The Cable

SitRep: U.S. Officials Eying New Russian Capabilities in Syria, Ukraine; China Pushes Back Against Trump

The Coming Iran War Debate; North Korean Missiles; Estonia Sees Hope for U.S. Relationship; And Lots More

A Russian Sukhoi Su-35 bomber lands at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria on May 4, 2016.
Syria's conflict erupted in 2011 after anti-government protests were put down. Fighting quickly escalated into a multi-faceted war that has killed more than 270,000 people and forced millions from their homes. / AFP / Vasily Maximov / MOY        (Photo credit should read VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A Russian Sukhoi Su-35 bomber lands at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria on May 4, 2016. Syria's conflict erupted in 2011 after anti-government protests were put down. Fighting quickly escalated into a multi-faceted war that has killed more than 270,000 people and forced millions from their homes. / AFP / Vasily Maximov / MOY (Photo credit should read VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)

 

Beijing rules. Less than 24 hours after U.S. President-elect Donald Trump fired off a pair of provocative tweets denouncing Beijing’s trade policies and defending his surprising phone call with Taiwan’s leader, China stepped into the arena. FP’s Colum Lynch writes that Chinese diplomats this week showed Washington it can play hardball, reversing its previous position and joining Russia to veto a U.S.-backed resolution calling for a seven-day humanitarian cease-fire in Aleppo.

“The Chinese action is just one of the myriad ways that Beijing can potentially upend American diplomatic priorities at the United Nations,” Lynch writes, “from pushing to end the war in Syria to punishing chemical weapons violators to working to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons development.” Western diplomats in New York are concerned that China may be prepared to cast another veto — again alongside Russia — to block a draft resolution currently under negotiation by the U.S., Britain, and France that would sanction Syria for using chlorine bombs against rebels.

Aleppo and the emerging Russian way of war. Thousands of civilians are currently struggling to escape the smoking hulk of Aleppo, as Syrian and Russian airstrikes continue to pound the rebel-held eastern half of the city. The fall of Aleppo — when it finally happens — will mark a major victory for both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose 15-month intervention in the Syrian civil war was launched to prop up the faltering Assad regime under the guise of fighting the Islamic State.

While the campaign of Russian air strikes and special operations support has provided Moscow with a venue to show off its newly-modernized aircraft, cruise missiles, tanks, and helicopters — all of which are available for export to interested Russian allies — there’s something else happening.

“While many are focused on Russian armor and air sorties, some in the U.S. defense establishment have noticed another sign of Russian progress: their increasing ability to work through local forces in Ukraine and Syria, allowing Moscow to exert influence while keeping deployments small, costs down, and troops away from the front lines,” writes FP’s Paul McLeary. “The Russians have become quite adept at working with proxy forces,” a senior Defense official told FP.

Expanding war. Russian jets in Syria are also targeting the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army rebels who have been pushing south from the Turkish border over the past several months. That could be a problem, as Turkish media report that as many of 300 Turkish special operations forces have moved to the border, presumably to join the rebels moving on the ISIS-held city of al Bab.

The FSA and their Turkish commando partners are participating in Operation Euphrates Shield, launched in late August to push ISIS — and Kurdish peshmerga fighters — away from the Turkish border. FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary have lots more on the complications that the Turkish intervention have caused, and risks for U.S. allies in the region.

Iran’s war, and the struggle to define the battlefield. The incoming Trump administration features several Iran hawks at the top of the national security pecking order, led by national security advisor Mike Flynn — who has written that Iran is the “linchpin” of an international cabal of terrorist states — and to a lesser degree Defense Secretary nominee James Mattis, who said as head of Centcom, he thought about “Iran, Iran, Iran” first thing every morning.

But what are Tehran’s true capabilities, and military strategy? Iran expert Matthew McInnis, currently at the American Enterprise Institute but also a former advisor on Iranian issues to Mattis at Centcom, is out with a new report, Iran at War: Understanding why and how Tehran uses military force,” that looks to answer some of these questions. McInnis chatted with SitRep about his findings, saying that while Iran rarely launches preemptive conventional attacks, they will often resort to unconventional warfare tactics if they perceive that they or their allies are being threatened.

Washington “should never forget that Iran builds most everything around countering American military capability, and when Iran feels we might be about to use that force, the Iranians have historically tended to retract quite quickly,” he said. When it comes to the nuclear deal hashed out by John Kerry and the Iranians — which Trump has vowed to renegotiate — things remain tense. But “unless Trump tries to test [the Iran deal] early,” McInnis said, “Iran will likely take more of a wait and see approach with the Trump administration, so they’re not the ones pushing a crisis.”

“In the end, even though the Iranians fear American soft power, they don’t fear an immediate attack” from the U.S. or even Israel. But “they still fear U.S. conventional capability, and the potential of that capability.”

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

North Korea

An anonymous U.S. defense official tells the AP that North Korea is now capable of launching a missile equipped with a nuclear warhead, but getting that warhead to survive reentry and hit a target might still be an issue. Intercontinental ballistic missiles like the ones North Korea is developing are launched up through the atmosphere and separate into a warhead-bearing reentry vehicle. North Korea’s reentry vehicles, however, might not be able to make it back through the atmosphere without burning up. North Korea has carried out a series of ballistic missile and nuclear tests this year, raising fears that its weapons of mass destruction program are nearing completion.

South Korea

China is registering its unhappiness over South Korea’s decision to host an American anti-missile system by retaliating against the company that’s offering up the land for the battery. The Financial Times reports that China appears to be turning up the heat on Lotte, the South Korean company which leased the golf course where a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system will reside by launching a series of suspiciously-timed investigations of “fire, safety or tax investigations” into its businesses in China. The U.S. and South Korea agreed to deploy the THAAD battery in light of North Korea’s ballistic missile development but China has objected, arguing the system’s radars could be used to target Chinese missiles.

Reefer madness

Satellite imagery obtained by Reuters shows that Vietnam is dredging in the disputed Ladd Reef in the Spratly Islands. The area is also claimed by China and Taiwan and Vietnam’s activity seems set to trigger an angry reaction from Beijing. So far it’s unknown why Vietnam is dredging but it appears as though the move is a precursor to further construction on the reef. Experts say Hanoi may be trying to strengthen its claims to ownership of the territory.

Estonia

Estonian officials are expressing cautious optimism that a Trump administration might not be as hostile to their interests as they initially expected. Reuters reports that Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser said the “tone” coming out of the Trump administration in waiting had left him feeling “encouraged.” Some of that feeling of encouragement might be related to Trump’s selection of retired Gen. James Mattis as his pick for secretary of defense. Shortly after Trump’s Mattis pick leaked, Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas’s security advisor Kadri Peeters pointedly tweeted a quote from Mattis praising the country’s “political courage.” During the presidential campaign, Trump suggested he might not honor America’s Article 5 commitments under NATO to come to the defense of the Baltics in the event of a Russian invasion.

Ukraine

The Wall Street Journal reports that 12 Republican senators joined 15 of their Democratic counterparts in signing a letter calling on President-elect Donald Trump to send arms to Ukraine and continue sanctions against Russia for its invasion and annexation of Crimea. Trump’s famously Russia-friendly pronouncements cast doubt on whether he’ll heed the advice but the presence of Republican heavyweights like Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Rob Portman (R-OH) indicates that the President-elect may have a fight on his hands once his administration takes office.

Marines

The Marine Corps identified Capt. Jake Frederick of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing in Okinawa as the pilot killed when his F/A-18C crashed into the Sea of Japan on Wednesday, Stars and Stripes reports. Frederick came from a family of Marines, with a grandfather who served in the Corps and a brother, Joe Bob, a fellow pilot, in the Marine Corps Reserve. A Japanese Self Defense Forces ship located and removed Frederick’s remains. The cause of the crash remains unknown.

DIUX

The Pentagon’s outreach office for technology startups has been Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s baby and now Army chief of staff Gen. Mark Milley is saying he wants to make sure the outfit sticks around after Carter’s gone. Defense News reports that Milley said that the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental is still in its early stages but is a “good idea” that “should be sustained.” The unit has spent around $36 million on contracts with various startup companies in a bid to help the Pentagon integrate cutting edge technologies from the private sector.

 

Photo credit VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images

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

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