U.S. and Saudi Arabia are preparing to “transfer” the militants of Daesh (ISIL, IS), a terrorist group banned in Russia, from Iraq to Syria, according to military and diplomatic sources in Moscow. By their data, the governmental troops that were pulled to storm Iraq’s Mosul will provide a safe corridor to Syrian Deir ez-Zor to terrorists. The “key players” in the large-scale operation are the U.S. military command in the Middle East and the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate. The latter has a special part in the operation, considering the big number of the Saudis fighting under the “caliphate’s” black flag on the Iraqi front. Anyway, the leaders and field commanders of Daesh are yet to be persuaded to cede the city on the terms of the troops that have sieged it. In this light, the Saudi intelligence channels will be as never useful.
In this light, the U.S. top brass has already given indirect signals. In particular, Joseph Votel, Commander of the United States Central Command said earlier that when liberating Mosul, it is necessary to avoid hasty steps and combine military and political plans. It is not hard to guess what he meant speaking of “combination of military and political plans.”
Within more than two years of Mosul’s occupation, terrorist have even started families there. Besides, the “caliphate” has had many supporters there from the very beginning. Hence, the “humanitarian inspiration” of Americans and Saudis. The battle for Mosul cannot become a bloodbath, though the government in Baghdad has set a “deadline” for destroying terrorists under the end of the year. On the city’s fringes, militants have built up several defense lines with a branched system of partially mined underpasses. The street battles in Iraq’s second largest city, where terrorists will be using civilians as a live shield is an extremely undesirable scenario for U.S. The winged infantry of the 101st Airborne Division and Army Special Forces of U.S. may have to involve into the battles, including within the limits of the city. Apparently, such scenario will result in a high number of civilian deaths and serious casualties among assault groups.
Ceding Mosul without striking a blow and transferring Jihadists with families to the east of Syria will be a brilliant scenario for both Washington and Riyadh for many reasons. In the meantime, Western analysts hurried to call the reports of the military and diplomatic sources in Moscow as “Russian propaganda.” (1)
Although Russia used some tricks of information war, but it is not just a “crude propaganda.” Moscow plays with forecasts hinting Washington that it is able to foresee its steps – the so-called “Plan B” on Syria. After Washington canceled the bilateral cooperation of U.S. and Russia on Syria, the White House started speaking of preparations for an “appropriate response” to Russia for what is happening in Aleppo.
Settlement of the “Jihadist formula” in Iraq is a priority for the White House. Driving out Daesh from Mosul will destroy the terrorist organization’s idea of establishing “caliphate” on extensive territories. Such an ideological defeat of Daesh coupled with driving the militants back whence they came will create the best disposition for Americans in Syria. For instance, fresh forces will join the terrorist organization in Syria's Deir ez-Zor, which will create even bigger problems on the given part of the front for both the government in Damascus and its supporters Russia and Iran.
The distance between Iraq’s Mosul and Syria’s Aleppo is thousands of kilometers. Deir ez-Zor, one of Daesh’s strongholds, is in the south of them. Russia offered a safe exit from Aleppo to the militants of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (former Jabhat al-Nusra). Syrian Al-Qaeda, the most combat efficient faction of the international Jihadist movement in the east of Aleppo, is given a chance to leave to the neighboring province Idlib with arms in their hands. The U.S. Administration responds symmetrically to the Russian initiative on Aleppo. It is trying to implement a similar scenario with Daesh offering it the Mosul-Deir ez-Zor route.
The number of Daesh militants in Mosul is still not known. The assessments are different: from evidently exaggerated 20,000 to 3,000-4,000 soldiers of the “caliphate.” Perhaps, the right figure is somewhere in between. Hence, in Mosul there will be about 10,000 militants, approximately as many as in the eastern districts of Aleppo where they are fighting against the Syrian government troops. Giving a safe corridor to Deir ez-Zor to such a big contingent of militants is problematic logistically too. However, these problems are solvable, the more so as the Iraqi-Syrian border remains “transparent” and U.S. is trying to transfer terrorists from Mosul.
In May 2015, Daesh militants seized the Al-Tanf checkpoint on the 240km Baghdad-Damascus highway in the south of Palmyra on the border of Syria and Iraq (the Iraqi name of the checkpoint is Al-Valid). Then the “caliphate” get an opportunity to take control over almost entire line of the Iraqi-Syrian border. Afterwards, the checkpoint was regained for many times until the government troops drove out the terrorists from the area in August. The Russia air force supported the Syrian troops then.
Due to the relief of the Iraqi-Syrian borderline, they do not need to transfer the militants through frontier crossings. Another matter that the organizers of the supposed “exodus” of Daesh from Mosul to Deir ez-Zor may be targeted by the Russian Aerospace Force and Syrian Air Force. It is a good chance to target the crowds of terrorists in the open area. Apparently, they stake on the ‘live shield’ of the big number of Jihadist families. Anyway, the West can always use that card to blame Russia for “humanitarian disaster.”
Actually, U.S. started prepared a new breeding-ground for Daesh in Deir ez-Zor yet since September. The U.S.-led coalition’s air strikes on September 17 targeted the Syrian army in that city, which was presented as “mistake.” All this fits into the logic of Pentagon’s actions.
Well-informed sources in Moscow point at the far-reaching goals of the U.S.-Saudi Arabia alliance in Syria. It not only seeks to oust Bashar al-Assad’s troops from the east of Syria, but also plans a new breakthrough of terrorists on the neighboring province Homs and even “revenge” in Tadmor (Palmyra).
Experts say the situation of the defense units of the Syrian Army in Deir ez-Zor is critical. The administrative center of the province has been besieged since summer 2012. The government troops still try to get control of wider area in the province, but so far, without success, though units of the Syrian Republican Guard were deployed in Deir ez-Zor yet in October 2013 under command of General Issam Zahreddine.
If Deir ez-Zor ends up in the hands of Daesh, this will impede the operative situation for the government troops and on other Syrian fronts. Jihadists of all shades will benefit and get more reasons to hope for a more intensive arms support from the Arab partners in the Gulf, even though the arms supply is gathering pace already now.
Indirect confrontation of Russia and U.S. in Iraq and Syria is bringing to naught their previous efforts to cooperate in fighting terrorism. This will prompt tougher forms of competition in the region.
The relations of U.S. and its major Arab partner in the Gulf have been fairly spoiled, but they do not mind restoring their erstwhile reliable contacts. What will help them restore mutual confidence is the common goal to prevent Russia’s strengthening in Syria. U.S. will do its utmost not to let Russia influence the Syrian agenda. As for Saudi Arabia, it is more focused on Iran. Yet, such tactical priorities of Washington and Riyadh in Syria do not hold them from closer cooperation against Moscow and Tehran.
The results of the Lausanne meeting on crisis in Syria, precisely, the inherent feeling of its uselessness, have confirmed the different interests of the “blocs” of external forces. U.S., Turkey and Arab monarchies will not let Jabhat Fateh al-Sham lose positions on the northern front in Syria. Differentiation of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham from “moderate opposition” is a widespread falsification by Washington and the Middle East countries that seek to prevent the Russia-Iran alliance in Syria.
After Lausanne, part of the negotiators left for London, but the Russian diplomats were not invited to join them. It is quite possible that the London meeting in narrow format discussed the military-political combinations on Mosul previously mentioned by the U.S. top brass. The Lausanne meeting did not result in ceasefire in Aleppo. It was high time for U.S. and its partners to start planning further steps in Iraq and Syria to keep the east of Aleppo.
The “transfer” of Jihadists from Mosul to Deir ez-Zor may become the key moment in the leaving U.S. Administration’s “appropriate response” to Russians in Syria.
(1) Noah Feldman, Islamic State Has Good Reasons to Retreat in Iraq // Bloomberg, October 13, 2016.
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau