SitRep: How Deep is the ISIS Bench?; Russia Jumps Into the Fray
Kurds and Turks Mad at Obama; Libya Fight Extended; And Lots More
Messaging. Operating under the assumption that Islamic State’s chief of operations and propaganda, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, was indeed killed in an airstrike earlier this week, the race is on to figure out who might replace him. A team over at the New York Times identifies two men: Turki al-Binali, a 31 year-old senior ISIS cleric who is believed to be the group’s chief mufti, and Abu Luqman, also known as Ali Mousa Al-Shawwakh, who was the first ISIS-installed ruler of Raqqa and one of the group’s chief Syria strategists. He’s also older than Binali, having worked as a recruiter for jihadists back in the early days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“But while Adnani’s death may have inflicted temporary damage on the group’s media jihad,” FP’s Dan De Luce, Elias Groll and John Hudson write, “its propaganda apparatus remains in place and will continue to exploit the sectarian resentments and fears of Sunni Arabs in Iraq and in Syria’s civil war, experts and former diplomats said.”
Russia jumps in. Just hours after his reported death, Adnani became fodder for a new propaganda battle when Moscow claimed that one of its bombers hit an ISIS position in Aleppo province, killing 40 fighters along with Adnani. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook rejected the Russian claim, telling reporters Wednesday, “we don’t have any information at this point to support Russian claims that they carried out this strike.” And, in a potshot at Russian operations in Syria, Cook noted that Moscow’s aircraft rarely target Islamic State objectives, anyway. Russia spends “much of its time supporting the Assad regime,” he said.
The problem with allies and interests. In northern Syria, Washington is caught between two rival allies: Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, who have turned their guns on one other over the past week. And both are unhappy about how the Americans are dealing with the situation. “Unfortunately, as Kurdish allies fighting against terrorism and making a lot of victories, we expected more from the United States,” Idriss Naasan, a former official in the Kurds’ self-proclaimed government in Syria told the Washington Post. “We expect them to support us and not let Turkey target us.”
Things aren’t much friendlier in Turkey, where an editorial in a pro-government newspaper this week insisted Turkey “has a right to defend itself” against Kurdish militias and ISIS. “US can like it or lump it.” Sihanouk Dibo, a senior political adviser in the political arm of the Kurdish YPG added, “America cannot have the two sides at the same time.” A Turkish official said Wednesday that Ankara’s goal is to cleanse the border of Kurdish influence, suggesting that the fight is only just beginning.
Phased out. The last remaining American manufacturer of cluster bombs is ending production of the controversial weapon, FP’s John Hudson reports, citing regulatory scrutiny and reduced orders for the internationally banned munition. The decision by Textron Systems follows a White House order last May to block the transfer of a Textron shipment of CBU-105 cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, a move first reported by Hudson.
Libya fight extended. President Barack Obama has extended the U.S air war in Libya another month, ordering the U.S. Navy ships positioned off its coast to stay put, as opposed to moving on to the Persian Gulf and the Black Sea, as planned, FOX News reports. The move highlights how the expanding fight against the terror group in Libya has pulled resources from other missions in Iraq, Syria, and now confronting Russian moves in the Black Sea region. U.S. Marine Corps Harrier jets and Cobra helicopters have flown over 100 missions against ISIS in their former stronghold of Sirte since Aug. 1. Libyan forces on the ground there are gearing up for their last push against the remaining pockets of ISIS resistance in the city.
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South Korea says Kim Jong Un is cracking down on North Korea’s top leadership, killing one and purging two others. The South’s Unification Ministry says Kim Yong Jin, Pyongyang’s country’s top education official, was reportedly killed by firing squad in July following some protocol slight in the presence of Kim Jong Un. The AP reports that two other officials, Kim Yong Chol and Choe Hwi, who held top counterintelligence and propaganda positions, respectively, were ordered to undergo “revolutionary re-education.”
The open source investigative outlet Bellingcat has published a report on medals issued by the Russian military for troops’ service in Ukraine, offering a hint at the scale of Moscow’s covert footprint in the country’s separatist regions. Using imagery of medals published by Russian servicemen on social media and elsewhere, the sequential numbers on the medals, and the dates awarded, researchers concluded that at least ten thousand Russian troops participated in operations in Ukraine from 2014 through 2015 and likely many more.
Over five years of war, the Assad regime’s forces have increasingly shed central command and control by Damascus and descended into a patchwork of increasingly independent warlords and militias. The fracturing of central control over loyalist military forces, Tobias Schneider writes over at War on the Rocks, comes close to mooting one of the central goals of the Obama administration’s policy towards Syria: preserving some semblance of Syrian state institutions in order to prevent a total collapse of order. Schneider focuses on the regime-allied Tiger Forces as a particular example, tracking their rise from enforcers against protests in Hama into a militia-cum-crime syndicate, smuggling contraband, trading with rebel groups and fighting with other regime-aligned units.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says the country’s game shouldn’t just be about defense. “We have to increase our offensive capabilities as well as our defensive capabilities,” Reuters quoted the Supreme Leader as saying. The statement comes at a particularly tense time for U.S.-Iranian relations with provocative encounters between American and Iranian vessels on the rise in the Persian Gulf. Khamenei was also speaking in the midst of weapons bravado season in Iran, delivering his remarks at Tehran’s annual defense industry exhibition with Iranian armed forces’ Sacred Defense Week parade commemorating the Iran-Iraq war just a few weeks away.
Iraq’s Sunni militias are on a recruiting drive within the country’s displaced persons, signing up children to fight among their ranks in the battle against the Islamic State. A Human Rights Watch study writes that at least seven children from the Debaga camp have been recruited to fight for the militias, a figure confirmed by reporting from Reuters. At least two Sunni tribal militias have been involved in the recruiting. The Islamic State also uses child soldiers to carry out atrocities in their propaganda videos and Iraq’s Shia militias have also employed underage fighters.
Army Secretary Eric Fanning announced on Wednesday that the service is launching a Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), designed to quickly field new technologies, Defense News reports. The office is a product both of the Army’s attempts to keep pace with rapid technological developments amid a sluggish acquisition process and an increasing focus on Russian capabilities. In a speech announcing the RCO, Fanning pointed to Russia as “major driver” and pointed to the use of drones, cyber, and electronic warfare in Ukraine and Syria, as examples of the threats the office will try to stay on top of.
While Congress wants a debate over a fresh $1.5 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, General Dynamics is readying $39 million worth of bombs — about 17,000 in total — under a new contract for France, Saudi, the U.A.E. and Iraq. Munitions have been in short supply among American allies lately thanks to the Saudi-led war against the Houthi movement in Yemen and the war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The contract will deliver bodies for the MK82-1, MK82-6, and MK84-10 bombs.
Photo credit: SERGEY VENYAVSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary