SitRep: U.S. Strikes Houthi Rebels; The Trump, Wikileaks Connection
Russia Brushes Off American Charges As Kerry And Lavrov Prepare to Meet; China Warns South Korea; And Lots More
U.S. responds. On Thursday morning, the USS Nitze launched several Tomahawk missiles from the Red Sea at three radar sites in a Houthi rebel-controlled part of Yemen, sites the U.S. believes took part in the three missile attacks on U.S. ships this week.
“The United States will respond to any further threat to our ships and commercial traffic, as appropriate,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement.
Cook called the action “limited self-defense strikes,” phrasing that the Pentagon has been using in Afghanistan and Somalia as of late in an attempt to underline that it is not taking offensive action in either country. But the American assault on the radar system would be the first time the U.S. has targeted Houthi forces in the country, a sharp escalation from the logistics support the Pentagon has provided Saudi and Emirati forces battling the Houthi rebels who overthrew the Yemeni government in 2014.
New normal? While it’s unclear who fired the missiles at the U.S. ships, they were launched from Houthi-held territory, making the Iranian-backed group the prime suspect. The Obama administration has for years launched drone strikes in Yemen aimed at al Qaeda targets, but has stayed away from engaging the Houthis. The attacks might also signal an opening salvo in what many analysts have long feared: non-state groups with state-like capabilities, going after U.S. assets.
“Proliferation of comparatively inexpensive anti-ship weapons among shadowy armed groups, like those operating in war-torn Yemen, will pose significant challenges for U.S. military commanders,” the Military Times notes. “Not only are these weapons accurate, putting American lives at risk,” but defending against them is very, very expensive.
Again, Syria, again. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet yet again in Switzerland on Saturday, despite the ceasefire deal in Syria having fallen apart and Kerry suggesting that Russia was carrying out war crimes by bombing civilians in Aleppo.
Putin brushes it all off. But Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview with French television TF1 on Wednesday that accusations of Russian war crimes are simply “political rhetoric that doesn’t make a lot of sense and doesn’t take account of the reality in Syria.” He added, “I am deeply convinced that it’s our Western partners, and especially the United States, that are responsible for the situation in the region in general and Syria in particular.”
At an event in Moscow on Wednesday, Putin also insisted Russia won’t give in to “blackmail and pressure” over its military offensive in Syria and accused the U.S. and its allies of whipping up “anti-Russian hysteria.”
Cyber front. The FBI believes that the hacking and leaking of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails was carried out by Russian intelligence, anonymous officials tell the Wall Street Journal. The emails have been leaked to outlets such as the Intercept and WikiLeaks and show political deliberations of the Clinton campaign as well as transcripts of Clinton’s private speeches. The Department of Homeland Security is also helping states look for evidence of breaches and harden their networks following break-ins at a number of state electoral databases, similarly attributed to Russia.
“The whole hysteria is aimed at making the American forget about the manipulation of public opinion,” Putin added Wednesday. “No one is talking about that, everyone wants to know who did that, what is important is what is inside and what that information is about.”
Trump’s guy and Assange’s guy. One of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s longtime advisors on Wednesday rejected charges he had “advance warning” of the Wikileaks release of Podesta’s emails. Roger Stone, not a formal part of the Trump campaign, admitted to NBC News that he and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange have a “mutual friend,” and that he has “a back-channel communications with WikiLeaks.” But, he added, “they certainly don’t clear or tell me in advance what they’re going to do.”
Live with Lavrov. Say what you will about Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but the guy can deliver a one-liner. Lavrov, who FP’s Siobhan O’Grady writes “has a reputation for drinking like he misses Boris Yeltsin, chain-smoking, and fighting tooth and nail to defy the United States,” was asked by CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour if he saw a leaked tape released last week — where Trump brags about sexually assaulting women, saying he “grabs their pussies” without asking permission because “they just let you” when you’re a celebrity. Lavrov said he didn’t want to risk not sounding “decent” in what is not his first language, but then jumped in anyway: “There are so many pussies around the presidential campaign on both sides that I prefer not to comment,” he said.
China warns South Korea. China said Wednesday that South Korea needs to stay “reasonable and cool-headed” even after Chinese fishermen rammed and sank a South Korean coast guard speedboat in the Yellow Sea. The scrap started last Friday, when — according to officials in Seoul – a 100-ton Chinese fishing boat slammed into a 4.5 ton South Korean speedboat that was trying to expel the Chinese fishermen from waters off the western coast of the Korean peninsula. FP’s Dan De Luce writes that the spat between South Korea and China “comes after Beijing has riled up most of its maritime neighbors — and the United States — with its expansive claims and aggressive behavior. China has built artificial islands in the South China Sea, provoking U.S. naval patrols in order to defend the right to free navigation, and sparking a tougher posture from Vietnam, Indonesia and others. In the East China Sea, China and Japan are at loggerheads over Chinese natural gas platforms that Tokyo says are both encroaching on disputed territory and potential military sites.”
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: email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
China is once again considering the creation of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over disputed territory, this time in the South China Sea. The Financial Times reports that the idea was floated by National Institute for South China Sea Studies’ Wu Shicun, who said that China could announce the ADIZ once its second aircraft carrier — the first to be built indigenously — is finished construction. China’s South China Sea would likely overlap with the territorial claims of its neighbors, just like it did when China declared an ADIZ over the East China Sea in 2013.
More nuclear saber-rattling from Russia as the country’s military tested three ballistic missiles on Wednesday. According to the Barents Observer, two of those tests were submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the first launched from the Svyatoy Georgiy Pobedonosets in the Pacific and the second launched from the Novomoskovsk in the Barents Sea. Separately, Russia also test-launched a Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. American intelligence appeared to have a heads up on the launches, as plane spotters noticed unusual movements of U.S. Air Force RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft, which can collect measurement and signature intelligence on ballistic missiles in flight.
As the Islamic State’s caliphate collapses in northern Syria, American-backed rebels now have a detention problem on their hands. The BBC reports that the Free Syrian Army’s Jaish al-Tahrir has set up a secret prison camp in order to house the growing number of detainees from the Islamic State, many of them European. From the limited access the BBC has to the facility, prisoners have said that so far the conditions are humane and Jaish al Tahrir commander Mohammad al-Ghabi says he’s allowed foreign fighters to phone up their home embassies in order to arrange their return.
Saudi-backed Yemeni forces might be looking to claim more territory in the north of the country. Reuters reports that Yemeni troops loyal to President Abd-Rabu Mansour Hadi claim to have captured a crossing near the border with Saudi Arabia. Houthi officials deny the claims, calling them an “illusion.”
Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, home to the pilots who fly American Predator and Reaper drones, suffered a network problem that’s still ongoing, Buzzfeed reports. The September outage affected SIPRnet, which the Defense Department uses to communicate information classified as Secret, and a subsequent posting to the federal government’s contracting website indicates that, at least of October 7, the network has still only been “somewhat restored.” Buzzfeed suggests that the outage may have had something to do with recent targeting mishaps in Somalia and Afghanistan, in which American drone strikes killed civilians, as well as airstrikes by American, Australian, and British aircraft in Syria which mistakenly targeted military personnel fighting for the Assad regime. Air Force officials, however, say problems with SIPRnet would not affect the drones.
Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, wants him some drone killers. Defense Tech reports that Hodges isn’t particular about how a system gets the job done, with the general open to using shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles mounted on Humvees, cannons or unspecified systems currently under development which would use electronic warfare capabilities. Regardless of the method, Hodges says “I need a counter-UAV capability” and is hoping that the newly announced Army Rapid Capabilities Office may be able to deliver it quickly.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy via Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary