Intelligence Contest on Syrian-Iraqi Border
‘Trump’s final victory in Syria is hindered by Barak Obama’
Failures in US policy and the policies of its allies in Syria and Iraq have led to the formation of a radical Sunni territorial entity known as the Islamic State (IS) on the territory of these states in the middle reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates. The struggle against the IS coalition from several dozen countries led by the US did not lead to a victory over it, and only the appearance in Syria of the Aerospace Forces of Russia made a breakthrough. Despite the fact that Donald Trump announced his victory over IS, the military operations continue.
The predominantly Kurdish coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), began on March 1 to storm one of the last IS strongholds in Baghouz, Dayr al-Zawr province. Reuters, citing Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF information service, who said that the fighting in Baghouz would be conducted with heavy weapons, reported this. According to him, the battle will be fierce and difficult, although the capture of Baghouz was announced by the Kurdish command on February 17. It was reported that 440 IS fighters will surrender to the Arab-Kurdish forces of SDF. Today, it is clear that the information does not correspond to reality.
For the peace of mind of the Kurds
Releases about the Kurdish “victory” coincided with another Trump statement. On February 28 he promised to make an important statement on Syria and the fight against IS in the next 24 hours. Later that day, he announced to US military personnel in Anchorage, Alaska, that an international coalition led by the United States had taken full control of the territory previously held by the terrorist group Islamic State in Syria. “We have just taken control of the Caliphate territory in Syria. It used to be 90 percent, 92 percent, now it is 100 percent. We now have control over 100 percent of the territory, well, we did it in a shorter period of time than expected.” And that statement did not correspond to reality.
All this indicates a serious problem at the Pentagon. In order not to make the president angry, the generals give the president what he wants in the reports as real. The reason is not only that nobody in the Pentagon wants to draw fire on himself, but also the internal struggle in the administration and the security block on the timing of the withdrawal of US troops from Syria and the number of withdrawn forces. Trump on December 19, 2018 announced the beginning of the withdrawal of US troops. It was supposed to take 60 to 100 days. The head of the US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, said on February 10 that the withdrawal of the US military contingent from Syria could begin within a few weeks. On February 22, the US president said: the US is considering maintaining a small military presence in Syria, along with a number of allies. On January 31, in the US President’s State of the Union Address to both houses of Congress, Trump said that the international coalition had liberated nearly 100 percent of Syria and Iraq from IS.
The US president is lying to parliament and the country, putting PR above minimising losses and common sense. The top officials at the Pentagon play along with it, which brings back memories of the Soviet experience, when the attacks on the fronts were organised for any anniversary. The Kurds play on the disagreements between the American president and those of the US military who follow the professional logic. They are in no hurry to close the question of the presence of terrorists in Trans-Euphrates, given that, as long as they are not under control, the presence of foreign forces in Syria remains the main guarantee against military operations against them by Ankara.
The war for control of the areas east of the Euphrates began a couple of months ago, when the Kurds of the SDF launched an offensive there, with the aim of establishing control over Hadzhin and then moving along the riverbank to the Iraqi border. SDF detachments with the support of the US Air Force tried to move forward using the classic tactics of warfare: massive air strikes with the enemy squeezed out of the areas it occupied. This was combined with armistice and humanitarian action with regard to local Arab Sunni tribes. However, Hadzhin could not be controlled by local sheikhs and the situation in Baghouz was far from a military solution
Units of the SDF ceased fire in late January in Baghouz and established a humanitarian corridor to allow civilians to leave the area where IS elements remained. For February, according to the Kurdish agency Firat (experts are not inclined to believe it), more than 20 thousand people were used. They were allegedly family members of the terrorists, surrendered militants and civilian hostages. In fact, there were no hostages there. IS militant families are being evacuated. A convoy of trucks carrying women and children left Baghouz on February 25. Most of the 1,300 people who left Baghouz are members of the families of IS fighters.
According to Adnan Afrini, commander of the SDF, the number of civilians remaining in Baghouz is as high as 5,000. Therefore, he said, the SDF cannot begin the final military operation to eliminate the remnants of IS units that had taken refuge in the area. Afrini stressed that no negotiations were under way between the SDF and IS. In fact they are taking place, and it is a question of the relocation of IS supporters from the area to Iraq, Idlib or Sunni areas of northern Syria. As for the mercenaries, a group of 350 IS fighters surrendered to Kurdish units near Baghouz on February 26. Al-Hadas TV channel reported this. According to its information, most of the militants are Uighurs, who have infiltrated Syria across the Turkish border. In Idlib province there are formations of the Turkestan Islamic Party consisting of the same Uighurs, allies of Jabhat al Nusra (banned in Russia).
According to Al-Hadas TV, more than 1,400 civilians were transported by truck from Baghouz along the humanitarian corridor with Uighur fighters. These members of the terrorists’ families will be taken to the Al-Hawl refugee camp in al-Hasakah province. In other words, the Uighurs and their families have moved to Sunni areas in Northern Syria. Some other foreign groups with their relatives went there as well. Since February 26, more than 6,000 people have been able to leave Baghouz. According to Musfata Bali, head of the SDF information service, the number of fighters defending themselves in Baghouz could reach thousands. This is only a question of foreigners, not the local Sunni militia, who do not want to go anywhere.
Currently, under SDF control, approximately 27 percent of Syria’s territory is mainly Kurdish. If the Americans leave the country, the presence of Kurds in Sunni areas will immediately begin to decrease. Baghouz is located on the eastern bank of the Euphrates in the province of Deir ez-zor. On February 28, the SDF command stated that it intended to announce its victory over the extremists within a week. The main objective of the operation is to squeeze out of this area, first of all, “foreign” groups, and we are not talking about local Sunni Arabs, which make up the main rear and recruitment base of IS. They will resist any attempt to dislodge them from their places of origin, and this will blow up the region given the historical confrontation between Arabs and Kurds, which is not smoothed down by the IS factor.
The entanglements of the elusive
The second task, in addition to eliminating the territorial presence of IS, which the Americans are trying to solve in Syria, is to capture or eliminate the head of the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi group. This is necessary for Trump to outplay former President Barack Obama with his media success in eliminating Osama bin Laden. The problem is that the trace of the IS head by the Americans has long been lost. Hence the periodic information emissions about his whereabouts in order to incite him to manifest himself in any way. For example, the Akhbar al-Iraq news portal has claimed that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is in western Iraq and mobilises militants leaving Syria. According to Iraqi intelligence sources cited by the portal, al-Baghdadi, accompanied by a detachment of some 500 fighters, arrived in Iraq through one of the tunnels linking the Syrian town of Deir al-Zawr and the city of Qaim in Iraq. According to the intelligence version, he moves using underground communications in the desert area of Anbar province, which seems to be the truth.
The last time Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared in public was in July 2014, when he announced the creation of a “caliphate” in the Middle East during Friday prayers in Mosul, Iraq. The US authorities have allocated a $25 million reward for his head. And the Kurds, who are the main allies of the Americans in search of al-Baghdadi, are simply speculating on this painful topic for Trump, linking progress in this area to the final withdrawal of American forces from Syria. They maintain the momentum of the search, the essence of which is that the leader of the organisation Abut Bakr al-Baghdadi, wanted by the intelligence services of all countries fighting against IS, is being pursued by Kurdish forces. In September 2018, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Kurds, a 55-minute audio recording by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of August 22 was released, casting doubt on the assumption that he is dead.
On August 12, a delegation of members of the People’s Self-Defence Forces (PSD), an armed branch of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, visited Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. The political and security delegation led by Commander-in-Chief Sipan Hemo provided evidence that al-Baghdadi was alive and well between the Sunni province of Anbar and the Syrian border, moving from one shelter to another as darkness falls. It is believed that last spring he wanted to reach Sinai or Sudan, but his guards found the journey too risky. On August 14, a Saudi intelligence delegation visited Erbil and was told the same thing. In this way, the Kurds bring the necessary information through the Arabian monarchies to the United States, fuelling their interest in this topic, which is important for the career of a number of US security block leaders. At the same time, the assistance of the Americans in the successful search for al-Baghdadi is also important for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who must correct his negative image in the eyes of Washington and the European Union that emerged after the Khashoggi case.
This has led in the increase of competition among intelligence agencies of various countries for the capture or elimination of al-Baghdadi. The hunt for him in recent weeks has brought intelligence agents to Anbar province of Iraq from all over the world. US Special Forces, assisted by Iraqi advisors and Jordanian intelligence agents, face competition from Iranian operatives and their local proxies in Anbar. There is a small contingent of Frenchmen trying to operate there. Members of the Iraqi Kurdish security apparatus from Erbil and Turkish MIT officers are in the area. The Americans have distributed leaflets offering rewards for information leading to the capture of al-Baghdadi, and all others are trying to contact the Bedouins who have begun to return to the region, trying to buy their cooperation primarily with Saudi money.
The US intelligence agencies believe that al-Baghdadi is hiding between Abu Kamal, a Syrian city on the Euphrates, and the western part of the Iraqi border province of Anbar. According to other versions, he fled to Africa, although the strength of the IS head and his authority among the local Sunnis are directly related to his stay in Iraq. Only here can he lead the IS revival when the necessary conditions are in place. Any emigration brings that chance to zero. This is the reason why Americans encourage military operations in the area by local security forces, including pro-Iranian ones. General Yahya Rassoul, an Iraqi Armed Forces Joint Operations Command official, said on February 25, that they had launched an operation against an IS terrorist group in the border provinces with Syria. The general’s statement was made against the backdrop of Iraqi media reports about the alleged transfer of IS fighters from Syria to Anbar province led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. There was no official comment from Baghdad.
Iraq between the USA and Iran
Characteristically, on February 6, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said at a meeting with the head of Iran’s Central Bank, Abdolnasser Hemmaty, that Baghdad would not become a party to the US sanctions policy on Tehran. The Prime Minister praised the development of relations between the two countries and thanked Iran for its support in the fight against terrorism. Abdul-Mahdi’s statement was made against the backdrop of his plans to visit Washington, where, as the Al-Arabi al-Jadid newspaper wrote, the Prime Minister intends to raise the issue of Baghdad’s withdrawal from the anti-Iranian sanctions. The fact is that 28 million cubic metres of gas are delivered to Iraq from Iran every day to support the operation of power plants in the southern provinces. In addition, Tehran exports 1,300 megawatts of electricity to Iraq. After the entry into force of the US anti-Iranian sanctions, Iraq was given a 45-day delay, followed by another 90 days to switch to self-sufficiency and abandon Iranian energy. Baghdad said it would take several years to do so.
At the same time, the heads of the Central Banks of Iran and Iraq, Abdolnaser Hemmaty and Ali al-Allak, signed an agreement in Baghdad on the launch of a bilateral payment mechanism, the purpose of which is to remove obstacles to the payments by Iraq for electricity and gas imported from Iran. Payments for other goods may also be made in the same way. The agreement was signed after negotiations at the Al Rashid Hotel in Baghdad. And this is not only the beginning of the formation of alternative systems of banking operations from US control, but for Iraq and Iran we are talking about the transition from barter to operations in hard currency, primarily in euros. This is important because after President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal with Tehran in May 2018 and renewed the US sanctions, the Iranian economy faced banking problems. Under US pressure, Iran was disconnected from SWIFT, which seriously hampered financial relations with foreign partners.
Recall that on May 8 Donald Trump announced Washington’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan on Iran’s Nuclear Programme. The State Department announced Washington’s intention to bring Iran’s oil export revenues to zero. The first part of the US sanctions resumed on the night of August 7. These measures have covered Iran’s automotive sector and trade in gold and other metals. The new sanctions, including those against Iran’s oil sector, came into effect on November 5. As announced by the US Treasury Department, sanctions have been imposed on more than 700 legal entities and individuals, as well as Iranian vessels and aircraft. We see the example of Iraq as an option for insufficiently considered anti-Iranian sanctions by the US administration, which has to take into account the interests of allies in the region and make adjustments and exceptions to the regime of restrictions.
Iraq plays a key role in Washington’s strategy to combat IS, especially in connection with the idea of withdrawing US forces from Syria and making Iraq and Jordan one of the key regional monitoring points and deterring Iranian expansion. The US understands that IS resuscitation in Iraq and destabilisation of the situation in Jordan are more than real, especially given that the Shi’ites in Iraq are not ready to incorporate Sunnis in power and allow them to share petrodollars. Any crisis in the electricity and water supply system threatens to unbalance the country because of the struggle between different groups of the Shi’ite elite, as demonstrated by the unrest in Basra at the end of last year. This could drive Iraq out of the list of strong players in the global oil market and finally bring down the US strategy to push Iran out of it. In addition, the presence of US troops in Iraq plays a fundamental role in the continuation of material and technical support for Syrian Kurds, who are currently the only instrument of US influence in Syria.
The current state of affairs allows Baghdad to openly trade its loyalty to the United States in the matter of the further presence of US troops in Iraq, demonstratively adhering to a multi-vector policy. On the one hand, the Iraqi authorities hope to continue cooperation with the US-led international coalition to eradicate sleeping IS cells, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammad Ali Al-Hakim said on February 6, speaking in Washington. At the same time, however, Baghdad is still struggling with the disputes that have been largely artificially stimulated by the Iraqi authorities, especially by the pro-Iranian wing, over the status of the foreign contingent. Simply put, Baghdad wants to sell the US the right to remain in the country in exchange for retaining the ability to trade with Iran without regard to US sanctions. And it looks like Washington has no choice in this matter. It cannot afford to lose Iraq with the presence of Moscow in Syria.