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SitRep: No Change to U.S. Airstrikes Despite Rising Civilian Casualty Claims; Pentagon To Go Dark On Troop Deployments; China And Saudi Team Up

Beijing Ready To Go in SCS; North Korea Tests New Rocket Engine; Russia and Iran in Syria

An Iraqi rescue worker gestures towards bodies wrapped in plastic in the Mosul al-Jadida area on March 26, 2017, following air strikes in which civilians have been reportedly killed during an ongoing offensive against the Islamic State (IS) group.  
Iraq is investigating air strikes in west Mosul that reportedly killed large numbers of civilians in recent days, a military spokesman said.
 / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE        (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi rescue worker gestures towards bodies wrapped in plastic in the Mosul al-Jadida area on March 26, 2017, following air strikes in which civilians have been reportedly killed during an ongoing offensive against the Islamic State (IS) group. Iraq is investigating air strikes in west Mosul that reportedly killed large numbers of civilians in recent days, a military spokesman said. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

With Adam Rawnsley

 

More strikes, no change. The U.S. isn’t planning on making any changes to how it conducts airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, a defense official said on Monday, even as the American military is investigating a rash of civilian casualties. With Iraqi forces calling in more American bombs on Islamic State positions in Mosul, U.S.-backed Syrian rebels pushing closer to Raqqa, and a stepped-up campaign against al Qaeda in Syria, the ground is shaking along multiple fronts. And along with that, have come more allegations of dead civilians.

With Adam Rawnsley

 

More strikes, no change. The U.S. isn’t planning on making any changes to how it conducts airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, a defense official said on Monday, even as the American military is investigating a rash of civilian casualties. With Iraqi forces calling in more American bombs on Islamic State positions in Mosul, U.S.-backed Syrian rebels pushing closer to Raqqa, and a stepped-up campaign against al Qaeda in Syria, the ground is shaking along multiple fronts. And along with that, have come more allegations of dead civilians.

“Many Iraqi commanders welcome the more aggressive American role, saying that coalition officers were too risk averse under the Obama administration,” writes the New York Times’ Tim Arango, who visited the site of the largest strike in Mosul, which may have killed as many as 200 Iraqis. Military officers from Baghdad “also say fighting for the dense, urban spaces of western Mosul requires more airpower, even if that means more civilians will die.”

American military commanders have kicked off multiple investigations not only into what happened in Mosul, but what locals claim was a mosque in Jinah, Syria — in a strike the Pentagon says killed al Qaeda leaders — and a strike at a school near Raqqa. Overall, the death toll between the three sites could be over 300 people.

“In recent months,” FP’s Paul McLeary writes, “American commanders on the ground have been given more more freedom to operate, and can make the decision to launch strikes without the blessing of the White House, as was often the case under the more restrictive Obama administration.”

Numbers, they got ‘em, we don’t. Despite a growing U.S. presence on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the exact number of troops being sent into combat will no longer be available. Spokesman for the U.S. Central Command Col. John Thomas told reporters at the Pentagon that they would stop giving figures for future troop deployments in Iraq and Syria, and would only provide general unit sizes. “It’s about capabilities not numbers,” he said. There are over 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq currently, and as many as 1,000 in Syria.

The refusal to provide numbers comes as other recent deployments were leaked to the press, including U.S. Army Rangers sent to northern Syria, several hundred Marines to a fire base near Raqqa, and the upcoming deployment of 200 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division to the area around Mosul.

Russian rules. As the U.S.-led coalition drops bombs, Moscow is dropping criticisms. The Russian General Staff’s Colonel-General Sergey Rudskoy said on Tuesday that the Americans are wrecking the region’s infrastructure. “We continue observing the international coalition’s actions on the territory of Iraq and Syria. An impression is being created that the international coalition has set the goal of fully destroying critically important infrastructure facilities on the territory of Syria and maximally complicating the country’s postwar reconstruction,” the general said.

More Tehran-Moscow cooperation. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tuesday that Russia will be able to make use Iranian military bases to launch airstrikes in Syria on a “case by case basis.” Speaking with Reuters, Zarif said since both Russia and Iran are close allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and “Russia doesn’t have a military base (in Iran), we have good cooperation, and on a case by case basis, when it is necessary for Russians fighting terrorism to use Iranian facilities, we will make a decision.” Russian jets used an Iranian base late last year, but hard-liners in Tehran complained, forcing the flights to end.

China looks ready. A Washington think tank said Monday that it looks like China could deploy military equipment to a series of man-made islands in the South China Sea any day now. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, an arm of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the work on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs in the Spratly Islands included naval, air, radar and defensive facilities, and they’re ready for action.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters Tuesday that Beijing didn’t see the problem with this, since the islands are part of Chinese territory. (International law, and China’s neighbors disagree with this interpretation.) “As for China deploying or not deploying necessary territorial defensive facilities on its own territory, this is a matter that is within the scope of Chinese sovereignty,” she told a daily news briefing.

To the sea. The leaders of the sea services from the U.K., France and the U.S. “have signed a trilateral cooperation agreement that will allow the three navies to work more closely together – especially in the realms of submarine warfare and carrier operations,” USNI’s Sam LaGrone reports. The agreement – signed Monday in London – could be a significant marker in the relationship between the three nations as maritime threats in the South China Sea, and Russian action in the Baltic Sea, grows more complex.

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

Missiles. North Korea carried out yet another rocket engine test on Friday, this time keeping it quiet from the wider public. The U.S. intelligence community, however, managed to find out about it and some officials passed the word along to Reuters. Officials are worried that the engine, like one tested publicly in the North early in March, could be used to power an intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korea claims its rockets are used for launching satellites but the technology for

New money. NATO is prioritizing defenses against rising threats like hackers and Iran’s ballistic missile systems, spending big on computers and satellite communication systems, according to Reuters reports. Around $1.7 billion will go towards satellite systems to improve alliance members’ ability to communicate with troops and equipment in the field. The remaining funds will go to bankroll new command and control systems as well as cybersecurity tools in order to defend NATO facilities from hackers.

Membership. The Senate is inching closer to approving Montenegro’s bid to join NATO, moving to end debate on the issue and head towards a vote. The 97-2 tally to end debate is an indication that the Senate is likely to ultimately greenlight the country’s membership application, despite opposition from Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT). Montenegro has sought to join the alliance despite opposition from Russia and an allegedly Russian-backed plot to assassinate the country’s former pro-NATO prime minister that was disrupted in 2016.

Drones. The South China Morning Post has more details on Saudi Arabia’s drone deal with China. Earlier this month, the two countries signed an agreement that would allow the kingdom to manufacture Chinese drones domestically. The Post reports that the two countries inked the deal at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi after a visit from Saudi King Salman to China in March laid the groundwork for the agreement. Saudi Arabia will manufacture the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation CH-4 drone under the deal. While countries like Iraq have already purchased and used the CH-4 in combat, Saudi Arabia’s factory would represent the first such production in the region.

Madlibs. What is an “interim zone of stability”? It’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s newly-coined term for what the U.S. will create in Syria, and no one seems to know precisely what it means. As the BBC reports, the term sounds an awful lot like a “safe zone” that picked up a few extra syllables along the way and a new explanation of the concept offered to the Beeb by an anonymous diplomat certainly makes it sound that way. The term refers to places formerly held by the Islamic State or where a ceasefire with the Assad regime has taken place, where the U.S. will provide humanitarian support.

Going dark. The State Department is once again going dark to the press and the public, killing press briefings for two weeks while the department looks for a new spokesperson. The move is part of a pattern of media-aversion from Secretary of State Tillerson, who famously booted the diplomatic press corps from his recent trip to Asia and stopped the department from holding an on-camera press briefing until early March. Former Fox News anchor Heather Nauert is expected to take over from current spokesman Mark Toner and briefings will halt as Nauert waits on her security clearance.

Who’s where when.

5:30 p.m. Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter makes his first public comments since leaving office in January on Tuesday night at Harvard, where he’ll speak about building relationships between the tech sector and the Pentagon. Livestream here.

 

Photo Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

 

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