SitRep: In Final Weeks, Obama Expands Global Terrorism Fight; Iran Looking for Overseas Bases
New Army Chief in Pakistan; Syrian Forces Push in Aleppo; And Lots More
New role for JSOC. In the final weeks of his presidency, President Barack Obama has expanded the powers of the president to target and kill suspected terrorists across the globe, handing the incoming Trump team tools to wage war that no president has held before.
Most significantly, the power and reach of the Pentagon’s most secretive special operations outfit will grow under the plan. The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has long been a precise tool employed by regional military commanders, but the White House has allowed the command to create a “new multiagency intelligence and action force,” according to the Washington Post’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Dan Lamothe. “The group will be designed to take JSOC’s targeting model — honed over the last 15 years of conflict — and export it globally to go after terrorist networks plotting attacks against the West.”
The new task force will bypass regional combatant commanders with a chain of command that runs through Special Operations Command, effectively putting it on the same level as U.S. Central Command, Pacific Command, and others. Some are questioning whether that command structure, in addition to the potential for overlapping responsibility with the CIA, will trigger a round of turf wars within the national security bureaucracy.
Target Somalia. The Obama administration has also expanded the U.S. military’s power to go after al-Shabab Islamist militants in Somalia, claiming that strikes on the group now fall under the rules of armed conflict that Congress hurriedly authorized against al Qaeda in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. American aircraft have been launching an increasing number of airstrikes in Somalia in recent months, calling them “self-defense” operations meant to protect U.S. military advisors in the field with Somali government forces.
The New York Times’ Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt, and Mark Mazzetti report that “the executive branch’s stretching of the 2001 war authorization against the original Al Qaeda to cover other Islamist groups in countries far from Afghanistan — even ones, like the Shabab, that did not exist at the time — has prompted recurring objections from some legal and foreign policy experts.” There has been a debate within the administration for years whether specific al Qaeda leaders within Shabab should be targeted, or the group at large.
Counter-ISIS meeting. Defense Secretary Ash Carter will meet with French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian at noon on Monday at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall in Washington, where they’ll “hold a bilateral meeting to discuss mutual security concerns including the ongoing counter-ISIL campaign” according to the Pentagon. The two have met four times over the past five months, most recently at the NATO Defense Ministerial meeting in Brussels last month.
France and U.S. team up. If it’s a Monday, that must mean that the Pentagon believes al Qaeda operative Mokhtar Belmokhtar is dead. Again. The North African terrorist leader has been declared dead several times over the past several years — only to rise from the ashes — but this time, the Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Lubold and Matthew Dalton report, U.S. officials think they got him.
“If the strike this month was successful, it would represent a culmination of efforts by the U.S., French and other allies to capture or kill Mr. Belmokhtar. It would also reflect the extent of new military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries, U.S. and French officials said. The U.S. contributed intelligence to add to what French officials already knew about Mr. Belmokhtar’s whereabouts in anticipation of this month’s strike, U.S. officials said.”
Raqqa. In the fight against ISIS, the big fight looming on the horizon is the group’s de facto capital of raqqa, in Syria. But as FP’s David Kenner writes, the fight will be more complex than those for Fallujah, Ramadi, and even Mosul.
“An ongoing war between America’s two main allies in northern Syria means that liberating Raqqa is going to take more than Washington’s capacity for brute force. The United States has backed an operation by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to retake the city, which announced its offensive on Nov. 6 and has since captured dozens of villages outside Raqqa from the Islamic State. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced that rebels sympathetic to Ankara, who have clashed with the SDF over the past several months, also aim to liberate Raqqa.”
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There’s intrigue and scandal in the Balkans following Serbia’s deportation of 20 people suspected of planning a coup in neighboring Montenegro to install a pro-Russian government. A source tells the Guardian that Russian security council chief Nikolai Patrushev apologized to Serbian officials for what he characterized as an unsanctioned plot connected to Russian intelligence. The Serbian government was further rocked by the uncovering of a plot to assassinate Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić shortly after Patrushev’s visit. Serbian Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanović says he believes that criminal gangs had been paid to carry out the attack but wouldn’t say who ponied up the cash or directed the plot.
Turkey says the Islamic State used chemical weapons against Syrian rebels it’s backing in the fight to take back territory from the group. The Turkish military announced that Islamic State fighters fired a rocket containing an unspecified “chemical gas” which affected 22 rebel fighters near the Syrian town of Al Rai. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has previously accused the group of using sulphur mustard weapons in both Syria and Iraq.
Forces fighting for the Assad regime have made key gains in rebel-held eastern Aleppo. Al Jazeera reports that the regime captured the Jabal Badro and Baadeen districts of Aleppo after capturing the district of Hanano days before. The gains on the ground come amid an increase in Russian and Syrian bombing of Aleppo. Many residents of the opposition enclaves have been trying to flee but are worried because, in the words of the network’s reporter Osama bin Javaid, the bombing has “relentlessly targeted anything that moves.”
Frustrated at the slow pace of fighting against an Islamic State enemy that’s tenacious and dug into Mosul’s urban landscape, some Iraqi military officials now want to change tactics to allow for looser rules of engagement, according to the Wall Street Journal. The plan for the liberation of Mosul was premised on urging civilians to shelter in place within the city rather than green lighting an exodus from the city which could cause logistical problems. But the jihadist group has exploited the presence of civilians in the city to constrain the use of artillery and airstrikes, leading some to question whether a call to flee the city is warranted.
Iraq’s parliament has taken a controversial step, recognizing private militias as an official part of Iraq’s government and armed forces. The predominantly Shia and Iranian-backed militias joined the fight against the Islamic State shortly after the fall of Mosul to the jihadist group in 2014 as Iraq’s formal military melted away and lost ground. The militias, however, have proven controversial among Iraq’s Sunni minority for what human rights groups say is a campaign of sectarian killings, abuse, and human rights violations. Sunni members of parliament boycotted the vote to pass the law and called it a threat to an inclusive, unified Iraq.
Iran’s armed forces chief of staff Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri has floated the possibility of Iran one day establishing naval bases in Syria and Yemen, the AP reports. Bagheri said the move would require creating new infrastructure but called it “ten times more important” than having nuclear weapons, saying that it “creates deterrence.” Iran has no naval bases abroad and while its professional navy often carries out port visits around countries bordering the Indian Ocean, its efforts to operate farther away in places like the Atlantic have proven more difficult.
Pakistan has a new army chief, but don’t expect a lot of changes with a new man in charge. Reuters reports that Lt. Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa will take over as army chief from Gen. Raheel Sharif. Bajwa has kept a low profile throughout his career with few clues as to his policy inclinations but Defense Minister Khawaja Asif says that Bajwa likely won’t be a radical departure from his predecessors.
Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary