Archive for the ‘Trump and Syria’ category

US won’t strike ISIS resurgent in Assad-ruled areas, pushes Russia to curb pro-Iranian Hizballah push near Israel

December 28, 2017

US won’t strike ISIS resurgent in Assad-ruled areas, pushes Russia to curb pro-Iranian Hizballah push near Israel, DEBKAfile, December 28, 2017

Israel has quietly warned the Trump administration that if this combined hostile force moves any closer, the IDF will have no option but to step in to push it back. Clearly, the understandings reached between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin were not holding up in this sector.

The next few days are therefore fraught with three critical uncertainties: (a) Will ISIS persevere in its westward movement, or be halted by military counteraction? (b)  Will the Syrian army, Hizballah and pro-Iranian forces push forward from Beit Jinn to Quneitra and Israel’s Golan border? Or will they be stopped? And (c) Will the Trump-Putin understandings hold water, or will they be scuttled by (a) and (b)?

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While openly blaming Syria (and Russia) for giving ISIS free rein, US quietly rebukes Moscow for not reining in the pro-Iranian push towards Israeli border.

“The Syrian regime has failed to prevent the resurgence of ISIS on their own soil,” said British Maj. Gen. Gedney, deputy commander of Strategy and Support for the US-backed coalition to defeat the Islamic State terror group.  And even in areas where Syrian forces have intensified their efforts against ISIS, progress has been, at best, fleeting, he said. “We’ve got no intention to operate in areas that are currently held by the [Assad] regime.”

DEBKAfile places the coalition general’s comments against the backdrop of the quiet deal struck earlier this month between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. That conversation charted a division of labor in the Syrian arena to avoid clashes between their forces. It was understood that Russia would reciprocate for US consent to abstain from operating west of the Euphrates (in Assad-ruled domains) by curbing Turkish, Iranian and Hizballah operations, especially in border regions.

Gedney’s comments, while only directly referring to ISIS, also coincided Wednesday with the fall of the Beit Jinn enclave in one of those operations.<

He went on to say that a “limited numbers of ISIS militants… seem to be moving with impunity through regime-held territory,” and pointed to a new concentration outside the US al-Tanf post in the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi border triangle. “We’ve clearly seen a lot of operations by pro-regime forces, Russian-backed Syrian forces over to the east of the [Euphrates] river,” Gedney said. “We’ve questioned the effectiveness of some of those operations.” Syria and Russia must do more to wipe out ISIS in areas still controlled by the regime, US officials insist.

The US-led coalition is clearly pressing for a decision as to who will assume responsibility for dealing with this rising ISIS threat. DEBKAfile’s sources note that, alongside this question, is the one the US is implicitly addressing to the Russians regarding another terrorist threat: This one is posed by the fall of Beit Jinn opposite an IDF outpost in the foothills of Mount Hermon to a combined Syrian-Hizballah-militia force under the command of Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers. At the moment, this combined force stands 11km from the Israeli border and appears to be poised to continue its victorious momentum for an assault on the Quneitra pocket on the doorstep of Israeli Golan, unless it is stopped.

Israel has quietly warned the Trump administration that if this combined hostile force moves any closer, the IDF will have no option but to step in to push it back. Clearly, the understandings reached between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin were not holding up in this sector.

The Trump-Putin understanding was first revealed on Dec. 22 in DEBKA Weekly 783 (for subscribers) and the DEBKA Files ILTV show on Dec. 25. According to our exclusive sources, that understanding was sealed in a long telephone conversation on the Syrian question between the two presidents on Dec. 14.

Until now, it was understood in Washington and Jerusalem that Russia would reciprocate for US consent to abstain from operating west of the Euphrates (in Assad-ruled domains) by curbing Turkish, Iranian and Hizballah operations. Their deal hinged on two major points:

  1.  The war on ISIS in eastern Syria. A joint war room run by Russian and US-backed Kurdish YPG militia officers was to be established to deploy troops for blocking the westward movement of ISIS forces. (Hence Gen. Gedney’s complaint about this continuing movement.)
  2. Russia and the US would team up to thwart military operations by Iran, Hizballah and Turkey in areas controlled by the Assad regime, especially in proximity to Syria’s borders with Turkey, Israel and Jordan. On this point, Washington undertook to warn the Turks off their plans to invade northwestern Syria and seize control of Idlib province, whereas Moscow was to have instructed Damascus, Tehran and Hizballah to desist from military activity on those borders. This point has likewise gone by the board.

According to DEBKAfile’s military sources, Moscow claims that Putin’s commitment to Trump was met by withholding Russian air support from the disputed Syrian-Hizballah operations. But, in actual fact, the Iranian-commanded force circumvented the Russians and their deal with the Americans by fighting for Beit Jinn without Russian air support and winning the day without its help. This was more than a tactical victory to throw in Israel’s face; it set up a new reality in Syria, whereby Iran and Hizballah can cock a snoot at Moscow, its air cover and its deals with the Americans and go forward to win battles regardless and without Russian help.

The next few days are therefore fraught with three critical uncertainties: (a) Will ISIS persevere in its westward movement, or be halted by military counteraction? (b)  Will the Syrian army, Hizballah and pro-Iranian forces push forward from Beit Jinn to Quneitra and Israel’s Golan border? Or will they be stopped? And (c) Will the Trump-Putin understandings hold water, or will they be scuttled by (a) and (b)?

Putin summons Assad to Sochi, takes charge of shaping post-war Syria

November 21, 2017

Putin summons Assad to Sochi, takes charge of shaping post-war Syria, DEBKAfile, November 21, 2017

President Vladimir Putin and Syria’s Bashar Assad agreed in Sochi on Monday, Nov. 20, to start addressing Syria’s political situation now that the “terrorists” are defeated and the war is drawing to a close.

Putin insisted that diplomacy for a Syrian post-war settlement should go forward under UN aegis. Assad replied that he hoped for “Russia’s help in ensuring that the Syrians themselves lead the process, with help from outside, but not ‘interference.’”

The Syrian ruler would accept an external UN frame, but is clearly opposed to any outside attempts by the UN or anyone else to interfere in the country’s internal political dialogue or try to impose solutions on the parties.

That much is evident from the official accounts of the Sochi meeting. Its real content may be quite different. It stands to reason that Putin leaned hard on his guest to make sure that Assad toed the Moscow line.

The Russian president then announced he would be spending the next day in telephone consultations on Syria’s future with US President Donald Trump and a number of Middle East leaders. Word on what transpired at the Sochi interview and in those phone calls will most likely emerge in reports from Moscow and Damascus in the coming days.

Meanwhile, DEBKAfile’s Middle East and Russian sources fill in some of the context:

  1. Putin and Assad may have shaken hands in token of the Syrian war’s end, but both are perfectly aware that it is not yet over. One main stage, the defeat of the Islamic State and liberation of the territory it occupied, is more or less in the bag. But although most Syrian rebel groups have been broken, the civil rebellion persists.
  2. There is no indication of a silent contest said to be afoot between Russia and Iran for the domination of post-war Syria. For now, they complement each other, which each assigned a slice of territorial influence. The Russian army controls parts of the Mediterranean coastland, while Iran is extending its control of the Damascus region and Syria’s two border regions with Lebanon and Iraq and their highway connections. Close teamwork is also apparent on the battlefield with Russia actively supporting Iran and Hizballah.
  3. The Sochi meeting was only the beginning of a long and difficult diplomatic process that could go on for many months, if not years, punctuated with ups and downs, pauses and outbreaks of hostilities.
  4. Bashar Assad survived more than seven years of a vicious and grueling war and emerged as the winner. He may well try to repeat this feat in the diplomatic contest over Syria’s political future.

On Wednesday, Nov. 22, the next steps in Syria will be discussed at a meeting of Russian, Turkish and Iranian leaders. (It is not yet clear if attendance will be at head-of-state or foreign ministerial level). Syria will not be present. Therefore, this trilateral forum will be in charge.

On the same day, Saudi Arabia has scheduled a meeting of Syrian opposition leaders in Riyadh.

A week hence, on Nov. 28, the UN-sponsored conference on the Syria crisis convenes in Geneva in which the US has a major stake..

Israel tries to balance Iran strategy between Trump and Putin

October 17, 2017

Israel tries to balance Iran strategy between Trump and Putin, DEBKAfile, October 17, 2017

(Please see also, Iran Plays Chess, We Play Checkers. — DM)

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, at the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, on October 17, 2017. Photo by Hadas Parush/FLASH90 *** Local Caption *** יד ושם
רוסיה
שר ההגנה הרוסי
סרגיי שויגו
שר הביטחון
אביגדור ליברמן
ראש הממשלה

The Israeli defense minister is due to fly to Washington Wednesday, Oct. 18, for talks with US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabat goes on ahead to meet his US counterpart Gen. H.R. McMaster.

However, as seen from Moscow – and possibly Jerusalem too – the Trump administration is more to blame than any other actor operating in the Middle East for Iran’s deepening grip on Syria, US actions starkly contradicting the president’s fiery rhetoric against the Islamic Republic and all its actions.

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Israel’s leaders stressed to Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu the importance of thwarting Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria. But can’t expect much from Moscow – any more than Washington.  

Visiting Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu heard Tuesday, Oct. 17, from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman that Israel would not stand for Iran and Hizballah making Syria their forward operational base against Israel, and would act to prevent their military entrenchment along the Syrian-Israeli border.

This was not news to the Russian minister, on his first visit to Israel since his appointment five years ago. The Kremlin has heard this mantra time and time and again and the visitor must have wondered what his Israeli hosts expected him to do. Both Shoigu and his boss, President Vladimir Putin, would also prefer not to see Iran dug deep militarily in Syria. So oddly enough, Moscow and Jerusalem could find a sliver of common ground for cooperating in both Syria and Iraq, but for their different viewpoints. While the Russians are practical enough to live with a strong Iranian military presence in Syria so long as it serves their interests, Israel is flatly against Iran or its proxies’ proximity to its borders as a grave peril to its national security.

The Israeli defense minister is due to fly to Washington Wednesday, Oct. 18, for talks with US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabat goes on ahead to meet his US counterpart Gen. H.R. McMaster.

However, as seen from Moscow – and possibly Jerusalem too – the Trump administration is more to blame than any other actor operating in the Middle East for Iran’s deepening grip on Syria, US actions starkly contradicting the president’s fiery rhetoric against the Islamic Republic and all its actions.

Since late September, the US has been drawing down most of its positions in eastern Syria, opening the door for Hizballah to walk in and for pro-Iranian Iraqi militias to take control of the Syrian-Iraqi border. This has made Tehran the strategic gift of its coveted land bridge to the Mediterranean.

Shoigu arrived in Tel Aviv on the day, Monday, Oct. 16, on which pro-Iranian militias under the command of a Revolutionary Guards general, Qassem Soleimani, swept the Iraqi oil center of Kirkuk out of the hands of America’s allies, the Kurdish Peshmerga, a leading light in the US-led coalition for fighting the Islamic State.

If Trump meant what he said about beating down the Revolutionary Guards, why did he not stop them from taking Kirkuk?

In contrast to the Kirkuk debacle, the US-backed SDF Syrian Kurdish-Arab force said Tuesday that the Islamic State’s Syrian capital of Raqqa had fallen after a bitter four-month battle. The Kurdish YPG militia raised its flag over the municipal stadium and chanted victory slogans from vehicles driving through the streets.

DEBKAfile’s sources report that when word of the victory reached the White House, Brett McGurk, President Trump’s special envoy for the global coalition versus ISIS, set out from Washington to Raqqa

But that operation was the exception – not the rule. In Iraq, Washington stood by as the Revolutionary Guards called the shots against the Kurds.

For weeks, Moscow has been asking Washington to explain what it is up to on the Syrian and Iraqi warfronts and has come up empty. Israeli visitors are unlikely to fare much better when they put the same question to top Trump administration officials, even taking into account the profound difference in the relationship between Jerusalem and Washington compared with Moscow and Jerusalem.

 

Trump ends program to arm anti-Assad jihadis in Syria

July 20, 2017

Trump ends program to arm anti-Assad jihadis in Syria, Jihad Watch

(Please see also, Trump to end lavish CIA support for ‘moderate’ anti-Assad forces in Syria. — DM)

The Washington Post casts this story as evidence that President Trump is a pawn of the Russians, which is more of the Left’s ridiculous campaign to portray the 2016 election as having been stolen by Vladimir Putin. But this is the right decision. These “rebels” are mostly jihadis; arming and aiding them is arming and aiding enemies of the United States.

“Trump ends covert CIA program to arm anti-Assad rebels in Syria, a move sought by Moscow,” by Greg Jaffe and Adam Entous, Washington Post, July 19, 2017:

President Trump has decided to end the CIA’s covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the government of Bashar al-Assad, a move long sought by Russia, according to U.S. officials.

The program was a central plank of a policy begun by the Obama administration in 2013 to put pressure on Assad to step aside, but even its backers have questioned its efficacy since Russia deployed forces in Syria two years later.

Officials said the phasing out of the secret program reflects Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia, which saw the anti-Assad program as an assault on its interests. The shuttering of the program is also an acknowledgment of Washington’s limited leverage and desire to remove Assad from power.

Just three months ago, after the United States accused Assad of using chemical weapons, Trump launched retaliatory airstrikes against a Syrian air base. At the time, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, said that “in no way do we see peace in that area with Assad at the head of the Syrian government.”

Officials said Trump made the decision to scrap the CIA program nearly a month ago, after an Oval Office meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster ahead of a July 7 meeting in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Spokesmen for the National Security Council and the CIA declined to comment….

Trump Admin Authorizes Strikes on Iranian-Backed Forces

July 5, 2017

Trump Admin Authorizes Strikes on Iranian-Backed Forces, Washington Free Beacon, July 5, 2017

(Please see also, Astana Peace Talks Fail over Syrian Safe Zones. — DM)

Syrian regime and pro-regime forces inspect an area recently recaptured from the Islamic State near Aleppo / Getty Images

U.S. forces have been instructed to take all measures needed to protect American interests in Syria, including military measures, as part of a new strategy that comes after top officials in the Trump administration assessed that Iran is deliberately probing American weaknesses and reactions on the Syrian battlefield, according to senior Trump administration officials who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon.

Iran-backed forces, including Hezbollah, have already initiated multiple encounters with the United States by violating agreements worked out between Washington and Moscow aimed at preventing the various factions targeting ISIS inside Syria from coming into conflict. This is part of a campaign that analysts inside and outside the White House believe is aimed at testing the Trump administration’s resolve, sources said.

“That was very clearly a process of the Iranians and Hezbollah and [the] Syrian regime probing and testing our limits, and testing how much we were willing to do,” one senior Trump administration official said. “In every case, it was a matter of them testing and probing, and us responding by defending ourselves.”

These clashes were the result of pro-Syrian regime forces, including Iran and Hezbollah, “violating a de-confliction measure that had been worked out with the Russians,” the official said. “The forces violated the measure.”

The Trump administration has instructed U.S. forces to respond to Iranian attacks with force if necessary.

“What they found out very quickly,” said the official, was “us responding by defending ourselves. What was established was that we’re determined to defend ourselves.”

This new strategy is being implemented at the same time the Trump administration turns its attention to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the Islamic Republic’s paramilitary force that coordinates operations in Syria and other warzones.

Trump administration officials view the IRGC as being part of “every malignant protrusion of the Iranian regime,” according to one administration official, who said the White House is dually focused on choking off this force.

The actions by U.S. forces are part of a broader pushback against Iran, ranging from battlefield responses to diplomatic action, according to a veteran Iran policy analyst who has been briefed by the White House both on parts of the Syria strategy and on parts of an ongoing Iran policy review being conducted by the administration.

The Free Beacon first reported many details of the review several weeks ago, including actions by the Trump administration to potentially block the sale of U.S. commercial aircraft to Tehran.

“For the first time since the U.S. intervened into the Syrian conflict, American forces have been authorized to do take all measures to defend U.S. interests against Iranian provocations and aggression,” said the source. “This is part of a concrete strategy that has already been implemented in part, and is being bolstered every day, but very senior Trump officials. No more of watching U.S. forces get rolled in Syria, and also no more of thanking Iran after they seize our sailors in the Gulf.

One senior Trump administration official familiar with the Iran policy review said the White House is currently “in the thick of it,” evaluating a range of options to confront Iran’s global terror operations.

The review expands far beyond the landmark nuclear deal, according to the administration officials.

“The tack we’ve taken is not to put the [Iran deal] at the center of the policy,” one senior administration official said. “The goals we set out focus on how to neutralize the threat the Iranian regime poses to the US and its allies in the region.”

U.S. official see the nuclear deal as secondary given Iran’s continued terrorist operations and pursuit of illicit arms. This is why the IRGC’s activities have become a source of concern in the White House.

“You find the IRGC in every malignant protrusion of the Iranian regime,” the senior administration official said. “They’re in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon,” and elsewhere.

As the U.S. plots its course with Iran, the Islamic Republic continues to invest in a massive military buildup that many believe has been partially funded by the economic sanctions relief granted under the former Obama administration.

Iranian military officials announced on Monday that the country will soon implement its own version of Russia’s advanced S-300 missile defense system, which Tehran purchased in a controversial arms deal opposed by many Western nations.

“Steady work efforts are being made on Bavar 373 missile system and a number of tests have been carried out on this system, and these tests will continue until the date of delivery,” according to Iranian military officials, who predicted the system would be perfected by March of next year.

Syria declares truce before Trump-Putin talks

July 3, 2017

Syria declares truce before Trump-Putin talks, DEBKAfile, July 3, 2017

The picture beginning to unfold is that Washington and Moscow are making an effort to put in place the outline of a plan for deconfliction zones, in time for the first Trump-Putin encounter that is scheduled for later this week on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg.

However, the two presidents may find pushing hard against them are Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Assad and Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Syrian and Iraqi fronts. This trio is in full momentum of an offensive to seize this prized, bitterly-contested border region of Syria, and convinced that the tide of this offensive is rolling in their favor.

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The Syrian army Monday July 3 suddenly declared a ceasefire in the fierce fighting with rebel forces in the southern districts on the Israeli and Jordanian borders.

This was just one of three unexpected events occurring in this embattled part of Syria in the last 24 hours:

1. The ceasefire Damascus said would be in force up until Wednesday, July 6 covers all the active battlefronts in the South: Daraa just 1 km from the Jordanian border: Quneitra – from which Syrian military mortars flew across into the Golan all last week; and Suwaydeh which lies east of Daraa.

Oddly enough, the ceasefire was not announced until Monday afternoon, although it went into effect Sunday midnight without notice.  According to our sources, the Russians most likely had to twist President Bashar Assad’s arm to overcome his refusal to order his army to stop fighting. And then too he would only accept a four-day pause before resuming combat.

2.  The announcement coincided with a meeting of Russian, Turkish and Iranian diplomats in the Kazakh capital of Astana to discuss the carving out of four de-escalation zones in Syria, one of which is southern Syria, where the ceasefire went into force.

3. DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources reveal that this step is the first visible sign of an initial understanding reached by American and Russian officers in secret talks Saturday, July 1, in Amman. They discussed the ceasefire in the South for paving the way for establishing a demilitarized zone in eastern Syria.

According to our sources, their understanding covered a 128km strip running from Tabqa in the north up to Karama in the Euphrates River valley. It is not yet clear whether the Syrian army and the pro-Iranian Iraqi and Hizballah forces fighting there will agree to halt their advance on the Syrian-Iraqi border, in compliance with the Russian-US understanding.

The picture beginning to unfold is that Washington and Moscow are making an effort to put in place the outline of a plan for deconfliction zones, in time for the first Trump-Putin encounter that is scheduled for later this week on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg.

However, the two presidents may find pushing hard against them are Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Assad and Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Syrian and Iraqi fronts. This trio is in full momentum of an offensive to seize this prized, bitterly-contested border region of Syria, and convinced that the tide of this offensive is rolling in their favor.

Putin & Trump discuss Iranians on Israel’s border

May 3, 2017

Putin & Trump discuss Iranians on Israel’s border, DEBKAfile, May 3, 2017

(President Trump’s influence with Putin seems to have diminished substantially in the absence of General Flynn. — DM)

Israel was seriously dismayed Wednesday, May 3, when first reports reached Jerusalem about the telephone conversation between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin Tuesday, during which Trump agreed to consider Putin’s plan for “de-escalation zones” in Syria, in place of the American security zones proposal. The Russian president’s plan includes the posting of Iranian military officers as co-monitors for those zones, one of which is to be located on the Syrian-Israeli border.

President Trump described the conversation as “Very good.”

The four “de-escalation zones” proposed would be situated at:

1. The northwestern province of Idlib up to the Turkish border;

2. The central Syrian province of Homs (where also the Al-Shariat air base hit by US Tomahawks last month is located);

3. The East Ghouta suburb of Damascus (including also a big military airfield);

4. The Southern region along Syria’s borders with Jordan and Syria.

The Russian president explained that the “guarantor countries” – i.e. Russia, Turkey and Iran – would appoint the monitors for the de-escalation zones.

DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources report that Israel was deeply concerned to discover that President Trump had nodded to Putin going forward with his plan, despite Iran’s active involvement. He was even ready to send a US official for the first time to the fourth round of the Syrian peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition in Astana Wednesday, although this process is jointly sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran. Stuart Jones, acting assistant Secretary of State, was sent to attend the meeting in the Kazakh capital as an observer, thereby elevating the former American representation from ambassador..

This development caused Israeli disquiet on a number of grounds:

a) The Iranian monitors for the new zones will sit directly opposite the Israeli border. Notice has gone out to Washington and Moscow that the Israeli government will on no account countenance an Iran military presence along its border.

b)  Israel also eyes with mistrust the possible deployment of Russian and Turkish offices along its border with Syria.

c)  Declaring eastern Damascus a protected zone would obstruct Israel aerial operations for keeping Iranian air shipments of advanced weapons via Syria out of Hizballah’s hands. Iran would be able to renew its shipments under full protection.

You can read more about the Russian and American “zones” for Syria in the coming issue of DEBKA Weekly out Friday, May 5. To subscribe to this publication, click here.

d)  There were also some misgivings in Israel about the way National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster characterized President Trump’s approach to foreign policy, shortly before Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas arrived at the White House on Wednesday.

“The president is not a super-patient man,” he said. He does not have time to “debate over doctrine, and instead seeks to challenge failed policies of the past with a businessman’s results-oriented approach,” McMaster said.

The trouble is that Middle East issues, such as the Syrian conflict and Israeli security, demand patience and rather more than a businessman’s results-oriented approach, else they may lead to such potentially disastrous consequences as an Iranian military presence that is far too near and dangerous for Israel to countenance.