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Situation Report: Big moves, and big maps, in the South China Sea; Washington, Moscow, and Damascus spar over who bombed what; women in combat in the courts; MSF pushing for new investigation into Kunduz attack; ISIS weapons trade; and lots more

Situation Report: Big moves, and big maps, in the South China Sea; Washington, Moscow, and Damascus spar over who bombed what; women in combat in the courts; MSF pushing for new investigation into Kunduz attack; ISIS weapons trade; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Point, counterpoint, spy planes. China has been pushing to carve out more and more territory in the South China Sea, alarming its smaller neighbors who have been keeping one eye on Beijing, and another on Washington.

While Beijing continues to pile rocks and sand on top of reefs in the South China Sea to push its claims further out to sea, countries with an often contentious history with Washington have started to look to the U.S. for ships, planes, and basing rights in order to answer their pushy neighbor. Japan, for example, is casting aside decades of pacifism. Communist Vietnam is buying arms from the United States, its old enemy, and the Philippines is inviting U.S. forces back 25 years after kicking them out FPs Dan De Luce, C.K. Hickey, and Keith Johnson write. Ever helpful, the trio put together a few great new interactive maps in order to show us what is happening in the region, and where.

Spy plane plans. Advanced U.S. spy planes will soon start taking off from the tiny island nation of Singapore in order to monitor the South China Sea, the two countries announced on Monday when signing a new security agreement at the Pentagon. FP’s Dan De Luce got the scoop early Tuesday before the announcement, writing the move “reflects Singapore’s concerns over China’s assertive stance on territorial disputes. It also points to a broader trend among countries in the region to seek out the United States as a counterweight to China’s expansionist moves in the contested waterway.”

The deployment won’t be totally new. Washington already flies maritime surveillance planes out of airfields in Japan and the Philippines, and Malaysia also has reportedly invited the Americans to operate aircraft out of its eastern bases. But the plane in question, the P-8 Poseidon, stationed so close to Chinese territory, represents a real upgrade in snooping capabilities in the region.

The safety dance. More confusion over who is doing what in Syria. Only two months after Russia’s entry into the air war over Syria, we’ve already seen close calls between American and Russian jets, a Turkish shoot down of a Russian bomber that strayed into Ankara’s airspace, and now accusations over which country apparently bombed a Syrian army base. Early Monday morning, Damascus complained to the United Nations that U.S. jets hit one of its bases in eastern Syria, killing three soldiers and tearing up an ammo depot. But as FP’s Paul McLeary reports, American officials say it ain’t so. One American military official said the Pentagon is “certain it was the Russians,” but has yet to produce any hard evidence of its certainty. So far, Moscow has been quiet on the issue.

Obits. It was a big day for death notices at the Pentagon, with officials announcing the deaths of two Islamist terrorist leaders from previous U.S. airstrikes in Libya and Somalia. The bigger strike killed the leader of the Islamic State’s affiliate in Libya, known as Abu Nabil, who was targeted in a Nov. 13 air strike by F-15 on a compound in the city of Derna. The second announcement was of the death of a leader of the al Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab, who was felled on Dec. 2 in Somalia.

Encryption nation. In the wake of the latest terrorist attack in San Bernardino, federal officials, presidential hopefuls, and members of Congress are again struggling to find a plan to sift through massive amounts of digital data in order to prevent the next attack, and do it legally. But there are no easy answers, reports FP’s Elias Groll.

Rally point. On Tuesday afternoon, the medical aid group Médecins Sans Frontières will hold a rally outside the White House demanding an independent inquiry into the U.S. bombing of one of its hospitals in Kunduz, Afghanistan on Oct. 3. The U.S. military has already taken responsibility for the botched attack, which a new report says was a case of multiple human and technological errors. But the group says the raid that killed approximately 30 of its staffers and patients still demands an independent investigation, outside of the U.S. military’s chain of command. No disciplinary action has yet been taken over any of the U.S. servicemembers involved in the incident.

Good to have you here, and much thanks for stopping by from those of us here at SitRep HQ. 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 paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Women in combat

Will women soon be eligible for the draft? A document quietly posted to a DoD Web site after Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced his decision to open up combat roles to women says that a 1981 Supreme Court ruling barring women from the draft may have to be reconsidered.

“The opening of all direct ground combat positions to women further alters the factual backdrop to the court’s decision,” says the document. The 1981 ruling in Rostker v. Goldberg — which exempted women from the draft — “did not explicitly consider whether rationales underlying the statute would be sufficient to limit the application of the MSSA [Selective Service Act] to men. The department will consult with the Department of Justice as appropriate regarding the issue.” The doc was first flagged by the Washington Post.

A recent Rand report found that the majority of servicemembers in the U.S. Special Operations Command oppose serving with women: “overall, 85 percent of survey participants opposed letting women into their specialty, and 71 percent opposed women in their unit,” the report concludes.

Syria

The arrest of a naturalized U.S. citizen for supplying an al Qaeda-linked Syrian rebel group with military equipment highlights U.S. ambivalence towards one of Syria’s more important Islamist rebel groups. Federal agents arrested Amin al-Baroudi and charged him with illegally exporting equipment like laser sights and gun scopes to Syria for Ahrar al-Sham. While the group isn’t a part of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, some argue that its ideology is uncomfortably close to al-Qaeda, whose Syrian affiliate Ahrar has often fought alongside. Nonetheless, the U.S. has not attacked Ahrar al-Sham like it has the Islamic State of the Nusra Front, nor has it designated the group as a terrorist organization. Last week, FP’s Colum Lynch and John Hudson had a must-read piece looking at the role the group may play in any Syrian peace deal.

In a piece for Vice News, aviation geek David Cenciotti breaks down the U.K.’s contribution to the air war in Syria. Since a successful parliamentary vote authorizing airstrikes, the Royal Air Force (RAF) has sent Tornado attack jets to bomb targets on the ground and Typhoon fighter jets armed with air-to-air weapons to escort aircraft in airspace over Syria. But it’s the surveillance aircraft that Cenciotti argues marks the RAF’s most important contribution to the air war, with Reaper drones, RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft, and Sentinel R1 spy planes eavesdropping on Islamic State communications and identifying targets.

The Islamic State

Amnesty International has published a new report looking into the illicit weapons trade that has fueled the Islamic State. The report, “Taking Stock: The arming of Islamic State,” identifies weapons from over 25 countries in the hands of the jihadist fighters. Amnesty also cites poor U.S. oversight and lax control mechanisms over the billions of dollars worth of arms it has sent to Iraq in recent years as contributing to the availability of weapons for the group.

NATO will not be sending ground troops to fight the Islamic State any time soon, according to the alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Stoltenberg made the comments while speaking with a Swiss newspaper on Monday, also telling the paper that NATO will help Turkey beef up its air defenses after it shot down a Russian Su-24 last month.

The Islamic State had a budget of roughly $80 million in 2015, according to an analysis by IHS Jane’s. Half of the group’s revenue comes from taxes extracted from the population under its control with another 43 percent drawn from sales of oil — making contributions from wealthy foreign donors a relatively negligible part of the group’s budget in contrast to other jihadist groups like al-Qaeda.

Yemen

The Yemeni government and Houthi rebels will kick off a round of peace talks in Switzerland next week, after the warring sides appeared ready to accept a cease-fire in their nine-month battle for control of the country. A previous attempt to broker a deal fell apart in June when the U.N.’s Special Envoy for Yemen couldn’t get the two sides to sit at the same table. What started as a civil war has become a multinational air and ground war that pits the Iranian-backed Houthis against warplanes from Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and their allies, as well as ground troops from those two countries as well as hundreds of soldiers from Egypt, Qatar and Sudan.

FP has reported on Washington’s involvement in the fight, which includes U.S. air tankers flying hundreds of refueling missions to keep those bombers airborne. As of mid-November, U.S. planes had flown almost 500 refueling sorties to top off the tanks of coalition warplanes 2,500 times, according to numbers provided by the Defense Department. The American flights have totaled approximately 4,000 flying hours while delivering over 17 million lbs. of fuel.

Somalia

Somali authorities tell the BBC that they’ve arrested a U.S. national and charged him with membership in the al-Qaeda-linked Shabab terrorist group and participating in an attack against a university in Somalia which killed 148 people. The man had reportedly been a member of Shabab for “a very long time” and was caught while fleeing after his friends were killed in an internal dispute within the group.

Iran

Iran has carried out another missile test in apparent violation of United Nations sanctions, according to a scoop from Fox News. A senior U.S. official tells Fox that Iran carried out a test of its Ghadr-110 medium range ballistic missile on November 21 near the port city of Chabahar. Most recently, Iran also tested its Emad intermediate range ballistic missile back in October

Russia

Russia lost communication with a spy satellite after it failed to separate from a Soyuz-2.1B rocket shortly after launch on Saturday, Agence France Presse reports. The Kanopus-ST satellite, with dual military and civilian applications, reportedly could have been used to detect submarines at sea.

South Korea

South Korea wants to make its own armed stealth drone, Yonhap News Agency reports. A South Korean defense official tells the paper that the plan is to use the drone to destroy some of the North Korean mobile and long range missile systems pointed at the south in the event of a conflict. Officials reportedly plan to carry out research on the project into 2019.

Who’s where when

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James hosts a townhall meeting at 9 a.m. from Fort Meade, Md. Livestream here.

Making moves

Harry Kazianis, the executive editor of the National Interest, a bible of sorts for Washington’s foreign policy realists, joined the Heritage Foundation Dec. 7 as Senior Communications Manager for Foreign Policy, FP’s John Hudson tells us.