The Cable

Situation Report: Islamic State enters 2016 clinging to territory; we’re looking for your predictions; NSA spying being investigated by Congress; and a bit more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley What’s next for ISIS? A year ago, the Islamic State was solidly in control of a vast stretch of territory from northeast Syria to northern Iraq, and down the Euphrates almost to Baghdad’s doorstep. But a good chunk of that area has been clawed back by Syrian rebel and ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

What’s next for ISIS? A year ago, the Islamic State was solidly in control of a vast stretch of territory from northeast Syria to northern Iraq, and down the Euphrates almost to Baghdad’s doorstep. But a good chunk of that area has been clawed back by Syrian rebel and Kurdish forces, joined over the last few months by an Iraqi army on a winning streak — taking the cities of Baiji, Tikrit, and Ramadi from the militants.

In other words, while still a potent and vicious force estimated to field somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria — and with global ambitions that led to the November massacre of 130 people in Paris — ISIS ends the year in worse shape than it began. FP has put together a map highlighting some of the major battles the Iraqis, Kurds, and Syrians fought with ISIS in 2015, and the loss column for the militant group far outweighs any gains. It was a bloody year in the region, and with big fights looming in Mosul, Fallujah, Raqqa, and the oil fields of Syria, 2016 might be even worse.

Looking forward. As we wrap up what turned out to be an unpredictable year on the global security front, we’d love to hear your predictions for the year ahead. If 2015 was any guide to what folks in the Pentagon have been calling the “new normal,” it will be a busy 12 months.

So, what’s next? Let us know and we’ll include a roundup next week. Email below.

The year kicked off with Chuck Hagel sitting at the helm of the Defense Department, the Islamic State gobbling up territory in Iraq practically uncontested, Russia still about 10 months away from jumping into the fight in Syria, China’s island building in the South China Sea a minor irritant to Washington, the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan looking like it was preparing to wrap up, and any deal with Iran over the future of its nuclear weapons program little more than opinion page fodder.

And some things that started in 2015 will continue to shape the world in 2016. Chinese, Iranian, and North Korean hacking U.S. corporate and government networks will only continue as Washington struggles to find an answer. The White House has yet to deliver a plan to Congress on how it plans to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Saudi-led coalition — backed by major U.S. support — launching daily airstrikes in Yemen will have to find a way to end the conflict. The bloodletting in Syria by both the regime in Damascus and the Islamic State will, at some point, have to kill itself out. It goes on and on. Anyone remember Ukraine and the continued Russian probing of NATO borders in eastern and northern Europe? How about Iranian boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria?

Spy games. In another story sure to reverberate, some members of Congress are making noise about recent revelations that the NSA has continued to spy on some world leaders, and in the process, collected communications between the Israeli government and members of Congress. FP’s John Hudson takes the temperature of some members sitting on intelligence committees.

And that’ll do it for 2015, everybody. Have a fun and safe holiday, and we’ll see you on the other side! We do appreciate you clicking on through each day, and appreciate all of the feedback we receive. 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

After years of filling up the ranks of the Assad regime’s defenders, some members of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah are starting to say ‘no more.’ The Daily Beast spoke to three fighters for the group who served in Syria and have since refused to back, citing the frustration of a see-saw conflict where victories are quickly reversed. The men say there are dozens more like them, but that Hezbollah uses salaries and benefits to incentivize service in Syria and punish those who refuse.

Syrian ground forces and Russian bombers have attacked rebels in the southern province of Deraa, aiming to take the city of Sheikh Maskin, Reuters reports. The fighting involving heavy Russian bombardment marks the Assad regime’s first major push in the south of the country since Russia entered the conflict directly, according to the wire service. Sheikh Maskin sits along a highway connecting Damascus to the city of Deraa.

Iran

The Obama administration is planning a new round of sanctions on Iran for its recent ballistic missile tests, which the U.S. says are in violation of existing U.N. sanctions, according to a scoop from the Wall Street Journal. The sanctions will apply to roughly 12 companies and people, including five people working for Iranian missile industry subsidiaries and one company U.S. officials accuse of illicitly obtaining carbon fiber for use in Iran’s missiles.

Rockets? Us? Iran is denying reports from this week that it carried out a provocative live-fire rocket test near the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier as it exited the Strait of Hormuz. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy says it “staged no drills” in the area at that time and that it “hasn’t fired any missile or rocket,” according to Iran’s Fars News. Rather, the navy claims that reports of the incident are “more like a psychological warfare.”

Iraq

The dispute between Turkey and Iraq over the presence of Turkish troops at an anti-Islamic State training facility near Mosul doesn’t appear to be going away. Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari threatened Turkey with the use of force over what he claims is Turkey’s refusal to abide by its pledge to withdraw troops from the contested facility. In response to al-Jaafari’s threat, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded, “if Baghdad wants to use force, they should use it against Daesh,” according to Al Jazeera.

Yemen

Bahrain lost an F-16 fighter jet participating in the Gulf Arab coalition’s war to oust the Houthi movement from power in Yemen on Wednesday. Coalition personnel recovered the pilot after he managed to safely eject. The jet crashed in Saudi Arabia. Investigators say they’re working to determine the cause of the crash.

China

China is building a second aircraft carrier, the AP reports. China’s defense ministry said construction is underway at Dalian shipyard, which appears to confirm a September IHS Jane’s story in which analysts spotted a potential carrier hull under construction in satellite imagery of Dalian. China already has one aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which it purchased from Ukraine and retrofitted to gain experience in carrier operations. Officials say the new carrier will be built with domestic technology.

North Korea

The North Korea watchers at 38 North have found evidence of new excavation work on a tunnel for carrying out nuclear weapons tests in Punggye-ri. High resolution satellite imagery shows mining carts near the entrance to the tunnel and new activity on the spoil pile used for dumping the dug-out contents of the tunnel. When the tunnel will be finished or used remains unclear.

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