- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is the Pentagon reporter for Foreign Policy., Adam RawnsleyAdam Rawnsley is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering technology and national security. He co-authors FP’s Situation Report newsletter and has written for The Daily Beast, Wired, and War Is Boring.
Holding up. A day after Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces began fighting their way toward Mosul, the nominal allies appeared to hold up Tuesday morning, each claiming the other needed a break before moving on. The front lines to the east of the city — where the Kurds sprinted through about 200 kilometers of territory on Monday — was largely quiet, according to a Reuters report from the front.
“We are just holding our positions,” Peshmerga Col. Khathar Sheikhan said. “The Iraqi army will now advance past our arenas of control.” But an Iraqi special forces commander had a different take, saying his troops paused their advance at the request of the Kurds, who needed more time to consolidate their gains.
American commandos in the fight. There are as many as 300 U.S. Special Operations Forces advising the Kurds as they push from the east, and American Apache helicopters have joined the fight, pounding militant positions in northern Iraq, the New York Times reports.
And those troops are getting closer to the front. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters Monday that while American forward air controllers would remain behind the front lines, “it’s safe to say there are Americans on the outskirts” of Mosul, where they’re embedded with Pesh and Iraqi counterterrorism forces. FP’s Paul McLeary writes that while in the previous battles for Ramadi and Fallujah U.S. advisory forces mostly stayed well back of the fighting, the Iraqi counterterrorism troops and Pesh traditionally push their command and control up to the front lines. This means that U.S. troops are “providing advice in a combat environment,” Cook said. “They’re not back in a building miles away.”
Moscow’s Aleppo plan. The skies above Aleppo fell silent on Tuesday as Russian and Syrian bombers took a break from obliterating civilian apartment blocks in order to allow civilians to flee the rebel-held eastern half of the city. It’s part of a Russian plan for a “humanitarian pause” in the bombing on Thursday to allow humanitarian aid to flow into the besieged and divided city. Spokesman for the Russian government, Dmitry Peskov, said Tuesday “the Russian military is offering yet another chance, and we hope that our partners will allow us all to take advantage of that.”
The pause and the call for rebels and civilians to leave the city is part of a larger Syrian/Russian plan to depopulate areas where anti-Assad forces are most active, as they have in some suburbs surrounding Damascus after months of withering bombardments. But most rebels say no go. “The factions completely reject any exit – this is surrender,” Zakaria Malahifji, the political officer of the Aleppo-based Fastaqim group told Reuters.
No go zone. Meanwhile, U.S. officials are increasingly worried about the range of Russian anti-aircraft missiles deployed to Syria. The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung reports that the deployment of Russian S-400 and S-300 missile batteries gives Russia the ability “to shoot down planes and cruise missiles over at least 250 miles in all directions from western Syria, covering virtually all of that country as well as significant portions of Turkey, Israel, Jordan and the eastern Mediterranean.” American warplanes have never gone up against anything like it, and one defense official admitted, “we’re not sure if any of our aircraft can defeat the S-300.”
Longread. There’s a very long, but worthwhile new piece in National Geographic by veteran journo James Verini taking a hard look at the state of play of the Islamic State’s hold over parts of Iraq’s Sunni population. Verini spent time in refugee camps in Iraq, and with people in Ramadi and Fallujah, writing that the “sudden” onslaught by the militant group in 2014 wasn’t so sudden for the people who lived there.
One soldier from Mosul currently fighting with the Iraqi army said told Verini that “it was common knowledge that for years the dissident underworld in Mosul—a mixture of Islamists, nationalists, guns for hire, and young men with nothing better to do—had been talking about overthrowing Iraq’s then prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite. This underworld, out of which the stridently Sunni Islamic State would grow, was extreme, but it represented a discontent that many in Mosul—indeed, that many Iraqis—had felt since 2003.”
Pleas. Gen. James Cartwright, retired Marine and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pled guilty on Monday to making false statements to the FBI as they investigated the leak of classified information about Stuxnet, the covert attempt to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program with malware. Cartwright lied to investigators about whether he was the source of classified information in a book by New York Times reporter David Sanger ‘s book and whether he spoke to then-Newsweek/Daily Beast reporter Daniel Klaidman about an unnamed country (presumably Iran). FP’s Elias Groll has lots more here.
Good morning and 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: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
It’s 2016, and everything is up for grabs
There’s a bizarre slate of stories surrounding the eccentric leader of WikiLeaks. The WikiLeaks Twitter account accused the Ecuadorian embassy of cutting founder Julian Assange’s Internet access. Assange took up residence in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in order to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations that he sexually assaulted two women. WikiLeaks tweeted that it “activated the appropriate contingency plans” following the Internet outage. Thus far, there’s no independent reporting on what transpired at the embassy or why.
But the wifi complaints weren’t the only strange recent offerings from the WikiLeaks account. On Sunday, the account tweeted out three “pre-commitments” — 64 digit sequences which can be used to verify the authenticity of files. Presumably, those files are future document leaks as they pre-commitments came labeled “John Kerry,” “Ecuador,” and “UK FCO.” The Internet, being the Internet, saw a plot: it was 90s TV star in the embassy with the poisoned vegan sandwich. For some reason Pamela Anderson visited Assange at the embassy that same day. The timing, shortly before the cryptic tweets, led to speculation that the former Playboy model poisoned Assange with vegan snacks and the pre-commits were, under this logic, a dying man’s last act. Now you know.
It’s not just Democrats getting hacked by actors tied to Russia. Cybersecurity news site Krebs on Security reports that hackers have been stealing credit card data from the National Republican Senatorial Committee. An information security researcher discovered that the committee’s website was one of 5,900 websites hacked by actors using malicious domains traced to a company whose services are advertised on Russian-language cybercrime forums. Thus far, however, there’s no evidence to indicate whether the theft is linked to any state actors or just run-of-the-mill cyber criminal activity.
All eyes are on foul-mouthed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as he visits China after spending weeks flipping off the United States, President Obama, and the U.S.-Philippine military relationship. American officials have thus far treated Duterte threats to cancel joint exercises and kick out U.S. troops as mere rhetorical flourishes. But analysts tell the New York Times that Duterte’s visit to China will be a key indicator of whether he wants to turn that rhetoric into reality. If, for example, Duterte cuts off American access to the air base on Palawan island — a thorn in China’s side for the reach it gives U.S. airpower into the South China Sea — following the visit, his bromides against the Philippines’ relationship with Washington are probably much more than just talk.
The U.S.-led operation to take the symbolically and strategically important city of Mosul back from the Islamic State is underway, but there’s some disagreement over when the United States will be ready to take on Raqqa, the capital of the jihadist group’s self-proclaimed caliphate. The Washington Post reports that some administration officials are worried that they’re not prepared to handle a liberated Raqqa quite yet, with preparations for humanitarian assistance, governance, and the training of an Arab force to take the city still lacking. Others, however, are pushing for a swifter liberation of the city warning that the failure to do so will lead the Islamic State to “hit us and our partners in a fairly dramatic way
The European Union (EU) issued a statement on Monday decrying what it said was “clearly disproportionate” attacks in Aleppo, accusing “the [Assad] regime and its allies” of “deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel, schools and essential infrastructure.” The attacks, according to the EU, “may amount to war crimes.” The EU also threatened Syria with a new round of sanctions but, at least so far, hasn’t mentioned doing the same to Russia.
Photo Credit: Yunus Keles/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images