The Cable

SitRep: South China Sea Fight Coming; Hillary vs. Donald

Why Fallujah is Important for Jordan; U.S. Charts ISIS Mayhem; and Lots More

FIERY CROSS REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - MAY 1, 2016:  DigitalGlobe overview imagery of the Fiery Cross Reef located in the South China Sea. Fiery Cross is located in the western part of the Spratly Islands group.  Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
FIERY CROSS REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - MAY 1, 2016: DigitalGlobe overview imagery of the Fiery Cross Reef located in the South China Sea. Fiery Cross is located in the western part of the Spratly Islands group. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.

 

Tension, in three quotes. Some time later this month, a court in The Hague will hand down a ruling that seeks to settle long-simmering territorial disputes between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea. But the decision — which the Chinese have already said they’ll ignore — will probably only inflame tensions in the strategic waterway. FP’s Dan De Luce and Keith Johnson go long on the controversy, and three important quotes from their story sum the problem up nicely:

“All the islands, where we are doing reclamation, are Chinese islands, are Chinese territory,” Wang Xining, a deputy director-general at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a recent interview.

“The Philippines maintains that the decision of the tribunal, once rendered, will be legally binding and should be accorded due respect by everyone, including China,” said Jose Cuisia, the Philippine ambassador in Washington, told FP.

“I think it’s incumbent on us to insist we’re not going to recognize” the Chinese claims, said (ret.) Adm. Jonathan Greenert, who stepped down as Navy chief last year. However, a sluggish U.S. response has allowed Beijing to create facts on the ground with its large-scale reclamation and construction of military harbors and airfields, he said. “We did not get out ahead of it,” Greenert said. “It’s a fait accompli; they are there. It is unfortunate.”

Over there. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has landed in Singapore, and will deliver the keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue June 4. Watch for some South China Sea talk.

Fallujah, Part III. Iraqi forces continue to push into the outskirts of the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah, albeit slowly. Liberating the city from the terrorist group would be a huge victory for the government in Baghdad, but it’s also important for the Jordanian government, as well — just maybe not in the way you think.

Saddled with 14 percent unemployment and with exports to Iraq flatlining, Jordan desperately needs a critical highway that runs from the border, and right through Fallujah, to be reopened, FP’s Paul McLeary writes. And Baghdad, struggling with its own economic malaise, also needs the trade spigot turned back on. And retaking Fallujah is the key to that, say military officials and experts on the region’s dynamics.

ISIS, by the numbers. This is sobering. The Islamic State has been linked to the deaths of more than 500 civilians in countries including Belgium and the United States in the past six months alone, and the months ahead could be even bloodier, FP’s Colum Lynch and John Hudson report. That’s the conclusion of a new review of the group’s rise by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which notes that the Islamic State has inspired or carried out the killing of civilians in 11 countries, not counting the group’s attacks in its strongholds of Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

Clinton vs. Trump. “Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different; they are dangerously incoherent. They’re not even really ideas — just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies.” That’s Hillary Clinton on Donald Trump’s foreign policy ideas, and a preview of what’s to come this summer. Going after Trump on his lack of foreign policy cred also opens up Clinton’s long record to more scrutiny, writes FP’s Molly O’Toole: “The Clinton camp sees some retired military officers, GOP elected officials, and former Republican national security officials who have vowed “Never Trump” as potential recruits, an unlikely alliance that underscores how her doctrine, in many ways, is more hawkish than Obama’s or Trump’s.”

Rumble in Capitol Hill. A top Pentagon public affairs official has been placed on administrative leave after being charged with harassing a neighbor’s nanny over a parking spot in his Capitol Hill neighborhood, and getting caught on a surveillance camera ripping off the woman’s licence plates.

Bryan Whitman, the highest-ranking career civilian in the Defense Department’s public affairs office kicked off the odd dispute in April, first by leaving threatening notes on the nanny’s car and then tearing off her tags on multiple occasions. Whitman apparently — and mistakenly — believed that the car was illegally using a visitor parking permit. He was caught defacing the car by the neighbor’s surveillance cam, and subsequently charged in May with three counts of misdemeanor theft. As a result, he’s been put on leave and there’s a good chance he’ll lose his “top secret sensitive compartmented information” security clearance. Over a parking space that wasn’t his. Not really the kind of community outreach that the Pentagon usually has in mind…

Hey there, good morning, and thanks for clicking on through for the summer 2016 edition 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

South Korea

South Korea’s defense ministry says there won’t be any talks on the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system to the country at the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue, but the Pentagon is promising an announcement on the deployment “soon.” Reuters reports that an anonymous South Korean defense official said that separate talks on Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) are continuing between Washington and Seoul outside the Asian security summit. China has strongly objected to the prospect of a U.S. THAAD system in South Korea, saying its radar system can reach into Chinese territory. South Korean and U.S. officials counter that the growing ballistic missile threat has made the deployment critical for South Korean security.

Syria

Russia is considering whether to send more ground troops to Syria to join the fight for the Assad regime, according to a scoop from Al Jazeera. Former deputy minister for foreign affairs Andrei Fyodorov says Russian President Vladimir Putin is reviewing plans to send special operations forces to Syria to help the regime capture a larger percentage of Syrian territory from rebels. Russia announced a withdrawal of some forces from Syria in March, sending some fighter jets back home. But operations have continued and Russian special operations have carried out operations since then, participating in the fight against the Islamic State in Palmyra.

Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad whom the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned in 2011 for her links to the Syrian government, spoke via Skype at a National Press Club event on Thursday to press the regime’s case to a Western audience. The event, which included a question and answer period, “verged on shouting matches,” according to the Washington Post, as reporters and activists challenged Shaaban’s description of events in Syria. Shaaban denied that residents in Darayya are starving. On Wednesday, humanitarian groups had to remove food aid from a convoy headed to the city as Assad regime officials will not allow food to reach the city.

2016

Intelligence officials tell Reuters that they’re nervous about having to offer the customary intelligence briefing to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. The intelligence community generally offers a top secret briefing to the Democratic and Republican party nominees once confirmed, but Trump’s unpredictable nature is a concern for those officials wire service spoke to. “We’ve never had a situation like this before. Ever,” one intelligence official said.

State Department

The State Department deleted a section of video at a 2013 press briefing in which a Fox News reporter pressed then-spokeswoman Jen Psaki on a predecessor’s denials about the administration’s secret talks with Iran, and now Congress is looking into the issue. The Hill reports that Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) is requesting documents from the State Department on the incident. In 2013, Fox News reporter James Rosen asked Psaki about previous denials that the White House had engaged in secret backchannel talks with Iran over its nuclear program. The department deleted a portion of the video in which Psaki responds that “diplomacy needs privacy in order to progress.”

Aviation

A pilot from the Navy’s elite Blue Angels was tragically killed in a crash on Thursday. Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss died when his F/A-18 Hornet crashed in Tennessee after takeoff, Navy Times reports. In a statement, the Navy says during the crash took place “during the beginning stages of an afternoon practice at the Smyrna, Tenn., Airport.” The incident marks the third F/A-18 crash this week, with the loss of two other Hornets in an incident off the coast of North Carolina on Sunday. The crew of both aircraft were rescued and brought to safety shortly after that incident.

Separately, an Air Force F-16 fighter jet crashed in an empty field near Colorado Springs, Colorado on Thursday after flying over the Air Force Academy graduation ceremony at which President Obama spoke. The plane was from the service’s Thunderbirds, an elite Air Force air demonstration squadron similar to the Navy’s Blue Angels. Pilot Maj. Alex Turner ejected after successfully maneuvering his aircraft away from nearby homes. Turner survived the crash unhurt and met with President Obama briefly after the incident, according to the Denver Post.

Army

Five soldiers were killed and four remain missing following the rollover of their Light Medium Tactical Vehicle at Fort Hood, Texas, Army Times reports. The incident took place at a low-water crossing while training on convoy operations. Texas has experienced heavy rains and floods in recent days and an Army spokeswoman tells the paper that the low water crossing the soldiers were at was not marked as such and doesn’t usually flood. Three soldiers were rescued in the incident and are receiving medical treatment.

Egypt

Egypt has taken ownership of the first of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers from France, after Paris decided not to sell the warships to Russia. Egypt agree to the $1 billion deal. The handover was made during a ceremony in the French city of Toulouse.The deal is part of a slew of agreements between the two countries which included a $2.26 contract inked in April for military gear, including a military telecommunications satellite expected to be built by France’s Airbus Space Systems, and last year’s $5.7 billion contract for 24 Rafale warplanes, and a French frigate. The ship will be named after Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

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

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