As US special forces and allies braced for a joint Syrian army-Shiite-Hizballah assault on the Iraqi-Syrian border from the west, a two-part Iranian force broke through the border this week from the northeast.
On Monday, May 25, the Joint Command of the Iraqi Armed Forces crowed that the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) - the pro-Iranian umbrella group of Iraqi militias – had reached the Syrian border crossing in the Nineveh Governate and marched across into Syria for the first time.
(The statement added misleadingly: “With the capture of the border crossing, the Iraqi Armed Forces have assisted the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to secure part of the border shared by Iraq and Syria.”)
They owed their success to Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s tactic of harnessing two ground forces for this surprise trans-border operation, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report.
One force was the PMU, which operates under orders from Tehran - not Baghdad; the other a group of Shammar tribesmen from northern Syria.
No one knows yet how the Sunni tribesmen were drawn into crossing the lines against their traditional sponsors, Saudi Arabia. They were, at all events, the key to Soleimani’s two-handed blitzkrieg on the northern Syrian-Iraqi border from both sides.
The participation of these Sunni Syrian tribesmen for the first time in an Iranian enterprise was only one part of the surprise package which landed on the heads of American strategists.
It was delivered just a week after US President Donald Trump stood up in Riyadh and promised Arab Sunni rulers that the United States would lead an all-out effort to curtail Iranian and pro-Iranian advances in Iraq and Syria.
On the Iraqi side, the PMU dashed at top speed to its target from a point west of the embattled Iraqi town of Mosul, fighting some ISIS forces holding the terrain since 2014 en route, but mostly circling around them (see attached map.).
The American commanders were caught unawares additionally by Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi consent to contribute Iraqi Air Force attack helicopters as cover for the offensive, without giving the game away to the Americans.
On the Syrian side, the force made up mainly of the Shammar tribesmen advanced on the border from the west. Monday, the two forces linked up at the Um Jaris village close to the northern section of the Iraqi-Syrian border northwest of Mosul.
Our sources add that the PMU operation was directed by its commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who is on the US list of designated terrorists and holds the secret rank of Iranian Revolutionary Guards general for his services to Tehran. Muhandis was chosen by his bosses to sit down with the Iraqi prime minister a week ago and clinch a deal for Baghdad’s role in the operation.
The upshot was the first instance of direct Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian military cooperation for an anti-US offensive. It was designed to blow a hole in the plan developed by US Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis for a US-led coalition force to take control of the Syrian Iraqi border and shut down Iran’s coveted overland corridor through Iraq to Syria.
The PMU’s success was bad news for Washington on more than one score:
1. The operation went forward undetected, from first to last, by US intelligence satellites or US commanders on the spot, a poke in the eye for Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commanding General, US Forces in Iraq and Syria, who was caught unawares.
2. Russian intelligence may or may not have been in the picture. This has not been discovered.
3. Up until publication of this issue, nothing is known about decisions in Washington – or even discussions – on how to push back against the Iranian-directed breach of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
The Arab rulers who greeted the US President in Riyadh last week are waiting tensely to see if the US President makes good on his pledges.
The pro-Iranian Iraqi-Syrian-Hizballah drive for the Syrian-Iraqi border is not done yet. Its next stage is revealed in a separate article in this issue.
Since a pro-Iranian force seized control of the northern section of the Syrian-Iraqi border this week, the Syrian Arab Army and allied Iranian proxy, Hizballah, are advancing steadily on the southern Al-Tanf crossing, which commands the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraq border intersection. They are planning to wrest this strategic location from US and allied forces.
To this end, they are cutting a path to their target by dealing harsh blows to the Syrian Free Army, the rebel force fighting under US, British and Jordanian officers. Their eventual success would finally upend Defense Secretary James Mattis’ plan to control the Syrian-Iraqi border and so defeat Iran’s goal of an open land corridor through Iraq to Syria.
This plan already faces serious setbacks in the northern region at the hands of Iran-backed forces.
The next weekend is critical. Barring a decision in Washington on action for turning the tables, US forces may be forced back step by step, in line with the following negative scenario:
The Syrian-Hizballah force in the south, after reaching its goal, is likely to turn north and link up with the pro-Iranian Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), which this week breached the northern section of the border (see a separate item on this).
Together, they will be in position to grab control of the entire 600km of the Syrian border with Iraq, snatching it away from the grasp of the US forces deployed for this purpose under the Mattis plan.
If this happens, the approximately 3,000 US officers and troops stationed in Syria will face diminishing options and the loss of strategic positions, having been outmaneuvered by a series of lightning Iranian surprise actions.
The Al-Tanf contingent would be pinned down for further military steps in southern Syria. The troops based in the Kurdish cantons in northern Syria will have been squeezed out of even more leeway than the southern contingent by the incursion of the pro-Iranian PMU from Iraq.
Seizing on this perceived US vulnerability, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov sternly warned on Tuesday, May 30: “As you know, there have been not only threats, but a fact of using force in this area of the Al-Tanf crossing between Syria and Iraq. I believe this situation is rather alarming.”
He was warning Washington not to put up a fight against the approaching Syrian army and Hizballah forces, which were steadily closing the distance to the key crossing.
He did not spell out how Russia would react if the Americans ignored his warning, because the Kremlin has yet to calculate whether it is in the Russian interest for Iranian forces to control the entire Syrian-Iraqi border - or just a section. The present standoff gives Moscow an edge for its aspirations in Iraq and a starting-point for the coming contest with Tehran over positions of influence in Baghdad. Since the Syrian army is dependent on Russia, its control of the disputed border would afford Russia a strong bargaining chip.
(A separate article in this issue homes in on the options the Kremlin is developing to avert a clash.)
On Thursday night, June 1, our sources attempted a forward look at the rapidly fluctuating situation on the Syrian border:
The pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) was preparing to head south towards the Al-Tanf crossing, which is embedded in an area controlled by US Special Forces together with British allies and the rebel Syrian Free Army (SFA).
The Syrian government army and its Hizballah ally are now around 15 kilometers from Al Tanf.
They have repelled repeated attacks by the SFA, which sometimes had the use of Switchblade suicide drones, with which US Special Forces are armed.
The contest between Syrian government forces and the rebel Free Syrian Army has reached a standoff. As the former moved forward on the Damascus-Baghdad highway towards the key border crossing, US-led coalition aircraft dropped leaflets warning them to halt their advance.
However, last Saturday, the Syrian military deployed the 800th Battalion of the Republic Guards, its best-armed unit, in the area, demonstrating that it had no intention of abandoning attempts to regain control over the Iraqi border or halting this advance.
If these forces are allowed to prevail unopposed by a firm US counter-offensive, America will slip back in its contest for positions of influence in both Iraq and Syria.
With no one apparently available in Washington to determine what to do next in Syria, Moscow has stepped in to propose informal talks between their professional military commanders on ways to hold the combustible situation building up on Syria’s eastern border in check.
President Vladimir Putin is worried that President Donald Trump may jump back without warning into decision-making mode and set off an uncontrolled military collision with Russian forces.
Using low-level diplomatic and military channels, the Kremlin has therefore invited US officers to join their Russian counterparts for a working session in Amman, at which they would declare certain areas off limits to all military movement, whether by American, Russian, Syrians, pro-Iranian Shiite or Hizballah troops.
Moscow has also drafted a compromise proposal, hoping to persuade Washington and the US military command in Syria to send officers to this rendezvous.
DEBKA Weekly reveals its main elements:
1. The Russian command in Syria is working very hard to halt the Syrian Arab Army’s advance on the Al-Tanf Syrian-Iraqi crossing, which controls the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi border junction and is under US control.
2. Moscow agrees to the US Special Forces and the Syrian Free Army which they sponsor holding on to their gains in the South, including this crossing, without fear of Syrian or pro-Iranian assault.
3. As a quid pro quo for Russian-Iranian-Syrian consent for continued US control of the Al-Tanf crossing, the Americans would accept a Syrian government force going after Abu Kamal, an ISIS stronghold near the Syrian-Iraqi border, 225km north of Al-Tanf (See map).
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources say that if the Syrian army and the pro-Iranian forces, for their part, are left free to take Abu Kamal – and can do so, they would agree to the southern section of the Syrian-Iraqi border remaining in the hands of US and allied forces.
4. The Russian deal on offer also calls for the US to consent to the posting of Syrian government officers (not forces) at the Nasib Border Crossing and the Daraa Border-Ar Ramtha Crossing on the Syrian-Jordanian border.
Our sources report that the American military and other officials are studying Moscow’s compromise draft for de-escalating the critical race for the Syrian-Iraqi border between US and pro-Iranian allies, before it spills over into a military showdown. They have not yet posted their answer – only set forth a pre-condition. As a matter of principle before US-Russian negotiations, Washington wants a consensus of all parties to the establishment of security strips 30-70km deep inside Syria on its border regions with Israel, Jordan, Turkey or Iraq.
A couple of sentences uttered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel Sunday, May 28, caused uneasy flaps in European and transatlantic chanceries. “The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over. I have experienced this in the last few days,” said one of the pillars of NATO and European unity: “And that is why I can only say that we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.”
She spoke at a Munich beer rally in her campaign for re-election to a fourth term in Germany’s September election.
In subsequent comments, the chancellor stood her ground, saying that although Germany remains a “committed trans-Atlanticist … reliable relations” with its closest post World War II ally “may be a thing of the past.”
Her words were taken as a thumbs-down on US President Donald Trump after their two weekend meetings.
At the NATO summit in Brussels on Friday, she heard him scold NATO members for “chronic underpayments” and decline to reaffirm the treaty’s Article 5; at the G-7 session in Sicily on Saturday, he postponed confirmation of US commitment to climate change.
But also over the weekend, Angela Merkel quietly met former US President Barack Obama, an encounter played down compared with the front page media chorus denigrating Trump’s performance in Brussels and Sicily.
Possibly in tune with the ex-president’s views on his successor’s ideas and unconventional bearing, she appears to have concluded that Europe - and Germany in particular - has little to expect from the Trump administration or from British Prime Minister Theresa May.
May is also contesting an election on June 8, running on a pledge to negotiate an advantageous divorce deal from the European Union. (She is falling back against Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, according to the polls.)
BREXIT alone was enough to set Merkel, the strongperson of the European Union, against May, notwithstanding the fact that the Brits were moved to vote for exiting the EU largely by Germany’s open-arms policy for Middle East refugees and the fear of being swamped by the flood. And not the least of Trump’s sins in the chancellor’s eyes was his support for BREXIT.
But aside from the big bone Merkel has to pick with the two Anglo leaders, her leaning towards isolationism also comes from taking stock of her country’s closest neighbors: She sees Russia in expansionist mode; Turkey’s flouting of democratic norms with one leg out of NATO; economic woes all round; and the continent’s failure to stamp out marauding Islamist terror.
The chancellor appears to believe that the only way to keep the EU’s head – and the euro - above water is to insulate its members from US and British policies, lest they are infected by the BREXIT virus and the union falls apart.
The one ray of light in the chancellor’s gloomy aspect came from the election of Emmanuel Macron.
A dedicated European Unionist – although he calls for reforms, he said at the G-7 summit that his talks with President Vladimir Putin would be a “demanding dialogue.” He did indeed try and sound tough when he greeted his Russian visitor at the grand palace of Versailles on Monday, May 28.
At the same time, Macron is a cipher in the diplomatic world, in so far as his character and political predilections are concerned. He is known to be close to France’s big banking institutions, whose world views are hardly compatible with the general good.
But the new French broom is saddled with a rampant terrorist threat from home-grown Islamist radicals as well as economic challenges. Some derive from the aftermath of France’s participation in the military campaign which ousted Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Libya ended up as a failed state beset in every corner by chaotic strife, and France failed to win its hoped-for stake in Libyan oil. Finally, access to Libya’s lawless shores has inundated Europe with an endless tide of African refugees.
So as a reliable German partner, France turns out to have serious limitations
But when Merkel took time off from her concerns to welcome Barack Obama, she was willing to forget their frequent spats and political clashes on such cardinal issues as Ukraine and his attitude towards Russia, which she criticized as too harsh and uncompromising. She was ready to let bygones be bygones – even on US intelligence eavesdropping on her personal phones.
But Obama’s avowed “pivot to Asia” away from the Middle East did no harm to Germany. Berlin never made a grab for US footholds in the Arab world and the oil-rich Gulf like London and Paris, having long preferred Iran as its leading Middle East trading partner. In that respect, Merkel was well satisfied with the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran Obama initiated and made sure to keep German feet clear of Obama’s “Arab spring” mess.
But that comfortable status quo is now gone. Donald Trump has ushered in an era of American re-engagement in the Middle East. He has performed a U-turn on Obama’s path by building a Sunni-led alignment in direct opposition to Iran’s Shiite bloc. Germany’s policy in the region is no longer apt.
Merkel’s prickly comments reflected resentment over Trump having forced her to rethink German policies – and to do so in practical terms.
Since determining that “others” – i.e. the US and Britain – can’t be “reliably relied on” to defend Germany, Angela Merkel has also given up its reliance on NATO. So what is the alternative? German voters will expect an answer, since the chancellor is a practical politician, not usually given to hollow slogans.
There are strong indications that Merkel may be planning to devote her fourth term in office (the polls are in her favor) to a major expansion of the German armed forces, as a vehicle for “taking our fate in our own hands.” The rebuilding of a big German army would be a systemic and financial task on a herculean scale and attended by many domestic perils – not least right-wing resurgence. Angela would also be accused by some establishment European circles of losing credibility as a respected symbol of the international liberal order.
Shortly before US President Donald Trump’s epic meeting in Riyadh on May 21 with Arab and Muslim rulers, the Qatari emir Tamim bin Hamad al Thani went behind their backs with a furtive scheme for aborting the US-Saudi Sunni bloc against Shiite Iran, before it was born.
A week earlier, Qatar’s foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani flew secretly to Tehran DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report. He was received on the spot by the Iranian powerhouse, Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iranian forces in Iraq and Syria. They put their heads together on a plan for torpedoing US operations in the two conflicted countries.
They also discussed Doha’s reward for its cooperation.
Qatar’s rulers had no qualms about scheming against Washington, even though America’s biggest air base in the Gulf region is located at Al Udeid southwest of Doha, their capital. Neither did they miss shaking hands with Trump in Riyadh.
The Qatari rift with Saudi Arabia finally burst into the open shortly after President Trump ended his Middle East trip. On May 25, an article in Qatar’s state-run news agency quoted the emir as criticizing the US, Saudi Arabia and their “client states” for attempting to stir up tensions with the “Islamic power” – Iran. Qatari’s foreign minister was also quoted as announcing the withdrawal of its ambassadors from Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Later, Doha claimed the agency had been hacked and those statements were never made. But the row among the Arab Gulf states continued to escalate nonetheless. Saudi media accused Qatar of “betraying” its Arab brothers, stabbing them in the back when they staged groundbreaking events to demonstrate their unity.
The Saudis and the UAE then blocked Qatari websites and broadcasters.
Behind the public recriminations, DEBKA Weekly’s sources report King Salman and the UAE ruler Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan delivered a firm ultimatum to the Qatari emir. He was warned of stiff penalties unless he toed the line and did the following:
1. Broke off all military and intelligence ties with Tehran.
2. Abrogated all the agreements he reached with Tehran - not only with regard to Syria and Iraq, but also other Arab countries, especially Libya.
3. Cancelled all the benefits and asylum arrangements Qatar extended to Muslim Brotherhood activists and deported them forthwith.
4. Severed Qatar’s ties with the Palestinian fundamentalist Hamas group ruling the Gaza Strip and denied their leaders residence permits in Doha with their families. This week King Salman asked Egyptian President Abdul-Fatteh El-Sisi to refuse passage through Cairo to Hamas’ new political bureau chief Ismail Haniyah, who was planning to move out of Gaza and settle in Doha with his family.
The Saudi-UAE warning to the Qatari emir did not specify the penalties he faced for disobedience. But our sources in the Gulf disclosed that a small-scale military operation against a Qatari target might be on the cards. Neither did they rule out an engineered coup d’etat.
Wednesday, May 31, the Qatari emir traveled to Kuwait to ask its ruler, Sheikh Sabah Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, to act as mediator in his quarrel with the Saudis.