Col. Christopher Garver, the official spokesman for the US-led coalition against ISIS, issued a puzzling statement on June 5. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) aim to recover the city of Manbij in northern Syria, he said, but had no plans to advance further north.
Why stop there, well short of the Turkish border? Is there no plan to rip ISIS out of territory all the way up to that border?
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources have found the answer to this conundrum and reveal here for the first time that the US and Turkey have come to a secret agreement to establish two security zones that will encompass the area from north of Aleppo up to the Turkish border.
Since this plan was conceived by retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who advises the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, the Obama administration prefers to avoid any public association with it.
What Flynn said earlier this week was this: ’If we know that their headquarters exist in a place called Raqqa, Syria, we should eliminate - we should destroy Raqqa, Syria. We should create, you know, safety zones, flight zones, whatever, both ground and air.”
Our sources report that the first zone will be held by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Ankara-backed Turkmeni militias under Turkish command. Turkey will provide air and artillery cover and backup from its tank and missile units. (See attached map)
This security zone will run 98km from Manbij to Jarabulus. This week saw heavy fighting aimed at seizing from ISIS hands control of the highway connecting the two cities.
This security zone should be about 20-30km deep - depending on the populations of the local villages. Sunni Arab-dominated villages will be integrated in the Turkish-ruled region, while Kurdish villages will fall under the American-Kurdish security zone, and come under the protection of the Kurdish YPG militia, supported by US helicopters and aircraft based in southern Turkey.
This unpublished deal with Ankara accounts for Washington’s decision to leave the aircraft carrier USS Truman and its strike group in the Mediterranean for now to stand guard over the nascent American-Kurdish security zone.
Underpinning the deal, our sources report, is Washington’s commitment not to support Kurdish aspirations for an independent state in northern Syria, its pledge of action to sever ties between the YPG and the Turkish-Kurdish separatist group, the PKK, and a promise to coordinate US weapons supplies to the Kurds with Ankara.
President Barak Obama's decision to pivot away from the woes of the Middle East for the remainder of his term has filtered down strongly to the heads of US intelligence, its evaluators and its spies in the field, as government, intelligence and security officials in the region are discovering.
Those accustomed to conferring and sharing with US colleagues draw a blank when they seek details about developments in the region.
"It simply does not interest them," some senior intelligence officials said this week to DEBKA Weekly.
One official commented: “Even if US spy services wanted to credibly analyze what was going on, they are short of informed, current data to chew on."
"This is not due to lack of competence, but orientation," says another senior source. From 2012, President Obama has focused all American intelligence efforts in the region on securing a nuclear accord with Iran and its ramifications. “US espionage agencies learned to distance themselves from their former, now extraneous, Middle East fields of interest.”
DEBKA weekly sources say that this disconnect is palpable - even on the active fronts, such as Iraq and Syria, in which American forces are engaged. Up until four years ago, US intelligence experts were still to found with knowledge of the fine details of the forces in the field. They could cite exactly which Syrian rebel groups operated in which territory, with chapter and verse on the ethnic, religious factors behind them. That expertise is gone for Iraq as well as for Syria.
Masoud Barazani, President of the Autonomous Iraqi Kurdish Republic (KRG), who commands the Peshmerga army - the only Iraqi force, other than the pro-Iranian Shiite militias, capable of fighting ISIS in northern Iraq and Mosul - has been trying for months to talk to a US intelligence official in Washington.
Barazani wanted to complain about Iranian Revolutionary Guards agents infiltrating armed Kurdish groups to subvert them against the Iraqi-Kurdish leadership. He has given up on these attempts. "No one in any American espionage agency is willing to listen,” he told his advisors.
Indeed, American undercover agencies have no ears for any regional issue except for the Islamic State and the fight against it. Even Israeli spy chiefs, who for years maintained excellent give-and-take ties with their US colleagues on common issues of concern, are reporting that of late no one has any answers to offer at the American end of the line.
DEBKA Weekly intelligence experts see this void as offering fertile ground for a number of untoward developments:
This week, the Egyptian military wound up a four-week offensive against remote Islamic State strongholds in central Sinai. The operation’s destination in the lofty, desolate Jabal Halal mountain range and Wadi al-Hamar in the heart of the peninsula enabled Cairo to draw a dense curtain of secrecy over its conduct and results.
Egypt’s army had not dared to enter Jabal Halal, known as Sinai’s Tora Bora, since launching its war against Al Qaeda in the Sinai in 2008. They were daunted by the harsh topography of precipitous, craggy slopes up to 9,000ft high, narrow, winding unpaved trails and networks of interconnected caves used as hideouts by thousands of Islamist fighters. Regular army troops had not so far ventured to approach this natural fortress,
which also defied targeting for strikes by warplanes, helicopters and artillery.
Unlike the Egyptian military, ISIS fighters are being helped by thousands of Bedouin tribesmen living in Sinai who know every stone and cave and use caravans of donkeys and camels to bring supplies, reinforcements and ammunition. The fighters get water from springs and other ground sources in the caves.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and counterterrorism sources report that the Egyptian Second Army was ordered into action after months of intelligence work for collecting data on ISIS targets. The goal of the operation was not defined as liquidating the ISIS force, because the Egyptian command knew it to be impossible. Rather, the force was tasked with dismantling the ISIS logistics network in central Sinai.
Before the troops went in, Egyptian air force and artillery units bombed the area.
Our sources report that many ISIS storage areas for weapons, fuel and food were bombed and destroyed. Several dozen terrorists as well as dozens of Bedouins inside the battle zone were killed. Eighteen Egyptian soldiers lost their lives in the operation.
However, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that the attack did not wipe out ISIS military capabilities in the peninsula, or cut off its mountain strongholds from the northern Sinai coast, which has long been prey to almost daily terror strikes against Egyptian military and police targets.
The Multinational Force and Observers Organization (MFO) was forced to partly evacuate its northern Sinai base at El Gorah near Egypt’s border with Israel, after a heavy ISIS mortar shelling last April. Most of the Fijian troops were either sent home or relocated at the MFO’s southern base near Sharm el-Sheikh.
ISIS then seized all the observers’ positions and hoisted its flag atop them. They have also taken over all of the MFO’s guard towers on the Egypt-Israel border, that were set up to monitor implementation of the 1979 peace agreement between the two countries. Bedouin tribesmen are posted at all those towers to bar access by Egyptian personnel to remove the flags.
In battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, The White House, Pentagon, and the US command in the Middle East face a dilemma. While resolved to root ISIS out of its main strongholds, Fallujah in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, US strategic planners are loath to allow the pro-Iranian local forces spearheading the battles to surge into these cities and take over.
There are 50,000 to 75,000 civilians in Fallujah, almost all Sunni Muslims. So, too, are most of the roughly 300,000 civilians living in Raqqa. In the past few days, it became clear that the only two forces able to retake them from the Islamists are Shiite troops under Iranian command.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is holding back from ordering the Iraqi army to go in and take Fallujah, although two pro-Iranian Shiite militias, the People’s Mobilization (PMU) led by Abu Mahdi al Muhandis and the Badr Force led by Hadi al-Ameri, have recovered 620 sq. km of the 750 sq. km snatched by ISIS.
Al-Abadi fears the Iraqi Army is not up to the task of dislodging the ISIS resistance pockets buried in the local populace. But, as he dithers, al Muhandis and al-Ameri threaten to seize the initiative and order their militias to move into the city.
Neither al Abadi nor the Americans want another major Sunni city in Iraq to fall into Shiite hands, following the aftermath of Tikrit’s liberation from ISIS in April 2015, when hundreds of Sunni homes and buildings were looted, torched and blown up by the Shiite conquerors.
The Americans are also deeply reluctant to let Shiite militias use Fallujah as a stepping-stone for free access to the Euphrates Valley and Syria.
Indeed, Al Muhandis says openly in interviews to Iranian media that after taking Fallujah, he will order his forces to move west and cross the border into southern Syria.
The PMU’s entrance into Syria would throw the volatile balance of power in the country completely askew. Syria’s President Bashar Assad would gain an alternative prop to the Russian military on which he now leans. To guard against this eventuality, DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Washington and Moscow report that President Barack Obama has ordered steps toward US military coordination with the Russians in Syria, so that the
US does not lose its grip on developments in the Syrian war.
Washington faces a further setback in the two current military campaigns against ISIS in Syria at Manbij and Raqqa. There are 100,000 citizens in Manjib, a city strategically located north of Aleppo and the Euphrates River and only 10km from the Iraqi border.
From Manjib, the terror organization holds sway over the entire region from the border to Aleppo. The US had strongly counted on the rebel Syria Democratic Forces-SDF and the powerful Kurdish YPG militia to rip ISIS out of the city, with the cover of US aircraft and Turkish artillery. However, despite the American investment of effort and money in assembling this force, its performance is disappointing, and ISIS fighters are slowing its advance with counter-attacks.
This has proved a grave setback to US plans for sending the same force on to besiege Raqqa after liberating Manjib. Now, after months of preparation, Washington finds itself without a credible military force for its campaign to defeat ISIS in Syria.
Two elaborate, hi-tech defense walls are close to completion along Jordan’s borders with Syria and Iraq. They are being constructed by the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) through Raytheon’s Intelligence, Information and Services division in collaboration with the Jordanian army.
This wall system, 442km (275 miles) long, will separate Jordan from Syria and Iraq and provide the royal Hashemite rulers with an extra buttress. It will also make the little kingdom one of the most important US strongholds in the Middle East, as well as providing Israel indirectly with another layer of protection against ISIS and the Iranian military presence in Syria and Iraq.
The walls will be studded with day and night cameras, ground sensors and fixed and mobile surveillance towers able to detect movement five miles away on either side of the fence. They will have patrol paths, ground radars and a full command, control and communications suite.
Mobile surveillance stations and quick reaction forces will be stationed at vulnerable points and stand ready to race to emerging hot spots.
This formidable defense system will be connected to at least 10 American and Jordanian command centers:
DEBKA Weekly military sources report that Jordan is preyed by fears of ISIS terrorist groups stealing into the kingdom, as well as armed pro-Iranian Shiite militants, e.g., the Bader force and The People’s Mobilization (PMU) from Iraq. They are seen by Jordanian intelligence as potential invaders of the camps in northern Jordan, which hold about 1 million Syrian refugees, for the purpose of liquidating the anti-Assad military and intelligence infrastructure Jordan and the US are running out of the camps.
Iranian strategists may be moved to target this infrastructure, in the belief that the Assad regime will never be able to reassert its domination of southern Syria so long as that anti-Assad entity remains active.
Diplomatic efforts to set up a bloc of Sunni countries consisting of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt seem to have reached a dead end, at least for now. Early this week, the secret talks between Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who were brought together by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, fell apart.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report that behind the closed doors, the Turkish and Egyptian rulers were locked in an irreconcilable clash: Erdogan turned down El-Sisi’s ultimatum for continuing the negotiations - that Turkey deport all the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders granted asylum there after the 2013 military coup in Cairo.
El-Sisi shot back. “I don’t extend my hand to terrorists.”
Egypt accused Turkey and the Palestinian Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip of providing Muslim Brotherhood terror networks with bases of operation.
The Egyptian leader told his close aides that Cairo would not renew ties with Ankara so long as Erdogan declines to crack down on terrorist organizations, although the Turkish president did agree last year to expel senior Hamas leaders from Istanbul for the sake of mending his fences with Israel.
For their part, the Saudis accuse the Obama administration of deliberately frustrating their trilateral initiative so as to prevent the rise of a Sunni Muslim alliance capable of standing up to the Iranian-led Shiite bloc of Iraq, Syria and Hizballah in the Middle East. Riyadh’s top diplomat al-Jubeir maintained that Washington could have brought Ankara round by signaling its support for the initiative. But when the Saudis made this request, the Obama administration did not bother to direct the US ambassador in Ankara to take it up with the Turks, on the pretext that the US was short of effective levers for applying to Edrogan.
Al-Jubeir told his aides he was not surprised by Washington’s reluctance to help Egypt and Turkey, the two biggest Sunni powers in the Middle East, bury the hatchet, in view of the US record of hindering every step on the regional agenda for containing Tehran.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources predict that the collapse of the trilateral exchanges will have a detrimental effect on the ongoing Turkish-Israeli effort to restore diplomatic relations. Erdogan can hardly parade the resumption of diplomatic, economic and military ties with the Jewish state, while refusing to make the grade for reconciliation with Egypt, the biggest Arab country in the Middle East.
At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu will prefer to keep relations with Turkey as low-profile as possible to avoid upsetting his warm ties with Egypt’s El-Sisi.