The Cable

SitRep: Can Iraq Keep it Together?; Ben Rhodes Making it Happen

Mosul campaign creeping along; Chinese missiles making Washington nervous; Saudi threatens to take Sanaa

NINEVEH, IRAQ - MARCH 25: Iraqi soldiers attack Daesh positions as they begin first phase of Operation Conquest to retake Iraq's Mosul from the terrorist organization Daesh, at Carulla village of Al Makhmour town in Nineveh, Iraq on March 25, 2016. (Photo by Yunus Keles/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NINEVEH, IRAQ - MARCH 25: Iraqi soldiers attack Daesh positions as they begin first phase of Operation Conquest to retake Iraq's Mosul from the terrorist organization Daesh, at Carulla village of Al Makhmour town in Nineveh, Iraq on March 25, 2016. (Photo by Yunus Keles/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

 

How long can Iraq keep it together? Continued ethnic rivalry, a grinding war with the Islamic State, low oil prices pulling the economy down, and open revolt from disaffected Shiites in Baghdad all spell trouble for the regime of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Making matters worse, Wednesday saw a wave of bombings in Baghdad that killed over 90 people, injuring scores more. The Islamic State claimed credit for the attacks which extended into Thursday, when two more suicide bombings in Baghdad killed five policemen.

While Iraq’s the Shiite-led government has long been at odds with the independence-minded Kurds, the Sunni population of the country – where ISIS draws its support – is leaderless and dangerous, the governor of Kirkuk province told a small group of reporters in Washington on Wednesday. Speaking bluntly, governor Najmaldin Karim said, “if you ask who is leading the Sunnis right now, you would have to say ISIS.” He went on to forcefully advocate for Kirkuk’s separation from Iraq, FP’s Paul McLeary writes, claiming that the province’s oil wealth would be enough to sustain it after it broke away from Baghdad. The Iraqi government unexpectedly shut down a critical oil pipeline from the province to Turkey in March, further strangling Kirkuk’s already struggling economy.

Stumbling toward Mosul. The Iraqi army and their Kurdish peshmerga allies continue their uneven push on the ISIS-held city of Mosul, but the start and stop campaign has exposed some major fault lines in the shaky Shiite-Sunni-Kurd coalition that is pressing on the critical city.

“There is no such thing as Iraq any more,” a peshmerga officer told a reporter from The Guardian on the front lines. “There never was, but now it is clear to everyone. Even to the Americans up in the hills.” The piece echoes the points made recently by FP’s Dan De Luce and Henry Johnson, who wrote, “the contest over who marches into Mosul will shape who controls the city once — or if — Islamic State militants are forced out. But despite a campaign more than a year in the making, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has yet to forge a coherent political plan that can bridge the divide between the rival groups, all but certainly pushing back a military operation yet again, U.S. officials and experts said.”

“Guam killers.” Long-range Chinese missiles are becoming an increasingly serious threat to U.S. military forces on Guam and elsewhere in the Pacific, a new report contends. While the weapons probably don’t represent much of an immediate direct threat, “continued advances in range and precision could put the still-expanding U.S. bases on Guam in China’s crosshairs in the event of a big conflict in Asia,” FP’s Keith Johnson reports.

Will Saudi go for it? Saudi Arabia has repeatedly said the only way to resolve the year-long civil war in Yemen is through a negotiated political solution. But a Saudi general warned Wednesday that the oil-rich monarchy is prepared to launch a military offensive on the Yemeni capital of Sanaa if the current U.N.-brokered peace talks fail, FP’s John Hudson and Dan De Luce tell us. “We have two lines working in parallel —  a political process and the military operation. One of them will reach the end,” Gen. Ahmad Asiri, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, told reporters in Washington. “We hope that the talks will succeed. If not, we have troops around the capital.”

Messages and mediums. Ben Rhodes has done it this time. After boasting to the New York Times about guiding the press into supporting last year’s nuclear deal with Iran, Republican leaders of the House Oversight Committee want to have a little chat with President Barack Obama’s advisor. The committee is using the profile to try and reopen debate over the deal, which Republicans hate.

Writer David Samuels’s profile of Rhodes is a pretty dramatic bit of writing, and attention has quickly turned from Rhodes to Samuels himself, who has a long history of opposing the deal, and as some charge, managed to wrap Rhodes’ impolitic comments around his own thesis of a feckless administration manipulating the public — and the press — into embracing bad ideas.

So it appears that Rhodes, who the story praises as a weaver of complex narratives, was played by another expert in constructing a gripping narrative arc.  Backtracking, Rhodes wrote a post on Medium this weekend claiming that the White House’s “concerted effort” to sell the agreement was based upon “facts” instead of “spin.” “It’s what we believed and continue to believe, and the hallmark of the entire campaign was to push out facts,” he wrote.

Safe European home. Assistant Secretary of State Frank A. Rose is in Eastern Europe this week along with Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work to participate in several missile defense events in Romania and Poland. The events will mark progress in implementing the European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense program, which seeks to knock down any missiles launched from Iran. On Thursday there will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Deveselu, Romania to mark the opening of the U.S.-funded Aegis Ashore missile defense system, and on Friday, the duo will head to Redzikowo, Poland to break ground on an Aegis system there that should be operational by 2018.

Holding pattern. The New York Times tells us that the U.S. military has no clear plan for dealing with ISIS detainees that American forces may pick up on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, something that FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce first explored in detail back in January.

Thanks for clicking on through as we rip 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

Vietnam

Vietnam is welcoming U.S. defense contractors with open arms, while speaking in whispers. Reuters reports that big U.S. defense firms like Boeing and Lockheed Martin are in Hanoi for hush-hush talks on potential weapons sales with Vietnamese officials. Vietnam is in the process of an arms buildup as it sweats the intentions of its neighbor, China, amidst a series of disputes with Beijing over maritime territorial claims. A Boeing spokesman tells the wire service that the company has” mobility and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance platforms” that could help Vietnam modernize its military.

Missile feud

Not to be outdone, Russia has responded to this news by announcing that it’s at work on a new generation of missiles designed to slip through American defenses. Russia’s Tass news agency reports that Russia’s Strategic Missile Force chief Colonel General Sergey Karakayev had said the country will develop a new intercontinental ballistic missile with the U.S. missile shield in mind. Karakayev said the new missiles will evade any defenses with a “shorter acceleration phase” and “a hard-to-predict flight trajectory.”

Ukraine

Pro-government hackers have published personal information on thousands of journalists who covered the war from Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatist enclaves. The published data includes contact information for reporters who received accreditation to report from the self-styled republics, labeling them as having collaborated with “terrorist organizations” — all of which the victims say could now put their lives at risk. Officials at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have labeled the situation an “alarming development” and those affected have published an open letter taking Ukrainian politicians to task for supporting the hack and its attempt to intimidate reporters.

Syria

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the militias it’s organized are taking a beating in Aleppo, the Long War Journal reports. Official numbers put the death toll at 17 dead and 21 wounded in recent fighting. In addition to IRGC troops, Iran has also organized the deployment of fighters from Hezbollah and Liwa Fatemiyoun, a militia comprised of Afghan Shiite fighters. One Iranian news outlet has claimed the loss of 80 fighters from IRGC and associated militias. In addition to the deaths, there are reports that Jaysh al-Fath, an Islamist rebel coalition that includes the al Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, has kidnapped a handful of Iranian troops.

Another Russian soldier has died in the fighting in Syria. Tass news agency reports that the soldier, Anton Yerygin, was hit by rebel shelling in Homs. A Russian military spokesman told the wire service that Yergin was hit “performing tasks to escort vehicles of the Russian center for reconciliation of opposing sides” in Homs and died after two-days of receiving medical care. He’s the seventh Russian servicemember Moscow has admitted has been killed in Syria since September.

Islamic State

The Treasury Department’s top terror finance intelligence official, Daniel Glaser, says the Islamic State is now only pulling down half of what is used to earn from oil. Glaser says the group is earning about $250 million a year, which isn’t too bad. But the U.S.-led coalition has been targeting the jihadist group’s money through airstrikes against oil facilities it controls as well as large hoards of cash it’s acquired. Glaser also said the group now makes about $360 million taxing people who live and do business under the self-styled caliphate, making he group’s hold on cities like Mosul and raqqa all the more important.

Air Force

However the 2016 election turns out, the next president of the United States will have a sweet new ride. Air Force Times reports that the Air Force has given Boeing the green light to start design work on the next Air Force One (yes, pedants, we’re aware it’s a callsign). The company will modify two 747-8 aircraft to accommodate the needs of America’s commander in chief with delivery set for sometimes around 2019 or 2020. What, specifically, will go into the plane is classified but the aircraft will have all manner of secure communications gear and be designed to resist the kinds of electromagnetic pulses generated from nuclear attacks.

Drones

The Marines are looking to see if their cargo drone helicopter is any good at spying. Defense Tech reports that the Marine Corps will soon begin testing its K-MAX choppers, which can be optionally manned, to see how it fares in a surveillance role. The K-MAX had been used in Afghanistan to fly supplies to remote outposts. Along the way, the K-MAX has already picked up a new camera and datalink but officials will also test out its combat proficiency with a set of laser-guided missiles.

Special operations

Did Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell tell the truth? A lengthy new article in Newsweek calls into question his account of the operation that claimed the lives of 19 American troops. Luttrell was saved when a local man, Mohammad Gulab, sheltered him after a firefight and passed a message to American forces, leading to his rescue. But now Gulab tells Newsweek that Luttrell’s account of the operation, told by him in a book and Hollywood movie, isn’t correct. Gulab says it’s unlikely that Luttrell and his fellow SEALs killed 35 Taliban that day, claiming that Americans and Afghans found no bodies of dead Taliban and that Luttrell still had all 11 magazines of his ammunition when Gulab found him. Luttrell, in a statement through his lawyer, denies Gulab’s claims.

 

Photo Credit: Yunus Keles/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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

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