Situation Report

FP’s Situation Report: The EU debates sanctions in Brussels; Social media is playing a major role in discovering who shot down Flight MH17; An Israeli soldier is missing; the Senate considers Robert McDonald for VA; and a bit more.

FP’s Situation Report: The EU debates sanctions in Brussels; Social media is playing a major role in discovering who shot down Flight MH17; An Israeli soldier is missing; the Senate considers Robert McDonald for VA; and a bit more.

There is some good news out of Ukraine this morning. Pro-Russian separatists have handed over the black boxes for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 and a train carrying 282 of the bodies is making its way out of the conflict zone so that the victims can be returned to their families. So some order is being brought to the chaos of the crash site and the human tragedy aspect of this story is beginning to be addressed. But, the geopolitical fallout is far from over as the United States and European powers decide how hard they want to come down on Russia for its suspected role in the downing of the plane.

Today, attention turns to Brussels, where Europe’s foreign ministers are meeting to decide whether to enforce tougher sanctions on Russia. The FT’s Peter Spiegel, Kiran Stacey and Stefan Wagstyl with the latest on the sanctions debate: "Despite growing momentum behind broad EU economic sanctions, which could initially target the Russian military by barring European exports of weapons parts, EU diplomats said some states still resisted the tougher approach, and there were concerns the debate could split the EU."

France is on the fence, and they’re not alone.  The country’s "concerned about its €1.2bn contract to sell two Mistral-class helicopter assault ships to Russia and has urged instead an expansion of ‘phase two’ sanctions, which target individuals and companies rather than entire economic sectors."

A French official to the FT: "UK sanctions on Russian business interests in London would be ‘much more important financially and economically’ against Moscow, citing Chelsea football club, owned by Roman Abramovich. ‘If Mr Cameron wants to sanction Russia, he would do better to sanction Chelsea and support Paris St Germain instead.’" More here.

Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council voted yesterday to establish an independent investigation into the MH17 shoot-down, setting off a U.S.-Russia squabble. FP’s Colum Lynch: "…Russia joined the Security Council’s 14 other members in adopting a resolution condemning the July 17 crash in eastern Ukraine and calling for ‘a full, thorough and independent international investigation’ of what brought down the plane."

U.S. ambassador to the UN Samantha Power to the Security Council yesterday: "We welcome Russia’s support for today’s resolution… But no resolution would have been necessary had Russia used its leverage with the separatists to provide unfettered access to the crash site in the crucial first days following the air tragedy." Meanwhile, "Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, offered condolences to the families of the dead but accused Barack Obama’s administration of using the tragedy to score propaganda points against Moscow." More here.

The bodies of the victims departed Ukraine on a refrigerated train last night. The NYT’s Sabrina Tavernise and Noah Sneider: "In the end, they were sent off alone, without ceremony, well-wishers or anyone much beyond a handful of armed rebels on the platform." The train is making its way to an airport in Kharkiv, from there, the bodies will be loaded on a transport plane and flown back to Amsterdam, where Flight MH17 originated. More on the journey here.

Social media and the Case Against Putin: The White House’s case for who shot down Flight MH17 relies on secret satellite photos and intercepted phone calls — but also evidence gathered on Twitter and YouTube. FP’s Shane Harris and Elias Groll: "…In laying out the administration’s indictment against Moscow, Obama and key members of his national security team have been pulling from a trove of classified intelligence. Among the most incriminating evidence against the separatists are images taken by U.S. spy satellites showing a plume of smoke rising from the separatist-held area where the missile was fired, officials said. The missile also was detected by the Defense Support Program, a constellation of Air Force reconnaissance satellites that sense the infrared signature of ballistic missile launches and nuclear explosions, Reuters reported.

"But officials are also building their case against Putin with a mounting pile of evidence posted on social media, including posts by separatist leaders, tweets about the location of missile launchers, and YouTube videos documenting potentially incriminating conversations between the men who may have shot down the jetliner. Washington’s willingness to use Twitter and the Russian equivalent of Facebook to bolster its case against Putin is a signal moment in the history of social media, which is now taking its place alongside classified intelligence as an important source of information for world leaders." More here.

Photographs reveal even more details on what took the plane down. The NYT’s C.J. Chivers: "…The wreckage, photographed by two reporters for The New York Times in a field several miles from where the largest concentration of the Boeing’s debris settled, suggests that the destruction of the aircraft was caused by a supersonic missile that apparently exploded near the jet as it flew 33,000 feet above the ground, according to an analysis of the photographs by IHS Jane’s, the defense consultancy.

"It is impossible from these photographs of the damaged plane to determine what specific model of missile was used. But the SA-11 is a member of a class of weapon that carries a fragmenting warhead with a proximity fuze. If a missile like that functioned as designed, it would cause damage like that evident in the debris of Flight 17." More here.

In the meantime, questions are being raised about who knew what when? For example, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) wants to know whether the U.S. intelligence community shared what it knew about the presence of SA-11 anti-aircraft missiles in eastern Ukraine with the Federal Aviation Administration. The WSJ’s Julian E. Barnes has more on the congressman’s letter to the White House here.

Quote of the day? Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird at a press conference in London: "The Kremlin may not have pulled the trigger but it certainly loaded the gun and put it in the murderers’ hands." The Globe and Mail’s Steven Chase has more here about Canada’s promise to step up sanctions against Russia.

Could the restart of Israel-Palestinian peace talks be a part of the ceasefire with Gaza? The AP’s story from Cairo: "…At the start of a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, [Egyptian] Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri said he planned to work with U.S. and other world leaders ‘to not only resolve this issue but also to set in motion once again the peace process that Secretary Kerry has been so actively involved in so as to end this ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis.’

"…Kerry is in Cairo trying to help broker a truce after two weeks of fighting that have killed more than 500 Palestinians and two dozen Israelis. Before Kerry began his meetings with top Egyptian and Arab League officials Tuesday, Israeli aircraft hit more than 70 targets in the Gaza Strip, including the home of the late leader of Hamas’ military wing, five mosques and a football stadium, according to a Gaza police official." More here.

But neither side is giving any indication that it’s ready to compromise. The WaPo’s William Booth, Sudarsan Raghavan and Ruth Eglash: "The Islamist militant organization Hamas said Monday that it would not agree to a cease-fire with Israel until its demands were met, as Israel warned that its incursion into the Gaza Strip could continue for days or even weeks. The stark assessments offered little hope for quick progress toward ending a 14-day-old conflict that has inflicted heavy costs on each side."

The NYT’s Jodi Rudoren on Israel’s difficult choice in Gaza: "If it stops now, it faces the prospect of a newly embittered enemy retaining the capacity to attack. But if it stays the course, it is liable to kill many more civilians and face international condemnation." More here.

An Israeli soldier is missing in Gaza, and its unknown if he dead or alive. If Hamas has him, it could be a game-changer. The Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Lappin: "An IDF soldier who was involved in a Hamas attack on Israeli soldiers on the Gaza border on Sunday is missing, the army said Tuesday. The IDF on Tuesday said that it had identified six of seven bodies of IDF soldiers killed in Sunday’s attack on an armored personnel carrier (APC) on the Gaza border. The announcement came after Hamas claimed to have kidnapped an Israeli soldier on Sunday, not clarifying if he was alive or dead." More here.

Retired IDF brigadier general Michael Herzog writes for FP that the current operation in Gaza is a fight born of necessity: "…So why did Israel go in after all? Because airstrikes were proving insufficient to pressure Hamas to agree and abide by a lasting ceasefire. Motivating Hamas to do so requires a significant degradation of its military capabilities — more than can be achieved from the air. Israel estimates that Palestinian armed factions have so far lost about half of their rockets, yet still possess several thousand more. No less deadly is the threat of Hamas’s tunnel network, dug from Gaza into Israeli territory with the aim of detonating explosives under Israeli towns or infiltrating to kidnap or kill citizens." More here.

An American-Israeli soldier’s funeral drew 20,000 people in Haifa last night. Ha’aretz’s Eetta Prince-Gibson, with the story.

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Who’s Where When today – Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, Army Secretary John McHugh, and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno deliver remarks at 10 a.m. at the Hall of Heroes Induction Ceremony for Medal of Honor recipient former Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts … And Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, participates in a media roundtable at the Pentagon at 12:30 p.m.

On the Hill: The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee holds its confirmation hearing for Robert McDonald to be VA secretary at 3 p.m. …McDonald, a former CEO at Procter & Gamble, was tapped by President Barack Obama in June to take over the VA during a time of deep crisis. Its previous secretary, retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, was asked to resign in May after it was revealed that all over the country VA centers were covering up the fact that veterans were being forced to wait months before getting in to see a doctor.

If confirmed, McDonald will have one of the most unenviable jobs in Washington, but he already has lots of supporters on Capitol Hill. And while he may face some tough questions tomorrow, his nomination will most likely be confirmed quickly, as everyone is in agreement that the VA needs new leadership and fast.

Also happening today on the Hill, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy Daniel Chiu; Assistant Administrator for the Bureau of Economic Growth, Education and Environment at USAID Eric Postel; and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Diplomacy at State Amos Hochstein testify before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on the "U.S. Security Implications of International Energy and Climate Policies and Issues" at 3 p.m.

Michael Breen, executive director of the Truman National Security Project & Center for National Policy, will be testifying as part of a second panel at the energy and climate hearing. Situation report got a sneak peek at his prepared remarks: "The lack of diversified energy sources around the world continues to create undue risk to American national security, the security of our key allies, and global stability and prosperity. In geopolitical terms, this lack of diversification creates vulnerabilities for the U.S. and our allies, and opportunities for many of our rivals and adversaries."

FP’s David Rothkopf interviews Zbigniew Brzezinski on today’s worldwide turmoil, Iran’s near-term nuclear threat, and why a return to global order may rest on the relationship between the United States and China. Brzezinski on today’s global instability: "I would even say that this is historically unprecedented, in the sense that simultaneously huge swaths of global territory are dominated by populist unrest, anger, and effective loss of state control. One of my feelings about the United States is not that we’re declining and are faced with imminent crisis of survival, but that we are losing control of our ability at the highest levels of dealing with challenges that, increasingly, many of us recognize are fundamental to our well-being. And yet we cannot muster the forces or generate the leadership to deal with them. So that makes us, the preeminent power, increasingly devoid of strategic will and a sense of direction." Full interview, here.

While the world is looking elsewhere, Libya is unraveling. Reuters’ Ayman al-Warfalli and Feras Bosalum in Benghazi: "Islamist militants attacked an army base in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Monday, triggering fierce clashes involving helicopters and jets that killed at least seven people and wounded 40 others after days of escalating violence. Benghazi’s clashes followed a week of fighting between rival militias for control of Tripoli International Airport in the capital that has prompted the North Africa country to appeal for international help to stop Libya becoming a failed state.Tripoli was calmer on Monday, but in Benghazi, militants linked to Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia attacked an army camp and were repelled by troops and forces loyal to renegade retired general Khalifa Haftar, who has been carrying out a self-declared war on Islamist fighters, security sources said." More here.

The same could be said of Iraq, where, "Using its own version of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power, the Islamic State is crushing resistance across northern Iraq so successfully that its promise to march on Baghdad may no longer be unrealistic bravado," report Reuters’ Maggie Fick and Isra’al Al-Rubei’i in Baghdad.

An example of the group’s hard power was seen in its capture of al-Alam, a town which managed to resist takeover for 13 days. The Islamic State "kidnapped 30 local families and rang up the town’s most influential citizens with a simple message about the hostages: ‘You know their destiny if you don’t let us take over the town.’

"Within hours, tribesmen and local leaders caved in to save the families. The black flag of the Sunni militants, who are bent on overthrowing the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government, was soon flying over government buildings and police stations in al-Alam. Weeks later, only a few masked gunmen guard checkpoints surrounding al-Alam at night, so comfortable is the Islamic State in its control through fear." More on this story here.

But some find hope in Iraq among Sunni Muslims who are pushing back against the Islamic extremists. McClatchy’s Hannah Allam and Mohammed al Dulaimy describe a celebration in the town of Haditha, where local tribesmen captured "a handful of militants belonging to the al Qaida splinter group known as the Islamic StateFor now, such scenes are an anomaly in the vast swaths of territory that are included in the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate. But the Haditha example and other nascent resistance campaigns in northern and western lands signal growing divisions among Sunnis over how much trust should be placed in a group whose harsh brand of Islamism represents only a minority of Iraq’s Sunnis." More here.

The Iraqi ambassador called for U.S. airstrikes at an Atlantic Council event in Washington yesterday. Defense News’ Paul McLeary: "The Iraqi ambassador to the United States explicitly called for ramped up American military involvement in his country on Monday, asking the United States to launch air strikes against positions being held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Sunni extremist group that has gained control over swaths of northern and western Iraq… The Iraqi ambassador made his plea at a time when his country is still waiting for the first shipment of American Apache attack helicopters and F-16 fighter planes, long promised by Washington but delayed by the massive bureaucracy that controls such foreign military sales." More here.

Syrian rebels press a bid to expel ISIS from the Damascus area. The Daily Star’s story from Damascus: "Syrian rebels have expelled ISIS militants from several parts of the suburbs of Damascus after sustaining losses of territory to the Al-Qaeda splinter group in the north and east of the country. ISIS, meanwhile, has started selling Syrian oil to Iraqi businessmen, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain based anti-regime group. Despite being besieged by government troops, Islamist rebels have managed to eject ISIS from four areas in the Damascus region in a drive launched three weeks ago, the Observatory and rebel sources said. ISIS was initially welcomed as a potential ally in the revolt, but the group’s fanaticism and treatment of civilian populations and all other insurgent groups sparked a sustained counteroffensive." More here.

Can Afghan troops fill the void left by their American mentors? The NYT’s Azem Ahmed: "Whether the Afghan forces can sustain themselves in the critical districts the Green Berets will be ceding to them is an urgent question all over the country. The answer will help define America’s legacy in Afghanistan, much as it has in Iraq, where the Iraqi forces have fallen apart in combat." More here from the Koh-e-Safi District.

What’s been the most dangerous country for journalists this year? It’s not Iraq or Syria, but Ukraine that’s been the most dangerous place for journos over the last six month, Reuters reports: "A total of seven reporters and their assistants were killed in the country, where pro-Russian separatists in eastern regions are fighting government forces, between Jan. 1 and June 30. That was one more than in Iraq and two more than in Syria and Pakistan, according to the London-based INSI’s biannual survey. Journalist deaths worldwide jumped from 40 in the first half of 2013 to 61 this year, the report showed."

Cutler tapped as the first female CHINFO. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced yesterday that he was nominating Navy Capt. Dawn Cutler for the rank of rear admiral. A friend of Situation Report tells us that she’s set to be the next chief of information for the Navy. Cutler, who is currently serving as deputy chief of information, will be the first woman to hold the job. Congrats!

Quick hits:

An Afghan guard on Tuesday carried out a suicide attack at a compound of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Kabul, killing four foreigners, reports the WSJ’s Margherita Stancati and Ehsanullah Amiri.

Army officials have withdrawn the Distributed Common Ground System from a major testing exercise this fall because of software glitches, reports AP’s Ken Dilanian.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is calling on the West to provide precision strike weapons to his country following the shoot-down of Flight MH17, reports Defense News’s Jaroslaw Adamowski.

Boko Haram has taken over a major town in Nigeria’s northeast, with local officials calling it "perhaps the Islamist militant sect’s most significant victory yet in a five-year campaign of violence and terror," reports The NYT’s Adam Nossiter.