- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London., Adam RawnsleyAdam Rawnsley is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering technology and national security. He co-authors FP’s Situation Report newsletter and has written for The Daily Beast, Wired, and War Is Boring.
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
War comes back to Aleppo. For the first time in three weeks, Russian and Syrian warplanes unleashed a massive assault on the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo on Tuesday.
Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that the operation involves Su-33 fighters being flown from the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which is sitting off the Syrian coast along with several other Russian warships loaded with cruise missiles. An activist in the city tells Reuters the aircraft are firing missiles, and helicopters are dropping barrel bombs on targets in and around Syria’s largest city. The bombing runs mark the first time in its history that Russia has used an aircraft carrier in combat.
The plan for the Syrian government appears to be to force out the tens of thousands of civilians and rebels holding out in eastern Aleppo by literally reducing it to rubble.
Chinese carrier ready. The Kuznetsov strikes come on the same day that China says its own aircraft carrier is ready for combat. The surprise announcement on Tuesday came during a newspaper interview with a Chinese official who said the ship is “constantly prepared to fight against enemies.”
The Liaoning carrier, which had previously been described by Beijing as a platform for testing Chinese capabilities, has now “formally been described as having a real combat capacity,” the state-run Global Times said. A Chinese military officer, Senior Captain Li Dongyou, told the paper that “as a military force, we are always prepared for war and our combat capacity also needs to be tested by war…At this moment, we are doing our best to promote our strength and use it to prevent war, and are prepared for actual combat at any time.”
The ship was commissioned in 2013, and while China hasn’t outlined how it would use the ship, it would be a major force projection capability underscoring China’s claims in the South China Sea, claims challenged by the U.S. Navy and others.
Trump and Putin talk. The strikes in Aleppo come a day after a phone call between President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which the two agreed “on the absolutely unsatisfactory state of bilateral relations,” according to a statement from the Kremlin. The pair also reportedly agreed “to normalize relations and pursue constructive cooperation on the broadest possible range of issues.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump and Putin often praised one another, and Trump repeatedly rejected the conclusion reached by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies that Moscow was behind the theft of emails from the Democratic party and Hillary Clinton advisor John Podesta. At one point, Trump also called on Russia to hack Clinton’s email, an unprecedented move that invited a foreign power to become directly involved in an American election.
Obama in Europe, lots to talk about. President Barack Obama landed in Greece on Tuesday the kick off the last foreign trip of his presidency, and one of his top priorities will be to explain to shocked NATO allies what they might expect from a Trump administration. Trump repeatedly slammed of the NATO alliance on the campaign trail, demanding that NATO countries pay more to keep the U.S. in the alliance.
In a press conference Monday, Obama said he’s going to rely heavily on his meeting with Trump last week to assuage Europe’s fears that Washington may pull out of the alliance. “In my conversation with the president-elect,” Obama said, “he expressed a great interest in maintaining our core strategic relationships, so one of the messages I will be able to deliver is his commitment to NATO and the trans-Atlantic alliance.” After Greece, Obama will head to Germany for meetings with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
EU is on the move. Alarmed by Trump’s comments, the European Union has been moving quickly in recent weeks to shore up its defense posture in case Washington pulls out of NATO, or otherwise weakens the alliance. On Monday, EU defense and foreign ministers agreed to a plan that would allow it to send rapid response forces abroad for the first time. “Europe needs to be able to act for its own security,” French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said during a press conference Monday. “This will allow Europe to take a step towards its strategic autonomy.”
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
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) has sent a letter to President Obama alleging that the Islamic State is now active in Latin America and asking the administration to do more to address the threat, the Hill reports. Ernst points to what she says are increased jihadist chatter in Portuguese and Spanish as well as the little-known Ansar al-Khilafa — a Brazilian jihadist group — recent oath of allegiance to the Islamic State. She urged Obama to raise the issue of Islamic extremist groups with officials on his upcoming trip to Peru.
Latin America, a frequent afterthought in American foreign policy, is yet another area where pundits and observers are left wondering what the Trump administration’s approach will be, according to Stars and Stripes. Immigration, particularly the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants, was a centerpiece of the Trump campaign along with building a wall along the border with Mexico. Still, with Trump seemingly backpedaling on claims to build the wall, many are unsure what will become of U.S. security aid to Mexico and U.S. Southern Command’s security partnerships with Latin American countries.
Russia’s renewed air war over Syria is off to an inauspicious start. A Russian MiG-29K crashed into the Mediterranean shortly after taking off from the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. The Guardian reports that Russia’s defense ministry confirmed the crash, saying that the pilot survived and safely ejected before his MiG went in the drink. The crash leaves the Kuznetsov down to three MiG-29Ks and another black eye for Russian naval capabilities following a long and somewhat comical journey for the carrier as it limped from Russia into the eastern Mediterranean.
Russia and Iran are talking about signing a $10 billion arms deal, the Daily Telegraph reports. Russian Duma member and security and defense committee chair Viktor Ozerov says the deal would cover armored vehicles, artillery systems, and aircraft. Under the terms of the nuclear agreement Iran signed with the U.S. and other powers, the United Nations Security Council lifted sanctions forbidding major arms sales to the Islamic Republic. A major weapons sale between Russia and Iran, however, would have to wait on Security Council approval under the terms of the agreement.
One of the architects of the CIA’s torture program under President George W. Bush and one of its most vocal defenders since is calling for the agency to get back in the torture business. The Daily Beast spoke to Jose Rodriguez, who’s been mentioned as a possible pick for a top CIA slot in the Trump administration. Rodriguez says the CIA needs to not only revive the program he lead, but come up with new, more extreme torture methods because they are “well known to the enemy and we would have to come up with something else.”
Pardons and commutations
With just weeks left in the Obama presidency, Chelsea Manning is waging a longshot bid to commute her sentence. Manning leaked millions of pages of diplomatic cables and Defense Department records to WikiLeaks while serving in the Army, earning a 35-year prison sentence for the act. In a statement, Manning said she accepted “full and complete responsibility” for the actions, which she now says were wrong. Her mental health has suffered greatly in prison amid numerous suicide attempts and long stretches in solitary confinement. Celebrities like R.E.M.’s Michael and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore have voiced support for the commutation effort.
Iraqi forces report that the Islamic State once again has attempted to use an improvised, explosive-laden drone. Agence France Presse reports that an Islamic State drone dropped a small grenade on Iraqi troops. The attack didn’t injure anyone, but it does highlight how the jihadist group is adapting commercial technology along with other militants. Over the past few months, Islamist extremists in Syria such Jund al-Aqsa and Hezbollah have both shown videos in which drones drop small munitions.
Photo Credit: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images