Posted tagged ‘Syria ceasefire’

Trump-Putin deal imperils Israeli, Jordan borders

August 12, 2017

Trump-Putin deal imperils Israeli, Jordan borders, DEBKAfile, August 12, 2017

Local US-backed Syrian rebel groups disbanded without a shot, went over to the Syrian government side and handed in their US-supplied weapons to Syrian army and Hizballah fighters.

Sooner or later, the Sweida model will be replicated in Quneitra. Neither the Russian troops nor UN peacekeepers will fight to stop it happening. By then, the Syrian rebel groups, in whose support Israel invested for years as a buffer against hostile Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah forces, are already falling apart. Disowned by their Saudi backers, they are being crushed by the US-Russian “de-escalation” steamroller. Israel like Jordan will soon find three hostile forces sitting pretty just across its border, far too close for safety.

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The transformation of a small, strategic wedge of land between the Syrian, Israeli, Jordanian and Iraqi borders is going forward apace without arousing much interest – even in Israel, where it should cause the most concern, DEBKAfile reports.

On Wednesday, Aug. 8, two Russian army companies of Ingushet troops from the northern Caucasus set up a command post in the Syrian village of Tal al-Shahm, 13km from Israel’s Golan border. Its commander, Col. Alexei Kozin, has thus taken charge of Syria’s border with Israel. As DEBKAfile reported last month, his task is to set up 10 control checkpoints along that border.

This border area was designated as one of four de-escalation zones agreed on between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at their meeting in Hamburg on July 7.

According to understandings reached between Washington, Moscow and Jerusalem, the UN separation force (UNDOF) will return to its Fawar base opposite Quneitra as a buffer between IDF and Russian forces. Its past history in this role between IDF and Syrian forces was never exactly impressive.

A piece of diplomacy consistent with this process was contributed by Russian foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday, Aug. 11. It was an assurance that Russia would take into account Israel’s interests in Jerusalem in the framework of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

It also fits in with the surprising statement from Washington on the same day, namely, that Donald Trump, although in the midst of a fearsome crisis with North Korea with military overtones, is planning to send his senior adviser, son-in-law Jared Kushner and Israel-Palestinian peace broker Jason Greenblatt, on an early visit to the Middle East to continue this mission.

To see how these disparate elements fill out the whole picture, we turn 70km east from Quneitra on the Syria Golan to the battles ongoing at Sweida in southeastern Syria opposite the Jordanian and Iraqi borders. Russian troops moved into the key town of Daraa, abutting on the Jordanian border on July 13. Like in Quneitra, a month later, they set up command posts to monitor the first de-escalation or ceasefire zone to be set up under the Hamburg accord.

The Russian troops’ assignment was to stop the fighting there and execute the withdrawal of the combatant forces, the Syrian army, Iran, and its foreign Shiite militias, including Hizballah, to a distance of 40km from the border.

But that arrangement never stood up.

Nearly four weeks later, on Wednesday night, Aug. 9, on the same night that Russian troops moved into Quneitra, the Syrian army and Hizballah launched a major offensive in Sweida province. Three days later, by Saturday, they had forced the local rebel forces to retreat into Jordan and seized 57km of Syria’s southern frontier with the Hashemite Kingdom.

Neither the Russians nor the American interfered with the Syrian-Hizballah-led push, although the Russians took responsibility for maintaining the ceasefire, and US special forces were and still are posted to the east of Sweida at Al-Tanf in the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi border triangle.

(See attached map)

DEBKAfile’s military sources add that the Syrian-Hizballah offensive violated the ceasefire deal. Local US-backed Syrian rebel groups disbanded without a shot, went over to the Syrian government side and handed in their US-supplied weapons to Syrian army and Hizballah fighters.

The Sweida episode demonstrated how the Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah alliance sees its way to using the Trump-Putin ceasefire zones accord as an open door for seizing control of southern Syria and grabbing the Jordanian and Israeli borders.

The Syrian rebel movement is disintegrating at an alarming rate following the “Jubeir earthquake,” as it has become known – another momentous event which Western and Israeli front pages have chosen to ignore.

Last week, Saudi Foreign Mniser Adel al-Jubeir reportedly informed a delegation of Syrian opposition leaders invited to Riyadh that his government was pulling its support from their fighting militias, in the wake of President Trump’s decision to reduce US military action in Syria solely to the war on ISIS – and therefore end US resistance to the Assad regime.

Saudi officials did not deny the report, only termed it “inaccurate.”

But meanwhile, the decisions by Riyadh and Washington to abandon the anti-Assad cause spread like wildfire among Syrian rebel groups. Many responded by laying down their arms and surrendering.

The fate of the rebel movement after six years of cruel warfare against the dictator Bashar Assad should be an object lesson to other recipients of American and Russian promises. Therefore, Lavrov’s pledge to take Israel’s interests in Jerusalem into account should be taken with a pinch of salt. He was most likely shooting a line to allay Israeli skepticism about the prospect of Russian troops keeping Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah troops at bay from its northern border – even through this pledge was underwritten by Washington.

Instead of taking the two powers at their word, Israel need only watch what is going on in the last few hours just across the border at Sweida, to appreciate the value of such promises.

Sooner or later, the Sweida model will be replicated in Quneitra. Neither the Russian troops nor UN peacekeepers will fight to stop it happening. By then, the Syrian rebel groups, in whose support Israel invested for years as a buffer against hostile Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah forces, are already falling apart. Disowned by their Saudi backers, they are being crushed by the US-Russian “de-escalation” steamroller. Israel like Jordan will soon find three hostile forces sitting pretty just across its border, far too close for safety.

Russia flies 2,000 mercenary troops into Syria

August 2, 2017

Russia flies 2,000 mercenary troops into Syria, DEBKAfile, August 2, 2017

Dmitry Utkin, director of the Wagner Group

President Vladimir Putin and his defense minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu have ramped up the Russian military presence in Syria without adding ground and armored troops – even though the Russian constitution bars the recruitment of mercenaries to fight overseas for profit.

Moscow is a veteran client of the Wagner Group contractors, which largely resemble the US Blackwater security contractor now calling itself Academi. It was hired to provide military personnel during 20014 and 2015 for Moscow’s battle to conquer Crimea and in support of the pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.

The placement of Russian Muslim forces or hired mercenaries on Israel’s northern border – in the guise of ceasefire monitors – poses a serious problem for Jerusalem.

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Russia is engaged in a major buildup in Syria, both in support of the de-escalation zones established in conjunction with the United States, and in order to solidify its military control of the country.

DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources reported exclusively on Wednesday, August 2, that 2,000 mercenaries had just been airlifted into the country, boosting to a total of 5,000 the number of mercenaries on hire from the Wagner Group private contractors for service under the Russian flag in Syria. They are all retirees from elite units of the Russian ground forces, air force or navy.

In another new Russian project, our military sources also report the arrival in the past few days of Muslim troops from the republic of Ingushetia. Although clad in Russian military police uniforms, they are actually commandoes trained in anti-terror warfare. They have been posted as “ceasefire monitors” at the three de-escalation zones established by Russia and the United States along the Syrian borders with Israel, Jordan and Iraq.

President Vladimir Putin and his defense minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu have ramped up the Russian military presence in Syria without adding ground and armored troops – even though the Russian constitution bars the recruitment of mercenaries to fight overseas for profit.

Moscow is a veteran client of the Wagner Group contractors, which largely resemble the US Blackwater security contractor now calling itself Academi. It was hired to provide military personnel during 20014 and 2015 for Moscow’s battle to conquer Crimea and in support of the pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Their mercenaries first arrived in Syria in October 2015, right after Moscow stepped up its intervention in the civil war. In March 2016, several hundred of them fought in the big battle that wrested Palmyra from ISIS.

Ironically, the Wagner Group does not officially exist and is not listed anywhere in Russia. However, a company bearing that name operates out of Argentina, even though its recruits receive training in Russia. They are trained, our sources reveal, at a base of the 10th special forces brigade of GRU military intelligence, located near the village of Molkino in the Krasnodar area of southern Russia, about 150km northeast of the Black Sea. The identity of Wagner’s boss is held secret, but Western intelligence sources name him as Dmitry Utkin, who until 2013 was a lieutenant colonel in the 2nd Spetznaz brigade.

The placement of Russian Muslim forces or hired mercenaries on Israel’s northern border – in the guise of ceasefire monitors – poses a serious problem for Jerusalem. Russia’s record for keeping its promises and commitments on its military moves in Syria is far from good. The US has confirmed that Russia gave Israel a commitment that Iranian and pro-Iranian forces, including Hizballah, would not be allowed to approach the Syrian-Israeli border. But Israel can’t be certain how the Ingushets or the mercenaries will react if confronted with such troops. Will they resort to arms to evict them or let them stay?

The coming DEBKA Weekly out on Friday, Aug. 4, expands on the Russian buildup in Syria and its repercussions. To sign up to this exclusive publication, click here.

Russia posts troops 8km from the Israeli Golan

July 25, 2017

Russia posts troops 8km from the Israeli Golan, DEBKAfile, July 25,2017

Most of the Russian troops were recruited in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, republics known for their Muslim extremist activity.

DEBKAfile recalls that the Russians brought into embattled Daraa earlier this month to monitor the first ceasefire zone did not require Hizballah to withdraw. Iran’s Lebanese proxy is still there. Israel fears that Hizballah will repeat this exercise in the second ceasefire zone and establish a presence opposite the Golan without the Russians raising a finger to keep them out.

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Russia has quietly moved troops to a point in southern Syria that is 8km from Israel’s Golan border, in the face of Israeli objections, DEBKAfile reports exclusively. Moscow used the uproar over the Temple Mount standoff and the diplomatic crisis between Israel and Jordan to cover its creeping troop deployment almost up to Syria’s borders with Israel and Jordan.

Tuesday, July 15, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avidor Lieberman and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkott visited Bashan Division headquarters on the Golan for a rundown on the Russian deployment just opposite. (see photo)

DEBKAfile’s military sources report that some 800 Russian troops face Israel and another 400 are positioned on the border with Jordan. They have set up a roadblock east of Quneitra 8km from Israeli positions on the Golan. They have also strung an additional four to six lookout posts, some of them 13km from Israeli military positions, along the 64km Syrian-Israeli border – from Mount Hermon in the north, up to a point south of Qunetra in the south.

Most of the Russian troops were recruited in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, republics known for their Muslim extremist activity.

Israel has repeatedly objected to the proximity of this Russian military presence, and asked the Trump administration to prevent it. But the protests from Jerusalem went unheeded in Washington and Moscow. President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis regard the creation of US-Russian sponsored ceasefire zones in southwestern Syria as an essential component of their military cooperation in Syria and the war on ISIS.

DEBKAfile’s military sources report that, on Monday, July 24, Moscow announced the Russian deployment after the fact in messages to Washington, Jerusalem and Amman. They were all too engrossed in coping with the crises that had sprung up over Temple Mount and in relations between Jerusalem and Amman to pay much attention to this Russian fait accompli.

According to the announcement by Col.-Gen Sergey Rudskoy, Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian General Staff, the Russian units were in already in place on July 21 and 22:

“We informed our colleagues from the United States, Jordan and Israel, through military diplomatic channels in advance of the deployment of the Russian-controlled forces around the perimeter of the de-escalation zone in southern Syria,” he wrote.

DEBKAfile recalls that the Russians brought into embattled Daraa earlier this month to monitor the first ceasefire zone did not require Hizballah to withdraw. Iran’s Lebanese proxy is still there. Israel fears that Hizballah will repeat this exercise in the second ceasefire zone and establish a presence opposite the Golan without the Russians raising a finger to keep them out.

Russia vies with Israel over aid for Quneitra

July 19, 2017

Russia vies with Israel over aid for Quneitra, DEBKAfile, July 19, 2017

(Please see also, Operation Good Neighbor: Israel’s part in Syria.– DM)

On their arrival in Quneitra, the Russians found a population that was better fed and cared for than Syrian civilians on any other of the country’s warfronts. They are nonetheless challenging Israel for the locals’ hearts and minds.

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As Russian troops began moving into the Quneitra ceasefire sector opposite Israel’s Golan border on Wednesday, July 19, they found they were in hot competition with Israel over … humanitarian aid for the sector’s rebel-held villages.

Since Israel is adamantly opposed to the Russian presence in the Quneitra demilitarized zone – although it was endorsed by the Trump administration, as DEBKAfile reported exclusively on Tuesday, July 18 – Moscow decided to take it slowly and meanwhile try and win over the Syrian rebel groups whom Israel has succored for years. The Kremlin figured that if these anti-Assad groups could be weaned away from Israel, they might be persuaded to cooperate with the Russian troops in setting up the Quneitra ceasefire zone, and the Russians would not need Israel’s compliance.

On Tuesday, therefore, a Russian military convoy drove into Jabah, a village northeast of Qunetra town and 4km from Israel’s Golan border. Officers described as belonging to the “Russian Defense Ministry’s reconciliation center” alit from the trucks and began handing out food packages to the villagers.

The civilians received necessities and were treated by Russian doctors, a Syrian officer announced. Russian and Syrian officers promised that more humanitarian aid would be delivered to “settlements across the Quneitra province” and Russian doctors would visit all the villages in the ceasefire zone.

Israel, who has been sending aid across these Syrian villages which were cut off by the civil war from basic necessities, has mostly kept its humanitarian program under wraps, except when witnesses reported what they saw to the media. On Wednesday, the IDF officers running the program asked sardonically: “Where were the Russians all these years when Israel alone helped the beleaguered villages across its border?”

After watching the Russian troops hand out packages to the people of Quneitra, the Israeli government and military chiefs decided to challenge the Russian belated propaganda move.

Up until now, Israel has supplied regular humanitarian aid to some 200,000 Syrian villagers living in 80 non-ISIS rebel-controlled villages 15km deep inside the Syrian Golan. Last year alone, Israel sent over half a million liters of heavy fuel, 360 tonnes of foodstuffs, 77 tonnes of clothing and shoes, tens of generators and water system, as well as providing them with medical treatment, including hospital care for sick and injured Syrians and a field hospital on the border.

Wednesday, Israel formalized its assistance program under the title “The Good Neighbor” and disclosed it had been administered since 2016 by a special unit of the Bashan Division which is in charge of the Golan sector.

The IDF released footage of trucks ferrying across the border supplies of medical equipment, medicines, foodstuffs and fuel, as well as pictures documenting IDF medics lifting Injured Syrians off the battlefield for treatment in Israeli hospitals.

According to IDF statistics, at least 3,000 Syrians crossed the border in the past four years for medical treatment. And Israel sent over as needed incubators, respirators and ambulances. In the same period, the IDF conducted 150 assistance operations on Syrian soil.

On their arrival in Quneitra, the Russians found a population that was better fed and cared for than Syrian civilians on any other of the country’s warfronts. They are nonetheless challenging Israel for the locals’ hearts and minds.

Russians enter Daraa, Syrians/Hizballah move out

July 12, 2017

Russians enter Daraa, Syrians/Hizballah move out, DEBKAfile, July 12, 2017

Israel has so far objected to any Russian military presence along its borders with Syria, even in the capacity of ceasefire monitors, preferring Americans to police the truce in the Qunetra region. If that proved unfeasible, then Israel would leave the Syrian rebels controlling this area in place.

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Russian troops stepped into southern Syria for the first time Wednesday, July 13, when they entered the embattled town of Daraa to start enforcing the partial ceasefire agreed by Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Hamburg on July 7.  DEBKAfile’s military sources report this exclusively.

The Russians, including military police and Chechen paratroopers, were sighted getting out of the vehicles of their convoy and taking up positions in the center of Daraa. As they moved into the town, our sources report that tank units of the pro-regime Syrian army’s 5th Armored Division were seen driving out, along with Hizballah.

Their withdrawal cut short the Syrian military’s Operation Big Dawn against the Syrian rebels in Daraa, which breached the ceasefire Monday, July 11 – less then 24 hours after it went into force.

The Russian deployment in a southern Syrian border town Wednesday was the first step in their posting along Syria’s Israeli and Jordanian borders, as agreed between Washington and Moscow. President Trump had assented to this arrangement to bolster the first stage of the Syrian ceasefire going into effect in the de-confliction zone of the southwest.

Jordan also assented, in the interests of de-escalating tensions on its border with Syria.

The Russian troops and Chechens in Russian military police uniforms were armed only with light weapons. On July 5, Putin’s special envoy for Syrian affairs, Alexander Levrentiev, said that the Russian troops deployed in Syrian ceasefire zones would be lightly armed for self-defense. Most would consist of Russian military police. This description was intended to cover the presence of Chechen paratroops, who were seconded to the Russian police force for this mission.

Israel has so far objected to any Russian military presence along its borders with Syria, even in the capacity of ceasefire monitors, preferring Americans to police the truce in the Qunetra region. If that proved unfeasible, then Israel would leave the Syrian rebels controlling this area in place.

But our sources predict that, after the arrival of Russian troops in Daraa to preserve the ceasefire, both Washington and Moscow will lean hard on Jerusalem to accept Russian troops at Quneitra too, that is, opposite the Golan.

New Syrian-Hizballah offensive defies ceasefire

July 10, 2017

New Syrian-Hizballah offensive defies ceasefire, DEBKAfile, July 10, 2017

The Assad regime, for its part, felt free to resume combat because the Trump-Putin ceasefire deal had not set out demarcation lines as dividers between the opposing armies, leaving that task to US and Russian officers on the ground to take up.

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Less than 24 hours after the US-Russian sponsored ceasefire went into force in southwest Syria, it broke down early Monday, July 10, when large-scale Syrian army and Hizballah forces launched a general offensive on Syrian rebel forces in the Al Suweida province. This region was listed with Quneitra and Daraa as one of three demilitarized locations to be covered by the truce.

DEBKAfile’s military sources report that the Syrian’s army’s 5th Armored Division led the offensive which the Syrian army’s general command designated “Operation Big Dawn,” to mark it as the opening of a new phase in the war in southern Syria.

Our military sources described the attack as focusing on the northern rural areas of Al Suweida province to provide the Syrians and Hizballah with a pretext for claiming they are not part of the town and therefore not part of the ceasefire agreement reached by Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Hamburg last Friday, July 7.

In the early hours of their drive forward, Syrian and Hizballah troops captured 11 villages and small towns, including Tal Asfar and Al-Qasr, which lie 33km from the town of Suweida, 70km from Daraa on the Jordanian border and 78km east of Quneitra and the Israeli Golan border.

They forced the rebels defending them to retreat; most belonging to the Syrian Democratic Forces, who were trained and armed by the US and Jordan.

According to our sources, Damascus decided to terminate another short-lived ceasefire in the six-year Syrian war when the Jordanian army and intelligence took advantage of the pause in fighting to transfer large quantities of weapons and military equipment to allied Syrian rebel forces defending Daraa. Under no illusions about the sustainability of the US-Russian ceasefire deal, Jordan moved fast to bolster its Syrian allies for the next round of fighting.

The Assad regime, for its part, felt free to resume combat because the Trump-Putin ceasefire deal had not set out demarcation lines as dividers between the opposing armies, leaving that task to US and Russian officers on the ground to take up.

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.