The Cable

Situation Report: Cease-fire agreed to in Syria; ISIS expanding; U.S. hits more targets in Afghanistan; billions more for Cyber; JLENS lives; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Deal time? The U.S. and Russia have forged a plan to implement a cease-fire among combatants in Syria, and to begin the delivery of much-needed humanitarian aid to besieged Syrian civilians who have been caught in the middle of fighting between the government and a host of rebel groups. ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Deal time? The U.S. and Russia have forged a plan to implement a cease-fire among combatants in Syria, and to begin the delivery of much-needed humanitarian aid to besieged Syrian civilians who have been caught in the middle of fighting between the government and a host of rebel groups. The Islamic State and the Nusra Front are excluded from the cease-fire, meaning Russian planes and aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition will continue to target them. The aid deliveries may begin within the next several days, while the shooting should stop by late next week — if the agreement holds — according to negotiators.

Add it up. The Islamic State’s expansion may be checked in Iraq and Syria, but a sobering new report from the United Nations estimates that about 34 groups around the world have declared allegiance to the group, and those numbers are likely to grow. The expansion comes partly as veterans of the Middle East wars move on to other countries, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon forecast in the report.

FP’s Colum Lynch runs down some of the grim statistics, finding that the U.N. estimates there are currently around 30,000 fighters from 100 countries actively working with the Islamic State, al Qaeda, or other terrorist groups today, but Islamic State has attracted recruits at “an unprecedented level.” The secretary general also expressed concern that ISIS “may be seeking to develop a long-term capacity to use more sophisticated weapons, including chemical and biological weapons,” in attacks around the world.

Hotspots. Two places Washington policymakers are particularly worried about are Afghanistan and Libya. The U.N. mostly mirrors estimates by U.S. officials that there are about 2,000 Islamic State fighters in Libya, centered around a core of some 800 Libyan vets of Syria and Iraq. The numbers in Afghanistan are roughly similar — spokesman for the U.S. military command in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Al Shoffner, told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday that there are somewhere between 1,000 to 3,000 ISIS fighters active in eastern Afghanistan. Those fighters are mostly Afghan Taliban who have broken from the group, or members of the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, Shoffner said, though “we’re not exactly sure what their motivation is” for the re-branding. The U.S. has “significantly increased“ airstrikes against the group in recent weeks, he added, but wouldn’t elaborate on exactly how much.

Once is enough. The commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Neller, has dismissed the idea of sending in a large American ground force to push back the Islamic State in Iraq. “Could we do it? Sure. But I mean that’s not really going to solve the problem,” Neller said at an event Thursday at the Atlantic Council, moderated by FP’s Dan De Luce. U.S. troops could clear an area of ISIS, but then what? Only Iraqi forces and the Iraqi government could deliver a long-term solution, he said. “We already went in and did it once. I think they’ve got to do it this time.”

Deal or no deal. Late last year, the Pentagon and State Department signed off on a deal to sell Pakistan up to eight F-16 fighter planes, and sent the paperwork along to Congress. That’s where the trouble started. Years of tension between U.S. lawmakers and Pakistan over Islamabad’s alleged support for terrorist groups at home and in Afghanistan “burst into public view on Thursday as officials from both nations traded blows” over the proposed sale, FP’s John Hudson writes.

The scrap started Tuesday when Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker notified Secretary of State John Kerry he would block the subsidized sale, citing Islamabad’s support for the Haqqani network, an extremist group with a history of destabilizing Afghanistan and targeting U.S. forces. Pakistan shot back, the State Department insisted that Pakistan has been doing a good job fighting terrorists, and Hudson captured the whole thing. Read it.

Twitter Fight Club. U.S. and Russian officials have been furiously Tweeting at one another over who is bombing what in Syria, leading to a pretty fascinating exchange on Thursday between the U.S. military’s spokesman in Baghdad and the Russian Ministry of Defense. FP’s Siobhan O’Grady captures the tweets in one place so you can follow the exchange. In all, this isn’t a bad way to settle conflicts.

Cash machine. Earlier this week, the White House proposed a $19 billion spending package to boost U.S. cybersecurity, but according to some officials, more is needed. FP’s Elias Groll runs down some recent comments by Michael Daniel, the top White House adviser for cybersecurity policy, who said Thursday that without action to address what he called the “underlying, fundamental cybersecurity challenges,” the United States risks turning the Internet into a “strategic liability.”

Top Tweet Here’s some video shot by Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Loveday Morris: RT@LovedayM: Iraqi commander before driving into #Ramadi: “Have you heard of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? It’s the same.”

Moving on. Oops. The U.S. Air Force sent notice Thursday that it replaced its acting acquisition chief, Richard Lombardi, after he disclosed he failed to report his wife’s Northrop Grumman retirement account on his annual financial disclosure form. The service named Darlene Costello, as his replacement, after Lombardi was “reassigned to duties outside of the Air Force acquisition portfolio.”

Morning, all. We’re into another week here full of Pentagon budget briefings and intelligence hearings on the Hill. 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

Kurdish fighters in northern Syria are seizing the opportunity provided by Russia’s air campaign against Arab rebels in northern Syria to press the offensive against them, too, taking over Menagh airport near the Turkish border as Russian planes bombed rebel forces there. Russia’s air campaign has accommodated Kurdish interests in northern Syria by focusing on Arab rebel held areas and avoiding Kurdish-controlled areas like the city of Afrin.

CIA Director John Brennan has told CBS News’s 60 Minutes that the Islamic State is capable of making chemical weapons and has used them on the battlefield in Syria. In an episode airing Sunday night, Brennan says ISIS can produce chlorine gas and mustard agent and has already used sulfur mustard in both Iraq and Syria. The New York Times has reported that ISIS carried out an artillery attack with sulfur mustard in the Syrian town of Marea in August 2015 and the Wall Street Journal has written of similar attacks by the group against Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter says the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has promised to get back into the air war in Syria against the Islamic State. The UAE had participated in airstrikes early in the campaign as far back as September 2014 but dropped out in February of 2015 following the capture and killing of a Jordanian pilot by ISIS. Carter also said that UAE special forces may begin participating in the war on the ground in Syria.

NATO

NATO is pitching in to help deal with the rising number of refugees undertaking dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean, the AP reports. Officials from the alliance have sent three ships to the Aegean Sea, where thousands of Syrian migrants have taken to sea to reach the shores of Greece and Turkey. What precisely those ships will do is still somewhat unclear. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the ships will not be there to turn back migrant boats from Europe’s shores but will instead “contribute critical information and surveillance” about human trafficking networks at sea. NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove wouldn’t say whether the alliance vessels would participate in rescue operations for distressed migrant boats, saying it’s too early to make that determination.

Who’s where when

9:30 a.m. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson visits the American Enterprise Institute to talk budgets, his new maritime strategy, and likely, China. Watch live here.

Zoomies in space

The Air Force is working on a plan to wean itself off Russian engines for its space launch capability, and wants to support the development of an American alternative, National Defense Magazine reports. Air Force officials told reporters that a requested 4.5 percent budget increase would go towards stabilizing the U.S. defense industrial base and developing new launch systems. In the meantime, however, the service would remain reliant on Russian RD-180 rockets until domestically-produced alternatives come online.

JLENS lives!

Back in October, the U.S. Army’s JLENS surveillance blimp broke free from its tethers in Aberdeen, Md. and rampaged across southern Pennsylvania before crashing to earth. Many predicted that the incident spelled doom for the program, which has already endured years of development issues. But never count the Pentagon out. Defense News dug through the Army budget docs this week and found that even though the system’s funding was cut by $30 million in the 2016 defense budget — dropping it down to about $10 million — the 2017 request funds the JLENS program at $45.5 million. Leave no blimp behind.

Army

The Army’s new Surgeon General, Lt. Gen. Nadja Y. West, became the first African American to serve as Army surgeon general when she assumed the position Dec. 11. With her promotion, she became the Army’s first black woman to hold the rank of lieutenant general and the highest-ranking woman to graduate from West Point.

U.S.-Saudi arms trade

The State Department has greenlit a Saudi request for upgrades to five MK 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapons Systems (CIWS) at a cost of $154.9 million. The weapons, which look like small Star Wars mech droids with rapid fire cannons attached, can automatically detect and engage incoming munitions. Saudi Arabia’s CIWS systems are intended for use on surface vessels at sea, but the systems can also be deployed on land to defend against incoming munitions such as mortar rounds.

$100 billion. That’s the estimated value of all U.S.-Saudi arms deals since 2010, according to a new Congressional Research Service report, “Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations.” For those looking to geek out on the U.S.-Saudi defense relationship or just in need of a handy reference, the report breaks out every single proposed major U.S. defense sale to Saudi Arabia since 2010, listing the weapons system and it estimated value.

Business of defense

Buzzfeed’s Aram Roston got his hands on U.S. Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM) most recent shopping list of weapons for American-supported fighters in Syria. The list is made up exclusively of weapons models originally made by Russia and the Soviet Union, including Kalashnikov rifles, PKM general purpose machine guns, DShK heavy machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. SOCOM has been floating the list around a handful of arms dealers recently and sources tell Buzzfeed the weapons are ultimately intended for the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces.

 

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

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