Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has relieved Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Al Qods Brigades chief and supreme commander of Iran forces in the Middle East, of his Syria command, DEBKA Weekly’s exclusive Iranian and intelligence sources reveal.
This was taken as a major affront by the elite arm of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
The ayatollah’s marching order left Soleimani in charge of Iran’s military and intelligence operations in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon for the time being, but excluded Syria, where military setbacks were piling up too critically to overlook. The Al Qods chief’s promise of “major developments,” on June 2 - after he had rushed over to Damascus to deal with the crisis of Palmyra’s fall to the Islamic State – turned out to be empty rhetoric. His bravado in stating “In the next few days the world will be pleasantly surprised from what we (the IRGC) working with Syrian military commanders are preparing,” was not been followed up. The suggested dispatch of thousands of Iranian troops to the Assad regime’s rescue never materialized.
(In the last DEBKA Weekly #666, we outlined the situation in an article titled: Syrian and Hizballah Forces Driven out of Strongholds with No Iranian Troops Coming to Their Aid.)
Since then, the plight of the Syrian regime has gone from bad to worse, with the Islamic State and Syrian rebels taking turns cutting off chunks of territory; Hizballah stalled in its effort to dislodge rebel forces from the Qalamoun Mountains and, worse still, helpless to stem the war’s spillover into Lebanon.
The Iranian command governing the two campaigns has ground to a halt pending Tehran’s appointment of a new boss to replace Soleimani.
Jafari vindicated in his case against Soleimani’s generalship
It was rumored in Tehran this week that Khamenei had chosen the sacked general’s second-in-command, Deputy Al Qods Brigades chief Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghani, to take over the Syrian-Lebanese front. We have not yet heard of a final decision on this. Soleimani is meanwhile conducting a rearguard action to save his job by lobbying influential circles in Tehran.
For the IRGC’s supreme commander, Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari, Soleimani’s dismissal from the Syrian warfront was a victory. For months he has been trying to convince Khamenei to remove the Al Qods chief from all Iran’s military fronts: Iran’s declining situation in Syria and Iraq is down to Soleimani’s management, he has explained, because those fronts call for a professional army general. Soleiman, an expert in subversive and clandestine intelligence, is not up to conducting ground warfare in an arena dominated by several armies, he argued.
From the moment the Al Qods chief took command of the battle for Tikrit on March 2, not an inch of ground had been won in Iraq, said Jafari. The Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias he mustered failed to achieve any strategic advance against Islamic State forces. The subsequent fall of Ramadi on May 4 to ISIS was the inevitable consequence of this downward spiral.
Nothing but setbacks for Iran in Iraq, Syria and Yemen
The situation in Syria is still more acute. There, the anti-Assad opposition turned the tables on Soleimani’s plan of campaign.
Whereas he had mapped out three simultaneous offensives, to be conducted by the Syrian army, Hizballah and the imported Shiite militias, in Aleppo in the north, Qalamoun in the center and Deraa in the south – Syrian rebels Nusra Front and the ISIS ran off with the initiative. Their onslaughts forced the Syrian army and its allies to retreat. Because of the al Qods chief’s fiascos in Syria and Iraq, the Revolutionary Guards are reduced to building defense lines for the two capitals, Damascus and Baghdad, as a last resort.
Had a professional military tactician been in charge, said Jafari, neither Iran, the Shiite regime in Baghdad, Bashar Assad in Damascus, nor Hassan Nasrallah’s Hizballah would have been in this tight spot.
Jafari also damned Soleimani’s handling of the Yemen conflict, in which Tehran owns a major interest due to its proximity to the strategic Red Sea waterways of the Gulf of Aden and Straits of Babel-Mandeb.
Tehran’s protégées, the Houthi rebels, have not been able to break the tie with the Saudi-led coalition fighting to restore the internationally recognized president, and, in Jafari’s view, Soleimani committed a dangerous blunder by trying to shift the war across into Saudi Arabia. If the advantage tilts slightly in favor of the Houthis, he said, it was only due to Saudi “incompetence.”
Iran may pull in its horns and keep hold only of Shiite areas
Tehran must ask itself, he said, whether it makes sense to take on Saudi Arabia and lumber itself with a fourth Middle East war on top of its entanglements in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
At this point, Khamenei appears to have bought Jafari’s case against Soleimani, but opted to take it one step at a time, to avoid unduly rattling the IRGC, the Tehran regime’s main military and economic buttress. He decided to start by removing the Al Qods chief from the Syrian command where the situation is more precarious than on any other front.
Our sources add that it is not yet clear whether this dismissal also applies to his responsibilities for Hizballah and Lebanon. If it is followed up by Soleimani’s removal from the Iraq front too, it will most likely presage an Iranian decision to pull its horns in against the encroaching Islamist advances in both countries. DEBKA Weekly predicts that Iran may at some point consider cutting its losses by falling back into southern Iraq, where the Shiite holy cities are situated, and into the central and western Syrian Alawite towns of Homs, Hama, Tartous and Latakia, to provide the Lebanese Hizballah with a hinterland. Damascus may have to be written off as a loss in Tehran’s eventual Middle East power ledger.
Jabal al-Tair (literally Bird Mountain Island) is a roughly oval volcanic island northwest of the tight Bab a-Mandab passageway at the mouth of the Red Sea, about midway between Yemen and Eritrea. It is some 500m wide and still growing. In December 2011, this mass of lava broke through the water’s surface and began to take shape.
The two watchtowers and small military station which Yemen maintained on the island until now are the nucleus around which Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian Navy are setting up a base with the help of Hizballah, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources disclose.
Jabal al-Tair belongs to one of the strategic Red Sea island clusters which Tehran is taking over as a more useful option, for the time being, than direct seizure of the Bab El-Mandeb Strait. (Click HERE to see full-size map)
In Geneva, meanwhile, Monday, June 15, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opened a conference for negotiating a Yemen ceasefire in Yemen. He warned that the country was “a ticking bomb,” while the Red Cross spoke of a human catastrophe in Yemen’s main cities after 80 days of aerial bombardment by the Saudi-led anti-insurgency coalition and 2,000 dead.
The Yemeni rebels’ plane left Sanaa Sunday afternoon to attend the conference, but was delayed in Djibouti for nearly 24 hours. They blamed Egypt and Sudan for not allowing their plane to transit their air space.
But when they did arrive, they refused to talk with representatives of the internationally-recognized Yemeni government. “We refuse any dialogue with those who have no legitimacy,” rebel member Mohammad Zubairi declared, and demanded talks instead with Saudi Arabia.
Houthi fighters and heavy weapons unloaded on Red Sea islands
The bickering in Geneva was no more than background chatter for Iran’s island-grabbing offensive in the Red Sea. By planting armed forces on enough of those islands, Tehran is in position to threaten the western seaboard of Saudi Arabia, turn the stretch of water north of Bab el-Mandeb into a potential obstacle course for international shipping plying the East-West route via the Suez Canal – including oil tankers - and blockade Israeli and Jordanian ports.
A group of IRGC, Iranian navy and Hizballah officers this week set about striking camp on the Bird Mountain Island cluster, as small fishing boats and larger vessels ferried Houti rebel fighters from the Yemeni coast. The boats then picked up heavy weapons, including artillery batteries and anti-air guns and missiles that were dropped by Iranian freighters anchored out at sea.
The Saudis suspect that sea-to-sea missiles were part of the shipment.
The same operation was repeated on the larger Zubayr group further south and closer to the strategic straits.
Zubayr is the largest and one of 10 younger volcanic islands lying atop a shield volcano protruding 191 meters (627ft) above sea level. Other young islands are Center Peak, Saba, Haycock and Saddle.
Saddle had its last underwater eruption on Sept. 28, 2013 lasting until October. It sent a large plume of steam into the air which was observed by satellite.
Houthis make inroads on Saudi coastal towns of Jizan and Najran
Houthi fighters and heavy armaments were scattered on these islands, including Kamaran, the largest Yemen-controlled Red Sea island.
With an area of 108 sq. km, Kamaran is located just 172 km from the southwestern Saudi town of Jizan; Bird Mountain is even closer – 169 km away and the Zubayr group, 209 km. Their occupation poses a direct threat to Saudi coastal towns, at a time that inland, the Saudi army has not managed to repel Houthi ground incursions of the towns of Najran and Jizan for setting up hostile military enclaves inside the kingdom.
The Yemeni Kamaran group lies opposite the Eritrean Dahlak Archipelago near Massawa on the eastern shore of the Red Sea and consists of two large and 124 small islands.
Asmara granted the Iranian Navy a naval supply base on the archipelago some years ago. A distance of 260 km separates this base from the occupied Yemeni islands.
These islands give Tehran powerful leverage over international shipping on the critical Red Sea route, without its having to directly intrude on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The Iranians have therefore saved President Barack Obama from being put on the spot by his pledge to uphold “the freedom of traffic in international sea lanes,” including the Bab el-Mandeb.
Riyadh is sending bombers against the new Iranian-Houthi island strongholds. So far, Saudi Arabia has not gained the advantage in its campaign against the Houthi insurgency. But King Salman is unlikely to give ground in ceasefire negotiations while his kingdom stands under a direct Iranian military threat.
Amid the welter of Middle East war news this week, the event standing out as most significant was the recapture of the ISIS-held northern border town of Tel Abyad on June 15 by a coalition of Kurdish YPG militia and the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces, backed by US air strikes.
The town in the northern ar-Raqqa province on the Turkish border had been held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant for six months.
The victory linked the Kurdish cantons of Kobani and Haskah into a contiguous zone of YPG control along the Turkish border. Most importantly, it placed a joint YPG-FSA force in position to advance south toward the ISIS Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.
It also cut the ISIS supply route for reinforcements and other essentials from Turkey.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that, for once, the US aerial campaign against ISIS yielded a major strategic dividend. For Syria’s some 12 million to 14 million Kurds, it brought an unforeseen windfall, giving them hope to establish their own state in northern Syria. They would then overtake the semi-independent Iraqi Kurdish Republic (9 million), whose chances of gaining full independence are unclear.
The Kurdish forces achieved their rapid advance on Tel Abyad thanks to their cooperation with a coalition of Arab tribes, Assyrian paramilitary forces and Free Syrian Army-affiliated rebel factions. Now, they must decide whether to go full tilt against Raqqa or first consolidate their gains.
Sensing the turning tide, jihadi leaders directed Raqqa residents to stock up on food and prepare for a siege. (Click HERE to see full-size map)
Erdogan is second big loser after ISIS
The other big loser of the Kurds’ success is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His government has repeatedly condemned their YPG as a “terrorist gang” because of its connections with the outlawed Turkish Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).
On June 14, he warned that the YPG’s seizure of Tel Abyad “could lead to the creation of a structure that threatens our borders.” He indicated that Ankara would reassess its participation in the war on ISIS, considering the potential threat to Turkey’s borders posed by its consequences.
This was Erdogan’s second defeat in the past fortnight at Kurdish hands.
Votes for the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party in Turkey’s general election cost his ruling AKP (Justice and Development) party a majority in the Turkish parliament, by breaking through the 10 percent threshold to win 15 seats.
The Tel Abyad victory coming next put paid to the Turkish president’s dual game of backing the US-Saudi-supported rebel Army of Conquest, on the one hand, while turning a blind eye to his country serving as the corridor for ISIS recruits from across the Muslim world to join the jihadis in Syria.
The last two days have seen more welcome traffic going in the opposite direction, as refugees who fled ISIS rule in Tel Abyad started returning to their homes.
For two years, US official experts predicted strongly that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, who succeeded Abdullah in January at the age of 79, suffered from dementia and would have a shorter reign than his six predecessors due to his failing faculties. Learned US think tank researchers dismissed him as capable of remembering a conversation for no longer than five minutes before cutting out. This evaluation gained general acceptance in Berlin, Paris and London.
Now, all of a sudden, after barely six months on the throne, he is acclaimed by US intelligence officials as perfectly competent, as well as hard-working, bursting with initiative, and able to keep going at his current speed for another six to eight years. He would therefore still be on the throne when President Barack Obama’s successor ended his term at the White House
DEBKA Weekly’s Saudi experts, who were skeptical about the original US dismissal of Salman’s capabilities, are also wary about this startling reassessment. They suggest it may be influenced by the new king’s affinity with the branch of the Saudi clergy which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, unlike King Abdullah who persecuted its adherents. This would align Salman with President Obama’s pro-Brotherhood orientation and his preference for a Turkey-Qatar-Saudi bloc over any other Middle East grouping.
(Although a Muslim Brotherhood delegation was invited to visit Washington, the State Department announced last week that US officials would not meet its members after Cairo summoned the US ambassador to express displeasure at the visit.)
Pretexts aplenty for demoting the crown prince in favor of the king’s son
Another motive behind Washington’s warm appreciation of the Saudi king and his prospects may have more to do with a power game afoot within the royal family. It is noted that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, long the US administration’s preferred successor to Salman, is losing ground to the king’s own son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who at the age of 30 has been loaded with honors as Deputy Crown Prince, Minister of Defense, Chief of the Royal Court and Special Adviser to the King. This week, He was sent on an important mission to Moscow to represent the King in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (See separate item on these talks)
The buzz in court circles these days downgrades Crown Prince MB Nayef. Though indefatigable in combating terrorism, he is said to be overdoing it against foreign extremists and neglecting domestic threats. Clandestine Islamic State cells have consequently mushroomed to the detriment of national security.
Arrests for the attacks staged on Shiite mosques in the Eastern Province on May 22 and 29 were seen as tardy. Responsibility was moreover claimed by the Islamic State’s “Wilayat of Najd,” namely a province established by ISIS in the very heartland of the Saudi national Wahhabi faith.
The criticism leveled against Crown Prince MB Nayef on this score is taken in Washington as a sign that he is on his way out, to make room for the king to anoint his son heir and first in line to the throne.
Other pretexts for his demotion were ready to hand in the Yemen conflict (see separate article), and Riyadh’s failure to curtail the spread of Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula, especially Bahrain.
MB Salman is good with young Gulf emirs
Washington is therefore ready to pat the king’s son MB Salman on the head and compliment him on his performance at the Gulf Cooperation Council, where he has formed close ties with the young generation of ruling emirs.
Salman Junior is now best friends with the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, and the new Qatari ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
The Obama administration appears to entertain high hopes of this princely trio being pragmatic enough to bring about an understanding between the GCC and Iran, thereby rounding off the US president’s own success in forging a nuclear deal with Iran.
Crown Prince MB Nayef’s failing influence at the court of Riyadh, less than six months after he was elevated to the position, is not just a matter of policy; it is also personal. None of his offspring are boys, only girls, and moreover, his branch of the family is small and has little influence.
What special mission brought Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to Moscow Wednesday, June 17?
According to the official Saudi royal court statement, the visit was “in response to an invitation from the Russian government” - but also, “based on the directive of King Salman Bin Abdelaziz,” the prince “would hold talks with President Vladimir Putin and top Russian officials.”
This diplomatic jargon means that the young prince was empowered to speak for the king, his father, and conclude official business on his behalf.
The last high-ranking Saudi to visit Moscow was Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, then National Security Adviser to the late King Abdullah and Director of General Intelligence. Underlying Bandar’s mission was the proposition that, since Riyadh could no longer rely on President Barack Obama’s policies on the Iranian and Syrian issues, dialogue with Moscow was a wise alternative.
The Saudis had also decided to finance Russian weapons purchases for their allies, especially Egypt.
Bandar certainly opened Russian doors to Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi for a connection that remains strong up until now. El-Sisi was guest of honor alongside Putin at the Russian Victory Day Parade on May 9 and the two governments signed a $3.5 billion arms deal, for which Riyadh had promised to pick up the tab.
But all this happened when Abdullah was still alive. Since the throne passed to Salman in January, despite the new king’s pledge to honor Riyadh’s commitment to pay for the purchased arms, not a dollar has yet been deposited with Moscow.
Getting rid of the immovable Assad is a bone of contention
The hold-up may be partly explained by Salman’s disapproval of the consensus reached between the Egyptian and Russian presidents on the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Both agree that he should stay in power in contrast to the Saudi view.
Putin worries that, if the Syrian ruler goes, Al Qaeda’s Syrian arm, the Nusra Front, and the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq will move in and seize power. Caucasian and Chechen terrorists are active in both these jihadist movements and are capable of setting up bases in Damascus for launching strikes against Russian cities, including Moscow.
Since the change of power in Riyadh, the Egyptian president finds he is the only Arab ruler willing to fight the Muslim Brotherhood, a group which President Obama quietly fosters - and the longstanding foe of the Assad clan.
The primary mission King Salman entrusted to his son was to build a bridge atop this conflict of interests and transcend it for the betterment of relations between Riyadh and Moscow. This approach came from Salman’s suspicion that Saudi collaboration with the US, in fighting for Assad’s downfall, could end up leaving him in power.
Prince Mohammed bears gifts to Moscow for bridging differences
Washington and Riyadh are at present jointly backing two Syrian rebel forces – the Army of Conquest on the northern front and the Jaysh Hermon in the south. They have succeeded in driving Assad’s army out of large swathes of territory and pushing his troops back toward Damascus. Yet Assad remains immovable as president – which is exactly what Putin and El-Sisi intend.
The young prince is charged with persuading the Russian president that both need alternative collaborators in the uncertain days ahead of the Syrian conflict. The new Saudi King is coming around to sharing his predecessor’s limited reliance on Washington. To gain Russia as a safety net, Riyadh is offering Moscow four incentives:
1. To open Saudi and Gulf markets to Russian exports;
2. To pay the bill for the Egyptian-Russian arms transaction;
3. To invest in Russian hardware for arming the Saudi army, starting with large quantities of Iskander 3 missile systems (NATO named SS-26 Stone). This is a mobile short-range ballistic missile that can deliver nuclear warheads. The Saudis want to use it as a deterrent against Iranian military expansionist activities in the Gulf, including Tehran’s support of the Houthi insurgency in Yemen.
4. To acquire and introduce for use in the kingdom the Russian Glonass satellite system, a competitor of the American GPS.
June 13 Briefs
June 14 Briefs
The biggest heist of secret US personnel data in cyber history is still ongoing
14 Jun. If the breach of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) was conducted by hackers linked to China, as suspected, the secrets of an estimated 41 million US federal employees were laid bare and US intelligence and military personnel compromised by what may have been the biggest data base theft in cyber history. While officials speak of two hacks, debkafile’s cyber security and intelligence experts report that it was a single breach and is still ongoing. It amounts to slow, continuous penetration by a computer virus, planted in an individual computer of a network, which duplicates itself gradually and insidiously. More malworm particles are certainly buried inside the OPM’s infrastructure, ready for a remote signal from the hackers’ command and control centers.
June 15 Briefs
ISIS goes underground for guerilla warfare against new US “lily pad” strategy in Iraq
15 Jun. Following the US plan deploy American advisers in “lily pad” bases to work with Iraqi troops near the frontlines, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has adopted a new strategy. debkafile reports exclusively that ISIS is turning to tunnel warfare in pursuit of guerrilla tactics on all its active fronts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egyptian Sinai and the Palestinian Gaza Strip. The jihadis were impressed by the effectiveness of the Hamas assault and smuggling tunnel system for assaults on Israel and Egyptian forces in Sinai and took a leaf out of their book. Military experts expect to see soon small, highly-trained squads of ISIS fighters jumping out of underground burrows to strike their victims, instead of the long columns of trucks carrying thousands of jihadis which captured Ramadi and Palmyra.
June 16 Briefs
June 17 Briefs
Kerry’s refusal to be “fixated” on Iran’s former nuclear misdeeds continues to indulge Tehran
17 Jun. President Barack Obama is about to make his most substantial concession yet to Iran by agreeing to release only one part of their nuclear accord, while keeping the technical protocols secret.
Senior US negotiator Wendy Sherman fought hard to get both parts released, but was overruled. The 50 pages of the nuclear accord’s practical annexes embody the adage that the devil is in the detail. But Obama may choose to keep it secret from Congress, the American public and US allies, while Iran is given free rein to pursue its objectives.
Syrian rebel coalition launches offensive near Golan to clear path to south Damascus. Israel acts to protect Druze
17 Jun. Jaysh Hermon (the Army of Hermon) Wednesday, June 17, launched a broad offensive on Syrian army forces in the Quneitra and Hermon sectors bordering on Israel. Its objective is to capture the Syrian army’s 68th Brigade headquarters Khan al-Shih which commands the main Quneitra-Damascus highway, debkafile reports. This would clear their path to the southern suburbs of Damascus and enable them to encircle the government troops defending the capital. Jaysh Hermon was warned by the US command in Jordan not to harm Syrian Druzes, after Netanyahu, Yaalon and Eisenkott interceded personally for their safety.
June 18 Briefs