The Cable

SitRep: U.S. Commandos Outside the Wire; American Warship Opens Fire in Persian Gulf

China Steps Up; Kerry and Lavrov Meet; And Lots More

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN - APRIL 6: Afghan security forces stand near heavy weapons and varied ammunitions, captured during operations against Taliban militants in Kandahar, Afghanistan on April 6, 2016.  220 of Taliban militants were killed and 120 others injured during operations against the Taliban in southern provinces of Afghanistan Urozgan, Zabul and Helmand. (Photo by Aziz Sana/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN - APRIL 6: Afghan security forces stand near heavy weapons and varied ammunitions, captured during operations against Taliban militants in Kandahar, Afghanistan on April 6, 2016. 220 of Taliban militants were killed and 120 others injured during operations against the Taliban in southern provinces of Afghanistan Urozgan, Zabul and Helmand. (Photo by Aziz Sana/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

 

Outside the wire. American and NATO special operations forces head out on missions with their Afghan counterparts nearly every night, a U.S. military official said Thursday. “On average, we probably have somebody out every night or every other night, some place in the country,” Army Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland told reporters at the Pentagon, adding that the partnered missions make up about 10 percent of all Afghan missions.

Cleveland said the NATO forces “stop at the last safe location” before the Afghans reach their objective, but he admitted that earlier this week, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Thompson, 28, was killed by a roadside bomb just such a mission in Helmand province. Thompson became the second American special operator to die in combat in Afghanistan this year.

The unfriendly Gulf. In a series of dangerous incidents over the past week, four U.S. Navy ships operating in the Persian Gulf have been harassed by Iranian fast boats defense officials said Thursday. In one incident Wednesday, the patrol ship USS Squall fired warning shots from a .50 caliber gun near an Iranian vessel as it approached at a high speed, coming within 200 meters of the American ship. The USS Tempest also saw a pair of fast boats crisscross in front of its bow. Two U.S. destroyers, the USS Nitze and USS Stout, were also approached by Tehran’s boats.

The Nitze’s close call on Wednesday already drew headlines after four Iranian boats — with guns uncovered — approached at high speed while ignoring warnings to back off. The boats only held up once they were within about 300 yards, U.S. officials say. The ships all belonged to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which maintains its own navy in parallel to that of the regular armed forces in order to defend Iranian coastal waters. They’re the guys who detained a group of U.S. sailors for several hours in January.

FP’s Henry Johnson writes that the IRGC boats rely on “swarming” attacks where “Iranian fast boats, typically armed with anti-ship cruise missiles and torpedoes, would set off in a dispersed fashion from hidden coves or small islands scattered across the Persian Gulf and then converge to surprise attack an enemy ship.”

China and Syria. After five years of slaughtering hundreds of thousands of its own citizens, the Syrian government doesn’t have too many friends left on the international stage. But two of the biggest aren’t afraid to show who they’re rooting for. Russia, of course, is actively propping up the regime in Damascus with troops on the ground and aircraft bombing regime opponents and civilians in contested areas.

In a new twist, the Chinese government announced Thursday that it would kick off a new training program with the Syrian army. “The Chinese military will provide the Syrian side with medical and nursing professional training,” defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian told reporters Thursday. The training will take place in China, he added, and was intended “to ease the humanitarian crisis in Syria.”

Good morning and 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

Iran

Iran has angrily rejected Saudi charges that it supplied missiles to rebels in Yemen. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pushed back at what he said were “baseless accusations” leveled by Saudi King Salman, who reportedly showed visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry photos of Iranian-supplied missiles being positioned along the Saudi-Yemen border. The photos have not been made public. Kerry said he was “deeply troubled” by the images, leading Zarif to charge that Kerry’s remarks show the U.S. government is “an accomplice in Saudi war crimes against the innocent people of Yemen.” American refueling planes have flown hundreds of sorties over the past year and a half to refuel bombers from Saudi and the UAE, allowing them to hit targets in Yemen. Those bombing runs have killed hundreds of civilians.

Saudi and Yemen

The Saudi-led bombing runs in Yemen have again drawn the attention of the United Nations, and the organization’s top human rights official on Thursday called for an international inquiry into possible war crimes. The international community has “a legal and moral duty” to act, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights said in a statement that came out along with a new report which documents attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. al-Hussein added that “such a manifestly, protractedly unjust situation must no longer be tolerated by the international community.” The report will be presented to the Human Rights Council next month.

Iraq

In the latest indication of trouble at the top in Iraq, the country’s Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi lost a vote of confidence in the Iraqi parliament Thursday, standing accused of corruption involving weapons contracts. According to Iraq’s constitution, after a no-confidence vote from parliament the minister “is considered resigned from the date of the decision.” The issue, however, “may be tabled only at that Minister’s request or at the signed request of 50 (parliament) members after an inquiry discussion directed at him.”

Syria

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Geneva Friday in another attempt to hammer out a controversial agreement on collaborating in the fight Islamist militants in Syria. The proposal hasn’t been received with open arms by the Pentagon, and the new commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who took command on Sunday, said earlier this week that “as a soldier, I’m fairly skeptical of the Russians,” adding that he’s hesitant “to believe the coalition can cooperate with them.”

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