The Cable

FP’s Situation Report: U.S. troops come under fire in Iraq; 2014 death toll in Syria is catastrophic; North Korea backs down under U.S. and U.N. pressure; and much more.

By David Francis with Sabine Muscat The war creeps ever closer to American military advisers in Iraq. President Barack Obama has repeatedly pledged no U.S. soldiers would be involved in combat against the Islamic State. In Iraq, they are currently confined to bases, yet 300 Americans are under heavy artillery and rocket fire in western Anbar ...

By David Francis with Sabine Muscat

The war creeps ever closer to American military advisers in Iraq. President Barack Obama has repeatedly pledged no U.S. soldiers would be involved in combat against the Islamic State. In Iraq, they are currently confined to bases, yet 300 Americans are under heavy artillery and rocket fire in western Anbar province and more troops are on the way. The Pentagon is facing a stark reality: No matter the precautions, soldiers are at risk of being dragged into the fight.

The Washington Post’s Missy Ryan and Erin Cunningham: “In a sign of the risks, military officials said American soldiers have been transported to the Ayn al-Asad base under the cover of night by helicopter — partly to maintain a low profile for the renewed U.S. operation in Iraq but also to protect U.S. personnel amid fierce fighting west of the capital, Baghdad.” More here.

Syrians suffer catastrophic losses as the brutal fight for their country rages on. The loss of life in Syria in 2014 was astounding: According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 76,000 people — including 3,500 children — were killed, making last year the deadliest since the war began in 2011. It’s difficult to hope for a brighter 2015 as the civil war, as well as the war against the Islamic State, continues with no end in sight.

The New York Times’ Rick Gladstone and Mohammad Ghannam: “The 2014 casualty figures were issued as Syria’s state-run news agency reported that Mr. Assad, in a New Year’s Eve morale-boosting gesture, had visited soldiers on the front lines in Jobar, an embattled suburb of Damascus. Images posted on the news agency’s website showed Mr. Assad, minus his signature mustache, greeting his troops.” More here.

More on the Islamic State below.

North Korea backs down in its standoff with South Korea and the West. Seoul has consistently kept an open door to talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The elusive leader finally reached out Thursday, unexpectedly telling his people that he would consider talks at the “highest level” with South Korea for the first time since 2007. This marks a dramatic shift in tone from a typically defiant Pyongyang, under siege at the U.N. for its human rights record and in Washington for its alleged role in a cyberattack against Sony.

The Wall Street Journal’s Alastair Gale: “A meeting of Mr. Kim with South Korean President Park Geun-hye would be the first inter-Korean summit since Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, met former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in Pyongyang in October 2007. The current North Korean leader has yet to meet a foreign head of state since taking power in late 2011.” More here.

More on North Korea below.

Welcome to Friday’s edition of the Situation Report.

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Who’s Where When Today

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey have no public or media events on their schedules.

President Obama is on vacation in Hawaii.

What’s Moving Markets

The Wall Street Journal’s Josh Zumbrun on how economic troubles overseas are testing the resiliency of the American economy: “The U.S. economy enters 2015 with the strongest momentum in at least a decade and as the fittest of all the industrialized nations. The question is whether that muscle can help yank the rest of the world out of its doldrums.” More here.

Reuters’s Michelle Moghtader on Iran’s deputy foreign minister calling on Saudi Arabia to intervene against falling oil prices: “Hossein Amir Abdollahian described Saudi Arabia’s inaction in the face of a six-month slide in oil prices as a strategic mistake and said he still hoped the kingdom, Tehran’s main rival in the Gulf, would respond.” More here.

The New York Times’ Mark Scott on an EU tax increase: “Under the new rules, first approved in 2008, the tax rate on digital services like cloud storage and movie streaming will be determined by where consumers live, and not where the company selling the product has its European headquarters. Tax experts say Europe’s revamped rules could add up to an extra $1 billion in annual tax revenue for European governments.” More here.

Islamic State

McClatchy’s Roy Gutman on unheeded warnings: “Two months before Mosul and other cities in northern Iraq fell to the Islamic State last June, representatives of a Syrian rebel group called on the new U.S. special envoy for Syria with an outline of a plan to stop the extremists.” More here.

The Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer on Islamists releasing a video of two kidnapped Italian aid workers: “The idealistic aid volunteers Vanessa Marzullo and Greta Ramelli, both in their 20s, appear considerably thinner and paler and dressed in black chadors, leaving just their faces and hands uncovered, they beg in the brief video for the Italian government to get them home.” More here.

Quartz’s Devjyot Ghoshal and Saptarishi Dutta: “The Indian government has blocked a clutch of websites — including Github, the ubiquitous platform that software writers use for sharing and working on open-source code — because they were carrying ‘anti-India’ content from ISIL.… The video site Vimeo, text repository Pastebin.com, and web-hosting provider Weebly are among the other sites that appear to have been affected.” More here.

Reuters on the latest air strikes: “The United States and its allies staged 29 air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq on Wednesday.” More here.

North Korea

The Intercept’s Jana Winter on new hacking threats: “The hackers who infiltrated Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computer servers have threatened to attack an American news media organization, according to an FBI bulletin obtained by The Intercept.” More here.

Afghanistan

Tolo News’s Sayed Abbas Kazemi on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s recent remarks: “Ghani, who was the head of security transition commission during Karzai’s government, called on the citizens, especially the religious leaders to support the security forces and also stand by the gains made over the past decade, especially women’s gains.” More here.

The New York Times’ Dave Philipps on the continuing sacrifices of American soldiers: “Even with the official end of combat, more casualties may still arrive. Operation Enduring Freedom, as the Pentagon called the war in Afghanistan, will now become Operation Resolute Support, a scaled-down mission involving about 12,000 troops who will indefinitely advise Afghan forces in the fight against Taliban insurgents.” More here.

AP’s Rahim Faiez and Lynne O’Donnell on an Afghan army proving ground: “Heavy fighting has been raging for almost three weeks, with wave after wave of Taliban militants assaulting this picturesque but poverty-stricken district of Kunar province just four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the border with Pakistan, officials and residents said.” More here.

The Associated Press reports Afghan police are investigating an apparent army rocket strike on a wedding party that killed more than 28. More here.

Deutsche Welle’s Gabriel Domínguez reports 2014 was the deadliest year on record for Afghan civilians. More here.

Russia

Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin on Washington’s efforts to reach out to Moscow: “President Barack Obama’s administration has been working behind the scenes for months to forge a new working relationship with Russia, despite the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown little interest in repairing relations with Washington or halting his aggression in neighboring Ukraine.” More here.  

FP’s David Rothkopf on the biggest foreign policy story of 2015: “And that story is the economic crisis now brewing within Russia as global oil markets have plummeted and its resource-centric economy is being squeezed. This, combined with continuing stirrings of opposition to Putin and ham-fisted attempts to suppress that opposition from the government, suggests that 2015 could be a very rough year indeed for a Russia that, while economically weak, is still a nuclear power and an international force to be reckoned with.” More here.  

The New York Times’ David M. Herszenhorn on fading protests in Moscow: “In the end, Russia’s ‘white ribbon’ opposition, which roared to life in December 2011 hoping to oust Vladimir V. Putin from power, came down to this: not quite two dozen stalwarts huddled all night inside an oversize Christmas tree ornament just outside the Kremlin walls, awaiting inevitable arrest. By morning, it came.” More here.

New Congress

Defense News’s John T. Bennett reports on the GOP’s 2015 national security agenda. More here.

India/Pakistan

Voice of America reports India and Pakistan exchanged deadly fire in Kashmir. More here.

Guantánamo

The New York Times’ William Neuman on Cubans and Guantánamo: “Despite the sudden thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba, the base here remains a sore point for Cubans, a deeply felt grievance that the Castros, first Fidel and now his brother Raúl, have long pointed to as a stinging symbol of American imperialism.” More here.

China

FP’s Isaac Stone Fish on Beijing and Hollywood: “Beijing poses a major censorship threat because the ruling Chinese Communist Party is keenly sensitive to criticism and has the economic muscle to punish those in Hollywood who make films that displease it.” More here.

Nikkei interviews Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer on the possibility of a new Cold War between the United States and China. More here.

Israel

FP’s John Hudson on a Palestinian push at the International Criminal Court: “The State Department sharply criticized Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday after he applied for state membership in the International Criminal Court. Abbas’s move, long-opposed by Washington and Jerusalem, paves the way for the filing of war crimes charges against Israel for its bombing campaign in Gaza last summer.” More here.

The New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren with more: “The cases Palestinians plan to bring against Israel, and potential counterclaims against Palestinian officials, are unlike any the International Criminal Court has tackled in its dozen-year history. The Hague court, facing new scrutiny after the collapse last month of its case against the president of Kenya, may be wary of wading into the fraught politics of the Middle East, though doing so could help it rebuff longstanding criticism of its emphasis on pursuing African despots.” More here.

Haaretz on Israeli primaries: “Although only around 30 percent of the ballots have been tallied, Likud’s prospective Knesset slate is beginning to take shape. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the race for party leader.” More here.

NSA

The Wall Street Journal’s Felicia Schwartz on expiring spy authorities: “A debate over the reach of U.S. surveillance networks heads unresolved into 2015, after calls for drastic spying limits were blunted by the recent surge in global extremism, but a statutory deadline looms at midyear.” More here.

Ebola

The New York Times’ Donald G. McNeil Jr. on a split over Ebola treatment: “Medical experts seeking to stem the Ebola epidemic are sharply divided over whether most patients in West Africa should, or can, be given intravenous hydration, a therapy that is standard in developed countries. Some argue that more aggressive treatment with IV fluids is medically possible and a moral obligation.” More here.

Africa

FP’s Gopal Ratnam on strikes against al-Shabab: “The Pentagon said Wednesday that a Dec. 29 drone strike in Somalia killed Tahlil Abdishakur, head of al-Shabab’s intelligence and security wing, just months after another strike killed the militant group’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, in September.” More here.

The New York Times’ Eric Schmitt on U.S./Nigeria relations: “The United States’ original effort to help locate and rescue the girls produced scant results, American and Nigerian officials said, in part because of distrust. Although the United States reached an agreement with Nigeria last spring to share some intelligence, American officials did not include raw intelligence data because they believe that Boko Haram has infiltrated the Nigerian security services.” More here.

United Nations

Xinhua reports on Angola, Malaysia, New Zealand, Venezuela, and Spain joining the U.N. Security Council as non-permanent members. More here.

And finally, the Peterson Institute’s Kevin Stahler says there are many other movies we should be watching about North Korea that promise to be more insightful than The Interview. More here.

 

 

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