Situation Report

FP’s Situation Report: Militants in Syria raise Western fears

FP’s Situation Report: Militants in Syria raise Western fears

What keeps them up at night: Dozens of militant fighters have travelled from Pakistan to Syria and could be planning attacks on the U.S. or Europe. The NYT’s Eric Schmitt on Page One: "…The extremists who concern [CIA Director John Brennan] are part of a group of Qaeda operatives in Pakistan that has been severely depleted in recent years by a decade of American drone strikes. But the fighters still bring a wide range of skills to the battlefield, such as bomb-building, small-arms tactics, logistics, religious indoctrination and planning, though they are not believed to have experience in launching attacks in the West.

"Syria is an appealing base for these operatives because it offers them the relative sanctuary of extremist-held havens – away from drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan – as well as ready access to about 1,200 American and European Muslims who have gone there to fight and could be potential recruits to carry out attacks when they return home. Senior counterterrorism officials have voiced fears in recent months that these Western fighters could be radicalized by the country’s civil war."

"New classified intelligence assessments based on information from electronic intercepts, informers and social media posts conclude that Al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan, including Ayman al-Zawahri, is developing a much more systematic, long-term plan than was previously known to create specific cells in Syria that would identify, recruit and train these Westerners."

"…Most of the operatives identified by intelligence officials are now focused on attacking Syrian government troops and occasionally rival rebel factions. But the fact that these kinds of operatives are showing up in Syria indicates to American officials that Mr. Zawahri is also playing a long game – counting on easy access to Iraq and Qaeda support networks there, as well as on the United States’ reluctance to carry out drone strikes or other military operations against targets in Syria."

"…The new assessment is not likely to change American policy toward Syria any time soon, but it puts pressure on the Obama administration and its allies because it raises the possibility that Syria could become the next Afghanistan." More here.

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More sabre rattling from the North: Obama brokers Japan, South Korea talks as Pyongyang fires missiles. Reuters’ Thomas Escritt and Linda Sieg:  "U.S. President Barack Obama brought together the leaders of Japan and South Korea for their first face-to-face talks as a North Korean ballistic missile launch underscored the need for Washington’s two key Asian allies to repair their strained ties. Washington hopes the three-way summit will improve relations between Seoul and Tokyo, which are clouded by the legacy of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula and Seoul’s concerns that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to rewrite Japan’s wartime past with a less apologetic tone.

"…In what appeared to be a show of defiance, North Korea fired two medium-range Rodong ballistic missiles into the sea at 2:35 a.m. Japan and Korea time, both Tokyo and Seoul said. That was precisely when Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye were sitting down with Obama in The Hague for their first meeting since Abe took office in December 2012." Read the rest here.

Snowden dances in the end zone. FP’s Shane Harris: "Score one for Edward Snowden — and for the NSA. On Monday, the Obama administration began unveiling its plan to end the spy agency’s collection of millions of Americans’ phone records. That will effectively close out the most controversial NSA spying program that Snowden had exposed, and the former contractor wasted little time claiming credit.

Snowden, in a statement issued through the ACLU: "I believed that if the NSA’s unconstitutional mass surveillance of Americans was known, it would not survive the scrutiny of the courts, the Congress, and the people…This is a turning point, and it marks the beginning of a new effort to reclaim our rights from the NSA and restore the public’s seat at the table of government."

Harris: "Had Snowden not disclosed the program’s existence, it would almost certainly be going strong today. The plan to end the collection of telephone metadata "is yet further vindication for Edward Snowden in particular, and for transparency more generally," David Cole, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, wrote on the blog Just Security. ‘The only reason the president is proposing this change is because, once the program became public, it was unsustainable in its current form.’ More here.

Back to the future: U.S. holds submarine exercises in the Arctic Ocean in a show of force amid tensions with Russia over Ukraine. The WSJ’s Julian Barnes: "Five hundred feet below the Arctic ice cap, the USS New Mexico’s crew filled two torpedo tubes. "Match sonar bearings and shoot," ordered the skipper, Cmdr. Todd Moore. The air pressure rose sharply as a simulated torpedo headed toward its simulated target: a Russian Akula-class submarine.

"The Arctic exercise, one of two over this past weekend, was intended as a show of U.S. force for the benefit of America’s allies, defense officials said. The drills were arranged before Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea province, these people said, but have taken on new geopolitical significance as tensions soar between East and West. The simulated attack came amid a new era of increasingly cold U.S. relations with Moscow. U.S.-Russian cooperation in the Arctic came to a sudden halt after the U.S. recently canceled a joint naval exercise in the northern waters and a bilateral meeting on Coast Guard Arctic operations. The U.S. also put on hold work on an Arctic submarine rescue ship."

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert, to Barnes: "If our allies and friends are reassured, that is a deterrent… It is about being able to get to any area of the world and people understanding that we can." Read the story here.

Read In the Loop’s Al Kamen’s take on the Navy’s trip to the Arctic, which included Sen. Angus King, Rep. Steve Pearce, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall, here.

Harry Reid drops IMF reform from Ukraine bill. FP’s John Harris: "In the face of staunch Republican opposition in the House of Representatives, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid dropped a provision to reform the International Monetary Fund as part of an urgent rescue package to Ukraine’s cash-strapped government. Dropping the contentious IMF language clears the way for swift passage of legislation giving Kiev $1 billion in loan guarantees and hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance for election monitoring, civil society and security. Beyond the money itself, lawmakers believe the aid influx would provide a morale boost of sorts for Ukraine’s beleaguered new leaders in the wake of Russia’s conquest and annexation of Crimea." More here.

Move it or Lose it: If Putin wants to make another move, he needs to do it soon, argues Pavel Felgenhauer on FP. Read that here.

Hagel just hired a new ethics officer to work directly for him. It seemed to take several weeks to find just the right one, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced by e-mail yesterday that he had tapped Rear Adm. Margaret "Peg" Klein to serve as his "senior advisor for Military Professionalism." Klein will not be assigned to the Joint Staff, but report directly to Hagel on all issues relating to military ethics, character, and leadership.

Hagel: "I appreciate Rear Admiral Klein’s willingness to take on this new assignment. She brings to the position a wealth of operational and leadership experience, including command responsibilities at various levels throughout the Navy community. Having served as the 82nd Commandant of Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, she knows that ethics and character are absolute values that must be constantly reinforced.

"Rear Admiral Klein will coordinate the actions of the Joint Staff, the Combatant Commands, and each of the military services – working directly with the Service Secretaries and the Service Chiefs – on DoD’s focus on ethics, character, and competence in all activities at every level of command with an uncompromising culture of accountability. This will continue to be a top priority for DoD’s senior leadership," Hagel’s statement said. The Defense Department has been rocked by a combination of ethical scandals involving senior officers as well as lower-ranking service members. At the same time, Hagel is grappling with how best to address sexual assault across the military – a reminder of which came in the last week with the poster boy for the sexual assault problem in the military, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, getting a plea deal with no jail time, an outcome that is raising the likelihood that Congress will act to blunt the military’s own authority on sexual assault cases.

Actually, (Senate hopeful) Shane Osborn did "exactly the right thing" as commander of the EP3 plane in 2001, writes a retired Navy admiral in Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star, here.

The U.K.’s Hammond is in town this week and meeting with Hagel. The United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond will speak at the Heritage Foundation today at 1:30. While he’s in town, he will meet with Hagel and with senior members from the House and Senate Armed Services Committees before travelling Thursday to Kings Bay and Jacksonville, according to the British embassy here in D.C. From an embassy statement previewing the Heritage speech today: " He will also reflect on British defence reforms that have already been enacted and how these policies are complementary to those of the U.S. – a strong and like-minded partner.  As the United States re-balances to focus on the Asia-Pacific region, Secretary Hammond will examine the need for Europe to realize its responsibilities in its own backyard – including the crisis in the Ukraine – and how these and future events do, and will, require deeper and closer collaboration between close allies."

Hammond and Hagel will brief reporters at the Pentagon today at 11:30 a.m.

More objects spotted in search of Flight 370, in the NYT, here.

Going all in: If you’re one of the people who think CNN went a little heavy on Flight 370 coverage (maybe just a little?) click here for FP’s cartoonist Matt Bors’ take, CNN In the Age of MH370: how to report on nothing, with graphics.

U.S. Special Ops planning for action in the globe’s ‘dark areas.’ Time’s Mark Thompson: "The U.S. military is always busy planning for war pretty much everywhere, but some places are tougher nuts to crack than others. That’s why the U.S. Special Operations Command is seeking ‘Geospatial Data on Countries of Interest for Which There is a Critical Need But Non-Existent Data.’ Just who might those countries be? According to a USSCOM announcement posted Monday, the ‘initial dataset’ consists of ‘Jordan, Djibouti, Burma, Honduras, Iran, Morocco, Nigeria, Trinidad & Tobago, Burkina Faso, S. Sudan, N. Korea, and China (Guangdong).’"

Attacks by the Taliban are raising security concerns ahead of next month’s election in Afghanistan. The NYT’s Azem Ahmed: With security concerns already mounting before the Afghan presidential vote next week, a Taliban assault team on Tuesday turned election offices in eastern Kabul into a scene of carnage, in a new and brutal statement of the group’s intent to derail the voting. Bombers’ body parts and victims’ blood covered the street and courtyard where five Taliban militants blasted their way into the regional offices of the Independent Election Commission and waged a four-hour battle with Afghan security forces. Afterward, five victims lay dead and the Afghan capital had again been proved vulnerable.

"The front of the elections building was a bombed-out shell, with bullets pockmarking the facade and the doors and windows blown off their hinges. Election workers who survived described hiding in empty rooms and the building’s basement as gunfire and explosions rocked the compound, which is just a stone’s throw from the home of a leading presidential candidate." Read the rest here.

Let’s not be so quick to assume the Taliban will win post 2014 argues the AAN’s Borhan Osman. Despite the doomsday scenarios, there’s less evidence to suggest a Taliban win argues the Afghanistan Analyst’s Network Osman: "Obviously, the withdrawal of foreign forces are already leading to major changes in the war, but are the Taleban really strong enough to pose an existential threat to the Afghan state or force the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to crumble? As AAN recently wrote, with more casualties among members of the ANSF, Afghan civilians and, it seems, the Taleban, (1) the statistics certainly mark out 2013 as a particularly violent year. However, although body counts tell us much about the nature of the conflict (it is now overwhelmingly Afghan versus Afghan), they do not, necessarily, say much about how strong the insurgency is." Read the rest here.

Duncan Hunter: take a look at all the Marines who jumped on grenades. The Marine Corps Times’ Hope Hodge Seck: "In light of the news that Marine veteran Kyle Carpenter will receive the Medal of Honor for shielding his friend from a live grenade in Afghanistan, a California congressman is petitioning Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to take a closer look at the awards for two Marines who reportedly committed similar acts of heroism. Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter sent a letter to Hagel Tuesday asking that he reconsider the awards for Marine Sgt. Maj. Bradley Kasal and the late Sgt. Rafael Peralta, both of whom received the Navy Cross for maneuvering to absorb the brunt of a grenade blast to shield a comrade. Hunter has waged an aggressive multiyear campaign seeking a medal upgrade for Peralta, whose family resides in his district. In February, Hagel became the third defense secretary to decline to seek the higher award in Peralta’s case, citing a lack of conclusive evidence of the action to meet the medal’s ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard." More here.