- 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.
New front. Iraqi special forces and Kurdish Peshmerga opened a new front north and east of Mosul on Thursday, hitting Islamic State forces in several assaults that pushed to within a few miles of the city while skirting the Turkish army’s controversial training base at Bashiqa, which sits just north of the city.
The assaults were backed by U.S. airpower, including a powerful U.S. AC-130 gunship circling overhead. The fighting was heavy throughout the morning, and the Kurds shot down a small ISIS surveillance drone while running into roadside bombs and mortar attacks that slowed their advance, but “United States or allied warplanes, however, responded quickly to the threats, and their strikes produced large columns of white smoke in the distance.”
Alliance. Important to note that the elite, U.S.-trained Iraqi Counter Terrorism Force, which led much of the fighting in Fallujah and Ramadi, joined the fight from positions along a Kurdish-controlled front, marking the closest coordination between Baghdad and the Kurds to date. Meanwhile, the U.S. general in charge of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, Gen. Gary Volesky, told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday that ISIS leaders are scrambling: “we’ve seen movement out of Mosul; we’ve got indications that leaders have left,” he said, without going into detail.
Knows more than the generals. During the presidential debate Wednesday night, Republican nominee for president Donald Trump charged that the U.S. military pushed for the Iraqi offensive to help Democratic rival Hillary Clinton win the election. “The only reason they did it is because she is running for the office of president,” he said. “And they want to look tough. They want to look good.”
Clinton parried, “I’m just amazed that he seems to think that the Iraqi government and our allies and everybody else launched the attack on Mosul to help me in this election.” Trump also complained, again, that the tens of thousands of Iraqi and Kurdish forces didn’t launch a “sneak attack” on Mosul.
Other debate notes. FP’s Molly O’Toole wraps up the debate, which included, oddly, both candidates accusing the other of being a “puppet” of Russian Vladimir Putin. Not a single word was uttered about Afghanistan however, where a U.S. soldier and a civilian were killed earlier in the day by an Afghan soldier, as FP’s Paul McLeary writes.
O’Toole notes that Trump slipped up in describing the New START nuclear reduction treaty as a “start-up” and dismissed U.S. intelligence indicating Russia is trying to influence the American election by hacking DNC emails and handing them over to Wikileaks. For her part, “Clinton repeated her boilerplate plan for taking on ISIS, including an ill-defined “intelligence surge” and combatting the terrorist group’s online propaganda. She also ducked her long-stated support for a no-fly zone in Syria when asked if she’d be willing to shoot down a Russian plane, saying it would provide leverage for tough negotiations.”
Hey Vlad! Speaking of Russia, there’s a new diplomatic tussle brewing between Moscow and Washington over the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty — or INF Treaty — which the two signed in 1987 to scuttle all land-based nuclear and conventional missiles with ranges between 500 to 5,500 km. Both sides accuse the other of violating the pact, but as the Wall Street Journal reports, U.S. is “convening the treaty’s so-called Special Verification Commission to press its case against Russia, triggering the compliance body’s first meeting in 16 years.” The meeting should happen in the next several weeks. Congress is also making noise about the issue.
Syria, darkly. Turkey says it has carried out about two dozen airstrikes in northern Syria against U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, a dangerous expansion of the fight that threatens the already tense relationship between Ankara, Washington, and the militias in northern Syria. Reuters reports that the jets hit the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) “in three villages northeast of the city of Aleppo which the SDF had captured from Islamic State” and that the Turks claim to have killed between 160 and 200 fighters.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter will visit Turkey next week, and it’s a good bet the strikes will be on his list of topics. FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce have lots more on Turkey’s campaign against the Kurds in Syria. Meanwhile, some Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters are itching to stop fighting ISIS and start fighting the Assad regime in and around Aleppo.
They’re coming. Russia is preparing to ramp up its bombardment of civilian targets in the rebel-held parts of eastern Aleppo, and is dispatching the largest naval armada it has put to sea since the Cold War to help out. The Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier is on its way along with a bevy of warships, worrying NATO. One diplomat said Wednesday that Moscow is “deploying all of the Northern fleet and much of the Baltic fleet…this is not a friendly port call. In two weeks, we will see a crescendo of air attacks on Aleppo as part of Russia’s strategy to declare victory there.”
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
North Korea spent debate night launching yet another ballistic missile in what U.S. Strategic Command says was a failed test. Strategic Command said the missile appeared to be the road-mobile Musudan. Pyongyang has been putting a lot of effort into the Musudan lately with a total of seven tests. The missile appeared to be on its way to success in June when it flew further than expected, but Wednesday’s test ended in failure according to international observers.
The U.S. is beginning to piece together the diplomatic puzzle to create a force which can take on the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa. The U.S. has started canvassing Turkey, Kurdish fighters, and the U.K. to create a mutually acceptable plan to liberate the city, according to the Wall Street Journal. With Syrian Kurdish groups and the Turkish government vacillating between deep suspicion and open warfare, that’s no easy task. The U.S. has leaned heavily on predominantly Kurdish forces to take of the Islamic State in northern Syria, but drawing on that playbook could prove difficult, as liberating the mostly Arab city of Raqqa with a Kurdish force may stoke ethnic tensions and rankle Turkey, which is pushing for an Arab-led assault.
Secretary of State John Kerry is playing down the significance of recent meetings between the U.S. and Russia to try and reach a new agreement over a Syria ceasefire deal. “I’m not approaching this with a high sense of expectation and nothing is based on trust,” Kerry said Wednesday. “I urge Russia to sit at this table in Geneva and be serious about finding a simple way, which we are offering, to make sure that those who are genuinely terrorists are in fact separated out, isolated,” Kerry said.
Did Houthi militants fire on an American ship for a third time? It’s harder to say than you might think. Military Times reports that the Navy believes a false alarm on the sensors aboard the USS Mason led the ship’s commander to fire SM-2 interceptor missiles. Prior to the apparent false alarm onboard the Mason, Houthi militants twice fired on U.S. Navy ships with the missiles either missing or being intercepted by onboard defenses.
Another thorny question surrounding the missile attacks off the Yemeni coast is whether Iran, which supports Houthi militants, provided assistance to the attacks. Defense officials have previously said they believe Chinese C-802 anti-ship cruise missile were used in the two confirmed attacks on American ships and Iran makes a version of the C-802 called “Noor.” But there’s no hard evidence to indicate an Iranian role. Nonetheless, suspicions linger. In a panel discussion at the Center for American Progress, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel said “I do think Iran is playing a role in some of this.”
Retired Brig. Gen. Mike Flynn has left his former colleagues scratching their heads about his vocal and controversial post-military career as a surrogate and adviser to Donald Trump. The New York Times spent some time talking to Flynn, who’s become a pariah within the national security world for his full-throated support of religious tests for entering the United States and his Russian-paid trip to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin. But despite his embrace of Trump, Flynn says he would’ve been open to signing up with the Hillary Clinton campaign if asked and referred to the infamous tape of Trump claiming to sexually assault women as “disgusting.”
As tensions heat up between Russia and its neighbors, Finnish officials are getting antsy about what they say is Russian propaganda aimed at both Russian and Finnish viewing publics. Reuters spoke to Finnish communications official Markku Mantila, who said Russia is engaged in a “systematic lying campaign” aimed at delegitimizing the Finnish government, the European Union, and NATO. Finland, a non-member of NATO, has been growing closer to Atlantic alliance in the face of an increasingly aggressive Russia, much to Moscow’s displeasure.
Court documents filed by prosecutors reveal that an American college student died in Syria in November 2015. Prosecutors have charged Ahmed Mohammed el Gammal with acting as a recruiter for the jihadist group. They allege that el Gammal helped a 24 year old Samy El-Goarany, whom he met online, travel to Syria. El-Goarany lied to family members, saying he was headed to college in New York and later recording a farewell video in Syria.
Photo Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images