The Cable

Situation Report: Gulf nations cut ties with Iran; Taliban’s 2015 surge mapped; conflicts to watch this year; fighting continues in Ramadi; Syria’s declared chemical weapons destroyed; and lots more

by Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Ripple effect. In a series of events that may have serious repercussions for the effort to hold peace talks between the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and opposition representatives, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran on Sunday, followed on Monday by Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which ...

by Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Ripple effect. In a series of events that may have serious repercussions for the effort to hold peace talks between the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and opposition representatives, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran on Sunday, followed on Monday by Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which said it plans to downgrade diplomatic ties with Tehran.

Riyadh gave Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave Saudi Arabia after Iranian leaders condemned the execution of a popular Shiite cleric, Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, and after protesters stormed the Sunni kingdom’s embassy in Tehran in anger over his death. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been nose-to-nose for some time, as their forces and proxies are the main rivals fighting for power in Syria and Yemen.

As FP’s Dan De Luce writes, the Syrian opposition negotiators, most of whom are backed by Riyadh, “will likely take a more critical stance towards the Assad regime’s patrons, Iran and Russia. In turn, it’s expected they will be even less willing to compromise over the composition of the opposition’s delegation at the planned talks.” As a result, it will likely be up to the United States and Russia to try to shore up the diplomatic effort and limit the damage from the weekend’s events.

Mapped: Taliban gains in 2015. For obvious reasons, the Islamic State’s barbarity dominated headlines and seized the world’s attention in 2015. But in Afghanistan, a resurgent Taliban has clawed its way back from years of bloody setbacks under the weight of tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops and the crushing airpower they have brought to bear on the heads of the group’s leadership.

Thanks to the end of the NATO combat mission a year ago, the insurgent group now controls more territory than at any time since 2001. FP’s Paul McLeary, Dan De Luce and C.K. Hickey have put together a map of the war-torn country, pinpointing where and when the Taliban surge took place since the start of 2015. While you’re there, check out the FP map looking at the Islamic State’s losses in Iraq and Syria over the past year. Spoiler alert: the group’s territorial gains seem to be moving in the opposite direction of the Taliban’s.

More of the same. The year past saw plenty of conflict across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, and FP contributor Jean-Marie Guéhenno — president and CEO of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group — takes a look at what fights will likely dominate the headlines over the coming year.

Hi, there. It’s been awhile since Peter Cook, the Defense Department’s press secretary and spokesman for Defense Secretary Ash Carter, has taken the podium at the Pentagon to brief the press. The last time he entered the briefing room was December 8, to be exact. Will a new year bring a new briefing schedule?

Welcome to the new 2016 version of the Situation Report. 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.

Iraq

A week after Iraqi Security Forces announced the recapture of Ramadi, the city still isn’t entirely clear of the Islamic State. Fighters from the group are still carrying out attacks against Iraqi troops on the edge of the city. The BBC reports that Iraqi troops, with help from U.S. airpower, have been fending off counterattacks from Islamic State fighters armed with suicide car bombs and suicide vests.

With Ramadi mostly liberated, now comes the hard work for Iraq: rebuilding a city almost completely destroyed by the Islamic State. The Wall Street Journal reports that roughly 80 percent of the city has been destroyed, leaving behind an estimated $10 billion price tag to restore it. While officials in Baghdad hope reconstruction in Ramadi can help mitigate sectarian mistrust between the Shiite central government and the predominantly Sunni provincial capital, the high cost of reconstruction amid declining oil prices will make it a challenge for Iraq’s budget.

Syria

The last of Syria’s declared chemical weapon stocks handed over to the international community has been destroyed, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, known as OPCW, announced Monday. That doesn’t mean that Syria has rid itself of chemical weapons, however, as evidence mounts that the regime of Bashar al-Assad continues to target civilians with the weapons. Director-General of the OPCW, Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, said in a statement that “this process closes an important chapter in the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapon programme as we continue efforts to clarify Syria’s declaration and address ongoing use of toxic chemicals as weapons in that country.”

Iran

The White House has pulled back on launching a new round of sanctions against Iran and its missile program after signaling last week that it would apply restrictions to Iranian companies and individuals in retaliation for recent ballistic missile tests. Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes says that the administration still has “additional work that needs to be done” preparing the sanctions and that the delay in implementation is not, as some have suggested, the result of pressure from Iran.

Israel

The Israeli Defense Force entered its fourth day of shelling along the Israeli-Lebanese border Sunday, a move reportedly intended to deter retaliation from Hezbollah over the killing of a senior member of the group. Ever since Israel reportedly carried out the airstrike which killed Samir Kuntar, a senior Hezbollah member convicted of killing an Israeli family in December near Damascus, the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has been vowing revenge. With bad weather along the Israeli-Lebanese border, Israeli forces have been shelling the border to prevent Hezbollah fighters from exploiting the poor visibility to attack Israel.

Somalia

Ever since Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for barring Muslims from entering the United States, politicians and pundits have been calling it a potential recruiting tool for Islamist terrorists. The rhetoric has now caught up to reality as al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group in Somalia, included footage of Trump’s comments in a propaganda video released on the Internet. In the video, a narrator uses Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim travel and immigration to tell American Muslims that they have to either flee the U.S. or carry out attacks on it.

China

An airplane landing has raised the volume on the continuing dispute between China and Vietnam over maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese government has lodged a protest with China after a civilian plane landed on a Chinese man-made island in the Fiery Cross reef — territory claimed by both Hanoi and Beijing. Vietnamese officials said China’s actions there should “immediately end while not repeating similar move,” according to Agence France Presse, but Chinese officials have brushed off the criticism.

North Korea

South Korea’s Chemical, Biological and Radiological Defense Command says that North Korea may be preparing for a thermonuclear weapon test. The command pointed to recent excavation work on a new tunnel at the Punggye-ri test site as a sign that the North may be readying a test. The officials also said that North Korea might be producing the nuclear isotope tritium in order to boost the yield of its nuclear weapons.

Cybersecurity

Hackers have defaced the Instagram account of a Russian government minister with pro-Turkish symbols, marking another chapter in the ongoing feud between the two countries after Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 it accused of violating its airspace. Reuters reports that a group of hackers calling themselves “The Börteçine Cyber Team” broke into the account of Russian Minister of Communications and Mass Media Nikolai Nikiforov, locked him out and posted pictures of Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal, Turkish fighter jets and Turkish flags.

War on Terror

The Daily Beast’s Tim K. Mak visited Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti for a look at the growing international footprint there. With military bases run by Japan, the United States and — coming soon — China, the country is becoming home for an array of military operations, from shadowy counterterrorism operations in the Middle East to protecting shipping from piracy as it transits through the Gulf of Aden.

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