The Cable

SitRep: New CIA Plan to Arm Syrian Rebels as Ceasefire Crumbles

Ash Carter in India; new Somalia drone strikes; the age of ISIS body counts; and lots more

Syrian opposition fighters from the Syrian Free Army fire a home-made rocket launcher connected to a tractor in the Sheikh Maqsud neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on December 2, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ISMAIL ABDULRAHMAN / AFP / ISMAIL ABDULRAHMAN        (Photo credit should read ISMAIL ABDULRAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian opposition fighters from the Syrian Free Army fire a home-made rocket launcher connected to a tractor in the Sheikh Maqsud neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on December 2, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ISMAIL ABDULRAHMAN / AFP / ISMAIL ABDULRAHMAN (Photo credit should read ISMAIL ABDULRAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Plan B. The Obama administration has prepared a list of weapons it would allow allies to ship to Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime, but plans are on hold to see if the current ceasefire can hold before moving forward. The plans — drawn up by the CIA and regional partners — call for potentially shipping weapons to rebels that would target regime aircraft and rocket and artillery sites on the ground.

The agency has already allowed shipments of antitank TOW missiles to the rebels, along with some Soviet-era BM-21 “Grad” multiple rocket launcher systems. But Saudi Arabia and Turkey have long pushed for more shipments of powerful weapons, including Manpads. The Obama administration has balked at such proposals, fearing that the weapons could fall into the wrong hands.

Fire for effect. The leak comes as the weeks-old ceasefire between Syrian government troops and rebel groups — excluding ISIS and al-Nusra — shows signs of coming apart. Fighting has been heating up in recent days and Damascus has promised a new ground offensive on rebel-held Aleppo, with the backing of Russian warplanes. The agreement has never really been fully observed by either side, although casualty numbers are way down, according to humanitarian observers. “A decrease in casualty numbers brought a much-needed respite for Syrians, but many civilians are still dying in unlawful attacks,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Pressing on. The Syrian opposition says it will attend a new round of U.N.-backed peace talks in Geneva even as Damascus kicks off its Aleppo offensive, FP’s John Hudson has learned. The rebels’ plan, according to a top spokesman, is to demonstrate that the opposition is committed to the political process even if the Syrian government, aided by Russian airstrikes, is not. “The Assad regime’s escalation of attacks against civilians is meant to drive the [opposition] to say ‘no’ to the Geneva talks,” Salem al-Muslat, spokesman for the opposition High Negotiations Committee, told FP. “The HNC is committed to the political process, and will be in Geneva this week.”

No body counts, except when there are. There was a time when U.S. officials insisted that in the fight against the Islamic State, body counts don’t matter. But that time has long since passed. American-led airstrikes have killed an estimated 25,000 ISIS fighters since August 2014, according to defense officials. And on Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “we have taken back 40 per cent of the territory that Daesh controlled a year ago in Iraq and 10 percent in Syria,” suing an alternate name for the Islamic State. “In fact, we assess Daesh’s numbers are the lowest they’ve been since we began monitoring their manpower in 2014,” he said.

The new, old drone war. In other body count news, American drones took out at least 12 al Shabab militants in Somalia earlier this week, a defense official says. The attacks on April 11 and 12 against an al Shabaab camp in southern Somalia took out forces which “posed an imminent threat to U.S. personnel,” Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza told SitRep Tuesday. The attack is being described as a “self-defense” mission, much like other recent bombing runs against the group that have killed well over 200 militants since early March, including one that killed 150 fighters.

Travels with Ash. Defense Secretary Ash Carter kicked off his trip to India with a news conference alongside Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, announcing a series of defense agreements. Despite the pomp and circumstance, the announcements were a bit of a snoozer with few major initiatives unveiled. While previous reports had suggested the U.S. and India were in talks over to conduct joint patrols in the South China Sea, the two defense chiefs instead released a generic statement affirming the importance of freedom of navigation in the region.

India is looking to buy armed Predator drones from the United States, though it appears talks are ongoing. The U.S. and India are discussing the purchase 40 surveillance-only versions of the Predator drone, but the Indian Air Force has also expressed interest in purchasing 100 armed Predator C Avengers. In September, Indian media reported that India had purchased 10 armed Heron TP drones from Israel. Pakistan, India’s regional rival, has already acquired an armed drone, the Burraq, reportedly with the help of Chinese technology.

Thanks for clicking on through this morning as we rip through 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.

Afghanistan

Spring is here and the Taliban have announced that their new offensive has begun with the return of warmer weather. The group had been going through a period of turmoil after dissident factions challenged the appointment of Mullah Akhtar Mansour as emir after the revelation that prior leader Mullah Omar had died in 2013. Nonetheless, the Taliban managed to advance against the Afghan government despite the leadership dispute and attacks from a local Islamic State affiliate. The group emailed the AP to let the wire service know that it’s new offensive is called “Operation Omari” in reference to Mullah Omar.

Naming operations is somewhat of a new wrinkle for the militant group as far as we can tell, and we’re curious what you think upcoming Taliban ops should be named? Pentagon-style acronyms preferred, please….

Philippines

The New York Times stops to take stock of the increasingly warm military relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines. Much has changed since the island nation booted the U.S. out of its bases at the end of the Cold War. But with China laying claim to territory the Philippines has traditionally called its own and a small, rusty coast guard to defend those claims, Manila has turned back to the U.S. for help, offering up new bases from which American troops can operate. The U.S. has returned the favor, recently providing $40 million in aid to help the Philippines modernize its ships and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. Defense Secretary Ash carter is in the country this week to formally sign several new defense agreements.

China

Beijing has sent J-11 fighter jets to Woody Island, the disputed island claimed by both Taiwan and Vietnam in the South China Sea, according to satellite imagery obtained by Fox News. The J-11 air superiority fighter is China’s take on the Russian Su-27 Flanker. The arrival, however, is not the first trip to Woody Island for the J-11, as the jets made an appearance there in satellite imagery from November 2015. The recent imagery also shows that China has completed its deployment of surface-to-air missiles on the island with the addition of fire control radars.

China is ticked at the Group of 7 (G7) for including the South China Sea in a statement released on Monday. The group, composed of seven wealthy countries from North America, Europe, and Japan, wrote that its members oppose any “intimidating coercive or provocative unilateral actions” in the region. China, for its part, said the G7 should stick to economic issues and refrain from “taking sides on issues involving territorial disputes.”

Louder than bombs

South Korea’s ministry of defense says it’s planning to increase the number of loudspeakers used to broadcast propaganda that can be heard over six miles across the demilitarized zone into North Korea, Yonhap News reports. The military will add two dozen new loudspeakers in addition to 16 mobile versions of the audio equipment. South Korea started using the speakers in August after an 11-year halt to the broadcasts, using them to blare high decibel K-pop music and propaganda at the North, which has undertaken a series of provocations against the South over the past year.

Somalia

There’s a new Islamic State-linked Islamist militant group in Somalia, and it’s looking to take on al Shabab, which has pledged loyalty to al Qaeda. The group calls itself the East African Front and announced its loyalty to the Islamic State and its opposition to al Shabab in a letter posted to its recently-opened Twitter account recently, calling the group a “psychological and physical prison.” It’s not clear just how much of a challenge the Front poses to al Shabab as it is relatively unknown with no indication of its size or strength.

Boko Haram

The West African Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram used ten times the number of child suicide bombers in 2015 as it did the year before, according to a report from the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). A fifth of all Boko Haram suicide attacks are now carried out by children, using kids as young as eight years old. Authorities in Nigeria have failed to distinguish between children abducted by the group and adult members, UNICEF officials say the child suicide bombers are coerced by Boko Haram into carrying out the attacks and not witting, voluntary attackers like their adult counterparts.

Sinai

The U.S. may make some major changes to its decades-old monitoring mission in the Sinai peninsula, as the threat from ISIS continues to increase. Defense officials said Tuesday that some U.S. outposts there have already shuttered, and Washington may begin replacing some troops with cameras and other electronic monitoring systems. The U.S. is working to determine how much of the monitoring mission can be accomplished by remote sensors before deciding how many of the 700 U.S. troops currently in Sinai it plans to keep there.

On the move

Peter Levine has been named acting under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, replacing Brad Carson, who stepped down earlier this month in the wake of his stalled confirmation in the Senate. The move became effective on April 9. Levine had served as the Pentagon’s deputy chief management officer May 2015.

Think tanked

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and American Progress senior fellow Michael Werz write that nontraditional threats like climate change and food insecurity will increasingly present threats to global and regional stability. The border-spanning nature of these challenges, the two argue, make them particularly difficult for any one country to tackle, demanding new, creative, and multilateral solutions to the problem.

And finally…

Britain’s Foreign Office has hired a controversial new private security contractor to protect its diplomatic facilities. And it’s kinda the most British thing ever.

Photo credit: ISMAIL ABDULRAHMAN/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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