Israel’s top political leaders and military commanders were shocked and stunned this week when they found out that US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are jointly supporting the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.
The two presidents gave their top diplomats, Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the green light to include such a clause in proposals being drafted at the Geneva conference on ending the Syrian civil war.
Israel captured the Golan from the Syrian army 49 years ago, during the Six-Day War in 1967.
In 1981, during the tenure of then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Israel passed a law defining the Golan as a territory under Israeli sovereignty. However, it did not state that the area belongs to Israel.
The strategic importance of the Golan for Israel has grown considerably since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. The IDF’s largest network of fortifications was established on the heights. This military presence is not directed against Syrian President Bashar Assad, but rather its allies Iran and Hizballah. Both consider the Syrian Golan, located on the other side of the border, as a potential second front against Israel if a war breaks out. In recent years, the Israeli military presence on the Golan has served as well as the main bulwark preventing an attack by ISIS forces, not only against Israel but also against Jordan.
In order to coordinate military operations against ISIS in southern Syria, including the Syrian Golan, the US, Jordan and Israel established a war room, called the US Central Command Forward-Jordan, north of the Jordanian capital Amman.
During the last six months, with the start of the Russian military intervention in Syria in October 2015, the IDF also set up a mechanism with the Russian military to coordinate their air force operations. The deputy chiefs of staff from both sides, namely the Russian military’s Col. Gen. Nikolai Bogdanovski and the IDF’s Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, make the important decisions for this mechanism. The last meeting between the two senior officers was held in Tel Aviv on April 4.
However, the topic of the US and Russian support for Israeli withdrawal from the Golan was never mentioned at any of these high-level military meetings.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu called US Secretary of State Kerry on April 13 and asked him if he truly believes that the most important topic today concerning Syria is the Israeli Golan. He accused U.S. and Russia of kowtowing to Iran. Netanyahu also told him that the US-Russian decision had undermined the situation in southern Syria after US, Jordanian and Israeli military operations had stabilized the area.
DEBKA Weekly does not have any details about Kerry’s response.
Our sources report that Prime Minister Netanyahu is about to take three steps regarding the Golan:
1. He will call Russian President Putin on Thursday, April 14, or during the weekend, and tell him that Moscow’s support for withdrawal runs counter to all of the commitments that the Russian leader gave Israel regarding southern Syria.
2. He will hold a Cabinet meeting at one of the Israeli settlements on the Golan next week. The meeting is intended to emphasize that Israel has no intention of withdrawing from the Golan or making any other concession regarding the area.
3. The meeting will approve large new budgets for development of the Golan.
Netanyahu is aware that the US-Russian measure regarding the Golan means that future joint steps by Washington and Moscow regarding Palestinian territories in the West Bank are likely as well.
US President Barack Obama will make his final trip to the Persian Gulf as president when he visits Saudi Arabia later this month to participate in a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit. It will be his last official meeting with regional leaders before he leaves the White House in 10 months, in January 2017.
The White House said the summit will address the fight against ISIS and other security issues in the Middle East. However, it did not mention a single word about Iran, even though it is clear to everybody in Washington and Riyadh connected to the planning of the visit that Obama will focus on three main topics, which are:
1. A larger role by Gulf states in the war against terror, especially against ISIS.
2. A last attempt by Obama to convince Gulf rulers to accept the nuclear agreement with Iran as an established fact, which he believes will spur negotiations between those rulers and Iran that will lead to a reconciliation between the two sides.
3. The senior American officials planning the visit, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, believe that Obama can bring about an understanding between Gulf leaders and Iran if the wars in Yemen and Syria come to an end, and if Saudi Arabia receives a greater role in the joint efforts by the US and Russia in Syria.
Regarding Yemen, the Americans used heavy pressure on the Iranians and the Omanis, who assumed the role of mediators, to bring about the cease-fire that went into effect on April 11.
But there are very few officials in Washington or any of the Gulf capitals who believe that the cease-fire will even hold until Obama arrives in Saudi Arabia on April 21.
Secretary of State Kerry is said to be ready to accept a partial resumption of the fighting in Yemen, like the one in Syria last week.
However, Kerry’s “final rehearsal” for the presidential visit, a meeting with GCC foreign ministers in the Bahraini capital Manama on April 7, did not go well.
The foreign ministers, who received instructions from Riyadh to deliver a clear message to Kerry, asked him how the Iranian leadership could possibly demonstrate a more flexible and moderate policy when Iran’s domestic and foreign policies are determined by senior officers of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, not President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Muhammad Jawad Zarif. The ministers also wanted to know why arms shipments to Yemen’s Houthi rebels are continuing even though their countries were promised that the shipments would be stopped, and why Iran is being allowed to continue testing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.
Kerry did not have any convincing answers, only saying that Gulf leaders should be encouraged by the internal struggle underway in Iran between supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and two senior political figures, President Hassan Rouhani and his political ally Hashem Rafsanjani. Referring to Khamenei’s recent statement that “anyone who thinks negotiations are more important than building a missile system are traitors,” Kerry said it proves that even the supreme leader must consider the views of those who think differently.
In order to strengthen its position ahead of Obama’s visit to the region, the US deployed B-52 long-range strategic bombers to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar on April 9. US spokesmen refused to specify the number of B-52s that have been deployed for operations against ISIS targets in the Middle East.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and military sources report that US forces will carry out a large-scale assault against an ISIS target ahead of Obama’s trip in order to convince Gulf leaders that the president does not intend to leave office quietly as he had planned, but rather continue the war against terror until the end of his term.
But there is another side to all of the US diplomatic and military preparations. Various US media organizations are planning to publish a series of investigations on Saudi Arabia, mainly on its violations of human rights and support for Islamic terror, ahead of Obama’s trip.
The Saudis are especially concerned that American TV news magazine 60 Minutes is about to publish 28 documents proving the Saudi Arabian government’s direct involvement in the planning of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Despite Washington’s preparations, the Saudis remain bitter after Obama said in an interview published by The Atlantic last month that Riyadh is a “free rider” on his country’s foreign policy.
From the perspective of Gulf leaders, including the Saudis, there is no difference between Obama’s comments and those of US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has vowed to make Saudi Arabia, along with a group of other countries, pay for US military and nuclear protection.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources in the Persian Gulf report that the Saudis are working hard to set up the bloc consisting of Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to confront a Shiite bloc led by Iran. For this purpose, 80-year-old Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud made a five-day visit to Egypt last week even though he had little strength for the rigors of such a trip. He even had difficulty finishing a six-minute speech that he made to the Egyptian parliament on April 10.
Senior Saudi officials led by Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made every possible effort to demonstrate that the two main members of the bloc are working together smoothly and optimally. These included:
1. According to the Saudis, the strategic alliance between Cairo, led by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and Ankara, led by President Tayyip Erdogan, has been reestablished. In other words, the strategic alliance that the US tried to establish in 2012 between Egypt (then ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood), Turkey and Qatar along with Israel as a silent partner, has been replaced by a similar alliance with different members. Erdogan agreed to give up his complete support for the Muslim Brotherhood, including his demand that Egypt stop cracking down on the organization and executing its leaders, in return for an alliance with El-Sisi, the organization’s biggest enemy.
This concession came in parallel with the Turkish president’s concession to the alliance’s silent partner, Israel, regarding his support of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Erdogan gave up his demand that Israel lift its naval blockade on Gaza and stop attacking military infrastructure of Hamas. Our sources report that military ties between Turkey, Egypt and Israel will be renewed in the very near future.
2. Riyadh’s provision of a $21.5 billion aid package, part of which is defined as a long-term loan, although officials pretend not to know that there is no chance of repayment by Cairo. As far as the Saudis are concerned, Egypt is now a brother whose president has decided to become a partner in their country’s diplomatic and military plans.
Demonstrating the seriousness of this process, President El-Sisi agreed to a step that no ruler in his country’s ancient or modern history had ever taken, namely the handover of sovereign Egyptian territory to a foreign country.
El-Sisi agreed to relinquish sovereignty over Tiran island, an 80-square-kilometer territory at the entrance of the Straits of Tiran (see map), the only access from Jordan and Israel to the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. He also agreed to hand over Sanafir island, a 33-square-kilometer territory east of Tiran.
This diplomatic achievement not only enabled Saudi Arabia to expand its defensive belt around the northern part of the kingdom including the military city of Tabuk, the location of King Faisal Air Base, the nerve center of the Saudi air defense system. It provided a strategic position controlling access to and from the Gulf of Aqaba, as well as a position where the Red Sea meets the Suez Canal, where a third of all global maritime traffic passes.
Considering the fact that an American special forces unit is based on Tiran island, and Riyadh did not consult with or inform Washington regarding this step, the Saudi royal family has left the Obama administration with two options: either to withdraw the troops, or accept the handover and leave the troops on the island that is now Saudi territory.
If Washington decides to keep the forces in place, it will need to coordinate its operations with Saudi and Egyptian steps which the US opposes. If it decides to withdraw them, it will generate a crisis in ties between the three countries in addition to those that already exist ahead of Obama’s arrival in Saudi Arabia for a summit with regional leaders.
There are many predictions regarding the plan agreed upon by Saudi King Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi this week to build a 32-kilometer bridge between Ras Hamid, in northern Saudi Arabia, and the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt.
The original plan, proposed in 2005, was to open a new route for pilgrims traveling to Saudi Arabia that would boost Egypt’s tourism and trade, thus providing the Egyptian economy with a shot in the arm.
Current plans for the King Salman Bridge envision hundreds of thousands of trucks transporting goods from Egyptian ports east to Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
Once the bridge is built, many Muslim pilgrims who make pilgrimages to Mecca each year will not need to fly to Saudi airports that currently have great difficulty processing all of them. The pilgrims will be able to travel to Egypt by boat or plane, and then continue to Saudi Arabia by buses or trains via the bridge. Thus, the costs of the pilgrims will be reduced, and Egypt will receive an economic boost.
This causeway could also be used by hundreds of thousands or even millions of Egyptian workers who may seek jobs in Gulf countries for better wages in place of Indians and Pakistanis who increasingly prefer to stay home due to the poor reputation of many employers in the Gulf.
In addition, the bridge could serve as a crossing point for convoys of trucks traveling to Gulf countries from Turkey. Those convoys currently travel via Iraq or Israel.
If the war in Syria comes to an end, the trucks would be able to travel via Jordan to northern Saudi Arabia, where they could turn west toward the King Salman Bridge and cross into Egypt. Convoys of trucks could travel south to all of the Gulf countries.
Once Israel completes its railroad to Eilat around the year 2020, it may be possible to transfer trucks or goods that reach the port of Haifa, and continue the train line along the Gulf of Aqaba to Sharm El Sheikh, and from there to the new road's links to the bridge.
But DEBKA Weekly’s Middle Eastern sources point out that in today’s Middle East, with one war in Yemen between the Saudi-led Sunni bloc and the Iran-led Shiite bloc, and another war in Syria between the Sunnis and the Shiites and ISIS, there are very serious doubts about whether these ambitious plans can be realized.
A more realistic assessment is that the bridge will be barely used except by traffic between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. One of the main reasons is its planned location in northern Saudi Arabia. The bridge would be more than 1,300 kilometers from the southern part of the country, and 1,800 kilometers from central Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. These distances would make the trip economically unviable, especially since the costs for transportation by sea are considerably less.
This was apparently the reason why the agreement signed by the Saudis and the Egyptians in Cairo contained no mention of the dates for the start or completion of construction.
Another important reason why the plan remains uncertain is an estimation that as soon as the bridge opens to traffic, it is likely to be used by the networks for smuggling weapons, drugs, women and new cars that currently extend from Libya to Jordan.
Unless preventive measures are taken, the King Salman Bridge may help unify the smuggling and organized crime networks from Abu Dhabi in the Gulf to Benghazi in eastern Libya that are now separated by 5,000km.
Tehran has finally caved in to pressure from Moscow and deployed forces from its standing army to Syria.
The deployment has been proven by two recent developments: Russia’s first shipment of S-300 missiles to Iran, and the Iranian media’s announcement of the names of officers and enlisted men from the standing army who were killed in battle on various fronts in Syria.
Confirmation of the long-delayed shipment came in a statement by the spokesman of Iran’s Foreign Ministry. Moscow sent the first consignment of missiles just as Tehran sent standing army units to Syria for the first time. This was later denied, creating some confusion. At the same time Tehran appears anxious to start mending the rift with Moscow.
DEBKA Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources report that this shows that Moscow and Tehran have started to mend their rift over the strategy for the war in Syria.
The Russians claimed that the Iranians violated the agreements they reached in 2015 when Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Al Qods brigades and of Iranian forces in Syria, visited Moscow.
According to those understandings, the two countries divided up the war effort. The Russian air force took responsibility for the air war, while the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) took responsibility for the ground war that would benefit from Russian air support.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and senior Russian military commanders later claimed that while they sent additional planes and helicopters to Syria, the IRGC did not send the forces that it promised, and that there were not enough Iranian troops on the ground. In other words, the results achieved by Russian air force were reversible. The Syrian rebels would return to the bombed areas immediately after the airstrikes because there were no Iranian troops to take control.
Iran asserted for the last three months that it could not send any more IRGC forces to Syria because it would leave the Iraqi front and Iran’s border with Iraq vulnerable to attacks by ISIS. However, it finally caved in to the Russian pressure, sending standing army troops to fight outside the country’s borders for the first time in the history of the Islamic republic.
Unlike the IRGC, Iran’s standing army does not usually take part in overseas operations, so the latest deployment is considered an opportunity to gain experience fighting the rebels. However, the deployment is proving to be a costly one.
On April 10, the Iranian media reported the death of a sergeant from the 65th “Nohead” Special Airborne Brigade, which includes an elite unit that specializes in hostage rescue and counterterror operations.
The following day, it was reported that an officer from the 582nd Special Forces Brigade as well as the head of intelligence for the 45th Special Operations Brigade were both killed in action, along with more than five other soldiers.
Gen. Ahmad-Reza Pourdastan, commander of the Iranian army, confirmed on April 12 that members of the 65th brigade and those from various other units have been collecting intelligence and serving as advisors in Syria.
On April 12, the US military announced it is considering the possibility of replacing some of its 700 troops deployed in the Sinai Peninsula with remote surveillance equipment, and that it has officially informed Jerusalem and Cairo of its plans.
Speaking anonymously, American officials said installation of the equipment would allow hundreds of US troops who are part of a multinational peacekeeping force-MFO to be withdrawn at a later date.
The announcement was issued immediately after Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud left Cairo at the end of his five-day visit to Egypt in which the two countries laid the foundations for the establishment for a new Sunni bloc of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. (Please refer to the previous articles in this issue regarding the bloc)
Both Riyadh and Cairo viewed the timing of the announcement as an intentional means by the administration of US President Barack Obama to express reservations regarding the two countries’ plans. From their perspective, the US was telling them that if they establish a political and military alliance, they will not only have to defend themselves against any ISIS attacks, but will have to do it without Washington’s help.
Officials in Cairo do not believe the Obama administration will install an automated monitoring system in the Sinai, mainly because it has promised several times since 2014 to send Egypt such surveillance equipment to help fight ISIS, but has not kept its word and the equipment never arrived.
DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism sources report that amid this situation Egypt asked Israel for assistance in the war against ISIS, and Israel has provided it in four ways:
1. IDF special forces units, operating in the framework of the military intelligence branch, entered Sinai and installed a network of sensors to monitor the movements of ISIS.
2. Israeli military satellites and surveillance planes are collecting intelligence on ISIS movements in the Sinai and transferring it to Egypt.
3. According to reports that have never been confirmed by any Egyptian or Israeli source, Israeli air force drones occasionally attack ISIS bases or convoys in the Sinai.
4. Israel has permitted Egypt to deploy large military forces in the Sinai, including tanks and planes, which is forbidden under the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries.
This military cooperation is one of the two real reasons why the Obama administration decided to withdraw American forces from the peninsula. There is no point in maintaining the Multinational Force and Observers because its main role is to supervise implementation of the military agreements between Israel and Egypt, and the two countries agreed on the large-scale Egyptian deployment that is banned under the peace treaty. In other words, Egypt and Israel have made the MFO unnecessary.
The second reason is that the US does not believe that Egypt, even with Israel’s help, is capable of defeating ISIS, and fears that the terrorist organization has recently been increasing its efforts to penetrate into the southern part of the Sinai towards Sharm El-Sheikh. At this stage, the Obama administration is fighting ISIS on two main fronts, Iraq and Syria, and is not interested in opening a third one.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources point out that all of the sides directly involved in the war against ISIS in the Sinai are trying to pass the responsibility for the war onto each other.
In any case, Egypt and Israel already agreed this week to oppose the withdrawal of American troops from the MFO because it would mean the collapse of the force and cessation of its operations. However, it remains to be seen whether Washington will maintain the MFO in its current form. Our sources in Washington report that Obama is determined to carry out the process for withdrawing the troops.