The Cable

Situation Report: More problems for Syria peace talks; U.S.-backed rebels lose ground in Syria; old hands back in town; European Command aiming at Russia; Iraqi troops continue to struggle; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Syria talks in danger? In a move many had feared, Syria’s main opposition coalition told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon late Tuesday that it will not participate in peace talks with Damascus until the Syrian government and its allies stop air and ground assaults on civilians, lift the sieges of ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Syria talks in danger? In a move many had feared, Syria’s main opposition coalition told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon late Tuesday that it will not participate in peace talks with Damascus until the Syrian government and its allies stop air and ground assaults on civilians, lift the sieges of towns, and provide humanitarian access to civilians, a U.N.-based diplomat told FP’s Column Lynch and John Hudson.

“The letter by lead opposition coordinator Riad Hijab drew a line in the sand for peace efforts as Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, made a final push for negotiations to begin in Geneva on Friday,” the two write. But Hijab’s letter, translated into English for FP, he said that he was open to continuing to try and find a way to hold talks.

Bad day. The move comes just as U.S. officials acknowledge that Russian airstrikes against anti-government forces — often backed by Washington — are having a real effect. The Syrian government was “in a worse place before, and the regime is in a better place now,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford told reporters earlier this month. Thanks to hundreds of Russian airstrikes, Assad has “regained some small amounts of ground,” he said.

One of the worst defeats for Syrian rebels came Tuesday, when government forces and allied ­militias, backed by Russian airpower, retook the southern town of Sheikh Miskeen, which sits at a critical crossroads that provides control over a southern supply route between Jordan and the Syrian capital of Damascus. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a mix of regime troops, fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iranian officers took the town, which is less than 10 miles from the rebel stronghold of Nawa, another target for regime forces.

Continental drift. Deterring Vladimir Putin is job No. 1 in U.S. European Command (Eucom), according to its latest theater strategy, but the combatant command says it’s having a few resource problems in the meantime. In the 12-page document, commander of Eucom and NATO forces Gen. Philip Breedlove laments that the 65,000 U.S. troops in Europe just aren’t enough to counter Russian aggression, and rotating more units in on a temporary basis to make up the shortfall doesn’t quite cut it.

“The size of the military presence requires difficult decisions on how best to use limited resources to assure, stabilize, and support the…mission in the new European security environment,” the paper says. Breedlove also calls for a “reformulation of the U.S. strategic calculus” on the continent.

The boys are back in town. A few former Bush and Obama administration stalwarts have been back in the news this week, and they don’t appear thrilled with the U.S. national security landscape.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates took aim at the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls at an event Monday evening, saying “the level of dialogue on national security issues would embarrass a middle schooler,” Without naming names, he continued, “people are out there making threats and promises that are totally unrealistic, totally unattainable.”

Appearing at the same event, President Barack Obama’s former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon predicted that the U.S. is “going to become more deeply involved in both Iraq and Syria going forward” including becoming “fairly deeply involved” in the fights to take the ISIS cities of Mosul and Raqqa.

Donilon, who served as national security adviser between 2010 and 2013, said U.S. forces will likely have to begin “taking direct action against ISIS, [in] operations in Iraq and Syria, but also in Libya,” where ISIS has gained a foothold. Over the past several weeks, about 200 U.S. commandos arrived in Iraq to begin launching raids on ISIS leadership there and in Syria.

As the East Coast of the U.S. continues to dig 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.

Iraq

The AP spoke with analysts and former U.S. military trainers to get a sense of how the Iraqi military has performed in the fight for Ramadi. Despite training assistance from the U.S, Iraqi forces still appear to be struggling. Experts said the fight for Ramadi relied heavily on a small group of elite Iraqi counterterrorism forces working with U.S. airpower to carry out clearing operations normally reserved for regular forces — a reflection, analysts say, of the weakness of regular Iraqi military units and the difficulty in scaling the success in Ramadi to larger cities like Mosul.

The Antiquities Commission, a Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to stopping antiquities smuggling, has created the Culture Under Threat Map showing the loss of cultural heritage sites in Africa and the Middle East, Newsweek reports. The map overlays historical sites either destroyed or threatened by Islamist militant groups. Not surprisingly, the wars raging in Iraq and Syria have led to the greatest damage, as the Islamic State has destroyed or illicitly sold antiquities from the two countries to fund operations.

Afghanistan

The fight against a resurgent Taliban in Helmand province is revealing cracks in the Afghan military’s leadership. The AP reports that Afghanistan is replacing a number of senior officers for “incompetence, corruption and ineffectiveness,” according to a spokesman for the U.S. coalition in the country. Former Afghan intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil told the country’s National Security Council in October that discipline and morale in the Afghan army had broken down in the fight for Helmand as the Taliban launched a number of attacks in the province.

F-16s for Bulgaria?

NATO member Bulgaria is looking to ditch its last remaining Soviet-era fighter planes and buy some new aircraft over the next several years, the country’s Defense Minister Nikolay Nenchev has said. Nenchev indicated that he’d like to sign a deal by the end of this year, according to Defense News, which notes earlier reports that the Sofia government has been kicking the tires on U.S. F-16s, Sweden’s Gripen, and the Eurofighter Typhoon. When the country joined NATO in 2004, government officials said they wanted to replace six of its Mikoyan MiG-21 fighters with eight new aircraft by 2016.

Kenya

Kenyan troops pulled out of two towns in southern Somalia Tuesday, and were followed in almost immediately by fighters from the Islamist terrorist group, al-Shabab, according to local reports. The withdrawal comes just a week after al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab militants stormed an African Union base in the country, killing dozens of Kenyan soldiers. Back in November, FP’s Ty McCormick reported on allegations that elements of Kenya’s military have been “in business” with al-Shabab, andKenya’s military has done a brisk business in sugar and charcoal in Kismayo, Somalia, since pushing al-Shabab from the southern port city in 2012, but the trade has become a key financial lifeline for the terrorist group it is there to fight.”

North Korea

South Korean officials believe that the North may have tried to carry out cyberattacks, but against which targets and in what form, they’re not saying. Reuters reports that a spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry mentioned the government’s suspicion that the North had been behind unspecific recent attacks but wouldn’t offer more details. Tensions between the two countries have been high since North Korea carried out a nuclear test, with South Korea responding by blaring loudspeaker propaganda across the demilitarized zone and North Korea buzzing the South with a drone.

Drones

PopSci reports on a new academic paper which says that, despite much hand-wringing, drones aren’t changing the nature of relations between countries — yet. The study, The Consequences of Drone Proliferation: Separating Fact from Fiction, argues that so far drones have had a much bigger impact on domestic counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations at home than in wars between nations, largely because of their vulnerability to air defense systems. But that could all could all change once stealth technologies allow drones to take on roles normally reserved for manned warplanes.

The business of defense

There’s been plenty of snow in Washington over the past couple days, but defense contractors have stayed warm by holding their fourth quarter earnings calls. Lockheed Martin has already reported, and Wednesday, General Dynamics, Boeing, and United Technologies will have their day. Northrop Grumman and Raytheon finish off the week with their earnings calls on Thursday.

Lockheed’s CEO Marillyn Hewson announced that the company was breaking off its IT business and combining it with Leidos Holdings Inc., another security firm, in a $5 billion trade. Leidos said in a statement that the combined company would have annual revenues of about $10 billion, making it the largest U.S. government services provider. In November, Lockheed also finalized a $9 billion deal to buy Blackhawk helicopter-maker Sikorsky from United Technologies.

The U.S. Special Operations Command has created a new technology incubator, SofWerX, near MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, National Defense Magazine reports. The goal of the project is to speed up the command’s access to advanced technologies and works much like the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley outreach outfit, DIUX, but has the ability to step around normally sluggish acquisition processes.

On the move

A pair of former U.S. diplomats are heading to an advisory firm led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Wendy Sherman, the former under secretary of state for political affairs under John Kerry — who acted as the lead U.S. negotiator on the nuclear deal with Iran — will be a senior counselor with Albright Stonebridge Group.

Also readying a move to a new office is Daniel Feldman, who served as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and will be a senior advisor at the firm. The move is a bit of a homecoming for Sherman, who was a vice chair at the firm before entering the State Department in November 2014.

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

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