Today's D Brief: US forces, attacked; China’s Mideast wins; SecDef summoned to Hill; And a bit more.
Iran-backed militants attacked U.S. forces inside Iraq with ballistic missiles Saturday at the al-Asad airbase about 100 miles west of Baghdad. The attack occurred at about 6:30 p.m. local, and featured “multiple ballistic missiles and rockets,” officials at the Tampa-based Central Command announced later that evening. The New York Times reported “Two out of an estimated 17 rockets and short-range ballistic missiles fired at the base made it through air defense systems.”
An unspecified “number of U.S. personnel are undergoing evaluation for traumatic brain injuries,” and “At least one Iraqi service member was wounded,” CENTCOM said.
The attackers’ munitions were probably “Close-Range Ballistic Missiles such as the Al-Aqsa-1,” according to the Washington Institute, which has been closely monitoring such attacks over the past several months. “Some reporting suggests 17+ munitions landed, with a large number of interceptors fired, and possibly as many as 41 overall projectiles used in the attack,” the institute added.
U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria have been attacked more than 140 times since Hamas launched its attack on Israel in early October. The attacks have injured more than 70 U.S. personnel, Peter Baker of New York Times reported Sunday. The looming consideration for the Biden administration? “At some point, if U.S. forces are killed, they’ll have no alternative but to respond directly against Iranian assets,” Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Baker.
Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Share your newsletter tips, reading recommendations, or feedback for the year ahead here. And if you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp within 12 months. Almost immediately, lawmakers responded by introducing or passing a number of bills to block the facility’s closure and the subsequent transfer of detainees stateside, which more than 60% of Americans opposed, according to Gallup polling at the time. Fifteen years later, at the start of 2024, 30 people were still in detention at Guantanamo, according to veteran reporter Carol Rosenberg of the New York Times.
U.S. military forces off Yemen destroyed four Houthi anti-ship missiles that were “were prepared to launch” on Friday and Saturday, Central Command officials said. The missiles were aimed into the Southern Red Sea (Friday’s strike) and into the Gulf of Aden (Saturday). The “self-defense” strikes stopped what CENTCOM said was “an imminent threat to merchant vessels and the U.S. Navy ships in the region.” Officials did not specify what platform carried out the strikes.
Fifth Fleet Commander to AP: “The Houthi actions, probably in terms of their attacks on merchant shipping, are the most significant that we’ve seen in two generations,” U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Brad Cooper said in an interview published Monday.
In terms of Iran’s alleged involvement, “Iran is clearly funding, they’re resourcing, they are supplying and they’re providing training,” Cooper said. “They’re obviously very directly involved. There’s no secret there.” Read more, here.
So far, the Houthis’ “drone and missile volleys have not caused casualties or sunk any ships,” Michael DiMino of the Washington-based think tank Defense Priorities wrote on Friday. “The overwhelming majority of Houthi attacks have either missed their targets or been defeated,” and “The group’s few successful hits have resulted in minimal damage with ships remaining seaworthy,” he added.
However, DiMino cautioned, “Strikes alone are unlikely to alter Houthi strategic intentions; decrease the frequency of attacks on cargo shipping; or significantly degrade” the group’s capabilities.
How about a larger effort? “A more extensive air campaign against the Houthis—as the Saudis attempted unsuccessfully for nearly a decade—is unlikely to succeed,” he said.
Other options available to the White House include “accelerat[ing] aid shipments into Gaza, which would help alleviate the humanitarian crisis there, deprive the Houthis of their justification for attacks in the Red Sea,” DiMino wrote.
The U.S. could also pursue “no-condition talks” with the Houthis “in exchange for merely acknowledging the current realities on the ground: that the group is already a pseudo-state, controls all of northern Yemen’s territory, and governs the majority of the country’s population,” DiMino advised. After all, he said, “‘stateless’ nations—such as the Kurds in Iraq and Syria—regularly conduct diplomacy, use threats of coercive violence, and enact their own foreign policies with state actors. The Houthis are no exception.” Read on, here.
Update: Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza has killed more than 25,000 Palestinians, according to the Associated Press, citing Gaza health authorities. The New York Times reports the daily death toll is trending downward, however. Still, several foreign ministers are publicly losing their patience with Israel’s military operations inside Gaza, as well as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated rejection of any future Palestinian state, most recently again on Sunday.
“What are the other solutions they have in mind—make all the Palestinians leave? Kill all of them?” asked European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Monday in Brussels. “The way they are destroying Hamas is not the way to do it. They are sealing the hate for generations,” he said. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock agreed in principle, and noted Israel has not yet brought up any alternatives to a two-state solution.
“We have engaged in over 30 years of process and look where that has got us,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said. “A moment of truth is upon us,” he continued. “Do we allow a radical racist agenda to dictate the future or come together and say the path is clear, we want peace for everybody and a two-state solution is the only path, go ahead and implement it?”
The Saudis say they won’t normalize ties with Israel until Palestinians have their own state. Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan elaborated somewhat in an interview this weekend with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.
- “Strike kills Hezbollah fighter, civilian in Lebanon, amid seeming Israeli shift to targeted killings,” AP reported Sunday from Lebanon;
- “Gaza hostage relatives burst into Israeli parliament, calls for action mount,” Reuters reported Monday from Jerusalem.
Opinion: Who’s winning in the Middle East? China. Over the past year, “Beijing stacked up strategic win after win, not just expanding its economic presence, but convening leadership summits, brokering peace deals, and even holding a joint military training exercise with one of the U.S.’s most important allies in the region. While shifts in power and influence often become evident only after the fact, history could one day look back on 2023 as the year that China truly began to win the Middle East,” Kevin Nguyen of BluePath Labs and Peter Singer of New America write in Defense One’s latest China Intelligence column, which looks at developments through the lens of Chinese-language open-source documents.
“It is easy to see why states in the Middle East have sought closer ties with China. Collaborating with a military powerhouse that is not Washington helps them shed U.S. dependency—a goal that even close allies like the UAE have expressed repeatedly in the past decade.
“But what are China’s goals? A look at Chinese sources reveals efforts in the political, economic, diplomatic, and military realms...” Read on, here.
Russia is cementing control of occupied territories in Ukraine through a vast range of governmental, bureaucratic, legal, educational, and other levers, writes David Lewis in Foreign Affairs. “Russian officials have transformed the governance of the areas under its control, holding sham elections last September and appointing pro-Moscow officials at every level. An army of technocrats is overseeing the complete absorption of these territories, aligning their laws, regulations, and tax and banking systems with Russia, and getting rid of any traces of institutional ties to Ukraine,” writes Lewis, a professor at the University of Exeter whose forthcoming book is Occupation: Russian Rule in South-Eastern Ukraine.
Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers last week called Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin before the full House Armed Services Committee on Valentines Day to talk about the notification process during Austin’s two recent hospitalizations at Maryland’s Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in late December and early January. In a letter to the Pentagon chief last week, Rogers said he has a lot of unanswered questions, including why Austin “refused to answer whether you instructed your staff to not inform the President of the United States or anyone else of your hospitalization.”
Rogers added a list of 24 other queries about Austin and his hospitalization, which the defense secretary afterward said concerned newly-revealed prostate cancer. You can read Rogers’ full letter here. [Note: Rogers sought to overturn election results in 2021.]
And lastly, an unfortunate update: The U.S. military this weekend called off its search for two missing Navy SEALs who fell into the sea while conducting an interdiction operation off the Somali coast on January 11. Officials at Central Command announced the formal change in status Sunday after a 10-day search of the surrounding waters. “During this expansive search operation, airborne and naval platforms from the U.S., Japan, and Spain continuously searched more than 21,000 square miles to locate our missing teammates,” CENTCOM said.
“We mourn the loss of our two Naval Special Warfare warriors, and we will forever honor their sacrifice and example,” said CENTCOM commander Army Gen. Michale Erik Kurilla. “Our prayers are with the SEALs’ families, friends, the U.S. Navy, and the entire Special Operations community during this time,” he added.
For the record, “Out of respect for the families, no further information will be released at this time,” CENTCOM said.