The Cable

SitRep: Marines Land in Syria; Russia Deploys Banned Missile; More Bombs for Saudi

Baghdadi on the Run; CIA Hunting Leakers; Experts Question CIA Cyber Ops; Army Wants More Munitions; Fake New and the Islamic State

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Wheels down. The U.S. Marines have landed in Syria, and they brought their big guns. An artillery battery from the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine has set up a small base somewhere near Raqqa in Syria from which they’ll support U.S.-backed militias moving on the Islamic State stronghold with their M777 howitzers.

The Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe and Thomas Gibbons-Neff were the first to report the deployment, which “was not the byproduct of President Donald Trump’s request of a new plan to take on the Islamic State and that it had ‘been in the works for sometime,’” according to one Defense official. “The Marines answer a problem that the [operation] has faced,” the official said. He added that the guns provide “all-weather fires considering how the weather is this time of year in northern Syria.” Spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria Col. John Dorrian said that the deployment comprises about 400 troops overall, on top of the roughly 500 which were already in Syria.

One more. The base is at least the third American outpost to be opened in northern Syria. FP’s Paul McLeary visited two other small bases last month, one Special Operations facility near the city of Manbij, and another larger base that sits astride a U.S.-build airstrip near Kobani which is manned by conventional Army forces that ferry supplies into the country. FP also stopped by one of several other small training camps where Army special operators train Syrian Democratic Forces in preparation for their assault on Raqqa.

Even more. A report from Reuters says that the Pentagon is weighing sending another 1,000 troops to Kuwait that could serve as a reserve force in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 ISIS fighters remain in Raqqa, part of a fighting force of about 15,000 in Syria, U.S. defense officials told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday. Even after the city falls, “the group’s fighters are expected to fight on in Deir al-Zour, a Syrian province south of Raqqa, and in Iraqi towns along the Euphrates River, as well as to try to administer their self-proclaimed caliphate from those places,” the New York Times’ Michael Gordon reports.

Missile control. A top American general informed Congress Wednesday that Moscow has fielded a prohibited cruise missile, a significant revelation that confirms — for Washington, at least — that Russia has violated a key arms control agreement.

“We believe that the Russians have deployed a land-based cruise missile that violates the spirit and intent of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty,” Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee. “The system itself presents a risk to most of our facilities in Europe, and we believe that the Russians have deliberately deployed it in order to pose a threat to NATO and to facilities within the NATO area of responsibility.” The U.S. has issued complaints about the missile before, and the New York Times notes that President Trump said last month he planned to take the issue up with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. “To me it’s a big deal,” Trump said. The Russian government rejected the accusation on Thursday.

Saudi and Yemen. The Trump administration is considering reopening the spigot on selling precision guided munitions to Saudi Arabia that the Obama team turned off late last year, after Saudi aircraft killed scores of civilians in Yemen, the Washington Post reports.

The sale would be part of an attempt to reset relations with Saudi and send a warning to Iran, which the Trump administration said it “put on notice” last month. The Post’s Missy Ryan and Anne Gearan write that “an ongoing Yemen policy review is also a chance for Trump to demonstrate a tougher approach to Iran and its activities throughout the Middle East. Trump and some of his top advisers, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have called Tehran a chief threat to American security.”

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

Whodunnit. So who leaked the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence bag of tricks to WikiLeaks? The Wall Street Journal reports that the FBI is on the case to find out but it’s unclear whether that’s necessarily a new development. A source tells the paper that the CIA has suspected since last year that someone may have breached its hacking toolkit. The CIA’s exploits and malware are developed by contractors at a facility in Dulles rather than made in-house at Langley, suggesting that the leak could have originated there.

Turd on the run. Baghdadi is booking it from Mosul and going into hiding, according to a scoop from Reuters. Anonymous Iraq and American sources tell the wire service that intelligence sources believe a precipitous drop in the amount of high level propaganda coming from the group since the U.S. and Iraq have begun encircling Mosul indicates that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s proclaimed caliph, has given up trying to direct the fight and fled into hiding somewhere in the desert instead. Baghdadi appears to be trying to evade the mistakes that led the U.S. to find and kill Osama Bin Laden, shifting among a rotating cast of couriers to communicate with the Islamic State instead of relying on a single point of failure.

Myths and facts. Errata Security’s Rob Graham took a dive through the WikiLeaks CIA tranche and knocked down some of the myths going around about the tools the CIA has been using. In contrast to its mystique, Graham characterizes the basket of malware as “child’s play” that’s on par or below the capabilities of software publicly available and far behind its cousins at the NSA. Documents suggesting that the CIA had found a way around the encrypted texting app Signal sent many reporters and fans of the software into a tailspin. Rather than defeating the app itself, however, the CIA appears to have obtained exploits for the underlying Android and iPhone mobile operating system it runs on.

Ammo. The Army has enough munitions to meet its requirements, but Defense News reports that Army Deputy Chief of Staff  Lt. Gen. Aundre Piggee told Congress that he’s worried about the size of the Army’s stockpile in the event of a crisis. Piggee told the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on subcommittee that budget caps have put a damper on production, leading to fewer Patriot, Hellfire, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, and other missiles.

LRSO. Some Congressional Democrats are expressing skepticism about the Air Force’s plans for a new cruise missile that could be used to deliver nuclear warheads. Democratic senators led by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) argue that the Long-Range Stand-Off weapon (LRSO) is an unnecessary replacement for the Air Force’s current nuclear cruise missile, the air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). Opponents of the LRSO argue that its ability to carry both nuclear and conventional payloads could lead to potentially dangerous confusion on the part of U.S. adversaries in the event they mistake a conventional cruise missile launch for a nuclear one. Nonetheless, the LRSO maintains strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

Real estate. After drawing down in Europe, the Army is back in the real estate market and looking for locations to base troops. Stars and Stripes reports that U.S. Army Europe has been looking at two sites in Germany, reportedly around Fallingbostel and Bergen, in the event that the U.S. expands its military footprint in Europe. But the Army stresses that the review so far is preliminary and the result of any new decisions on troops movements.

Hmmmmm. Someone appears to be spreading a fake copy of a monthly Islamic State magazine around jihadi fanboy social media, fooling even some of the faithful. The magazine Rumiyah, translated into several languages, appears to be a forgery, with jihadi media watchers pointing out that Islamic State fans shared the publication only to later declare it a fake and warn of purported malware contained inside. Jihadi propaganda outlets have long been targets for mysterious hacking campaigns to sabotage their wares and spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Years ago, British intelligence sabotaged the release of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s English language magazine Inspire, blocking the release of the original and replacing it with a version of garbled text from a cupcake recipe.

 

Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps

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

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