the key to holding Putin back and may be willing to use his clout at the Friday summit – for the right price. (The next article outlines the deal the US tentatively reached with this mercurial Turkish leader.)
Note on Idlib:
The area of the Idlib governorate in northwest Syria is roughly 6,000 sq.km and divided into five districts, Ariha, Harem, Idlib, Jisr ash-Shugur and Maarat al-Numaan. It has a population of around three million. The town of Idlib is some 35 kilometers from the Turkish border. In recent years, the province has become the stronghold of an array of anti-Assad Sunni rebel groups, some of which are remnants of the Islamic State who escaped after their defeat in Aleppo, Raqqa and Manbij; others are affiliated to Al Qaeda, or losers in the battles waged by Russian- and Iranian- backed Syrian forces across the country. Idlib is the last province still to be brought under control of the Assad regime. Winning it could present one of the toughest battles to be fought in the seven-year civil war. Security sources estimate the presence of 60,000 rebel and jihadist fighters in the province, nearly 15,000 of them “foreign terrorists.” Around 600 of them are from European countries, some 6,000 from Chechnya and Russian Caucasus and some 7,000 from Central Asia, mostly Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Russia and China. International counter-terrorism agencies are anxious to prevent them returning to their home countries, most probably through Turkey.