The Cable

Situation Report: Can commandos break ISIS?; Syria talks in trouble; Biden talks tough; Assad reclaims ground; USE looking to sell Baghdad fighters; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Same war, new war. Can a relatively small number of elite U.S. Special Operations troops make a big difference against the Islamic State? President Barack Obama and his top advisors sure hope so. Backed up by daily airstrikes — which have been going on for almost 18 months now ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Same war, new war. Can a relatively small number of elite U.S. Special Operations troops make a big difference against the Islamic State? President Barack Obama and his top advisors sure hope so. Backed up by daily airstrikes — which have been going on for almost 18 months now — a small detachment of 200 commandos were recently sent to Iraq to start carrying out the kind of night raids that became their signature tactic in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But there are issues. The U.S. no longer runs its own detention facilities in Iraq where counterterrorism officials can interrogate prisoners for weeks — or months — at a time, FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce report. And without that piece, several analysts tell FP, Washington may be missing its best chance to penetrate the inner workings of the terrorist group.

Syria talks in a tough place. The U.S. is mounting “a last-ditch effort to salvage stalled political talks aimed at ending Syria’s nearly five-year civil war,” FP’s Colum Lynch and John Hudson write in a major exclusive. Over this past weekend, Washington deployed high-level delegations to Turkey and Saudi Arabia to head off possible boycotts by the Syrian opposition and one of its major backers, Ankara. They write:

“Turkey has privately warned the United Nations that it will walk out of the political process which initially were set to start Monday, if Syrian Kurds whom Ankara accuses of being linked to a terrorist organization are included among the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey’s threat, revealed to Foreign Policy by U.N.-based diplomats, has not been previously reported.”

Foreign policy, Biden-style. Interesting remarks by Vice President Joe Biden in Turkey over the weekend, when he said that while Washington preferred a political solution to the civil war in Syria, it’s prepared to use military force to get the end state it desires. “We do know that it would be better if we can reach a political solution, we are prepared if that’s not possible to make, to have a military solution to this operation in taking out Daesh,” he said, using an alternate name for the terrorist group.

Always be selling. Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates has been out and about in Washington lately promoting his new book about leadership. To no one’s surprise, he’s being asked more about pressing national security issues than his views on what makes a good leader. Reached over the weekend by Christopher Dickey at his D.C. hotel after being snowed in, Gates said the Obama administration’s attempts to prevent Iran from stomping around the Middle East have been “very weak.”

Across the region, Gates is looking for “something much broader than just more special ops forces to fight ISIS, and so on. I am talking about a major U.S. initiative in terms of an increased military presence, increased military support for our friends and allies, a major effort to get them to work together as a regional security effort, and a comprehensive strategy on how you push back against Iranian meddling.”

Stacking the deck. How does one cap a storied and controversial career atop the U.S. national security food chain? You release an app based on a solitaire game once enjoyed by Winston Churchill. That app, called Churchill Solitaire and partially designed by Donald Rumsfeld, hit the Apple Store Friday and is a twist on the traditional game, FP’s Elias Groll writes. Played with two decks, players must liberate six cards, known as the “Devil’s Six.” Its makers describe the game as a difficult one in which one wrong move can spell the difference between victory and defeat. Would that be one of those “known unknowns”?

As the East Coast of the U.S. digs out of a major blizzard, there’s plenty to keep us busy. As you know, we can never get enough information, so 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

Months after the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad looked like it was on the verge of collapse, it now appears to have the wind at its back, if only slightly. The regime’s territory has grown by a modest 1.3 percent since Russia’s direct intervention in the conflict began in late September, according to an analysis by IHS Jane’s. In the latest sign of the regime’s progress, Syrian army troops took the town of Rabia back on Sunday, effectively clearing all of Latakia Province, home to much of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite support base, from its last rebel holdout.

The Assad regime’s gains have placed Syria’s rebels on the back foot and now rebel groups are putting out a call for fighters, both from Syria and abroad, to help stem their manpower losses, Vice News reports. Rebel coalition Jaish al-Fatah recently published an online appeal to the Islamic world for fighters and the League of Scholars in Syria, a clerical association, issued a fatwa proclaiming participation in the Syrian jihad a religious obligation for Muslims.

The Islamic State

The Islamic State released a video over the weekend featuring footage of the men involved in the November attacks in Paris, including suspected ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud. The BBC reports that the video was recorded in Raqqa, Syria and shows some of the attackers carrying out beheadings and engaging in training exercises.

The Paris video also needles the West with shots of GPG-encrypted email as the U.S. and European countries debate whether to regulate encryption software for counterterrorism purposes. The video purports to show two encrypted emails, one dated on the day of the Paris attacks, claiming to be from the Paris attackers and directing the attacks and another which implies a similar threat to Britain. However, as NSA leaker Edward Snowden tweeted late Sunday, the Paris email is a forgery and not an actual encrypted communication with the attackers.

Iraq

The U.S. is trying to hammer out a modus vivendi between Turkey and Iraq over an unauthorized Turkish  training center near Mosul staffed by Turkish troops. The Wall Street Journal reports that Vice President Joe Biden tried to broker an agreement between Turkey and Iraq over the training facility during his visit to Turkey this weekend. Biden also offered to share border security technology from the Department of Homeland Security with Turkey to help defend against infiltration from the Islamic State.

Afghanistan

The Taliban are demanding the release of unspecified prisoners and the de-listing of senior leaders from the United Nations and U.S. sanctions list as a condition of joining peace talks, the Long War Journal reports. The Taliban posted the demands on its website. In a statement released before the demands were posted, the group also appeared to rule out direct talks with the U.S., claiming they would not make peace with “non-Muslims, invaders and combatants” but only fellow Muslims.

Pakistan

The Guardian profiles Faheem Qureshi, the Pakistani man whose family was killed by the first drone strike of the Obama administration when Qureshi was 14. The CIA had aimed the January 2009 strike at a member of the Taliban, but the target had not been at the scene of the strike as originally believed. The missile strike killed nine people according to a document from the Pakistani government.

The Hill vs. the U.S. Army

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) is vowing that he will keep the Army from having a Secretary of the Army so long as President Obama remains in office. Sen. Roberts told a Kansas newspaper that he will continue to block the confirmation of Eric Fanning for the rest of the Obama administration over the president’s plan to close the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. Fanning would be the first openly gay Secretary of the Army if confirmed. Roberts has said that his hold on Fanning’s nomination is “nothing personal.”

Air Force

The Air Force may have hidden a nuclear mishap from a panel investigating the nuclear enterprise after a string of nuclear-related scandals in the service, according to an AP exclusive. Three airmen damaged a Minuteman 3 nuclear missile at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming in May 2014, costing $1.8 million, but members of the panel, appointed by then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, weren’t told of the incident. No detailed explanation for why the incident was withheld has been forthcoming from the Air Force, with a service spokesman saying only that “accident was going through the investigative process” at the time.

France

France is steeling itself to poised to enter a new era in defense strategy, said Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said recently, calling for “strategic patience” in formulating the country’s policy. “In the strategic domain, I think France is at a turning point,” Le Drian said Jan. 18 in prepared remarks for this year’s Leading Strategic Challenges academic program at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University. He cited the fight against the Islamic State both in the Middle East and at home, along with the lack of stable partners in the many parts of the world, as some of the biggest hurdles to peace.

Air power

The United Arab Emirates is looking to sell off its fleet of Dassault Mirage 2000-9s fighter planes before finalizing a deal to buy 60 Rafale fighters from France, Defense News reports. The old planes may very well end up in Baghdad, as the UAE has been trying to sell its fleet of Mirage fighters to the Iraqi Air Force since 2011, only to have the plans blocked by France. But the deal may finally be happening, as the three countries continue to work through the outstanding issues.

 

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

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