The Cable

Situation Report: U.S. sailors freed; Obama hits critics and defends legacy; American forces may head back to Philippines; Bergdahl’s lawyer wants medals; Russian artillery in Syria; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley They’re out. Just after dawn broke over the Persian Gulf on Wednesday, ten U.S. sailors being held by Iranian forces on Farsi Island got in their boats, and sailed away. The crews of the two Riverine Command Boats — detained Tuesday after sailing into Iranian territorial waters — were ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

They’re out. Just after dawn broke over the Persian Gulf on Wednesday, ten U.S. sailors being held by Iranian forces on Farsi Island got in their boats, and sailed away. The crews of the two Riverine Command Boats — detained Tuesday after sailing into Iranian territorial waters — were later “transferred ashore by U.S. Navy aircraft,” according to a Pentagon statement. There are “no indications that the Sailors were harmed during their brief detention,” the statement continued. Other sailors piloted the boats to Bahrain, their original destination.

Gen. Ali Fadavi, naval commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards told Iranian television, “we have concluded that passage of Americans in our territorial waters was not a hostile passage or for espionage or similar acts.” Iran’s Fars News Agency also claimed that the U.S. apologized for the breach, but there is no indication of what that may have entailed, or if it’s even true.

American and Iranian vessels often come in contact in the waters near Farsi Island, which is home to an Iranian naval base. Initial indications are that one of the boats suffered mechanical difficulties, and the other craft stayed by its side as it drifted into Iranian waters. The Pentagon promises a full investigation.

Backstory. The capture of the sailors came just hours before President Barack Obama was to deliver the final State of the Union address of his presidency, where he touted last year’s deal with Tehran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions.

It also followed weeks of other provocative acts, FP’s Paul McLeary writes. On Dec. 26, a group of Iranian fast-attack craft in the Gulf fired unguided rockets near the USS Harry S. Truman. Iran said it never happened, but the U.S. Navy later released footage of the incident. In another move that has inflamed tensions, Iran recently unveiled what appears to be a second underground missile bunker, trumpeting images of the facility complete with Emad precision-guided missiles on state television. And late last year, Iran breached a U.N. Security Council resolution by conducting two ballistic missile tests.

Mic drop. And that’s a wrap. Under the shadow of the plight of the then-detained sailors, President Obama delivered his State of the Union speech on time Tuesday evening, but made no mention of the incident. In a speech that extolled U.S. military might while calling for its judicious use, Obama took on Donald Trump and other GOP presidential candidates for their heated rhetoric and calls to carpet bomb enemies, “but conspicuously sidestepped weaknesses in his own foreign policy legacy,” FP’s Dan De Luce writes.

In one of the lines that will spawn a thousand rebukes, the president again downplayed the power of the Islamic State, admitting that while the group poses a threat to Middle East stability, it does not “threaten our national existence.” Instead of facing a new world war, Washington and its allies are instead facing off against “killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down and destroyed.”

But not everyone is completely convinced. Former acting CIA Director Michael Morell warned the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday that ISIS is growing in influence around the world, and it “poses a significant and lethal threat to the United States of America.” In one area of concern, Morrell said he “would not be surprised if we woke up one morning and ISIS had grabbed a large part of Libyan territory, the same kind of blitzkrieg, on a smaller scale, that we saw in Iraq.”

Heading back? Years after the U.S. left its naval base in Subic Bay, the Philippines and the U.S. are in talks to provide American troops with up to eight bases in the country, FP’s Dan De Luce reports. The discussions are a reflection of the Philippines’ growing anxiety over the rise of China and its claims in disputed nearby waters. The sites would be dispersed throughout the country, and Washington is pushing for a return to its old Subic Bay naval base, a staple of America’s Cold War presence in the Pacific. “The agreement also supports the Pentagon’s new strategy that calls for dispersing its warplanes and naval ships if necessary to reduce the potential threat posed by China’s formidable missile arsenal,” De Luce points out.

No good news. President Obama’s former ambassador to Syria told House lawmakers Tuesday that Russia’s military intervention in the country has harmed efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the five-year-old conflict, FP’s John Hudson reports. “The gloomy comments from Robert Ford, who served as ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, stand in direct opposition to the State Department’s growing optimism that a Syrian peace deal may be in sight,” he writes. Officials like Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken have argued that Moscow’s military intervention on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could give Moscow the leverage needed to prod Assad to step aside and make way for a successor. Ford does not agree.

Good morning, all. We’re less than two weeks into 2016, and it’s been a pretty busy year so far. 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.

Syria

Russia’s deployment of additional artillery pieces to Syria hasn’t received nearly the same amount of attention as the various fighter jets and tanks it has deployed, but artillery is now playing an important role in the Russian-backed offensive, according to a piece by Rand Corporation analyst James Quinlivan at War On The Rocks. The Syrian army’s use of artillery slowly fell apart as the civil war taxed the skills and cohesiveness of the military, leaving the Assad regime to rely on tactics such as barrel bombing. The Russians have reportedly been trying to reverse the trend, focusing on helping Syria model its 4th Assault Corps on Russian units.

Bergdahl

U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl should receive a Purple Heart and a Prisoner of War Medal, his military lawyer argued in a Fort Bragg, N.C. courtroom Tuesday. Bergdahl, who walked off his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and then spent five years as a Taliban prisoner, faces a general court-martial on charges of “misbehavior before the enemy,” and “desertion.” He could face up to life in prison at his court martial hearing in August.

China

China is about to roll out the CCG 3901, its second 10,000 ton China Coast Guard (CCG) cutter ship, and it will head for the South China Sea, the Diplomat reports. The ship is armed with a 76mm naval artillery piece and an array of smaller guns, but with its massive size, it’s designed to deter smaller ships from trying to ram it, as has been the practice between navies in the South China Sea who are jockeying for territory in the disputed waters. The ship’s predecessor and sister ship, the CCG 2901, is already patrolling the East China Sea.

North Korea

North Korea released footage of what it claimed was a successful submarine-launched ballistic missile test last week, but Melissa Hanham at ArmsControlWonk has determined that the missile most likely accidentally blew up when its engines ignited. The North Koreans tried to edit the footage of the ejection test to obscure the explosion, but accidentally left two frames in the video release which show the beginnings of the explosion. The test most likely took place near the North’s Sinpo Shipyard, based on mountains visible in the background of the test.

South Korean troops fired on what they believed to be a North Korean drone flying across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and into South Korean territory, Voice of America reports. The drone reportedly survived the barrage long enough to return to North Korean territory. Tensions between North and South Korea have been high following the regime’s test of a nuclear weapon and South Korea’s subsequent reactivation of loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts across the DMZ.

Making moves

Brig. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind, deputy commander, Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan is heading to Korea, where he’ll take over as commanding general, Special Operations Command, Korea.

Germany

Germany has agreed to lease three to five of Israel’s Heron TP drones for $650 million, according to Defense News. Germany plans to use the Herons to shadow its troops on foreign deployments. As part of the deal, Israel agreed to share technical information on the system with Germany and allow it to be used for future drone development. The slow approval process for acquiring American drones reportedly contributed to Germany’s preference for the Heron TP over an American Predator drone.

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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