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The Cable

SitRep: How War in the South China Sea Might Start

White House quiets its admirals; U.K. role in CIA drone war; Iraqi Mosul offensive stalls; and lots more

A Filipino fisherman is seen past the US Navy amphibious transport dock ship USS Green Bay (LPD-20) during an amphibious landing exercise on a beach at San Antonio in Zambales province on April 21, 2015, as part of annual Philippine-US joint maneuvers some 220 kilometres (137 miles) east of the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. The Philippines voiced alarm April 20 about Chinese "aggressiveness" in disputed regional waters as it launched giant war games with the United States that were partly aimed as a warning shot to Beijing. AFP PHOTO/TED ALJIBE        (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
A Filipino fisherman is seen past the US Navy amphibious transport dock ship USS Green Bay (LPD-20) during an amphibious landing exercise on a beach at San Antonio in Zambales province on April 21, 2015, as part of annual Philippine-US joint maneuvers some 220 kilometres (137 miles) east of the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. The Philippines voiced alarm April 20 about Chinese "aggressiveness" in disputed regional waters as it launched giant war games with the United States that were partly aimed as a warning shot to Beijing. AFP PHOTO/TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

Why we fight. There are plenty of ways for the nations ringing the South China Sea to stumble into war, but there’s one that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves: fish. FP’s Keith Johnson and Dan De Luce deliver a smart piece looking at how and why the massive fishing fleets from China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines are butting heads over this critical resource, and why things are only likely to get worse as China continues to destroy reefs in its rush to build — and defend — islands hundreds of miles from its coastline.

Fear of flying. The Obama administration placed a muzzle on military leaders in the run-up to the nuclear security summit in Washington that took place late last month, worried that too much loose talk about Chinese land grabs in the South China Sea would hurt the dialogue between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The directive from National Security Advisor Susan Rice came after the U.S. military’s top commander in the Pacific, Adm. Harry Harris, argued forcefully for “a muscular U.S. response to China’s island-building that may include launching aircraft and conducting military operations within 12 miles of these man-made islands,” writes the Navy Times’  David Larter.

More forever wars. A senior Defense official confirmed to Foreign Policy that U.S. aircraft struck another al Qaeda target in Syria on Tuesday. The hit occurred in Idlib in northwest Syria where U.S. aircraft rarely fly, but it’s a new day in Washington’s long war with al Qaeda.

The Defense official told FP’s Paul McLeary that members of the Khorasan Group were the target of the strike, but they’re still trying to figure out who, exactly, was in the car they blew up. Local reports say three militants were in the vehicle, one woman nearby was killed, and 10 civilians were wounded. The hit comes just two days after U.S. aircraft killed Firas al-Suri, a spokesman for al-Nusra and longtime al Qaeda member. The strike on Sunday killed about 20 other fighters, the official said. Al Qaeda militants have also been under the gun recently in Somalia, where an attack by U.S. drones and fighter planes recently wiped out about 150 al Shabab fighters at a training camp, and another strike last month took out dozens more at a camp in Yemen.

Remember this? If the nature of these attacks against large groups of men whose identities are unknown sounds familiar, it’s because FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary wrote about how President Obama’s “signature strike” drone program never really went away.

More bases for Iraq. Here it comes. A senior U.S. military officer said Wednesday that the Pentagon is considering opening more U.S.-manned small outposts in Iraq to support Iraqi troops as they push toward the Islamic State-held city of Mosul. The bases would be modeled on the small firebase currently manned by a company of Marines in northern Iraq, which has been launching artillery volleys at Islamic State forces for weeks. Rear. Adm. Andrew Lewis, the Joint Staff’s vice director for operations, told reporters at the Pentagon there may be situations where the U.S. would either open a new base or reopen one that was used during the U.S. war in Iraq. He said the bases would remain behind the front lines. The Marines were secretly shipped to Firebase Bell earlier this year, and their deployment was made public only after a Marine was killed and several others were wounded in an Islamic State rocket attack.

What’s that? What was billed as a huge win for privacy advocates has emerged as a setback for U.S. intelligence agencies. And Hillary Clinton is at the center of the whole thing. WhatsApp’s move this week to fully encrypt its popular messaging service was funded in part by the Open Technology Fund, a small, government-backed nonprofit that is part of Washington’s efforts to promote free expression and security online, writes FP’s Elias Groll.

Sorry, Jens. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg got an earful Wednesday from Republican senators on Capitol Hill who backed up Donald Trump’s complaint that too many European countries have been “ripping off” the American taxpayer by failing to contribute to the world’s most powerful military alliance.

FP’s John Hudson spoke with several sources inside the room, reporting back that “for under an hour, senators grilled Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway, about why only five members of the 28-nation club spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, the official amount NATO recommends each nation set aside. Some expressed particular dissatisfaction with Germany, the fourth-largest economy in the world, which does not meet the 2 percent threshold.”

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.

Islamic State

A new investigation by Vice pulls the curtain back on London’s involvement in the CIA’s covert drone war in Yemen. “The U.K. played a crucial and sustained role with the CIA in finding and fixing targets, assessing the effect of strikes, and training Yemeni intelligence agencies to locate and identify targets for the U.S. drone program,” Namir Shabibi and Jack Watling write. “The U.S.-led covert war in Yemen, now in its 15th year, has killed up to 1,651 people, including up to 261 civilians, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Iraq

War is hard. And it can be slow. The Iraqi army is discovering these painful lessons in a major offensive operation meant to begin clearing the towns and villages surrounding the Islamic State-held city of Mosul. Baghdad desperately wants Mosul back, but the start and stop march to its doorstep is proving to be a heavy lift that won’t get any easier.

Unlike

Say you’re a terrorist itching to purchase an anti-aircraft weapon. Where do you go? Turns out, some head to Facebook “which has been hosting sprawling online arms bazaars, offering weapons ranging from handguns and grenades to heavy machine guns and guided missiles,” the New York Times C.J. Chivers reports in a sobering new article. The Facebook posts “suggest evidence of large-scale efforts to sell military weapons coveted by terrorists and militants. The weapons include many distributed by the United States to security forces and their proxies in the Middle East. These online bazaars, which violate Facebook’s recent ban on the private sales of weapons, have been appearing in regions where the Islamic State has its strongest presence.”

The business of war

Egypt and France are about to sign off on a series of agreements for the purchase of well over $1 billion in new weapons, including fighter aircraft, four ships, and even a military satellite communication system. The signing ceremony will come later this month when French President Francois Hollande visits Cairo.

Photo credit: TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

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