The Cable

SitRep: JSOC Hunting ISIS; Turkey Threatening Combat in Iraq and Syria

Civilians being Slaughtered in Mosul; No Fly, No Go; And Lots More

Special operations Blackhawk takes off fast in Afghanistan.
Special operations Blackhawk takes off fast in Afghanistan.


Find, fix, finish. With the battle for Mosul just a week old and Iraqi forces beginning to trudge to the outskirts of the Islamic State-controlled city, the Pentagon is pushing hard for a wider offensive that will target the Syrian city of Raqqa in the coming weeks. And the lethal Joint Special Operations Command (or JSOC) is playing a key role.

Speaking in Paris Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter made the rare admission that the elite group was in the fight — though it’s safe to say everyone assumed it — saying, “we have put our Joint Special Operations Command in the lead of countering ISIL’s external operations,” and U.S. Special Operations Forces on the ground in Syria are working to train hundreds of Arab fighters to take part in the assault. The SecDef added that in Mosul, most of the 35 ISIS leaders the U.S.-led coalition has been targeting in the city have been killed over the past three months.

The ISIS way of war. CNN is reporting that witnesses around Mosul are seeing “hundreds” of ISIS fighters with light weapons and suicide belts entering the city from the west, streaming in from ISIS strongholds in Syria in preparation for the coming Iraqi assault. “ISIS fighters have been seen rigging bridges across the strategic Tigris river with explosives and have prepared dozens of vehicle-borne suicide bombs.”

Civilians lose. There have also been reports of summary executions in and around Mosul by ISIS fighters slaughtering men, women, and children that they’re forcing to act as human shields. The New York Times’ Tim Arango, reporting from northern Iraq, says that ISIS has moved hundreds of civilians from villages around the city to use as human shields, and the U.N. is saying the militants have likely already slaughtered hundreds.

But it’s not only ISIS. “Recently, a unit of the federal police, whose leadership is closely aligned with a major Iran-backed Shiite militia that has been accused of abuses against Sunnis, raided a camp for the displaced, threatening residents and making off with tents, latrines, water tanks and other supplies, according to United Nations officials.”

Turkey making noise. Turkish officials continue to push and prod Iraq over the Mosul fight, insisting on playing a role despite Baghdad refusing to allow the Turks to join the assault. Earlier this week, officials in Ankara said their F-16s were involved in the air war over Mosul, but U.S. defense officials tell SitRep that Turkey is still not a part of the daily flight plans kept by the U.S.-led coalition.

And now, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is threatening a ground invasion. Speaking Tuesday, the minister warned, “if there is a threat posed to Turkey,” from ISIS or Kurdish groups operating in northern Iraq, “we are ready to use all our resources including a ground operation… to eliminate that threat.”

Syria, bad news, all the time. Over in Syria, Ankara is accusing Syrian forces of bombing the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army near the border. The FSA pushed into northern Syria in August, taking border points away from ISIS while expanding a no-go zone for Kurdish forces in the area. The state-run Anadolu Agency claimed two opposition fighters were killed in the attack. Turkey says the FSA and Turkish special operations forces will continue to push south toward the town al al Bab, despite a Syrian official warning of more clashes if they do so.

Moscow and Damascus, 2gether 4ever. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem will visit Moscow on Thursday to talk about the situation in Aleppo, just after Russia announced it had extended its moratorium on Aleppo airstrikes into a ninth day. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says, however, that the strikes have been going on since Saturday.

No fly, no go. Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton has called for a U.S.-led no fly zone in northern Syria to protect civilians, something the Obama administration has rejected as being too difficult, and too dangerous for coalition pilots. And now Director of National Intelligence James Clapper tells Charlie Rose that Russia could shoot down American aircraft in Syria if a safe zone were constructed. “I wouldn’t put it past them to shoot down an American aircraft if they felt that was threatening to their forces on the ground,” Clapper said. FP’s Paul McLeary recently outlined how U.S. planes in Syria are already within the range of newly-deployed Russian missile defense systems in the country.

But the Air Force can do it! U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James insisted earlier this week that the service could “figure out” how to create a no-fly zone over Syria if called upon. Speaking at a forum hosted by the Center for a New American Security, James said, “if we were called upon to do a no-fly zone or territory of some sort, we know how to do this. We know how to put this together, how to plan it, how to execute it,” she said. “It would be enormously complex,” she conceded.

Hacked. Russia may be having an email leak scandal of its own. FP’s Reid Standish reports that a Ukrainian hacker group calling itself CyberJunta has published what it claims to be part of top Putin aide Vladislav Surkov inbox. The emails claim to show Russian plans to destabilize Ukraine by sending “controllable political forces” to the Ukrainian parliament. Ukrainian intelligence boss Oleksandr Tkachuk says he can’t verify the individual authenticity of specific emails but says his analysts believe them to be the real thing.

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: or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley


The people who slowed down your access to Netflix and Twitter with a massive distributed denial of service attack last week most likely don’t have government jobs. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations that a “non-state actor” was probably behind the distributed denial of service attack that disrupted access to a handful of popular websites and Internet services, according to the AP. The attack leveraged poorly-secured devices connected to the Internet, such as webcams, in order to flood the sites with traffic.

Air strike controversy

Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition have likely killed hundreds of civilians in Syria, rights group Amnesty International said Tuesday. The group released a study concluding that from September 2014 to July 2016, the strikes killed at least 300 people the group claims, despite Washington’s claims that only 55 civilians have been killed by the strikes in both Iraq and Syria. Neil Sammonds, a Syria researcher with Amnesty said, “for the most part it doesn’t look as if they’ve done adequate, thorough investigations, so we would like to be assured that they would be done.”


Defense Secretary Ash Carter has weighed in on the controversy surrounding the Pentagon’s attempts to claw back enlistment bonuses it mistakenly overpaid to members of the California National Guard. Carter vowed on Tuesday that “we are going to look into and resolve it.” In Congress, legislators on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform are already requesting documents from the Pentagon in preparation for an investigation. A Pentagon spokesman said that the erroneously paid-out bonuses affect some 6,500 soldiers.

Task and Purpose takes a look at the tenure of Brig. Gen. Louis J. Antonetti (ret.), the officer in charge of the California National Guard in the late 2000s when bonuses were mistakenly issued. In 2010, a whistleblower pointed out that the California Guard had improperly spent $100 million on incentives blamed Antonetti’s recruitment push dubbed “operation overdrive” for the mismanagement. The California Guard’s recruitment efforts also faced controversy when Antonetti failed to remove a recruiter accused of sexually abusing a 17 year old girl, despite being informed of the allegations by military police.


NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg is once again having to fact check Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on another claim that he was personally responsible for the Atlantic alliance’s actions. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg dismissed Trump’s assertion that a recent rise in defense spending among members resulted from his complaints and threats to make America’s obligations under the alliance contingent upon members paying more. Stoltenberg previously batted down claims from Trump, made in September, that NATO’s creation of an intelligence position focused on terrorism was attributable to Trump’s complaints about a lack of focus on terrorism.

Killer Drones

The U.S. Navy’s robot boss says the service will soon publish its new strategy for unmanned systems, National Defense magazine reports. Frank Kelly, deputy assistant secretary for unmanned systems, told an audience at an industry conference about the plan, but didn’t offer a specific deadline. He did say, however, that the service has developed the strategy by reaching out to industry partners through a series of workshops. Kelly predicted that unmanned systems will be integrated throughout every level of the Navy and Marine Corps.


The New York Times reports that Afghan Vice President Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum is accusing President Ashraf Ghani of treating him and the Afghan Uzbek minority he represents like the “enemy,” issuing veiled threats of violence if the situation doesn’t improve. Dostum complained that the Afghan government wasn’t providing sufficient security assistance to northern Afghanistan to help take on the Taliban, taking a swipe at senior security officials by saying that “leadership and management is nonexistent.” Dostum also appeared to issue a challenge NATO countries, warning them vaguely that “another bomb might explode here, they should be wise.”

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

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