Situation Report

FP’s Situation Report: Groundwork begins for Syria airstrikes; Are Libyan airstrikes really a surprise?; The Forgotten wars of the Obama administration; The loaded meaning of a Ferrari in Beijing; 1997 calling; and a bit more.

FP’s Situation Report: Groundwork begins for Syria airstrikes; Are Libyan airstrikes really a surprise?; The Forgotten wars of the Obama administration; The loaded meaning of a Ferrari in Beijing; 1997 calling; and a bit more.


After a civil war that’s lasted three years and has contributed to the rise of Sunni militants known as the Islamic State, the White House is laying the groundwork for airstrikes in Syria. Driven by the graphic images of beheaded American journalist Jim Foley, the White House has decided it can ignore no more the militants operating with relative immunity inside Syria who have "metastasized" into Iraq. But with little intelligence from Syria, the U.S. will begin soon flying drones over that country to assess targets. When and if the airstrikes do come, the Pentagon will have the "target packages" it needs to conduct them. It’s a big step for an administration which has been loath to commit to combatting the Islamic State, but it could still take weeks before it has the intelligence it needs to begin a mission there.

The WSJ’s Adam Entous, Julian Barnes and Dion Nissenbaum:  "…The decision amounts to an acknowledgment that U.S. intelligence-collection efforts must be expanded to provide a better picture of the threat posed by the group calling itself the Islamic State, which holds large swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory. It is also one of the first tangible signs that the Obama administration may be preparing for military operations in Syria against the group, which is also known as ISIS.

"The U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees American operations in the region, requested more surveillance aircraft, including drones, to gather more intelligence on potential Islamic State targets, and officials said they could start flying missions over eastern Syria shortly.

A senior U.S. official, to the WSJ: "The Pentagon is preparing to conduct reconnaissance flights over Syria… There is no decision yet to do strikes, but in order to help make that decision, you want to get as much situational awareness as possible." Read the rest of that story here.

Syria’s Assad, of course, won’t like it. The NYT’s Ben Hubbard in Baghdad: " Syria’s foreign minister said Monday that his government was ready to cooperate with international efforts to fight the extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But in a nod to the possibility of expanded American airstrikes, he warned that any action inside Syria without the government’s approval would be considered ‘aggression.’" More here.

More on the British rapper who reportedly beheaded James Foley by FP’s Elias Groll, here.

More on Iraq and Syria, including FP’s Aaron David Miller on why airstrikes in Syria won’t solve the problem, below.

Meantime, as violence in Libya becomes more concerning, U.S. officials say that Egypt and the U.A.E. have secretly carried out airstrikes in Libya. American officials acknowledged yesterday that the two countries were quietly conducting an airstike campaign in Libya and that the mission had taken the U.S. by surprise. The NYT’s David Kirkpatrick and Eric Schmitt: "…The United States, the officials said, was caught by surprise: Egypt and the Emirates, both close allies and military partners, acted without informing Washington or seeking its consent, leaving the Obama administration on the sidelines. Egyptian officials explicitly denied the operation to American diplomats, the officials said.

One American official: "We don’t see this as constructive at all." More here.

But Jim Stavridis, the former NATO commander who oversaw the Libyan airstrike campaign in 2011 said to SitRep this morning: "This is a good development from a US perspective."

And of course the U.S. knew about airstrikes on Libya. FP’s Harris, Hudson and Lubold: "Two airstrikes in the past week on Islamist militias fighting for control of Tripoli, Libya, are raising questions about who was behind the attacks and whether the United States knew about or condoned them. On Saturday, Aug. 23, Agence France-Presse reported that Islamist militants in Libya pointed the finger at Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Egyptian military quickly denied any involvement. On Monday, the New York Times reported that American officials confirmed that the Egyptians and Emiratis had launched the strikes, but said they’d caught the United States by surprise.

"That claim seemed incredible, though, in light of the presence in the region of the U.S. military, which would have certainly detected a series of airstrikes. ‘With as many Aegis-class ships as the U.S. Navy has in the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean, there is no possible way the UAE could pull this off without the U.S. knowing it,’ said Christopher Harmer, a former Navy officer and an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. Harmer said that he had no information about U.S. involvement, ‘but the U.S. government knows who bombed what,’ he said." More here.

And there’s another hotspot this morning – in Ukraine. The WaPo’s Annie Gowen and Karoun Demirjian with a developing story: "Ukraine said Tuesday its forces detained a group of Russian paratroopers who crossed the border into eastern Ukraine, and the U.S. ambassador to Kiev warned of a possible "Russian-directed counteroffensive" by pro-Moscow separatists, raising tensions between the two countries ahead of a planned meeting between their presidents at a regional summit.

"In a briefing Tuesday, Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said the Ukrainian army detained 10 Russian paratroopers in the Donetsk region, scene of some of the heaviest fighting with separatist rebels in the east. The spokesman said the Russians were detained with their documents and weapons and had provided statements." More here.

Meantime, John Allen is quietly putting the band back together for peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. There may now be room for the two sides to come together as unbelievable as that may seem. John Allen arrived for a surprise visit late Monday. Times of Israel: "As fighting between Israel and Gaza persisted for a 50th day Tuesday, retired US general John Allen was set to meet with Israeli officials Tuesday to discuss the possible renewal of peace talks with the Palestinians once the Gaza operation ends… He was previously involved in drawing up a US plan for security arrangements in the Jordan Valley reportedly rejected by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority." More here.

Reuters this hour: Israeli airstrikes target high-rises in Gaza, here.

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Forgotten wars: Military missions begin, then move to the background, as new crises break. FP’s Kate Brannen puts the missing Nigerian schoolgirls, the hunt for Joseph Kony, destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, NATO air policing and Afghanistan back under the spotlight: "In this crisis-heavy summer, once high-priority missions are quickly falling off the public’s — and sometimes the national security establishment’s — radar. Even the biggest of U.S. military missions –Afghanistan, where roughly 29,000 U.S. troops are deployed — seems to be on Washington’s back burner compared with Ukraine and the threat of the Islamic State. But the commanders running these operations, as well as the personnel carrying them out, certainly haven’t forgotten." More here.

After a two-week vacation, POTUS is back in the White House, and dealing with crises like he never left. The AP’s Jim Kuhnhenn: "…For Obama, it’s the overseas trouble spots in Iraq and Syria and along Ukraine’s eastern border that present the president with his most immediate challenge – pushing U.S. allies beyond their comfort level to confront Russia and the Islamic State militants. " More here.

So far, a watchdog office inside the VA can’t substantiate claims that delays in care led to 40 veterans dying in Phoenix. The NYT’s Richard Oppel: "…The allegations of deaths created a national scandal that eventually led to the ouster of the previous secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki. Outrage over the manipulation of waiting list data in Phoenix and other veterans medical centers also led to passage by Congress of a $15 billion plan to improve access to medical providers. The director of the Phoenix hospital, Sharon Helman, has been placed on leave and the department has begun the process of firing her.

"A report by the department’s office of inspector general is expected to be released this week that will describe findings from its investigation into Phoenix. Officials from the inspector general’s office have declined to comment on what the report will say." Read the rest here.

Yesterday we used the word "bubba" in an item about James Swartout leaving one job at the Pentagon for another. Then we got a "mean-mail" from Col. Steve Warren, who runs media operations at the Pentagon, taking issue with our line: "Swartout, who served as the public affairs bubba for then Deputy Secretary…"

Warren, to SitRep: "Public affairs bubba? Who says that? 1997 called. They want their slang back." Point taken, kinda-sorta.

Situation Report correctsOur report yesterday on the Army’s Advanced Hypersonic Weapon test inadvertently added an "i" to James Acton’s name.  Sounds like a stage name! But our sincere apologies for the error.

Meantime, Defense News’ Aaron Mehta reported yesterday that the AHW test failed four seconds after taking off; read that here.

Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby will appear at the podium today at the Pentagon.

Today in Afghanistan, Gen. J.C. Campbell takes over for Gen. Joe Dunford in a change of command ceremony in Kabul. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey is there today for the ceremony. Dunford will return to Washington and relieve Gen. Jim Amos as commandant of the Marine Corps sometime in October.

The BLUF of the NYT editorial today on Afghanistan: "…The best available solution is for Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Ghani to cooperate fully with the ballot audit, accept the results (which were never going to be fraud-free, given the immaturity of the democratic system) and quickly form a functioning government that reflects the country’s diversity. If they manage to do that, there might be some hope that they could, in time, restore voter trust and put Afghanistan on the path to a real democracy." More here.

ICYMI (we did): Time for a woman in the Pentagon? (read: Michele Flournoy is tan, ready and rested). Rosa Brooks, writing in WSJ, here.

Pivoting: Meantime, the U.S. tries to reassure Japan and other allies about its commitment to Asia with a sub. Anna Fifield in Japan: " The whole idea of the U.S. Navy’s stealthy, fast-attack nuclear submarines is that they can go undetected, but when the USS Hawaii docked here, its commanders went out of their way to draw attention to the $2 billion vessel.

"Its patched-up black tower looming out of the harbor’s waters, the Virginia-class nuclear sub showed up to reassure the uneasy Japanese that American power is still on their side, and still a force to be reckoned with. ‘The Hawaii represents the best submarine in the world,’ said Rear Adm. Stuart Munsch, who is in charge of all American submarines between the International Date Line and the Red Sea. ‘We’re bringing our best out here to our most important region.’" More here.

For FP, Brookings’ Daniel Byman offers an endgame in Gaza: "…If Hamas cannot be fully defeated, and if isolating it politically and economically makes it more likely to lash out, then the Israeli goal should be to use deterrence as part of a broader strategy to transform Hamas. Because Hamas cares about governing Gaza as well as defeating Israel, it should be given a stark choice: If it ends its own violence and launches a full crackdown on other militant groups in Gaza, the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza will be eased." More here.

Are we blind to an "enduring reality of war" in Gaza? Michael Vlahos asks the question for War on the Rocks, here.

And don’t forget about Iran’s ballistic missile program. Behnam Ben Taleblu for War on the Rocks, here.

About that metaphor: Yesterday, we ran our own piece about the Chinese jet fighter that was dangerously intercepting an American "sub-hunter" plane near Hainan Island. In our attempt to explain the difference between a Chinese J-11 and an American P-8 Poseidon, we quoted a defense official who described the two planes as a "Ferrari and a school bus." Well… who knew that "Ferrari" is a loaded term in China? FP’s own David Wertime explains this fascinating thing after Chinese media reacted to the metaphor used in the FP story: "An Aug. 25 Chinese-langugae editorial on the website of People’s Daily, widely regarded as a Communist Party mouthpiece, imputes a dark motivation to the simile. The piece quotes someone named Wang Zhiming complaining that the turn of phrase "has an ulterior motive, is inappropriate," and contains "severe insinuations and misrepresentations." Wang, whose occupation or identity is not revealed in the article, complains that a school bus is intended to protect children, while Ferraris are strongly redolent of tuhao, a derogatory term for China’s nouveau riche. (Wang adds that the airman’s maneuver was "very normal" and that a safe distance remained between the two planes.)"

"It’s highly unlikely that the U.S. defense official had a firm enough grasp of the Chinese zeitgeist to intend the simile as an insult. But even accounting for the likelihood that state media was grasping for umbrage, it’s true that the word Ferrari is highly loaded in China, a country with a grim recent history of deadly crashes involving the expensive Italian cars." More here.

Speaking of that story about the Japanese fighter jet intercepting the American plane… In that story, we also quoted a defense official as having "quipped," something we deeply now regret.  Here is the line we used: "’He’ll either be fired, killed, or promoted,’ quipped one Pentagon official," referring to the Chinese commander responsible for a series of such intercepts. But yesterday, we were contacted by that defense official, who took issue with our use of the word "quip." We’ll indulge the official and agree that the defense official "retorted" instead.

Our original story, "Call Sign Rogue: Pentagon Says One Chinese Commander Responsible for Spate of Air Confrontations,’ here.

Reminds us of the time the WaPo issued a correction after a Navy official objected to use of the word "thickset" to describe him – he liked muscular. Read that one here.

More on Iraq and Syria:

ISIL brings Saudi Arabia and Iran closer. Gulf News’ Jumana Al Tamimi: "In the first direct talks between the two countries in some years, Iranian deputy foreign minister Hussain Amir Abdollahian is flying to Riyadh on Tuesday for talks on regional issues, including the war against the terrorist organisation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Iraq and Syria, political experts said. ‘I think it is a very important visit,’ said Khalid Al Maeena, a veteran Saudi commentator and editor-at-large of Saudi Gazette." More here.

The U.S. flew 1,500 air sorties in Iraq against Islamic State. Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio, here.

Five reasons why an expanded mission to strike James Foley’s killers in Syria won’t work – and why it’s going to happen anyway. The Wilson Center’s Aaron David Miller for FP: "…Presidents — like the rest of us — need their own internal explanations when making tough and risky decisions, particularly when they have avoided them in the past. And there’s simply no better or more credible way to convince yourself you’re doing the right thing than the argument you are protecting America. In that context, carrying out airstrikes or deploying limited special operators across what is a nonexistent border between Iraq and Syria should be no problem.

"Unfortunately, there is no short-term answer to the Islamic State in either Iraq or Syria. A few bombs — or a few hundred — might save innocent lives and kill a few jihadists, but it’s not going to do much beyond that. A long-term strategy of arming, training, equipping, marshaling allies, addressing Iraq’s political dysfunction, well … is long-term." More here.

Will the Gulf lose Qatar? Al-Awsat editor-in-chief Salman Aldossary, here.

For DER SPIEGEL, Christoph Reuter and Jacob Russell report on a Turkmen city in northern Iraq that has been under siege by the Islamic State, here.