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Situation Report: U.S. forces have Mosul in their sights; Ethnic politics complicate fight in Syria; Russia questions persist; Philip Bilden out for top civilian naval post; Lower standards on the Mexican border; and a bit more.

Situation Report: U.S. forces have Mosul in their sights; Ethnic politics complicate fight in Syria; Russia questions persist; Philip Bilden out for top civilian naval post; Lower standards on the Mexican border; and a bit more.

By FP Staff and Adam Rawnsley

The push for Mosul continues. Reporting from around Mosul, Iraq, where U.S forces have moved artillery, Apache helicopters, drones, and precision rocket systems into place to support the Iraqis troops inside the city, FP’s Paul McLeary writes that the American footprint is large, and loud. “Twenty-four hours a day, American artillery booms from dug-in positions outside of this small town [of Hammam al-Alil] on the banks of the Tigris River, providing Iraqi troops pushing into western Mosul with accurate firepower within minutes of relaying the request through their American advisors.” At the nearby Q-West airfield, hundreds of U.S. soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division are working to supply the Iraqis with ammo and supplies,  

It’s Turkey, not the Islamic State. FP’s McLeary also traveled to northern Syria near the city of Manbij, where he met with U.S. Special Forces advisors working with local Arabs and Kurds. The American effort there is small, but soldiers there say they’ve managed to run several thousand locals through intensive two-week courses that will help them defend their hometown on Manbij, and move south on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. The fighters will be funnelled into the Syrian Democratic Forces, a 50,000-strong force that is predominantly Kurdish, but whose Arab ranks are swelling.  But the fighters here don’t see the Islamic State as their main problem. Instead, they point to Turkey. “ For the Americans, providing weapons and basic combat skills to the young fighters is the easy part of their mission. The ethnic politics of arming local forces presents a more daunting challenge,” McLeary reports.

Nearby near the city of Kobani on the Turkish border, U.S. forces have constructed a hardened landing strip for C-130 and C-17 cargo planes full of equipment for the Syrian Arab forces and to supply U.S. troops operating throughout the north. The head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, and the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, Lt. Gen Stephen Townsend, visited the site on Friday along with a few reporters for a first-hand look.

Russian blues. As much as President Donald Trump and the White House keep trying to change the subject, questions about the Trump team’s contacts with Russia before and after the election won’t go away. The Washington Post’s Greg Miller and Adam Entous reported the Trump administration enlisted senior members of the intelligence community and some Republican lawmakers in a bid to knock down stories that Trump associates had been in frequent contact with Russian intelligence operatives. The move came after the FBI turned down a similar request to help the White House push back against the allegations. The White House told the Post that it done nothing improper. 

Even as the president renewed his attacks on the news media in a speech at CPAC last Friday and in yet more tweets, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed public concern rising over the administration’s dealings with Russia. The poll, conducted February 18-22, shows 53 percent of Americans want Congress to probe the issue. While a majority of Republicans disagreed, a majority of independents — 55 percent — supported an investigation. Perhaps most worrying for the White House, two Republican lawmakers came out in favor of an independent inquiry. Rep. Darrell Issa of California, who backed Trump in the election and nearly lost his seat because of it,  and Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas. “I want the truth to come forward. If the administration has nothing to hide, then it shouldn’t be something they should fear,” Yoder told the Kansas City Star.

Another one bites the dust. Donald Trump’s pick for Navy secretary, Philip Bilden, is withdrawing himself from consideration for the top civilian naval post, a source familiar with the decision tells FP’s John Hudson. “The financial burden was too great,” said the individual. USNI News first reported the news on Sunday. Bilden becomes Trump’s second service secretary nominee to pull out due to problems untangling their financial investments ahead of Senate confirmation.

Help desperately wanted. The Trump administration plans to relax some security requirements for hiring Border Patrol agents in order to meet a dramatic surge in immigration enforcement. That includes a request to loosen a congressionally-mandated polygraph. It will take five years and cost about $2.2 billion to help fill out Customs and Border Patrol’s ranks — and officials, as well as the Mexican government, are concerned about potential abuses, FP’s Molly O’Toole reports.  

Trump you see is the Trump you get. The British populist Nigel Farage, the EU-bashing former leader of UKIP who led Britain’s exit from Europe, dined with the president at his hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue on Saturday night. Photos of a smiling Farage, a strong Trump ally, had to be disheartening but entirely surprising to governments across the Atlantic. European and Asian allies are increasingly resigned to the reality that there is no grand strategy behind the Trump administration’s chaotic and often incoherent approach to the world. And they are starting to look at contingency plans for how to respond to a U.S. administration that is skeptical of free trade, the European Union and seemingly the entire post-World War II order. FP’s Dan De Luce and John Hudson report.

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Questions. The father of Navy SEAL who was killed in a special operations raid during the first days of the Trump administration is angry with President Trump and wants an investigation into his son’s death. In an interview with the Miami Herald, William Owns, the father of William “Ryan” Owens, the SEAL who died in the raid, criticized Trump for disparaging those who questioned the wisdom and planning of the operation, saying the president shouldn’t “hide behind my son’s death to prevent an investigation.” At the private transfer ceremony at Dover Air Force Base, Owens refused to meet with President Trump, who flew in to witness the transfer, telling a chaplain that “my conscience wouldn’t let me talk to him” because of Trump’s criticism of Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan during the presidential campaign.

Spy games. A special prosecutor in Serbia is about to indict a Russian intelligence officer for his alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate Montenegro’s pro-NATO former prime minister. The Daily Telegraph reports that special prosecutor Milivoje Katnic plans to indict Eduard Sismakov, a Russian GRU officer whom Katnic reportedly believes directed a group of Russian nationalists in their failed bid to storm the Montenegrin parliament dressed as policemen and open fire on the crowd inside as well as then Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic.

Spending PLAN. China-based diplomats and U.S. officials tell Reuters that they expect that China will be spending big on its navy this year as its fears grow about the intentions of the Trump administration. Figuring out just how much more China plans to spend is difficult because Beijing doesn’t release a budget for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and experts believe the overall defense budget figures it does release aren’t reliable. But sources tell the wire service that the PLAN is likely benefit from a defense spending increase that will be announced next month, thanks in part to the political connections of PLAN commander Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong.

Travel ban. Former CIA Director John Brennan is casting doubt on President Trump’s travel ban, saying the move will do little to protect Americans from terrorism. Making an appearance on the Sunday talk show circuit, Brennan told CBS’s Face the Nation that he “[doesn’t] think the travel ban is going to help in any significant way.” Brennan said Trump’s executive order banning travel to the U.S. by residents of seven predominantly Muslim countries gives a “clear impression” that it’s singling out Muslims. Brennan also said that the Trump administration was placing too much weight on nationality as a predictor of potential terrorism.

It’s not easy being green. Taliban Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada hopes that “the Mujahideen and beloved countrymen must join hands in tree planting.” While Akhundzada’s message, delivered in an open letter on Sunday, sounds very civic and environmentally conscious, Afghan officials aren’t holding their breath for Taliban tree planting campaign anytime soon. A spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani dismissed the statement as an attempt to “deceive public opinion” about the group. Afghanistan has suffered severe deforestation as residents cut down more and more trees in order to provide heating.

Social Media Blitz. Twitter and Facebook may be undermining the military’s tradition of political neutrality, Politico’s Bryan Bender reports. A Pentagon survey found an “alarming number” of military officers shared their political views on social media. “Such behavior threatens to erode the trust in which the public holds the military, leading to it being viewed as just another interest group,”wrote the Army Col. Heidi Urben, the political scientist who compiled the survey for National Defense University.

A Big Military Spending Boost. Trump’s federal budget outline calls for significant increases to the defense budget, New York Times reports. Other federal agencies — including the State Department — may not be so lucky. Trump will reportedly instruct other federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, to make major cuts. FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce recently reported that the White House’s Pentagon budget could be as high as $640 billion, a big jump from the $551 billion in base budget funding for 2017.

Parting words. At his retirement party, the country’s longest serving diplomat, Ambassador Daniel Fried, gave an impassioned defense of America’s role in the world and its democratic example, and warned of the dangers of isolationism and nationalism. In a thinly-veiled dig at Trump, Fried said: “We are not an ethno-state, with identity rooted in shared blood,” he said. “The option of a white man’s republic ended at Appomattox.”

And the winner is. President Trump’s tweet habit and his controversial policies provided plenty of  fodder for jokes and more serious-minded criticism at last night’s Academy Awards. An Iranian film, “The Salesman” won for best foreign-language film and the director, Asghar Farhadi, boycotted the ceremony to protest the travel ban ordered by the president last month that affected seven mainly Muslim countries, including Iran. In a short statement read out for Farhadi at the Oscar ceremonies, the director said that filmmakers “create empathy between us and others. An empathy which we need today more than ever.”