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SitRep: Rebels Assault Aleppo, Russian Air Base; Exclusive: Monitor Drones Grounded in Ukraine

SitRep: Rebels Assault Aleppo, Russian Air Base; Exclusive: Monitor Drones Grounded in Ukraine

 

They’re coming for Aleppo. Friday breaks with news of an all-out assault by a loose coalition of rebel groups on Syrian government positions in the shattered city of Aleppo, and around the Russian air base in Latakia, according to Syrian rebel groups. Dozens of rockets have pounded the government-held airport and buildings in the west and south of the city, in an effort to break the government siege of around 275,000 people in the rebel-held eastern half of the city.

The Islamic Front rebel coalition said that the Ahrar al-Sham group targeted the airport with dozens of Grad rockets, while al Qaeda-linked Fatah al-Sham Front — formerly Nusra Front — sent suicide car bombers into the fight.

“There is a general call-up for anyone who can bear arms,” a senior official in the Levant Front rebel group, which fights with the Free Syrian Army, told Reuters. “The preparatory shelling started this morning,” he added. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims that more than 15 civilians had been killed by rebel shelling of government-held half of Aleppo.

Tough fight. The rebel groups are going against a formidable foe, consisting of fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah, Iranian Qods force gunmen and military advisors, as well as a variety of Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias. Russian and Syrian air power are sure to join the fight, ripping into rebel positions with their usual lack of regard for civilian casualties.

Putin’s “Thanks Obama” moment. Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a big speech at a conference in southern Russia Thursday that tackled Syria, the U.S. elections, and more. He loudly defended the Russian and Syrian airstrikes in Aleppo and elsewhere — decried internationally for targeting civilians — claiming Russia had to clear out what he called “a nest of terrorists” in Aleppo, even if civilians were present.

He also spread the blame around for dead civilians, saying that the United States was guilty of killing civilians around Mosul in Iraq. “Bells should toll for all innocent victims. Not just in Aleppo.” He also blamed President Barack Obama for the failure of the U.S. – Russian ceasefire in Syria, complaining that a “united front to defeat terrorism has in fact not been created,” because “in Washington there were forces that did their best to ensure our agreements did not take off.”

Moscow’s jam. In an exclusive get, FP’s John Hudson tells us that the European security organization tasked with monitoring deadly violence between government forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has lost its most effective surveillance tool in the conflict: surveillance drones. “The long-range drone program was crucial for spotting armed attacks, the stationing of prohibited weapons, and countless other cease-fire violations. But it was nixed two months ago, Foreign Policy has learned, after several of the aircraft were targeted by surface-to-air missiles and military-grade electronic jamming.”

While officials from the OSCE wouldn’t assign blame for the jamming and the downing of its drones, “senior U.S. and Ukrainian officials accused Russian-backed separatists of targeting the UAVs to conceal their actions,” Hudson reports.

No penalty for Syria chemical attacks: More than two months after the United Nations concluded that Syria attacked its citizens with chemical weapons, the Obama administration has yet to mount a concerted effort at the U.N. Security Council to impose tough sanctions on Damascus, FP’s Colum Lynch reports. “The U.S. reluctance has put Washington at odds with its closest allies, Britain and France, which want to put Moscow on the spot for its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”

Here comes trouble. Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’ite militias are readying to push on Mosul from the west in the coming days, a move which would block any retreat by ISIS fighters into Syria — while also boxing in Sunni civilians terrified of the sectarian gunmen — and is likely to alarm Turkey, which opposes the presence of the Shiite groups near its border with Iraq.

Mosul. The U.N.’s human rights office said Friday that “tens of thousands” of Iraqi civilians have been rounded up by ISIS fighters around Mosul, and are being used as human shields. The Sunni militants killed at least 232 people on Wednesday, including 190 former Iraqi security forces and 42 civilians who refused to obey their orders, U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said.

Turkey creating its own problems. The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been purging the upper ranks of the country’s military ever since the failed military coup in July. The moves — which have shuttered entire squadrons of warplanes and eliminated almost half of Ankara’s generals and admirals — comes at a particularly sensitive and dangerous time for Ankara, FP’s Paul McLeary writes: “The military purge is both pushing Turkey to play a more adventurous role in the region, by giving troops a fight outside Turkey, and making those irredentist visions that much harder to achieve. What’s more, Turkey’s military housecleaning threatens to seriously weaken NATO’s southern flank just as Russian adventurism in the neighborhood has ratcheted up, with a renewed Russian military operation in support of Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria and a heavy Russian naval deployment to the Mediterranean.”

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

2016

There’s a chance — a very slight chance — that Vice President Joe Biden might be in the executive branch for another four years, albeit in a different job. Politico reported late Thursday that Hillary Clinton’s transition team in waiting has put Biden at the top of their short list for Secretary of State in the event Clinton wins on Nov. 8. Team Clinton has not, however, raised the issue with Biden himself and the vice president’s own thoughts about hanging on for a cabinet job are unknown.

China

If there’s news from the South China Sea, it means someone’s angry. This time it’s China’s turn, according to Reuters. China’s defense ministry says Japanese fighter jets have been acting unreasonably aggressive towards their Chinese counterparts, locking their radars onto People’s Liberation Army aircraft and firing “infrared jamming projectiles.” The two countries have been increasingly at odds over territory in the waters of East Asia, with ownership of a set of islands — called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China — in the East China Sea. Japan has said that its Self Defense Forces have had to scramble to intercept Chinese military aircraft 407 times this year, up from 231 times in the same period last year.

Friends with benefits

The trip that Swedish troops took to Gotland only took about 20 minutes but it’s a major step for a military that’s growing more wary of its neighbor, Russia. The Wall Street Journal reports that the deployment of the 150 soldiers — now permanent — to the island in the Baltic Sea, where NATO countries have  been shadow boxing with their Russian counterparts, marks the first such move in over a decade and the beginning of a less neutral, more guarded Swedish defense policy. The chances of Sweden becoming a full member of NATO are still slim, but the country has been growing closer to the alliance since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its simulated nuclear strike on Swedish territory during a 2013 exercise.

NATO is also deploying about 4,000 troops — along with planes, tanks and other heavy equipment — to its Baltic allies bordering Russia next year, and chief Jens Stoltenberg recently said the moves are meant to counter recent Russian deployments of troops near its borders. “The main challenge is not individual events or deployments,” he said. “It is the overall picture, where we see a substantial increase in Russia’s capabilities at sea, in the air and on land; exercises with a more aggressive patterns.”

Plan B

Spain has declined to refuel the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov as it travels to the eastern Mediterranean, but Russia’s rickety carrier is managing nonetheless. The BBC reports that the Kuznetsov is now docked somewhere off the coast of North Africa and getting fueled up by one of the oilers sailing along with the battle group. Russia had hoped to fuel the ship in Spain, but Madrid’s NATO allies, particularly the U.K., balked at the idea of a member country aiding what looks to be a ship bound to pitch into Russia’s war effort in Syria.

Yemen

The war in Yemen is taking a horrific toll on the country’s civilians as hunger affects millions and starvation looms on the horizon. Fourteen million people in the country have difficulty getting enough food. Humanitarian groups are struggling to provide for Yemenis in need, but the difficulty is so great that the World Food Program has been forced to halve the rations it provides for the 3 million people it cares for in order to extend them to more malnourished civilians.

Iran has been secretly sending weapons to Yemen in order to arm Houthi militants there, according to NBC News. U.S. Naval Forces Central Command chief Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan said that coalition forces off the coast of Yemen intercepted five Iranian arms shipments to Houthi militants beginning in April 2015. The shipments contained Iranian “coastal defense cruise missiles,” among others. There’s no indication yet whether Iranian cruise missiles were used in two incidents in which Houthi militants fired missiles at the USS Mason off the coast of Yemen or if the missiles used came from elsewhere.

Libya

The United Arab Emirates is now running a forward operating base in Libya. Jane’s found the base in satellite imagery of the Al-Khadim Airport in Libya’s Marj district of eastern Libya. The base is home to AT-802 light strike aircraft as well as drones. Amidst its war on the Islamic State, Libya has been torn by factional fighting between the more secular, internationally-recognized government in Tobruk and Islamist factions in the east. The UAE weighed in early in the conflict on the side of the government in Tobruk.

 

Photo credit: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images