SitRep: U.S., Russia Still Talking in Syria; Iraqi, Syrian Troops Meet at Border; Baltic Buildup Complete
Saudi Says it Captured Iranian Troops; Kabul Deepens Taliban Fractures; Paris Air Show Updates
With Adam Rawnsley
Syria ops normal. Mostly. Tensions remain high between the United States and Russia after Sunday’s shoot down of a Syrian jet, and Moscow’s threats to begin tracking all coalition flights west of the Euphrates River with its warplanes and missile defense systems. There’s already been a bit of fallout. Australia announced Tuesday it had suspended its flights into Syria, “as a precautionary measure,” Australia’s Department of Defence said in a statement.
Strikes continue. A daily roundup of airstrikes released by the U.S. Central Command Tuesday showed eight strikes around Raqqa, which sits directly on the Euphrates. “Coalition aircraft continue to conduct operations [unescorted by Russian aircraft] throughout Syria,” Col. Ryan Dillon, the Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS, told SitRep in an email Tuesday.
He added that despite Russian claims to have shut down the “hotline” between American and Russian military officers in Syria, “we continue to use the de-confliction line with the Russians. The Coalition is always available to de-conflict with the Russians.”
Syrians on the move. In southern Syria, government forces recently took the al Waleed border crossing, an ISIS-held crossing close to the al Tanf garrison where 150 U.S. Special Operations Forces are based. For the first time in years Syrians greeted Iraqi troops, who pushed the Islamic State from their side of the border crossing over the weekend. U.S. military officials said they believe the reports of the border meet and greet are true, but had no further comment. FP’s Paul McLeary has more on the latest complications in the almost three-year American effort in Syria.
Plans? The White House has yet to be fully briefed on plans the Pentagon has drawn up for Afghanistan, but according to a Reuters report, the Pentagon and the Trump administration are considering options in both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, and Washington appears ready to harden its approach toward Pakistan to crack down on Pakistan-based militants launching attacks in neighboring Afghanistan.” Potential responses being discussed “include expanding U.S. drone strikes, redirecting or withholding some aid to Pakistan and perhaps eventually downgrading Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally,” officials said.
Baltic buildup. NATO forces and their Russian counterparts are putting the final pieces in place on the years-long buildup of their forces in the Baltic, a Cold War-style standoff that has troops on both sides on high alert. On Monday, troops from Latvia, Canada, Poland, Italy, Spain, Slovenia and Albania, marked the completion of the deployment of the fourth and final NATO battle group to the region. In all, NATO has positioned some 4,500 troops in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland.
The Wall Street Journal notes that there’s also an American tank brigade deployed to Central and Eastern Europe, and B-2 stealth bombers have been sent to Europe. “Russia, too, is enlarging its forces. It is creating a larger permanent military presence in the region, including missiles and new army units, moves it says counter the NATO deployments. Russia and Belarus are also preparing for a large military exercise in September.” More here from the Journal’s Julian Barnes who is in Lithuania watching a massive war game being planed out by NATO forces.
Many of those NATO allies are also clamoring for more U.S.-made F-16s, Defense One reports from the Paris Air Show.
Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
North Korea. The American imprisoned by North Korea for an act of vandalism has died after returning to the U.S. in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness.” The family of Otto Warmbier announced that he had died at his home in Virginia on Monday afternoon. President Trump issued a statement of condolence to Warmbier’s family, saying his passing “deepens my Administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency.” The Washington Post reports that Warmbier’s death may add support to legislation introduced by two Congressmen, Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Joe Wilson (R-SC), to tightly regulate Americans’ travel to North Korea.
Step up. The State Department is calling out China for not doing enough to combat terrorism and the threat from the Islamic State. Reuters reports that acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia Susan Thornton specified Iraq as a place China could be more active, saying it “should be doing to more to contribute to the efforts of the international coalition to defeat ISIS.” Thornton would like to see Beijing contribute more resources to countries struggling against terrorism and help out with capacity-building for police and military forces.
South China Sea. China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea is leading to some new partnerships among its neighbors to push back against Beijing’s assertions. The Diplomat reports that Vietnam and Japan carried out a joint exercise off Vietnam’s coast aimed at stopping illegal fishing. The focus on fishing is likely a reflection of China’s clashes with South China Sea countries over fishing rights. In 2017 China declared a moratorium on fishing in waters claimed by both Vietnam and the Philippines, with fishing rights proving a frequent flashpoint in Beijing’s territorial disputes with its neighbors.
Showdown in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia claims to have caught three Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps troops entering the Kingdom’s territorial waters. According to a Saudi statement, the men were caught when three armed boats headed towards the the Saudi oil field of Marjan. Saudi naval forces managed to seize one boat while the other two escaped. A separate Saudi statement claims the boats were part of a planned terrorist attack. Iranian news outlets, however, claim that the boats were fishing vessels that drifted off course and were fired on by Saudi forces.
Factions. The Afghan government is trying to deepen the divisions within the Taliban by providing support to a breakaway faction of the group known as the Renouncers. The New York Times reports that the faction is comprised of followers of Mullah Mohammad Rasoul, who broke off from the Taliban after discovering that Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour had kept the death of his predecessor, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, a secret for years. The group is primarily based in Helmand and the Afghan government has been supplying it with money, weapons, and intelligence as it battles the Taliban for control of districts.
Springtime in Paris. Aerospace companies are in Paris and ready for their runway closeups as they show off the latest products for the Paris Air Show. Lockheed’s F-35 stealth fighter jet is the it-girl thus far, making its Paris debut on Monday with some acrobatic showing off for onlookers. F-35 Integration Office Brigadier General Select Todd Canterbury described the jet’s appearance at the show as a demonstration of resolve to the NATO alliance and a statement that “we have got the capability to respond to any action necessary.”
Malware markets. Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab issued a new report uncovering what they say is malware sold by an Israeli cybersecurity firm being used to spy on reporters as well as human rights and anti-corruption activists in Mexico. The group says it found messages sent to the targets containing links to Pegasus spyware made by Israel’s NSO group. Citizen Lab researchers previously attributed malware to NSO Group after finding that it exploited a vulnerability in Apple’s iOS mobile operating system.
Photo Credit: MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images