The Cable

SitRep: Battle for Raqqa Begins; Gulf Allies Split; Germany Pulls Fighters From Turkey

How to Burn a Source; NATO Grows

DOHA, QATAR - APRIL 21:  U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (C) is greeted by military dignitaries as he arrives at Al Udeid Air Base on April 21, 2017 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
DOHA, QATAR - APRIL 21: U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (C) is greeted by military dignitaries as he arrives at Al Udeid Air Base on April 21, 2017 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)

 

With Adam Rawnsley and Elias Groll

Raqqa fight starts. After months of hard fighting while pushing south toward the Islamic State’s home base of Raqqa, U.S.-backed Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces have finally kicked off their assault on the city, U.S. military officials said on Tuesday.

“The International Coalition and our partner forces are steadily dismantling the physical caliphate of ISIS,” said  Lt. Gen. Steve Townsend, commander of the U.S.-led coalition battling ISIS . “Once ISIS is defeated in both Mosul and Raqqah, there will still be a lot of hard fighting ahead, but this Coalition is strong and committed to the complete annihilation of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.”

The Syrian Democratic Forces — made up of Kurdish YPG militias and Arab fighters —  have encouraged civilians to flee the city to try and avoid a situation like Mosul, where Iraqi officials asked civilians to stay, leading to heavy civilian casualties.

What about the Kurds? The U.S. only recently began supplying arms and equipment to the YPG contingent, angering Turkey which considers the group to be a terrorist organization. The Kurds have emerged as the most reliable fighting force in Syria however, and have promised to turn Raqqa over to local governance and security forces after the city falls.

In a statement, the U.S. Central Command said the U.S. coalition hit Raqqah with 24 air strikes on Monday, hitting over a dozen groups of fighters, destroying boats, a house rigged with explosives, and a weapons storage facility. The fight for Raqqa is hardly the endgame for the war in Syria. Iranian-backed militias in both Syria and Iraq are rushing to cut off some U.S.-backed rebels from moving to join the fight, as FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary recently reported, setting up the possibility of conflict between Washington and Tehran.

Coalition blues. The fight kicks off as key members of the anti-ISIS coalition are splintering. Six Arab countries suddenly cut diplomatic relations with Qatar on Monday, accusing the small Gulf state of backing militant groups including the Islamic State and al Qaeda, a move that could potentially complicate the U.S.-led coalition. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain Egypt, Yemen, Libya’s interim government, and the United Arab Emirates expelled diplomats, closed borders, and instituted a travel ban on flights to and from the country. Kuwait and Oman are the only Gulf Cooperation Council members retaining ties. FP’s Emily Tamkin and Robbie Gramer have more.

There are over 10,000 U.S. military personnel at the Al Udeid air base, which boasts the Gulf region’s largest airfield and is a critical hub for the war in Iraq and Syria. U.S. officials insisted that their operations won’t be impacted by the diplomatic incident, and activities at the base will continue as normal.

Germany v. Turkey. On Monday, German officials said they were pulling their 250 troops and four Tornado surveillance planes out of the Turkish Incirlik air base, as part of a growing rift between the two countries. The German aircraft provide reconnaissance over Iraq and Syria.

Turkey has refused to allow German politicians to visit German forces at the base Incirlik after the two have experienced a series of diplomatic rows over the Armenian genocide, the Gulen movement, and other issues. U.S. officials say that they don’t expect the loss of the German planes to have a major impact on the overall war effort.

Welcome to the club! Sorry for the shove. Montenegro became the 29th member of NATO on Monday, and Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic came to town for a State Department ceremony to mark the historic occasion. After the ceremony, Markovic visited the White House to meet with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, but President Donald Trump skipped the meeting.

Trump, you’ll recall, shoved Markovic out of his way in an odd encounter in Brussels last month during the president’s petulant visit with Washington’s NATO allies. Markovic told Pence that his country aims to meet the NATO target of spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense by 2024.

Moscow isn’t thrilled by the news, however. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said “in the light of the hostile course chosen by the Montenegrin authorities, the Russian side reserves the right to take retaliatory measures on a reciprocal basis. In politics, just as in physics, for every action there is an opposite reaction.”

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

Fallout. Newly-elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in has suspended Deputy Minister for Defense Policy Wee Seung Ho, accusing him of concealing the fact that the U.S. had shipped an additional four launchers for the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system. The AP reports that Moon says the South Korean Defense Ministry didn’t brief him on the transfer last month. Moon campaigned on his opposition to the THAAD deployment, but reportedly sent an emissary to the White House to reassure national security advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster that he did not plan to withdraw the system.

Hack attack. Russian military intelligence hackers targeted the computer systems of an American voting software maker and hit more than 100 American election officials with spearphishing emails, according to an NSA report obtained by the Intercept. The report provides a window into Russian hacking operations in the run-up to the 2016 election and raises questions about the scope of the campaign. American officials maintain that Russian meddling had no impact on vote totals, but the NSA report indicates Russian hacking may have targeted voting infrastructure to a broader degree than previously understood.

Burned. An old but novel trick may have inadvertently helped the Intercept blow its source to the federal government. An FBI affidavit says that the feds were able to determine that Reality Lee Winner was the source of an NSA document describing Russian hacking attempts against U.S. software companies that manage voter rolls after reporters at the news outlet shared a printed copy of the document with the NSA before publication, helping them narrow down the pool of suspects to one of six people. But as Erratasec writes, Intercept reporters also failed to notice that the document they shared with the NSA and later published online also contained a series of microdots which spell out the date the document was printed and the serial number of the printer used.

London. British media have identified three of the attackers involved in Saturday’s terrorist attack that killed seven people in London. The BBC reports that the three men are Khuram Butt, Rachid Radouane, and Youssef Zaghba. Butt had appeared in an earlier Channel 4 documentary, The Jihadis Next Door, about jailed British Islamic State supporter Anjem Choudary. Butt argues with police in the film over complaints that he and others were flying an Islamic State flag.

Tweeter-in-chief. Trump continued his attack on London Mayor Sadiq Khan in the wake of Saturday’s terrorist attack, tweeting “Pathetic excuse by London Mayor Sadiq Khan who had to think fast on his “no reason to be alarmed” statement. MSM is working hard to sell it!” Khan had urged Londoners not to be alarmed by the increased police presence following the attack, which Trump misconstrued as a call to shrug off the threat of terrorism. In response to Trump’s repeated attacks, Khan argued for a cancellation of Trump’s forthcoming state visit to the U.K., saying “I don’t think we should roll out the red carpet” for him. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, while defending Khan’s calls for calm, says that the visit will still take place nonetheless.

Resignation. The Trump administration’s climate change policy has claimed its first casualty in the form of acting U.S. Ambassador to China David Rank. CNN reports that Rank resigned his post in protest of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, in which 148 countries agreed to voluntarily limit their carbon emissions. The State Department would not acknowledge or comment on the motivation behind Rank’s departure, saying only that he made a “personal decision” and that “We appreciate his years of dedicated service to the State Department.”

Tit for tat. Early on Tuesday Russia’s Defense Ministry says it sent an Su-27 fighter jet to intercept a U.S. B-52 bomber over the Baltic Sea. Russian aircraft and their NATO counterparts have come into closer proximity since Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, sometimes uncomfortably so. The Atlantic alliance reported that it intercepted Russian aircraft in the Baltic 110 times in 2016.

 

Photo Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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