- - Wednesday, August 10, 2016

American-backed rebels in Syria on Wednesday closed in on the northern city of Manbij, a key stronghold for Islamic State terrorists who have used it to control access to the Turkish border, around 28 miles from the city that is located about 18 miles west of the Euphrates River.

The taking of Manbij, according to defense officials, will cut off a key supply route for the Islamic State.

The forces that are moving closer to taking control of the city are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, made up of both Kurdish and Arab fighters supported by U.S. special operations commandos. Officials said the city is 90 percent under the control of the rebels.

Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, outgoing commander of U.S. forces in the region, said on Wednesday that Manbij has been used as an important base for Islamic State operations outside the country. It is also a key line of communication with Islamic State headquarters in Raqqa. A large number of foreign fighters are in the city that could be liberated from Islamic State forces in the next several weeks, the three-star general said.

“Manbij is an important objective for us and it would be one more nail in the enemy’s coffin,” Gen. MacFarland said in a video teleconference.

News reports from the region say at least 400 people have been killed in fighting around the city over the past month.


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The U.S. military in Iraq said coalition bombers conducted 11 strikes against Islamic State forces on Tuesday, destroying five fighting positions and three vehicles.

The officials cautioned that taking back the city from the Islamic State will not be easy: Intelligence reports indicated that Islamic State fighters were equipping themselves with suicide bomb vests in preparation for last-ditch efforts to turn back the rebel forces.

Further east, Iraqi military forces are said to be making progress in efforts to take back the key city of Mosul that has been under control of the Islamic State since June 2014. Under “Operation Conquest,” Iraqi government forces are expected to move against the Islamic State in Mosul over the next several months.

Video recently made public on the internet by the Islamic State showed extensive underground tunnel networks being constructed in anticipation of an Iraqi government drive to retake the city.

Similar underground networks were discovered in Ramadi after that Iraqi city was retaken from the Islamic State. Inside the city, large residences were found to be full of dirt that was excavated from the tunnels but kept hidden indoors in a bid to fool U.S. reconnaissance monitoring.

U.S. strategy in Iraq hit

A security contractor in Iraq, Falcon Group, issued a critical report this week that concluded U.S. efforts to back the Iraqi army are failing.

“The coalition led by the U.S. military continues to view the ‘battlefield’ in a conventional sense,” the Aug. 9 Iraq Daily Security Review report states. “Viewing the ‘battlefield’ in a conventional sense led to massive operational and strategic failure in Iraq from 2003-2011, the collapse of the Iraqi army in 2014, and the continued failure of the Build Partner Capacity Line of Effort from 2015 to the present that has produced zero combat-effective Iraqi army brigades.”

The Falcon Group is an Iraqi conglomerate whose security arm includes former military and intelligence officials.

The report said the coalition air bombing campaign has helped push the Islamic State into a defensive position and harmed its finances.

But the overall U.S. focus on building up the Iraqi military is failing.

“The U.S. military continues to advocate fighting a conventional war when in an unconventional environment by adopting an enemy-centric approach,” the report said. That enemy-centered strategy has been limited to eliminating Islamic State leaders and fighters while leaving three key elements of the insurgency — underground, auxiliary and mass base forces — to reconstitute the Islamic State leaders and fighters killed in fighting.

“The inability of the U.S. military to adapt to ‘modern war’ and the resulting massive failures in this theater and other theaters [are] not likely to change in the near or mid-term,” the report said.

The report warned that once conventional military operations wind down, the Islamic State will shift its focus from major guerrilla operations to minor ones. The United States will then likely “declare victory” and assert that the Iraq security forces are fully capable, as was done in 2011 when U.S. military forces were withdrawn.

“Despite 15 years of conflict, modern war and complex operational environments remain beyond the capacity of the U.S. military to comprehend as indicated by the results produced,” the report concluded.

Russia scales back provocations

Russian military forces have sharply curtailed provocative anti-U.S. military activities over the past several months, according to U.S. officials.

Defense officials told Inside the Ring that Moscow’s increasingly worrisome nuclear-capable bomber incursions in U.S. air defense zones have been sharply cut back in recent months. U.S. intelligence agencies also reported that the unusual number of dangerous aerial intercepts of U.S. aircraft in both Asia and Europe also has declined.

“The Russians seem to be on their best behavior because of a possible deal on Syria,” said one U.S. military officer in seeking to explain the shift by Moscow.

Russia and the United States are said to be close to concluding an agreement that some officials say will be of questionable value to the United States regarding the conflict in Syria.

Under the pending U.S.-Russia agreement, U.S. and allied forces would step up bombing strikes against the al Qaeda-affiliated group Al Nusra Front in Syria. Al Nusra has been operating separately from al Qaeda’s rebel forces in Syria. Russia, as part of the deal, would increase strikes in Syria against Islamic State targets, according to officials familiar with the draft deal.

Recent Russian aerial incidents have included the dangerous intercept by a Russian Su-27 of a U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance jet over the Baltic Sea in April. Also in April, a Russian MiG-31 flew within 50 feet of P-8 maritime patrol aircraft near the Kamchatka Peninsula in Northeast Asia.

At Pentagon, Pokemon Go is gone

A Pentagon source tells Inside the Ring that the Defense Department has banned the playing of the mobile video game Pokemon Go within Defense Department facilities, over concerns the popular application could facilitate foreign spying.

A memorandum sent July 19 warned all officials and defense contractors that playing Pokemon Go, the hugely popular Japanese video game, poses a potential a security risk to secure and sensitive facilities. Pokemon Go uses the Global Positioning System satellite network for maps of areas around the handheld mobile devices that utilize the application.

Pentagon security officials are concerned the data obtained playing the game could provide pinpoint accuracy on the locations of rooms and other sensitive facilities where secrets are stored. The game also could provide personal data on Pentagon officials with access to secrets, information that could be used in cyber attacks or spying recruitment attempts.

Pokemon Go employs Google Maps to place users within a real-world city location and then shows a figure of the game player on the map. The player then searches for virtual Pokemon creatures that are created by the application. The cartoonlike Pokemon creatures are then captured during play.

At one point early in its release last month, a Pokemon “gym,” a central location used as a hub for activity, was visible at the Pentagon on the application. The gym later disappeared.

The Wall Street Journal reported July 13 that users who downloaded the application on iPhones were giving up massive amounts of private data, if they signed in to the app from their Google accounts. A software update modified the amount of data the game’s developer, Niantic, Inc., can collect.

Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.

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