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Sept. 1, 2016
Notes from the Pentagon

Islamic State: From nation-state to terror group
Battlefield successes against the Islamic State could force the group to shift away from nation-state status to a less visible terror threat, the commander of the U.S. Central Command said this week.

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who took over the lead war-fighting command in March, told reporters at the Pentagon the ultraviolent jihadi group’s capabilities have been greatly degraded and dismantled in Iraq and Syria, including significant loss of territory it once controlled. Recent military operations have cut off key supply lines and routes used by foreign fighters.

“As you look across the full battle space, you see that [Islamic State] is under more pressure now than at any other time in the campaign,” Gen. Votel said Tuesday. “We are causing the enemy to have to look in multiple directions and they are struggling to respond under this pressure.”

The group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, remains a threat and is adapting to the attacks on its strongholds and the loss of territory. Also, external operations outside Iraq and Syria also are a concern, the general added.

In Iraq, Iraqi government forces are on track to retake the key northern city of Mosul by the end of the year or sooner, while the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa in Syria also may soon fall, Gen. Votel said.

“Certainly in both Iraq and Syria, in a lot of locations, we are continuing to target their leadership or continuing to target their revenue-generation sources in both Mosul and northern Iraq and certainly in Syria, so I think we continue to keep them on the horns of a dilemma here,” he said.

Two key setbacks for the Islamic State took place in northern Syria at the towns of Manbij and Jarabulus, forcing Islamic State forces to retreat quickly from those areas. The retreats took place despite calls by Islamic State leaders for the fighters to “fight to the death,” Gen. Votel said, adding that the group is being forced to choose to fortify other locations.

Once Mosul and Raqqa are taken, Gen. Votel said, the Islamic State could evolve away from being a nation-state and revert to being a more of covert terrorist organization without a geographic base.

“And so we should expect that as we come out of the big operations like Mosul and Raqqa and others here, that they will continue to adapt and we will continue to deal with the next evolution of ISIL, whether they become more of a terrorist organization and return to more of their terrorist-like roots,” he said, adding that U.S. and allied forces are anticipating a long fight against whatever emerges after the shift.

“I know I’m giving the impression that when we finish with Mosul or Raqqa that we’re done. We’re not. We will continue to deal with them,” he said.

Pentagon wary of Syria deal
The diplomatic deal being sought by Secretary of State John F. Kerry with Russia on Syria is being opposed behind the scenes at the Pentagon, over concerns that concessions will limit U.S. military options and undermine support for regional forces.

“This is not something that will be in the U.S. national security interest,” said one Pentagon official critical of the ongoing U.S.-Russia talks on ending the brutal civil war in Syria.

The liberal Mr. Kerry earned a reputation as a poor negotiator during the negotiations that resulted in the one-sided Iran nuclear deal reached last year. The agreement gave Tehran major concessions, including the return of billions of dollars in frozen Iranian accounts, the failure to include any limits on Iran’s nuclear missile programs and limits on resolving questions over past nuclear arms work.

Mr. Kerry has been engaged in talks with Russian leaders for the past several weeks aimed at limiting Russian airstrikes in Syria that have indiscriminately targeted civilians, especially in Aleppo, where hundreds and perhaps thousands of civilians have been killed.

The secretary of state failed to reach an agreement on Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after some nine hours of discussions in Geneva.

Since Russia entered the Syrian conflict on behalf of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, the conflict has escalated, mainly due to Moscow’s scorched-earth bombing raids.

Russia is opposing a U.S. proposal in the Syria talks to limit all airstrikes to targeting the Islamic State and the main country’s al Qaeda affiliate, the Front for the Conquest of Syria.

Moscow and Damascus are targeting all rebel groups in Syria as part of a plan to maintain the Assad regime in power.

Mr. Kerry is seeking an agreement that will divert Russian attacks away from U.S.-backed rebels fighting Mr. Assad.

Powerful Chinese general arrested
China’s senior military leadership continues to be targeted in a major political purge. The latest arrest took place Aug. 25 when Gen. Wang Jianping, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department within the all-powerful Central Military Commission, was detained.

Gen. Wang was the commander of the People’s Armed Police, the large military internal security forces used by Beijing to quell unrest in places like Tibet and Xinjiang, until 2014. He was arrested in Chengdu, Sichuan province and charged with violating party discipline, a euphemism for corruption. He is the first active-duty general taken down in the anti-corruption drive that has struck fear into the ranks of senior Chinese military leaders.

Gen. Wang is among dozens of military officers under investigation in the campaign by Chinese President Xi Jinping in what China analysts say is more of a drive to consolidate power rather a sincere effort to clean up corruption in the ranks.

Larry Wortzel, a retired military intelligence officer who worked in China, said prior to a recent military reorganization Gen. Wang was in charge of all military training. The military arrests are part of efforts to improve PLA war fighting, remove officers Mr. Xi views as rivals for power, and stifle rampant corruption.

“This is a blow to the reorganization and illustrates how difficult it is for Xi, as CMC chairman, to ensure his subordinates are both loyal to him and also both competent and honest,” Mr. Wortzel said.

“One former PLA officer recently told me that literally all senior officers are in fear of a knock on the door, and Xi cannot have full confidence in anyone he did not have in his own network of cohorts; but Xi needs more than that network to run the PLA effectively,” he added, noting the crackdown will continue and limit military competency and negatively affect morale.

The general was a close associate of Gen. Xu Caihou, a former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, China’s most powerful military organ. Xu was put under investigation in 2014 for selling promotions and reportedly died of an illness in March 2015.

Another former senior officer, Guo Boxiong, also a former Central Military Commission vice chairman, was sentenced to life in prison in July for corruption.

Gen. Wang also was close to ousted Chinese security czar Zhou Yongkang, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the collective dictatorship that rules China. Mr. Zhou was sentenced to life in prison last year.

Mr. Zhou had been one of the most powerful officials in China based on his control of the security and intelligence services. Politically, he is widely viewed as a Chinese Communist Lavrenti Beria, the Soviet secret police chief executed months after Stalin died in 1953.

Gen. Wang’s arrest was the second in two months targeting a senior officer. Gen. Tian Xiusi, a retired People’s Liberation Army political commissar and member of the Communist Party Central Committee, was arrested in July, also on corruption charges.

The South China Morning Post, which first reported the arrests, stated that another former People’s Armed Police commissar and ally of Gen. Wang, Gen. Xu Yaoyuan, is under investigation. Gen. Xu also was an associate of Mr. Zhou, the jailed security chief.

Three other people, including Gen. Wang’s wife, were also arrested and detained by military investigators after Gen. Wang’s arrest.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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