The Cable

SitRep: Iraqi, and American, Troops on Mosul’s Doorstep; U.K. Sub Problem

NATO Moves East;; Decision Day for China; and Lots More

AAAIraq

 

Base camp. American forces in Iraq might soon set up camp at an old U.S. base just south of Mosul, using it to support the Iraqi army’s long-awaited assault on the Islamic State-held city. U.S. and Iraqi officials told reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Ash Carter in Baghdad on Monday that the Qayyarah Air Base — also known as Q-West during the U.S. occupation — could serve as a main logistics hub in the coming push for the city.

Iraqi forces kicked ISIS fighters out of the base over the weekend in a major assault featuring dozens of tanks and hundreds of troops. One anonymous U.S. official compared Qayyarah to al Taqqadum, a base in Anbar province that played a key role in the liberation of Ramadi in December and Fallujah earlier this year.

American forces have already visited the site and are planning to “create a logistics hub there, so there will be U.S. logistics support,” Carter told reporters. The airfield will allow “Iraqi security forces, accompanied and advised by us as needed,” to “complete the southernmost envelopment of Mosul,” he added.

General rule. Carter was also briefed by Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq. As MacFarland’s tour in the country winds down, word is XVIII Airborne commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend will take over for him later this year.

Now, the work. The NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland is over. Promises were made, agreements signed, dinners held and glasses clinked. Now comes the time to actually move out. To Moscow’s annoyance, the alliance has pledged to deploy four battalions to its eastern flank, with the U.K. shipping troops to Estonia, Germany in Lithuania, Canada in Latvia and the U.S. in Poland.

Rent to own. The United Kingdom continues to play a key role in the NATO alliance, even as London starts laying the groundwork for leaving the European Union. One side-effect of the impending departure may be that the U.K.’s nuclear submarine fleet might end up homeless, and no one is quite sure where they might find mooring if Scotland votes to remain in the EU, and kicks the Brits out of their only sub base in Faslane.

FP’s Dan De Luce reports that a 2012 parliamentary report concluded that it could take up to 20 years and cost 3.5 billion pounds to build alternative port facilities to accommodate the submarines south of the Scottish border. That’s a serious problem for London and NATO, as Britain’s sub force plays a crucial role guarding the so-called “GIUK gap,” the stretch of the North Atlantic from Greenland and Iceland to the United Kingdom itself — which is the Russian Navy’s potential entry point into the Atlantic Ocean. Experts say the subs could dock at U.S. Navy bases in Virginia or Georgia on a temporary basis.

Next for China. On Tuesday and an international court in the Hague is expected to hand down its ruling China and the Philippines’ maritime claims, and nobody’s quite sure how Beijing will react if things don’t go its way. Experts are warning that China could announce the creation of an air defense identification zone over the entirety of South China Sea or even outright seize the disputed Scarborough Shoal if the Permanent Court of Arbitration rules in the Philippines’ favor. Manila brought the case to the panel in 2013 and China has been issuing prebuttals of the court ever since, saying it’s not bound to respect the panel’s ultimate decision. FP’s Dan De Luce has been all over the issue, so expect lots more this week.

A huge shoutout to David Francis and Adam Rawnsley for holding down the SitRep fort while I was visiting family in a revitalized Buffalo, NY. (It’s all happening, folks.) They did a predictably awesome job in a what turned out to be a grim, and news-heavy, week. 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

Ukraine 

The war in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian backed separatists — and Russian troops — grinds on, though the low-level conflict has mostly fallen from the headlines. U.S. News & World Report’s Paul D. Shinkman recently headed to the country, moving from Kiev to the front lines in the country’s disputed east, and found that most Ukrainians don’t favor much more in terms of U.S. military support.

In a visit to KIev on Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Russia has not been a “positive partner” in keeping its obligations under the Minsk ceasefire agreement to end a Russian-backed separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. Trudeau also announced $13 million in new humanitarian aid for Ukraine and an increase in the number of Canadian observers for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in the eastern Donbass.

North Korea

North Korea is plenty mad at the U.S. these days and it’s issuing a series of threats, leaving outsiders to wonder if it’s part of Pyongyang’s usually dyspeptic propaganda or a sign of something more serious to come. North Korea’s military says that the recent U.S.-South Korean agreement to deploy a battery of Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) missiles to South Korea will merit a “physical response measures from us” that would turn South Korea into a “sea of fire and a pile of ashes.” Nor is the North the only country upset at the THAAD deployment. China has harshly criticized the decision to send the missile system to South Korea, saying it could be used to target Chinese equipment instead of North Korean missiles.

South Sudan

Intense fighting erupted once again in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, on Sunday, after days of similarly heavy clashes left more than 250 soldiers and former rebels dead, imperiling an already faltering peace deal and threatening to plunge the country back into all-out civil war. FP’s Ty McCormick and contributor Jason Patinkin report that thousands of civilians are fleeing the fighting.

Russia

Two Russian pilots were killed when their Mi-35 attack helicopter was shot down near Palmyra, Syria. The Islamic State-affiliated Amaq propaganda outlet released a claim of responsibility for the downing complete with footage purporting to show the chopper being hit by unidentified munitions. Not everyone is convinced that the jihadist group is responsible for the incident, however. The open source investigators from the Conflict Intelligence Team blog, however, says that the helicopter may have been hit by friendly rocket fire from a second Mi-35 seen nearby at the time.

Here’s a protip: if you’ve just finished spy school, don’t pose for a class photo on graduation day while you and your buddies swill champagne after swerving through traffic in a loud, honking motorcade. The Sunday Times reports that a group of 50 officers from Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), are in deep trouble after blitzing through traffic in Moscow, horns blazing and selfies snapping, after graduating from the KGB successor’s training class. Photos of the raucous officers, bottles in hand and faces clearly visible, have surfaced online and the would-be FSB personnel are garnering harsh criticism from Russian intelligence veterans.

Syria

The family of slain war reporter Marie Colvin have filed a lawsuit against the government of Syria alleging that her death in a 2012 artillery barrage in Homs was a targeted assassination by the Assad regime’s intelligence services. The Washington Post reports that lawyers for the Colvin family sifted through captured Syrian documents and discovered that the Assad regime’s intelligence services tracked Colvin from Lebanon into Syria in order to kill her and her colleague, photographer Paul Conroy, as part of a campaign to kill journalists reporting on the conflict. The suit seeks unspecified damages and Syrian officials deny its charges.

The Islamic State

U.S. officials tell the AP that the famously-social media friendly Islamic State has seen its Twitter traffic plunge 45 percent in the past two years. Data seen by the wire service shows the average Islamic State fanboy Twitter account has seen its follower count plunge to just a fifth of what it was in 2014. State Department counter-messaging officials have been rebutting the group’s message online with propaganda highlight the jihadist group’s harsh treatment of women and children.

Afghanistan

After months of beatings by Afghan forces and U.S. airstrikes, ISIS in Afghanistan has been kept pretty well bottled up in Nangarhar province, Afghan and American military officials tell the Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Lubold sand Jessica Donati. Known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan Province, the group is hardly done yet, however, launching a recent attack on the leader of a militia backed by the Afghan intelligence agency.

Elsewhere, Afghan government officials estimate that the Taliban continues to rake in about $50,000 a day running drugs, smuggling precious minerals, and other gang-like activities, Tolo News reports. The estimate comes 15 years after the Americans stormed in to knock the group out of power.

Money

The Departments of Defense and State are feuding once again over which agency will control security aid to foreign countries. According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration held a cabinet meeting last month to discuss whether State would lose its traditional lead in doling out the cash, which last year amounted to around $20 billion. The Defense Department has been assuming increasingly greater control over security assistance since 9/11, aided in large part by a Congress willing to hand it more authority.

 

Photo Credit: U.S. Army

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

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