The Cable

Situation Report: Syrian rebel training put on ice; top defense official calls it quits; Kunduz under attack; Russia readying airstrikes in Syria; Ukraine wants attention; Kony search breeds suspect friends; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Hold up. The U.S. has put the brakes on the troubled $500 million Syrian train and equip program, halting the intake of new fighters “as we re-evaluate our efforts,” a U.S. Army spokesman told FP. The change comes after a group of U.S.-trained Syrians handed over their brand-new American-issued ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Hold up. The U.S. has put the brakes on the troubled $500 million Syrian train and equip program, halting the intake of new fighters “as we re-evaluate our efforts,” a U.S. Army spokesman told FP. The change comes after a group of U.S.-trained Syrians handed over their brand-new American-issued trucks, weapons and ammunition to the al-Qaeda affiliate al Nusra Front last week, almost immediately after crossing the border back into Syria. The program has already burned through over $40 million to produce about 120 fighters, at least 50 of which have already been killed, captured, or fled since late July.

The effort isn’t dead quite yet, however. U.S. officials insist that the only part of the program that has been suspended is the movement of previously vetted Syrians out of the country to U.S.-run training camps in Turkey. There are still dozens of fighters undergoing instruction by U.S. Special Forces, but there’s no word on when — or if — they’ll be sent into the fight. Ever the optimist, the Pentagon has requested $600 million for the program in the 2016 defense budget.

Here to help. U.S. warplanes bombarded Taliban positions near the Afghan city of Kunduz overnight, and U.S. Special Operations troops have rushed north to support the Afghan Army’s push to retake the city from the Taliban. The struggle for Kunduz is a critical test for the Afghan security forces as they try and wrest the city away from the militants, in what promises to be some of the first real urban combat that the Afghan army has seen.

Bye Bye Moscow. This could be a problem. Evelyn Farkas, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia says she’s leaving the Defense Department at the end of October. Her departure will leave a huge gap in the department’s policy making team, as her years of policymaking experience and deep ties to the region will be hard to replace as President Barack Obama continues to struggle with the persistent escalation of tensions with Russia over Ukraine, Syria, the Arctic, and Moscow’s cozying up to Baghdad. Word of Farkas’ resignation drops just days after word that Gen. John Allen — the White House’s point man for holding together the 60-nation coalition to fight the Islamic State — is also leaving his post.

Related: The New York Times reports Wednesday morning that Russia’s parliament has granted President Vladimir Putin’s request to use military force abroad, “in what officials said was another step toward Russian troops joining the fight in Syria.” Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, told the Federation Council that the approval “will be air support for the Syrian forces in their struggle with ISIS.” Meanwhile, major Arab powers have rejected the idea of working with Moscow in Syria.

Remember the Fulda Gap! Fulda was a legendary spot in West Germany where during the Cold War, U.S. forces stood ready to stop the Soviets as they pounded their way into Europe. And now amid tensions with Russia it looks like the gap is back, at least in spirit, though it has moved a little bit to the east according to Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of the 30,000 U.S. soldiers in Europe. Hodges told FP’s Paul McLeary about the “Suwalki Gap,” a narrow strip of Polish territory that sits in the seam between the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to the northwest and Moscow-friendly nation of Belarus to the southeast, which has become the latest potential flashpoint between an increasingly aggressive Moscow and NATO.

Kaliningrad has long bristled with thousands of Russian troops and advanced weapons, while Belarus recently agreed to house a large Russian air base, making the Suwalki area a small vulnerable land bridge increasingly squeezed by Russian hardware. Hodges acknowledges, “that’s an important piece of geography right there.”

Prove it. That’s what the international community told Vladimir Putin this week at the U.N., with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius straight-up challenging Moscow to show that it’s serious about fighting the Islamic State, FP’s Colum Lynch, Siobhán O’Grady report. “The international coalition is striking Daesh, France is striking Daesh, Mr. Bashar al-Assad only a little bit, and for the moment, the Russians not at all,” Fabius told reporters at a news conference at the U.N. General Assembly session. “You have to look at who does what.”

Don’t forget us! Amid the geopolitical drama surrounding Russia and Syria, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told the U.N. on Tuesday that Moscow is financing “terrorists” in his country. He also accused Russia of trying to rebuild its former empire along its borders, writes FP’s Reid Standish.

Good morning! While it might seem like it’s all Putin, all the time in these parts, but it’s a big world out there. So 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.

Head on over to iTunes and catch the new Global Thinkers podcast, released today. In this week’s episode, Host and FP’s Executive Editor for Print Mindy Kay Bricker is joined by FP’s Keith Johnson, climate scientist and 2013 Global Thinker Katharine Hayhoe and environmentalist Bill McKibben. They talk the future of climate change, how the religious community views it, and what we can expect. Listen and subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher: http://atfp.co/1K7nhrI

Cybersecurity

The Department of Homeland Security handed out a big, fat one billion dollar contract to Raytheon in order to run its Network Security Deployment division and its National Cybersecurity Protection System to provide security for the federal government’s networks.

The Internet of Things (IoT), the universe of networked devices one normally wouldn’t expect to be connected to the Internet, is growing, and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) would like to figure out how to secure it. The challenge for DARPA researchers is that it’s often tricky to run security monitoring software on IoT devices due to their limited computational resources. The new program seeks to secure IoT-connected systems by using separate devices to monitor their involuntary analog emissions, develop a profile of what their normal, usual operating behavior looks like and provide alerts for any deviations which could signal a compromise.

Syria

The Fullback takes the field. Open source weapons sleuth Oryx Blog has caught sight of Russian Su-34 (NATO name: Fullback) at the Bassel al-Assad air base in Latakia, and the Pentagon has since confirmed its arrival. The Su-34 is a relatively new aircraft and it rounds out a deployment of aircraft that leads Oryx Blog to conclude that “the regime’s aerial capabilities have entered another league entirely.”

While some western leaders appear to be softening their opposition to a Russian role in the coalition against the Islamic State and backpedaling on demands that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must step down, Saudi Arabia, which supports a number of rebel groups in Syria, is having none of it. On Tuesday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir called a Russian role in the fight against the Islamic State a “non-starter” and said flatly, “there is no future for Assad in Syria.” Al-Jubeir also hinted that the Saudis might increase their support for the rebels. Saying that Syrian rebels receive support “from a number of countries,” al-Jubeir said he expects that this support “will continue and intensify.”

Africa

The 100 or so U.S. Special Forces soldiers deployed across four countries in central Africa hunting down elusive rebel leader Joseph Kony are making some suspect friends, the Washington Post reports. “Working from a new bush camp in the Central African Republic, U.S. forces have begun working closely with Muslim rebels — known as Seleka — who toppled the central government two years ago and triggered a still-raging sectarian war with a campaign of mass rapes and executions.” Sound bad? Well, not all of the American involved are happy about the situation. The Seleka rebels “are playing us,” one military official told the Post.

Canada

CBC News reports that Canada’s Defense Ministry has contemplated the creation of a joint U.S.-Canadian unit of special operations troops, dubbed the Canada-U.S. Integrated Forces. The unit would have a unified command and would be tasked with responding to contingencies abroad.

China

The U.S. and China recently issued some warm-sounding if unenforceable pledges on strengthening cybersecurity norms during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to meet with President Obama. Nonetheless, mutual suspicion still rules the day and the gap between U.S. and Chinese expectations for how countries should behave on the Internet remains wide.

The New York Times reports that Hao Yeli, a retired People’s Liberation Army general who used to be in charge of an electronic warfare unit, lashed out at the United States on Tuesday for scolding countries like China for its control of the Internet while maintain a massive digital surveillance apparatus.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said bluntly that he doesn’t expect the recent U.S.-China agreement in which both countries pledged not to hack private companies will actually stop Chinese breaches of American corporate networks. Clapper added that the old Reagan arms control adage of “trust but verify” summed up his approach towards the agreement.

The Washington Post reports that the CIA has withdrawn personnel from the U.S. embassy in Beijing as a result of the breach into the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), reportedly carried out by hackers tied to the Chinese government. Intelligence officials told the Post that the move was a precautionary one and that anyone could identify American spies by comparing the hacked OPM data containing State Department security clearance files with a list of embassy employees and looking for names and looking for those who appear in the latter and not the former.

Kurds

It sounds like the 250 MRAPs that the U.S. government sold to Iraq for use by the Kurds in the north are arriving without much armor attached. Phil Hudicourt, a former Army Special Forces soldier called the vehicles an “RPG magnet,” adding, “I don’t know what level it was made, if it was made at a low level, high level, but it’s a pretty stupid decision. Because riding in those MRAPs with all the amount of RPG 29s in the country is committing suicide.”

 

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

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