The Cable

Situation Report: U.S. Troops Inch Closer to ISIS, More May Be On the Way, Fallout from immigration crackdown; McMaster May Need Senate Confirmation; and a bit more.

By FP Staff and Adam Rawnsley Traveling in the Middle East — One of the options the Pentagon is weighing for the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is sending more U.S. troops, the head of U.S. Central Command said Wednesday. Speaking with reporters while traveling overseas to confer with regional allies, ...

Hashd fighters clearing sidestreets of ISIS fighters ahead of the column, Shirqat.
Hashd fighters clearing sidestreets of ISIS fighters ahead of the column, Shirqat.

By FP Staff and Adam Rawnsley

Traveling in the Middle East — One of the options the Pentagon is weighing for the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is sending more U.S. troops, the head of U.S. Central Command said Wednesday.

Speaking with reporters while traveling overseas to confer with regional allies, Gen. Joseph Votel said one path forward could see the U.S. taking on “a larger burden ourselves. We have to look at the variety of things that can be done, there are a variety of forces that we can potentially bring in to do this.”

There are already over 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, with as many as 500 Special Operations Forces in Syria, working with Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces fighting their way toward the terrorist group’s de facto capital of Raqqa.

Votel didn’t say that bringing in more American forces was the best option however, and the U.S. strategy of partnering with the Iraqi army, and Kurd and Arab rebels in Syria has been working. “Have your partners fight, not fight for them,” will continue to be the plan, he said.

Last week, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, divulged that U.S. forces in Mosul have been operating alongside Iraqi units in the city, and Votel confirmed that there are U.S. forces in northern Syria close enough to the fighting to call in airstrikes on ISIS targets.

He said, however, that there hasn’t been any loosening of authorities for commanders on the ground, but there have been some changes in who is given the authority to call in strikes on some ISIS targets.

“We’ve changed some of our operating methodologies, trying to push those decisions down to what I describe as the right level — those who are seeing it, those who are with our partners on a day-to-day basis who are actually with them, orchestrating the fight.”

U.S. commanders had long grumbled over the cumbersome targeting process installed by the Obama administration that often demanded the sign-off of high ranking officers for many strikes. But after Obama approved more Special Operations Forces in Syria during the last weeks of his presidency, Votel said it has become easier to empower commanders in the field.

“We can’t control this from a long way away, we have to trust our people to do the right thing,” he said.

–Paul McLeary

Damage on the southern border. Trump’s latest directives to continue his immigration crackdown could threaten the U.S.-Mexico security relationship. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Rex Tillerson head to Mexico this week, tasked with the tough sell in meetings with President Enrique Peña Nieto and other officials. But Mexico’s got leverage, too. “Right now Mexico is deporting more Central Americans than the U.S., so many would say Mexico is doing some of the United States’s dirty work,” Chris Wilson of the Mexico Institute told Foreign Policy.

Fine print. There’s an obscure legal twist for the new national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. His job doesn’t require Senate approval, but if McMaster wants to remain a three-star general, he will need Senate confirmation, Politico and Defense News reported.

Given the outpouring of bipartisan support for McMaster since Trump announced his choice on Monday, that’s not going to be a problem. But it could mean the Senate Armed Services Committee would ask him to testify, and lawmakers could ask some tough questions that could put him on the spot — and possibly at odds with the White House over Russia or other issues.

By law, if a top ranking general or admiral switches jobs they have to be reconfirmed by the Senate at that rank. McMaster could also choose to skip Senate confirmation and accept a lower rank of a two-star general, or retire from the military. But the White House has indicated McMaster will remain in uniform and on active duty. Colin Powell was the last active-duty general officer to serve as national security advisor, during the Reagan administration. And senators at the time spared Powell a confirmation hearing.

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Whodunnit. Malaysian authorities have identified a senior official at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur in connection with the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, the BBC reported. Kim was killed on Feb. 13 at Kuala Lumpur airport as he was about to board a flight to Macau. Police confirmed accounts that two women approached him and wiped some kind of toxin on his face.

Malaysian Police Chief Khalid Abu Bakar told a news conference that two North Korean suspects were being sought, along with previously announced suspects, and that they were likely still in the country. One suspect in the case is the second secretary of the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, while the other is associated with North Korea’s state airline, Air Koryo. The case has raised tensions between North Korea and Malaysia, with the two governments arguing over custody of the victim’s body and trading angry words over how the criminal investigation is being handled.

On the march. Iraqi security forces, backed by U.S. air power, are tightening the noose around Islamic State militants in western Mosul. Iraqi federal police and interior ministry troops have advanced swiftly since Sunday — when the offensive on Mosul entered its second phase — and are poised to launch operations to recapture an air base, according to Reuters.  “After fighting their way with helicopter gunships, machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades to Albu Saif on Monday, Iraqi forces were building up their positions in the hilltop village that overlooks the airport and built-up western Mosul beyond,” a Reuters correspondent reported. Here’s an account from the BBC’s Quentin Sommerville.

As a presidential candidate, Trump had castigated the long-planned assault to retake Mosul as politically-motivated and questioned why U.S.-backed Iraqi forces did not launch a surprise attack instead.

Casualties. One non-governmental monitoring group alleges that the increased pace of operations against the Islamic State is coming at the cost of record civilian casualties caused by the U.S.-led coalition attacking it. In a new report Air Wars claims that “January was the deadliest month yet for civilians since the start of Coalition airstrikes.” The coalition carried out 769 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria that month, causing between 254 and 369 civilian casualties by Air Wars’ calculation. The group claims that a sharp increase in coalition airstrikes at the same time as a fragile and contested Russian ceasefire took hold in Syria put the U.S. ahead of Russia in causing civilian casualties in the month of January. But Air Wars’ January estimate represents only a brief snapshot in time and the Pentagon’s own tallies of civilian casualties in the air campaigns over Iraq and Syria are more conservative than those put forth by the group.

Musical Chairs, HASC Edition. On Tuesday, the House Armed Services Committee released the final roster for who sits on what committee. Politico’s Connor O’Brien posted the full roster.

Self-imposed obstacles stymy Germany’s defense spending. It’s no secret Trump wants NATO allies to foot more of the transatlantic defense bill. But Germany, Europe’s economic juggernaut, is making that difficult…for itself. As Der Speigel reports, the Bundestag has to approve each defense expenditure over 25 million euros and the defense ministry’s procurement office has been in a hiring freeze for 10 years, meaning the office is hard-pressed to find new talent. It’s an interesting insight into the world of defense procurements beyond Washington. As Germany’s armaments secretary Katrin Suder put it: “”It can be quite frustrating…Sometimes I feel as though I have been sent into battle with a toothpick.”

Eagles versus drones: France is increasingly worried about foreign powers using drones to snoop on the government or terrorists using them to carry out attacks. So they’ve employed a new, unorthodox weapon: drone-killing eagles. Five French military bases now boast falconries, where they train birds of prey to take out unmanned aircraft mid-flight with their sharp talons.

Russian Jets Over the Baltics…Again. NATO jets intercepted Russian bombers flying over the Baltic Sea twice last week. There’s been a noticeable uptick in Russia’s so-called patrol flights since the Ukraine crisis began in 2014. Russia’s defense ministry calls the flights “regular practice” but that doesn’t comfort nervous NATO allies in the Baltic region. Newsweek’s Damien Sharkov has the story.

Kremlin probe. Speaking of Russia, still no word on what FBI Director James Comey told lawmakers from the Senate Intelligence Committee behind closed doors last Friday. Members emerged tight-lipped but Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida issued a tweet afterward saying he was “now very confident Senate Intel Comm I serve on will conduct thorough bipartisan investigation of #Putin interference and influence.”  According to a Reuters report on Saturday, the FBI is pursuing at least three separate investigations. Two are related to the hacking of email accounts belonging to the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta. The third is a counter-intelligence inquiry that includes an examination of financial transactions by Russians or Russian firms suspected of links to Trump associates.

Red light. China is trying to play traffic cop to submarines in territorial waters it claims, forbidding foreign subs from entering Chinese waters without prior approval. Defense One reports that under the new rules, posted as helping to regulate maritime traffic safety, any foreign submarines transiting waters claimed by China would have to sail through on the surface displaying their flag or face a stiff fine. Since China has expansive territorial claims encompassing much of the South China Sea, the rules amount to an effective, if theoretical, ban on nearly all foreign submarine activity in the region.

More arms for the South China Sea. China is taking another step to arm its man-made islands, building structures to house missiles in disputed territory in the South China Sea. Two anonymous U.S. officials tell Reuters that Beijing has built the structures Subi, Mischief, and Fiery Cross reefs that appear to be designed to house surface-to-air missiles. China has been slowly introducing new anti-aircraft and radar systems to its islands, raising fears in Washington that China is militarizing the disputed areas claimed by neighboring countries like the Philippines and Vietnam.

Drone fears. The Islamic State’s armed drone program is maturing and causing some anxiety for U.S. officials, according to the Washington Post. In the past few months, the terrorist group has gone from using drones for reconnaissance to using them to drop small, grenade-sized munitions on Iraqi troops. The weapons have prompted U.S. forces to expedite the deployment of jamming and detection systems, but officials tell the Post they’re more concerned about the prospect of improvised drone bombers being used in terrorist attacks against civilians, potentially involving munitions packed with chemical weapons.

The Crusader. While Trump’s choice to run the National Security Council, Gen. McMaster, received high marks from lawmakers and former officials from both parties, a top White House aide, Sebastian Gorka, gets decidedly mixed reviews from counter-terrorism experts and academics. ICYMI, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal ran profiles yesterday of Gorka that outlined his hardline views on “radical Islam” that until Trump was elected, had remained mostly outside of the mainstream of either political party. The Post article notes his “uneven” scholarship, his reliance on English-translations of Arabic texts and the misgivings his former colleagues have about his approach. But now  “the former national security editor for the conservative Breitbart News outlet occupies a senior job in the White House and his controversial ideas — especially about Islam — drive Trump’s populist approach to counterterrorism and national security.” For Gorka, the Journal writes, terrorism is primarily a religious problem and he argues that “violence is a feature of Islam, not a bug.”

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