The Cable

Situation Report: Congress takes an interest in Saudi weapons shipments; Pentagon counts bodies; Bergdahl channels Jason Bourne; $3 billion drone plan; new war plans in Congress; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Looking under the hood. Washington’s support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting it out with Houthi rebels in Yemen appears unwavering, but some members of Congress now want a heads up when new batches of U.S. weapons are shipped to Riyadh. FP’s John Hudson scoops that members of the ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Looking under the hood. Washington’s support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting it out with Houthi rebels in Yemen appears unwavering, but some members of Congress now want a heads up when new batches of U.S. weapons are shipped to Riyadh. FP’s John Hudson scoops that members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee want notification of when shipments of the newly-inked deal for $1.3 billion in bombs and other warheads are sent to Riyadh, though they don’t really have any intention of stopping the flow.

“The move signals a growing unease on Capitol Hill with the Saudi-led war effort against Houthi rebels in Yemen, a conflict the United Nations says has killed more than 5,700 people and has forced another 2.3 million from their homes,” Hudson writes. The U.S. is heavily involved in the war, and FP has been tracking the hundreds of sorties U.S. planes have flown to refuel Saudi and Emirati jets over the past eight months, pumping millions of gallons of fuel into their bombers while they hunt for targets in Yemen.

Targeted. The Pentagon says it isn’t into body counts, but as the Islamic State dead add up in Iraq and Syria, spokesmen rarely hesitate to add them up. U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have taken out the Islamic State’s finance minister and two other senior leaders over the last several weeks, a U.S. military spokesman said on Thursday, adding that strikes have also killed an estimated 350 ISIS fighters around Ramadi over the past week alone.

Pentagon officials have estimated that about 20,000 Islamic State fighters have been killed since airstrikes started in August, 2014. But those deaths don’t appear to have made a dent in the overall strength of the group, which most estimates assume still fields 20,000 to 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria.

Coalition strikes killed Abu Salah, the Islamic State’s financial minister in late November, Col. Steve Warren said on Thursday, making him the third ISIS number cruncher killed in as many months. In October, the U.S.-led coalition also kicked off Operation Tidal Wave II, which was aimed at cutting off the group’s ability to pump and ship black market oil in Syria, FP’s David Francis and Dan De Luce recently reported.

Into the wild. Bowe Bergdahl knew pretty quickly he made a mistake after walking off a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan one night in 2009, but he pushed on anyway, convinced he could get through it. Until he saw the motorcycles. And they saw him. According to the first episode of the massively popular “Serial” podcast, which kicked off its second season Thursday by using 25 hours of interviews with Bergdahl to investigate his case, the soldier used a fictional character as inspiration for leaving the base.

“Doing what I did is me saying that I am like, I don’t know, Jason Bourne,” he said. “I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world that I was the real thing.”

Back in a big way. The series has thrust Bergdahl back into the headlines while he awaits the decision of U.S. Army Gen. Robert Abrams on his fate. Army investigators recommended to Abrams in October that Bergdahl receive far less than the possible life imprisonment that charges against him could carry, citing the years of brutal captivity he has already endured by the Taliban.

Thursday also saw the release of a blistering 98-page report produced by House Republicans accusing the Obama administration of breaking several laws in swapping Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners. The report also maintains the Defense Department mislead lawmakers about the deal. The Obama administration failed to give lawmakers a 30 day heads-up before making the May 2014 prisoner exchange, as the law requires. The document also accuses Pentagon officials of failing to provide “complete and accurate information” to House investigators about alternate plans to free Bergdahl, which “threatens to upend a longstanding history and tradition of cooperation and comity” between the panel and the Pentagon, FP’s Paul McLeary writes.

Thanks much for clicking through this morning, the early morning crew here at SitRep HQ is back again for another installment of this little thing we have going on. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ! Best way is to send them to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

Droned

The U.S. Air Force is looking to drop about $3 billion to upgrade its drone fleet and add new operators to the overworked crew manning its current much-in-demand drone fleet. The plan, which was rolled out Thursday for the first time, calls for tacking on another 75 Reapers to the current fleet of 175 Reapers and 150 Predators. The idea is also to possibly bump up the number of flying squadrons from eight to 17, while adding 3,500 new pilots and other personnel.

Syria

Are the Assad regime’s two biggest backers feeling buyer’s remorse from their investment in the conflict? Two Bloomberg pieces from Thursday suggest as much. The first reports that U.S. intelligence is seeing Iran pull large numbers of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members from the battlefield, sending them back home to Iran after taking significant — and very senior — casualties. There are also reports that Moscow is starting to get queasy about the high financial cost and insignificant battlefield gains just three months into its deployment to Syria. Word is, senior officials there are beginning to fear Russia may be stuck in a quagmire.

A conference of Syrian rebel groups in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia has made some progress and suffered at least one major setback in an attempt to create a unified opposition front as negotiations over Syria’s political future heat up. The Washington Post reports that rebel groups have managed to agree on a joint negotiating platform calling for the removal of Bashar al-Assad and the creation of a democratic Syria. But Ahrar al-Sham, one of the more powerful rebel groups, walked out on the conference, upset at the participation of opposition members it considered “pro-regime” and the joint platform’s insufficiently Islamist vision for Syria.

The Islamic State

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is shopping around a draft authorization for a new authorization for the use of military force in the war against the Islamic State. Schiff’s plan would expire after three years, and cover a spectrum of jihadist groups from the Islamic State to the Taliban and al-Qaeda while repealing the previous 2001 war authorization for the war against al-Qaeda.

The New York Times reports that White House has been mulling a Pentagon proposal to create a string of bases around the world for special operations and intelligence personnel to take the Islamic State and other jihadists, a move which some are hoping would create an “enduring” global U.S. counterterrorism presence. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey first represented the basing plan to the White House, but that the plan has gotten new legs as more jihadist groups around the world have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

Finnish authorities have detained twin brothers who they accuse of participating in the Islamic State’s Camp Speicher massacre, one of the jihadist group’s most notorious atrocities on the battlefield in Iraq. Authorities say the brothers can be seen in a video of the June 2014 event in which Islamic State fighters executed as many as 1,700 Iraqi military personnel at a military base in Tikrit. The twins arrived in Finland this fall, reportedly seeking asylum as refugees.

Iraq

Iraq’s Ministry of Defense released footage of its Chinese CH-4 unmanned combat aerial vehicle carrying out a missile strike against the Islamic State, marking Iraq’s entrance into the growing club of countries who’ve used armed drones in lethal strikes. Iraq unveiled the drone to reporters in in October after pictures of the CH-4 at a base in Iraq leaked onto social media. Iraqi officials said on Thursday that they’ve been using the drones for the past two weeks in an area 250 kilometers away from Baghdad.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil has quit his post, citing his objection to renewed talks with Pakistan at a critical time for the Kabul government as it battles a resurgent Taliban. The insurgents, which many believe receives support from Pakistan’s military, recently carried out a major assaults in the city of Kandahar, and briefly took over the city of Kunduz in October, claiming the lives of dozens of Afghans. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had traveled to Pakistan in hopes of kickstarting peace talks as the Kandahar fight unfolded, but returned home to find Nabil had resigned.

Israel

Israel carried out a successful test of the joint U.S.-Israeli Arrow-3 missile defense system on Thursday. The test, conducted in the eastern Mediterranean, knocked out a target the size of a coke bottle traveling in space.

Russia

Russia’s navy has been on a worldwide blitz, sending 70 ships across the globe from the Arctic to Gulf of Aden in a bid to impress the world with Russia’s naval reach. But the U.S. Naval Institute spoke to experts who believe that the Russian navy’s far-reaching presence and high operational tempo may not be sustainable. Russia has yet to fully modernize its aging naval fleet at a time when the Russian military has struggled to effectively maintain its weapons systems.

Venezuelans voted President Nicholas Maduro’s leftist allies out of government in recent parliamentary elections, handing a victory to the country’s embattled opposition and putting future Russian defense contracts at risk. Russia racked up $4 billion in arms sales to Venezuela between 2010 and 2014 and was hoping to clinch a deal for a dozen Su-30 fighter jets. But now officials in Russia have told the country’s Kommersant newspaper they fear the good times could be over.

 

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