The Cable

SitRep: China on Manila’s Doorstep as Ash Carter Heads to Asia

U.S. guns blazing in Iraq; Swedish ISIS leaders smoked; ISIS in Libya; sub-hunting ghost ships are here; and lots more

This picture taken from a Vietnam Coast Guard ship on May 14, 2014 shows a Vietnamese Coast Guard ship (L) is challended by a  China Coast Guard ship  near to the site of a Chinese drilling oil rig (R, background) being installed at the disputed water in the South China Sea off Vietnam's central coast. Vietnam National Assembly's deputies gathered for their summer session are discussing the escalating tension with China over the South China Sea's contested water. AFP PHOTO/HOANG DINH Nam        (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture taken from a Vietnam Coast Guard ship on May 14, 2014 shows a Vietnamese Coast Guard ship (L) is challended by a China Coast Guard ship near to the site of a Chinese drilling oil rig (R, background) being installed at the disputed water in the South China Sea off Vietnam's central coast. Vietnam National Assembly's deputies gathered for their summer session are discussing the escalating tension with China over the South China Sea's contested water. AFP PHOTO/HOANG DINH Nam (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

Here they come. U.S. officials are worried that China may be gearing up to launch dredging operations around Scarborough Shoal just 125 miles off the Philippine coast, a highly provocative move that could send tensions soaring between Beijing and America’s allies in Manila.

Several military officers told FP there are signs that Chinese vessels may be surveying the area for another land reclamation project. “That’s one to watch. There are real concerns about this,” said one Defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They could be taking steps that precede dredging.” U.S. Navy chief Adm. Richardson expressed similar concerns in an interview with Reuters last month.

China has a track record of building acres of artificial islands in contested waters of the South China Sea, dredging up the ocean floor at a lightning pace. The move comes just as an international court is poised to rule on a case over rival territorial claims that pits Manila against Beijing. Legal experts say the Permanent Court of Arbitration will likely rule in favor of the Philippines, but China – which claims almost the whole of the South China Sea – has already said it does not recognize the tribunal’s authority.

No gag order. The Pentagon and the head of Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, is pushing back against a report in the Navy Times that said the White House’s national security adviser Susan Rice ordered the top brass to avoid critical public comments on China’s actions in the South China Sea.

“During recent Congressional testimony and press engagements in Washington just a few weeks ago, I was very public and candid about my concerns regarding many issues in the Indo-Asia-Pacific to include the fact that China’s militarization of the South China Sea is problematic,” Harris said in a statement to FP. “So any suggestion that ‘the White House has sought to tamp down’ on my talking about my concerns is patently wrong.”

The dominoes fall. Another year, another war, another country. U.S. warplanes have been striking Islamist militants on an almost daily basis for a decade and a half now, and the announcements keep coming. On Thursday, spokesman for the U.S.-led war in Iraq and Syria, Col. Steve Warren, added the names of two more mid-level Islamic State leaders to a long list of those killed.

On March 16, American warplanes took out two Swedish citizens in Iraq, Abu al-Zubair al-Bosni and Khaled Othman Al Timawi. “We are specifically targeting cells, groups, and individuals who we expect are plotting to export terror,” Warren said. The announcement comes on the heels of an airstrike in Idlib, Syria Tuesday that killed five al Qaeda-linked Khorasan Group operatives, and another on Sunday that targeted Firas al-Suri, a spokesman for al-Nusra and longtime al Qaeda member. The Sunday strike killed about 20 other fighters who were with al-Suri, the Pentagon has said.

Boom. The U.S. Marines recently moved to a fire base near Mosul in northern Iraq are in the fight. The Marines deployed with four howitzers, and they fire every day in support of Iraqi maneuvers,” Warren said. “They’ll fire anything from high explosives to suppress the enemy, to smoke to screen friendly movements, to illumination rounds to help with patrolling in the evenings. So they’re fully engaged.”

ISIS in Libya. In one of his last appearances before the Pentagon press corps before retiring this summer, commanding general of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. David Rodriguez, said Thursday the number of ISIS fighters in Libya has roughly doubled over the past year, and could be as high as 6,000.

The militants are based mostly along a strip of coastline near the city of Sirte, but they’ve also established some control in Benghazi and are fighting it out with local militias in Sabratha, about halfway between Tripoli and the Tunisian border to the West. The locals have done a pretty good job of holding off ISIS advances in several places, the general said, but the performance of Libyan government troops “is uneven and it is not consistent across the board.”

Rodriguez also said the country most affected by the expansion of ISIS in Libya remains Tunisia, which FP’s Dan DeLuce and John Hudson flagged earlier this year. He added that any plots targeting Europe by ISIS fighters in Libya are strictly “aspirational” at this point, however.

On the road. It’s been a year since the U.S. hammered out the basic contours of what would become the nuclear deal with Iran, and Secretary of State John Kerry headed to the Gulf to reassure Arab allies who aren’t happy with much that’s transpired since then. The secretary has his work cut out for him, particularly after an Atlantic magazine article in which President Obama derided the Saudis as “free riders.” Kerry’s talking points hammered home the agreement’s achievements in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program, but his audience was more concerned about Iran’s regional mischief — from Yemen to Syria and in its ballistic missile program — than its potential to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Thanks for clicking on through this morning as we wrap up 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.

Who’s where when

Defense Secretary Ash Carter is due to deliver a speech today at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on the Asia-Pacific, setting out the U.S. view before he embarks on a long trip that will take him to the Middle East, India and the Philippines. Under a new defense deal negotiated with Manila, the United States will access to five bases in the Philippines, including one that faces the South China Sea.

The Islamic State

Reporter Yassin Musharbash takes another look at the documents published by Sky News and Zaman al-Wasl in early March which purport to be Islamic State registration forms filled out by recruits arriving in the caliphate. Musharbash crunched the numbers on 3,000 of the forms and found that most recruits say they don’t know much about Islamic law and only 10 percent indicate a willingness to become suicide bombers. Most of the recruits were in their 20s, unemployed or underemployed with Tunisia and Saudi Arabia as the top countries of origin.

Syria

Rebels from the Free Syrian Army have taken the town of Al-Rai from the Islamic State near the Turkish border, Reuters reports. The jihadist group’s Amaq news outlet wrote that Turkey provided artillery support to the offensive and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims that the Turks supplied some of the rebels with weapons. The support represents an apparent push by Turkey to blunt the territorial expansion of Kurdish forces by helping more sympathetic Arab rebel forces take on the terrorist group. The rebels say their next goal is to take al Bab from the Islamic State near Aleppo.

Iraq

Human Rights Watch says civilians trapped inside of Fallujah are starving as Iraqi security forces have carried out an extended siege of the Islamic State-held city. Activists able to reach residents there say food prices have skyrocketed and locals are resorting to eating soup made from grass. Sources tell the human rights group that Iraqi forces will not let food into the city and the Islamic State has executed residents for trying to escape.

NATO would like to get more involved in the training of Iraqi security forces, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says. At a speech at the Atlantic Council this week, Stoltenberg said local troops will be key to any victory against the Islamic State in taking back Mosul and that “we should start to train [local forces] now and not to wait.” NATO just kicked off a program to train 350 Iraqi forces in Jordan, but Stoltenberg says the alliance “can do more.”

A third of Iraqis think the U.S. is secretly supporting the Islamic State, according to poll data cited in a State Department Inspector General report. U.S. favorability ratings among Iraqis have also fallen since the beginning of the war against the ISIS, going from 38 percent to 18 percent in the period from December 2014 to August 2015. The State Department blamed “active disinformation campaigns” for the conspiracy theories, with experts pointing to Iranian messaging in particular.

Yemen

Human Rights Watch examined bomb fragments found at the scene of two airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition on a market in Yemen, and found that the munitions used were 2,000-lb. GBU-31 satellite-guided bombs provided by the United States. The strike on the Mastaba market — one of 12 attacks against markets throughout the Gulf coalition’s campaign — killed 97 civilians, 25 of whom were children. The attack is one of the most lethal to hit Yemen in the war. The U.S. has continued to supply munitions to Saudi Arabia and the coalition aiming to oust the Houthi movement from power, green lighting the sale of 10,000 munitions to Saudi Arabia in November 2015.

Nigeria

Boko Haram, the ISIS-aligned jihadist group terrorizing West Africa, is using kidnapped girls as suicide bombers, the New York Times reports. Officials in Cameroon and Nigeria tell the Times that the group has made extensive use of young female suicide bombers, not all of whom were willing to carry out the task. The women are able to slip past security checkpoints more easily than men and Boko Haram trains them to detonate their bombs in places where they will cause maximum casualties.

Son of Warthog

The U.S. Air Force says it’s starting to draw up requirements for a dedicated close air support aircraft to replace the A-10 Warthog, which the service is retiring in order to free up funds for the F-35. The Air Force’s Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes told reporters said that a draft of the requirements will work its way through the Air Force bureaucracy this spring and then be included in “the larger study we’re doing on the future of the combat air forces.” Potential A-10 replacements include the  A-29 Super Tucano, the AT-6 trainer, the AirLand Scorpion, or an aircraft based on the T-X trainer.

Bots o’ war
There’ll soon be an unmanned, sub-hunting ship plying the waters of the Pacific Ocean. DARPA’s anti-submarine warfare continuous trail unmanned vessel, or ACTUV program, launched on Thursday, marking the beginning of sea trials where the ship will attempt to prove its worth. The ship, based on a 130-ft. trimaran known as the Sea Hunter, will be used for anti-submarine warfare but could haul other payloads for different missions in the future.

Photo credit: HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images

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

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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