In expectation of an imminent US-led offensive to take Raqqa, the Islamic State in the second half of March began dismantling parts of its Syrian headquarters and lifting some of its senior commanders to new locations for new and expanded terrorist operations.
(Separate articles in this issue reveal why the Raqqa operation has been delayed.)
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources disclose the three new destinations: they are the Euphrates Valley which straddles the Syrian-Iraqi border, Anbar Province in western Iraq near the Jordanian border and Egyptian Sinai.
The ISIS commanders assigned to Sinai took over the existing stronghold in the forbidding Jabal (Mount) Halal running down the center of the peninsula, which has been dubbed the Tora Bora of Sinai (see attached map), by virtue of the interconnected tunnel networks riddling the range.
Its topography resembles the ISIS cave complex destroyed in Afghanistan on April 13 by an American GBU-43/B bomb.
The Egyptian army has been thrown back in one attempt after another to scale this ISIS bastion and liquidate its Sinai headquarters. Egyptian President Abdul-Fatteh El-Sisi reported on the latest attempt when he met US President Donald Trump at the White House on April 3. Two days earlier, Egyptian troops managed to kill 31 terrorists and destroy a few caves containing weapons and ammunition, but the entire complex remained intact.
El-Sisi broached the possibility of a US missile attack to get the job done. A decision about a possible Tomahawk cruise missile attack on Jabal Halal, like the US strike on the Syrian Shayrat air base on April 7 was due to be made during US Defense Secretary James Mattis’ visit to Cairo on Wednesday April 19.
Our intelligence sources have discovered that the ISIS commanders who migrated from Raqqa have substantially restructured the organization’s Sinai operation by reshuffling the Bedouin components of the various terrorist strike teams.
Until now, the Bedouin enlisted to each of those teams were drawn from the same tribe.
The Sinai Bedouin population numbers around 10 main tribes, each consisting of several family groups. An average tribe has between 70,000 and 100,000 members, as well as kinship ties with branches or families in Egypt, Israel and Jordan.
The new commanders have now ordained that each team of terrorists be drawn from different tribes. Young Bedouin recruits are therefore forced to accept for the first time fellow combatants from tribes other than their own, even though this means defying their tribal elders.
Under the former leadership of the now displaced local ISIS affiliate, Ansar Bayt-Maqdis, the tribes of northern and western Sinai carried the brunt of terrorist attacks, operating on their own turf. By mixing up the tribal teams, the newly-arrived ISIS commanders have opened the door to fresh fighting talent from the Bedouin of the South.
This radical departure from the conventional mode of Sinai terror fits the Islamic State’s plans to expand its campaign of terror to new fields, transposing it from northern Sinai to the south - and from there to the western coast of the Gulf of Aqaba.
In their sights now are the famous holiday and deep sea diving resorts of the region. Those targets are located along a 220km-long strip of coastline from the Israeli port of Eilat in the north to Ras Muhamad at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, marking the junction of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba. Situated along this strip are the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and a chain of holiday camps.
Jordan’s only seaport and seaside resort of Aqaba also finds itself in danger of this expanded terrorist menace.
To meet the approaching hazard, Israel last week shut down the Taba crossing into Egyptian Sinai and prohibited its citizens from making for their favorite holiday villages on the Gulf of Aqaba. Israel and Egypt have built up their military presence in the region.
According to our sources, the attack by Islamic State gunmen Wednesday, April 19, on a check post guarding the ancient Saint Catherine’s Monastery, at the foot of Mount Moses in southern Sinai, was the first operation to be conducted by the new Islamist terror regime which has taken up quarters in the peninsula. The assailants killed an Egyptian police officer and injured four others, but were repulsed before they could storm the monastery as they planned.
The infrastructure for the US-led offensive by Kurdish and Syrian Arab fighters to evict ISIS from Raqqa, its Syrian capital, is rapidly taking shape. New bases are springing up in northern Syria and supplies of weapons and armored vehicles pour in from Iraq and Jordan.
Yet no ground forces are heading for the jumping-off points and no starting date has been set. The Kurdish YPG militia designated to spearhead the advance on the ISIS stronghold is taking its time, and the allied nomadic Arab tribes of the Syrian Badiyah, most of them supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are in no hurry to mobilize for action.
Indeed, the Raqqa offensive originally billed for spring 2017 is on hold for the simple reason that President Donald Trump is deeply reluctant to assign the large contingents of US ground troops needed to lead the offensive to success.
And so, the five men destined to manage the operation are still waiting for a decision by the commander in chief: They are: Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, US CENTCOM chief Gen. Joseph Joseph Votel, and head of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend.
Gen. Townsend touched on the uncertainty when he commented this week: “I certainly hope that the assault on Raqqa is underway by this summer.”
Missing the spring date is a critical shortcoming in a climate and region where summer temperatures may climb up to 52 degrees Celsius.
Military commanders are meanwhile at odds over the number of US troops required for a victorious Raqqa offensive. Estimates range from 15,000 to 50,000. But those figures are academic so long as Trump shows no inclination to assign extra American ground troops to Syria. He seems happy with the spectacular displays of American military strength exhibited this month, i.e. the cruise missile strike on the Syrian Shayrat Air Force Base on April 7, the dropping of the GUB-43/B Mother of all Bombs in Afghanistan on April 14, and the disabling of the North Korean ballistic satellite on April 16.
They all made a big splash, but as far as tactics are concerned, they also had striking drawbacks:
1. None of them had any lasting value without follow-up military operations.
2. They wowed governments and military commanders, but did not impress the terrorist organizations, because even the biggest non-nuclear bomb in America’s arsenal did not reduce the area under their control. To dislodge the Islamists from territory, it is necessary to bring in sizeable ground forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown the same reluctance with regard to committing large-scale Russian forces to the Syrian war. He has stuck to this line ever since he embarked on Russia’s major intervention in Syria in September 2015.
He also accepted its limitations.
When Russian and Syrian forces recaptured Palmyra from ISIS in early March, they refrained from using this momentum to push from central Syria south and east towards Deir ez-Zour in order to relieve the Syrian troops who are trapped by an Islamic State siege. Putin understood large numbers of Russian troops would be needed to break through the ISIS stranglehold – far more than he was willing to commit to Syria.
Some Washington sources were suggesting this week that Trump may temporize on this issue by permitting US elite forces already present in Syria and Iraq and their allies – with a possible small supplement - to go ahead with the operation to capture Raqqa, or parts thereof, and stop there, instead of going forward eastward. He would thus take a leaf out of Putin’s Palmyra book.
But then, on April 17, Trump took an unexpected turn: alone of any Western leader he phoned Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan with congratulations on his wafer-thin win in a poll that granted him sweeping powers. The White House said that, in their phone call, they also discussed the war on Syria, the campaign against the Islamic State and “the need to cooperate against all groups that use terrorism to achieve their ends.”
DEBKA Weekly’s Washington sources report that their conversation had nothing to do with Turkish politics and everything to do with the Raqqa offensive. Exactly what was said is revealed in a separate article in this issue.
US President Donald Trump’s decision to phone Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on April 14 and be the only Western leader to congratulate him on winning inflated powers in a popular referendum had many seasoned observers guessing. The White House confirmed the call had taken place. But congratulating the newly-empowered Turkish president was not Trump’s first priority; Syria was. The White House in fact sidestepped questions about the poll’s results, saying a full report was awaited from the international election monitors officiating at the referendum.
DEBKA Weekly’s Washington sources note that Donald Trump’s call to the Turkish president, at a peak moment in the North Korea crisis, provided a rare close-up of how the US president’s decision-making process works and how he manages his foreign relations and security affairs.
He put in the call to the presidential palace in Ankara without consulting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or Defense Secretary James Mattis. He did not ask for advice or even inform them about what he intended to propose to Erdogan. Only a couple of National Security Council officials suspected what he was up to when he asked them for an update on the situation in Syria.
Without further ado, Trump put before the Turkish president a proposal that would be hard to resist. Our sources reveal that he first drew a picture on the following lines: We (in Washington) know exactly how the Syrian Kurdish political wing, the PYD and its YPG militia operate. Their Afrin enclave in the west has been made available for a Russian base; the central Kobani enclave cooperates fully with the American army; so too does the northern pocket of Qamishli, although it also maintains intelligence and economic ties with the Assad regime in Damascus.
Nonetheless, he explained, the United States continues to train YPG militiamen, providing them with weapons, ammunition and funds, because they are the only ground force currently available that is capable of breaking through to the Raqqa stronghold and wresting it from the Islamic State.
Trump said he is fully aware that Turkey is flatly opposed to this plan. He then recalled that Turkish Defense Minister Firki Isik had paid a quick visit to Washington on April 14 to present a new plan for an operation to liberate Raqqa without engaging the Syrian Kurdish YPG forces. This plan had already been shown to Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis.
The President then dropped his bombshell. If Turkey could move fast and put together an army of 30,000 ground troops capable of conquering Raqqa, the Trump administration would not wait for the Kurds to get their act together for the operation.
Trump made it clear that there was no time for discussion and detailed planning. Erdogan was required to make a fast decision and get his troops onto the battlefield with all possible speed.
To spur him on, the US President assured the Turkish leader that if he accepted the challenge, he would instruct the Pentagon and the US army to provide the Turkish troops with anything they needed in the way of US air cover, artillery support or even cruise missile assaults on ISIS targets.
Although the Turkish president replied that he would think it over for a few days, it is hard to see him resisting the huge temptations offered by the Trump proposal. It would open the door for tens of thousands of Turkish troops to move into northern Syria. The operation on offer would enable him to divide the two Kurdish enclaves of Qamishli and Kobani and so put paid to the Kurdish dream of establishing a semiautonomous Kurdish state abutting the Turkish border.
Furthermore, the conquest of Raqqa with US support would place a high Turkish wall in the way of Iran’s projected land bridge through Iraq to Syria and the Mediterranean.
President Donald Trump is not the only world leader directly engaging the key players in the Syrian scenario. (See article on Trump-Erdogan parley.) Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is matching him step for step - except that he, unlike the president, is using an emissary.
Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, supreme commander of Iranian forces in the Middle East, is reported by DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources to have paid two secret visits last week to the twin capitals of the semiautonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.
The KRG is ruled by two rival clans: Irbil is the seat of KRG President Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), while Sulaymaniyah is the headquarters of Jalal Talabani, former president of Iraq, and his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Party.
The Iranian general was on a mission to prevent a Kurdish referendum on independence and its corollary, the rise of a Kurdish state in oil-rich northern Iraq.
To this end, he tried to persuade the Talabani faction – by threats and warnings – to back out of its agreement with the Barzanis on a date this year for a referendum. The two rivals are joining forces for this poll as a lever for winning the best deal possible on self-determination, after the Islamic State is defeated in Mosul.
Soleimani argued that a date was premature; the Kurds would do better to wait for the Mosul battle to end and then adjust their steps to its results. He warned the Kurdish leaders that, even if ISIS is finished in Mosul, it still holds strong positions in the western Iraqi province of Anbar and around the oil city of Kirkuk.
“I’m advising you to take down the Kurdish flags from the rooftops of Kirkuk,” said the Iranian general. “You may still need the Iraqi army’s help for defending the city against an impending ISIS attack.”
The Kurds are also hearing threats and menaces from another quarter, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
On April 6, while campaigning for a popular “yes’ in the April 15 referendum for his sweeping constitutional changes, Erdogan announced in a television interview that preparations were afoot for new “cross-border operations against the PKK.”
The ending of Operation Euphrates Shield [in Syria] was not the end of such incursions into its southern neighbor, he said. “…future operations would have an Iraqi dimension along with a Syrian dimension.”
DEBKA Weekly’s sources identity the “Iraqi dimension” as Sinjar, a town in the Nineveh province of Iraq near Mount Shingal. Its population of 75,000 is mostly Yazidi with a Muslim Kurdish minority. It is situated some 120km from the Iraqi-Turkish border and 100km from the Syrian Kurdish towns of Hasakeh and Qamishli.
In the past year, the militant Turkish PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) smuggled around 3,000 fighters into Sinjar. A string of military facilities has transformed the Iraqi town into a PKK command center, more strategically placed than its former headquarters in the Iraqi Qandil Mountains near the Iranian border.
The Turkish president justifies his decision to preemptively smash the Kurdish Sinjar stronghold by the PKK chief’s vow to embark on military operations from southern Turkey against the regime, as soon as the vote tally was over
The Turkish-Kurdish issue is meanwhile growing multiple dimensions.
Ankara tried unsuccessfully to sell Washington a new blueprint for an anti-ISIS Raqqa offensive that cuts out the participation of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (the Syrian YPG militia). It was rejected by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he visited Ankara earlier this month, as well as Defense Secretary James Mattis in Washington. Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik made another attempt to push the plan during a brief visit to Washington on April 14. He explained that it had not been properly understood before.
Erdogan is meanwhile running hard to gain lost ground with KRG President Barzani.
Hitherto a stalwart supporter of the Turkish drive against the PKK - because he suspected that some of its commanders were under Iranian influence – Barzani is no longer as keen on persecuting the group as he was when he visited Ankara three months ago.
Turkey has been inviting The KRG’s intelligence chief, another Masoud Barzani, for frequent visits to Ankara every few days to solicit his backing for the Turkish case against the PKK.
Exacerbating the volatility of this issue, Tehran and Syria’s Bashar Assad have just put in their oar.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that in the past few days, Iranian agents have approached Syrian Kurdish leaders, including YPG commanders, with a new proposition: Break off ties with the Americans and the Trump administration and throw in your lot with Iran and Damascus, they said, and you will receive all the weapons and funds you want.
Furthermore, they promised that, after the Syrian war is over, the three Syrian Kurdish enclaves of Qamishli, Kobani and Afrin would be awarded the same semiautonomous status as the KRG in Iraq.
The Iranian agents moreover advised the Kurds not to trust the Americans in view of their past perfidy. They recalled former US pledges of backing for the Kurds, which were rescinded when Washington found it more advantageous to line up with Turkey. (See separate article in this issue with revelations about the Trump-Erdogan conversation)
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis had no sooner started his regional tour in Riyadh Tuesday, April 18, when he saw Iran heating up the race for control of the region’s strategic waters.
Tehran that day announced the dispatch of a flotilla of warships to the Gulf of Aden complete with intelligence and logistics vessels. They had set out from Bandar Abbas under orders from Navy Commander Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari and other top naval officers.
An Iranian Revolutionary Guards site defined their mission as “ensuring the security of naval routes for Iranian merchant vessels and oil tankers,” as well as “confronting the enemies’ negative propaganda and Iranophobic projects.”
This step was clearly timed to coincide with Secretary Mattis’ arrival in Riyadh. It indicated, say DEBKA Weekly’s Gulf and intelligence sources, that Tehran was fully apprised of the strong focus his talks in the region would attach to the state of security in the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb Straits and the Gulf of Aden.
However, far from the international limelight, our military sources reveal that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had embarked on an aggressive policy to defend those strategic waters: They are in the process of building or leasing five bases on the shores of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the southern approaches of the Indian Ocean, to shore up their military control of those seas.
One of the Defense Secretary’s most important goals is to assess whether their navies and air forces are up to performing this highly strategic task.
They informed him that on April 6, Somalia’s semiautonomous Puntland region had signed a deal with the Dubai-based P&O Ports - a ports developer and operator – for a three-year concession to develop and manage a multi-purpose port project at Bosaso seaport at a cost of $336 million.
In late March, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi secretly agreed on terms with the Sudanese ruler Omar Bashir for the use of naval facilities at Port Sudan on the Red Sea.
These two transactions rounded off the five sea bases, some of them with air force facilities pegging 3,000km of coastline on the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Somali shore of the Indian Ocean. This strip of shore is delimited by Port Sudan at one end and Bosaso seaport, at the other.
In between the two, the Saudis and Emirates have gained the use of three additional bases: Assab in Eritrea, Djibouti, and Berbera in coastal northwestern Somalia.
Berbera has a deep seaport, which serves as the region’s main commercial harbor, and is positioned strategically on the oil route. (See attached map.)
The two Gulf nations have acted expeditiously to gain control of these vital waters to bolster their rear and acquire strategic depth for their embattled forces in Yemen. There, they are additionally fighting for a foothold in Al Hudaydah which faces the five bases from the eastern Red Sea shore to create an impediment to the Iranian navy muscling in on the Red Sea.
The UAE recently captured the port of Mukallah on the southern Gulf of Aden coast of Yemen. Emirati instructors are training Yemeni conscripts as coast guards in this anti-Iran base, the sixth in the region.