SitRep: Shiite Militias Join Mosul Fight, Turkey Reacts; Russian Subs on the Move?
White House to Ukraine; Trump on Defense Spending; And Lots More
Knocking on Mosul’s door. After two weeks of fighting, Iraqi special operations forces and infantry have made it to the outskirts of Mosul, having captured some of the last villages on the eastern edge of the Islamic State-controlled city. Progress to the south is a bit slower however, with Baghdad’s forces still about 30 miles out. There are differing reports about what’s happening in the north, where Pentagon officials say the Kurdish Peshmerga have stopped their advance at a predetermined line, while local reports say Iraqi forces continue to clear villages in the area.
Turkey eyeing Iraqi Shiites. To the west of Mosul, however, the potential for things to get out of hand is growing. Over the weekend, thousands of Shiite fighters allied with Baghdad — many backed by Iran with Iranian military advisors — began to move west of the city to block ISIS fighters from fleeing to Syria.
The flashpoint looks to be the ISIS-held city of Tal Afar, which the militias are gunning for, but which also has drawn the attention of Turkey, whose president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted he would take steps to protect, given the Sunni Turkmen population in the city. Ankara has rushed more troops to its border with Iraq in response to the Shiite push to the region.
FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce recently ran through some of the worst-case scenarios in the Shiite push toward Tal Afar, which includes the potential for abuses on Sunni civilians.
Russian subs on the move? There were reports in the British press over the weekend that three Russian submarines armed with Kalibr cruise missiles were moving through the English Channel, potentially on their way to the Mediterranean, where they would join the Russian naval buildup there. The stories said the Royal Navy was tracking two Akula-class submarines and a diesel-powered Kilo-class sub. SitRep reached out both the Russian government and the U.S. European Command for comment, and is waiting on a response.
Washington and Kiev. What’s next? Vice President Joe Biden led the Obama administration’s support of Ukraine. But Kiev worries whether the next White House will have its back as Putin looks to ramp up pressure, reports FP’s Dan De Luce and Reid Standish in a great new piece.
Whoever moves into the White House in January will enter to “mounting alarm at the State Department, the Defense Department, and Congress over Russian behavior in Ukraine and elsewhere,” De Luce and Standish write. “From Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo to its hacking of the Democratic National Committee to its support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine to its nuclear saber rattling, U.S. diplomats, senior military officers, and lawmakers are increasingly arguing for an aggressive tack against Moscow. ‘There’s an appetite for a more assertive approach,’ said one congressional staffer who works on Ukraine and Russia policy.”
Trump surrogates outline tens of billion more in defense spending. Two supporters of Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump — Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Randy Forbes of Virginia, chairman of the House Seapower Subcommittee, (who will job hunting come January, having been defeated in his primary election) — sat down with Chris Cavas and Joe Gould from Defense News to lay out the candidate’s national security priorities.
The upshot? Tens of billions more in defense spending, but no mention of how the extra ships and troops will be paid for. The congressional Republicans say that the U.S. Navy needs more than 70 new ships, going from the current 272 to 350, and advocate growing the Army from 480,000 to 540,000 soldiers. The plan would cost tens of billions of dollars on top of what the Pentagon is currently spending, but neither politician outlined how all of this stuff would be paid for.
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The government of President Rodrigo Duterte is saying that China has eased up on its maritime presence in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, allowing the country’s fishermen use the area without harassment. The claim is a slight walkback of an earlier statement by Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who at first claimed that China had pulled back all of its ships. In any case, there’s no independent verification of the number of the Chinese ships in the area. China and the Philippines have been feuding over competing territorial claims to the area, but President Duterte has been signaling a desire to have a closer relationship with Beijing after human rights criticism from the United States.
Ukrainian military intelligence has a new and not very subtle logo that’s causing a stir in Russia. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Directorate of Intelligence (GUR) released a new logo featuring an owl clutching a sword against a globe backdrop with the tip of the blade pointed squarely at Russia. Some Ukrainians saw the choice of an owl as wry flip of the bird to Russia, pointing out that owls eat bats and the GUR’s counterpart in Russia, the GRU, has a bat as its symbol. Russian officials took umbrage at the new logo and its symbolic targeting of Russia. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin called the slogan used to introduce the new logo — Ukraine above all — a callback to Nazism.
There’s been another air-to-air incident between the U.S. and Russian militaries in the skies over Syria. The incident in question took place on October 17 over Deir al-Zour and involved an American E-3 plane and a Russian Su-35. Russia’s Ministry of Defense said the American airborne early warning and control plane descended and closed within 500 meters of the Russian fighter jet, despite Russia’s claim to have informed the U.S.-lead coalition of its presence in the area. The Pentagon gave a very different version of the story, saying that the Russian plane scooted in front of the American aircraft, after which both sides talked it out.
Airstrikes conducted by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen killed dozens, according to the New York Times. The strikes hit a prison complex in Al Hudaydah, killing prisoners held by Houthi-aligned forces. The strike follows a failed attempt by U.N. officials to extend a 72 hour ceasefire in the war, which has killed at least 10,000 people since it began in 2015.
Last week, the Defense Department said it was aiming for two senior al Qaeda figures in a drone strike in Afghanistan. Now, the Washington Post is providing a little background on one of the targets, Farouq al-Qahtani. Letters take from Osama Bin Laden’s home after the 2011 raid that killed him show present Qahtani, a Saudi with a Qatari passport, as a rising star among a new generation of al-Qaeda commanders who moved from Pakistan to Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nuristan in order to escape the CIA’s drone strikes. American intelligence officials like former Deputy Director Mike Morrel and retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn both mentioned Qahtani as a particularly talented member of the group worth of concern.
The Taliban is finding inspiration in the Islamic State’s legacy of media fluency and looking to up its propaganda game. The New York Times reports that the Taliban may be taking cues from the mobile-friendly, social media-happy jihadist group by urging followers to record battlefield imagery for rapid response to coalition messaging. In places like Lashkar Gah and Kunduz, the Taliban have distributed footage of themselves hanging out in areas where Afghan and NATO officials had just prior claimed were clear of insurgents.
Another happy customer
Turkmenistan celebrated a quarter century of independence on Thursday with a military parade showing off its latest and greatest hardware, including two Chinese drones capable of carrying out airstrikes. Two floats in the parade sported China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation drones, the WJ-600A/D and the CH-3A drone, both capable of carrying out reconnaissance and light strike missions. China’s armed drone exports have ramped up in recent years with sales to Pakistan, Nigeria, and Iraq as Beijing fills the gap left by America’s strict export controls on drone exports.
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Photo Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary