The Cable

Situation Report: One man’s CIA is another’s terrorist; ISIS orders questioned; how to build a bridge in Iraq; fresh details on Washington’s outreach to Assad; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Who’s a terrorist? The debate at the United Nations over how to reach a political solution to Syria’s five-year-long civil war has already hit a wall. But Secretary of State John Kerry is scrambling to push squabbling nations past what appear to be some seriously intractable issues. FP’s Colum ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Who’s a terrorist? The debate at the United Nations over how to reach a political solution to Syria’s five-year-long civil war has already hit a wall. But Secretary of State John Kerry is scrambling to push squabbling nations past what appear to be some seriously intractable issues. FP’s Colum Lynch delivers another of his deeply-sourced peeks into the inner workings of Turtle Bay, finding that the U.S., Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are at odds over which Syrian fighters they’ll be able to shoot as terrorists — and which will be labeled moderates.

The whole thing got so bad Friday during closed-door, high-level talks in New York, Lynch’s sources say, that the talks “descended into something of a diplomatic brawl” after Iran’s top diplomat threatened to “push for the CIA to be designated a terrorist organization after a rival country’s government recommended that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be given the same label.”

The spat caused officials to table the issue of which groups to consider terrorists for the moment. But the issue will come back. At some point, the 17-nation International Syria Support Group will be forced to choose among the whopping 167 groups operating in Syria that stand accused of terrorism by at least one member of the group. And then they’ll do this all over again….

This one isn’t a bridge to nowhere. Iraqi forces continue to push into the Islamic State-held city of Ramadi, but have been slowed by a fresh onslaught of suicide bombers, snipers and booby traps left behind by ISIS forces fighting it out in the city. The overwhelming odds — 10,000 government troops vs. maybe 500 ISIS militants — are weighted pretty heavily in Baghdad’s favor, but if similar fights over the past year in Kobani, Baiji, and Sinjar are any indication, the going will be slow, and bloody.

Over the past 24 hours, aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition have dropped dozens of bombs on the city, according to several statements from the U.S. military in Baghdad early Thursday, which detail an onslaught that pounded everything from ISIS fighting positions to buildings used as housing.

FP’s David Francis takes a revealing look at how the assault began, however: with Iraqi units building a makeshift floating bridge across the Euphrates River. U.S. forces had trained the Iraqis how to deploy the bridge, and it looks like they nailed it. Want to see more? Francis includes a cool video of U.S. Marines building a similar floating bridge. Perfect viewing for family get-togethers.

Doc doubts. Are they real, or not? There’s been some debate over the authenticity of a chilling document the Pentagon released this week, which purports to show that Islamic State fighters occupying Fallujah are planning to slaughter civilians, and blame it on the Iraqi army and Shiite militias.

The nine orders from ISIS leaders to their henchmen listed on the one-page document are brutal in their simplicity, FP’s Paul McLeary reports. Torture and kill innocent civilians. Assault women. Blow up mosques. Lure civilians into explosive-laden buildings and blow them to bits. And make sure cameras are in place to capture the carnage.

Problem is, some intel analysts and experts on Shiite militias point to clues in the document that they say casts doubt on whether it was produced by ISIS, or is a ruse concocted by Shiite fighters who have brutalized Sunni civilians in the past.

And finally… We couldn’t let this one pass. The holidays are here and it’s time for you and the family to sit back, relax, and throw yourselves in front of a roaring Sith Lord funeral pyre. For those of you who don’t have a fireplace or access to a deceased senior Imperial official skilled in the dark side of the Force, we present  a five-hour loop of a burning Darth Vader in lieu of a boring yule log.

That’ll do it for us this week, but we’ll be back at it come Monday to start burning off the cookie calories. If you’re celebrating the holiday, we hope it’s is restful and fun, and if not, enjoy the quiet! Go see Star Wars! 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

The U.S. tried — and failed — to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to restrain his regime’s violence against civilians and accept a transition of power through a number of secret backchannels, according to a scoop from the Wall Street Journal. The U.S. initially reached out to senior Assad regime officials in a bid to stir regime change, but switched tactics after the outreach failed. Following that, Washington reached out to the Assad regime directly and through intermediaries like Russia and Iran, warning them not to use chemical weapons and to abstain from the continual use of barrel bombs, all to no effect.

Turkey

Germany has pulled its Patriot missile air defense systems from Turkey, Defense News reports. German officials telegraphed the move months in advance, and it follows the removal of U.S. and Dutch Patriot batteries, leaving Spain as the only country with Patriot missiles deployed in Turkey. The NATO countries deployed Patriot batteries to the country in 2013 in order to help defend it from the threat of missile fire from Syria, but NATO officials say that the long-planned removal is due more to planned modernization of the systems than anything else.

Afghanistan

Russia says it’s sharing intelligence with the Taliban on the Islamic State as “the Taliban interest objectively coincides with ours,” according to the Russian foreign ministry, according to the Washington Post. The move makes for strange bedfellows, as the group sprang out of the ashes of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and the Taliban remains on Russia’s official list of designated terrorist groups. The Taliban and the Islamic State have been waging a low grade war with each other recently as disaffected Taliban have defected from the group and taken on the mantle of the Islamic State to challenge their former organization.

Russia

The Christmas season is upon us and Russia is handing out gifts to its neighbor Kazakhstan in the form of a free delivery of S-300 air defense missiles, according to UPI.  The gift is part of Russia’s plan to knit together a network of air defense systems among its neighbors and former members of the Soviet Union.

Burundi

Burundi’s president is promising that the defeat of the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram is nigh, while analysts aren’t quite so optimistic. The BBC reports that Burundian President Muhammadu Buhari claims that his country has just about “won the war” on the terror group, as it has lost the capability to carry out suicide and other devastating attacks. But while Boko Haram has lost control of many of the towns it had captured, the BBC says critics point to instances where Burundian officials have declared mission accomplished before only to see the terror group come back.

Mali

French special operations forces carried out an operation in Mali which the French government says killed 10 members of the Al Murabitoon Islamist terrorist group, according to the Long War Journal. France has targeted the group in special ops raids ever since it deployed to Mali in early 2013 as Islamist terrorist groups began to capture more territory. Al-Murabitoon had sworn an allegiance to al-Qaeda, but like many jihadist organizations, the group has since experienced internal tension as some members have left for the ranks of the Islamic State.

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