Situation Report

FP’s Situation Report: An American journalist beheaded, the conflict comes home; U.S. efforts in Iraq widen; Articulating a U.S. strategy; Obama is firm on Afghanistan; The life of a Saudi prince; and a bit more.

FP’s Situation Report: An American journalist beheaded, the conflict comes home; U.S. efforts in Iraq widen; Articulating a U.S. strategy; Obama is firm on Afghanistan; The life of a Saudi prince; and a bit more.

The violence in Iraq took a grisly, dark turn yesterday after the Islamic State beheaded American journalist Jim Foley and threatened to kill another, bringing the conflict all the way home. The Islamic State is already responsible for carrying out horrendous acts upon Iraqis and others. But the news late yesterday that a video of a militant, speaking, perhaps more horrifyingly, in a British accent before beheading Foley, a freelance journalist missing from Syria for more than a year, made all the more real the threat the IS poses to the West. Naturally, it reminded many journalists and Americans of the beheading of WSJ reporter Danny Pearl, in Pakistan in 2002. But it suggested that there were worse things to come and punctuated gloomily the beginning of what may be a new chapter in Washington’s now long fight with unfathomable extremism overseas.

AP’s Lara Jakes: "…The White House must now weigh the risks of adopting an aggressive policy to destroy the Islamic State against resisting any action that could result in the death of another American. It will also confront the potentially necessary step of pursuing the Islamic State in Syria, where President Barack Obama has resisted launching airstrikes or deploying significant American firepower.

"Obama was expected to make a statement Wednesday about Foley’s killing. U.S. officials confirmed a grisly video released Tuesday showing Islamic State militants beheading Foley. Separately, Foley’s family confirmed his death in a statement posted on a Facebook page that was created to rally support for his release, saying they ‘have never been prouder of him.’

"The video released on websites Tuesday appears to show the increasing sophistication of the Islamic State group’s media unit and begins with scenes of Obama explaining his decision to order airstrikes. It then cuts to a balding man in an orange jumpsuit kneeling in the desert, next to a black-clad militant with a knife to his throat. Foley’s name appears in both English and Arabic graphics on screen. After the captive speaks, the masked man is shown apparently beginning to cut at his neck; the video fades to black before the beheading is completed.

"The next shot appears to show the captive lying dead on the ground, his head on his body. The video appears to have been shot in an arid area; there is no vegetation to be seen and the horizon is in the distance where the sand meets the gray-blue sky.

"At the end of the video, a militant shows a second man, who was identified as another American journalist, Steven Sotloff, and warns that he could be the next captive killed. Sotloff was kidnapped near the Syrian-Turkish border in August 2013; he had freelanced for Time, the National Interest and MediaLine [and Foreign Policy]." More here.

Foley’s mother, Diane, in a statement, honoring her son and begging militants to release other captives: "He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people… "Like Jim, they are innocents. They have no control over American government policy in Iraq, Syria or anywhere in the world."

"Foley, 40, from Rochester, New Hampshire, went missing in northern Syria in November 2012 while freelancing for Agence France-Presse and the Boston-based media company GlobalPost. The car he was riding in was stopped by four militants in a contested battle zone that both Sunni rebel fighters and government forces were trying to control. He had not been heard from since.

YouTube removed the video of Foley’s murder within an hour, but social media companies are unable to keep the footage from getting out. FP’s Shane Harris: "Twitter and YouTube moved quickly on Tuesday — but with decidedly mixed results — to suspend accounts that linked to a jihadi propaganda video purporting to show the murder of American journalist James Foley at the hands of Islamist terrorists. The crackdown provided a vivid example of the pressure on social media companies to police violent terrorist propaganda, but at the same time it showed the difficulty they have in stopping individuals intent on spreading violent images and rhetoric." More here.

Vox’s Max Fisher on Foley, whom he first knew when Foley was kidnapped in Libya, and a tape of Foley talking at Medill in 2011 about journalists embedding with the military and other things, here.

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After 70 airstrikes in Iraq, the Obama administration is fumbling as it tries to define where the mission begins and ends. FP’s Lubold and Brannen: "…As the mission wears on, the public articulation of what the United States is doing in Iraq seems to be more and more elusive — and evolving. The administration entered the conflict with an aggressive airstrike and airdrop campaign in northern Iraq based, it said, on the need to protect the U.S. personnel in the country and to prevent militants from slaughtering members of the Yazidi religious minority sect stranded atop Mount Sinjar.

"Then last week, U.S. officials announced that a reconnaissance team that had visited Sinjar discovered that the humanitarian crisis wasn’t as bad as first feared, thus removing one of the main justifications for the air campaign. In recent days, the United States has launched a barrage of airstrikes in and around Mosul that appear to be directly targeting the Islamic State, leading many to conclude that the mission is expanding beyond the administration’s stated goals and objectives.

Stephen Biddle, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University: "The administration can call it whatever they want, but semantics aside, they’re now waging war."

"…As the Pentagon’s operations continue in Iraq, there are other indications that the administration is reluctant to ‘brand’ its operations there. That’s true in the fact that the operation still has no name. From Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada in 1983, to Desert Storm in Iraq, the military almost always brands its operations, big or small. For a military that names almost any operation, the bombing campaign in Iraq that began Aug. 8 still lacks an operational name." More here.

Washington’s limited but still ill-defined campaign in Iraq has had some success – which is prompting a wider campaign. The WSJ’s Dion Nissenbaum and Matt Bradley: "The U.S. military’s recent success in weakening Islamic State extremists and pushing them away from a key dam in Iraq is creating momentum for a broader campaign that could take American air power to the militant group’s heartland northwest of Baghdad. "Military planners are considering new airstrikes to prevent militants with the Islamic State from taking control of another strategic site, the Haditha Dam, which lies in Iraq’s Sunni stronghold of Anbar Province, U.S. officials said Tuesday. Earlier this week, U.S. air power helped Kurdish forces reclaim the country’s largest dam, in Mosul, from the Sunni extremist group."

The Iraqi army advances towards rebel-held Tikrit. From Al Jazeera: "Iraqi forces have launched an operation to retake Tikrit, the hometown of toppled president Saddam Hussein, from Islamic State fighters. Al Jazeera sources reported that the troops were advancing from the south and southwest and heavy clashes with the armed group were taking place 10km from the city, the capital of Salaheddin province and about 200km north of Baghdad." More here.

Saudi grand mufti denounces the Islamic State. Reuters via the Daily Star: Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh, the highest religious authority in the country, said Tuesday that the militant groups Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda were ‘enemy number one of Islam’ and not in any way part of the faith. Although the mufti and other senior Saudi preachers have condemned ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other groups before, the timing of Sheikh’s statement is significant given the gains by militants in Iraq.

"’Extremist and militant ideas and terrorism which spread decay on Earth, destroying human civilization, are not in any way part of Islam, but are enemy number one of Islam, and Muslims are their first victims," he said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency." More here.

IS has become a common enemy among mutually distrustful players-just the kind of multilateralism that the President favors," The New Yorker’s George Packer, here.

What ISIS’s gains mean for terrorist groups in Southeast Asia. Jacob Zenn for War on the Rocks, here.

ICYMIA USA Today poll shows that Americans are "increasingly inclined to say the United States has a responsibility to respond to rising violence in Iraq." USA Today’s Susan Page, here.

Maliki’s political alliances fell like a house of cards - Iraq’s new PM must chart a different course.  Ali Mamouri for Al-Monitor, here.

Against the backdrop of Iraq, Obama plans to hold the line on drawing down in Afghanistan. The NYT’s Mark Landler: "…Mr. Obama told advisers this week that delaying the pullout of American troops from Afghanistan would make no difference there as long as the country did not overcome its political rifts. The president, a senior administration official said, was rejecting a growing chorus of arguments in Washington that the chaos in Iraq should prompt him to reconsider his timetable for withdrawing the last soldiers from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

An administration official: "People have said, ‘Doesn’t this show that you should never take the troops out of Afghanistan?’… He said, ‘No, it actually points to the imperative of having political accommodation. There’s a limit to what we can achieve absent a political process.’" More here.

The Afghan audit still has a ways to go. Afghanistan Analysts Network’s Martine van Bijlert: "Afghanistan’s drawn-out election continues to keep a very large number of people very busy. And although there has been progress – both on the political and the technical side – this has mainly been achieved by delaying or isolating key discussion points and contentious decisions.

"The audit has finally started speeding up, but only after a new, ‘special’ audit of the most problematic ballot boxes was set up, which has so far been excruciatingly slow. The political teams, in the meantime, have managed to agree on ‘80 percent of all outstanding issues,’ with the remaining 20 percent revolving around the actual structure of the agreed national unity government – a subject the two candidates and their teams continue to have diverging views on." More here.

The Afghan attorney general brought in the NYT’s Matthew Rosenberg for questioning yesterday and now he’s not allowed to leave the country.  The NYT’s Rob Nordland in Kabul: "The Afghan attorney general’s office called in a New York Times correspondent for questioning Tuesday, and later barred him from leaving the country, after The Times published an article about discussions among some officials of imposing an interim government.

"The correspondent, Matthew Rosenberg, 40, a three-year veteran of The Times’s Kabul bureau, was summoned to the attorney general’s office for what was billed as an ‘informal chat’ on Tuesday about an article published in that day’s newspaper. The article said that powerful figures in the Afghan government were discussing the formation of a temporary governing committee as a way to break the deadlock that followed national elections." More here.

Who’s Where When – Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work departs Guam en route South Korea.  He meets with U.S. Amb. Kim and USFK leadership, National Security Advisor Kwan Jin Kim and Minister of National Defense Min Koo Han… Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos attends USMC Night at Nationals Park…

Is sequester back after a summer hiatus? Marcus Weisgerber in Huntsville, Ala.: "For the past three years, US military officials have frequently voiced opposition to defense budget caps that went into effect in 2013. But for the past eight months, US defense officials have spoken less about sequestration and more about immediate plans for this year and next. After all, Congress agreed on a budget plan for 2014 and 2015 that boosted Defense Department spending by more than $30 billion above the levels mandated under the Budget Control Act.

"But now as crunch time begins inside the Pentagon as the services’ craft their 2016 budget plans, sequestration fears have returned. And at the annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium here last week, numerous officials used speeches to warn of the looming defense budget caps." More here.

A hearing is set for a Marine who is accused of desertion. The AP’s story from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina: "U.S. military officials have scheduled a hearing this week for a Marine accused of faking his own kidnapping in Iraq as well as failing to return to his base after visiting relatives in Utah. A statement from the military base Camp Lejeune on Tuesday said the hearing for Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun is scheduled for Thursday. A Marine Corps spokesman says the results of the hearing will determine what action will be taken. Hassoun disappeared twice from the military – first in June 2004 in a purported kidnapping by Islamic extremists, and in January 2005 when he failed to return to Camp Lejeune. Hassoun turned himself in to military authorities in June and is in custody pending an investigation and decisions on the charges against him." More here.

Ukrainian and Russian leaders will meet next week, leaving Kiev with tough choices. The WSJ’s James Marson and Anton Troianovski: "Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart will meet next week for the first time in two months, officials in both countries said, intensifying a diplomatic push that could force Kiev to choose between continuing its military campaign against pro-Russia separatists or making concessions to Moscow to stop the bloodshed. Calls for a cease-fire from both Russia and Europe are growing louder amid a deepening humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine.

"But Ukrainian politicians and voters are skeptical of agreeing to a truce now, since doing so could give the rebels the chance to consolidate control over some territory and give Russia long-term influence over their country." More here.

Call it a dark, cruel joke – Egypt has some advice for America on how to handle events in Ferguson. FP’s Elias Groll: "Egypt’s generals appear to have an awfully short memory. A year after they massacred supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in the streets of Cairo, they have some advice for American authorities on how to handle the spiraling unrest in Ferguson, Mo. In a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Egyptian government urges the United States to show ‘respect for the right of assembly and peaceful expression of opinion.’

"…A year ago, during the hot months of July and August, the military government in Egypt attempted to clear the streets of Cairo in a bloody crackdown. More than 1,000 people died during the ensuing crackdown, which came to embody the extreme, violent lengths to which the Egyptian military would go to hold on to power and keep the Muslim Brotherhood out of office." More here.

Talks in Cairo break down after Palestinian militants fire rockets into Israel. AP: "Palestinian militants launched dozens of rockets and Israel responded with airstrikes on Wednesday after Egyptian efforts to mediate a lasting truce in the monthlong Gaza war collapsed in a hail of fire a day earlier. One of the Israeli airstrikes appeared to have targeted the home of Mohammed Deif, the Islamic militant group’s elusive military chief, who has escaped numerous Israeli assassination attempts in the past. It was not immediately clear whether he was there at the time of the attack.

"The fighting resumed Tuesday when Gaza militants fired rockets at Israeli cities just hours before a temporary cease-fire was set to expire, prompting Israel to withdraw its delegation from Cairo and launch retaliatory airstrikes. Since then at least 16 Palestinians have been killed and 68 wounded, Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra said." More here. 

A Hamas military commander’s family is killed in an Israeli strike. The WSJ: "The wife and child of Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif were killed in an Israeli airstrike, the Islamist group said Wednesday, after the collapse of a week-long cease-fire sparked a sharp escalation in Gaza attacks. The military wing of Hamas confirmed the deaths of Mr. Deif’s family members, but didn’t say whether the long-time military chief himself was alive or dead. An Israeli military spokesman declined to comment on reports of the attack. Mr. Deif has been left severely handicapped from several Israeli assassination attempts."

David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel, writes on why Hamas isn’t easily deterred: "…[Netanyahu’s] problem – and Israel’s – is that Hamas is still far too strong, and that Hamas will always be far too cynical, to be deterred by Israel’s ongoing response to the attacks from Gaza, the counter-strikes that follow its rocket fire. Hamas lost dozens of its tunnels, and perhaps 1,000 of its gunmen, and pleaded for a ceasefire, apparently believing it could negotiate a diplomatic resolution more satisfactory than the military face-off had yielded.

"But most of its elite fighters are still alive. It still has thousands of rockets, and is capable of manufacturing more in mid-conflict. Its local political leadership is safe and sound in the Gaza underground. Its overseas leadership is in still better shape, cosseted in Qatari luxury. And it cares not a whit about the suffering that its violent Islamist extremism is bringing down upon Gazans (a very substantial proportion of whom voted for Hamas in the relatively democratic parliamentary elections of 2006). Thus Israel’s firm negotiating posture has sent Hamas back into conflict." More here.

There’s more backstory on that Saudi prince whose motorcade in Paris was attacked and a suitcase with $355,000 in it stolen, in the NYT today, here.