SitRep: FP Exclusive: Obama Considering North Korea Sanctions, Could Harm China Ties; Russia Threatens U.S. Jets
Kunduz, Again; Spy Wars; U.S. General on the Outs; And Lots More
The North Korea problem. The Obama administration been quietly debating whether to trigger harsh sanctions against North Korea that would target Chinese companies doing business with the hermit regime, in a crackdown like the one that crippled Iran’s economy, Foreign Policy’s Dan De Luce has learned.
Officials working on the matter tell De Luce that “the approach would be similar to the sweeping secondary sanctions that were slapped on global banks handling transactions with Iran…But a decision to go after Chinese banks and trading companies that deal with Pyongyang could rupture Washington’s relations with Beijing, which bristles at any unilateral sanctions imposed on its companies or drastic action that could cause instability in neighboring North Korea.”
Russian Threats. The Russian Ministry of Defense warned Washington on Thursday that any strike on Syrian regime forces would be considered a strike on Russian troops stationed in the country, FP’s Paul McLeary reports. Armed with two recently shipped surface-to-air missile batteries, Russian troops in Syria will make sure any attacking forces “will face a disappointing reality,” Gen. Igor Konashenkov said. The Pentagon has reacted cooly to the threats, with U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. John J. Thomas telling FP that while he wouldn’t comment specifically on the latest statements from Moscow, “we look at actions, we’re interested in why they’re moving some of these system in, there’s not really an air force there to defend against” other than aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition.
Kunduz, redux. One year ago this week, an American gunship strafed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 42 patients and staff. The strike came while U.S. Special Operations Forces were fighting off a Taliban takeover of parts of the city alongside Afghan troops. Almost as if to mark the grim anniversary, the Taliban are back, and Afghan troops — backed by Americans — are again fighting house to house for control of the city.
Andrew Quilty captured some of the first photographs of the destroyed hospital and charred bodies for FP last year, and he went back to Kunduz recently to interview the survivors, only to be caught up in the new fighting. His report, and his new pictures, are a must read as a signpost of where the country is, 15 years after the Taliban was toppled.
Tangled Web. The forces arrayed against the regime of Syrian President Bashir al Assad are a complex network of moderate and Islamist forces who form alliances and half-truces when it suits their purposes, and break apart just as quickly. But as the New York Times reminds us, the forces fighting for the regime are no less complicated. “There are Iraqi Shiite militiamen cheering for clerics who liken the enemy to foes from seventh-century battles,” Anne Barnard writes. But there are also “Iranian Revolutionary Guards fighting on behalf of a Shiite theocracy. There are Afghan refugees hoping to gain citizenship in Iran, and Hezbollah militants whose leaders have long vowed to fight “wherever needed.”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
South China Sea
Indonesia is the latest country to strut its martial stuff on the South China Sea dance floor, carrying out military exercises near territory claimed by China. Indonesian officials made no secret of the message the exercises carried, telling Reuters that the show was aimed at an audience in Beijing. Indonesia has clashed with China over fishing rights near the Natuna islands, which China doesn’t claim but does assert a traditional prerogative for fishing rights.
Is a humanitarian relief center or the cover for a Russian listening post? The AP reports on whispers about a Russian-Serbian relief center run by Russia’s Ministry for Emergency Situations and the Serbian government. Anonymous non-governmental organization workers and analysts claim the center is actually Russia’s first post-Cold War spy base in Europe but so far there’s little evidence to back up the claim. NATO officials haven’t weighed in conclusively on the subject and the Russians flatly reject the accusations, offering a tour of the facility to the wire service.
The Justice Department says two Russian citizens and an American arrested today were conspiring to smuggle export-controlled microelectronics to Russia for use in weapons systems. At least some of the systems the men are accused of seeking made it to Russia without notification to or the approval of the Department of Commerce, according to the Justice, including included sensitive integrated circuits used in missiles and radar systems. The three men, arrested on Thursday, worked out of a firm based in Brooklyn, New York.
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura says eastern Aleppo will be totally destroyed within two months if the fighting continues at the current rate. Mistura said the estimated 900 fighters from the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fateh al-Sham should leave in order to spare the remaining 275,000 residents of the city from the Russian and Assad regime assault. In a dramatic move, Mistura offered to travel to Aleppo to escort them, saying “I am personally ready to physically accompany you.”
The Islamic State and al Qaeda have been locked in a war for the hearts, minds, and allegiances of Islamist militant groups throughout the Middle East ever since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi broke up with Ayman al-Zawahiri and struck out on his own. Now, the Guardian reports, the often violent competition for influence is taking hold in sub-saharan Africa. So far, the Islamic State has only had a small footprint outside of Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in early 2015. The al Qaeda-aligned Shabaab group in Somalia has been cracking down on the Islamic State-curious dissidents within its ranks and a new group has appeared in Burkina Faso calling itself the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, looking to challenge al Qaeda in the Maghreb.
The United States is a pretty popular place for Afghan soldiers to go AWOL. Forty-five members of the Afghan National Army have shirked duty and disappeared into America over the past two years. The troops came to the country as part of the Defense Department’s effort to train up the Afghan military and are screened for security risks. Nonetheless, the Pentagon says it will be changing the eligibility criteria for training in the U.S. to reduce the chances of more troops going AWOL.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter abruptly fired his assistant, Army Maj. Gen. Ronald Lewis, in November 2015 and now we’re finding out why. At the time, Carter only made reference to unspecified “allegations of misconduct” but an Inspector General’s report released on Thursday accused Lewis of patronizing strip clubs with a Defense Department credit card. The allegations stem from trips Lewis took to Seoul, South Korea and Rome, Italy, where the Army general was said to have swiped his Pentagon credit card to pay hefty tabs., one as high as $1,800. Investigators also accused him of “drinking to excess in public and improper interactions with females.”
Photo credit: KNS/AFP/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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