The Cable

Situation Report: Iraq makes some dubious new friends; Syrian rebels supply al Qaeda; Congress wants answers from the Pentagon; U.N. showdown; Afghanistan drags on; Cold War-style spy swap; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Everything’s coming up Russia. Just a day before Russian President Vladimir Putin was scheduled to address the United Nations — and hold a closed-door meeting with President Barack Obama in New York — Moscow again surprised Washington with its maneuvering in the Middle East. The Iraqi government announced Sunday ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Everything’s coming up Russia. Just a day before Russian President Vladimir Putin was scheduled to address the United Nations — and hold a closed-door meeting with President Barack Obama in New York — Moscow again surprised Washington with its maneuvering in the Middle East.

The Iraqi government announced Sunday that it had entered into an intelligence-sharing agreement with Russia, Iran, and Syria in the fight against the Islamic State, leaving U.S. officials scrambling just ahead of the kickoff of the U.N. General Assembly meeting. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and President Barack Obama are all scheduled to deliver speeches before the international body on Monday.

Only just beginning. The new intel sharing agreement comes on the heels of Russia having shipped dozens of fighter planes, attack helicopters, and troops to Syria, in a move that has knocked Washington back on its heels as its own efforts to fight the Islamic State have reached a stalemate. And American officials have hardly sounded confident trying to describe the new realities on the ground in the Middle East. One anonymous senior official who was part of the meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over the weekend in New York told the Wall Street Journal, “we’re just at the beginning of trying to understand what the Russians’ intentions are in Syria, in Iraq, and to try to see if there are mutually beneficial ways forward here.” FP’s Elias Groll has more.

Keep it like a secret. After the first group of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels sent back into northern Syria to fight the Islamic State were quickly killed, captured, or scattered in July, the Pentagon promised that the next group would fare better.

But now we learn that at least some of the new batch of U.S. trained and equipped fighters handed their weapons over to the Nusra Front — al-Qaeda’s trigger pullers in Syria — almost immediately upon crossing the border from Turkey into Syria. Reports of the handover were tweeted out early last week from fighters in Syria, but were quickly dismissed by the Pentagon and the U.S. Central Command. But that all changed Friday night, when the Defense Department did an about face admitting that, yes, a rebel commander from “moderate” Division 30 had in fact surrendered and handed over small arms, gun trucks, and ammunition to the al Qaeda-backed rebels. The U.S. investment in the training program has so far totaled at least $43 million.

Perfect from now on. And now Congress is getting involved. Sens. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Friday demanding some answers as to what exactly going on with the train and equip program. “We fully support an expeditious review of the current approach, and ask that you provide us a briefing on the results of the deliberation, including a description of changes that will be made,” the senators wrote. Congress appropriated $500 million for the program earlier this year.

Staying power. With all of the focus on the messy realities of great power politics in Iraq and Syria, what’s the latest with the longest war in U.S. history, which is still very much active? After the leak last week that Gen. John Campbell, head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, sent a variety of options to the White House for keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the 2016 withdrawal date, FP’s Dan De Luce reports that American involvement there appears to have no real end in sight.

Not quite a victory lap. With Obama set to address the opening of the United Nation’s General Assembly today, he’ll stand in front of the world community with a spotty record to burnish while attempting to chart a path forward. FP’s Colum Lynch writes that despite having restored U.S. relations with Cuba, survived a congressional challenge to his nuclear deal with Iran, and recharged international climate talks through a landmark deal with China, “the president has little cause for gloating.” Offsetting these achievements are a Middle East in flames, Libya continuing to spiral into chaos, and Russia and its proxies gobbling up pieces of Ukraine. This all leaves the international community more than a little uneasy.

Good morning, all. There’s lots happening out there and we’re trying to fit it all in here. But as always, your voices are welcome. Please pass along any tips, notes, or otherwise interesting bits of information that you may have at your disposal. Best way is to send them to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Catch last week’s new podcast episodes from The Editor’s Roundtable (The E.R.) and Global Thinkers, where The E.R. panel discussed the 2016 presidential candidates and how they all compare on foreign policy. Global Thinkers last week focused on Yemen and Saudi Arabia and how the West can actually help. Subscribe and listen on iTunes or Stitcher: http://atfp.co/1K7nhrI

Who’s where when

1:00 p.m. Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe and Commander of U.S. European Command, will head to the German Marshall Fund in Washington where he will talk about next year’s major NATO summit being held in Warsaw, Poland.

Department of Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson is visiting the Pentagon Monday to sit down with Defense Secretary Ash Carter in a closed-door meeting.

Syria

British Prime Minister David Cameron has changed his position on the need for Assad to step down from power. The Guardian reports that, ahead of his appearance before at United Nations general assembly meeting, Cameron is suggesting Assad could stay on as part of a transitional government — a position closer to proposals floated by Russia. Nonetheless, Cameron stated on Sunday that he believes the Syrian president should still be tried by an international court for war crimes, including the gassing of his own people with chemical weapons.

Israel fired artillery across the Syrian border in retaliation for rocket fire from the Syrian side on Sunday, according to Ynetnews. The shelling reportedly hit units from the Syrian Army’s 90th Brigade in Quneitra.

French warplanes have carried out airstrikes in Syria for the first time, marking an expansion of the country’s war on the Islamic State as a handful of terror plots have spooked the country into a more aggressive posture against the terror group. French President Francois Hollande announced that French warplanes hit a training camp in Deir al-Zor run by the Islamic State.

The Islamic State

We’ve reached a new frontier in crowdfunding, the practice of begging the Internet at large to fund your inventions and projects. Radio Free Europe reports that Mukaddim Tatarstani, a jihadist who goes by the name Abu Rofik and fights with an Uzbek unit of al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front in Syria, is now trying to crowdfund his comrades’ weaponry and equipment purchases on Facebook and VKontakte, a Russian social media platform.

Afghanistan

The New York Times goes inside the troubled effort to build up the Afghan air force and improve its ability to take on the Taliban from the sky. Disagreements between the U.S. and Afghanistan have hindered the effort, with Afghans hoping for more advanced, expensive equipment and the U.S. providing simpler aircraft aircraft which it views as more sustainable for Afghanistan’s defense needs.

The Taliban has been feuding with Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan for months, jockeying for recruits and territory in a handful of battles. But Voice of America reports that the Islamic State launched its first major assault on Afghan troops this past weekend in Nangarhar province, along the border with Pakistan, claiming the lives of three Afghan police in the attack.

China

IHS Jane’s takes a look at some new satellite imagery that suggests China may be working on building its first homemade aircraft carrier. Analysts can’t say for certain yet whether the hull, seen in the imagery at the Dalian shipyard, is necessarily the beginning of an aircraft carrier. Nonetheless, Jane’s notes that work on the nascent ship is currently taking place in the dry docks used to perform work on the Liaoning, the former Soviet aircraft carrier China purchased from Ukraine.

Spy swap

It’s a scene right out of a LeCarre novel. Two men walk across a bridge straddling the border between countries, offer a tense handshake and exchange their prisoners — captured spies. It’s also what happened over the weekend at Estonia’s border with Russia (video here). Depending on who’s telling the story, Russian intelligence either dragged Eston Kohver, an Estonian intelligence officer, across the border into Russia in a premeditated kidnapping, or arrested an him as an Estonian spy operating illegally on Russian soil. Estonia swapped Kohver for Aleksei Dressen, a former Estonian security official whom the government there accuses of working as a spy for Russian intelligence.

Air Force

The U.S. Air Force wants to start rolling out new weapons faster to keep up with the military modernization of America’s Russian and Chinese adversaries, according to Defense News. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James is calling the new hurry up acquisition initiative, “should schedule.” Air Force officials saying they’ve made an effort to reach out to the private sector earlier and define requirements better, citing the designs for the Long Range Strike Bomber, which many say are more mature than expected at this stage in the acquisition process as an example of the new approach’s success.

Navy

It seems like the Navy will end a bizarre two year long limbo in which the service’s intelligence chief has been unable to access classified information, Navy Times reports. Vice Adm. Ted Branch, the Navy’s director of naval intelligence, has been unable to read much intelligence because he lacked a security clearance due to an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department into his possible involvement with Glenn Defense Marine Asia, a Singapore contractor accused of bribing a number of senior Navy officers. The logjam appears to be at an end now as the Navy has nominated Rear Adm. Elizabeth Train, a career intelligence officer to take Branch’s position as intel chief,

 

Correction, Sept. 28, 2015: A post Thursday about two security firms finding new evidence of Chinese hacking was worded imprecisely. The initial phrasing said “the two have managed to break into sensitive computer networks,” which implied the companies themselves had penetrated third-party networks. The firms — ThreatConnect and Defense Group Inc. — had in actuality investigated the hacks, not been responsible for them.

 

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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