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Situation Report: Ground war in Syria; Saudi showing off its might; another bloody day for Syrian civilians; White House misses deadline; North Korean shell games; McCain may subpoena sailors; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Desert games. Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Turkey have all recently said they’re willing to send ground troops into Syria to take the fight against the Islamic State to a whole new level, and have been making a show of their preparations for a fight. On Tuesday, a Turkish ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Desert games. Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Turkey have all recently said they’re willing to send ground troops into Syria to take the fight against the Islamic State to a whole new level, and have been making a show of their preparations for a fight.

On Tuesday, a Turkish official told reporters in Istanbul that "without ground operations it is impossible to stop the fighting in Syria," and Turkey hoped that the U.S. and other allies would buy into the idea. There are currently about 50 American commandos operating inside Syria, providing advice to rebel groups fighting the Islamic State, but officials in Washington insist that the troops are not on the front lines, and are there in an advisory capacity only.

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Desert games. Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Turkey have all recently said they’re willing to send ground troops into Syria to take the fight against the Islamic State to a whole new level, and have been making a show of their preparations for a fight.

On Tuesday, a Turkish official told reporters in Istanbul that “without ground operations it is impossible to stop the fighting in Syria,” and Turkey hoped that the U.S. and other allies would buy into the idea. There are currently about 50 American commandos operating inside Syria, providing advice to rebel groups fighting the Islamic State, but officials in Washington insist that the troops are not on the front lines, and are there in an advisory capacity only.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also said over the weekend that Saudi officials have visited the Turkish air base at Incirlik as the kingdom considers launching airstrikes from the base.  In a show of force, the Saudis also recently kicked off a massive, 20-nation military exercise at the King Khalid Military City in northeastern Saudi Arabia. Dubbed North Thunder, the Saudi Press Agency.said the exercise is “the largest in the region’s history.”

More Syria. Monday was another bloody day for Syrian civilians caught up in the fighting in that country’s civil war. Approximately 50 civilians were killed in several missile strikes on hospitals and schools in northern Syria, just days before a temporary cease-fire is slated to go into effect. One of the targets was an aid hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, known commonly by its French acronym, MSF. Mego Terzian, president of MSF France, told Reuters “either the [Syrian] government or Russia” was responsible for the attack.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday the continuing strikes on civilian targets “casts doubt on Russia’s willingness and/or ability to help bring to a stop the continued brutality of the Assad regime against its own people.” But Russia has said it “categorically rejects” any accusations that is was responsible for the attacks, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov charging, “those who make such statements are not capable of backing them up with proof.”

Meanwhile, Turkey has been shelling U.S.-backed Kurdish groups in northern Syria, further complicating an already messy situation.

Another shot. U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, arrived in in Damascus, Syria Monday night in an effort to salvage negotiations aimed at ending the country’s five-year-old war. Even if a cease-fire were reached between the government and a loose coalition of rebel groups, however, FP’s Colum Lynch recently obtained a confidential U.N. strategy paper warning the U.N. would be unable to monitor or enforce any peace deal that might emerge.

Deadlines. The White House has blown past a deadline to hand over to Congress a “real, comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS” and offer a broader counterterrorism plan for the Middle East, according to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.). The Feb. 15 deadline, FP’s Molly O’Toole reminds us, is spelled out in the 2016 defense bill signed into law by President Barack Obama. Ryan and House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, (R-Tx.), have been sending the White House helpful reminders as the deadline approached. Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told FP Friday that “we are actively working with multiple interagency offices to complete this legal requirement per the NDAA and look forward to submitting the completed report to Congress in the near-term.”

On the ground. An annual training exercise between special operations forces from the U.S., Europe, and a group of African nations kicked off rather quietly last week. But with about 1,700 soldiers from 33 countries participating in 2016’s Operation Flintlock, the exercise is the largest in the event’s decade-old history. Run by the U.S. Special Operations Command-Africa and the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership, it’s “more than a military exercise,”  U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, Special Operations Command-Africa commander, said at the opening ceremony, “we are training together to increase our interoperability and collaboration to counter today’s threats.” Host Senegal is particularly concerned about the spread of Islamist terror groups, and invited Dutch marines and U.S. Green Berets to help it stand up a new commando group last year.

This could get messy. U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday that unless the Obama administration provides details of its investigation into how two U.S. Navy patrol craft strayed into Iranian waters last month, he would subpoena the 10 U.S. sailors involved to testify about their brief detention by Iran. The White House has until March 1. “It’s an option that I do not want to exercise,” McCain said.

Trouble ahead. The U.S. and its allies at the United Nations are moving to block a Russian diplomat from a senior U.N. job overseeing the organization’s relations with human rights champions and other advocacy groups, FP’s Colum Lynch reports in an exclusive get.

Morning, all. Here we are at the start of another week here at SitRep HQ, and 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.

Who’s where when

10:00 a.m. The Brookings Institution hosts U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken to talk aboutNew frameworks for countering terrorism and violent extremism.”

2:00 p.m. The Atlantic Council kicks off its Task Force on the Future of Iraq on Tuesday with a panel discussion featuring Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq; Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, former deputy chief of staff, strategic operations, Multi-National Task Force – Iraq; James Jeffrey, former deputy national security advisor; and Dr. Nussaibah Younis, executive director, Task Force on the Future of Iraq. Watch here.

Syria

Be prepared for the possibility of more Russian cruise missile launches in Syria. Russian naval watcher blog 7 Feet Beneath the Keel notes that the Zelenyy Dol, a Russian patrol ship that can fire Kalibr cruise missiles, is headed to the eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Syria in a possible sign that more Kalibr launches over Syria are in the cards. The ship left Sevastopol on Saturday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is calling for a no-fly zone over Syria, telling local media that “it would be helpful if there was an area there in which none of the warring parties carry out attacks by air,” according to Reuters. The idea dovetails with previous Turkish suggestions for a buffer zone in northern Syria where civilians could flee for respite from the conflict. Merkel’s proposal sounds less like the kind of military-enforced no fly zones seen over Iraq in the 1990s and more like a diplomatic proposal as the chancellor said it’d be nice of both pro and anti regime forces could agree to the proposal.

Libya

Libya’s pick-up air force has suffered another casualty in the war against jihadists as the Islamic State claims to have shot down a Libyan fighter jet, Agence France Presse reports. The group said it was responsible for shooting down a Libyan government MiG-23 which crashed Friday after bombing runs near the city of Benghazi. The pilot reportedly ejected safely and survived the crash. The incident marks the second loss of a Libyan fighter jet in a week as another MiG-23 recently went down near Derna. Libyan authorities blamed “technical problems” for the loss.

Cuba

What’d you get for Valentine’s Day? That’s cool, but the Pentagon finally got its Hellfire missile back from Cuba, capping off a bizarre two-year odyssey for the inert training weapon. The U.S. took delivery of the missile from Cuba Saturday, with a statement from the State Department hailing the recent thaw in relations after the U.S. dropped its decades-long embargo of the communist Caribbean country for helping to expedite diplomacy over the missing missile. The missile was shipped to Europe in 2014 for a NATO exercise but, in a series of events the U.S. has yet to explain, was mislabeled and mistakenly shipped to Cuba.

China

More worries from the U.S. Navy over China’s assertive behavior regarding its maritime claims in the South China Sea. 7th Fleet commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin said Monday that any attempt by China to host military jets on the runways of its man-made islands won’t stop the U.S. from conducting its freedom of navigation operations within the waters around those islands, Reuters reports. While he noted that the U.S. Navy regularly engages at high levels with its People’s Liberation Army Navy counterparts, Aucoin said he was worried about China’s use of civilian ships to enforce its maritime claims, “whether it’s coast guard or what we refer to as white shipping or cabbage ships.”

North Korea

Hold on tight, North Korea has more provocations in store. Kim Jong-Un has ordered his country’s scientists to prepare yet more rocket launches, as the diplomatic fallout from the most recent satellite launch is still fresh. The AP reports the North Korean leader called for further launches in a speech at a banquet in honor of the country’s rocket scientists, where he lavished praise on their efforts.

South Korea revealed Sunday that North Korea has been using money from a joint North-South industrial plant to fund its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program. Seoul’s Unification Ministry said on Sunday that the North had skimmed 70 percent of salaries for workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex located in Kaesong and diverted that money to its nuclear and missile programs. Part of the money also went to buy luxury goods for North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, with some of the funds moving through Office 39, which has been known to bankroll North Korean leaders’ high living lifestyles. South Korea shut down its participation in the Kaesong facility after North Korea’s recent nuclear test.

Afghanistan

Amid continued fighting in the restive Helmand province on Saturday, two Taliban suicide bombers drove their American-made Humvees into a checkpoint manned by Afghan security forces, killing six. The exact number of Humvees taken by the Taliban is not clear, but accounts from across the country suggest that it could be more than 150.

JLENS

JLENS, everyone’s favorite runaway blimp, went on a multi-state rampage after breaking loose from its tether in part because no one put batteries in its automatic-deflation device, the Los Angeles Times reports. A number of errors contributed to the breakaway journey: Air pressure sensing tubes on the vessel broke, denying internal fans the information they needed to increase air pressure in the face of stiff wind conditions. The lower internal air pressure made the blimp unstable, which would have normally triggered an auto deflation device to bring the whole aircraft down to the ground but the failure to add batteries nixed that possibility.

 

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