The Cable

SitRep: Over 20 Dead in Brussels Attacks; U.S. Hiding Size of Iraq Deployment

Moscow gets prickly over Syria ceasefire, Hezbollah promises to keep fighting, and lots more

Passengers leave Brussels airport, on March 22, 2016 in Zaventem , following its evacuation after at least 13 people were killed and 35 injured as twin blasts rocked the main terminal of Brussels airport.AFP PHOTO / JOHN THYS / AFP / JOHN THYS        (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Passengers leave Brussels airport, on March 22, 2016 in Zaventem , following its evacuation after at least 13 people were killed and 35 injured as twin blasts rocked the main terminal of Brussels airport.AFP PHOTO / JOHN THYS / AFP / JOHN THYS (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

BREAKING: At least 13 people were killed and dozens more wounded at the Brussels Airport on Tuesday after two explosions rocked the departure area, collapsing part of the ceiling and spreading chaos. The attack — which Belgian authorities said was a suicide strike — came at the same time as another bomb went off at the city’s Maelbeek subway station. Belgian officials are reporting 15 dead and 55 injured in the subway blast. All flights and train service in and out of the country have been canceled.

The attacks come just days after the main suspect in the November Paris attacks that killed 130 was arrested in Brussels, FP’s Lara Jakes and Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer write. The arrest on Friday of Salah Abdeslam heightened fears of more terror attacks in the country, as European officials warned that many people who were involved in the Paris attacks were still at large. No group has claimed responsibility for the Brussels strikes, but the Paris attackers were affiliated with the Islamic State.

Belgian federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw called all three explosions “terrorist attacks,” and Prime Minister Charles Michel said, “we were fearing terrorist attacks and that has now happened.” Witnesses to the attack at the airport described a bloody scene where water pipes burst, mixing with the blood of the wounded and dead as dazed survivors staggered from the building. Security at airports and train stations around Europe has been heightened in the wake of the attack.

Count off. The Pentagon is refusing to release the total number of U.S. troops it has deployed to Iraq, FP’s Paul McLeary writes. Despite claiming for months that it has about 3,800 forces deployed to the training and advising mission there, the real number is closer to 5,000 when all of the temporary, or short-term, deployments are taken into account. The numbers game gives the American public a false picture of how many Americans are actually in harm’s way, but it remains official policy. On Monday, a Baghdad-based military spokesman for the U.S. effort in Iraq told reporters he had been ordered not to divulge the true number.

The issue came to light after an American Marine on a previously undisclosed mission was killed in Iraq on Saturday, after two Katyusha rockets launched by Islamic State fighters slammed into his secret outpost in the country’s north. His death forced the Pentagon to confirm the deployment of many as 200 Marines at a firebase just 50 miles south of the Islamic State-controlled city of Mosul. The base was attacked again on Monday by a small team of ISIS fighters, but were repelled by the Marines.

Stryker fight. Last July, the U.S. Army announced that thanks to the need to cut 40,000 soldiers from its ranks by the end of 2017, it was going to reduce the Alaska-based 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division from about from about 4,000 soldiers to 1,050, while taking away its Stryker infantry carriers, which have been praised for their speed and maneuverability.

But that was then.

On Monday night, the Army released a statement saying it was putting off the move, “given continued Russian aggression, the nuclear provocations of North Korea, and the continued threat from ISIL,”  as acting Secretary of the Army Patrick J. Murphy put it. “We need this capability,” he said. The release comes after Army Chief Gen. Mark Milley told a congressional panel last month that he would not remove the 4/25 from Alaska for at least another year. The Army loves its Stryker infantry carriers and has been upgrading its Europe-based Strykers to meet Russian infantry and armor deployments in the region.

Thanks for clicking on through this morning as we kick off a new round of SitReps. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national  security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. The best way is to send them to: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Syria

Russia is threatening to throw out the ceasefire in Syria unless the U.S. agrees to a set of rules of engagement against rebel groups violating it, The Associated Press reports. Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi accused the U.S. of dragging its feet on talks about monitoring the terms of the recent cessation of hostilities, saying his American counterparts were “not ready for this particular discussion.” The U.S. and Russia worked with a coalition of rebel groups and the Syrian government to forge a ceasefire that would allow continued targeting of the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise. Violence is down since the agreement went into effect, but sporadic violence between the various warring parties has continued.

Russia may be pulling back — if only slightly or temporarily — from the conflict in Syria, but Hezbollah says it’s staying for the long haul, regardless of what Russia or even Iran does. In an interview on Lebanese television on Monday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that the group’s “fate and the fate of our Syrian brothers is one and indivisible” and pledged to hang on in the country until its enemies were defeated. As the U.S., Russia, and other parties to the conflict gear up for talks to end the fighting, Nasrallah said Hezbollah is open to a political solution but remains capable of surging more forces into Syria if need be.

Iraq

The rise of Shiite militias in Iraq has added extra manpower to Baghdad’s fight against the Islamic State, but some are concerned that the Iranian-backed militias are usurping the authority of the state. The AP recounts a nerve-racking incident in January in which Shiite fighters surrounded Iraq’s interior minister, Ali Reda, and held him at gunpoint until Iraqi police released a militiaman that Reda had just come to arrest. The tension has spread to Iraq’s military, as well, where Iraq’s 5th Infantry Division commander Ali Omran told the wire service that he’s warned his men that war could break out at some point with the militias fighting ISIS alongside the army.

Iraq’s Shiite clerics are also playing an increasingly prominent role in Iraqi politics, as both Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Moqtada al Sadr have been pressuring Baghdad over corruption, Reuters reports. The two leaders have different styles, with Sadr as more brash, populist, and willing to send devotees into the streets and Sistani exercising a more reserved moral authority. But both have displayed independence from neighboring Iran. Sistani has been mum since a February address in which the cleric pledged to focus more on religious matters, but Sadr has vowed to challenge Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi with a no-confidence vote in parliament unless a series of anti-corruption reforms are implemented.

Fallout from the disclosure of the deployment of U.S. Marines to Iraq continues. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-backed Shiite militia, threatened to fight U.S. troops following the announcement of the additional Marine detachment, vowing to “deal” with them unless the U.S. “withdraw[s] its forces immediately.”

Mali

Terrorists in Mali attacked a European Union training facility on Monday. The facility, European Training Mission Mali (EUTM), is based in a hotel in Bamako and suffered no casualties in the incident. Malian officials say one attacker was killed and two arrested following the attack. The identities of the attackers or the group to which they belong is not yet known. EUTM was set up in response to the 2012 military coup in Mali and subsequent violence as Islamist groups moved in to exploit the political situation.

Down Under

Add Australia to the list of countries increasing military spending in the face of anxiety over China’s increasingly aggressive behavior at sea, the Washington Post reports. Australia’s government has pledged to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense — a large uptick both for Australia and the region. That money would go to a submarine fleet twice the current size, frigates, and spy planes as well as 72 pricey F-35 stealth fighter jets. Although Australia has yet to commit to American-style freedom of navigation exercises challenging Chinese assertions of sovereignty, it is working closely with the U.S. military, building out its basing infrastructure to accommodate American planes and buying more arms from American defense contractors.

China

The U.S. now has an official green light for new military bases in the Philippines, but China is less than thrilled about the development. Washington and Manila officially inked a deal for American access to five bases last week, marking a return for American forces that left the country in the early 1990s. U.S. officials have emphasized that they don’t view the basing agreement in the Philippines as offensive or aimed at China, but Beijing doesn’t necessarily see it that way. China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, in a veiled dig at the U.S. Navy’s stated concerns about China’s “militarization” of the South China Sea, wondered aloud, “Can [the U.S.] explain whether its own increased military deployment in the region is equivalent to militarization?”

Photo credit: JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

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