The Cable

Situation Report: Syria talks struggle; Petraeus keeps his stars; Clinton burns Bernie; U.S. Navy skirts Chinese claims; lights flicker in Mosul; new U.S. strikes in Afghanistan; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Who keeps the peace? Even if a cease-fire can be reached between the Syrian government and rebel groups opposing it, the U.N. is worried that the country would continue to remain too violent for its peacekeeping forces to operate. Those concerns were spelled out in a confidential strategy paper ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Who keeps the peace? Even if a cease-fire can be reached between the Syrian government and rebel groups opposing it, the U.N. is worried that the country would continue to remain too violent for its peacekeeping forces to operate. Those concerns were spelled out in a confidential strategy paper obtained by FP’s Colum Lynch, even as U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is in Geneva to moderate talks between the two sides. According to the document, “the current operational environment strongly suggest that a U.N. peacekeeping response relying on international troops or military observers would be an unsuitable modality for ceasefire monitoring.” In other words, even with a ceasefire, Syria would still be far too dangerous for a traditional U.N. peacekeeping mission.

Rough start. And the talks themselves? de Mistura was forced to shuttle between the Syrian government and opposition camps on Monday in Geneva, as the opposition continues to refuse to sit down at the table until the government lifts sieges on several towns filled with civilians, and halts its bombing campaign. And in Damascus, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a triple suicide bombing near a Shia mosque that killed 50 people.

Full stars. Looks like David Petraeus, the former top U.S. general in Iraq and Afghanistan and director of the Central Intelligence Agency, won’t lose a star or face any further disciplinary action from the Pentagon stemming from his disclosure of classified information to his onetime mistress. Stephen Hedger, the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs sent a letter Friday to the Senate Armed Services Committee stating that “the Army completed its review of his case and recommended no additional action,” FP’s Keith Johnson writes. In April, the retired four-star general was sentenced to two years of probation and fined $100,000 but was spared prison time after pleading guilty to mishandling classified information.

Dousing the flames. In an effort to blunt the surge of support for Bernie Sanders among Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa and New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton has been going all-out to highlight the foreign policy gaps in his record. It’s a tactic that backfired on her against another upstart rival in 2008, a man named Barack Obama. But this time, her staffers say, it’ll be different. FP’s Molly O’Toole takes a deep dive into the thinking behind the move, and if it could really have an effect on the thinking of liberal voters who are seriously feeling the Bern.

Expanding the fight. The U.S. has carried out at least a dozen special operations raids and airstrikes against the Islamic State franchise in Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan over the past several weeks, the New York Times reports. U.S. officials estimate that about 90 to 100 ISIS fighters out of around 1,000 active in the province have been killed. The strikes come after the White House relaxed the rules of engagement for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, opening up strikes against ISIS there.

High seas drama. On Saturday, the USS Curtis Wilbur, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island, part of the Paracel Islands archipelago claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Beijing wasn’t happy about the move — which the Pentagon deemed an “innocent passage” — with a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry declaring, “the U.S. naval ship violated Chinese law to enter China’s territorial waters. China monitored the ship’s movement and issued verbal messages in accordance with law.” The U.S. Navy made a similar trip back in October, when the USS Lassen sailed close to reefs claimed by China in the South China Sea as part of Washington’s efforts to show Beijing that it doesn’t abide China’s island-building in the region in an effort to expand its territorial waters.

Friendly skies? Meet Japan’s new stealth fighter plane, the X-2.  She hasn’t flown yet, but has all the lines and hallmarks of a top-notch stealth plane. Clocking in at $340 million just to produce a prototype (which is expected to fly in the coming months) the X-2 announces Tokyo’s arrival as a serious player in the world of military tech at a time when China has been rolling out new versions of hi-tech aircraft every few months. FP’s Elias Groll has lots more about the plane, and what it means.

Things are humming along here at SitRep HQ, but as you know, we can never get enough information, so 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.

Power surge

For the first time in six months, the lights are back on in the Islamic State-held city of Mosul, Iraq. The flickering of the electric grid on Saturday wasn’t a goodwill gesture by the Baghdad government, however, but a critical necessity. Engineers at the nearby Mosul Dam were forced to restart the water flow to the turbines to alleviate the pressure on the dam, which is in danger of collapse. The dam has been an increasing source of worry for American and Iraqi officials, who say that the water building up behind it threatens to collapse the structure, which in dire need of repair. One anonymous U.S. official speaking to the Iraqi Oil Report said, “our experts are saying the dam could go this year or next. They cannot pinpoint a time to say that it will breach since they don’t have enough information.” If it burst, the water surge would threaten the lives and property of up to one million people from Mosul to Baghdad.

SecDef

The United States needs to “accelerate the defeat” of the Islamic State, according to Defense Secretary Ash Carter. In an NPR interview Friday, Carter said capturing Mosul in Iraq, and Raqqa in Syria, was a particularly important goal for coalition forces in 2016 because denying them governance over such important cities would undermine the caliphate’s legitimacy and pretenses of statehood.

Afghanistan

It’s only going to get harder to carry out oversight of reconstruction problems in Afghanistan, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) wrote in a report on Friday. The country’s declining security is making it harder for American and Afghan staff to travel around the country to check on the status of U.S. funded projects. Adding to the oversight difficulties, SIGAR executive John Sopko wrote that the increased violence and global economic downturn are going to increase Afghanistan’s need for aid in the near term.

Syria

Brett McGurk, Washington’s special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, made a rare visit to the northern Syrian city of Kobani over the weekend, which Kurdish militants liberated from the Islamic State with the help of U.S. airpower in 2015. The Washington Post reports that the furtive war zone appearance may have been designed to salve relations with the political arm of the Kurdish YPG after the U.S. kicked its leader Saleh Muslim out of the current international peace talks in Geneva.

Iraq

The falling price of oil has slashed Iraq’s budget and exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in the country. Deutsche Welle reports that the United Nations’ top humanitarian envoy for Iraq, Lise Grande, said the country needs at least $861 million in aid to cover the basic needs of vulnerable Iraqis. Humanitarian need is expected to grow this year as the fight for Mosul will likely produce more displaced persons.

Human Rights Watch has a new report alleging that Iraqi Shia militias may have carried out war crimes against Sunni civilians, killing them in retaliation for attacks carried out by the Islamic State. The group says that two militias in particular, the Badr Corps and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, abducted and killed at least a dozen random Sunnis in Muqdadiya after twin bombings by the Islamic there targeted Shia militias. Shortly after the alleged militia killings, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi tweeted his support of Iraqi forces for “arresting the gangs that attacked citizens, markets and mosques.”

Iran

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps navy chief Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi said he has more humiliating videos of the American sailors held captive by Iran after their boat entered  Iranian waters last month. Iran broadcast footage of the sailors kneeling with their hands behind their heads at gunpoint following the incident. Fadavi, speaking before the Iranian parliament, threatened that “if the Americans’ acts of malevolence continue, we will release” the heretofore unseen videos. Fadavi also boasted that “we have extracted extensive information from their (American sailors’) laptops and cellphones,” according to Tasnim News.

Turkey

Turkey complained that a Russian Su-34 jet violated its airspace on Friday, reigniting tensions between the two countries along the Turkish-Syrian border. The BBC reports that officials in Moscow denied Turkey’s assertion, labeling it “baseless propaganda.” Turkey has long complained to Russia about alleged violations of its airspace along the border, culminating in its downing of a Russian Su-24 in November. Turkish Prime Minister President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a warning to Russia following the incident on Friday, saying it will “have to face consequences if it keeps up such violations.”

Nigeria

A horrific attack by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram killed 86 people, including children, in a lengthy assault on a village in Nigeria, according to ABC News. The group carried out a four-hour attack in the village of Dalori near Maiduguri in the country’s northeast by bombing and shooting residents, even burning some of them alive. Three women from the group strapped with suicide bombs killed civilians fleeing from the city.

Israel

The Intercept reported on Friday that documents and imagery taken by National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden show the U.S. and Britain spied on the video feeds from airborne Israeli drones. The material appears to confirm that Israel’s Heron TP drones can and do carry arms — a point Israeli officials have long been vague on. The report also revealed that the NSA spied on the video feeds of Iranian Ababil-3 drones, which have littered the skies over the conflict in Syria in recent years.

Tweets of the day

Hamas claimed to have produced a homemade tank in Gaza, but an embarrassing secret lies underneath the vehicle’s purported treads:

RT @BarefootBoomer Heh. A direct copy of the Merkava they see all the time. And the wheels underneath are a nice touch.

Germany’s decision to spend more on defense has yielded some historically awkward praise from Poland’s former minister of foreign affairs and defense:

RT @sikorskiradek It’s a new experience for us in Poland to be encouraging Germans to be more militaristic, but may I say: at last.

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

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