SitRep: Hearing Blitz as Congress Rushes Through Trump Picks; Russia Buzzes U.S. Aircraft; Pentagon Rumors Swirl
Mosul Numbers; U.S. Back to Supporting Turkey; And Lots More
Transitional. “With ethics reviews steamrolled, financial disclosures uncertified, FBI background checks incomplete, and nine confirmation hearings squeezed into three days, President-elect Donald Trump faces the very real possibility that few of his cabinet picks will be in place by the time he’s sworn in next Friday,” FP’s Molly O’Toole writes. The fun begins today with several hearings on the Hill for top Trump appointees in a three-day blitz that will see a total of nine hearings, a Trump press conference, and remarks delivered by national security advisor Michael Flynn and his incoming deputy, KT McFarland. FP will be all over it, so check back early and often…
Work it. A series of reports out Monday evening suggest the Trump team may ask Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work to stick around for several months after James Mattis is (presumably) confirmed to be the next Secretary of Defense. Work, like Mattis, is a retired Marine officer, and has been outgoing Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s point man for many of his most innovative technology modernizations programs. The leak comes amid ongoing speculation that there is growing tension between Mattis and Trump Tower over who will serve under him at the Pentagon, with the former Marine rejecting several names that have been floated to him.
Back to al Bab. American drones are again buzzing over Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies as they slog it out around the Islamic State-held city of al-Bab, in anticipation of a larger U.S. role in support the operation. After weeks of tension between Washington and Ankara, which saw U.S. support for the push dry up while Russian warplanes began supporting the Turks, there’s talk that American planes, equipment, and Special Operations Forces might again be part of the fight, the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan report.
It won’t be easy, however. U.S. officials are concerned about the number of Russian and Turkish planes already in the sky around the city, and straightening out the logjam — especially given the reported Russian refusal to identify themselves when operating around U.S. aircraft — is a huge concern.
The crowded skies. “Rarely, if ever, do they respond verbally,” U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles Corcoran told the Wall Street Journal’s Michael M. Phillips and Gordon Lubold of the Russian pilots. “We don’t know what they can see or not see, and we don’t want them running into one of us.” It’s a problem throughout Syria, and there are about 50 to 75 coalition a day aircraft flying over Raqqa in close proximity to Russian planes.
But the Russians have frequently shadowed U.S. aircraft or come close to hitting them — and U.S. pilots think some of the near-misses have been because the Russians simply didn’t see the American planes. Russian planes also “plow through tightly controlled groupings of allied aircraft over Raqqa. Russian bombers, flying to Syria via Iran, have crossed Iraq and disrupted allied flight patterns over the battlefields of Mosul.”
On the ground. U.S. Special Operations Forces carried out an assault on ISIS leadership near the city of Deir al-Zour in Syria on Sunday, U.S. officials have confirmed, though few details have been made public. According to the site Deir al-Zour 24, the troops landed in helicopters, cut off a road, and killed and captured several ISIS fighters. The raid was nothing that hasn’t happened before, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Monday. “We’ve done them before and we’ll do them again,” he said, adding that reports of 25 ISIS fighters killed in the raid were too high. He declined to provide a number of his won, however.
Mosul. Davis also told reporters that ISIS fighters in Mosul have been staggered by U.S. airstrikes and the Iraqi ground assault. The militants “can’t respond to coordinated attacks,” and are having a hard time keeping up the pace of suicide bombers they had been throwing at the Iraqis. Since mid-October, the U.S.-led coalition has dropped 8,944 bombs on ISIS positions in Mosul, taking out 134 car bombs in the process. In contrast, as of Monday the coalition has dropped 1,542 bombs on Raqqa since Nov. 5.
Not impressed. Russian officials don’t appear impressed, however. Warplanes sent to Syria by the Kremlin have conducted 19,160 sorties and conducted 71,000 airstrikes since October 2015, claimed Chief of Russia’s General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov Tuesday. According to the state-run media mouthpiece TASS, Gerasimov took a swipe at the U.S.-led coalition during his remarks, adding the Americans “have not achieved any significant success… At the same time, a large number of civilian deaths as well as Syrian government troops deaths has been recorded.”
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Congressional Republican hawks like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have announced their intention to introduce new sanctions against Russia and joined Democrats in a call for an investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. But USA Today reports that Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway isn’t a fan of either proposal. In reference to calls by suggesting that Congress launch a bipartisan investigation of Russian hacking, Conway painted the effort as a partisan veneer for post-election sour grapes. She also questioned whether additional sanctions against Russia were necessary, describing President Obama’s ejection of 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S. as exceedingly harsh.
Monday was a big day for sanctions officials, who dropped a host of new restrictions on individuals in Russia and the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.
The Washington Post reports that President Obama topped off the list of Russian individuals sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act with five new names. The act allows the president to sanction Russians involved in corruption related to the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and broader human rights abuses. Obama sanctioned an official from Russia’s Investigative Committee, citing his participation in a coverup of Magnitsky’s death in prison, as well as two Russians suspected of involvement in the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko.
On the terrorism end of sanctions, the State Department added two members of Hezbollah, Ali Damush and Mustafa Mughniyeh, to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists. The State Department describes Damush as an aide to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and in charge of the group’s arm in charge of carrying out terrorist operations abroad. Mughniyeh is the nephew of Imad Mughniyeh, the late senior official in the Lebanese terror group accused of carrying out the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut. Mustada, according to the sanctions announcement, is in charge of Hezbollah operations in the Golan Heights.
There’s been another incident in the tense game of intimidation under way in the Persian Gulf between the U.S. and Iran. CNN reports that the U.S. destroyer the USS Mahan fired warning shots at five vessels from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy. Pentagon spokesman said the boats closed to within 900 yards of the Mahan and ignored multiple warnings in the form of radio commands, sirens, and smoke grenades, failing to halt until the Mahan fired a warning shot burst from a .50 caliber machine gun.
Iran also appears headed towards more confrontation with the U.S. through its missile program. Reuters reports that legislators in Tehran added an extra five percent to the country’s defense budget, earmarking more funds for the country’s ballistic missile program. American officials have argued that Iran’s ballistic missile programs are in violation of existing U.N. Security Council sanctions on the country, although its allies in Russia have pushed back against the claim. Regardless, Iran carried out a number of ballistic missile tests since 2015 and plans to expand its program with a plan for development that stretches into 2021.
Pakistan admitted it has a submarine-launched cruise missile program, Defense News reports. The revelation came by way of a press release from the Pakistani military saying it had carried out a test of the system in the Indian Ocean at some indeterminate point in time. The missile, Babur 3, a submarine-launched variant of its land-based cousin, the Babur-2 and is likely fired from a Pakistani Agosta-90B submarine.
Photo Credit: NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary