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Situation Report: Waiting in Vienna; supplying Bahrain; countries buffering against Islamic State and Kurds; new Army brass; and lots more

Situation Report: Waiting in Vienna; supplying Bahrain; countries buffering against Islamic State and Kurds; new Army brass; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

The new, final countdown. While negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear program were originally slated to wrap up Tuesday, the deadline looks to have been busted — again. As with past rounds of talks, negotiators say they need just a little more time to eke out a historic deal that would ease years of crippling sanctions against Iran’s economy. Tehran signaled Tuesday that it remains committed to clinching an agreement, and sent two new top officials to the negotiating table in Vienna: Hossein Fereydoun, the close adviser and younger brother of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency and Tehran’s former foreign minister. U.S. officials, meanwhile, say they need to have an agreement in hand by July 9 or risk giving Congress more time to undo the final deal.

While the final contours of any possible deal are still being hammered out, FP’s Elias Groll surveys the historical record of previous inspection regimes in North Korea and Iraq to determine just how much access inspectors will have to Iranian sites.

Old friends, new friends. While the idea of rekindling ties with a country that already hosts thousands of your troops, docks an entire fleet of your warships, and acts as a landing pad for scores of your fighter planes might seem a bit like a distinction without a difference, well, welcome to the world of national security.

On Monday, the State Department said millions of dollars in security assistance — and U.S. military equipment — would once again start flowing to the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain after Washington suspended some help following the country’s brutal crackdown on majority Shiites during 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations.

It’s not like the country had been cut off, however. The kingdom has hosted the 7,000 sailors and Marines of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet since 1946, including the Marine headquarters in the region. Over the past several years, the Defense Department has also been dropping some real cash on improving its facilities in the country, including a $580 million modernization project in 2010 that will allow more and bigger U.S. warships to dock, along with a $45 million investment in expanding the runways at Shaykh Isa Air Base for U.S. fighters and surveillance planes. Another $19 million also has gone to building a U.S. Special Ops facility there.

Say it with us: Your phrase of the day is “buffer zone.” Turkey has talked up the idea of creating one along its border with Syria for some time now, but the recent success of Kurdish fighters in Syria’s north – prodded along by U.S. airpower – may be pushing Ankara to consider sending thousands of troops over the border. The idea is that the troops would provide some strategic depth for rebels and humanitarian operations and preempt the growth of strong Kurdish militias, thereby decreasing the chances a Kurdish statelet could emerge. On Monday, we also learned that Jordan is considering a Syrian buffer zone of its its own.

The Jordanians are concerned that jihadi groups like the Islamic State could fill the vacuum if Syrian troops, viewed as increasingly shaky, lost control of cities close to the Jordanian border like Deraa. Washington appears to have been caught a bit flat-footed by the moves, with the State Department pouring cold water on the idea, saying that there was no “solid evidence” that either Turkey or Jordan were about to launch a buffer zone, and Defense Department officials either shrugging their shoulders or pointing reporters toward Foggy Bottom for answers.

Who’s counting? It’s been a year since the Islamic State’s leadership declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and where do we stand? The Defense Department has spent about $2.8 billion on a bombing campaign targeting extremists in the two countries; 3,500 U.S. soldiers have been committed to training Iraqi troops; Baghdad is still trying to figure out how to retake Mosul, Ramadi, and Fallujah; and Iraqi forces still struggle to control the now inoperable hub of its oil production at Baiji.

Over in Syria, the jihadists who were pushed out of the town of Kobani by Kurdish fighters returned over the weekend to slaughter hundreds of civilians in a lightning assault before being wiped out by the Kurds. The U.S. training program of “moderate” rebels is struggling to find its legs. U.S. military officials, however, claim that as many as 10,000 Islamic State fighters have been killed in the past year – out of an estimated force of 20,000 to 30,000 fighters replenished by rat lines from Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa — and the militants have been pushed out of 25 percent of the territory it held in Iraq at this time last year.

Good morning from the team at the Situation Report, where we replenish the news each morning. There is a lot happening out there, even with Congress back home stumping with the locals during the short holiday week, but our inbox is still open. Drop a note at paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary

On the move

The nomination of U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley to take over as the Army’s next chief of staff is starting to have a ripple effect on the rest of the service’s top brass. Milley, former head of the Army’s Forces Command has already been replaced by Gen. Robert “ Abe” Abrams, who just received his fourth star and has been confirmed by the Senate to run Forscom. Abrams had been serving as the senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel until he stepped down in February. Hagel and was replaced by Ash Carter, who wasted little time in naming U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Ron Lewis has his new top military advisor.

Elsewhere in the Army, Lt. Gen. Kenneth E. Tovo is slated to take charge of the U.S. Army Special Operations command on Wednesday. Tovo, a West Point grad who has served in the 82nd Airborne, 10th Special Forces Group, Delta Force and most recently as commander of Southern Command, takes over from current commander Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland, who is retiring after 37 years in the Army. Cleveland played a key role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the head of all U.S. commandos in the Middle East during the the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011.

Spies like us

It’s not easy snooping on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the CIA’s former deputy director said on Monday. For U.S. spies, “the challenges are significant” in both countries, Stephen Kappes told a think tank audience, adding that it’s even harder in Syria where agents spend just as much time trying to stay alive as they do collecting information, reports FP’s Sean Naylor.

Afghanistan

The Islamic State is not only building a caliphate in the Mideast but has also spread into Africa and Afghanistan. Reuters has dropped a lengthy article detailing how that conflict is playing out in eastern Afghanistan. The piece draws on a number of interviews with witnesses who have seen Islamic State-aligned fighters wrest territory from the Taliban. It’s unclear yet whether the Islamic State has the capability to really pose a strategic threat on the Taliban’s home turf, but the accounts of well-funded fighters flying under the banner of an increasingly popular jihadi brand might make some in the Taliban’s Quetta Shura a little nervous.

The Gulf

As the Saudi-led campaign against Houthi rebels continues to drag on, one of the open questions for military geeks has been whether the remaining stockpile of SCUD ballistic missiles in Yemen, now controlled by the Houthis, could pose a threat to the Saudis. Earlier this month, the group launched a SCUD towards Saudi Arabia, which the Saudis shot down with U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles. Now, Yemen’s Brig. Gen. Sharaf Luqman claims to have launched and successfully hit a missile base inside Saudi with another SCUD. Still no word yet from the Saudis on the apparent launch.

Shutting it down

After spending at least $726 million between 2007 and 2014 in Iraq and Afghanistan on a controversial program that embedded academics into ground combat units, the U.S. Army shut down the Human Terrain System program last fall, USA Today’s Tom Vanden Brook reports. American commanders in Afghanistan, more concerned these days with training Afghan forces than trying to win over local tribesmen, apparently no longer have a need for the advice of civilian anthropologists. During the brief history of the program, critics in the academic community slammed participants for cozying up the military, and some officers bristled at being given advice by academics who parachuted in on orders from Washington.

Meanwhile, on the homefront

Between the public and private removals of Confederate flags this week and CNN’s, err, unfortunate misinterpretation of a satirical Islamic State flag at a London gay pride parade, it’s pretty hard for news readers to escape the semaphore of America’s wars, past and present. Now, the news cycle is collapsing upon itself with word that Walmart recently presented a Louisiana man with an Islamic State flag sheet cake after it denied his Confederate-themed dessert request.

China

Satellite imagery spotted by Bellingcat’s Chris Biggers shows three Chinese BZK-005 drones parked on Daishan Island in the East China Sea. Biggers writes that China is using the drones to monitor foreign activity in the waters off China’s coast. Given that Japan has scrambled to intercept Chinese drones flying over disputed islands before, Japanese and American activity in the region are the likeliest targets for drones taking off from Daishan.

Think tanked

Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy, from the Congressional Research Service.