Massive Russian-led air strikes on Wednesday July 4 terminated the four-day pause in Bashar Assad’s southwestern Syrian offensive. The lull was artificially induced for ceasefire negotiations. It broke down when the talks collapsed. DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources investigated how and why this turn of events came about.
- On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Syrian ruler Bashar Assad and ordered him to hold his army and his Hizballah and other pro-Iranian Shiite allies in check where they stood. (See attached map.) Air attacks on rebel-held locations in the Daraa province were to stop. The Syrian commanders obeyed the command, aside from a casual side swipe at Nassib near the Jordanian border. To guarantee their compliance, Russian commanders summoned the Iranian commander of the Syrian elite Tiger Forces, Brig. Gen. Salman al-Hassan, which are spearheading the Daraa offensive. For disobeying the order, Moscow would cut off ammo and spare parts supplies, he was cautioned.
- In a corresponding step, the Russian special envoy to Syria, Col. Alexander Zorin summoned a Jordanian official and Syrian rebel leaders to a meeting at Busra al-Sham, the first Daraa town to fall to Assad in his current offensive, to embark on ceasefire negotiations. Our sources report the meeting was attended by three Russian intelligence officers, a Jordanian military intelligence representative, Gen. Bashar al-Zoubi, C-n-C of the anti-Assad Southern Front, his deputy, and a Syrian opposition leader from the South who operates out of Amman. Both sides used their own interpreters.
The Russian proposal was for the rebels to hand over their heavy and medium weapons in return for which they could stay in their towns and villages without Syrian military occupation. They could continue to run the local administration they established during the war years, while Syrian government offices would take over provincial government, collect taxes and control the border crossings with Jordan. After six months, men of military age would report for service in the Syrian government army.
The rebel leaders turned the Russian proposals down. But negotiations are continuing on and off.
- The Russian moves are closely monitored by US and Israeli aerial surveillance. DEBKA Weekly reports that, while US forces have seemingly suspended all operations in Syria and Israel is operating sparingly (in a concession to Putin not to upset the soccer World Cup matches in Russia, according to unconfirmed reports), this is far from the real situation. Israeli air force squadrons are cruising 24/7 over the Syrian, Russian, Iranian and Hizballah lines in southwestern and southeastern Syria, watching their every move. High above the Israeli jets, US Navy strike planes from the USS Truman air carrier off the Syrian coast maintain a constant presence.
The two air fleets are making no effort to hide from Russian radar in Syria. It is clear from their formation and inter-communications that should the Russians launch anti-air weapons, including their advanced S-300 or S-400 batteries, against the Israeli overflights, both American and Israeli warplanes would respond by destroying them.
Our sources note that this is the first time in the history of superpower contests in the Middle East that the US is openly providing an Israeli air presence with an umbrella.
- The current US-Russian face-off is evolving into one of the most stressful inter-power moments in Middle East history since 1973 when they came close to nuclear blows on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. No one in Washington, Moscow or Jerusalem knows how it will end.
On Wednesday, Putin decided abruptly that a ceasefire and negotiations with the rebels of southern Syria did not serve his interests and ordered the resumption of attacks on rebel forces in the Daraa region. He reverted to his old stance of supporting the continued presence of Iran and Hizballah in Syria, thereby derailing an accommodation with the rebels, as well as with Jordan and Israel (whose prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is due in Moscow on July 11) and deepening Washington’s distrust.
The Russian president redoubled the air strikes to an unimaginable 60 per hour in the belief that, against his former predictions, the Syrian rebels could be defeated and subdued in time for his summit with US President Donald Trump on July 16 in Helsinki.
There is no way to tell how Putin’s gambit will turn out or predict the next turn of events in the wildly erratic Syrian war. Will the Trump-Putin summit go forward on schedule despite the widening gap between the presidents or will it be postponed?