Situation Report: President Obama speaks on ISIS; U.S. strike on Syrian troops alleged; talk of new war authorization; Chinese troops told to keep quiet; U.S. intel on ISIS again questioned; and lots more
- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
BREAKING: The Syrian government on Monday said airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition in the country’s Islamic State-dominated east hit a Syrian army camp, killing three soldiers and wounding 13 others near the town of Ayyash. Damascus has delivered a protest letter to the U.N. over the alleged strike. Spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad, Col. Steve Warren, emails that “the coalition conducted four strikes in the Dayr Az Zawr province yesterday, all against oil well heads. Our strikes were approximately 55 kilometers south east of Ayyash. We did not strike any vehicles or personnel targets. We have no indication any Syrian Soldiers were near our strikes.”
Big speech, familiar refrain. President Barack Obama addressed the nation Sunday night in a prime time attempt to calm growing fears that the Islamic State is expanding its ambitions to include more attacks in the United States and Europe. Coming in the aftermath of the massacre of 14 U.S. citizens attending a holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif. by a self-radicalized married couple who pledged allegiance to the terror group online, the speech called for a review to a U.S. visa program for new immigrants, but the president insisted that his war strategy is the right one.
That strategy has launched over 8,000 airstrikes against the group over the past 16 months in Iraq and Syria, killing upwards of 20,000 fighters, according to U.S. estimates. The administration also recently promised to utilize the blunt instrument of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command to launch targeted raids against Islamic State leadership across Iraq and Syria, emulating the way U.S. commandos previously tore through the ranks of al Qaeda in Iraq and Taliban leadership. But those moves have failed to stem to influx of foreign fighters flocking to the group’s cause, or from new affiliates in Egypt, Afghanistan, Libya, and the Caucasus from springing up, pledging fealty to the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The fight against the group will be a long one, the president insisted, warning that “we should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That’s what groups like ISIL want,” using an alternate name for the group. They “know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops and draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits,” he added.
War authorization. In his speech, the president called for Congress to pass the Authorization for Use of Military Force he sent up to the Hill in February, which would formally address the growing fight against the Islamic State. The language was sent a full six months after American bombs began falling across Iraq and Syria — signalling it was never the White House’s top priority — but he called on Congress to “vote to demonstrate that the American people are united, and committed, to this fight.”
The authorization landed with a thud in the halls of Congress, however, with then-House Speaker John Boehner suggesting the White House tear it up and start over, and the rest of the legislative body reacting coolly to the proposal. Recently, however, there’s been some movement. Last month, a bipartisan group of 35 lawmakers requested that the new Speaker, Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) start working on a new war authorization plan.
The political fight in Syria. Will peace talks to end the bloody Syrian civil war be derailed or decided by a rebel group that has fought alongside al Qaeda? FP’s Colum Lynch and John Hudson report that Saudi Arabia has invited Syrian militants Ahrar al-Sham — which has in the past allied with al Qaeda affiliate al Nusra Front — along with more than 90 other Syrian opposition representatives to Riyadh this week. The meeting is intended as a prep session “before big-power political talks that are scheduled for Dec. 18 in New York, according to diplomats based at the United Nations who have been briefed on the plans.” Problem is, Moscow isn’t buying it. Russia says that it wants Ahrar al-Sham added to the list of terrorist organizations that are excluded from the peace talks.
Quick visit. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter will welcome Singapore’s Minister of Defense Dr. Ng Eng Hen to Pentagon at 11:30 a.m. on Monday, and following meetings they will hold a signing ceremony for a new defense cooperation agreement between the two countries. Singapore is a key U.S. ally in Southeast Asia, and is a reliable consumer of American-made weapons, including considering buying the F-35 fighter plane.
On the road. Following last week’s awkwardness after he failed to show up for Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s announcement that the Pentagon was opening up combat jobs to women — a move he opposes — Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph. Dunford took to the road. He kicked off a seven-day, five-country holiday season USO Tour in Sigonella, Italy over the weekend, where he’ll meet troops and their families, and be briefed by leaders throughout the region.
As we kick off another week here at SitRep HQ, we’re glad to have you along for the ride. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ! Best way is to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
Ali Akbar Velayati, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Ali Khamenei’s foreign policy advisor, has said that Iran considers Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continuing in power to be non-negotiable. “Bashar al-Assad is the Islamic Republic of Iran’s red line because he was elected president by the Syrian people,” Velayati said, according to Reuters. Many western governments including the United States have said that Assad must step down from power as part of any political settlement to the Syrian conflict.
Russia has deployed the T-90, its most sophisticated main battle tank, near Aleppo Syria, according to the Daily Telegraph. The arrival of the T-90 raises questions about whether Russian ground forces are now participating in the conflict as experts believe the tank may be too expensive for Russia to entrust to Syrian troops. Its deployment may also be a sign of Moscow’s concern with rebels’ use of western-provided anti-tank missiles as the T-90 is equipped with explosive reactive armor designed to detonate and destroy incoming anti-tank weapons.
Turkey and Iraq are locked in a diplomatic spat over Turkey’s deployment of troops to a base in Iraq near Mosul. On Friday, Turkey sent hundreds of troops, including armor and artillery to the northern Iraqi town of Bashiqa, where the Turks have a training facility to train local forces in the fight against the Islamic State. Iraq has said the deployment is an illegal breach of its sovereignty and is threatening to take Turkey’s move to the U.N. Security Council should it persist. Turkish officials, however, claim the move is simply a reinforcement of the preexisting training facility.
The Taliban released an audio recording of what it said was leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour on Saturday to tamp down reports from the Afghan government that Mansour was recently wounded in a shootout with other senior Taliban figures in Quetta, Pakistan. However, some Taliban leaders are now questioning the tape, saying “it looks fake” and that they believe “his voice has been mimicked,” according to Agence France Presse. The Taliban covered up the 2013 death of its previous leader Mullah Mohammed Omar — a fact which may be driving some of the skepticism of Mansour’s fate within the group’s ranks.
The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a Saturday car bomb attack which killed Jaafar Saad, the governor of Aden province. The explosion killed Saad along with six of his bodyguards.
Turkish photographs caught sight of a Russian sailor brandishing a shoulder-fired surface to air missile as his ship, the Russian navy’s Caesar Kunikov, sailed through the Bosphorous Strait in Turkey. The move, an apparent threat to Turkish aircraft, comes after a Turkish F-16 downed a Russian Su-24 fighter jet last month, which Turkey accused of violating its airspace. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the move was “pure provocation,” according to the BBC.
Turkish defense contractor Aselsan is now in talks with Ukraine to upgrade its tanks, artillery and personnel carriers, Defense News reports. The move appears to be the latest in the tit-for-tat retaliation between Turkey and Russia after Turkey’s downing of a Russian Su-24 near the Turkish-Syrian border.
China is telling troops to keep any gripes about the latest round of military reforms to themselves, according to Reuters. Chinese President Xi Jinping recently announced that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would streamline its command structure and cut 300,000 personnel as it looks to transition away from a Soviet model and toward a more modern force. But if PLA grunts or officers have a problem with the new reality, an article in the state-run People’s Daily instructs them that “It is forbidden to speak nonsense, make irresponsible comments, have your own points of view, act as you see fit or feign compliance.”
The Daily Beast’s Kim Dozier reports that a new U.S. intelligence report on the Islamic State is warning that the group is far from contained, as President Obama previously stated. The assessment reportedly predicts that the jihadist group will continue expanding and developing affiliates unless it loses large swaths of territory.
Timed perfectly to drop after President Obama’s call for congressional action on his Authorization for Use of Military Force Sunday night, Rand is releasing the results of an 18-month study on Monday on the stalled authorization, which according to an executive summary provided to SitRep, concludes “it would be better if Congress updated these authorizations to reflect today’s terrorism challenge.”
But “a principal challenge for Congress is to signal support for military operations against both the old, persistent threat (al Qaeda, its affiliates, and other jihadist groups) and the new, emerging threat (ISIL and its allies).” Congress is facing six considerations in considering how to move forward on a authorization, including: “(1) whether to impose geographical limitations on the authorization, (2) whether to place limits on ground forces, (3) how groups or individuals are identified, (4) the stated purposes for using force, (5) reporting requirements, and (6) sunset and renewal clauses.”
Tweet of the day
The weather forecast for northern Iraq is cloudy with a chance of cruise missiles. Russian navy watcher Seven Feet Beneath the Keel catches sight of a notification by Iraq Civil Aviation Authority officials warning of missile activity over northern Iraq in a 48 hour period beginning Sunday.