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SitRep: No More U.S. Combat Troops in Iraq; Troop Surge Expected in Afghanistan; Russia Bans U.S. Flights in Syria

SitRep: No More U.S. Combat Troops in Iraq; Troop Surge Expected in Afghanistan; Russia Bans U.S. Flights in Syria

 

With Adam Rawnsley

No U.S. troops in Iraq, except…There will be no U.S. combat troops in Iraq once the battle against the Islamic State wraps up, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi said Friday, even as U.S. and Iraqi officials insist that negotiations between the two countries over the issue continue.

Abadi’s comments likely refer to American Special Operations Forces who carry out raids against militants, as he appeared to remain open to some troops staying behind to train and advise Iraq’s security forces. Just hours before Abadi’s announcement, a U.S. official told the AP, “there is a general understanding on both sides that it would be in the long-term interests of each to have that continued presence.” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is involved in the talks, which revolve around “what the long-term U.S. presence would look like,” the American official said, adding that “nothing has been finalized.”

There are over 5,000 American troops currently on the ground in Iraq, the vast majority of which are training Iraqi troops, or are working in non-combat roles. There are about 200 Special Forces troops advising Iraqi forces in and around Mosul.

Add it up. As the Iraqis look to gradually reduce the U.S. footprint in their country, more American troops may be heading to reinforce the nation’s longest war in Afghanistan. Theresa Whelan, a senior Pentagon official who testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday, said the Trump administration was “actively looking at adjustments” to the U.S. commitment in the country, and “I expect that these proposals will go to the president within the next week, and the intent is to…move beyond the stalemate.”

“More conventional forces that would thicken the ability to advise and assist Afghan forces — that would absolutely be to our benefit,” said Gen. Tony Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command who testified alongside Whelan. President Trump is attending a NATO summit in Brussels on May 25, and a decision is expected by then.

Investment. The commander of the 9,800 U.S. and 5,000 NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, has said several times he could use more troops to help train the Afghan forces. Defense officials have put the number at somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000. Washington has spent about $71 billion training and equipping the Afghan army over the past 16 years, and despite that investment, the Taliban remains in control of large areas of the country and outside terrorist groups like the Islamic State have moved in. Last month, two U.S. Army Rangers were killed fighting ISIS in Eastern Afghanistan.

No fly? Under a plan agreed to by Russia, Iran and Turkey on Thursday, U.S. aircraft would be barred from flying over four “safe zones” in Syria, save for carrying out operations against ISIS or al Qaeda-affiliated groups. The memorandum would also ban flights by the Syrian air force.

Russian official Alexander Lavrentyev added on Friday in televised remarks that all military aircraft — including those from Russia and Turkey — would also be banned from the designated zones. Lavrentyev added, “the operation of aviation in the de-escalation zones, especially of the forces of the international coalition, is absolutely not envisaged, either with notification or without. This question is closed.” The U.S. Central Command has not yet commented on the proposal, which the United States was not a party to.

Kremlin has a new weapon in Syria. Russia has kept its ground presence in Syria relatively low-key up to this point, insisting that most troops are maintaining aircraft, or training and advising Syrian forces. But that might be changing. FP contributor Neil Hauer notes that the Kremlin has now “deployed an unprecedented Russian weapon to Syria: several units of Chechen and Ingush commandos hailing from Russia’s restive North Caucasus region.”

More: “The ongoing deployment of the Chechen and Ingush brigades marks a strategic shift for the Kremlin: Russia now has its own elite ground personnel, drawn from its Sunni Muslim population, placed across Syria. This growing presence allows the Kremlin to have a greater role in shaping events on the ground as it digs in for the long term. Such forces could prove vital in curtailing any action taken by the Assad regime that would undermine Moscow’s wider interests in the Middle East while offering a highly effective method for the Kremlin to project power at a reduced political cost.”

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

Sanctions. Congress is taking aim at North Korean shipping, with the House passing a bill to sanction its maritime commerce industry as well as companies that trade with Pyongyang. The move adds weight to recent threats from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said the U.S. is preparing additional penalties “if it turns out North Korea’s actions warrant additional sanctions.” China, which would likely be affected by any new sanctions on North Korean commerce, responded with a boilerplate statement about opposition to unilateral sanctions from the United States. The legislation now moves to the Senate, but it is unclear when or if the upper chamber will move on the bill.  

Pleas. Federal prosecutors have struck a plea deal with the U.S. Naval officer they accused of spying for Taiwan and China. The AP reports that the government has walked back its most severe allegations against Lt. Cmdr. Edward Lin, dropping charges accusing him of espionage and instead copping a plea deal admitting to mishandling classified information and disclosing secrets to a foreign national. Despite the plea deal, Lin still faces a potentially stiff sentence with the possibility of up to 36 years in prison.

Syria. An unnamed Western intelligence agency tells the BBC that the Assad regime is still producing chemical weapons, despite a 2013 deal struck by the Obama administration for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons capabilities. An intelligence report shared with the news outlet says production is continuing at three separate facilities in Hama province and near Damascus. Inspectors for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons visited two of the sites recently but intelligence officials believe weapons work is still continuing in secret sections of the sites.

Intercepts. Russia’s hijinks off the coast of Alaska continue, with Moscow sending Tu-95 bombers and Su-35 Flanker fighter jets into the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone, Stars and Stripes reports. The incident marks the debut of Russia’s Su-35, the Russian air force’s latest and greatest fighter, in such operations. The U.S. in turn sent stealth F-22 air superiority fighters to intercept the aircraft, but officials described the interaction as routine as safe.      

Collateral damage. An investigation by U.S. Central Command has found that American drones and military aircraft struck a mosque in Syria back in March, sources tell CNN. The admission is an about face for the command, which initially claimed that its forces it had hit another building some 40 feet away from the mosque and denied the existence of any civilian casualties. The U.S. typically tries to avoid hitting mosques, placing them on a no-strike list unless they’re empty or being used by terrorists. Officials wouldn’t tell the cable news outlet whether the mosque was on a no-strike list. Up to 40 people were killed in the attack, which reportedly took place during a meeting of the local Tabligh religious group.

The king is dead. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley is declaring war on the Whopper. Speaking at the Army and Navy Club, Milley said the American habit of installing the comforts of home in the form of fast food at forward operating bases abroad will come to an end. “We have got to condition ourselves to operate — untether ourselves from this umbilical cord of logistics and supply that American forces have enjoyed for a long time,” Milley said. He argued that future wars will likely pose threats to troops at U.S. facilities abroad in the form of electronic warfare, necessitating a force that’s more accustomed to harsh conditions.

Photo Credit: NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images