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Situation Report: Iraq first, or Syria; moves at the Pentagon; top Yemen jihadist identified; bomb-blasting lasers for U.S. planes; and lots more

Situation Report: Iraq first, or Syria; moves at the Pentagon; top Yemen jihadist identified; bomb-blasting lasers for U.S. planes; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

New day, old tensions. For the first time in months, there’s some real tension building over where the U.S.-led coalition should focus bombing efforts in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. After a cluster of 16 airstrikes around the jihadist headquarters in Raqqa on July 4 aimed at wiping out some of the group’s resupply routes – and following days of airstrikes supporting Kurdish offensives in Syria’s northwest — Syria has again been thrown into the spotlight. But the dramatic Kurdish advances are making Washington’s Arab allies on the ground nervous, with Syrians and the Turkish government warning that the Kurds are engaging in a land grab.

Adding to the drama in the region is a report that the White House is crafting a new Middle East strategy for the final 18 months of President Barack Obama’s administration in a last-ditch effort to solidify U.S. relationships there before the next administration takes over in 2017.

The road. Iraq’s plan to eventually take back the city of Ramadi looks like it might just run through Fallujah. The Islamic State captured Ramadi back in May in an embarrassing loss for both Iraq and the United States. But before Iraq makes a run at Ramadi, they’re aiming to cut off the Islamic State’s proximity to Baghdad and move on Fallujah. So far the coalition’s approach to retaking the city is a familiar one to anyone who’s followed Iraq’s campaign against the jihadists: a siege waged by Shia militias and Iraqi military forces backed by U.S. airpower. At the moment, militia spokesmen claim to have the city surrounded.

Day tripper. President Obama took the trip across the Potomac River to the Pentagon on Monday to work though some of these issues with his leadership team, and emerged from the meetings to deliver a pretty standard wartime stump speech. While originally not slated to take questions, the commander in chief changed course at the last minute and took two, though he managed to punt them off pretty effectively. FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary decided that wasn’t enough, and dashed off a list of five more questions about the U.S. fight with the Islamic State that Obama should have been asked, but wasn’t.

Friends forever. The French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also stopped by the Pentagon on Monday for a meeting with Defense Secretary Ash Carter. After the meeting, Carter told reporters that the two countries are planning to up their game when it comes to intelligence sharing in their counterterror campaigns in the Middle East and Africa, but — shockingly — didn’t provide a lot of detail.

Carter did say that France’s aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle worked “seamlessly” with U.S. forces in the Arabian Gulf earlier this year, and that the U.S. military “will continue to support France” with aerial refueling and logistics in Paris’ counterterror efforts in north and west Africa. Carter even added a bit of levity to the joint press appearance when a tech glitch caused Le Drian’s translation headset to go down.

Welcome back to the Situation Report, where we’re deep into another day of looking at the broad swath of NatSec noteworthies floating around out there in cyber space. Please take a moment to get out of the summer heat and drop us notes, tips, or anything else of interest to paul.mcleary@foeignpolicy.com, or on Twitter: @paulmcleary.

The business of defense

Maker of the iconic Humvee, the South Bend, Indiana company AM General landed a $373 million contract on Monday to provide 2,082 Humvees to U.S. allies Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya, Lebanon, Ukraine, and Tunisia over the next year. The sale comes just as the U.S. Air Force claims to have wiped out over 300 American-made Humvees captured by the Islamic State in Iraq. And those vehicles are only a portion of the 2,300 Humvees that Iraqi forces allegedly lost when the Islamic State captured Mosul last year. The company is also deep in the mix to build the U.S. Army’s Humvee replacement, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, fighting it out with fellow defense bigwigs Lockheed Martin and Oshkosh for the contract to supply the Army with 55,000 of the armored vehicles with another 5,000 going to the Marines. The multi-billion dollar decision is expected later this summer.

Islamic State in Yemen

Buzzfeed has identified Islamic State’s top recruiter in Yemen as Abu Bilal al-Harbi, a Saudi national. Al-Harbi is making is making inroads against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), signing up defectors from the group and capturing some of its market share for new recruits in Yemen. The appeal of Islamic State, inflated by battlefield victories in Iraq and Syria and a more hardcore, bloodthirsty approach to war and governance, has earned it a foothold with jihadis from Afghanistan to Tunisia. But the devastation from a months-long Saudi air campaign against Houthi rebels in the country and the decimation of AQAP leadership by American drones has made al-Harbi’s job rallying jihadis to the black banner of the Islamic State a bit easier.

Airpower!

Two U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers flew 44 straight hours from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, to Australia, and back home again to conduct a training mission in coordination with the Aussie military. While a pretty epic journey, these big flights by the big Cold War-era planes are kind of what they were made for. In May, two other B-52s flew a 30-hour mission from the continental U.S. to the Centcom area of operations for another training sortie with the Jordanian military.

A member of the Iraqi Parliament has charged that the United States has been pushing Iraq to base its fleet of F-16 fighters in Jordan rather than in Iraq, due to security concerns. The Kurdish Rudaw media network reports on comments made by Shiite politician Abed Issawi that Washington is again pushing back delivery of the first three fighter planes — out of 36 that Baghdad ordered in 2011 — to put pressure on Iraq’s Shiite-led government. Iraqi officials have said that the U.S. would begin delivery of the planes later this month, but there has been no indication of that from American officials. An Iraqi F-16 crashed in the Arizona desert just last month while conducting a training mission.

Making moves

There’s been more shuffling at the top of the Pentagon’s civilian ranks this week as Defense Secretary Ash Carter named his Chief of Staff Eric Fanning to be the acting undersecretary of the Army.

The position opened up after Brad Carson took over as the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, spearheading Carter’s Force of the Future initiative, which is looking at ways to retain the department’s civilian workforce. Fanning is seen as a rising star in the Defense Department, and has been moving around the Pentagon with some speed over the past several years. He took over as Air Force undersecretary in April 2013, and was deputy undersecretary of the Navy and the service’s deputy chief management officer from 2009 – 2013.

Replacing Fanning in Carter’s office is Eric Rosenbach, who was promoted to chief of staff on Monday. A former Army intel officer, Rosenbach comes from the office of the secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security.

In another move, long time Washington think tanker Abe Denmark has been named as the next deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, replacing David Helvey who left the Pentagon earlier this year for the National Defense University. For the past several weeks, the job had been filled on an interim basis by Cara Abercrombie, former adviser to Chuck Hagel. Denmark is coming to the building from National Bureau of Asian Research and the Center for a New American Security, where he focused on Asian security issues.

The Department of “Pew!”

The U.S. Army and Air Force have teamed up for a new approach to tackling the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs): lasers. Big ones. The Recovery of Airbase Denied by Ordnance or “RABDO” straps a 3 kilowatt laser to a Cougar MRAP in order to zap suspected IEDs at a comfortable remove of about 300 meters. The hope is for a safer, more reliable method of taking out the homebrew bombs that have taken a heavy toll on U.S. troops in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than the current approach of blasting the bombs with .50 calibre rounds. If all goes well, the two services will have 15 of the lasermobiles for a total price tag of $42 million by 2017.

India

Airbus, a European consortium of defense manufacturers, is about to form a joint venture with the defense subsidiary of India’s Mahindra Group to be the prime contractor for India’s military helicopters. The venture is aimed at improving India’s domestic production capacity. If the deal goes through, the venture would be set to make India’s reconnaissance and surveillance, naval utility and naval multirole helicopters.

Tunisia

Following the massacre of 38 people in Tunisia by an Islamic State-linked terrorist in late June, the Defense Department announced last week that it will be shipping four more UH-60/S-70 Black Hawk helicopters to Tunisia. Tunisia had already signed on for eight Black Hawks back in March but the additional four choppers bring the purchase to a total of $172 million. Tunisia is asking both for kits that would convert the aircraft into attack helicopters and the weapons to arm them, including Gatling guns, Hyrda rockets and Hellfire missiles.

Russia

A Russian Su-24 bomber crashed in the Khabarovsk region, killing two pilots and raising the tally of accidents in Russian military aviation to five over the past month. As Russia has grounded its Su-24’s pending an investigation. The previous accidents involved the crash of two MiG-29’s, and an Tu-95 bomber and Su-34 which skidded off runways.

Nuclear-capable Russian Tu-95 bombers also paid a visit to the waters off Alaska and California this July 4th, prompting the U.S. to scramble F-22 and F-15 fighter jets to intercept the planes. While the planes never entered into U.S. sovereign airspace, according to NORAD, the bombers’ bird flip did take place during President Vladimir Putin’s phone call with President Obama.

Reading List

Pulitzer Prize winner and FP contributor David Hoffman‘s The Billion Dollar Spy gets released Tuesday. The book tells the gripping story of how the CIA recruited and handled Soviet defense industry engineer Adolf Tolkachev. Hoffman gained detailed access to the records of the CIA’s work running Tolkachev and it makes for a fascinating window into how one man managed to steal an estimated billion dollars worth of defense technology secrets in the middle of the spy hunting grounds of Cold War-era Moscow.

Think tanked

The Wilson Center’s Jubin Goodarzi has just pubbed a timely paper, “Iran and Syria: The End of the Road?” With the regime of Bashar al-Assad regime having suffered a series of battlefield setbacks in recent weeks, getting rocked by Syrian opposition forces and the Islamic State, people are starting to ask, is his longtime Iranian ally beginning to tire of Damascus?