Hampered by a swarm of complications, Moscow this week delayed pushing the button for the shared Russian-Iranian-Syrian ground assault on Idlib to go forward. (See separate articles in this issue). On Wednesday, Sept 12, the Russian air force even paused its preliminary aerial strikes on Syria’s last rebel stronghold, after receiving abrupt orders to refocus on an altogether different target, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report. In the past 48 hours, Syrian pilots were pounding the last remnants of the Islamic State, gathered at their Syrian Desert retreat of Badiya Al-Sham on the Syrian-Iraqi border.
The Russian turnabout happened to coincide with a separate campaign waged jointly by the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Kurdish militias, with US air support, against the town of Hajin (pop: 60,000) east of the River Euphrates. It is estimated by Western spy agencies that ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is holed up there or in outlying villages with a party of jihadist fugitives.
The Russian air force’s change of course was ordered in the light of the following pressing circumstances:
- The White House notified the Kremlin that the Trump administration was determined to pursue military intervention in Syria – and not just in reprisal for Bashar Assad’s repeated use of chemical weapons in Idlib, but also for a ground offensive. President Donald Trump warned earlier this month against a “slaughter,” indicating that it would not tolerated by his administration. President Vladimir Putin has for the moment been deterred from making good on his threat to engage the US in a military clash in Syria.
- In the last 24 hours, Washington also warned Moscow it would be held accountable for the potential disaster caused by Russian-Iranian-Syria military action in Idlib and punished with a fresh round of US economic and financial sanctions.
- As Moscow hesitated on the brink of the Idlib attack, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan doubled the numbers of Turkish soldiers pouring into the province. A total of 23,000 troops were in place by Thursday night. He also instructed the Turkish high command to convey “very large” consignments of heavy weapons into Idlib for arming pro-Turkish militias. Our sources report that heavy artillery, mortars, and anti-tank and anti-air missiles were delivered to those groups overnight Thursday. (A separate article deals with Erdogan’s obstruction.)