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SitRep: U.S. and Iran Trade Shots in Syria; Qatar Blockade Continues; ISIS Slaughtering Civilians in Mosul

Trump’s $110 Billion Saudi Deal; Hezbollah Operatives Arrested in U.S.

By , a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2015-2018.



With Adam Rawnsley

Shooting war. Is this what the start of a war looks like? “Near At Tanf, two strikes destroyed two tactical vehicles and a UAS.” The line comes from the tally of airstrikes the U.S. Central Command emails to reporters each morning, blandly listing each day’s strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. Only in Friday’s note, the targets were Iranian-backed Shiite militias fighting in support of the regime of Syria’s Bashar al Assad.

An American F-15 shot down a “pro-regime” drone that dropped a munition on U.S.-backed forces near the U.S. garrison at al Tanf on Thursday, narrowly missing the patrol which was accompanied by U.S. forces. The armed drone, which was likely an Iranian-made Shahed-129, was wiped out only hours after other U.S. jets bombed two vehicles which had strayed too close to the base. The Daily Beast has a good run down on the Iranian drone, and its operations in Syria.

New threat for U.S. troops in Syria. The attack, which U.S. military officials say caused no casualties or damage to equipment, “was the first time U.S.-backed forces had been targeted by a drone in Syria, and indicates that the Bashar al Assad regime and his Iranian backers are willing to target American and coalition troops directly,” FP’s Paul McLeary writes. “It also came just after American warplanes struck Shiite militias, backed by Iran, for the third time in as many weeks near the U.S. garrison at al Tanf.”

A U.S. Defense official said Thursday the drone strike came outside of a 55-mile “buffer zone” the U.S. enforces around al Tanf, but that U.S.-backed forces, along with their American and international advisors, regularly patrol outside of the area. More here from FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary on where this emerging conflict between Washington and Tehran in Syria might be headed.

More trouble for Qatar. “Arab countries put 12 organizations and 59 people on a terror sanctions list early Friday they described as being associated with Qatar,” the AP reports Friday morning, “the latest in a growing diplomatic dispute that’s seen the energy rich nation isolated by Saudi Arabia and others.” As of Thursday, Pentagon officials were telling SitRep that operations at the massive Al Udeid air base in Qatar — the operational hub of the war in Iraq and Syria — were proceeding as normal, though there were some worries about keeping the 11,000 troops on the base supplied in the long term if the blockade by Gulf countries continues.

The Wall Street Journal notes, “Qatar may be tiny, but that’s where all the major fault lines in the Middle East are converging these days. The sudden cutoff of ties with Qatar by several Saudi-led Arab states has already turned into a proxy fight between supporters and opponents of political Islam and between partners and enemies of Iran.”

It’s awful lonely out there on the Qatar Peninsula, according to a new batch of satellite imagery posted by Bellingcat. The open source investigative outlet published photos showing that the Saudis have completely cut off vehicle traffic to Qatar’s As Salwa border crossing. Qatar is dependent on goods delivered across its land border with Saudi Arabia for much of its imports.

Kurds going for it. Iraqi Kurds have finally set a date for their long-discussed referendum on independence from the rest of Iraq, with the Kurdistan Regional Government calling for a vote on Sept. 25, FP’s Keith Johnson and Emily Tamkin write.

The decision, announced by KRG president Masoud Barzani on Twitter, “is sure to spark a showdown with Baghdad, which has for years sought to keep the restive Kurds inside a barely functioning Iraqi state.” The U.S. State Department says it is concerned the referendum will distract Baghdad from the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey, unsurprisingly, thinks the move is a “terrible mistake.”

ISIS has killed hundreds in Mosul. Meanwhile, Islamic State fighters have shot and killed hundreds of civilians in Mosul over the past two weeks, as the Iraqi army tightens the circle around the last remaining holdouts the United Nations said on Thursday. It is estimated that as many as 200,000 civilians remain trapped by the fighters in their dwindling pocket of control in the western half of Mosul.

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

Arms bazaar. Want to know what’s in the reportedly $110 billion arms package the U.S. just offered to the Saudis? Defense News got it hands on a list of the specific items involved, which includes seven THAAD batteries, Patriot anti-missile systems, surveillance planes and fighter jets, as well as tens of thousands of munitions and other assorted arms. While the Trump administration has touted the $110 billion figure, there’s still plenty of hurdles before that figure becomes a reality. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia still need to sign letters of agreement for a number of systems and both the Defense Security Cooperation Agency and Congress need to sign off on the sales. Congressional approval could be especially tricky given an emerging opposition to Saudi arms sales in the Senate.

Hack the Casbah. FP’s Emily Tamkin reports that Qatar’s state-supported Al Jazeera news outlet is now under attack online. Al Jazeera officials say the “entire Doha-based network” is suffering from constant hacking attempts. The statement comes amidst a squabble between Qatar and its Sunni Gulf neighbors over Doha’s alleged support of militant groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Iran. The rift has been widened by another incident of cyber intrigue involving what Qatar and the FBI say was the hack into the state-run Qatar News Agency. Officials say an op-ed purportedly written by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani expressing fondness for Iran and Israel was a fake planted by hackers.

For hire. The New York Times also gets a scoop that the culprits responsible for posting that allegedly fake article were Russian mercenary hackers, according to the FBI. Nor are the Qataris the only Gulf country on the receiving end of hackers for hire. One group of cybersecurity researchers is set to publish a report claiming that the hackers responsible for stealing and publishing emails from the Emirati ambassador to the U.S. were part of a mercenary group dubbed “Bahamut.”

Busted. The Department of Justice announced the arrest of two alleged Hezbollah operatives inside the U.S., charging the men with training with the U.S.-designated terrorist group and scouting out potential American and Israeli targets inside the U.S. and Panama. Prosecutors say Samer El Debek and Ali Kourani, both naturalized U.S. citizens, received military training from Hezbollah in Lebanon, including a course in manufacturing improvised explosive devices for El Debek. Kourani is accused of scouting targets for Hezbollah in New York and searching for weapons suppliers for the group. El Debek allegedly surveilled the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Panama for Hezbollah and helped the group clean out a bomb factory in Thailand after operatives there fell under surveillance.

Shots fired. Russian President Vladimir Putin took aim at Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his greatest nemesis in the U.S. Congress, on Thursday. In an interview with director and fan Oliver Stone, Putin admitted a grudging fondness for McCain “to a certain extent” on account of “his patriotism.” But Putin called out the Arizona senator for “liv[ing] in the Old World,” saying that his hardline stance on Russia fails to take into account the importance of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia on issues ranging from terrorism, global poverty, and nuclear weapons.



Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force

Paul McLeary was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2015-2018.

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