At the Al Ghadi base in Big Ganesh, 48 km west of Tehran, Iranian engineers and technicians are working around the clock on their next big clandestine project in a densely-built area - shown in past photographs to be crammed with bunkers. If this project, dubbed Riyadh First, is a success, it is capable of igniting the next major Middle East convulsion - or even a US-Iranian clash of arms.
According to the information reaching DEBKA Weekly’s exclusive military and intelligence sources, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani instructed Iranian missile designer teams to tag an extra 100km onto the intermediate range of the Scud-C (600km) and Scud-D (700km) surface missiles to enable them to reach the Saudi capital and explode in the center of Riyadh.
This plan was behind the threat made by IRGC Air Force Commander Gen. Amir Ali Hazjizadeh on Saturday, Feb. 11, at the start of an Iranian military exercise: “Should the enemy make a mistake, our roaring missiles will rain down on them,” he said.
This general, who is in charge of the missile testing site, ordered all other work halted in order to concentrate on the fast-track Riyadh First Scud development project.
Social media reported that the Iranian-sponsored Yemeni Houthi rebels had on Feb. 4 fired a missile at the Saudi al-Mazahimiyah military camp west of Riyadh. The Houthis claimed it was a homemade Borkan which has a range of 800km.
According to our military sources, the Houthis don’t possess a missile of that range and their attack was in fact the first test of the newly-extended Iranian Scud, as a dress rehearsal for the real strike. .
The Iranian general indicated that Tehran is waiting for the first Saudis “mistake” before letting loose with a multiple missile attack on their capital.
There are precedents. The Hizballah missile blitz on Haifa during the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war and the Hamas rocket fire against two Israeli cities, Beersheba and Tel Aviv during Israel’s 2014 campaign in the Gaza Strip.
Tehran is contemplating action against Riyadh that would be similar but on a far larger scale, due to six considerations:
1. Iran can’t afford to continue holding up two simultaneous fronts in Syria and Yemen and must choose from which to pull back.
2. Confronted in Syria by the superpowers, the US and Russia, Iran’s rulers see they are on a losing pitch and must either throw in the sponge or drastically shrink their presence there. In Yemen, in contrast, Iranian strategists trust in a Houthi victory to put Iran ahead of Saudi Arabia.
3. They estimate that the Saudi army is on the verge of defeat in Yemen, a view shared secretly by most Gulf rulers. Iran calculates that a missile barrage on Riyadh would tip the scales. The Saudi army would be compelled to withdraw from Yemen “to defend the home front” and the royal house be shaken to its core.
4. Tehran calculates that Saudi Arabia lacks the defense systems for intercepting the upgraded Scuds, and its army is short of the manpower for standing up to aggression, certainly for retaliating against Iran.
5. The Iranians do not foresee President Donald Trump coming to Saudi Arabia’s aid or sending troops to intervene in an Iranian-Saudi conflict. They expect the US army to be up over its head in the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
6. And chances are slim of Israel sending its army to defend Saudi Arabia or its capital against attack.
The latest duel between President Donald Trump and US intelligence is being fought in broad daylight, yet both parties are boxing in the dark over who leaked the revelations on the phone calls by Mike Flynn to Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak that led to the national security adviser’s sensational ouster this week.
Speculation and counter-speculation are their weapons of choice.
The president has made his choice.
On Wednesday, Feb. 15, he accused US intelligence of illegally giving information to American media. “Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?). Just like Russia,” he tweeted, adding in a subsequent post, “the real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!”
Thursday, “US intelligence agencies” shot back with a report to The Wall Street Journal, saying they hesitated to reveal to the president the “sources and methods” they use to collect information, due to “possible links between Trump associates and Russia," which they said “could potentially compromise the security of such classified information.”
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources point out that the non-revelation of sources and methods - even to the president - is par for the course for US intelligence agencies, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.
The WSJ report was just a blank shot in the contest US spy agencies have fought with Trump ever since he announced his run for president in 2015.
Trump regards the US intelligence community as part of the Washington swamp he has pledged to drain. He would not be the first occupant of the White House to mistrust US spy agencies and treat their briefings with suspicion. Some of his predecessors were burned after trusting exclusively in their reports. Some too, realizing that intelligence reports may often be compilations drawn from their authors’ preconceptions or deliberately slanted to misread targets – and are famous for such misses as 9/11 - were wont to treat their intelligence briefings with a pinch of salt and then make their own decisions regardless
Trump is different in that he parades his mistrust as part of his worldview, and has surrounded himself with likeminded former intelligence officials. Mike Flynn was one example. He was head of the Pentagon’s DIA until he was fired by Barack Obama.
His insistence on “getting along” with Vladimir Putin became Trump’s most telling challenge to the intelligence community, whose deep-seated orientation poses Russia, rather than China or the Islamic State – and certainly not Iran - as America’s arch foe. This mighty colossus of manpower, budgets and top-line technology, which is built around this concept, finds itself not just under attack but under compulsion to change its shape and rewrite its missions.
Not surprisingly, it is fighting back.
The internal battle royal makes the Trump administration fertile ground for foreign agencies’ troublemaking - especially Russia’s clandestine services. On the penetration game since the late 1940s, Russian agents may be acting to deepen the rift between the US president and his intelligence community. Putin, an offspring of KGB parentage, would certainly not miss this opportunity.
From this standpoint, the White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s most important answers to questions at his briefing on Tuesday, Feb. 14 were the reiteration that the president’s “eroding trust” in his national security adviser was the reason why Flynn had to go, followed by his refusal to comment on whether any White House officials had read transcripts of the calls between Flynn and the Russian ambassador.
That Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence was not denied – indeed he later apologized for this. But it is not clear what was said in those phone calls, their circumstances and, most intriguingly, how they came to be leaked.
The fact is that Trump presidency suffered its biggest crisis before it was four weeks old because an unknown agent intercepted, recorded, saved and transcripted those calls and then leaked to the press the fact that they were made and part of their content.
The crisis is only beginning, since the full content of those conversations is still undiscovered, together with how many calls were recorded and who is in possession of the recordings.
DEBKA Weekly takes a look at some of the possible hands behind this huge setback.
Despite strict laws against the wiretapping of government officials -- such as surveillance of their cellular or landline phones, web surfing, e-mails, and social network activities -- many bodies in the US own an interest in monitoring those officials, or receiving “meta data” on who contacted them, where they were contacted from, how long they communicated, and many more details.
America has more than 15 intelligence and security services, some of them with conflicting interests. The FBI, for example, may carry out wiretapping with the consent of a person it is protecting, to ensure that this person is not threatened, blackmailed or put in danger in any other way. In contrast, intelligence organizations, such as the CIA or the NSA, may carry out wiretapping of public figures or security-related officials if they are suspected of treason, passing secrets to the enemy or committing other serious crimes.
Assuming that the US government’s technological networks are capable of carrying out surveillance of any communication network anywhere in the world, it is reasonable to suspect that one of the hundreds of thousands of employees of US intelligence organizations could have intercepted, recorded and handed out the information out of personal, political, financial, religious, national or other motives.
The conversations between Flynn and Kislyak could even have been intercepted by mercenaries using a certain type of electronic gadget containing components costing less than $2,000, including a radio receiver and a basic cellular encryption system. The services of such individuals, who do not fear arrest, trial or long jail sentences, could have easily been acquired for a reasonable fee, with funding put up by Flynn’s adversaries in both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Of course, there were two sides to the Flynn-Kislyak conversations.
The ambassador’s calls would have been routinely monitored by Russia’s internal and external intelligence services, which would not take any chances with protecting its most important ambassador in the world. They would also check on him to ensure he was only talking to persons authorized for communication during his posting in the US.
Transcripts of all his phone calls would be deposited at SVR, Russia’s external intelligence agency, at its headquarters in the Yasenevo district of Moscow.
It cannot be ruled out that an SVR official who, like some opposite number in US intelligence, is against the reset of US-Russian relations by Trump and Putin and decided to leak the conversations in order to topple the architect of that détente. An extra bonus would come from the uproar raised as collateral damage in the young Trump administration.
Other Western clandestine services may have monitored the Flynn-Kisyak phone calls – if only to store a strong bargaining chip against their American ally. They may even be members of the Five Eyes global intelligence network comprised of the US Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This would not stop some agent or politician who dislikes President Trump from leaking the existence of those calls to create havoc in his administration.
When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stood alongside President Donald Trump at the White House Wednesday, Feb. 15, and praised his host’s great courage in “confronting head-on the malevolent force, radical Islamic terror” which kept the US and Israel under attack, he was not talking idly.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources reveal exclusively here for the first time that the Israeli Air Force had a few days earlier completed the largest air assault ever conducted against the Islamic State in the Middle East.
In the first ten days of February, the IAF concentrated its intelligence and assault resources on breaking the back of the Islamic State’s Sinai branch, the former Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, in an operation sanctioned in advance by Trump and Egypt’s president, Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi.
The aim was to pulverize the ISIS stronghold in its central Sinai mountain fastness with its training camps and arms dumps, as well as decimating its fighting manpower.
After Israeli surveillance marked out the targets, the bombers, fighters and scores of drones went into action around the clock day after day to level every last Islamic terrorist facility. Any vehicle or individual trying to escape on foot was hunted down by the drones cruising overhead and picked off.
When it was over, shortly before Netanyahu set out for Washington, the total number of ISIS fighters in Sinai, formerly estimated at 1,600, had been reduced by half, and many of the survivors were badly injured.
While under attack, ISIS operatives tried to hit back. They managed to fire off just 4 rockets into Eilat, which landed harmlessly in Israel’s southernmost town, just across the border from Egyptian Sinai.
This massive Israeli air operation was designed to accentuate two points
1. To show Presidents Trump and El-Sisi, as well as to other Arab rulers, that ISIS can be destroyed from the air without recourse to large-scale ground forces.
2. That the Israeli Air Force, with the backing of the US President and Middle East rulers, is capable of stealthily reaching into every corner of the region, smashing ISIS targets and returning to home base virtually undetected from beginning to end.
Netanyahu collected a handful of kudos for this operation from President Trump in their closed door conversation in the Oval Office.
But when they got down to talking about Syria, the situation was a lot less clear-cut, largely because Mike Flynn is no longer national security adviser to the president and has been withdrawn from running the show.
Some spadework had been performed before his resignation and the prime minister’s visit.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that decisions were made earlier on the manner of Israel’s integration in US military operations in Syria, following meetings between Trump’s advisers and Israeli military and intelligence officers in Washington and at American military installations in the region, including the George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group.
Flynn had coordinated the landing of American troops in Syria with the Defense Ministry in Moscow and the Russian command headquarters in the country.
Wednesday, the Pentagon announced it was “developing proposals for sending an unspecified number of American military personnel into Syria, conventional ground forces to augment the 500 military advisers already there and to coordinate efforts to destroy the Islamic State.”
This statement was intended to inform the Russians and Israelis that the US operation against ISIS in Syria was still on after Flynn’s departure. However, both grasped that much uncertainty was hanging over the combined effort, so long as his shoes were not filled by a permanent replacement.
Just under a month into the Trump presidency, the contradictions between his foreign policy objectives and reality were nowhere more startling than in Iraq and Syria. And that was even before the forced resignation of Mike Flynn as National Security Adviser on Monday, Feb. 12.
Brett H. McGurk, who was Special Presidential Envoy to Barack Obama for the Global Coalition, has survived the directive issued for his removal by Flynn and Defense Secretary James Mattis, and continues to toe the previous administration’s line on US-Iranian collaboration in Iraq as well as Syria.
As a result, President Donald Trump and his team are seen to have failed to get a grip on the situation on the ground in the Middle East’s main battle arenas. And worse, Trump threatened to brand the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and al Qods a terrorist organization at a time that American generals and colonels were sharing command quarters with officers of those organizations, especially in Iraq.
Together, they continued to plan operations, pore over maps and discuss equipment and tactics as though nothing had changed in Washington and Obama’s pro-Iran policy was still in place.
Iranian commanders on the spot, led by their top officer, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Al Qods chief, may have had a quiet laugh over this mix-up.
It is especially glaring in the Tal Afar operation which was launched last November
Iranian-backed Iraqi military units, under the aegis of the Popular Mobilization forces (PUM), are fighting to encircle the town and push towards the Syrian border in order cut off the Islamic State’s supply routes from its Iraqi headquarters in Mosul to its forces in Syria.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that McGurk and Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of US forces in Iraq and Syria, are still running that operation.
There are no Iraqi government forces in the Tal Afar arena.
The US-Iranian entanglement runs deep. Around 15,000 PUM militiamen out of an estimated 120,000-strong force are furthermore engaged in the offensive to capture western Mosul.
McGurk and Townsend must carefully avoid direct formal contact with Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the Hezballah Brigades chief and Deputy Commander of PUM, whom the US Treasury designated a terrorist.
But Muhandis also happens to be Gen. Soleimani’s most senior adviser. And so he can’t be avoided in the course of US-Iranian military operations in the field.
This entanglement is the fruit of the Obama administration’s decision to “gift” Tehran with the prize of al Afar by attaching American officers to all the Iranian and pro-Iranian forces command centers. They have the authority to approve or veto all military operations and authorize US air or artillery support – which they still do.
So far, the Americans have not allowed PUM to go into Tal Afar, only encircle it.
But Tehran’s object as relayed to Gen. Soleimani is to seize control of the Iraqi-Syria border in order to consolidate the most important link in Tehran’s cherished overland bridge to Syria and the Mediterranean via Iraq. Obama instructed US officers and the US air force to help Tehran achieve this prime strategic goal.
Our sources also reveal that, in line with this policy, American officers in Iraq are also collaborating with another pro-Iranian militia, the Badr Organization, previously known as the Badr Brigades, an Iraqi Shiite political party headed by Hadi Al-Amiri
McGurk and Townsend have been maintaining close ties with Al-Amiri and view him as a leading pro-Iranian light well worth US investment.
The tangled situation in Iraq is fast reaching the point where a decision by the Trump administration to pull the US officers, who are working closely with Tehran’s two Iraqi Shiite armed surrogates and the Al Qods general, would risk bringing the entire US military, intelligence and political edifice erected by the Obama administration crashing down.
Mike Flynn’s abrupt ouster as US National Security Adviser on Monday, Feb. 12 landed without warning on the heads of two American allies, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan, both of whom were in the middle of operations in Syria, which Flynn had designed and navigated on behalf of the Trump administration.
The news caught the king just two days after a Syrian rebel force led by Jordanian officers had embarked on a major offensive to capture the southern town of Daraa, an operation given the green light during Abdullah’s meeting with Trump in Washington on Feb. 2.
The king was jolted again when the Russian and Syrian commands reacted to the news with swift and heavy air bombardments of the assault force advancing on Daraa.
This act was taken as a sharp message from Moscow that the Russian-US military coordination deal for Syria that was managed by the dismissed adviser was on hold, until the Trump administration made it clear that its Russian policy was unchanged.
Flynn’s fall from grace also brought Turkish President Erdogan up short, while on a tour of Saudi and Gulf capitals to sell the Trump line, also shaped by the departed adviser, for US, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates to combine forces for the battle against the Islamic State.
At a loss for a response, Erdogan noted irrelevantly that he had “informed the newly elected US President Donald Trump that beating ISIS will come through cleansing Al-Raqqa, which is the main ISIS stronghold in Syria.”
This was not the Turkish president’s first shock from Washington. On Jan. 25, five days after inauguration, Trump announced he would support safe zones for Syria, a plan Erdogan feared would lay the groundwork for a Syrian Kurdish autonomous state on the Turkish border.
For now, Erdogan needs to know how the shakeup in Washington bears on the Turkish army’s offensive to seize the strategic northern Syrian town of Al Bab from ISIS occupation. He has kept the fighting low key to minimize Turkish casualties. But to avoid getting bogged down after three months of fighting, he needs cooperation from the Americans, Russians and the Assad regime in Damascus.
The Turkish ruler had hoped to impress President Trump with the efficacy of this military partnership sufficiently to gain the extradition of opposition leader Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of masterminding last July’s failed coup against him. With Mike Flynn’s ouster, Ankara has lost its most committed lobbyist for this case in Washington, and the Turkish army is at a loss about the fate of the military coordination plans he devised.
Erdogan’s boasts of Turkish battlefield successes and ISIS retreats are whistling in the dark, which don’t quite match the facts.
Another Middle East leader looking for answers is Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is in Washington this week for his first face-to-face with Trump as president. That event is the subject of a separate article in this issue.