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Below is an extract from today’s release…
Diplomacy for shunting Syrian President Bashar Assad out of the way of moves for ending his country’s five-year-old civil war gained new impetus this week. Prying Assad loose from power has defeated every past effort from inside or outside the Middle East. For now, at least in public, he looks relaxed, shakes hands, smiles and appears unconcerned by the mighty forces gathering this week to cut his presidency short.
In an interview with Iran’s Khabar TV on Oct. 4, the embattled leader said he is willing to step down if he thinks such a move would help end the conflict. Later this month, Russian parliamentary secretary Sergey Gavrilov, who met Assad on October 25, quoted the Syrian leader as agreeing to broad dialogue with all “responsible” political forces on the country’s future, and for constitutional reform and both parliamentary and presidential elections if needed.
A joint US-Russian anti-peace “target list”
On Oct. 20, Assad was unwillingly summoned to the Kremlin for an interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Three days later, the foreign ministers of the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey met in Vienna to test the water for a serious effort to pull the diplomatic process out of the mud.
It was soon evident, DEBKA Weekly’s sources report, that the only practical suggestion for ending Assad’s presidency was offered in a new seven-point peace plan, which Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov unveiled to his fellow foreign ministers in Vienna on Oct. 23. They found it promising enough to move fast and reconvene a broad multilateral conference in Vienna this Friday, Oct. 30 to explore its potential as the basis for a political blueprint for resolving the Syrian conflict.
This conference is to be attended by the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, France and the European Union.
Iran was invited at the last minute for the first time to this kind of forum, with US approval over initial Western-backed objections. Foreign Minister Muhammed Javad Zarif considered it important enough to bring with him two deputy ministers.
Our sources have obtained exclusive access to the Russian plan and outline its seven points below:
Moscow: ceasefire as prelude to national dialogue
- Russia and Washington will draw up an agreed “target list” of parties standing out against a political resolution of the conflict. They are to be attacked jointly by US and allies and Russian forces. The proposal does not go into the nature of a bilateral mechanism for determining who figures on the “target list.”
However, bilateral cooperation is the basis of this clause.
Moscow would really prefer the Russian and the US-led coalition air forces not to confine their attacks to ISIS, but extend them also to Syrian rebel groups. Russia could then refute US and NATO allegations that only one out of every nine Russian air strikes is directed against an ISIS target, with the majority aimed at Syrian rebel groups.
As DEBKA Weekly reported in its previous issue, the Obama administration did not reject a priori the proposed US-Russian air force collaboration in Syria and Iraq, but requested additional clarifications from Moscow.
- Moscow proposes an immediate cease-fire on all Syrian army-rebel warfronts. The proposal does not say if it should apply to the foreign forces fighting in the country, such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hizballah, the pro-Iranian militias and the Russians themselves.
Constitutional reform obliges Assad to cede presidential powers
- Once the cease-fire goes into effect, all the parties and organizations involved in the war will be convened for a national dialogue. This round-table conference will have three main goals:
- Release of all prisoners and hostages held by the various sides.
- Preparation of parliamentary and presidential elections with a general amnesty for political prisoners.
- Establishment of a new government committed to implementing agreed constitutional reforms that center on the transfer of presidential powers from Assad to the designated prime minister.
In other words, Assad will not be made to step down as president at once, but will have to give up his presidential powers, including control of the military and intelligence services.
It is assumed that Putin put this clause before the Syrian ruler in Moscow as a diktat he had no choice but to accept.
- The Russian president offers a personal guarantee that Assad will not be permitted to run for president in the coming elections, but he has accepted the Syrian ruler’s proviso that members of his family and ruling caste will be eligible for election.
- All the rebel groups and militias that take part in implementing the Russian plan will be absorbed into Syria’s military or other security services and place themselves under their orders.
- Governments and other bodies outside Syria will undertake to halt weapons supplies to all combatant forces. This provision applies not only to the US and Saudi Arabia with regard to rebel groups, but also to Russia and Iran as sponsors of the Syrian army.
- Russia will continue to maintain military force in Syria as security for the agreement’s full implementation, contingent on UN Security Council endorsement of its presence.
International pressure for Assad’s exit builds up
Just three days after The Russian plan was unveiled, it ran into opposition.
On Oct. 26, during a visit to Cairo, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced his country’s rejection of the plan: “There are ongoing international consultations on implementing the Geneva One proposal”, he said. “We are committed to implementing the principles of Geneva to establish a transitional authority that installs a constitution and directs the government and military ahead of elections.”
It was understood that, for Riyadh, progress toward ending the war in Syria was contingent on progress for terminating Yemen’s civil war to which Saudi Arabia has committed its military.
That was Saudi position before its foreign minister attended the multilateral conference on Friday and may not be its last word.
Meanwhile, on October 26, Assad received a rare visitor. He was Oman’s Yussef bin Alawi, the first Arab foreign minister to visit Damascus since the Syrian war erupted five years ago.
Their joint communiqué reported that they had discussed ideas proposed at “regional and international levels” for a resolution of the Syrian conflict.
Iran lines up with Russia, first ambivalence on Assad
The invitation to Tehran was issued the day after the Omani foreign minister met Assad in Damascus.
Our sources have learned that his mission was to notify Assad that Iran had decided to accept the Russian plan which is gaining ground by leaps and bounds.
Although the Syrian ruler has often proved to be adept at wriggling out of any form of pressure, the front lining up for his ouster is formidable indeed. Even his closest allies are beginning to sound ambivalent.
Last week, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian commented: “We are not working for Assad to stay in power forever as president, but we are very cognizant of his role in the fight against terrorism and the national unity of that country. The people of Syria will make the final decision and whatever decision they take, we will endorse.”
No one has so far mentioned ISIS. Is anyone interested? See separate article in this issue.
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Anti-War Dissent Rising in Tehran, Beirut
Amid Sinking Morale, Iranians and Lebanese Ask Why Their Sons Should Die for Putin
The top leaders of the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah have fallen out sharply over the group’s continued participation in the Syrian war. This is just one sign of the sinking morale on the warfront.
Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s most visible leader, has been challenged by Mostafa Bader Al-Din, commander of Hizballah forces in Syria.
The row flared, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report, when Al-Din informed Nasrallah that he cannot accept any more reinforcements from Lebanon and if they are sent over anyway, he will refuse to send them to any of the Syrian fronts.
Al-Din enjoys high prestige as the first cousin of the iconic Hizballah terrorist chief, the late Imad Mughniyeh, who masterminded the groups’ most spectacular terror operations, including the assassination of former Lebanese President Rafiq Hariri, in 2005, before he was killed by Israel in February 2008.
Al-Din owes further distinction to being one of three Hizballah commanders slapped with US sanctions. On July 21, the US Treasury Department named Al-Din, along with his lieutenants Ibrahim Aqil and Fu’ad Shukr, as leaders of the organization’s operations in Syria.
His views therefore carry weight in high Hizballah circles.
No cannon fodder for Russian commanders
The Hizballah commander put his foot down because he is convinced that the average war deaths of six-10 fighters a day are too heavy a burden for the organization to continue bearing. Morale among the troops is moreover plummeting, the men questioning why they were risking life and limb for the sake of propping up the Assad regime and preserving Iran’s influence in Damascus.
The row is close to a mutiny. Hizballah’s field commander and Nasrallah are no longer on speaking terms, our sources report, and communicate through loyal couriers. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Al Qods Brigades and his country’s forces on the Syrian and Iraqi fronts, has tried his hand at mediating the quarrel, so far without success.
Al-Din is not alone in casting doubt on the political and military logic of Hizballah’s combat role in Syria. Since the Russian military buildup began in the last week of September, the organization’s elite clans at the heart of its ruling and religious establishment, are asking why Hizballah fighters, including many of their own kin, should be cannon fodder for Russian commanders.
The pressure has mounted in the last fortnight, when dozens of fighters died in the fighting around Hama, Homs, and Aleppo. Top Hizballah officers said that, while they could see the point of fighting to prevent the Assad regime’s collapse, they could not accept sacrificing their sons to boost Russian President Vladimir Putin prestige and influence in the Middle East.
Hizballah sons go abroad to evade the Syrian war draft
A culture of draft-dodging has set in. Our sources report that many Lebanese families are sending their induction-age sons abroad to avoid the Syrian war draft. They are shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to bribe Lebanese officials and Hizballah commanders for documents permitting them to depart Lebanon via Beirut’s international airport.
To stem the draft-dodging epidemic, Nasrallah ordered a 50,000-dollars cash payment to the bereaved families of every Hizballah fighter fallen in battle in Syria, starting this month. Large sums are also compensating injured men, graded according to the gravity of their injuries.
While rich Lebanese Shiites go abroad, Hizballah and Iran face an even more dangerous, eventual challenge to their regimes.
The increasing number of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commanders killed in the battles around Aleppo is casting the combat competence of this elite corps and the Hizballah in a poor light. Last week alone, 22 Iranian servicemen fell in battle.
Social networks pan Tehran for opening the Syrian door to Russia
On underground news sites and some social networks in Iran and Lebanon, people are asking openly why neither has managed to defeat the rebels in Syria despite more than three years of active participation in the war.
At the same time, whenever Israel refers to its military option for preventing Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb and the US refuses to rule out its military option, Iranian leaders respond with such threats as: “Iran is capable of hitting any US military target worldwide in 10 days,” and “Iran can destroy Israel in a single day.”
These threats are sounding more and more hollow at a time that voices in Tehran, as in Beirut, are raising doubts about the motivation of Iranian troops, even IRGC servicemen famous for their discipline and indoctrination, for laying down their lives in Syria, which is for them a foreign land.
Social networks in Iran and Lebanon are these days full of criticism for Tehran’s acquiescence to Russian military intervention in Syria. It is being panned as a bad blunder and sign of military weakness, which allows the Kremlin to wrest the dominant role in Syria from Iran and win a podium from which to hand out its dictates to the region. By opening the door wide to Russia, Iran is also accused of betraying its goal of transforming Syria into the main front in the next war against Israel, just as the Hizballah used South Lebanon.
Russia will block Iran’s goal to destroy Israel
These critics point to Russia’s strategic interests in the region as conflicting with those of Iran, especially Moscow’s perception of normal ties with Israel as a key diplomatic asset for restoring Russia to superpower status.
Some quote President Vladimir Putin as promising Binyamin Netanyahu not to permit Syria to become a base for attacks or terror against Israel.
That being so, they argue, the Russians will never let Iran achieve its goal of destroying Israel.
These views are never voiced openly in Iran, only anonymously on Farsi-language websites based outside the country. Even though IRGC Gen. Soleimani made two trips to Moscow, to maximize coordination between the Russian military and the IRGC in Syria, the Aleppo operation turned out to be amateurish and uncoordinated, it is being said.
The heavy Iranian death toll in Syria and the standoff in Aleppo have raised questions about the credibility of IRGC boasts every few weeks in the past two years of “successful tests” of new advanced weapon systems, mostly missiles and smart bombs.
Soleimani’s “heroic” image built up for 2017 presidential race
The Syrian war was supposed to have been the perfect testing ground for sophisticated new hardware, but no Western or Middle East intelligence agency has detected the use of any such weapons on the Syrian battleground.
This popular skepticism of the much vaunted IRGC’s “achievements” in Syria combines with a raft of disclosures of financial corruption at the top of this elite corpse and its continued gobbling up of Iran’s most important branches of the national economy.
There are also sneering references to the IRGC’s strategic “genius” Gen. Qassem Soleimani, charging that he is nothing but the product of official media spin for building him up him as the favorite in the 2017 presidential elections.
According to the latest predictions in Iran, the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not allow incumbent President Hassan Rouhani to serve a second term. He has tabbed “war hero” Soleimani as the ideal president, not only for the Iranian masses but also for the hard-liners.