SitRep: Pentagon Walks Back Raqqa Talk; Estonia Braces for Russian Attack; New Chinese Stealth Fighter
- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
They’re in. Almost. Iraqi special operations forces are trying to punch their way into the eastern edge of Mosul, taking part in fierce clashes with Islamic State holdouts in an industrial district on Tuesday, supported by withering artillery barrages and coalition aircraft.
Just behind the commandos is the Iraqi army’s ninth division, still several miles outside the city wiping up sporadic ISIS resistance and dealing with displaced civilians trying to flee the fighting. The fight for the city, however, has only just begun, as up to 5,000 ISIS fighters — including 1,000 hardcore foreign fighters expected to act as suicide bombers and fight to the bitter end — remain barricaded in well-defended positions throughout the city. Elsewhere, Kurdish and Iraqi forces continue to fight it out north of the city, and Iraqi federal police are stalled out to Mosul’s south.
Hold on, Raqqa. Over in Syria, there’s increasing concern whether recent American declarations that the fight for the city of Raqqa would kick off in the next few weeks can be met. The Washington Post’s Missy Ryan and Karen DeYoung write that several U.S. defense officials “acknowledged a wealth of problems that could derail the offensive, including the need to gather and train additional Syrian forces. More ominously, they cite the explosive dynamics between two allies: Turkey and Syrian Kurdish fighters, who form the bulk of the existing offensive force.”
As one official said, “we’re not in perfect control,” of the situation, especially when it comes to the messy relationships and rivalries between the various Syrian Arab and Kurdish groups on the ground. Just last week, Defense Secretary Ash Carter pledged that the fight for Raqqa “starts in the next few weeks…that has long been our plan and we will be capable of resourcing both” Raqqa and Mosul at the same time.
Aleppo, Moscow, and Washington. While debates over Raqqa rage, Secretary of State John Kerry laid the blame for the continued violence in Aleppo squarely at Moscow’s feet. Speaking in London on Monday, Kerry said, “we will see whether Russia has a greater desire [than] to bomb Aleppo into smithereens claiming they’re going after terrorists, when in fact there are oppositionists there that are prepared to live by the cease-fire.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu shot back on Tuesday, charging that the failure of the United States to pull back Islamists allied with U.S.-backed militias has stalled the resumption of peace talks, which fell apart last month. “As a result, the prospects for the start of a negotiation process and the return to peaceful life in Syria are postponed for an indefinite period,” Shoigu said.
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Estonia has plans for Russia’s (possible) plans for Estonia. The tiny country of Estonia can’t possibly hope to beat back the Russian military if Moscow decides to push its way into its neighbor to the west. So, according to the New York Times, officials in Tallinn have a plan. It revolves around training the 25,400 citizens who have volunteered to be a part of the Estonian Defense League to go underground, living off the land and waging a guerilla war against the larger, more advanced military force.
But what about NATO’s Article 5, which stipulates that the alliance come to the aid of a member under attack? The Estonians have taken a cool-headed look at the geopolitical landscape and decided, “the United States and Europe might not have the stomach for a confrontation with Russia, even though they are currently building up their military presence in the Baltics. That would leave Estonia to fend for itself.” And yes, they decided this pre-Trump.
Russian games. And besides, as FP’s Dan De Luce reported earlier this year in a story worth coming back to, “if Russian tanks and troops rolled into the Baltics tomorrow, outgunned and outnumbered NATO forces would be overrun in under three days,” according to one recent war game run in Washington. “The games’ findings are unambiguous: As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members,” said a report by the Rand Corp., which led the war gaming research.
And NATO has its eyes elsewhere. As FP’s Paul McLeary has written. The alliance “is eyeing a narrow sliver of land connecting Poland with Lithuania, concerned about the Russian troops and equipment” that has been piling up on either side. Dubbed the “Suwalki Gap” after the Polish town of Suwalki that sits in the seam between the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to the northwest and Moscow-friendly nation of Belarus to the southeast, the area has become the latest potential flashpoint between an increasingly aggressive Moscow and NATO.
Beijing unveiled its new J20 stealth fighter at a Chinese air show on Tuesday, CNN reports. the first time the long-range, radar-avoiding stealth combat aircraft had been shown off in public. (Pics here.) Generally viewed as China’s answer to the American F-22 and F-35 planes. Some at the Pentagon claim they’re not overly worried about the plane, however, since it uses some technologies that the United States has had for decades. Still, the plane should challenge for air dominance in the region, setting off an air power competition with U.S. Marine Corps F-35s which will deploy to Iwakuni, Japan, across the East China Sea from China’s western coast, early next year.