The Cable

Situation Report: Pentagon pushing to help retake Mosul, kick ISIS Out of Libya; China’s increasing military budget; Delta Force ready in Iraq; new commando chief named; lots of hearings on the Hill; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Mosul next. American military officials are mulling over the Iraqi plan to retake the city of Mosul, and drawing up their own pitch to Baghdad to provide American help to wrest the city from the grip of the Islamic State. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Monday the U.S. is ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Mosul next. American military officials are mulling over the Iraqi plan to retake the city of Mosul, and drawing up their own pitch to Baghdad to provide American help to wrest the city from the grip of the Islamic State. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Monday the U.S. is ready to help the Iraqis as they push north toward Mosul in the coming months, and “we fully expect to be doing more.”

But like the recent fight for Ramadi, American and Iraqi officials may have different views of what that help might look like. During a trip to Baghdad late last year, Carter offered to send U.S. -piloted Apache helicopters and to embed American advisors in Iraqi army units, but Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi turned him down.

Appearing with Carter on Monday at a Pentagon press briefing, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iraqi leaders had already shared their plan for moving on Mosul with Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the top U.S. commander for Iraq and Syria. Dunford said MacFarland is working on a U.S. response, which likely again includes advisors and Apaches for close support of Iraqi troops.

As we recently reported in SitRep, a small contingent of U.S. trainers and advisors are already in place near Mosul, and U.S. military officials expect the assault to include between eight and 12 Iraqi army brigades to liberate the city, which ISIS has held for almost two years.

We’re from SOCOM, and we’re here to help. The head of U.S. special ops in Africa says that Libyan forces can’t roll back the Islamic State without U.S. help. Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc told the Wall Street Journal  that “our partners need our advice and assistance. They need our training and a certain amount of equipping in order to be successful.” ISIS controls a 150-mile stretch of land around the city of Sirte, and has been fighting to control parts of Benghazi, as well. American operators have been on the ground in Libya trying to assess which militant groups they can work with once a coalition government manages to form in Tripoli. Earlier this month, U.S. warplanes hit an ISIS leader in western Libya, in a strike that had broad ramifications for militant Islamists across northern Africa, especially in neighboring Tunisia, which Washington has courted as an ally.

Delta Force in place. The U.S. Army’s elite Delta Force is reportedly in place in Iraq and ready to begin hitting the Islamic State, according to CNN. The deployment has been well-publicized — it was trumpeted by Ash Carter in front of Congress in December — but officials have been quiet about when they would begin conducting raids. This latest status update likely won’t come as welcome news for Gen. Joseph Votel, current head of the Special Forces Command, who fired off an internal memo to Carter in December complaining that Pentagon officials were talking too much about what his commandos are doing. (FP’s Dan De Luce got the scoop on that story, and it’s worth rereading in light of the latest leak.)

Getting the nod. As long expected, Lt. Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas has been nominated to be the country’s top commando, and his nomination will head to the Senate for approval to lead the  Special Operations Command. If confirmed, he’ll replace Votel, who has been tapped to replace Gen. Lloyd Austin at Central Command, overseeing the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Thomas currently runs the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, and has spent his career leading special operations troops, both in the Army’s elite Ranger battalion and Delta Force. He also worked at the CIA in 2013 as the top military liaison to the spy agency, and served as the 1st Armored Division’s assistant commander during a deployment near Mosul in 2007.

Notably, Votel and Thomas will share a nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 9. Should be an interesting event that wraps up the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan — along with the White House’s growing reliance on its commando force in places like Libya — into one package.

Thanks for clicking on through for another edition of SitRep. 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.

Who’s where when

9:30 a.m. Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander, U.S. European Command, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on threats in Europe. Watch here.

10:00 a.m. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, and Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Neller provide testimony to the House Appropriations Committee on the Navy and Marine Corps 2017 budget request. Watch here.

3:30 p.m. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, Theresa Whelan, and Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander, U.S. Special Operations Command, will endure a budget hearing before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. Watch here.


The ceasefire in Syria has provided breathing room for the United Nations to start delivering aid to besieged Syrian cities, the AP reports. The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says it will begin providing food and medical supplies to 154,000 Syrians in dire need. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent says it has already delivered 51 trucks worth of supplies to the rebel enclaves in the suburbs of Damascus.

While a ceasefire may be in effect on paper, the Lebanon-based NOW News reports that the Assad regime and the militias supporting it are gearing up for an offensive to cut off rebel supply lines west of Aleppo. The plan appears to entail sweeping down from regime-friendly Kurdish areas in Afrin and cutting off the roads into Qubtan al-Jabal on the western edges of Aleppo. Air and artillery strikes against Qubtan al-Jabal have already taken place amidst the regime-aligned militia mobilizations taking place around it.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is “concerned” about the Russian military buildup in Syria. Speaking in Kuwait, Stoltenberg noted the growing concentration of Russian naval, air, and ground forces in the eastern Mediterranean. The secretary general, however, voiced qualified support for the ceasefire, saying that it is ” largely holding,” and could serve as an important basis for political negotiations. For its part, Russia voiced its own concerns about a military buildup in Turkey along the Syrian border, with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warning that a Turkish military push into Syria would mark “irreparable blow” to the ceasefire.

The Islamic State

Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters Monday that U.S. Cyber Command is accelerating a campaign of cyber attacks against the Islamic State aimed at throwing a wrench into their ability to use digital communications. Carter was less candid, however, about what precisely the Defense Department was doing as part of the effort, offering only that “sometimes we do drive them to other means” of communications involving “older technologies,” which “are easier for us to listen to.”

There may be brewing trouble in the caliphate’s capital within the ranks of the Islamic State, according to Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a Syrian activist news outlet. The group reports that a cluster of roughly 75 Dutch foreign fighters headquartered in Raqqa have entered into near open warfare with Iraqi members of ISIS after a series of escalating conflicts between the two groups. The feud began when Iraqi ISIS members arrested a member of the Dutch camp, accusing him of sowing dissent, eventually beating him to death. The man’s death has reportedly set off a chain of reprisal killings between the two camps, leading ISIS leadership to execute eight Dutch foreign fighters as punishment for their insubordination.


Japan is working on a defense agreement with the Philippines to supply military aid as both countries look to beef up defenses in the face of China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. The agreement would involve Japan selling arms and equipment to the Philippines, which, though it doesn’t have a formal shopping list prepared yet, is in the market for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance hardware. Japan has entered into defense agreements with both the U.S. and Australia recently and strengthened its ties with the Philippines as both countries have brushed against Chinese territorial claims along their shores.


Brace yourselves, China’s is set to announce a big new budget increase for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on Saturday, the South China Morning Post reports. Military sources reached by the Post said they expected a budget increase as much as 20 percent to cover the cost of equipment modernization, the retirement benefits of the 300,000 troops recently laid off, and pay increases to stem the grumbling in PLA’s ranks. The PLA Navy is looking for a boost in funding, as well, in light of the increasing tension in the South China Sea as the U.S. looks to challenge China’s claims of sovereignty around its man-made islands.

North Korea

Russia is holding up a U.S.-China agreement on United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea for its recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests, Fox News reports. The Security Council already postponed a vote on the draft resolution as Moscow says it needs more time to review the document. Some diplomats told Fox they believe Russia is engaged in a delaying tactic in order muscle the U.S. and China into accommodating Russia’s views on the text.


The Navy is taking a second look at the assumptions in its last Force Structure Assessment and rethinking the number of submarines and other vessels it may need, according to the USNI News. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said that the rise of threats from Russia, and the war against the Islamic State have changed the threat environment since the analysis of force requirements was last written in 2006. The changing threats may lead the service to rethink its requirement for 48 submarines and 308 ships in total, potentially leading to calls for more vessels.

And finally…
For your reading pleasure, the Director of National Intelligence has released 113 letters and written items collected from the home of Osama Bin Laden after the May 2011 special operations raid that killed him. Judging by his nearly complete collection of 2008 issues, the al-Qaeda leader was apparently a devoted reader of Foreign Policy.

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

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