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Assad’s Army and Intelligence Services: Feudalization or Structurization?

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Authors: Anton Mardasov* & Kirill Semenov

2017 marked a turning point in the Syrian conflict. With the full support of Russia and Iran, the Bashar al-Assad regime was able to neutralize the “domestic threat” completely. Throughout 2017, Damascus used the situation to carry out “outlying” operations, manipulating the ceasefire agreements and other accords reached as part of the Astana Peace Process. As soon as a relative calm would settle in a given “de-escalation zone” [in the opinion of the present authors, quotation marks are necessary in this case, as they indicate the real nature of these four zones], the regime would start transferring the available forces to other areas. First to eastern Syria in order to break the blockade of Deir ez-Zor and establish control over adjacent areas, which undoubtedly accelerated the downfall of the “Caliphate,” then to Idlib Governorate. And then, taking advantage of the agreements reached between Russia and Turkey on the division of spheres of influence in this “de-escalation zone,” to East Ghouta. Now Damascus has the initiative in terms of launching an offensive and a significant advantage over opposition groups.

The State of Affairs

As early as the beginning of 2017, the Syrian opposition demonstrated its ability to consolidate efforts and respond to the regime’s offensive manoeuvres. One such example is the way it managed to reduce “tension” in East Ghouta by carrying out distracting operations of its own in Daraa and Hama. However, the Syrian opposition became irreversibly fragmented after the process to form the de-escalation zones began, accompanied by the establishment of an external protectorate over these zones. As a result, most of the opposition factions in Greater Idlib now operate exclusively in the interests of Turkey, and the Amman Agreement between Jordan, Russia and the United States regarding the southwest de-escalation zone has succeeded in taking the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front out of the game. External actors have played a decisive role in the outcome of the confrontation between Damascus and the internal opposition, cutting off aid to opposition factions and effectively splitting them into isolated fragments.

That being said, until February 2018 (when the Russia–Turkey agreement made it possible to wrap up the active operation in Idlib and focus forces on East Ghouta), all the efforts of the elite units of the 4th Armoured Division, as well as the Syrian Republican Guard and other regular units of the Syrian Arab Army, to repel opposition forces in East Ghouta’s Jobar and Ayn Tarma ended with the withdrawal of government-sponsored troops after significant losses. The operation in Harasta ended with the encirclement of a Republican Guard battalion and the deaths of five colonels and brigadier generals. The same thing happened during an operation in Daraa in the south of the country.

Despite the active support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, the Syrian Special Forces and the Shiite “Expeditionary Corps” led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah and various Iraqi factions, the government forces still suffered significant strikes from the heavily outnumbered Islamic State. One such event took place in Homs and Deir ez-Zor in September–October 2017, when Islamic State units managed to cut off almost all the supply routes to pro-Assad troops operating along the Euphrates. The only thing that prevented the terrorists from building on their successes was the lack of numbers on the part of Islamic State (very few detachments are left) and the haphazard band-aid approach adopted by Russian specialists on the issue.

Thus, Damascus’ victories over its opponents can, for the most part, be put down to favourable circumstances and external support, rather than to the regime’s strengthening of its forces or increasing its combat effectiveness, despite the great efforts Russia has expended to train Syria’s military personnel and provide its regular units with up-to-date military technology.

Counting on the fact that these manipulations have successfully paralyzed the opposition to the point that pro-government forces will now be able to deal with current challenges does not eliminate the need to have a national military structure – without the growing Shiite International.

Fragmentation

At present, the armed forces that Bashar al-Assad relies on continue to be an assortment of groupings, all of which depend on Damascus to varying degrees. There is no unity within the army in terms of readiness to unquestioningly carry out the directives of its leadership. There is a complicated system of approvals for the use of “elite” sections of the Syrian Arab Army in specific operations. This even applies to its most elite components: the 4th Armoured Division, the Syrian Republican Guard, Suheil al-Hassan’s “Tiger Forces” and individual units of other sections – for example, the “Deir Al-Qalamoun” unit of the 3rd Armoured Division and the “Saif Al-Mahdi” unit of the 4th Armoured Division, among others. At the same time, the combat effectiveness of the Syrian Arab Army’s combat manoeuvre units leaves much to be desired, and attempts are made to avoid moving them to regions far away from their areas of permanent deployment.

Various paramilitary groupings that do not answer directly to the Syrian Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the state security organs continue to play an important role, including the so-called National Defence Forces, the Local Defence Forces, foreign (primarily Shiite) groups, and other units created by them in Syrian territory, made up of Syrian nationals. There are at least twice as many fighters in the irregular army formations as in the Syrian Arab Army itself.

The Syrian crisis has made it possible for political institutions to acquire their own military formations. The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party still has active squadrons, some of which are part of the 5th Corps. Eagles of the Whirlwind is the military wing of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. And the Syrian Resistance is a left-wing paramilitary group led by Mihrac Ural, who is considered a terrorist in Turkey.

The formation of various paramilitary structures – military wings of mafia-like clans, private military companies, regional and tribal militias and militarized political organizations – has undermined the stability of the regime. These forces do not simply support Damascus. From the very beginning, they have attempted take root in government institutions and/or take control of various sources of income. It is no secret that various Shabiha detachments currently operating under the aegis of the National Defence Forces control the checkpoints, which in practice means that they have access to corrupt schemes, including the opportunity to send radical opposition fighters into the Turkish zones of influence. A number of figures associated with the pro-Iranian Syrian group Liwa al-Baqir (the Baqir Brigade, part of the Local Defence Forces) have their own fleet of minibuses and continue to operate transport businesses.

Given that Damascus is in dire need of local groupings in order to maintain stability and security, these militias will probably continue to exist after victory is declared. All the more given that all armed militia groups were legalized in 2013 and given permission to carry out their “activities” by the Ministry of Interior.

The incorporation of the National and Local Defence Forces into state structures was predetermined by the fact that both the Syrian special services and the army were unprepared for an uprising, and the vacuum thus created was filled by paramilitary groups. Iran also took advantage of this by helping set up various paramilitary structures and thus establishing a multi-echeloned presence in Syria.

Integration

Worthy of separate note is the Fifth Corps of Volunteers, an autonomous military structure that was created with the direct participation of Russian military advisers. According to some reports, the corps itself is also led by Russian generals. The corps can hardly be regarded as a regular military formation. It consists of various subdivisions made up of volunteers and is financed by a number of non-government sources. It also contains certain pro-government Syrian forces that existed before the corps was set up, including those financed by private individuals (the “Sea Commandos”) or set up with the participation of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah (Liwa Dir’ al-Watan). At the same time, the inclusion of defectors and objectors from among the Sunni population in the Fifth Corps was apparently supposed to break the stereotype about the sectarian foundation of the pro-government forces and the auxiliary nature of the Sunnis’ participation in the war. However, the experiment has yet to bear fruit. The most combat-ready units of the Fifth Corps – the so-called ISIS Hunters – are again “sectarian militias” (as far as Syria’s Sunni majority is concerned). Such groups are made up primarily of Syrian Christians and Alawites (for example, the aforementioned “Sea Commandos”) or Shiites (Liwa Dir’ al-Watan, with the participation of Lebanese fighters). Work of this kind is likely to continue: according to some reports, work on the establishment of a 6th Corps is already under way.

Sooner or later the Syrian armed forces will surely face the challenge of transition to a peaceful life. In this context, it is important to understand what will happen to the large number of paramilitary formations and militias. The Iraqi leadership is attempting to solve this very same problem at home, having initiated a procedure to integrate soldiers of the militia group “Khashd ash-Shaabi” into the country’s armed forces. The experience gained during the creation of the 5th Corps, as well as its predecessor (the 4th Corps) can be used to help integrate certain paramilitary structures into the Syrian Arab Army and the Ministry of Interior.

It is also possible at the initial stage to revive the three corps of the Syrian Arab Army that formally existed before, turning them into territorial commands. All the regular and paramilitary units could be placed under their control on a territorial basis, thus becoming parts of the regular forces, identified by numbers instead of names. This is a necessary step, because many of these structures simply refuse to dissolve themselves, as in the case in Iraq. However, their existence should be legalized and their activities brought into line with military regulations.

Another problem is how to overcome the increasingly “sectarian” nature of military forces in Syria. All or most of the combat-ready units are made up primarily of national and religious minorities. Sunnis play a secondary role, mainly serving in auxiliary, “second echelon” groupings. Attracting Sunnis who have fought or lived in opposition territories, earning their trust and ensuring that they carry out their duties in a diligent manner will also be a key issue.

A Necessary but Unrealistic Scenario

If we distance ourselves from the propaganda and frankly dilettantish stereotypes about the Syrian opposition, then the best option for establishing an ethnic and confessional balance would be to unite the opposition groups and pro-government forces into a single structure. This is the kind of renewal of the armed forces that the UN documents envision. It is hardly possible, for example, to incorporate the insurgent factions that have, with Turkey’s support, united to form the Syrian National Army (SNA, which operates exclusively in Northern Aleppo) into existing Syrian Arab Army units and divisions. The leadership of the opposition factions will not agree to this, bearing in mind what happened in Tajikistan (where the opposition was liquidated after its divisions were incorporated into government units). One possibility is to form about five to seven separate corps and divisional units from opposition forces and establish a single military council involving the Syrian National Army and the Syrian Arab Army.

However, neither Damascus nor Tehran, nor indeed Moscow, is interested in such a scenario. Although it is far easier for the Russian side to play along with the Syrian regime, which seeks to eliminate the Syrian opposition once and for all by military means, that goal would serve only to strengthen the positions of Iran and Syria. Moscow has had a significantly more difficult time than expected positioning itself as a moderator in the conflict and maintaining effective working relations with the opposition groups that participated in the Astana Peace Process and signed agreements with the Russian military in Cairo and Geneva. Integrating the opposition into military and political structures that are aligned with the current regime could serve as a natural counterweight to the influence of Iran and preserve a certain balance of power that is beneficial to Moscow. The big question now is: to what extent will Moscow be able to maintain control over its “client,” given that Tehran is clearly benefitting from the situation?

Reform of the Military Intelligence Services

Against the backdrop of the Islamic State’s transition to clandestine activities in Iraq and Syria (which is common for the group) and various other challenges, the role of the Syrian intelligence services is acquiring greater significance. Their activities today little resemble the standards adopted in the sphere. Opportunities to carry out covert intelligence work have been greatly reduced, and the grassroots tools of state governance have been destroyed. The Syrian intelligence services were not even able to prevent terrorist attacks on the National Security Council building.

At present, the Syrian intelligence services do not seem to have an analogue anywhere in the Middle East. Four independent security structures operate within the Syrian Arab Army. These structures are divided into “military,” which includes military intelligence and aerial reconnaissance (Air Force reconnaissance) and “political” (civilian units formally subordinate to the Interior Ministry), which includes the main security department and the department for managing political security. All of these structures answer directly to the president. However, the system of intelligence services in Syria reflects the complexity of relations and confrontations among various groups of influence in the country’s ruling elite. The system is constructed in such a way that the individual intelligence services effectively work against each other, which makes it impossible for any single “branch” to become significantly stronger than the others.

Air Force reconnaissance was conceived as the intelligence structure “closest” to the heart of former president Hafez al-Assad, who was a fighter pilot himself. As a result, it effectively turned into an independent state security agency, with its own external intelligence and counterintelligence divisions, and even a department for combatting anti-government activities. During the Civil War, the Air Force reconnaissance formed an entire “pleiad” of special forces units to carry out operations using heavy machinery. The other three “branches” took similar steps in order to prevent any one of the intelligence agencies from becoming significantly stronger than the rest.

It would appear that the simplest solution for transforming the Syrian intelligence services with the goal of optimizing their activities would, first of all, be to merge Air Force reconnaissance and military intelligence into a single organ of the General Staff of the Syrian Arab Army, and strip these structures of the ability to carry out political investigations. As for the political security structures, it would be practical for one of them to focus exclusively on external intelligence activities, while the second could be engaged in counterintelligence and anti-terror activities. In other words, Syrian intelligence services would be brought up to global standards.

It is also imperative to create border security forces to control Syria’s eastern frontiers first and foremost, but also the entire border, as a kind of unified system with its own social and infrastructural characteristics. While Hafez al-Assad paid special attention to the country’s tribes, granting their leaders various privileges and taking their views into consideration in political life, his son Bashar all but forgot about them, which combined with drought in the regions and the misallocation of resources created the conditions for social upheaval. The years spent under the control of radical groups transformed the tribal social fabric even more. At present, the regime relies primarily on the Suqur al-Furat militia, which contains members of the Al-Shaitat tribe, to carry out its activities in the eastern part of the country. The tribe attempted a revolt against the Islamic State rule in 2014 but was defeated in a gruesome fashion. Damascus used this as a pretext to organize a military training programme for the tribe’s members and announced an amnesty for them.

If Damascus is unable to hold a constructive dialogue with the Sunni tribes, then there is a risk that the Islamic State will emerge once again in one form or another as a result of the joint efforts of independent Sunni groups and radicals (operatives, preachers, etc.), who will be able to remain in the country. It is all the more important to deal with the cadres who are familiar with the local terrain in the east of the country could help prevent smuggling, with which both Damascus and Baghdad have well-documented issues.

*Anton Mardasov, Military Observer Head of the Department of Middle Eastern Conflicts at the Institute of Innovative Development

First published in our partner RIAC

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Pakistani Intelligence Agencies ignite Tribal Conflicts in Pak-Afghan Region

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According to the intelligence information, Pakistani intelligence community supported by some international rings want to once again spread dispute and disharmony among the tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan; subsequently the centuries-old evils and wars between the tribes will once more take a new color and become fresh. Recently, rumors of the discovery of a mass grave in Kandahar province in the southwestern zone of Afghanistan are spreading; the blame for this mass murder falls on the former police chief of Kandahar province and the former leader of the Achagzai tribe, General Abdul Razaq Achagzai.  In order to afresh raising the reaction of the Norzi tribe against the Ackzai and anew the evil and war between these two tribes. Even though the current governing body of Afghanistan is completely under the control of the Noorzi tribe, because most of the high-ranking leaders of the Taliban, including the leader of the Taliban, Sheikh Haibatullah, are related to the Noorzi tribe, so there is a greater threat posed to the Achakzi tribe.

Even now, in spite of such menaces, more than 6000 Achakzi families live in Kandahar province, whose members served in the security departments under the command of General Abdul Razaq Achakzi, a staunch opponent of the Taliban.  Currently, in such a tense situation that the Taliban administration has control over Afghanistan and the head of this administration is connected to the Nurzi tribe, the harsh criticism of General Abdul Razaq Achakzai’s mass killings is logical, which can cause international and internal outcries.  As a result, the major victims will be the youths and leading tribal leaders of the Achakzai tribe.

By the advent of Taliban on August 15, 2021, in the first four months, more than 600 youths and tribal leaders from the Achakzi tribe were killed in the southwest zone of Afghanistan, while applying night operations or raids by the Taliban. The most famous case happened to the family of Haji Fida Mohammad Achakzai in Spin Boldak district. Haji Fida Muhammad Achakzai, known as Haji Fida Aka, is a leading leader of the Achakza tribe of Spin Boldak district and had close relations with the family of General Abdul Razaq Achakzai.

 When Kandahar province fell to the Taliban before August 15, the two young sons of him were killed by the Taliban on the first night, unfortunately none of the Taliban officials took any action to prevent the tragedy. Nevertheless, this time, there is a plan going on at the international level to renew the age-old differences between the Achakzai and Norzai tribes, which the international media warmly supports.  If this time the internal differences and conflicts between the Achakzai and Norzai tribes in Afghanistan get sturdier, then it will have damaging effects not only in Afghanistan, but also, serious negative measures will be taken against the Norzai under the leadership of Mahmoud Khan Achakzai, the head of the Achakzai tribe, in the Pakhtunkhwa provinces of Pakistan.

In the meantime, the decision of the Pakistani government to hand over the Pashtun areas in Pakhtunkhwa provinces to the Taliban was approved and supported by the Nurzi tribe, conversely, this action of the Pakistani government was strongly condemned by Mahmoud Khan Achakzai and PTM leader Manzoor Pashtun.

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Afghan Zarqawi is shot dead in Panjsher valley of Afghanistan

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According to intelligence information, the leading Taliban commander Maulvi Habibullah Sheeran, who was known as Zarqawi, a resident of Zhrhai District, Kandahar Province, in the southwestern zone of the Taliban was killed in Panjsher battle.

Meantime, the intelligence report indicates, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, the general military officer of Panjshir and Andrab and the deputy of the Ministry of National Defense, was injured in Panjshir on Friday, September 16 at 3:25 p.m.

Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, who is considered one of the leading and influential war commanders in the southwest zone of the Taliban, has the support of about 4,000 low-ranking and high-ranking Taliban fighters. He is one of the Taliban military commanders who, during the first mobilization of the Taliban, formed the Taliban group with the support of Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid, the founder of the Taliban, and attracted hundreds of young men from Helmand province to the Taliban group.

When the Taliban came to power for the second time in Afghanistan, due to internal differences among the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir left the Taliban for a short time and went to his native Kajki district of Helmand province. However, due to the many efforts of the Taliban, especially Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir’s assistant and the current head of security of presidential palace  Mullah Mutaullah Mubarak, He joined the Taliban again and was appointed as the Deputy Minister of Defense.

Taliban leaders made more efforts to reunite Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir with the Taliban, because he was an influential military leader, and on the other hand, Taliban leaders were receiving reports that Mullah Qayyum Zakir wants to join ISIS against Taliban. Nevertheless, when he joined with the Taliban leaders for the second time, he was assigned the position of Deputy Minister of Defense, So, for a period, he cooperated with the Minister of Defense Maulvi Yaqoub as a military advisor in the Ministry of Defense.

 When the rumors of the fall of the northern part of Afghanistan were spread and the fighting between the NRF or the National Resistance Front and the Taliban in Panjshir and Andrab intensified, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, based on the special permission of Sheikh Haibatullah, Appointed General Military Officer of Northern Afghanistan. In addition, from September 9, under his leadership, a special military operation named Al-Fath began in Panjshir and Andarabs to clear and liberate northern Afghanistan from the fighters of the National Resistance Front.

As a result of the operation, from September 9th to September 16th, dozens of NRF fighters were also killed but the casualties of Taliban fighters are methodically shown below, although scores of Taliban fighters were destroyed.

  • The bodies of 60 to 70 Taliban fighters who were killed in the battle of Panjshir have been transferred to Uruzgan province.
  •  The dead bodies of 50 Taliban fighters have been transferred to Kandahar Province.
  • The dead bodies of 33 Taliban fighters have been transferred to Helmand Province.
  •  The dead bodies of 22 Taliban fighters have been transferred to Ghor Province.
  • The dead bodies of 11 Taliban fighters have been transferred to Takhar province.
  • The dead bodies of 6 Taliban fighters have been transferred to Kunduz Chahar Dara.
  •  The dead bodies of 12 Taliban fighters have been transferred to Zabul province.
  • The dead bodies of nine Taliban fighters have been transferred to Wardag Province.
  • The dead bodies of 10 Taliban fighters have been transferred to Dandi Ghori in Baghlan province.  

Last Friday, September 16, in the bloody battle, Mullah Qayyum Zakir, the military officer in charge of Panjshir and Andrab, was seriously injured and eight of his bodyguards, who were residents of Helmand and Uruzgan provinces, were killed. Mullah Qayyum Zakir was transferred to the 400-bed hospital in Kabul at 10 o’clock in the evening on September 16, and former Taliban doctor Atiqullah was invited to Kabul from Al-Khair Hospital of Balochistan province of Pakistan for treatment.

There is a bloody war going on in the north of Afghanistan and around 300 al-Fatih forces are going to Panjshir from Kabul tonight and may reach tomorrow. Meanwhile, in Vienna, the plan for the formation of a new military and political movement was announced in a three-day meeting of the anti-Taliban political officials of the former government of Afghanistan. Moreover, based on that military plan, after dividing Afghanistan into five major parts, the political and military leaders of each zone will start preparing their organizations against the Taliban, and they will use such political and military tactics as the Taliban used against the government of the Republic of Afghanistan during the last 20 years of resistance.

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U.S. Finally Admits Ukraine Bombs Zaporizhzhia’s Nuclear Power Plant

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The Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Ⓒ IAEA

Unnamed American officials, according to the New York Times, have admitted that the explosives fired against Ukraine’s nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia have been fired against the plant by Ukraine’s Government, not by Russia’s Government, and furthermore these officials make clear that Ukraine’s attacks against the plant are a key part of Ukraine’s plan to win its U.S.-backed-and-advised war against Russia, on the battlefields of Ukraine, using Ukrainian soldiers.

Zaporizhzhia is a city in Ukraine that is in Russian-controlled territory, and Ukraine’s strategy is to destroy the ability of the plant to function, so that areas controlled by Russia will no longer be able to benefit from that plant’s electrical-power output. The United States Government helped Ukraine’s Government to come up with this plan, according to the New York Times.

This information was buried by the Times, 85% of the way down a 1,600-word news-report they published on September 13th, titled “The Critical Moment Behind Ukraine’s Rapid Advance”, in which it stated that, “Eventually, Ukrainian officials believe their long-term success requires progress on the original goals in the discarded strategy, including recapturing the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, cutting off Russian forces in Mariupol and pushing Russian forces in Kherson back across the Dnipro River, American officials said.” 

When IAEA inspectors arrived at that plant on September 1st, after a lengthy period of trying to get there to inspect it but which was blocked by Ukraine’s Government, and the IAEA started delivering reports regarding what they were finding at the plant, no mention has, as-of yet, been made concerning which of the two warring sides has been firing those bombs into the plant. Even when the IAEA headlined on September 9th “Director General’s Statement on Serious Situation at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant”, and reported that the plant’s ability to operate “has been destroyed by shelling of the switchyard at the city’s thermal power plant, leading to a complete power black-out in” the entire region, and that “This is completely unacceptable. It cannot stand.”, and closed by saying they “urgently call for the immediate cessation of all shelling in the entire area,” no mention was made as to which of the two sides was shooting into the plant in order to disable it, and which of the two sides was firing out from the plant in order to protect it against that incoming fire. Previously known was only that the city of Zaporizhzhia has been and is under Russian control ever since March 4th. Consequently, all news-media and reporters have known that (since Russia was inside and Ukraine was outside) Russia has been defending the plant and Ukraine has been attacking it, but until “American officials” let slip, in this news-report, the fact that this has indeed been the case there, no Western news-medium has previously published this fact — not even buried it in a news-report.  

So, although nothing in this regard may yet be considered to be official, or neutral, or free of fear or of actual intent to lie, there finally is, at the very least, buried in that news-report from the New York Times, a statement that is sourced to “American officials,” asserting that this is the case, and the Times also lets slip there that this “shelling” of that plant is an important part of the joint U.S.-Ukraine master-plan to defeat Russia in Ukraine. It is part of the same master-plan, which the U.S. Government recommended to Ukraine’s Government, and which also included the recent successful retaking by Ukraine of Russian-controlled land near the major Ukrainian city of Kharkov, which city’s recapture by Ukraine is also included in the master-plan. Both operations — the shelling of the nuclear power plant, and the recapture of that land near Kharkov — were parts of that master-plan, according to the New York Times.

The Times report asserts that

Long reluctant to share details of their plans, the Ukrainian commanders started opening up more to American and British intelligence officials and seeking advice. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, and Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to Mr. Zelensky, spoke multiple times about the planning for the counteroffensive, according to a senior administration official. Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and senior Ukrainian military leaders regularly discussed intelligence and military support.

And in Kyiv, Ukrainian and British military officials continued working together while the new American defense attaché, Brig. Gen. Garrick Harmon, began having daily sessions with Ukraine’s top officers.

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