The Cable

Situation Report: More Mosul problems; Trump and Bergdahl headed for a collision; NATO in the Med.; ISIS hit Tunisia; Russian defense cuts, South Korean exercises rile the North; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley More snags in Mosul plans. Iraq’s dangerously fractured politics are throwing up some real roadblocks for the Iraqi army as it attempts to gather troops and momentum to make a play for the Islamic State-held city of Mosul. Even as the Iraqi army deploys troops — under the eyes ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

More snags in Mosul plans. Iraq’s dangerously fractured politics are throwing up some real roadblocks for the Iraqi army as it attempts to gather troops and momentum to make a play for the Islamic State-held city of Mosul.

Even as the Iraqi army deploys troops — under the eyes of American advisors — just south of the city at a base near the town of Makhmour, Iranian-backed factions in Baghdad are demanding a role in the fight. The Shiite militias were kept out of the fight in Ramadi, a fact of life they don’t want to see repeated in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The Kurds, likewise, have a real stake in the fight in Iraq’s north. All of the jostling has complicated plans to retake the city in the coming months, and some Iraqi politicians don’t see an end in sight. Consider this, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal: “Whomever thinks this battle will happen in 2016 is either a daredevil or believes he is Rambo,” said Mashaan al-Jabouri, a Sunni politician whose son commands a Sunni militia. “Ramadi was a good victory but Ramadi is a village that was masquerading as a city.”

Just last week,  FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce took stock of the momentum to hit the city, and found U.S. generals and policymakers laying the rhetorical groundwork for the assault to begin sooner rather than later.

Tremendous, really classy testimony. Somehow, things might get even weirder. There’s a chance that Donald Trump might end up playing a part in the ongoing Bowe Bergdahl saga, and we don’t know how to feel about it. Over the weekend, SitRep received a letter that Bergdahl’s legal team previously sent Trump, asking for more information about some of the more colorful comments the candidate has made about the Army sergeant.

“I request to interview you as soon as possible about your comments about Sergeant Bergdahl,” the letter from Bergdahl’s lawyer said. “Based on your personal knowledge of matters that are relevant to Sergeant Bergdahl’s right to a fair trial this interview will help us determine whether to seek a deposition order under Rule of Court-Martial 702 or your personal appearance as a witness” at the court martial. Trump, you’ll recall, has said that Bergdahl “should have been executed” for walking off his post in Afghanistan in 2009.

No bases, no airstrips. Reports keep surfacing that American forces are operating out of an airfield in Kurdish-held territory of northern Syria, and the U.S.-led coalition deeps denying it. In January, several outlets, including CNN, reported that at least some of the 50 American commandos operating in Syria had started using the Rmeilan airstrip, after reports surfaced that the runways there had been lengthened considerably.

U.S. officials quickly said that no troops had taken over any airstrip in the country. Now a new story is out from Kurdish news sources — picked up by Reuters — that two airstrips, one in Rmeilan and another near Kobani, are being prepared for use. Monday morning, spokesman for the American-led coalition Col. Chris Garver tweeted to Reuters: “This story is inaccurate. The US is not building air bases in northern #Syria.” he said that the 50 U.S. commandos in the country are only advising the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition made up of Sunni Arab, Kurdish and other militias. The truth is out there.

Words under the bridge. In his new book, U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad — former ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and the U.N. — says that American and Iranian officials held a series of meetings before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The talks in Geneva featured Mohammad Javad Zarif, then-Iranian ambassador to the U.N. and current foreign minister. “We wanted a commitment that Iran would not fire on U.S. aircraft if they accidentally flew over Iranian territory,” Khalilzad wrote. The Iranians agreed. “We also hoped Iran would encourage Iraqi Shiites to participate constructively in establishing a new government in Iraq,” he wrote.  The whole thing fell apart after President George W. Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil” speech, and Iran continued its support of different terrorist groups. “I am convinced that if we had combined diplomatic engagement with forcible actions, we could have shaped Iran’s conduct,” Khalilzad wrote.

No deal, but how much is shipping? Remember that $3 billion that Saudi Arabia pledged to give to Lebanon to buy French-made weapons? Well, the deal is off. Sort of. Riyadh said over the weekend that the cash is still headed to French defense firms for the hardware, but the Saudi military will keep the gear for themselves. The reason? Saudi officials don’t like the influence Hezbollah wields over the government in Beirut. “We have a situation where Lebanon’s decisions have been hijacked by Hezbollah. The contracts will be completed but the clients will be the Saudi military,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said at a news conference in Paris. The six-member Gulf Cooperation Council declared the Iranian-backed Hezbollah a terrorist group last month, and since the group has members in the Lebanese parliament, the deal is a no go.

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: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Who’s where when

9:00 a.m. The Defense Department’s CFO, Mike McCord, will be joined by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, & Capabilities Bob Scher, and Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation Dr. Jamie Morin to talk the Pentagon’s 2017 budget request at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Watch here.

3:30 p.m. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh offer a “State of the Air Force” briefing in the Pentagon Briefing Room. Watch here.

ISIS in North Africa

Tunisian forces killed about 21 militants who had attacked an army base and a police station in the eastern town of Ben Guerdane, after the fighters crossed the border from Libya. The fighting is exactly what the Tunisian government has feared, as it scrambles to close off its border with the war torn country to its east. The attack comes just a few weeks after U.S. airstrike that took out a Tunisian ISIS recruiter in Libya. FP’s Dan De Luce and John Hudson wrote that the strike 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 European countries have recently said they’re willing to step up and start training Tunisian and Libyan troops.

BUFF rides again

The B-52 bomber, also known as the “big, ugly, fat fella,” might be headed for a new mission: bombing ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. With the U.S. Air Force pulling its B-1 bombers out of the fight for a round of upgrades and maintenance work stateside, the 60-year old plane is being sent to take its place. Not exactly the type of mission that the Pentagon had in mind back in the 1950s when the B-52 first started flying, but hey, you bomb the caliphate with the massive airplanes you have, not the ones that you’d like to have. The B-1’s are expected to be back in action by this summer.

NATO

NATO is expanding its naval mission in the Mediterranean to monitor the flows of migrants coming out of Syria and North Africa. The agreement refines plans for the naval mission announced in February, hammering out operational details with Greece and Turkey to allow the ships to operate in each country’s waters. Under the new plan, NATO vessels will monitor maritime traffic in Greek and Turkish waters, alert their coast guards if any migrant ships are spotted and perform rescue operations for any ships in immediate danger.

NATO deputy secretary general Alexander Vershbow says that Russian troops have been dying in “large numbers” in Ukraine and that the Russian government is getting worse at covering up the scale of the losses. Vershbow also said that the Russian public is becoming less supportive of their country’s participation in the conflict. Vershbow’s statements come on the heels of a claim by Washington’s top diplomat in Europe, Victoria Nuland, that “thousands and thousands” of Russian troops have fought in Ukraine.

Afghanistan

The Taliban are saying that they won’t participate in direct peace talks with the Afghan government, but Afghan officials are saying they think the militant group will soon come around and join the international negotiations organized by the U.S., Pakistan, and China. In a statement, the Taliban said that their leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour hadn’t authorized anyone to participate in the talks but anonymous Afghan officials say the rejection is merely a negotiating tactic and that the group will participate, as they have in the past.

Russia

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Tatiana Shevtsova announced that Russia will cut its 2016 defense budget by five percent, Reuters reports. The cut, the largest since President Putin became president, comes as Western sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and plummeting global oil prices have rocked the Russian economy. Russia’s finance ministry had pushed hard cuts in all ministries and the belt tightening now threatens to undermine some of Russia’s ambitious plans for military modernization.

The will-they, won’t-they drama surrounding Russia’s ever-in-limbo plans to sell advanced S-300 air defense missiles to Iran just got more intriguing. The Times of Israel reports on a Kuwaiti newspaper article claiming that Russia scrapped the S-300 sale to Iran thanks to Israeli evidence showing that Iran had tried to transfer other advanced air defense missile systems to Hezbollah. The report also claimed that Russian pilots noticed Hezbollah had secreted air defense systems along the border between Syria and Lebanon.

North Korea

The annual U.S.-South Korean exercises, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, have begun and North Korea is issuing its usual round of threats in response. This year’s exercises will be the largest ever, involving U.S. aircraft carrier the USS John C. Stennis, and the B-2 stealth bomber. U.S. and South Korean troops will reportedly practice OPLAN 5015 to knock out North Korean leadership and missile installations in the event of war.

North Korea has been typically cranky and verbose during the annual joint exercises and this year is no exception. North Korea’s official KCNA mouthpiece threatened a “sacred war of justice for reunification” in response to the exercises and pledged an “all-out offensive” against them. China, for its part, registered a milder objection to the drills, pronouncing itself “deeply concerned and firmly opposed to any trouble-making behavior on the peninsula’s doorstep.”

And finally…
Witness the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) latest concept for a next generation vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) plane, the LightningStrike or VTOL-X. Aurora Flight Sciences will build a demonstrator of the plane, which would be able to fly faster than existing VTOL aircraft like the V-22 Osprey as well as other helicopters. Darpa released a concept animation of the aircraft, showing a rotatable wing with 24 fans attached to a helicopter-like fuselage.

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