The Cable

SitRep: More Combat for Marines in Iraq, Congress Slaps ISIS Plan

Also: Russia arming Pacific islands, drone debate in Washington, and more Iran sanctions

marines iraq

Bigger role. The company of U.S. Marines secretly deployed to northern Iraq earlier this month in a non-combat role have now been involved in combat on several occasions, even though officially, the unit isn’t even in Iraq. The 100-plus Marines are deployed on a temporary basis, meaning they don’t count against the troop cap of 3,870, a tactic the Pentagon has been using to obscure the true number of American troops on the ground. The number is actually closer to 5,000.

On Thursday, defense officials said the Marines — who deployed with four 155mm cannons — have been firing illumination and artillery rounds to help Iraqi forces push ISIS fighters out of villages near their base in Makhmour, southeast of Mosul. Last Saturday, a Marine was killed in an ISIS rocket strike on their base. The outpost was also attacked by ISIS gunmen on Monday, though the attack was repelled.

Deadlines. Just days after Defense Secretary Ash Carter was sharply criticized by members of the House Armed Services Committee for missing a deadline — by a month — to present a strategy paper to Congress outlining how to defeat the Islamic State, the document landed with a thud on Thursday. You might not have heard the thud, since the document is only seven pages long and contains little of note.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tx.), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is not happy. The paper “fails to provide much new information and fails to address all the elements required by law, such as identifying which groups must be engaged to counter violent extremism,” Thornberry said in a statement. ”It is unsettling to know that this report may reflect the actual depth of strategic thought within the Administration on how to face this grave threat.”

Arming more drones. There’s a fight playing out in Washington over whether the CIA should use armed drones to go after the leadership of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. As it stands now, the CIA’s unmanned assets are only used to track the militants, while the Pentagon’s drones do the killing. But the leaders of the Senate intelligence committee want to change all that, and have urged President Barack Obama to slap missiles on the spy drones. The two senators — Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina and Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California — sent a letter to the White House before the Brussels attacks urging him to consider the change. Obama isn’t expected to make any changes to the current arrangement, however.

Thanks for clicking on through this morning as we work through another week 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.

Brussels

The two brothers who blew themselves up in suicide attacks in Brussels on Tuesday were already on U.S. watch lists. Reuters reports that both Khalid El Bakraoui and Brahim El Bakraoui were known to American intelligence before the attacks, and it was Brahim El Bakraoui’s terrorist leanings which led him to pop up on Turkey’s radar, leading that country to ship him back to Belgium last year. Belgium’s minister of interior and justice have now confirmed reports that Turkey arrested and deported him to Belgium last June, telling the Belgian government that he was a foreign fighter.

A U.S. official has confirmed that at least two Americans were among those killed in Brussels, the AP reports. The official told reporters that two American families had already been notified that their loved ones died in the attacks. No further information on their identities or the circumstances of their deaths is available. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged the deaths of Americans in remarks to Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel Thursday, offering the sympathies of the U.S. for the “loved ones of those cruelly taken from us, including Americans.”

The Islamic State

Britain has released the tally for the number of drone strikes British forces have carried out in Iraq and Syria. Minister of State for the Armed Forces Penny Mordaunt told Parliament that British Reaper drones have conducted 200 airstrikes since September 2014, accounting for 29 percent of British airstrikes in Iraq and 20 percent of those in Syria, according to numbers crunched by IHS Jane’s.

Syria

Russia announced that one of its special operations troops was killed sometime “in the past week” in the fighting near Palmyra. Ground forces allied with the Assad regime have been inching closer to the ancient city, held by the Islamic State since may of 2015, with the help of Russian airpower. (There have been a few U.S. strikes around the city recently, as well.) A Russian military source told Interfax that the commando died “while performing a special task to direct Russian air strikes onto terrorist targets.” The commander of Russian ground forces in Syria, Colonel General Alexander Dvornikov recently admitted to the presence of special operations forces in the country to direct airstrikes, perform reconnaissance, and train Syrian troops.

Russia

European officials believe that Russia has been encouraging larger migrant flows to Europe in order to stir up political trouble among its adversaries on the continent. Bloomberg reports that these suspicions received an airing at last week’s Brussels Forum, where Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves made the claim that Russia has been nudging its own permanent residents to emigrate to European countries in order to feed the growing anti-Islamic and anti-refugee sentiment. NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove told Congress earlier this month that Russia was “weaponizing” the issue of refugee flows from Syria into Europe.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Friday that Russia will deploy “coastal missile systems” to the disputed Kuril Islands just north of Japan, along with an unknown number of Eleron-3 drones. The news follows on October’s announcement that Moscow intended to build a naval base on the, a particularly painful slap in the face to Tokyo given that Russia seized the island chain just before the end of WWII.

Iran

The U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions against Iranian entities related to the country’s ballistic missile program. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated two companies, Shahid Nuri Industries and Shahid Movahed Industries, saying they were related to the already-sanctioned Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, as well as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Al-Ghadir Missile Command, which it says carried out ballistic missile tests in October. The U.S. has tried to step up pressure on Iran’s ballistic missile program following the Emad missile tests and other recent missile exercises, applying new sanctions in January and seeking international sanctions at the United Nations.

North Korea

U.S. intelligence believes that North Korea has “probably” miniaturized a nuclear warhead, according to a scoop from CNN. The judgment is not yet the official view of the intelligence community, but it is held by a number of analysts, senior intelligence officials tell the cable news channel. The view echoes recent testimony by Northern Command chief Adm. William Gortney, who told Congress that it is “prudent to assume” that Pyongyang can fit a smaller nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

F-35

The F-35 has become almost synonymous with cost overruns, delays, and technical problems. So what’s the solution? Why, clearly a whistlestop public relations tour of 14 different cities to tout the $400 billion stealth fighter jet’s virtues to the American public. Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan told Congress on Wednesday that “Getting out there and telling the story is part of what we need to continue to do.” Ironing out the program’s notorious bugs might help, too.

With Adam Rawnsley

Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps

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