The Cable

Situation Report: Ramadi swings back toward Baghdad; no U.S. raids in Iraq; Special Operations the White House weapon of choice; Syrian militant dead; Russia to start shipping missiles to Iran; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Ramadi ready to fall, (again). Iraqi forces look to have taken a key government building in the heart of Ramadi, putting government forces on the verge of controlling the city after a week of heavy fighting with Islamic State militants who held the provincial capital since May. One U.S. ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Ramadi ready to fall, (again). Iraqi forces look to have taken a key government building in the heart of Ramadi, putting government forces on the verge of controlling the city after a week of heavy fighting with Islamic State militants who held the provincial capital since May.

One U.S. defense official warns, however, that there are still several neighborhoods that have yet to be fully cleared and there are plenty of buried roadside bombs that need to be disarmed. Iraqi forces have been in position around the city since the summer, but held off on a full assault until the last several days while about 600 U.S. airstrikes pounded ISIS positions in and around the city since July.

Next steps. Reports Monday said most of the remaining Islamic State fighters had fled the city for the outlying suburbs. The initial fight to clear the city might be the easy part, however. Once the shooting stops, the Shiite-led government in Baghdad will have to assert its authority over a shattered city full of distrustful Sunni residents, fearful of a majority Shiite army that does little to hide elements of Iranian influence. Government officials have pledged to hand over security in Ramadi to Sunni militias in the coming weeks, however.

The operation should boost the confidence of the army, which has a long road ahead in moving on the ISIS-controlled cities of Fallujah and Mosul. The coming march through the Sunni heartland of Anbar province will be a test for how Baghdad controls the powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias, who may already be prepping the ground in Fallujah.

No new raids. Reports of a new U.S. commando raid in Iraq over the weekend may be premature. Despite President Barack Obama’s recent decision to send up to 200 Special Operations troops to Iraq to take part in combat operations against the Islamic State, U.S. defense officials are denying that U.S. special operators conducted a raid near the town of Hawija in Iraq over the weekend.

In an email, one official said U.S. forces have not participated in combat in Iraq since the raid with peshmerga forces in October near Hawija that freed 70 hostages from ISIS and resulted in the death of one American Delta Force soldier.

Special Ops hammer? The deployment of the 200 operators to Iraq — and another 50 to Syria to assist local anti-ISIS militias — underscores the willingness of President Barack Obama to rely on U.S. commandos as a blunt instrument to fix a host of thorny problems around the world. And it’s not just in the Middle East. In October, Obama announced the deployment of 300 commandos to Cameroon to work with the security forces from Cameroon, Chad, Benin, Niger and Nigeria in a bid to bolster the local effort against the Nigeria-based Boko Haram militant group. The New York Times has a good rundown of the continuing high pace of deployments for American operators, and why it won’t stop any time soon.

It’s a new week, and one that happens to be the last of the year. 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

Russia reportedly scored one of its most important hits in the Syrian war with the death of Jaish al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush in an airstrike carried out this weekend in Damascus. Russia is widely believed to have carried out the strike but has yet to take responsibility for it. Alloush leaves behind a mixed legacy. Alloush and Jaish al-Islam have been criticized for appearing too close to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and its Syrian affiliate the Nusra Front. However, Alloush and his group were staunch opponents of the Islamic State and some say a weakened Jaish al-Islam could help the Islamic State take more ground near Damascus.

Germany

Germany will contribute personnel to staff NATO airborne warning and control system aircraft — known as the AWACS — Deutsche Welle reports. The move comes in response to Turkey’s downing of a Russian Su-24 aircraft it accused of violating Turkish airspace in November. NATO AWACS aircraft will be moved from Germany to the Turkish city of Konya to support the mission. AWACS aircraft can carry out surveillance of airspace and assist in command and control.

Lebanon

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened retaliation against Israel in a speech on Sunday, promising to extract vengeance for the for the killing of Samir Kuntar in an airstrike in Damascus. Israel reportedly carried out the airstrike that killed Kuntar, a former Israeli prisoner convicted of murdering an Israeli family and later released in a 2008 deal with Hezbollah for the repatriation of Israeli war dead. Nasrallah hinted at threats to Israel along its border and “inside (Israel) and outside,” according to Reuters.

Iran

A Russian military source tells Tass that Russia will deliver Iran’s long sought-after shipment of S-300 air defense systems, which will begin in January. A second shipment of the missiles will take place either in August or September of 2016, according to the source. In addition to the shipment of equipment, Russia will also reportedly host 80 Iranian troops at the Mozhaisky Academy to receive training on the system. Iran had signed a contract with Russia for the S-300, but Russia cancelled the sale in 2009 following pressure from the United States.

Afghanistan

The Islamic State and a militia aligned with Afghanistan’s deputy speaker of parliament Zahir Qadir have been fighting each other in Nangarhar Province, the AP reports. Both groups reportedly beheaded four prisoners from the other, leading to eight deaths on Saturday. Nangarhar has been the scene of increased activity from the Islamic State as disaffected Taliban have taken on the mantle of the group and begun fighting the Taliban there for control of territory.

Vladimir who? Last week, Russia said it was sharing intelligence about the Islamic State in Afghanistan with the Taliban, which has increasingly found itself in the crosshairs of those professing loyalty to the global jihadist group. But in a statement posted to its website, the Taliban denied any relationship or intelligence-sharing with Russia, saying they have no “need for receiving aid from anyone concerning so-called Daesh,” according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Why has the Taliban been focusing attacks against government forces in Helmand Province? According to the Guardian, at least part of the reason is because of dope money. Helmand hosts more opium production than anywhere else in the country, which is itself the top supplier in the world. But more than drug money, the Taliban also reportedly aim to turn the province into their own safe haven.

Libya

France’s military campaign against the Islamic State is not limited to Syria. French authorities report that they’ve flown at least two surveillance flights in Libya over towns controlled by the group, according to Defense News. The U.S. appears to have stepped up its campaign against the Islamic State in Libya recently, as well. In November, the U.S. carried out an airstrike in Libya which reportedly killed the Islamic State’s top leader in the country, and U.S. special operations personnel recently showed up unannounced at a Libyan air force base in photos posted to a Libyan Facebook page.

Business of defense

The Los Angeles Times goes deep inside the collapse of the Precision Tracking Space System, a satellite system designed to spot enemy missile launches. The system was supposed to discriminate between real missile launches and decoys, but ultimately proved a dud. Though the system burned through $231 million before it was shuttered, independent cost estimates show it could have ultimately run as much as $14 billion over the Missile Defense Agency’s original projected $10 billion budget.

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