The Cable

Situation Report: Obama doubles down on ISIS strategy; Bergdahl court martial; Senate lifts some holds on Pentagon jobs; Moscow, Washington look for common ground; Turkey leaves Iraq; Taiwan ship deal in the works; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Strategic patience. For well over a year now, President Barack Obama has asked the American public to take the long view on the war against the Islamic State. He’s argued that there is no quick and easy answer to a phenomena that draws in tens of thousands of recruits, ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Strategic patience. For well over a year now, President Barack Obama has asked the American public to take the long view on the war against the Islamic State. He’s argued that there is no quick and easy answer to a phenomena that draws in tens of thousands of recruits, holds sway over an area that includes a handful of large cities and a major oil producing region, and inspires bloody attacks in Europe and the United States.

But that doesn’t mean the U.S.-led war is completely static. Over the last several weeks the White House has slowly increased the American involvement in the war, sending special ops forces into combat in Iraq and Syria, dropping more bombs on ISIS positions in November than at any time during the 16-month bombing campaign, and pressing allies to step up their involvement.

Speaking at the Pentagon on Monday, Obama doubled down on this incremental approach, FP’s Paul McLeary writes, despite the fact that the strategy has so far failed to move the needle on the conflict in any significant way.

Cracks. All that said, there is some evidence of internal breakdown and stress within the terrorist group. Some analysts have pointed to a decrease in the amount of propaganda ISIS has produced over the past several months, and a slippage in the overall quality of its videos and social media messaging.

The numbers: According to the latest figures available from the Pentagon, the U.S. has conducted over 6,800 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since August 2014, (about 4,000 in Iraq and 2,800 in Syria), while the rest of coalition has conducted about 1,900 strikes, (1,700 in Iraq and over 170 in Syria). All that bombing has run Washington about $5.2 billion so far, with no end to the sorties, or the bills, in sight.

The damage done. The U.S. Army said Monday that it’s nowhere near done with Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the troubled soldier who walked off his post in eastern Afghanistan in 2009 only to spend the next five years being held — and tortured — by the Taliban. Gen. Robert Abrams, head of Army Forces Command, rejected the advice of Army officers who had advised against prison time, and ordered the soldier to face a court-martial on charges of desertion and endangering troops. The decision means Bergdahl, 29, faces a possible life sentence.

Bergdahl has also been in the middle of an increasingly messy political spat. Bergdahl’s civilian defense lawyer, Eugene Fidell, called on Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump — who has repeatedly called Bergdahl a traitor — to “cease his prejudicial months-long campaign of defamation,”  FP’s David Francis reports. Fidell also asked the House and Senate armed services committees to “avoid any further statements or actions that prejudice our client’s right to a fair trial.” It will be months before the trail starts at Fort Bragg, officials said Monday, so this case is nowhere near being over.

You’re in. Senate Republicans have spent much of the past year blocking the confirmation of well over a dozen of President Barack Obama’s civilian nominees for top Pentagon positions, but the impasse appears to be lifting. Late Monday, after over a year of awaiting confirmation to be the Army’s top lawyer, Alissa Starzak can finally call herself the Army’s General Counsel. The governing body approved the former Intelligence Committee staffer, long an unpopular figure among Senate Republicans after serving as lead investigator for the committee’s blistering report on the CIA’s now-shuttered detention and interrogation program. Starzak left the Intelligence Committee in 2011, soon after completing work on the report.

On Monday evening, the Senate also approved John Conger to be a principal deputy undersecretary of defense, Stephen Welby as an assistant secretary of defense and Franklin Parker to be an assistant secretary of the Navy.

And on Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. the Senate Armed Services Committee will gather to consider the nominations of three other high-level Obama Pentagon appointees, Patrick Murphy as undersecretary of the Army, Janine Davidson as undersecretary of the Navy, and Lisa Disbrow as undersecretary of the Air Force.

Welcome back as we launch into another week here from deep inside the bunker at SitRep Central. 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

Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin and some western leaders have publicly hoped that the U.S. and its allies could find a way to partner with Russia to take on the Islamic State in Syria. But the Wall Street Journal reports that Russia’s strategy of targeting civilians would make that a hard sell for many western political leaders. Russia, experts and officials the Journal spoke to said, indiscriminately drops unguided munitions on areas populated with civilians — often in areas where the Islamic State doesn’t operate — in order to pressure Syrian rebel groups.

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has managed to claw back an airbase from rebels in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, according to Agence France Presse. Syrian army and Hezbollah troops captured Marj al-Sultan airbase on Monday, which rebels had held since November 2012. The victory comes after a month-long effort to recapture the base and is part of a broader siege against the rebel-held enclave of East Ghouta.

Buzzfeed‘s Aram Roston updates an earlier story about the web of companies the U.S. has used to buy arms for Syrian rebels. Purple Shovel, the defense contractor which sold defective weapons to the Defense Department for the rebel train and equip program, farmed out some of the work to another company, Regulus Global. The company allegedly had ties to the Bulgarian mafia, and senior officials from the company have been charged with bribery and fraud by federal and state authorities.

Iraq

Turkey appears to be trying to turn down the temperature on its dispute with Baghdad by pulling back some of its troops at a training base near Mosul, the BBC reports. Iraqi officials objected when Turkey unilaterally deployed more forces to the facility, used to train fighters against the Islamic State, with Iranian-backed Shia militias threatening to attack Turkish interests if they failed to heed to demands for a pullback.

The U.S. covered up torture by its partners in Iraq’s Iranian-backed Shia militias, according to a new investigative report by Reuters. The wire service obtained a 2006 report by the Defense Department investigating a secret prison where Iran’s Badr Organization allegedly tortured and murdered Iraqi Sunnis. The Pentagon buried the report rather than publish it in order to not to disrupt relations with Shiite authorities in Baghdad, whom the coalition relied on to help its war on Sunni jihadists — part of a pattern of turning a blind eye to such human rights abuses which Reuters alleges continues today.

Yemen

Over 150 soldiers from Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Morocco are believed to have been killed in a short-range ballistic missile attack by Houthi rebels on a base in southern Yemen being used by the Saudi-led coalition. A cease-fire was planned to start Tuesday between the Houthis and the coalition, but the attack doesn’t appear to have scuttled the agreement.

Islamic State

Prosecutors have charged a second man, a National Guardsman in Illinois, with plotting to carry out an active shooter-style attack on Illinois’s Joliet Armory. Hasan Edmonds was charged with trying to carry out the attack a week after feds arrested his cousin Jonas Edmonds on similar charges. An undercover FBI agent found out about the two men’s plans, including an abortive attempt to join the Islamic State abroad, after friending them on Facebook.

Saudi Arabia says it’s launching a coalition of Islamic countries to fight the Islamic State. The coalition counts 34 countries in its ranks, spanning from Egypt to Malaysia, but does not include Saudi Arabia’s rival, Iran. The Saudi-announced coalition promised to “coordinate” the fight against the Islamic State, according to the Guardian, but offered few specifics on what the alliance would do in practice.

Taiwan

It appears the Obama administration is getting ready to announce a $176 million deal with Taiwan to transfer two guided missile frigates to Taipei, which would mark the first arms shipment to the island in four years — the longest gap in such arms sales in nearly four decades. Beijing, unsurprisingly, isn’t in favor of the deal, which would bolster Taiwan’s ability to control the waters along its coasts, and would only be the first installment in a deal that could involve as many as four ships when all is said and done. The potential deal comes exactly a year after Congress passed the Naval Transfer Act that gave the greenlight to the sale of up to four Perry-class frigates to Taiwan.

South China Sea

The U.S. doesn’t plan on challenging China’s assertions of sovereignty with another patrol near islands China created in the South China Sea this year, Reuters reports. The Obama administration has scrapped the Navy’s plans for a patrol this month, but the service plans another sail-by within 12 nautical miles of the islands in January.

Think Tanked

The American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Kagan published satellite imagery on Monday showing that Russian fighter jets have been using an Iranian base to carry out attacks in Syria.  The imagery purports to show that Russia has been using Iran’s Shahid Nojeh Air Base to host Su-34s, Russia’s most recently-produced jets, as a staging area for bombing runs in Syria. The apparent close coordination between Iran and Russia illustrated in the imagery, Kagan argues, undermines rumors of a rift between the two countries over allegedly differing agendas in Syria.

 

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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