The Cable

Situation Report: New Syrian cease-fire in the works; Libya, and Tunisia, takes center stage, NATO looking at North Africa; lots of defense cash in Asia, Ukraine heats up; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Stop, don’t stop. Looks like it may be up to President Barack Obama and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to iron out some of the final details of a potential, and uneasy, truce between the Syrian government and the rebels battling against it. Choosing his words very carefully, Secretary of ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Stop, don’t stop. Looks like it may be up to President Barack Obama and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to iron out some of the final details of a potential, and uneasy, truce between the Syrian government and the rebels battling against it. Choosing his words very carefully, Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that American and Russian officials “reached a provisional agreement in principle on the terms of a cessation of hostilities that could begin in the coming days.” But plenty of complications remain. Part of the problem is that the cease-fire would allow Russian planes to continue bombing Aleppo, where Moscow says the Islamic State and al Nusra are still active. Those bombing runs have also targeted a variety of U.S.-backed rebel groups, and have been absolutely devastating for civilians trapped in the middle of the fighting.

Libya, the problem that never went away. The U.S. airstrikes against an ISIS recruiter in Libya Friday have shaken awake the public’s attention to the steady decline of Libya’s security situation, and just how worried the country’s neighbors are over the group’s expansion there. FP’s Dan De Luce and John Hudson write that the strike, in many ways, was just as much about Libya as it was the country’s more stable neighbor, Tunisia. In recent months, Pentagon officials have discussed providing helicopters and intelligence-gathering drones to Tunisia, and reports over the weekend suggest Germany may be willing to step up and start training Tunisian troops.

The Islamic State “is threatening all of North Africa,” German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen said. Training Tunisian troops would also help Libya, especially if the country manages to put together a unity government, as “its security forces could also benefit from established training facilities in Tunisia.”

More thought than we thought. Those plans may be one of the initiatives put forth by the Libyan International Assistance Mission, which was first disclosed by the Canadian CTV late Friday. According to the report, the group is comprised of seven NATO nations — including the U.S., U.K., Italy, and Canada — that came together late last year to come up with ways to improve the security situation in Libya, mostly through training programs for the nascent Libyan security forces.

There have been some high-level contacts between U.S. and North African officials in recent days. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon was in Tunisia’s capital of Tunis last week to hold talks with local officials and meet with State Department staff in the Libya External Office. Shannon then went to Algiers, and is wrapping up his trip later this week by meeting Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, and President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita of Mali.

Steady as she goes. The head of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, based in Japan, is taking it slow and steady in the rhetoric game with China over the South China Sea. Speaking in Australia days after evidence emerged that China deployed sophisticated surface-to-air missiles to a contested island in the region, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin said recent U.S. maneuvers near islands China claims as its own — claims not backed by international law —  “shouldn’t seem provocative. What we’re trying to ensure is that all countries, no matter size or strength, can pursue their interests based on the law of the sea and not have that endangered by some of these actions.” He added that the U.S. Navy will continue to operate in the region.

Shipping out. China has doubled its arms exports over the past five years, according to a new report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The increase is coupled with a decrease in weapons imports into China, down a quarter over the same period as China has become more self-sufficient. The arms exports — which don’t include small arms — have also improved qualitatively as China has been able to develop more technologically advanced systems for sale abroad. Despite the increase, China remains a distant third in global arms exports behind the U.S. and Russia with just 5.9 percent of the total global arms market.

In a related bit, IHS Jane’s is out with a new report looking at defense spending in the Asia-Pacific region. The group predicts that by 2020, spending on arms across the region will reach $533 billion annually from $435 billion in 2015. In 2014, seven of the 20 fastest growing defense budgets were found in Asia, a number that rose to nine in 2015. And Chinese defense spending makes up a whopping 40 percent of that total.

Morning, all. Thanks for clicking on through to kick off the last full week of February. As always, 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: or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not happy with Washington’s relationship with the Syrian Kurdish militants in the YPG. On Saturday, Erdoğan said he wants the U.S. to “support Turkey with no ifs or buts” in its campaign against the YPG in Syria following a suicide bombing in Ankara, which Turkey says was carried out by YPG-linked militants. The U.S. has called on Turkey to stop its artillery barrages against the YPG and says it plans to continue supporting the group, whose members form the backbone of a U.S.-supported force to take on the Islamic State in Syria.

Amnesty International is taking on Russia for its air campaign in Syria, accusing it of intentionally targeting schools and hospitals. Tirana Hassan, Amnesty’s crisis response director told Sky News that the Russian targeting of civilians, including emergency personnel evacuating those injured in the initial bombings, amounted to a war crime.

Russia may soon start firing another round of cruise missiles at Syria, according to a Notice to Airmen filed late last week. Russian navy watcher Seven Feet Beneath the Keel spotted the announcement, which warns pilots that that “rocket test firings” may take place between February 24 and 29 in an area between the coasts of Syria and Cyprus. That’s an area where the Russian navy destroyer Zelenyy Dol, capable of firing Russia’s new SS-N-30 cruise missiles, began operating on February 17.


Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Iranian covert ops chief Qassem Soleimani are not besties. Reuters reports on the tense relationship between the two men, revealing a few testy exchanges as Abadi has bristled at what he considers Soleimani’s imperious behavior as Iran has tried to play a larger role in Iraqi security affairs. Little things like Soleimani’s landing at Baghdad airport without permission and use of the airport’s VIP lounge has rubbed Abadi the wrong way. The Iraqi prime minister even tossed the Iranian official from a meeting of Iraqi security officials after Soleimani reportedly became too bossy.


Hey Vlad! The U.S. has just sent its largest shipment of ammunition to Europe in a decade in a symbol of America’s growing military involvement there. U.S. Army Europe sent 415 containers housing 5,000 tons of ammo to Miesau, Germany, according to Stars and Stripes, some of which will supply a forthcoming exercise in Poland involving 20,000 troops.


Hard times in the Russian economy are forcing the country to trim its defense budget and some of the country’s ambitious plans for military modernization. Reuters reports that a five percent or $1.29 billion defense budget cut is on the table for discussion at Russia’s next cabinet meeting. The defense cut would be the biggest in Putin’s presidency and is supported by Russia’s finance ministry, which is arguing that the country, hit by low oil prices and western sanctions, simply can’t afford to spend what it had hoped to on defense.

Moscow will likely seek permission to start flying surveillance flights over the United States under the auspices of the Open Skies Treaty, which both Washington and Moscow have signed. The agreement allows unarmed observation flights “over the entire territory of all 34 member nations to foster transparency about military activity and help monitor arms control and other agreements,” the AP reports. “Senior intelligence and military officials, however, worry that Russia is taking advantage of technological advances to violate the spirit of the treaty.” Keep an eye on this one.


While the world watches Russian planes pound Syrian rebels in Syria, Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine have stepped up attacks on government forces to levels not seen since last summer. The separatist militias have inched as close as 150 yards from the army’s front lines, “close enough for the soldiers and militiamen to yell insults back and forth.” More deadly are the attacks by separatist forces using mortars and truck-mounted anti-aircraft machine guns that have been lowered to fire horizontally, Ukrainian officials say. The renewed fighting may prove is Moscow is capable of carrying out two military operations at once.


Saudi Arabia has registered its displeasure with what it considers to be Lebanon’s recent lack of support for Saudi foreign policy towards Iran by cancelling military aid deals for the Lebanese defense ministry worth $4 billion. The AP reports that the cancellation came in retaliation for the decision by Lebanese foreign ministry — run by a Hezbollah-friendly foreign minister Gebran Bassil — not to support Saudi resolutions against Iran in international forums. The aid money was earmarked for $3 billion worth of arms and $1 billion to support Lebanese police.

Think tanked

The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point is out with a fascinating new analysis of the relationship between Iraq’s ousted Sunni Ba’athist military leaders, and the Islamic State. Analyst Barak Barfi writes that as ISIS has evolved as a fighting force it has “selected, adapted, and at times even rejected” the techniques brought by Saddam Hussein’s old military leaders.

“But from morale to tactical command, the organization is not saddled with the Baathists’ liabilities. The Islamic State’s expert use of forward agents and sleeper cells to gather intelligence is in direct contrast to the Baathists’ utter lack of pre-battle reconnaissance.” Rejecting rigid military doctrine, “the group instead often deploys special forces at the outset of battles. For this reason, the Islamic State is a formidable military force that cannot be easily categorized.”

And finally…

Witness the tactical mastery on display as U.S. Marines at U.S. Naval Base Yokosuka, Japan beat the snot out of a bunch of kids in a massive Nerf gun fight.

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

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