The Cable

Situation Report: Saudis ponder next steps in Yemen; Kerry angry at Damascus; Afghan air force not ready; Ivory Coast attacks; new anti-ISIS weapon; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Saudi, Yemen, and U.S. help. We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the Saudi-led bombing campaign of Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the war doesn’t appear to be going very well for anyone involved. After thousands of civilians have been killed in airstrikes, many in the United Nations ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Saudi, Yemen, and U.S. help. We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the Saudi-led bombing campaign of Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the war doesn’t appear to be going very well for anyone involved. After thousands of civilians have been killed in airstrikes, many in the United Nations and the international community have started to question what the strikes have achieved. Worryingly, Saudi Arabia’s minister of information admitted earlier this year that no one is sure what comes next. “We hoped at the beginning it would be a quick thing, and that the Houthis would come to their senses that attacking Saudi Arabia has no purposes for Yemenis,” the minister, Adel al-Toraifi, said during a think tank event in Washington. But now, “there is no endgame.”

None of the raids could happen without direct U.S. support. The U.S. military provides intelligence for the Saudi strikes, along with refueling for bombers. And then there’s the billions in arms sales that keep the missiles flowing. According to numbers the Defense Department provided to SitRep, between April 2015 and the end of February, American planes have flown 747 aerial refueling sorties totaling over 6,300 flying hours, and provided over 27 million lbs. of fuel to almost 4,000 bombers from Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. And as of Dec. 26, the estimated total cost of that support was approximately $81 million.

Last minute moves. On eve of Syria peace talks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is pressing Russia and Iran to get Syria to accept a political transition, FP’s Colum Lynch reports. U.N. officials want the new round of talks in Geneva to begin exploring the future of the Syrian political system, but officials from Damascus have flatly rejected international attempts to meddle with its internal political system.

Fighters fighting. Once again, the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in Syria has rolled U.S.-backed Division 13 anti-ISIS fighters for their weapons, the Long War Journal reports. The incident took place this weekend as the two seem to have stumbled into a firefight in the town of Maarat al Numan in Syria’s Idlib province, which ended in Nusra seizing Division 13’s weapons, according to tweets published from Division 13’s official account. It’s not an altogether new experience for the group. Division 13 lost fighters in a clash with Nusra in July 2015 and in September members of the group handed their weapons over to Nusra shortly after crossing the border from Turkey into Syria.

Thanks for clicking on through for another edition of SitRep as we kick off a new week. 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

Over the weekend the Defense Department revealed that a Jordan-based U.S. M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System — or HIMARS — artillery system pounded Islamic State targets in Syria with GPS-guided rockets on March 4. The strike took place near the town of al-Tanf, near the triborder area of Syria, Jordan and Iraq. A Defense Department spokesman said there was no special logic behind the use of the HIMARS versus an airborne strike, explaining that “it was just the system available.”

Afghanistan

Departing chief of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, recently said the Afghan air force won’t be ready until 2020. While the force already has some A-29 Super Tucano’s and MD-530 Little Birds, some of its air fleet won’t arrive until 2018. That delay, in addition to the time needed to train up pilots on those aircraft, represent the math behind Campbell’s 2020 estimate. In the meantime, the Afghan air force has been carrying out some strikes, hitting Islamic State targets in Nangarhar Province over the past few months.

Iran

It’s not just the U.S. that is worked up over Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests. France and Israel responded to Iran’s recent Eqtedar-e Velayat missile tests, in which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force tested a variety of ballistic missiles, raising the specter of additional sanctions against Tehran for allegedly violating existing U.N. Security Council resolutions. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said France and the European Union could apply sanctions against Iran “if necessary.” Shortly after the tests, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the world to take “immediate punitive steps” for a string of missile tests dating from the most recent exercise through the launch of its Emad medium range ballistic missile back in October.

Ivory Coast

Both the U.S. and France have offered to assist the Ivory Coast after the West African nation suffered a brutal terrorist attack that left at least 16 people dead. al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the attacks, in which gunmen stormed three hotels in the beach resort city of Grand-Bassam Sunday, killing 16.

Israel

Hamas briefly hacked into an Israeli satellite TV feed to broadcast its own propaganda, Arutz Sheva reports. The terrorist group overpowered the signal for Israel’s Channel Two for a few minutes with a more powerful signal of its own, leading Israeli viewers to watch an Hamas-produced video. The maneuver allowed Hamas to broadcast one of its propaganda videos to an unwitting Israeli audience in the midst of a rocket attack from Gaza.

Lebanon

The Arab League has followed Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies in branding Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The move follows Saudi Arabia’s withdrawal of military aid from Lebanon following the country’s refusal to sign on to a resolution condemning the sack of the Saudi embassy in Iran after the execution of a Shia cleric. In the Arab League vote, only two members of the 22-member organization failed to support the Saudi motion, with Iraq abstaining from the vote.

The Hunt for Rust October

North Korea has reportedly lost contact with one of its submarines sailing off the eastern coast of the country, according to a report from CNN. U.S. officials say they don’t know whether or not the sub, which they’d been quietly watching until it went missing, has sunk or is in distress. The incident comes amidst increased tension on the Korean peninsula as the U.S. and South Korea are engaged in annual joint military exercises following the North’s recent test of a nuclear weapon and a ballistic missile.

Missing missiles

Another day, another strange shipment involving a U.S. Hellfire missile. A bomb sniffing dog at Belgrade airport found what appears to be two live Hellfire missiles aboard a flight from Beirut to Serbia. The missiles’ shipping documents indicate that they were bound for Portland, Oregon as their final destination. No word yet on who the missiles belong to or why they were on a civilian passenger plane, but Serbian authorities say they’re investigating. This wouldn’t be the first strange shipping incident involving a Hellfire missile. The Defense Department recently regained custody of an inert Hellfire missile from Cuba, which was mysteriously shipped there from Europe following a training exercise.

Bots o’ war

Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy is offering a little more clarity on what the Navy’s unmanned carrier-launched tanker might do once it’s up and running. Mulloy recently told reporters that the Carrier-Based Aerial Refueling System, newly dubbed the “MQ-25 Stingray,” won’t just hang around offering gas to thirsty jets, but will also carry out surveillance missions once it’s finished refueling tasks. There’s also a possibility that the tanker drone could carry weapons, as the pylons used to carry fuel tanks could also be used for arms.

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

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