The Cable

SitRep: New Allegations, New Fights in Trump-Russia Probe; U.S., Allies, Push on Raqqa; Taliban Seize Key District

Tillerson Wants Safe Zones; Mattis Wants New War Authorization; Navy Wants $150 Billion; And Lots More

A fighter of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters, looks with binoculars as he sits next to anti-tank weapons in the village of Sabah al-Khayr on the northern outskirts of Deir Ezzor as they drive to encircle the Islamic State (IS) group bastion of Raqa on February 21, 2017.
The SDF made a major incursion into the oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor as part of their push for Raqa, field commander Dejwar Khabat said. 



 / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN        (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A fighter of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters, looks with binoculars as he sits next to anti-tank weapons in the village of Sabah al-Khayr on the northern outskirts of Deir Ezzor as they drive to encircle the Islamic State (IS) group bastion of Raqa on February 21, 2017. The SDF made a major incursion into the oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor as part of their push for Raqa, field commander Dejwar Khabat said. / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

With Adam Rawnsley

 

Big, if true. CNN is reporting the FBI has information indicating that some “associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign” during last year’s presidential election. One law enforcement official said the information suggests “people connected to the campaign were in contact and it appeared they were giving the thumbs up to release information when it was ready.” But other U.S. officials say it’s too early to draw that conclusion from the information gathered so far since it’s “largely circumstantial.”

It keeps coming. On Wednesday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R.-Calif.) rushed to the White House to disclose he had been given information indicating the intelligence community incidentally collected information on individuals involved on Trump’s transition team.

FP’s Elias Groll has more: Nunes said that details of U.S. citizens involved with the incoming administration “were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting,” and the identities of additional Trump transition team members were identified by name in intel reports. Responding to questions from reporters, Nunes at first claimed that Trump’s personal communications had been collected by U.S. intel shops, but when pressed he backed off a bit, saying that the collection was merely “possible.”

Dual hatted. Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, was not pleased, shooting back that “the chairman will need to decide whether he is the chairman of an independent investigation into conduct which includes allegations of potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or he is going to act as a surrogate of the White House, because he cannot do both.”

Syria moves. In the biggest movement of U.S. personnel inside Syria to date, American military advisors and Arab Syrian Democratic Forces fighters helicoptered into new positions near the town of Tabqa Tuesday night. The goal was to seize the Tabqa Dam and other objectives, landing about 20 miles outside of the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. They were supported by Marine Corps howitzers positioned nearby, Army Apache attack helicopters, and surface-to-surface Himars rockets based in northern Syria. One U.S. defense official told SitRep that the location is on a key supply route for Raqqa, and it’s “a specific objective in the overall shaping of Raqqa, because its strategically important to Raqqa and part of larger operations” to push ISIS out of the city.

Afghan trouble. Reports are coming out of southern Afghanistan Thursday that after a year of laying siege to the district, the Taliban have captured the critical Sangin district center in Helmand province. The New York Times says that the central government is denying the claims, but “some conceded that the insurgents had overrun the district center and government facilities.” Local officials are saying that there’s little doubt that the area had finally fallen to the Taliban. “More British and later American Marines died in Sangin than in any of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 other districts, until the international military coalition finally turned it over to Afghan military forces in 2013.”

Zone defense. On Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a plan to establish safe zones in war-torn countries to allow refugees to return home, FP’s John Hudson and Paul McLeary write, “setting the stage for a dramatic shift in refugee policy and a greater U.S. and Western military footprint in Iraq and Syria.”

Speaking at summit of the 68-member coalition against the Islamic State, Tillerson said the U.S. would set up  “interim zones of stability” without elaborating on the specifics, such as where they would be located or how they would be secured. Coalition officials told Foreign Policy that the interim zones referred to territory recaptured from the Islamic State across vast swaths of Iraq and Syria that would be held by a yet-to-be determined mix of Turkish, Kurdish and Western forces. But the plan has faced criticism from U.S. allies and humanitarian organizations with legal and ethical concerns about forcing refugees back into a conflict zone. “We were never close to favoring this solution,” Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva, whose country is a member of the coalition, told FP.

SecDef looking for Congress to be Congress. Or better. Testifying on Capitol Hill Thursday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he would “take no issue with the Congress stepping forward” and passing a new authorization for the use of military force for Iraq, Syria, and the wider fight against ISIS and al Qaeda. “I think it’d be a statement of the American people’s resolve if you did so. I thought the same thing for the last several years, I might add, and have not understood why the Congress hasn’t come forward with this, at least the debate.” The Pentagon is currently still operating under the authorities provided under the 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) passed in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

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

Air Caliphate. Darpa, the Pentagon’s advanced research agency, is working on a new program to preempt the next threat from terrorist drones. The Pentagon reports that defense officials are worried that groups like the Islamic State may shift from using commercial drones to drop small munitions to loading them with explosives and crashing them into targets to turn them into crude missiles. Darpa’s Mobile Force Protection Program is looking at ways to protect high value vehicle convoys from these kinds of drone attacks without resorting to lasers, high caliber anti-aircraft weapons, or jamming.

Dual use. China is betting big on technology startup companies around the world, investing money in emerging new technologies and worrying the Pentagon in the process. The New York Times reports that the Defense Department is worried that China’s investments in American companies making rockets and 3-D printed cockpit screens might give it an edge on the U.S. in new fields with military application. The Trump administration is reportedly in the early stages of drafting a new policy on Chinese investments in sensitive American technology firms, circulating a white paper which argues that American controls on such investments are falling short.

Carry on. The Trump administration’s new rules banning electronic devices larger than a phone on airlines flying from a handful of predominantly Muslim countries come from intelligence about the Islamic State. Anonymous intelligence officials tell NBC News that reports stating the rules were tied to intelligence about al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were incorrect although one source tells the network that some believe the group could be lending its bomb-making expertise to the Islamic State. The New York Times reported earlier that the intelligence community believed the group may be trying to use explosives hidden inside laptop batteries to attack airlines.

Mass graves. Even the dead haven’t seen the end of the Islamic State’s improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Human Rights Watch spoke to locals in Mosul, Iraq and found evidence that the terrorist group filled a mass grave with potentially hundreds of detainees murdered by the group, and covered it with buried IEDs in order to hinder any attempts by family members and authorities can dig up relatives and those buried there. Human Rights Watch is calling on the Iraqi government to protect the site until such time as a proper, secure exhumation can take place.

Personnel. Republicans on Capitol Hill are upset at Secretary of Defense Mattis’s nonpartisan approach to hiring Pentagon staff. Politico reports that Congressional Republicans are grumbling about Mattis’s attempts to hire Obama administration appointees like former Pentagon undersecretary of defense for policy Michèle Flournoy and Ambassador Anne Patterson. Mattis chief of staff Kevin Sweeney tried to win over the staff of Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who’s been a vocal critic of Mattis’s staffing choices, by showing them a partial list of potential hires. But Cotton staffers were reportedly unswayed, taking issue with Sweeney’s tone during the meeting.

Navy. If the Trump administration wants the 355-ship Navy it’s been trumpeting, it’s going to need to start coughing up big money to get there anytime soon. USNI News reports that Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran says the Navy will need $150 billion extra if it’s going to jump-start shipbuilding towards the 355 ship goal. That money, he tells the news outlet, would go towards buying an initial 30 ships in the next seven years comprised of nuclear-powered attack submarines, guided missile destroyers, and aircraft carriers.

 

Photo credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

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