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SitRep: Mosul Brings Confusion, Chaos, and Blood; White House Dithers on Syria Rebel Request

SitRep: Mosul Brings Confusion, Chaos, and Blood; White House Dithers on Syria Rebel Request

 

Battle lines. One week into the fight for Mosul, and the battle has expanded across Iraq, but has yet to start inside the city itself.

Iraqi forces and Kurdish Peshmerga are within just a few miles of the city, pushing from the south, east, and north as an estimated 1,500 ISIS fighters are making a fighting retreat back into their fortified strongholds within Mosul. To slow the coalition’s advance, they’re lighting oil pits, sending columns of thick black smoke into the sky, and laying hundreds of buried bombs along the roadways. Just a few miles away, as many as 5,000 well supplied and deeply dug in ISIS fighters, surrounded by unwilling civilian human shields, await.

Fighting spreads. American military officials have said they expect ISIS to lash out in other areas of Iraq to try and shift Baghdad’s attention from Mosul, and the assaults on Kirkuk on Friday, and Rutba in far western Iraq on Sunday — both hundreds of miles from Mosul — have pulled some troops into the fight to secure those cities. The fighting in both places continued through Sunday, with several suicide bombers hitting Kirkuk throughout the day. In Rutba, reports indicate that ISIS has taken control of half of the town.

Toxic attack. But the biggest surprise came Saturday, when Islamic State fighters lit a sulphur plant on fire, sending plumes of toxic smoke into the skies around Mosul. A defense official speaking on condition of anonymity told SitRep that U.S. troops at Camp Swift and Qayyarah West Airfield near Mosul “are in an area far enough away that there is minimal threat to any lasting health effects,” but all troops have gas masks, and they have the option of using them. About 1,000 Iraqi civilians have been sickened by the fumes already.

Intel surge. The Pentagon is sending dozens of new intelligence analysts to Iraq to help sift through what leaders think will be an intelligence windfall when the city eventually falls. But hundreds of ISIS fighters have been fleeing the city though an open western corridor to Syria, one tribal chief near the border tells CNN.

Big win for the Kurds, may anger Baghdad. The clouds of black smoke don’t appear to be slowing things down much. On Sunday, the Kurds look to have captured the ISIS-held town of Bashiqa, only five miles from Mosul, which would open up a critical lane into the city. But the victory might come at a long-term cost. The Kurds were supported by Turkish artillery, fired from a base near the town that houses hundreds of Turkish troops, along with dozens of tanks and artillery pieces. Baghdad says they’re there without the consent of the Iraqi government, and wants them out. Ankara refuses.

Americans in the middle of the feud. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited Turkey, Baghdad, and the Kurdish city of Erbil over the weekend to huddle with U.S. military commanders and local officials leading the fight. The visit produced some real tension, as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi soundly rejected a preliminary agreement Carter appeared to have reached with Turkish officials that would open the door for Turkey to become more involved in the Mosul operation.

While there were some vague threats of war last week over the base, Abadi toned things down Saturday, saying it’s “important for us to have good relations with Turkey…I know that the Turks want to participate, we tell them thank you, this is something the Iraqis will handle and the Iraqis will liberate Mosul.” But the Shiite militias that Baghdad is preparing to send west of Mosul aren’t looking to decrease tensions with Turkey. Just the opposite, the New York Times tells us.

Goes boom. Spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, Col John L. Dorrian, Tweeted Sunday that the U.S. led coalition dropped over 1,400 munitions on ISIS positions around Mosul between Oct. 17 and 22, a record number of strikes over any other 5-day period since the bombing campaign kicked off in August, 2014.

Raqqa in the sights. The fight for Mosul has just started, but the ISIS capital of Raqqa hags over the entire campaign. “We want to see an isolation operation begin around Raqqa as soon as possible,” Ash Carter said Sunday. “We are working with our partners there (in Syria) to do that. There will be some simultaneity to these two operations.

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: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

Cybersecurity

A grand jury has indicted Yevgeny Nikulin, the accused hacker which U.S. and Czech authorities arrested and extradited back to the United States, according to the Wall Street Journal. The indictment accuses Nikulin of hacking technology companies Dropbox, Formspring, and LinkedIn in 2012. User data appears to be the chief target of the break-in. Dropbox has admitted that a breach in 2012 exposed 68 million user credentials and the indictment accuses Nikulin of attempting to sell a database of Formspring user information for $7,000. Last week, Russia protested Nikulin’s extradition to the United States, accusing American authorities of engaging on an unwarranted hunt for Russian citizens abroad.

Russia

Vladimir Putin has crushed your dreams of catching Pokemon in and around the Kremlin. Agence France Presse reports that Grigory Bakunov, a researcher for Yandex, claims that something inside the Kremlin and Vnukovo airport is blocking GPS signals, interfering with cell phone map and navigation apps as well as games like Pokemon Go. Bakunov speculates that the signal interruption could be part of a system designed to keep unauthorized hobby drones from flying near sensitive sites.

Syria

The Washington Post has learned a little more about the oft-threatened CIA plans to increase aid to Syrian rebels in the face of Russia’s attacks on civilians in Aleppo. Administration officials had earlier floated to the press that they were considering a range of options to increase military pressure on the Assad regime and its Russian backers in Syria via rebel groups. The Post, however, reports that the plan made its way to President Obama’s desk, where it’s sat ever since without a formal decision. Backers include CIA director John Brennan and Defense Secretary Ash Carter, but Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly skeptical for fear that new weapons could kill Russian troops.

In a report sent to the United Nations, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded that the Assad regime used chlorine gas in an attack in against rebels in Idlib in March 2015. The report says that Syrian military used barrel bombs dropped from helicopters to deliver the chemical weapons onto their targets. The OPCW previously concluded that the Assad regime used chlorine gas in two other attacks in 2014 and 2015.

Afghanistan

Militants in Iraq and Syria aren’t the only ones using drones to film their attacks. The Taliban recently released drone footage of a suicide attack on an Afghan police base in Helmand province. The video shows the suicide bomber shortly before he drove an explosive-laden Humvee into the facility as well as the subsequent explosion at the post. The footage was likely taken by a small, commercially-available hobbyist drone. The attack, which took place during a Taliban offensive in early October,  reportedly killed a local police chief.

The United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) projects that opium production in Afghanistan will be up 43 percent by the end of 2016, according to TOLO News. That increase in production, according to UNODC’s Andrey Avetisyan, was aided by a 10 percent increase in land dedicated to cultivation. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics points to overwhelming concentration of poppy cultivation in areas where the Taliban is strong and fighting intense as a contributor to the problem.

Yemen

Yet another attempt to bring a ceasefire to Yemen’s increasingly bloody war appears to be in tatters as the Saudi-led coalition again stepped up airstrikes over the weekend. The increase in bombing comes after United Nations special envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed posted a plea for an extension of a 72-hour ceasefire on Facebook, noting that the pause was critical for the delivery of humanitarian aid. The plea for more time didn’t take, however, with subsequent airstrikes in Ma’rib and Taiz.

National guard

At the height of the Iraq war, the Pentagon paid out bonuses for soldiers to reenlist in the National Guard. Now it’s demanding that bonus money back hitting vets in California with liens and wage garnishments in order to claw the money back. The Defense Department says it paid out too much money in bonuses and is going after California Guard servicemembers for the excess. Troops, however, say they risked their lives to fulfill their end of reenlistment contracts on the strength of bonus pledges and it’s only fair that the Pentagon keep to its end of the deal. The Defense Department estimates it overpaid to the tune of $22 million.

 

Photo Credit: YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images