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Situation Report: Huge Kurdish assault on Sinjar; blind over Kunduz; U.S. foreign assistance numbers come in; Kenyan military sharing trade with al Shabab; journos tour Russian air base in Syria; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley BREAKING: A U.S. military official said Thursday morning that Kurdish peshmerga forces have kicked off a major assault on the Iraqi town of Sinjar, supported by a wave of U.S. airstrikes. The attack, which the Kurdistan Region Security Council says includes 7,500 troops, is aimed at  taking back areas ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

BREAKING: A U.S. military official said Thursday morning that Kurdish peshmerga forces have kicked off a major assault on the Iraqi town of Sinjar, supported by a wave of U.S. airstrikes. The attack, which the Kurdistan Region Security Council says includes 7,500 troops, is aimed at  taking back areas lost to the Islamic State last year while severing a critical highway between Islamic State strongholds in Syria with the Iraqi city of Mosul, which also fell to the militants last year.

“We expect this will be a tough fight and we expect that ISIL will defend fiercely,” the official said, using an alternate name for the Islamic State. U.S. forces are present, but not in the thick of the fighting, the official said, “our advisors are located with Kurd headquarters in the area but our guys are well back from the fighting.” The official estimates that the fight for the town itself should for several days, followed by potentially “another week to finalize clearing operations.” Kurdish officials have estimated that there are at least 600 Islamic State fighters in and around Sinjar, which was the site of a major humanitarian disaster last year when the militant group killed hundreds of unarmed civilians, and abducted an untold number of ethnic Yazidi women and girls to be used as sex slaves.

The fight so far. The battle for Sinjar is significant to the overall fight against the group in both Iraq and Syria, as Sinjar sits alongside Iraq’s Highway 47, which is a major enemy supply route between the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, a city that the Iraqi government desperately wants back. The Kurdish government tweeted Thursday morning that after several hours of fighting, “peshmerga forces have reached Highway 47 in two separate areas. Sinjar now isolated from Tal Afar and Syria.”

The U.S. Central Command Thursday morning listed a total of 24 U.S. airstrikes near Sinjar, striking nine separate Islamic State ground units, a variety of “staging areas,” and two suicide car bombs. The car bomb has become a critical weapon in the Islamic State’s arsenal, and the group has been using suicide car bombers in much the same way that armies use artillery or airstrikes, U.S. Army Col. Curtis Buzzard told reporters at the Pentagon earlier this month. “That’s kind of their version of a strike,” said Buzzard, who as a brigade commander in the 82nd Airborne Division, recently returned from a deployment training Iraqi soldiers.

Blind over Kunduz. The U.S. Special Forces unit which called in the AC-130 gunship strike on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan last month “was under fire in the Kunduz provincial governor’s compound,” at least a half-mile from the hospital, according to a new report from the AP’s Ken Dilanian. As a result, the commander didn’t have eyes on the medical facility, and had no personal knowledge of whether the Taliban were using it as a base, as Afghan forces claimed.

There were about 35 members of the U.S. 3rd Special Forces Group in the area, advising about 100 Afghan special forces inside the city. The Americans were coordinating airstrikes to destroy the Taliban’s “remaining command and control nodes around the city,” the report said. The Afghans insisted that the hospital was one of those command centers, and despite ample U.S. intelligence that the hospital was a functioning medical center treating civilians, the unit still called in the strike. It remains unknown how much of this intel made it down to the U.S. forces on the ground.

Spreading the love. The State Department’s new Foreign Assistance report which tallies up U.S. military aid to allies around the world finds that three quarters of the funding went to just two countries last year: Israel and Egypt. Of the $5.9 billion in military aid the U.S. spent in 2014, Israel received $3.1 billion of it with Egypt getting $1.3 billion.

Pals. U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus met with one of those allies this week, sitting down with Egyptian Minister of Defense Lt. Gen. Sedky Sobhi in Cairo. The two talked recent weapons purchases, including over a billion dollars in U.S. sales of Fast Missile Craft warships to Egypt. “I hope to see our cooperation increase the future,” Mabus said of the military relationship, noting that the U.S. is working closely with Egypt to tackle terrorism.

Thanks again for clicking on through for another day with SitRep. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along! Best way is to send them to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Africa

FP’s Ty McCormick writes about a potentially explosive new report by a watchdog group that claims “key figures in Kenya’s Ministries of Defense and Immigration” have been doing a brisk business in sugar and charcoal in Kismayo, Somalia, since pushing the al-Shabab radical Islamic group from the port city in 2012. Problem is, “the trade has become a key financial lifeline for the terrorist group it is there to fight.” Published by the nonpartisan organization Journalists for Justice, “the report accuses top Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) officials within the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) of being involved in an illicit export operation worth between $200 and $400 million per year.”

The U.S. is putting new money on the table in Somalia, advertising $27 million worth of rewards for information on how to find the leadership of al Shabab, according to the BBC. Top prize of $6 million goes to anyone who can help deliver Abu Ubaidah, the al-Qaeda-linked group’s replacement for Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike.

Syria

Something blew up near the airport in the Syrian capital of Damascus on Wednesday night and reports suggest Israeli warplanes may have targeted an arms shipment bound for Hezbollah. Smoke and flames were reported at multiple sites near an airport in Damascus, and Israeli defense officials hinted to Haartez that Israeli jets could have targeted a weapons convoy, indicating a weapons transfer that crossed an Israeli “red line.”

World powers are in the midst of talks that the AP calls “the most serious yet” in the search for a political solution to Syria’s civil war, but don’t hold your breath just yet. Russian, American, European and — for the first time — Iranian diplomats are sitting down for talks that reflect a new urgency to end the four-year conflict. Nonetheless, a Russian proposal for a Syrian constitutional reform package and to hold presidential and parliamentary elections is not finding any takers among backers of Syrian rebels who have pushed for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Russian Ministry of Defense flew about 50 journalists to the Hmeymim airbase in Syria to show off the jets it is using in the air campaign in Syria, and get briefed on their specs by Russian pilots — quickly posting the whole thing on Facebook, of course. Russia’s Defense Ministry said the 50 reporters from a dozen countries aren’t the first batch of journos Russia has taken on this particular junket.

Afghanistan

Afghans are protesting the beheadings of members of the Hazara minority group carried out by Islamic State adherents in the country. The L.A. Times says protesters from one of the capital’s largest demonstrations in years carried coffins of the dead — including one from a 9 year-old girl — through the streets of Kabul.

Ukraine

Despite a September 1 ceasefire with Russian-backed rebels, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told the country’s National Security and Defense Council that new violence is aimed at undermining the subsequent peace, citing 21 violations of the accord and the recent wounding of Ukrainian troops in skirmishes with rebels.

F-35

Norway’s two brand new F-35 fighter jets have flown into Arizona’s Luke Air Force Base straight from the assembly line in Fort Worth, Texas to prepare for training alongside American pilots. Luke is home the F-35 training effort, with two of Australia’s F-35s already at the base. Eight countries will send their copies of the stealth jets to Luke for training.

Who’s where when

11:15 a.m. President Barack Obama will award (ret.) Captain Florent A. Groberg, a U.S. Army veteran, the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry at the White House. Groberg will receive the award for tackling a suicide bomber while serving as the leader of the personal security detachment for his brigade commander in Asadabad, Kunar Province, Afghanistan on August 8, 2012. He sustained serious injuries to his left leg in the ensuing explosion, and was eventually medically retired from the Army.

12:30 p.m. The Stimson Center is holding a debate between Elbridge Colby, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and Ward Wilson, director of the Rethinking Nuclear Weapons project at the British American Security Information Council, on “nuclear weapons pose unacceptable risks to international security.”

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