On the face of it, the Islamic State, one of the most vicious Islamist groups ever to darken the Mid East, handied an ultimatum to Washington when a black-clad executioner murdered two American journalists, James Foley on Aug. 19 and Steven Sotloff, on Sept. 3. The message was: Back off air strikes against Islamist forces in northern Iraq and we’ll stop beheading American and British hostages.
But that motto is just another tool in a campaign of propaganda and disinformation designed to deceive. The horrendous images are propagated by video to instill fear and trembling in the West, whip up zeal for Arab and Muslim jihadist recruits, and impress Arab and Muslim opinion – but not, say DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources, to convince the US to call off its air strikes.
In fact, ISIS would like them to continue for a number of reasons:
1. The US bombardments pose no real military threat because they are limited to targeting scattered Islamist armored vehicles and isolated positions. So far they have not bombed substantial targets, such as main ISIS command centers and bases in the town of Mosul, or the dozens of captured Iraqi oil fields, from which ISIS pumps tidy revenues.
2. Islamist operational planners don’t mind it when US, Iraqi and Kurdish spokesmen claim that the air strikes helped the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga recapture this or that Iraqi town from Islamist hands - or even the vitally strategic Mosul dam, although sections of the dam remain in IS hands. They believe that these false reports will put the Obama administration on the spot, forcing it to explain why the air strikes are still necessary, or admit that the Islamists are in fact still in charge.
As a result, US air activity over Iraq is diminishing by stages, while IS strengthens its grip on captured locations in Iraq.
Focus on Iraq distracts attention from IS’ primary game in Syria
3. If they had a choice, IS strategists would rather the Americans continue their air raids than give the Peshmerga weapons. While media headlines convey the impression that the US is arming the Kurds, Islamist fighters in the field would be the first to know if they had, and so far they have not encountered Kurdish troops wielding American weapons.
4. It also suits Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for world attention to be fixed on his group’s operations – and atrocities - in Iraq, and still more, for President Barack Obama to delay a decision on extending air bombardments to Syria. It is there, away from world notice, that Baghdadi keeps his most important bases. And, above all, the gruesome events in Iraq grab world attention, enabling him to operate unnoticed in the Syrian shadow to bring forward moves towards his grand scheme.
The entire Euphrates-Tigris basin, site of the Mesopotamia, is the prize
DEBKA Weekly’s sources disclose that the self-styled “caliph” at the head of his jihadi army is on the way to conquering the entire Euphrates River basin (see map).
They began heading out of Raqqa in northern Syria, taking a route parallel to the Syrian section of the Euphrates River to Deir a-Zor, 130 km away to the east, and continuing further east to al Qaim on the Iraqi border, thence to the Iraqi bank of the river.
Their next lap of 430 km takes them to Fallujah, capital of Iraq’s western province of Anbar. The Syrian and Iraqi contingents of the Islamic State are intended to link up for the first time at Mahmoudiya, the point where the great Euphrates and Tigris Rivers run in closest proximity (see exclusive DEBKA map).
The Islamists’ surreptitious advance is intended to enclose a chunk of eastern Syria and western Iraq to give them control of the Euphrates and Tigris River basins, without having run into a single Iraqi or Kurdish soldier to impede their progress – or being bombed by US jets.
Sway over this strategic domain will give the Islamic State a dominant military position over the Shiite provinces south of Baghdad and in relation to Saudi Arabia to the south and Jordan and Israel to the west.
Baghdadi’s exercise, if successful, would connect his northern Syrian and western Iraqi strongholds, buttressing them as powerful extremities of a contiguous line.
His plan is to lead an invincible army of fervent jihadists along this line to achieve his grand scheme to create an Islamic empire within the approximate boundaries of ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.
His army is creeping forward toward this goal under the cover of the sound and fury of US military action in northern Iraq and Kurdistan.
To understand Obama’s military and intelligence thinking on Iraq, read a separate article in this issue.
The Obama administration’s limited challenge to the Iraqi Islamists responsible for the barbaric beheading of two American journalists has been further diluted and sidetracked by its partnership with Iran.
President Barack Obama has agreed to harness the US military effort in Iraq to Tehran’s top strategic priority, which is to stall the semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s drive for full independence, DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Washington, Tehran and Irbil report.
America has therefore rearranged its own priorities in Iraq to meet the following goals:
1. The war on Al Qaeda in Iraq, occasioning the first direct military and intelligence collaboration between the US and Iran, is to be the crucible for their broader collaboration in resolving regional problems in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.
2. Preventing the KRG’s President Massoud Barzani from riding on the back of the war on Al Qaeda to full independence.
By putting those goals first, Washington and Tehran have dropped the counterterrorism operation against ISIS in Iraq to third place on their scale of priorities. This has had the effect of tying the hands of the forces on the ground which should be fighting the Islamists in Iraq. Even those who do engage the Islamists are short of clear direction.
Kurdish leaders spurn US military advice to go for Mosul
According to our sources, the American military advisers alongside the Kurdish government in Irbil (around 1,500 members of US special forces) have discounted Kurdish Peshmerga operations in the provinces of Diyala in the east, Salahuddin north of Baghdad and Nineveh in the north. They have told Kurdish leaders that these operations are worthless militarily and ineffectual for reducing ISIS’s tactical edge.
The only way to change the course of the war, say the American advisers, is for the Peshmerga to launch a full-scale offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest town, from the Islamists. With Mosul in Kurdish hands, they believe IS’ would be unable to hold out in the rest of Iraq
Wednesday, President Obama announced that another 350 US soldiers have been assigned to Iraq.
The Kurds have no intention of acting on the US advisers’ recommendation because they suspect them of an ulterior motive. They see Obama’s overriding concern as having shifted away from destroying IS to preventing them from attaining independence. They believe this policy was crafted with Tehran, which is intent on stamping out the slightest mark of Kurdish self-rule. (Iran has a Kurdish minority of 9 million, 7 percent of the total population).
The object of a Kurdish assault on Mosul (a town of 2 million) would be therefore to mire their autonomous army in a hopeless, never-ending war.
The Kurds accordingly promised politely to consider the American plan, but only if they were provided with American amphibian landing craft for a surprise attack on IS from the Tigris River and air cover in the form of US assault helicopters.
Historic first: US and Iranian special forces fight together
The Tigris cuts Mosul into two districts – the left bank in the west, where the Kurdish neighborhood is located and the right bank which is under IS control.
Washington, while repeatedly promising to arm the Kurds, is ignoring their requests, just as the Kurds are ignoring US military counsel. And so the brave story of US cooperation with the Iraqi army and Kurdish militia rests on shaky legs.
(Find out who is going around the US as the Kurds’ arms suppliers in a separate article)
DEBKA Weekly’s military experts report that the Iraqi army no longer exists except on paper. All its constituent divisions fell apart in combat with Islamist forces, at least four lost their weapons and there is no way to assemble even one combat task unit.
The Kurdish military, in contrast, is willing and able to fight the Islamists on its doorstep, but only according to its own operational rules, not the American game plan - certainly not with Iranian military and intelligence input.
In the last week of August, the Middle East witnessed for the first time in its history a joint US-Iranian military operation. It was conducted by US special forces and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Al Qods Brigades, who fought together, at the head of Kurdish and Iraqi troops, and won the battle for breaking ISIS’ 70-day siege on the small Iraqi town of Amerli in the Tooz District of the Saluhaddin Governate in northern Iraq, about 100 km from the Iranian border.
Amerli has a population of 26,000, mainly members of the Turkoman ethnic community.
The ayatollahs make the running – but not on their nuclear aspirations
Iran refused to tolerate the presence of the Islamist radicals so close to its border and the Obama administration was willing to pitch in to root them out.
By this battle, Obama established a historic landmark, which would stand at least for the duration of his second term and possibly as a hand-me-down for his successor, when he/she moves into the White House in January 2016. In the foreseeable future, the president’s historic détente with Revolutionary Shiite Iran will increasingly dominate America’s relations with the Sunni Muslim, as their collaborative war on Al Qaeda and other radical Sunni elements gains momentum.
The US president has declared often that he aspires to heal the 35 years of animosity between the United States and Iran. The ayatollahs have made the running – not through concessions on their nuclear program, on which they stand firm, but in their partnership for destroying the radical Islamists overrunning Iraq next door.
To lure Obama, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took the extreme step of dumping the Al Qods Brigades chief, Gen. Qassem Soleimani (as first reported in DEBKA Weekly 648 on Aug. 29) - despite his almost legendary feats in Syria and Iraq on behalf of the Iranian revolution.
Soleimani leads Iranian-US victory in Amerli
This week, Khamenei turned out to have decided that Soleimani was too valuable to push out to the cold. Formally replaced as Al Qods chief by his faithful and long-serving deputy, the 44-year old Hossein Hamedani, Western intelligence sources reported he was relieved of the Iraqi file and left only with the Syrian dossier. Bashar Assad largely owes his survival to Soleimani’s efforts.
This too turned out to be misinformation. DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources have obtained an exclusive photo of Soleimani taken Wednesday, Sept. 3, at the site of the joint US-Iranian Amerli victory.
For now, US-Iranian cooperation has not extended to the Syrian arena, which figures at present much larger in Abu Musa Al-Baghdadi aspirations than the Iraqi battlefield.
Speaking in Talinn Wednesday, Obama vowed: “Our bottom line is to destroy and degrade the Islamic State” who in three weeks foully murdered two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
All the experts agree that this cannot be achieved without going for their core commands in Syria.
However, the US president equivocated on his vow with the rider: “It will take time to roll back the Islamists.”
The smiling faces of 61 world leaders attending the NATO summit (Sept. 4-5) at a Celtic manor near Newport in Wales thinly covered the disarray within the alliance. Two intractable crises, Ukraine and the Islamic State, topped the agenda. But the most damaging fallout on NATO unity came from the ever-closer relations binding the Obama administration and Revolutionary Iran.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British premier David Cameron, and French President Francois Hollande receive daily intelligence briefings on the situation in Iraq and the state of the war on the Islamic State terrorists. More and more space is taken up in those briefings, DEBKA Weekly’s sources report, by details on the expanding cooperation between President Barack Obama and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in dealing with the Iraq crisis.
US Secretary John Kerry’s passionate appeal for a coalition to combat the Islamic extremists is now interpreted as window dressing to mislead America’s allies on the robustness of its pact with Iran and their own assigned roles as bit players.
The sense in Berlin, London, Canberra and Paris is that Washington has jilted its partners in the 14-year old war on terror, those who fought alongside the US through thick and thin in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and the Middle East, in order to climb into bed with its new US favorite in Tehran.
The ramifications for Europe and the Middle East are far-reaching.
The Islamist menace won’t touch the US. Europe is on its own
The disaffected leaders were further incensed by a statement Wednesday, the day before the NATO summit, by US National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen. He denied any “credible information” that the Islamic State which has rained terror on Iraq and Syria is planning to attack the US homeland. Any plot launched today, he said, would be “limited in scope” and “nothing like a 9/11-scale attack.”
This comment stood in stark contrast to former assessments by Obama administration officials that ISIS or ISIL was the greatest threat to America since 9/11.
It was taken to mean that America, now that it is in league with Iran, is no longer scared of Al Qaeda’s Islamic State and Europe is on its own.
Heard in the corridors of the NATO summit in Wales were remarks that there is no guarantee that the new partnership will destroy the Islamic threat before it reaches Europe. And, if the Obama administration persists in throwing over its traditional allies in favor of Iran, then those erstwhile allies are free to find new partners for dealing with the menace in their own way. They are also committed to breaking up what they see as the detrimental US-Iranian detente.
This disgruntlement leaked out ahead of the summit in the form of side-swipes at Washington’s posture on Iraq.
France, UK, Germany and Australia bypass US to arm Iraqi Kurds
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond announced in Brussels that his government had decided to directly supply weapons to the Iraqi Kurds fighting jihadists. In this, the UK was joining France. It was a significant upgrade of British involvement in the Iraqi crisis, adding to its responsibility – albeit indirectly – for casualties in Iraq – a sensitive political issue in London.
The move was immediately welcomed by Kurdish leaders.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources note that Cameron and Hollande were the first to raise the flag of mutiny against Obama’s Iraq policy on an issue that, only a month ago, scarcely figured as central to the Iraqi crisis: The US failure to adequately arm the Kurdish Peshmerga became the spark that kindled a major crisis in NATO. For the first time in the alliance’s 50-years, America’s leading allies were refusing to toe Washington’s line.
Germany and Australia were on the same page as Cameron and Hollande.
This week, Berlin too decided to send rifles, machine guns, grenades, anti-tank systems and armored vehicles to Irbil - a rare step for Berlin, which tends to refrain from exporting weapons to active zones of conflict.
The chancellor defended her decision on Sept. 1 to the Bundestag. Now we have the chance to help save lives and prevent any further mass murder in Iraq, she said. We must use this chance. The expansion of ISIS terror must be stopped. “Iraq is threatened by a humanitarian crisis. We have borne witness to unbelievable brutality.”
“The Near East burns and Europe looks elsewhere”
A few hours later, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced his country’s air force would in the next few days join an international operation to supply weapons to Kurdish fighters, including rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, to aid them in their battle to stem the advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
In an address to the Australian parliament, Abbot said he had no intention of recommitting ground troops to Iraq after the last Australian soldier left in 2011, but would consider a request if it came from the Obama administration.
As Abbott spoke, sources in Irbil reported that SAS soldiers would fly aboard two Royal Australian Air Force transport plans to land in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq with arms and munitions.
“The Near East burns and Europe is looking elsewhere,” wrote three former French prime ministers, François Fillon, Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Alain Juppé, in Le Monde Wednesday, Sept. 1.
The three called for a “massive engagement” by European nations for an immediate program of further humanitarian aid and “a collective policy to supply arms to the Kurdish fighters, who constitute the lone rampart against the massacre of Christians in Iraq.”
The rift between Washington and at least four leading NATO allies is no longer hidden, and it runs deeper than ever imagined possible.
The lessons Iranian analysts have drawn from the 50-day Israel-Hamas conflict in the Gaza Strip (July 8-Aug. 26) have been integrated in Tehran’s Middle East policies, and will strongly influence the course of Iran’s negotiations with the six world powers for a comprehensive nuclear deal.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and Iranian sources report exclusively that three separate Iranian teams were tasked with analyzing the Gaza conflict. Their final conclusions were submitted to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday Sept. 2.
Two of the papers, drawn up by the intelligence branches of the Iranian army and the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), studied Israel’s military steps against Hamas. The third research project, entrusted to the Supreme Security Council and signed by Khamenei’s senior foreign affairs and security adviser Ali Shamkhani, was broader in scope.
It offered an analysis of US and European conduct in relation to the Israel-Hamas conflict as against their responses to the Ukraine crisis. Arab government reactions to the Gaza conflict were also put under a microscope in the context of the wars in Iraq and Syria.
Khamenei gave the three teams two guidelines when he assigned them their tasks:
Arm Hamas for a second front against Israel from the West Bank
First, they were instructed to apply the consequences of the Gaza conflict to formulating new tactics for the ongoing nuclear talks, whose deadline has been extended to Nov. 24.
Bilateral US-Iranian talks began in Geneva Thursday, Sept, 4, their second round since the main forum failed to resolve its differences in time to meet the July 20 deadline.
Second, a way must be found to smuggle weapons to Hamas’ West Bank branches, arming them for a coup against Ramallah. The plan is to overthrow the Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and open a second front of violent hostilities against Israel in sync with the resumption of its attacks from the Gaza Strip in a month or two.
Iranian strategists reckon that the Egyptian-brokered indirect talks between Israel and Hamas for a long-term truce, due to begin later this month, will founder quickly. Israel will never agree to meet the Palestinian extremists’ minimal demands, and their political chief Khaled Meshaal will not settle for crumbs.
At a peak moment in the Gaza fighting, Khamenei ordered planning to start for arming “the forces of resistance” on the West Bank.
Subjecting Israel to a dual Hamas threat would, he believes, sharply reduce the chances of Israel resorting to military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Last week, Iran’s defense minister Hossein Dehqan claimed that smuggled Iranian weapons had started arriving in the West Bank. This claim was unfounded. At present, the Iranians have only got as far as laying the groundwork for obeying the supreme leader’s injunction.
Iranian-made rockets failed Hamas as its main weakness
Our exclusive sources reveal six high points of the three Iranian studies:
1. The Hamas-Islamic Jihad war effort against Israel was crippled by their rockets’ inaccuracy and weak drive. The bulk of the 4,900 rockets fired in the course of the conflict went off course and therefore caused few casualties and little damage. But the Iranian researchers point out that at least one third of those rockets were of Iranian origin and smuggled into the Gaza Strip; the rest were manufactured at local workshops using Iranian equipment and technology.
The military intelligence research teams followed this finding with two recommendations:
a) Improve the targeting precision of the Palestinian rockets. One way is to give Hamas and Islamic Jihad better technology;
b) Upgrade smuggling routes to the Gaza Strip to facilitate the transport of heavy rockets.
c) Commission foreign missile experts to find answers for Israel’s Iron Dome interception system, which blew Hamas rockets out of the sky before they hit built-up areas.
2. All three teams ended their reports with the same conclusion: The fundamental strategy for deterring Israel from attacking Iran by subjecting the Jewish state to a massive rocket blitz had failed - in the same way as the second Lebanon War triggered by Hizballah eight years ago. Instead, they recommended a protracted war of attribution to undermine Israeli military and civilian morale and keep Israeli politics in turmoil.
High Iranian praise for Hamas mortar tactics and military tunnels
3. Hamas was awarded high Iranian marks for switching the emphasis of its attacks in the last two weeks of the war from rocket to mortar fire. This change raised the number of Israeli casualties and, if it had been allowed to continue, might have enhanced Hamas’ situation to the point of claiming victory.
4. The military tunnels employed by Hamas also won praise for their effectiveness in keeping key command personnel safe from the large-scale casualties that would otherwise have been caused by the massive Israeli fire power.
At the same time, the Iranian analysts found the terrorist tunnels running under the Gaza border for carrying the war behind Israeli lines had failed in their purpose, for lack of sufficient commando squads trained in their use. The IRGC analysts recommended that Hamas invest more time and resources in building a substantial special operations force for tunnel warfare.
5. All three reports gave a failed mark to the Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian group which the IRGC had trained and taken under it wing as a potential rival for Hamas. This group fell apart in the first week of the war. They advised Khamenei to charge a special inquiry panel with finding out what happened and decide whether the Islamic Jihad should survive or be written off.
Iran need not fear Israeli or Western military attack on its nuclear sites
6. Israel’s acceptance of a final ceasefire for ending its campaign, rather than staging a major ground operation to liquidate Hamas and win the war, was taken by the Iranian analysts as evidence that Israel is neither willing nor able to carry out a military strike against its nuclear program in the event of international nuclear policy going nowhere. Tehran can therefore carry on developing its nuclear bomb program without fear of an impending Israeli attack.
This deduction, reached by the IRGC regarding the Israeli military threat, tied in with Ali Shamkhani’s conclusion that the US and the West at large lack the military will for a showdown with Russia over Ukraine or for direction intervention to check ISIS advances in Iraq and Syria. Still less, would they be ready to launch military action against Iran if nuclear diplomacy ran aground.
DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources report that the three teams’ consensus on the disinclination of the West and Israel to engage in direct warfare gives Ayatollah Khamenei strong grounds for playing hard ball with the world powers over Iran’s nuclear program.
August 29, 2014 Briefs
August 30, 2014 Briefs
Amid a lengthening trail of Al Qaeda atrocities, world leaders call on each other to “stamp the evil out”
30 Aug. US Secretary of State John Kerry called Saturday, Aug. 30 for a “coalition of nations… to stamp out the disease of the Islamic state group,” following President Barack Obama highly-criticized denial of a strategy. British premier David Cameron revealed that Al Qaeda executed the attack on the Jewish museum of Brussels. Western leaders wax eloquent on the Islamist peril, but prefer to fight it at leisure through “allies” and “coalitions. Friday, IS released another indescribable video showing the beheading of a Kurdish soldier, hashtagged “2nd Message to America,” shortly after 300 Syrian prisoners were executed by firing squads.
While IS flashed those barbaric scenes across the world media Thursday, Aug. 28, by Al Qaeda’s Sinai branch, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, attracted scant notice when it beheaded four people alleged to have collaborated with Israel. For the same charge, Hamas last week summarily executed 29 people without trial - three of them women, and seven in a public square.
August 31, 2014 Briefs
Israel downed a drone over Golan after it was identified as a Hizballah Ababil 2
31 Aug. debkafile reports exclusively that the UAV an Israeli Patriot battery shot down Sunday Aug. 31 over Quneitra on the Golan was launched by Hizballah. The Iran-made Ababail 2 was on a photography and intelligence-gathering mission over the Golan battleground, where the Syrian army and rebels are fighting over the Quneitra crossing and over Israel’s military deployment on the border. It is estimated that Hizballah was not preparing to join the battle, but rather concerned in case the rebels beat back Syrian troops and broke through from northern Golan to Mt. Hermon and southern Lebanon.
September 1, 2014 Briefs
Egyptian troops hunt Hamas rocket teams in Sinai
1 Sept. The Egyptian military are scouring northern and central Sinai for Hamas and Islamic Jihad rocket squads and the launching sites they have buried beneath the desert surface, according to debkafile’s exclusive sources. They turn out to have established an elaborate rocket launching network in Sinai in the week before the Aug. 26 ceasefire in Gaza - both as a second front against Israel and as a lever, in case the Cairo negotiations later this month failed to meet their terms for a deal. But those talks are stalled for now by profound Palestinian inter-faction feuding.
September 2, 2014 Briefs
Al Qaeda wraps up plans for major 9/11 anniversary strikes. New undetectable explosive may be used
2 Sept. According to credible Saudi, British and Australian intelligence, Al Qaeda’s IS and AQAP in Yemen have plans ready to roll out coordinated terrorist operations around the 13th anniversary of 9/11 - first in the Mid East and Europe and later in the US. debkafile: They may be using a secret undetectable explosive developed in Yemen by Al Qaeda’s top bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. This novel explosive may even have been surgically implanted in the bodies of Western suicide jihadists, able to travel on US or European passports to their target destinations.
September 3, 204 Briefs
Syria forces ranged for major counteroffensive to dislodge rebels from Quneitra. High tension on Golan
3 Sept. Soldiers of the Syrian army’s 7th Division and tanks were poised Wednesday, Sept. 3 for an all-out offensive in the coming hours against rebels holding parts of Quneitra, debkafile reports. The Syrians may move their tanks into the battle zone, in defiance of Israel’s caution via the UN that they would be infringing ceasefire agreements and incur IDF counteraction. Damascus counts on Israel being deterred from striking Syrian forces fighting Syrian Islamists after the wave of revulsion from the beheading of the Jewish American journalist Steven Sotloff by Iraqi Islamists.
September 4, 204 Briefs