Situation Report: McGurk to become anti-ISIS czar; new debate over U.S. role in Mideast war; who has American ammo in Syria?; U.S., Israel spy games; Russian soldiers speak; Islamic State in Africa; Obama vetoes NDAA; and lots more
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Define “advise and assist.” For the first time in four years, a U.S. soldier has died in Iraq, and his death in a raid in northern Iraq on Thursday has set off a debate over the meaning of the U.S. “train and assist” program there. The incident kicked off ...
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
Define “advise and assist.” For the first time in four years, a U.S. soldier has died in Iraq, and his death in a raid in northern Iraq on Thursday has set off a debate over the meaning of the U.S. “train and assist” program there.
The incident kicked off when U.S. Delta Force soldiers accompanied Kurdish special forces on a mission to free prisoners at an Islamic State prison near Kirkuk. Originally, the American special operators were there only to advise, but “in the heat of combat they saw their friends taking some casualties” so they joined the assault, one military official told FP’s Paul McLeary. That decision cost an American life, and has led a variety of U.S. officials to insist that U.S. forces are not going to be involved in direct ground combat in Iraq. Except, of course, when they are.
President Barack Obama has for the past year insisted that U.S. military personnel in Iraq are tasked only with performing non-combat advise and assist missions, and Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Thursday that despite the American combat death, “U.S. forces are not in an active combat mission in Iraq.” On Friday morning, Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of the U.S. effort in Iraq, echoed Cook, issuing a statement that the mission “does not represent a change in our policy. U.S. forces are not in Iraq on a combat mission and do not have boots on the ground.”
“The job from hell.” There is another layer of bureaucracy hovering over the international fight against the Islamic State, and it’s currently run by (ret.) Gen. John Allen, President Barack Obama’s envoy to the 60-nation coalition. Allen has spent much of the last year shuttling between the capitals of the Middle East and Europe to keep the coalition together, but he’s leaving the post soon. Administration officials tell FP’s Dan De Luce and John Hudson that President Obama plans to name Ambassador Brett McGurk, Allen’s number two, to fill the post some time over the next several days.
Unlike some czars from previous campaigns, however, McGurk will continue to be based at the State Department, which means like Allen, he will have to defer to U.S. military commanders and won’t be able to force changes to strategy. Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, told De Luce and Hudson that without this power, “it will be the job from hell, and I don’t see why anyone would want it.” He added, “either you don’t have an envoy at all or you give him or her real clout.”
Who has the ammo? Meanwhile, the Washington Post’s Liz Sly reports from Syria that the 50 tons of ammunition air-dropped by the U.S. military last week to Arab rebels in Syria has actually ended up in the hands of Kurdish forces, who are fighting alongside Arab units. The story, like a handful of others from reporters on the ground in Syria, directly contradicts comments by Pentagon officials who continue to deny this is true, insisting that the ammo is in the hand of the Syrian Arabs.
Spy games. The Wall Street Journal published a fascinating piece late Thursday on strained U.S.-Israel intelligence ties and mutual espionage between the two countries throughout the Obama administration. The story is chocked full of details about Israeli and U.S. covert operations against Iran, showing how distrust between the two countries developed as the U.S. opted not to share its most sensitive intelligence operations, and details how Israel constantly pushed for more aggressive covert operations than the White House wanted.
No fly? No go? The White House is engaging in some high level debates over the wisdom of trying to set up a no-fly zone in northern Syria, and the results aren’t good. The New York Times dishes on the latest meeting on Monday at the White House that included Defense Secretary Ash Carter — but not President Obama — to look at the latest Pentagon estimates for what the mission would entail. At the end of the meeting, “advocates of a greater American role left discouraged.” The meeting reflected the distrust between the White House and the generals, with the Times reporting some in the White House “said they suspected that Pentagon officials, who have been resistant to further American military intervention in Syria, inflated the figures to persuade the president not to change his policy.”
Smile for the cameras! While western leaders struggle to figure out what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s endgame is in Syria, a group of Russian soldiers on the ground there seem to be taking the whole thing in stride. FP’s Siobhan O’Grady and Reid Standish translate a short interview the soldiers did with France24 on Thursday, in which one said they have “been there since the beginning and will stay to the end.”
The soldiers, who demanded that their faces remain hidden, said they assume they won’t be deployed to Syria for very much longer, since the campaign is going “very well.” But soldiers being soldiers, they also had some gripes. Chief among them is the quality of the Syrians they’re training. “You know, the Syrians have everything they need [including] tanks…but the mentality isn’t there,” one grunt said. He compared the behavior of Syrians to that of Chechens, whom the Russian supplied in the early 1990s, saying “these guys just sell everything to the enemy.” Sounds much like the complaints American soldiers have made over the past decade while training Iraqi and Afghan forces….
Heading south. Attacks by the Islamic State are up around the world, and the group is using that violence to consolidate its grip on existing territory rather than capturing new ground, notes FP‘s Paul McLeary. Figures from IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre show a 42 percent increase in violence carried out by the Islamic State between July and September. But contrary to what many might think, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, which has affiliated with the Islamic State under the name Wilayat Gharb Afriqiyya, racked up a higher death toll in that period than the group’s forces in Syria and Iraq.
Look out! Fire up the FOIA requests my friends, the Pentagon Inspector General is gearing up to examine the American train, advise, and assist program with the Kurdish Security Forces. They’re coming to Centcom soon, so prepare to break out the Power Points…
Good morning all! Thanks for joining us yet again here at SitRep. As we close out the week, we like to think that we cast a pretty wide net over here, but if you have any juicy tidbits, or national security-related events pop up on your radar, please pass them along! Best way is to send them to email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
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Israel is keeping a close and wary eye on Russian forces in Syria with help from its spy satellites, according to imagery obtained by Defense News. The outlet purchased images taken by the Israeli satellite imagery firm ImageSat International and found that the company has been taking plenty of snaps of Russian forces deployed to bases in Syria’s Latakia province. The images represent just the tip of the iceberg of what Israel’s other spy satellites can do, given that the ImageSat pics are publicly available.
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the birth control devices of war. A new video making the rounds on social media purports to show fighters from the Islamic State attempting to take down Russian jets by releasing explosives attached to condom balloons en masse into the air. Points for creativity, minus several thousand for effectiveness.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has floated the idea that he could work with Syrian rebels to take the Islamic State while speaking to a conference in Moscow on Tuesday, the BBC reports. Despite the seemingly open door, Putin appeared unwilling to grant too much legitimacy to the Syrian opposition, lambasting the U.S.-led coalition for “dividing terrorists into moderates and non-moderates” — a comment which appears to cast all Syrian rebels as terrorists.
It’s good to be the ayatollah. The nuclear deal the U.S. and its European allies negotiated with Iran is on track to take effect and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stands ready to personally profit from the accord, Reuters reports. Khamenei reportedly controls Setad, a $95 billion conglomerate comprised of over 40 Iranian companies with holdings around the world. As part of the nuclear deal, the U.S. will lift sanctions on Setad and Khamenei, along with a number of others within Iran’s ruling elite with stakes in the conglomerate, who stand to benefit from the company’s more favorable future business climate.
Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, says America’s military edge in space is starting to slip thanks to concerted efforts by adversaries like Russia and China to develop weapons that can knock out American satellites, according to National Defense. China, in particular, has tested missiles that could take out U.S. spy satellites and blind the American military in the event of war. Adm. Haney said the Pentagon is trying to cope with the threat by improving situational awareness in space for early detection of potential threats to American space assets.
President Obama vetoed Congress’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which authorizes the Defense Department’s budget. At issue are Congressional attempts to bypass sequestration restrictions recommended by the Congressional “super committee” on deficit reduction and passed into law in 2013. White House spokesman Eric Schultz labeled the NDAA’s workaround of sequestration — which would have allowed the Pentagon to pay its normal bills with funding from the overseas contingency operations account reserved to fund wars — as creating a “slush fund.”
Who’s where when
10:00 a.m. Gen. John F. Kelly, Commander, United States Southern Command, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Bobby Chesney, a law professor who focuses on national security issues, wades into the emerging debate over the U.S. raid in northern Iraq on Thursday, writing that the episode “illustrates in a vivid way something that should have been clear already: the “assist” part of the train-and-assist mission is not just a synonym for “train,” and it certainly doesn’t mean our forces stay on base and out of harm’s way.”
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