The Cable

Situation Report: More U.S. Troops Headed to Syria

Obama announces 250 more troops are on their way to Syria.

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By David Francis, Paul McLeary, Adam Rawnsley, and Dan DeLuce

Scenes from a war Washington insists it’s not fighting. Scene 1. Around 250 more American troops are headed to Syria, a move expected to be announced Monday. The deployment will mean 300 American commandos and their support troops will be on the ground in Syria, while about 5,000 more are deployed in Iraq in the slowly growing war on the Islamic State.

They won’t be fighting, but instead trying to get more Sunni Arabs into the fight against ISIS, the Wall Street Journal reports. Washington has been backing the Syrian Democratic Forces, a predominantly Kurdish force battling it out with the Islamic State, which will eventually lead the fight to retake Raqqa, the terrorist group’s Syrian stronghold. But in order to hold ground in the Sunni Arab-dominated area around the city, and to assuage Turkish fears of a more powerful Kurdish force on its southern flank, Washington needs more Arab trigger pullers.

Scene 2. In the interest of splitting hairs, President Barack Obama told the BBC Sunday, “it would be a mistake for the United States, or Great Britain, to send in ground troops and overthrow the Assad regime.” (Groups in northern Syria win American support in part by promising only to fight ISIS.) “In order for us to solve the long-term problems in Syria, military solution alone — and certainly us deploying ground troops — is not going to bring that about,” Obama said.

Scene 3. On Friday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford awarded Purple Heart medals to four Marines wounded last month in Iraq when their secret firebase south of Mosul was attacked by the Islamic State. The rocket attack killed Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin and forced the Pentagon to admit that 200 Marines had been sent to the remote base to support Iraqi forces fighting ISIS.

Scene 4. During Dunford’s visit to a training center just outside Baghdad, he and his staff watched as Iraqi pilots flying two Russian-made Su-25 fighter jets bombed an ISIS warehouse where the group was building car bombs. But the bombs missed. “The analysts watched on the screens as the suspected militants ran outside and fled to a nearby palm grove, where they disappeared. Lt. Col. Jeff McCormack, a Marine in the operation center, said he wasn’t surprised. “Unfortunately, it happens more times than not with the Su-25s,” he said. “The Iraqis don’t always pull it off.”

Kurds looking for more. Last August, not far from where the Marines are stationed today, ISIS attacked Kurdish forces with artillery shells containing mustard gas. Since then, the terror group has occasionally lobbed chemical-weapons-laced shells at Kurd fighters and civilians, injuring hundreds and killing one 3-year-old child in Taza in March, according to regional authorities.

FP’s Dan DeLuce spoke with Kurdish officials, members of Congress, and the Pentagon to find out what’s up with thousands of gas masks Washington promised the Kurds, who say they need tens of thousands of masks for the 65,000 troops that are deployed in the fight against the Islamic State. “So far, the Kurdish forces have 6,000 gas masks, including about 4,000 from the United States for two brigades being trained by American military advisers, said Brig. Gen. Hazhar Ismail of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. But the United States has promised an additional 5,000 masks and it’s not clear when those will be delivered, the general told Foreign Policy in an email.”

Welcome to Monday’s Situation Report, where I’m filling in for Paul as he takes a well-deserved day off. Don’t worry; he’ll be back in the saddle tomorrow. 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.

Raising the stakes in the South China Sea

China plans to start dredging this year around disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea — just 125 miles off the Philippine coast — and could add a runway there to extend the reach of its air force, the South China Morning Post reported, citing a military source and mainland maritime experts. Such a move would be seen as a major provocation in Manila and Washington, and SitRep has reported that U.S. defense officials have been worried that Beijing could be gearing up for more land reclamation work in the disputed waters.

The report citing Chinese sources, which sounded like a thinly veiled warning from Beijing, comes as the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague prepares to deliver a ruling in May or June on a complaint filed by the Philippines questioning China’s sweeping claims to most of the strategic South China Sea. The court is expected to rule mostly in favor of the Philippines, but China has already said it does not recognize the tribunal’s authority.

China’s Rockets

China’s private space industry still lags behind U.S. companies like SpaceX, but PopSci sees the kernel of a future Chinese SpaceX in the handful of companies currently working the market. China’s launch industry, made up of companies like Onespace, Landspace, and Shenzhen Yu Long Aerospace Science and Technology, draws its staff from China’s top universities and support from government ministries and the finance industry. At the moment, the market is focused mostly on putting microsatellites into orbit, but companies like Onespace and Shenzhen Yu Long have announced plans to fly manned missions.

North Korea

North Korea conducted an apparent submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test in the East Sea on Saturday. Yonhap News reports that South Korean officials believe the missile flew 30 kilometers or just a couple minutes and was launched from a North Korean Sinpo-class submarine. North Korea has carried out a handful of SLBM tests, including a December 2015 eject test which analysts say may have been carried out from a submerged barge, rather than a submarine as claimed. In response to the test, the U.S. has restricted the ability of North Korean foreign minister Ri Su Yong to travel beyond U.N. facilities while he’s in New York for a diplomatic meeting.

The Islamic State

The Washington Post managed to retrace the steps of two of the Islamic State terrorists who attacked Paris as they snuck into Europe pretending to be Syrian refugees looking for sanctuary. The Islamic State’s leadership had sent them along with two other men to carry out the November attacks, but only half made it through. All four men offered doctored Syrian passports to European and Greek immigration authorities but two, Pakistani Mohamed Usman and Algerian Adel Haddadi, couldn’t convince officials they were Syrian and were told to leave the country. The two snuck back into Europe but missed the attacks, ending up in jail in Austria based on a tipoff from French intelligence.

The Pentagon says its tally of civilian casualties from the bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria numbers 20 dead and 11 injured from September 2015 through early February. Nine airstrikes were responsible for the dead and injured, and the Department arrived at the figures through an investigation of each incident. The news follows a USA Today report last week indicating that the Defense Department had loosened up the rules for authorizing airstrikes back in the fall of 2015.

India

India plans to send a small flotilla of ships to visit ports on both sides of the Persian Gulf, according to the Times of India. The Indian Navy will send guided missile destroyers, frigates, and a tanker to Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Another, thus-far unspecified Indian ship will dock at Iran’s port of Bandar Abbas. The move is part of a broader Indian diplomatic outreach to both the Gulf Arab states and Iran designed to strengthen India’s growing economic and security interests in the region.

Intelligence

A judge in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington ruled on Friday that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) can proceed with a lawsuit against two CIA contract psychologists who helped design the Agency’s torture program. The ACLU  filed the suit behalf of three men — one of whom died in custody from hypothermia — held at a CIA black site and subjected to the interrogation techniques. The suit alleges that the plaintiffs have suffered severe psychological damage from the experience and are entitled to compensation after being tortured and detained for years without charges.  

Navy

Retired Adm. William McRaven, former commander of both Special Operations Command and Joint Special Operations Command, has penned an op-ed in the Tampa Bay Tribune defending Naval Special Warfare Command commander Rear Adm. Brian Losey. The Navy nixed Losey’s promotion in the face of Congressional opposition after an Inspector General’s report found that Losey illegally retaliated against subordinates he suspected of reporting him for violating travel policy. McRaven calls Losey’s case a “miscarriage of justice” and says his case is part of a “disturbing trend in how politicians abuse and denigrate military leadership” in order “to advance their political agendas.”

Mattis 2016

Sorry, Mattis fans, but the Marine Corps’s most popular retired general isn’t interested in running for president. Gen. James Mattis poured a bit of cold water on hopes that he would heed the call of (some) Republicans urging him to run for the party’s nomination at an event organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Friday. Asked if he had any political ambitions, Mattis said “No, I haven’t given any thought” to running for president. But it was not exactly a Shermanesque statement. The former U.S. Central Command commander spent the rest of the event warning of the threat posed by Iran and slamming President Barack Obama over the nuclear agreement with Tehran and the administration’s approach to the region. Mattis said the United States was in a “strategy-free mode” and allies in the Middle East were uncertain where Washington stood. The next president “is going to inherit a mess,” he said.

And the general even compared Obama’s recent comments about allies to Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s bombastic campaign rhetoric. Mattis said he had printed out Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent interview with Obama in The Atlantic, and initially thought he had mistakenly printed the wrong article when he read comments denigrating some allies as “free riders,” which he said sounded like Trump talk.

“It wasn’t Trump; it was the president saying that our allies are free riders and that sort of thing,” Mattis said. “For a sitting U.S. president to see our allies as freeloaders is nuts.”

Photo credit: MOADH AL-DULAIMI/Getty Images

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