SitRep: Congress Presses on South China Sea; Commandos Kill Dozens of ISIS Leaders
Trump gonna Trump; Syria stalemate; Chinese CopBots; and lots more
Capitol Hill wants action in South China Sea. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators Wednesday demanded the White House show more resolve with Beijing and ratchet up U.S. naval patrols near disputed islands in the South China Sea, FP’s Dan DeLuce reports. The four lawmakers introduced legislation calling for bolstering security assistance to allies in Southeast Asia and expanding U.S. military operations meant to uphold the right of freedom of navigation in the crucial waterway.
Since October, the U.S. military has conducted two freedom of navigation patrols near artificial islands or features claimed by China, and over the past several weeks, American aircraft based in the Philippines have flown near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, where Chinese ships have been observed conducting surveys for more possible land reclamation efforts. But many in congress see the moves as not enough, or too little, too late, to really influence increasingly aggressive Chinese behavior. DeLuce writes that Pentagon officials maintain they’ve “been ready to carry out operations more frequently within 12 nautical miles of man-made islands, but the White House so far has chosen to take a more cautious approach.”
Dead pool. U.S. commandos operating primarily in Syria have quietly killed over 40 Islamic State leaders running the group’s terror operations in Brussels, Egypt, Paris, and elsewhere, the Daily Beast’s Kim Dozier reports. That number is less than half the overall number of ISIS targets that special operators have taken off the battlefield, one defense official said. The kills have not always been announced so the Americans can see how ISIS responds. “What are they doing, what are they saying, who are they communicating to? How do they backfill the missing operator?” one official said. President Obama recently authorized sending 250 more troops to Syria, bringing the total up to 300.
Trumpism. It happened. Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump finally delivered his big foreign policy speech Wednesday, and reaction has been…mixed. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN.) lauded the speech Wednesday night, telling MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that Trump’s remarks were “full of substance,” and “if you look at the broadness, the vision, I thought it was a major step forward.”
FP’s Molly O’Toole writes, “the speech also offered a look at Trump’s emerging worldview: That an anti-interventionist, nativist foreign policy that gives rise to economic and military power alike can be wielded as a bludgeon against allies and enemies.” One interesting guest at the invitation-only speech in Washington was Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, who told Politico after the speech that Trump “made some intriguing points.” The remarks, delivered haltingly by a candidate unused to using a teleprompter, were blasted by the Washington Post’s conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin, who said the speech “was so filled with internal contradictions, falsehoods and genuinely crazy assertions that one would have thought Trump was speaking extemporaneously.”
There is some disappointment, however. It turns out, the candidate initially wanted to deliver the speech “from a balcony at his 800-acre Trump National Golf Club along the Potomac in Sterling, Va.” The nation’s loss.
A screaming comes across the sky…The Pentagon is shipping two high-tech rocket launchers to Iraq and Turkey to put Islamic State fighters on full blast. But the deployments come after hundreds of American rockets have already landed on the terrorist group, adding to the din of the 40,000 bombs dropped from American warplanes. FP’s Paul McLeary gives a rundown of where the new HIMARS rocket launchers are likely going, and what kind of damage they can do to the group who still holds stubbornly to the Iraqi city of Mosul, and a critical pocket on the Syria/Turkish border.
No movement, more blood in Syria. The truce between the Syrian government and rebel groups “is still alive, but barely,” U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura admitted Wednesday after emerging from a briefing with the U.N. Security Council. “The perception is that it could collapse at any time.” Likewise, the brief comity between Washington and Moscow forged over the ceasefire appears to be fraying as well, as officials from the two countries have started to snipe at one another for acting in bad faith. As violence has steadily increased over the past several weeks — over the past 48 hours there has been an average of 1 Syrian civilian killed every 25 minutes — talks between the government and the rebel coalition have been suspended, and the war grinds on. Government airstrikes in Aleppo have killed over 60 civilians over the past 24 hours, the AP reported Thursday morning.
Thanks for clicking on through as we crank 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: email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
The push to capture Mosul from the Islamic State inches forward ever so slightly as Iraqi forces took the village of Mahana, in Ninevah province. The capture marks the first forward movement for Iraqi security forces since an offensive three weeks ago stalled amid poor weather, slow movement and desertions. This week’s advance was supported by U.S. airstrikes and puts Iraqi forces in range of Qayyara, the capture of which could help cut the Islamic State in Mosul’s lines of communication to areas it controls surrounding the city.
In a potential sign of things to come, Kurdish peshmerga forces and Shiite militias have been fighting it out in the town of Tuz Khurmato, about 110 miles north of Baghdad for several days now, leaving at least 10 people dead. The two sides have agreed to a shaky ceasefire, however, and to allow the local police to begin keeping the peace in the town, which is home to Kurds, Shi’ite Turkmen and Sunni Arabs. Fighting began several days ago, Reuters reports, after members of a Shiite militia “threw a grenade into the house of a Kurdish leader. A ceasefire was declared on Sunday, but sporadic mortar and gunfire continued until Wednesday.”
North Korea has failed once again to successfully launch the Musudan road-mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile. Yonhap News reports that Pyongyang’s second shot this month at a Musudan blew up seconds after being fired from its launcher near Wonsan early in the morning Thursday. North Korea had attempted an earlier Musudan launch April 15 in honor of the deceased Kim Il Sung’s birthday, but it met with a similar result. South Korean officials had predicted that the North would attempt a second launch in order to redeem Papa Kim’s big day, but it looks like the birthday boy might have to do without this year.
The F-22 Raptor, the Air Force’s stealth air superiority fighter and America’s most advanced fighter jet, has made another appearance in Europe, this time in the Baltics. Reuters reports that a pair of the jets touched down in Lithuania at Siauliai air base for a visit with President Dalia Grybauskaite after showing off a bit with some stunts. The visit to the Baltics is likely intended as a message to Russia, given that Russian jets have buzzed an American ship and spy plane in the region. On Monday, the pair of Raptors made a similar visit to Romania’s Black Sea coast from the United Kingdom.
Russia wants the United Nations Security Council to add two Syrian rebel groups to a list of proscribed terrorist groups. Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. envoy, said the council should blacklist the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, saying that their refusal to take part in negotiations to end the conflict and their fighting during the strained cessation of hostilities should qualify them as terrorist groups. Jaish al-Islam’s Mohammed Alloush, whose brother, Zahran, was killed in a Russian airstrike in December, is a member of the rebels’ High Negotiating Committee at the talks in Geneva.
The Hill reports that the House Armed Service Committee is doubling down on Russian-made rocket engines, increasing the number purchased for the Air Force from nine to 18. The Pentagon has been dependent on rocket engines like the Russian RD-180 for its space launch, but has been trying to transition to U.S.-made models since Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and the subsequent sanctions against Moscow. Lawmakers like Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Ca.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have tried to cut funds for the RD-180 in order to deny Russia U.S. funds, but others argue that the engines are necessary to help spur competition in the U.S. space launch industry, at least until an American company can develop another replacement engine.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter told a House committee Wednesday not to pilfer his war budget in order to make him buy things he doesn’t want. Carter was reacting to a plan from House Republicans to take $18 billion from the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, the fund used to pay for the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, and spend it on regular defense budget items. In particular, the plan involves spending that money on a troop increase for the Army as well as more planes and ships — things the defense secretary said aren’t high on his wish list anyway. Carter called the plan “deeply troubling and flawed for several reasons.”
The Washington Post follows up with U.S. Army Capt. Kristen Griest, the trailblazer for women in the Army, who recently had her request to transfer and become an infantry officer granted by the service. Griest was one of 19 women who tried out for Ranger School and one of three who successfully completed the course. The Army says it has greenlit the requests of nine women to join the infantry so far.
Finally, someone has invented a robot policeman that can electrocute you. PopSci reports on Anbot, China’s police bot developed by the country’s National Defense University and shown off at the Chongqing Hi-Tech fair last week. Anbot comes equipped with an “electrically charged riot control tool” that can zap the non-compliant, which must be activated by humans rather than used autonomously. The robot can patrol on its own and respond to human pleas for help via a panic button on its touchscreen face. Its onboard cameras can record crimes in progress and its onboard computer can perform video analysis.
Here’s the most cringe-inducing movie trailer you’re likely to see this week. Or year.
Photo Credit: USGS/NASA Landsat data/Orbital Horizon/Gallo Images/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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