The Cable

SitRep: Sources: Pentagon’s New Look at Yemen Effort; Mattis’ Letter to White House; Generals Want More in Somalia

Mosul Air Strike Blowback; U.S. Troops Blend into Mosul Fight; NATO Worried about Russia in Libya as U.S. Keeps Troops There; And Lots More

Yemeni loyalist forces patrol a highway near the Red Sea port town of Mocha on January 20, 2017. / AFP / SALEH AL-OBEIDI        (Photo credit should read SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemeni loyalist forces patrol a highway near the Red Sea port town of Mocha on January 20, 2017. / AFP / SALEH AL-OBEIDI (Photo credit should read SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty Images)

With Adam Rawnsley

 

Yemen, again. The Pentagon is examining plans to increase support for Saudi Arabia’s two-year-old war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, several Defense officials tell Foreign Policy. The potential escalation of American involvement in the bloody conflict comes “even as the administration examines its broader strategy in the region, including looking at ways to counter Iran and to defeat” Islamic State and al Qaeda militants, FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce were first to report on Sunday.  

The Pentagon views increased support for the Saudi-led coalition as one way of pushing back against Iran’s influence in Yemen, as well as shoring up ties with Riyadh — an ally that felt neglected by the previous administration. “We had a commitment that they will increase cooperation,” during meetings last week in Washington, a Saudi military spokesman said. A U.S. military official confirmed the Saudi take on their D.C. visit, saying, “we’re interested in building the capability of the Saudis” and the U.A.E. to operate in Yemen.

Pen pals. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently sent a letter to the White House asking for a lifting of some Obama-era restrictions on the U.S. effort in the country, with an eye on the coming fight for the key Red Sea port city of Hodeida, the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan write. The requests made in the letter, according to officials, “would enable the military to support Emirati operations against the Houthis with surveillance and intelligence, refueling, and operational planning assistance without asking for case-by-case White House approval.” An increase of U.S. Special Operations Forces, as requested by the Emiratis, was not a part of the Mattis plan.

Mosul strikes. There continues to be conflicting reports out of Mosul, where the U.S.-led coalition on Saturday said it was investigating allegations that one of its airstrikes killed at least 100 civilians — and possibly as many as 200 — in a building in the Western half of the city.

The Iraqi military has offered a counter-narrative to the claims, however, saying Sunday that the targeted building had been booby-trapped by the Islamic State and there’s no evidence of a coalition strike. Baghdad’s civil defense force reported that over 170 bodies have been pulled from the rubble. Around 200,000 people have escaped the fighting in Western Mosul in recent days, but it’s estimated that half a million are still trapped by the fierce, house-by-house fighting, putting civilians in danger in the tightly-packed city.

If initial reports of coalition airstrikes prove true, and the reported numbers of dead would rank as by far the highest number of civilians killed by an airstrike since the U.S.-led coalition entered the war in 2014. The Mosul strike follows two reports last week that American planes killed dozens of civilians in strikes in Syria in recent days.

Counting. One non-profit group that has been tracking civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria said over the weekend it was suspending its investigations into Russian strikes due to the overwhelming reports of deaths caused by U.S and coalition aircraft. The group, Airwars, said in a statement Friday that due to a spike in reports of U.S.-related deaths, it had “taken the difficult decision to suspend detailed assessing of alleged Russian actions in Syria – so as best to focus our limited resources on continuing to properly monitor and assess reported casualties from the US and its allies.

Generals want more effort in Somalia. As the bombs drop on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria — and debates swirl over how much rules of engagement may or may not have been loosened under the Trump administration — U.S. generals want to do more in Somalia, as well.

The head of U.S. Africa Command, Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, said late last week that he wanted “more flexibility” to deploy Special Operations Forces to Somalia to assist local troops in battling the al Shabab terrorist organization, promising, “we’re not going to turn Somalia into a free fire zone.” He added, “it’s very important and very helpful for us to have little more flexibility, a little bit more timeliness, in terms of decision-making process,”

Any uptick in the U.S. involvement in Somalia, and any relaxing in the authorities granted the military in acting there, would be in line with the increased American troop presence and bombing missions in Iraq, Syria, and proposals to do the same in Afghanistan, representing one of the most significant increases of U.S. military presence in years, as FP recently reported here.

NATO concerned about Russia in Libya. And then there’s this. NATO officials are increasingly worried about Russian influence in Libya, as the Kremlin looks to be throwing its support behind Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a rival of the U.N.-backed coalition government in Tripoli. “I am very concerned about Russian forces seemingly gathering to influence the situation there. It troubles me very much,” Rose Gottemoeller, a deputy secretary general at NATO told an alliance meeting over the weekend.

“The fact that they have turned to the General now—to General Haftar—and they’re putting an emphasis on working with him…that’s not the attempt at establishing a government of national unity that was established by the U.N. Security Council resolution,” she added. Africom’s Waldhauser also said Friday that the Pentagon wants to keep its footprint in Libya in order to ensure that the Islamic State’s decline in the country continues.

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

Deterrence. Japan is getting pretty tired of having its territory in the Sea of Japan serve as target practice for North Korean ballistic missiles. The Washington Post reports that some officials in Tokyo are pushing to acquire a capability to hit North Korea before it’s missiles hit the country, independent from American help, should Pyongyang ever decide to launch an attack against the Japanese mainland. But that would raise thorny legal issues as Japan’s pacifist constitution only allows for defensive and not offensive military action.

Fashion forward. Spring is upon us, and while the rest of the fashion world is donning bright, vibrant colors and floral prints, American special operators in Iraq are slipping into black uniforms in order to blend in with their Iraqi counterparts. Military Times reports that images circulating on social media show U.S. troops wearing long sleeve black uniforms that look like those worn by Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service soldiers. U.S. officials tell the paper that individual commanders can make the call on the ground as to what form special operators’ uniforms will take.

Threats. Syria’s war of words over Israeli airstrikes is heating up. Russia’s state-owned Sputnik news site reported on Sunday that the Syrian government passed a message to Israel through Russia, warning that the Assad regime would launch ballistic missile attacks if Israel strikes inside the country once again. The warnings follow a recent round of strikes launched by the Israeli Air Force against suspected arms shipments to Hezbollah during which Syria launched an SA-5 missile at the jets. Israel’s Arrow anti-missile system reportedly intercepted the missile and Syrian officials later appealed to Russia put pressure on Israel to stop the air raids.

Rumors. Syrians near the Tabqa dam west of the Islamic State’s capital in Raqqa are frightened and confused following conflicting reports that the structure was damaged in recent fighting. The BBC reports that the Islamic State put out a statement saying airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition had compromised the structural integrity of the dam and that it was on the verge of collapse. The U.S. recently airlifted Syrian anti-Islamic State fighters near the dam, but Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve tweeted on Sunday that “to our knowledge, the dam has not been structurally damaged.” Nonetheless, some Syrian civilians are already picking up and moving out of the area.

Membership. Congress will vote this week on Montenegro’s bid to join NATO. The tiny Balkan country hopes to join the alliance despite opposition from Russia, which Montenegrin authorities accuse of backing a failed plot to assassinate the country’s former pro-NATO prime minister. Trump administration officials from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to European Command chief Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti have all voiced their support for the bid. Montenegro’s accession has strong backing from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) but some, like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) have argued against extending membership.

Shade. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is notoriously averse to the press, booting all but one favored reporter from his trip to China, cutting back on the department’s press briefings, and offering little public commentary. Why? “I don’t understand, exactly. He must have had some good reason for that,” says George Shultz, who served as secretary of state in the Reagan administration. Speaking to CBS’s Face the Nation, Shultz argued that reporters help communicate a secretary’s vision to the world. “So maybe they’re on your side, maybe they’re not, but at least try to help them get the facts straight,” he said.

 
Photo Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/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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