Situation Report: Syria getting it from all sides; China unveils new missiles; Washington’s cyber strike plans; Chinese ships cozy up to U.S. drones; new Russian spy plane in Syria; and lots more
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
Syria spiral. Just days before a ceasefire between the Syrian government and rebel groups is due to take effect, the situation in the war-ravaged country is only getting worse. Syrian forces backed up by a relentless Russian air assault have been pounding rebel strongholds in the country’s northwest, and haven’t bothered to try and avoid killing civilians along the way.
No safe space. One of the targets of the intensifying airstrikes was a Médecins Sans Frontières-supported hospital in the northwestern town of Maarat al-Numan. At least 11 people — including five staff members and five patients — were killed, and another two people are still missing. FP’s Siobhan O’Grady reports that the staff at the hospital did not provide its location to the Syrian government due to fears that would prompt a deliberate attack. They were hit anyway. Syrian officials have refused to offer any sympathy, with the country’s U.N. envoy, Bashar al-Jaafari, telling reporters in New York Tuesday that MSF is a “branch of the French intelligence operating in Syria.”
Meanwhile, Turkey shelled Kurdish forces in northern Aleppo province for the fourth day Tuesday and ignored Washington’s calls for all sides to stop the fighting. The uptick in violence, FP’s John Hudson writes, is hugely frustrating for the Obama administration, “which is desperately trying to ensure that a ceasefire cobbled together last week by the Syrian Support Group, a 17-nation group overseeing efforts to secure peace in Syria,” kicks in on Friday.
As part of its renewed push for more action against the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia took part in airstrikes against the group in Syria over the weekend, the Pentagon announced Tuesday. While Saudi has been a member of the anti-ISIS coalition from the beginning, its jets have focused more on the Saudi-led war in Yemen, than on Syria, in recent months.
Don’t forget China. Halfway around the world, tensions continue to rise in the South China Sea, where Beijing has now deployed surface-to-air missile batteries on Woody Island in the Paracel chain, which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. The missiles have a range of about 125 miles, can destroy aircraft, and knock cruise and ballistic missiles out of the sky.
China has long claimed ownership of the Paracel chain, which sits much closer to the mainland than the Spratlys, where the country has focused much of its island-building efforts. (See FP’s Dan De Luce, Keith Johnson, and C.K. Hickey for more on this.) But that doesn’t mean Washington and its allies are happy about the move. On a visit to Japan on Wednesday, Adm. Harry B. Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said the deployment of the missiles flies in the face of pledges made by Chinese President Xi Jinping last year not to militarize the South China Sea. “This calls into question the seriousness of President Xi’s statement,” Harris said. “It concerns me greatly because this would be a clear indication of the militarization of the South China Sea.”
Power moves. Beijing is branching out even further than the South China Sea, and has secured basing rights next door to Washington’s most important drone base in Africa. The eastern African nation of Djibouti has long been a critical component of Washington’s growing counterterrorism effort in Africa, but the country’s president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, is taking advantage of the open-wallet policy that Beijing is using to expand its military footprint around the globe FP’s Paul McLeary writes. Under the deal, the Chinese navy will berth at a new, $590 million port facility being built with help from the China Merchants Holdings International.
Some U.S. lawmakers are less than thrilled about the move, and FP obtained a letter that Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca.) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) sent to to Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry saying Washington should “urge President Guelleh to step down.” The duo are “worried that our own strategic interests around the Horn of Africa, specifically our critical counter-terrorism operations, will be impacted by China’s growing strategic influence in the region.”
Feel good tunes. The Chinese military recently released a snappy new song and video to celebrate the newly created PLA Rocket Force, part of China’s massive military reorganization intended to make the PLA a modern fighting force “capable of winning wars.” FP’s Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian has the translation of the song, which features such feel-good lines as: “Obeying the command of the party / Writing our loyalty with our blood / Forging strategic, powerful strikes / Defending peace and tranquility.”
Even better names. Nitro Zeus. It’s about to become part of the lexicon. In the early days of the administration of President Barack Obama, officials made plans to launch a crippling cyber attack on Iranian infrastructure if nuclear diplomacy failed and war broke out, the New York Times reports. “The plan, code-named Nitro Zeus, was devised to disable Iran’s air defenses, communications systems and crucial parts of its power grid, and was shelved, at least for the foreseeable future, after the nuclear deal struck between Iran and six other nations last summer was fulfilled,” the report states. But all that work didn’t go for nothing. We now have Nitro Zeus.
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German Luftwaffe’s Lr-Gen Joachim Wundrak told reporters Wednesday that Russian fighter jets are shadowing German Tornados participating in operations over Syria as part of “a political demonstration,” the Daily Telegraph reports. Wundrak says the aim of the harassment is for Russia to demonstrate that its aircraft are operating over Syrian airspace with the permission of the Assad regime in contrast to the Western coalition. Germany contributed six Tornado jets to the anti-Islamic State air campaign to perform reconnaissance missions shortly after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.
Russia has sent the Tu-214R, its latest and greatest spy plane, to Syria, according to the Aviationist. ADS-B transponder data published to flightradar24 shows the plane flying from Russia through Iran and Iraq to Russia’s airbase in Syria on Monday. The Tu-214R is still a developmental aircraft but it has appeared before along the Russian-Ukrainian border in the midst of Russia’s war with Ukraine. The aircraft, made Kazan Aircraft Production Association, collects signals and electronic intelligence and can carry out intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations with electro-optical and radar sensors.
The Islamic State
Open source investigation website Bellingcat profiles the Islamic State’s Libyan special operations unit Katibat Al-Battar Al-Libi (KBL). The unit was formed in 2012 by a group of Libyan foreign fighters arriving in Syria, operating as an independent terrorist organization until it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Over time, the KBL commando unit within ISIS attracted a number of members from Francophone countries, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian citizen at the heart of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and a number of other plots in France and Belgium. After fighting in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, KBL members have since begun to return to the Libyan town of Dernah, where they’ve formed training camps and plotted attacks against Tunisia.
United Nations aid chief Stephen O’Brien criticized both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi fighters they are fighting for blocking humanitarian aid shipments in the ongoing conflict in Yemen, Reuters reports. O’Brien took aim at Saudi statements warning non-governmental and humanitarian aid organizations to stay away from Houthi territory, and for military officials and rebel fighters for hindering the delivery of aid. The Houthi movement, according to O’Brien, interfered with the transit of aid supplies and personnel. The toll of the conflict so far includes 6,000 dead, including 3,000 civilians, 700 of them children, O’Brien said.
Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz has managed to get the U.S. Senate to unanimously approve a bill that would rename the plaza in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. after Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned Chinese dissident awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Beijing, unsurprisingly, isn’t happy with the lawmaker’s foray into urban planning. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said Tuesday the bill “violates the basic norms of international relations,” and if it becomes law, warned of “severe consequences.”
Buzzfeed examines the harrowing process of how Boko Haram, Nigeria’s Islamic State-aligned Islamist terror group, turns the women it kidnaps into suicide bombers. The group grooms young women, often teenagers, over an extended period with small favors and the implicit threat of death, inculcating the women into the group’s ideology before turning them loose as suicide bombers or decoys in the group’s mass casualty attacks. Classified Nigerian documents obtained by Buzzfeed also, to no one’s huge surprise, paint Boko Haram as incapable of carrying out effective governance, struggling to feed even its own fighters and plagued by internal fighting.
The U.S. has deployed four stealth F-22 Raptor jets to South Korea in a very public show of support to its ally in Seoul in the wake of North Korea’s latest provocative nuclear and ballistic missiles tests. The Raptors touched down at Osan Air Base on Wednesday where South Korean Air Force Operations commander Lt. Gen. Lee Wang-geun and Deputy Commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, Lt. Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, gave a press conference. The F-22, America’s most advanced stealth fighter jet, is an air superiority fighter designed to knock out enemy air defenses. Its deployment to South Korea follows similar demonstrations of strength in the past, including the January flyover of a U.S. B-52 bomber from Guam.