With Adam Rawnsley
More war. After 16 years of combat in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the United States is ramping up. Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, told Congress Thursday that he’ll likely recommend troop increases in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria in the coming months. It’s unclear what the Trump administration will do with any such request, but given the president’s calls to crush ISIS “quickly,” it’s likely that the troops will soon be moving out.
The call for more troops “comes amid rapid changes already happening in the U.S. military posture in the region,” FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce point out. Just this week, hundreds of U.S. Marines deployed to Syria and U.S. Army special operations forces were rushed to northern Syria to act as a buffer between the U.S.-backed fighters and Turkish-backed militias. American warplanes have also unleashed a new wave of bombing runs on al Qaeda in Yemen.
More from FP: “The deployments raise questions about the overall U.S. policy in the Middle East and other hotspots like Somalia or northern Africa. U.S. military commanders have been careful not to portray the recent moves as a broad change in existing policy, but instead as plans long in the works. One former Obama administration official told FP that the strikes in Yemen and troop increases in Syria are ‘really more of a continuation than a departure from Obama administration counterterrorism policy,’ albeit significantly accelerated from the ponderous way the Obama team made its decisions.”
Yemen. A week of U.S. airstrikes on al Qaeda in Yemen has also raised questions over what the future U.S. role in that country’s bloody civil war might be. “But bolder military action without a clear diplomatic plan can bring unintended consequences,” De Luce and McLeary write in another story. “Focusing narrowly on the military objective of counterterrorism strikes without a strategy to resolve the stalemated Yemeni civil war — and address Saudi and Iranian involvement there — will do little to bring stability to the country, or solve the underlying ethnic and religious tensions that have allowed al Qaeda’s branch there to flourish, experts said.”
Raid fallout. A Jan. 29 Navy SEAL raid on an al Qaeda compound in Yemen has created controversy after the death of one SEAL, as many as 14 civilians, and the crash of a $70 million U.S. aircraft. Gen. Votel said Thursday he’s taking responsibility for the raid. The general told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I am the CENTCOM commander and I am responsible for what’s done in my region and what’s not done in my region. So I accept the responsibility for this. We lost a lot on this operation.” Votel’s ownership of the operation follows a controversial statement from President Trump disclaiming responsibility for the operation. Referring vaguely to “the generals,” Trump told Fox News that “they lost Ryan” — Chief Petty Officer William Ryan Owens, the SEAL killed in the operation.
Back in Syria. Things are getting worse between Turkey and the Kurds. Turkish forces and their Syrian Arab allies said Friday they killed over 70 Kurdish fighters in northern Syria this week, and Syrian Kurds said they can take Raqqa by themselves, and reject Washington’s efforts to enlist Turkish help. Turkish and Kurd forces are currently skirmishing near the city of Manbij, with American special forces having recently deployed to act as a buffer between the two sides. There have also been pictures of Russian troops with the U.S. trained and equipped Kurds, as Moscow continues to make itself into a player in any possible deal between the Kurds and Turkey. Still, Turkey says it has hope for good relations with the trump administration.
Marine scandal widens. What started as a scandal over a Marine Corps-themed Facebook page whose members shared naked pictures and identifying information — along with explicit calls for sexual assault — of female Marines has grown.
Business Insider reports that “hundreds of nude photos of female service members from every military branch have been posted to an image-sharing message board that dates back to at least May. A source informed Business Insider of the site’s existence on Tuesday. The site, called AnonIB, has a dedicated board for military personnel that features dozens of threaded conversations among men, many of whom ask for “wins” — naked photographs — of specific female service members, often identifying the women by name or where they are stationed.” The new revelation comes after the original scoop by journalist Thomas Brennan. He uncovered the Marines United facebook group, which hosted approximately 30,000 members.
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SEAL raid. An in-depth investigation by The Intercept takes a look at the controversial U.S. special operations raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of a U.S. Navy Seal and several Yemeni civilians. The news outlet reports that the raid was not, as the White House has claimed, an attempt to collect intelligence but instead was aimed at killing Qassim al Rimi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Residents of the village initially believed that the raid was being carried out by Houthi forces. After coming under heavy fire, the SEAL team called in air support. Locals describe Apache helicopters firing indiscriminately and causing many of the casualties among civilians in the village.
Tests. Satellite imagery of North Korea’s nuclear test site shows that Pyongyang is gearing up for another test at some point. 38 North reviewed imagery of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site and found signs of activity at the portals leading to the underground test tunnel consistent with signs of preparation for a test. While the site is now capable of supporting a nuclear test on short notice, it’s impossible to tell so far when the next test might take place.
Retaliation. The U.S. has already deployed its controversial ballistic missile defense system to South Korea, but China is still putting the squeeze on South Korea to show its continued anger at the decision. Reuters reports that Chinese travel and tourism companies have been pressured to cut off flights and cruise stops at South Korean tourist citizens popular with Chinese travelers as a result of Seoul’s decision to host the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in the south of the country. The U.S. and China say the THAAD battery is there only to defend against North Korean missiles but China is wary of the THAAD radar’s ability to reach into its own territory.
Discipline. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey intervened to remove mention of a two star general’s misuse of government resources to carry on an affair, according to a USA Today investigation. The incident took place when Dempsey was commander of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, and Dempsey’s intervention in the investigation of Maj. Gen. John Custer — then in command of the Army Intelligence Center and School at Fort Huachuca — led a review board to go easy on the general, allowing him to retire at full rank and pension. The Army inspector general found that Custer had ordered his staff to buy racy clothing for the woman he was having an affair with. Custer was also found to have sent racist and sexist emails.
Kidnap plot. Israeli authorities have arrested a man whom they allege was planning to kidnap an Israeli citizen on behalf of Hezbollah and smuggle him to Lebanon. Ynet News reports that Israel’s domestic intelligence service Shin Bet alleges that Yousef Yasser Sweilam was recruited by Hezbollah over Facebook and instructed to surveil various targets across Israel, including from military. Hezbollah’s kidnapping of Israeli soldiers in 2006 triggered a month-long war between Israel and the terrorist group.
Detention. Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he’d be ok with adding new prisoners to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and trying them in military courts instead of civilian federal ones. Interviewed for a talk radio show, Sessions described Guantanamo as “a very fine place for holding these kinds of dangerous criminals.” He also expressed skepticism about the trials of terrorists in federal civilian courts, lamenting that accused terrorists “get discovery rights to find out our intelligence and get court-appointed lawyers and things of that nature.”
Photo Credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images