The Cable

SitRep: Drones Up, Obama Says They’re Better Than Ever

Pentagon wants more commandos in Syria; defense employees like Hillary and Bernie; Syria fighting rages; the saga of Bob Gates; Japanese ships reaching out; and lots more

Smoke billows following reported air strikes by Syrian government forces in a rebel-held area of Daraa in southern Syria, on February 17, 2016. / AFP / MOHAMAD ABD ABAZID        (Photo credit should read MOHAMAD ABD ABAZID/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke billows following reported air strikes by Syrian government forces in a rebel-held area of Daraa in southern Syria, on February 17, 2016. / AFP / MOHAMAD ABD ABAZID (Photo credit should read MOHAMAD ABD ABAZID/AFP/Getty Images)

End hits. The past several days have proven pretty deadly for mid-level Islamist militants in Somalia, Iraq, and Syria. On Thursday, an American drone flying over Somalia took out Hassan Ali Dhoore, an al-Shabaab militant who had a hand in planning several attacks that resulted in the deaths of at least three U.S. citizens. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook also said Dhoore “was believed to have been plotting attacks targeting U.S. citizens in Mogadishu.”

Revenge therapy. On Sunday, an American drone dispatched the Islamic State’s Jasim Khadijah, a former Iraqi army officer believed responsible for an attack on U.S. Marines in northern Iraq last month that left one Marine dead and eight others wounded. A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad told reporters that Khadijah “was a rocket expert, he controlled these attacks.” The company of as many as 200 Marines was secretly dispatched to northern Iraq this year to provide fire support for the Iraqi army’s slow motion move on the Islamic State-held city of Mosul. The Marine base has come under attack from ISIS fighters several times.

On Friday, President Barack Obama defended the slate of recent drone strikes in Somalia, Yemen, and Libya that has killed well over 200 ISIS and al-Shabaab militants. “There has been in the past legitimate criticism that the architecture, the legal architecture around the use of drone strikes or other kinetic strikes wasn’t as precise as it should have been, and there’s no doubt that civilians were killed that shouldn’t have been,” he said. But he promised, “Our operating procedures are as rigorous as they have ever been.”

And don’t forget … The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said over the weekend that either Syrian or Russian jets took out the al Qaeda-backed Nusra Front’s spokesman Abu Firas al-Suri, along with his son and as many as 20 other fighters in a strike in Syria’s Idlib province. Others, however, dispute the account of a Russian or Syrian airstrike, with two opposition sources suggested to Asharq al-Awsat that al-Suri died in a U.S. drone strike.

More and more. The Pentagon has recommended to the White House that more U.S. special operations troops be sent to Syria to bolster the 50 commandos already there. No word on how many troops the plan calls for, but, according to reports, the new arrivals would mainly establish training camps inside the country for Syrian rebels who want to fight the Islamic State.

Well, that was quick. Back in February, we told you that the Pentagon was planning to spend about $20 million fixing up a Cold War-era air base in Iceland in order to start landing P-8A Poseidon sub-hunting planes there. (Russian subs have matched Soviet-era levels of combat patrols in the North Atlantic over the past year, worrying NATO members.) Well, it looks as if 12 U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagles are getting the jump on the surveillance planes, having just arrived in Europe to take over NATO’s air surveillance mission in Iceland, flying primarily out of Leeuwarden Air Base, Netherlands. The six-month tour by about 350 Air Force personnel will also feature training with NATO allies “and to deter further Russian aggression,” the Air Force said in a statement. The fighters will also deploy to other locales such as Bulgaria, Estonia, and Romania.

Just a kid. Is former Defense Secretary Bob Gates hopelessly naive to the ways of Washington, despite decades of successfully navigating the choppy political waters sloshing around inside the Beltway? We’re skeptical. But that’s what he claims in a recent interview, revealing that Obama out-maneuvered him on his promise not to cut the defense budget in any significant way. When the White House then offered up a series of cuts, “I guess I’d have to say I felt double-crossed,” Gates told Fox News. “After all those years in Washington, I was naïve.” Many of those cuts — or, more accurately, a slowdown in budgetary growth — came in the form of sequestration, a budgetary gimmick enacted by Congress.

World turned upside down. Rivals to receive the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, appear to be the favorites among political givers within the defense-industrial complex, according to new numbers out from the Center for Public Integrity. The group’s review of Federal Election Commission data between January 2015 and February 2016 shows “the Clinton and Sanders campaigns together received at least $765,049 from employees of major defense contractors — more than twice the $357,775 sum received by the Republican Party’s three remaining presidential candidates. Among the current GOP contenders, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has called for large increases in defense spending, won most of the defense industry’s donations, receiving $307,955.” Read it here.

Thanks for clicking on through this morning as we open up another week of SitRep. 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

China is looking to engage more with the international negotiations over the Syrian crisis, appointing a special envoy to work alongside efforts for a political solution to the crisis, Reuters reports. Last week China’s Foreign Ministry selected Xie Xiaoyan for the job, a diplomat with experience as an ambassador to Ethiopia. The move is likely Beijing’s attempt to play a deeper role in Middle East affairs, despite a prior hesitancy toward involving itself too deeply in the region’s troubles.

The Syrian army, backed up by Russian airstrikes, has managed to give the capital city of Damascus a little more breathing room. About a week after pushing the Islamic State out of the town of Palmyra, Syria troops and their allies have cleared most of the town of Qaryatain, which sits between Palmyra and Damascus.

Islamic State

Intelligence officials tell the Washington Post that the Islamic State is going broke as coalition airstrikes hit its oil revenue and territorial losses rob the self-styled caliphate of ever greater portions of its tax base. The signs of strain have been popping up in the accounts of defectors, who report that fighters — who’ve already seen their salaries cut in half — are now going months without paychecks. The Islamic State has responded by trying to squeeze more money from taxes, but the Iraqi government’s cancellation of salary payments to employees in Mosul cut off a key source of tax revenue. Airstrikes against the jihadist group’s oil infrastructure have reportedly cut their revenue from energy sources in half.

Ibrahim El Bakraoui, one of the bombers who killed himself in a suicide attack in the Brussels airport last month, managed to travel through an international airport three times in a short space of time without interference from authorities. El Bakraoui, one of 3,250 known and suspected terrorists deported by Turkey, is a symbol of what officials worry is a growing gap in airport security as foreign fighters return from Syria. But he’s hardly alone. Three French jihadists, now in prison, flew to Marseilles, France, in September 2014 without hindrance after leaving the Islamic State in Syria — all despite being wanted men back home.

Libya

Libya has a new prime minister and that might mean more Western intervention in the fight against the Islamic State. In a U.N.-brokered deal between Libya’s feuding political factions, Fayez Serraj recently arrived in Tripoli to take over the job. The U.S. and its European allies have grown concerned about the rise of the Islamic State in Libya, but were hesitant to get too involved in the conflict with a low grade conflict between Libya’s two major political factions running in the background. With a unity government on paper and Serraj in office, U.S. Africa Command is now looking for Islamic State targets and special operations troops are scouting for local allies who can help them target the group’s fighters.

Afghanistan

Tired of having to get all the latest news and views by navigating to the Taliban’s website? Well, the Emirate’s got you covered with a new smartphone app so that your favorite content is never more than a thumb click away. Bloomberg reports that the Taliban has a new smartphone app out, serving up the kind of Pashto-language news releases and videos normally posted to the group’s website. Thus far, the app is Android-only and available from the Google Play Store, as the militant group’s developers appear to have snuck it past Google’s app review process.

Boko ISIS

We too often gloss over some of the grim facts of life under the Islamic State’s West Africa franchise, Boko Haram. And we also tend to forget that the group now wants to be called the Islamic State West Africa, something they again reminded us of in a new video pledging allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

China

The U.S. Navy might be gearing up for a third freedom of navigation exercise soon near disputed Chinese territory in the South China Sea. An unnamed source tells Reuters that the operation will take place in early April, but other sources say no such operation is scheduled in the near future. The source says the exercise is likely to involve a smaller ship and not the aircraft carrier USS Stennis currently in the region. China has registered mounting displeasure with the U.S. flybys and sail-throughs in recent months. In a meeting on the sidelines of the nuclear summit in Washington last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Obama that “China will not accept any act under the disguise of freedom of navigation that violates our ­sovereignty and damages our security interests.”

South China Sea

Japan just made a port call in the Philippines, in a sign of support to the country as it hedges its bets against China’s territorial ambitions. Defense News reports that Japan sent two destroyers, the JS Ariake and JS Setogiri, and a submarine, the Oyashio, to Subic Bay on Sunday. The visit marks increasing cooperation between the two countries as they are locked in disputes with China over its claims to islands in the region. The visit also marks the growing importance of the Philippines as a base for operations in the South China Sea. The U.S. recently signed a deal with Manila that gives U.S. forces access to five bases in the country, marking a return to the country since it closed the U.S. Navy base at Subic Bay in the early 1990s.

Photo credit: MOHAMAD ABD ABAZID/AFP/Getty Images

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

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