Before dawn on Thursday, Sept. 24, Russian marines went into battle for the first time since their deployment to Syria, DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources reveal. Russian Marine Brigade 810 fought with Syrian army and Hizballah special forces in an attack on ISIS forces at the Kweiris airbase, east of Aleppo. This operation runs contrary to the assurances of President Vladimir Putin to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sept. 21 – just three days ago – that Russian forces in Syria were only there to defend Russian interests and would not engaged in combat with the Syrian army, Hizballah or Iranian troops.
The ISIS force defending the air base is dominated by Chechen fighters under the command of Abu Omar al-Shishani, who is considered one of the terrorist organization’s leading commanders in the last two years. The 27-year-old al-Shishani hails from the Chechen enclave of Pankisi in Georgia, like many others who joined ISIS from 2012. However, targeting Chechen fighters was not the only reason for the order given by Russian command in Syria to attack the air base. In DEBKA Weekly 678 of September 11, we predicted that the first Russian mission in Syria would be to break the Syrian rebel siege on Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city.
As their first step, the Russians would have to prevent the cutoff of highway 5, running from Aleppo to Damascus, and keep it open for Syrian army reinforcements and military equipment to the city. The offensive to regain Kweiris airbase that fell to ISIS in mid-June is the first step in the implementation of Russia’s operational plan for the Aleppo area. Meanwhile, little substance was to be found in the reports appearing, mainly in the United States, suggesting that Putin, disappointed by the Obama administration’s unwillingness to send the US Air Force to collaborate with Russia in the fight against ISIS, would try to talk Obama round if and when they meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on September 28.
According to DEBKAfile’s sources, these reports were spread to cover up the serious crisis in the US war against ISIS. While Russia poured troops and advanced hardware into Syria, establishing bases and launching offensive action, the US anti-Islamic State effort suffered a heavy blow with the decision of Obama’s ISIS war czar, Gen. John Allen, to step down in early November. Sources close to the general were quoted as referring to his frustration “with the White House micromanagement of the war and its failure to provide adequate resources.”’
The fact that the Russian forces launched their attack on ISIS shortly after the announcement of Allen’s upcoming resignation shows that Putin is not waiting for US cooperation in the war on the Islamist terrorists. That said, DEBKAfile’s military sources point out that the most ominous aspect for the US and Israel of the Russian attack on the Syrian airbase is that Russian marines were combined with Syrian and Hizballah special forces.
For the first time in 41 years, since the 1974 war of attrition against the IDF on the Golan, Russian troops are fighting alongside Syrian forces. It is also the first time that a world power like Russia is willing to go into battle with an acknowledged terrorist group, such as Hizballah. Our sources point out that the joint attack was completely counter to the tone and the content of the comments exchanged by Putin and Netanyahu at their summit. A full report on Russian military activity and strategic objectives in Syria, and a rundown of the content of the Putin-Netanyahu talks in Moscow appear in the coming issue of DEBKA Weekly out Friday, September 25.