The Cable

Situation Report: Kurds lobbying Washington; lull in U.S. bombing Syria; could Russia cut undersea communications?; same old U.S. policy at U.N.; the Chinese are coming! (to Florida); and lots more on Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea, and cyber.

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Pay to play. LIke any other government, Kurdish officials in Washington are hardly strangers to the game of working their connections on Capitol Hill and on K Street to push their agenda. And as FP’s Bill Allison points out in an exclusive story, they’re ramping up spending to try ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Pay to play. LIke any other government, Kurdish officials in Washington are hardly strangers to the game of working their connections on Capitol Hill and on K Street to push their agenda. And as FP’s Bill Allison points out in an exclusive story, they’re ramping up spending to try and convince the White House that they need more help in fighting the Islamic State. The numbers aren’t necessarily gaudy, but do represent a renewed push to talk up Kurdish business and security interests.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has spent $291,000 on three firms this year, disclosures filed in 2015 show, and has signed a contract with a fourth that could be paid as much as $200,000 through the end of this year. “The money comes on top of the goodwill the group has built by maintaining close ties to many lawmakers, including those who attend events at the KRG’s ornate quasi-embassy in one of Washington’s toniest neighborhoods,” Allison writes.

Target list. For those of you keeping score at home, since Oct. 22, the U.S.-led coalition bombing Islamic State positions in Iraq has launched 73 airstrikes across the north of west of the country. During that same time, the coalition has only hit one site in Syria, which came back on Thursday, Oct. 22. A Centcom spokesperson told SitRep on Monday the reason is simply “a matter of timing.” The coalition puts “a lot of time and research into developing our targets to ensure maximum effect against Daesh,” so “every so often, there may be a period, such as this, where no targets were identified/confirmed.”

Asked if the sudden halt in strikes in Syria has anything to do with the memorandum of understanding signed last week between the United States and Russia that enshrines protocols for pilots to follow to make sure they don’t bump into each other, Centcom would only say “pilots are following the MOU.”

Deep blue. After months of warnings and admonitions over Russian involvement in Ukraine, snap exercises near Eastern European borders, and warplanes skirting NATO airspace, there’s a new front that Defense Department officials are pushing as a matter of concern: Russian subs.

In a replay of the Cold War, Moscow’s subs and spy ships have been spending a lot of time near critical undersea communications cables that push the 1’s and 0’s that keep the global economy humming. The fiber optic cables push more than $10 trillion a day in global business, and if a deep water Russian submersible managed to cut one, the effect would be catastrophic for the global economy. Pentagon officials are also worried that the Russians are probing for special cables the U.S. Defense Department has laid down on the ocean floor, which carries critical information about military operations, officials told the New York Times.

Second verse, same as the first. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama warned that he would “reevaluate” U.S. policy on Israel and the Middle East peace process, after being frustrated by what the White House saw as lack of movement in the push toward a two-state solution. But FP’s Colum Lynch recently checked in on how that effort is going at the U.N., and found that “Washington has shown little interest in enlisting the U.N. Security Council to press the parties to return to talks that abruptly fell apart in April 2014,” and “the United States is sticking to its traditional stance that the U.N. should butt out of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”

The forever war. American defense officials continue to insist that despite a U.S. Army Delta operator being killed in ground combat in Iraq, the U.S. does not have “boots on the ground” in Iraq and will not be involved in ground combat there. Except when they are.

Confusing matters on Friday was Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who while sticking with the “no combat” line, went ahead and admitted that he fully expects American troops to be involved in more combat in Iraq. Carter said that he is “absolutely prepared” for more raids like the hostage rescue operation in the town of Hawija, south of Kirkuk last week.

Port of call. Three warships from China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy are scheduled to visit the U.S. Naval Station Mayport, in Florida, as part of a “routine goodwill port visit,” on Nov. 3-7, the Navy says. The ships are currently on an around-the-world cruise, and will stop off at Mayport after the European leg of their tour. The amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima will serve as the host ship.

Good morning, and welcome to Halloween week. We really appreciate you joining us yet again here at SitRep. if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along! Best way is to send them to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Afghanistan

Afghan troops are fighting for their lives in Helmand, and running out of gear. Soldiers in Lashkar Gah in Helmand province tell TOLOnews they’ve been fighting the Taliban for nearly a week and have yet to receive equipment resupplies. Meanwhile, police in the city report that the Taliban has been targeting members of their families for assassination and have destroyed bridges and schools in the city.

Syria

Late last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov kicked off a press blitz by suggesting that Russia was open to working with the loose coalition of Syrian rebel groups known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to target the Islamic State, if only the U.S. would share the FSA forces’ positions. Given that the FSA says Russian warplanes are bombing them at the moment to maintain the Assad regime’s rule, they’re a firm “no,” according to the BBC. FSA spokesman Issam al-Reis rejected the offer and said the group will continue to fight the regime’s forces.

There’s a new alliance of Syrian rebel jihadist groups joining forces to take on Russian and Syrian regime forces around Damascus, the Long War Journal reports. The Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, joined up with Ahrar al Sham and Ajnad al Sham to form Jund al Malahim, which it says will create a joint operations center to take on the Assad regime in the capital. In a founding statement posted on social media, the group cited a renewed regime assault on the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta as part of the motivation for the united front.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is pledging to send more “advisors” to Syria just as the Guards have lost a string of senior officers in the fighting there. An IRGC spokesman told the Islamic Republic News Agency that Iran will honor a Syrian request to send more troops to the country. On Saturday, Fars News Agency acknowledged the deaths of Mostafa Sadrzadeh and Milad Mostafavi, two Guards members Fars says were killed near Aleppo in the north of Syria.

The dusty environment in Syria and high operational tempo are taking a toll on the Russian aircraft deployed there, leaving nearly a third of the fleet based in Latakia grounded, a senior defense official tells USA Today. Experts say the figure is low and likely a reflection of logistics problems for Russian forces. By comparison, the paper cites retired Air Force Gen. Dave Deptula, who says the readiness rate for U.S. aircraft during Desert Storm hovered around 90 percent.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Russia redeployed special operations troops from Ukraine to Syria in late September as part of its efforts to defend the Assad regime. A U.S. official says the troops are in Syria in order to coordinate Syrian ground troops and Russian airpower in the country. A Russian defense ministry official tells the Journal that its elite Zaslon special operations unit and military intelligence officials are also now in Syria.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia are pledging to increase support to Syrian rebels in the wake of a renewed Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military assault on the opposition to the Assad regime, according to the Daily Telegraph. The announcement comes as Secretary of State John Kerry is in Saudi Arabia for talks, and hints at a renewed focus on the CIA program to supply rebels with TOW anti-tank missiles. Rebels’ use of TOWs is up 800 percent as they try to fend off renewed offensives by the Assad regime and its international allies.

An Israeli Arab man caused a brief stir in Israel on Saturday as he paraglided across the border from Israel to Syria in an apparent bid to join a rebel group there. Israeli censors clamped down on news of the flight until Sunday, when news organizations reported he was a 23 year-old from the town of Jaljulya. There’s no sign yet of which group in Syria he allegedly intended to join but over 40 Israeli Arabs have traveled to Iraq and Syria to participate in the conflicts there.

Iraq

The Kurdistan-based news outlet Rudaw got its hands on helmet cam footage of the joint U.S.-peshmerga special operations raid on Thursday that freed 70 hostages held by the Islamic State in northern Iraq. The video — which almost melted Twitter over the weekend —  shows troops frisking hostages for weapons and bombs, while guiding them to safety as gunfire crackled nearby.

We’re also learning more about the soldier who was killed during that raid, Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler. The Daily Beast‘s Michael Daly offers a snapshot of Oklahoma-born soldier in a series of arresting figures: 14 combat deployments, 11 Bronze Stars, a posthumous Purple Heart, and four sons and a wife left behind. Bellingcat‘s Veli-Pekka Kivimäki pieced together some of Master Sgt. Wheeler’s service through the heraldry on his uniform in a portrait and information released by the Defense Department.

China

The New York Times flags pictures circulating in the Chinese media that purportedly show the country’s second aircraft carrier under construction. In late September, IHS Jane’s examined satellite imagery of the Dalian shipyard in Liaoning province and found evidence that a hull under construction could form the basis of a second carrier, which if actually constructed would be the first built in China.

North Korea

Just two months after North and South Korea de-escalated a tense standoff along their shared border, there’s another cross-border incident to report. The South Korean navy fired shots at a North Korean patrol boat it says strayed across the maritime border between the two countries. There were no reported casualties and the North Korean vessel turned back.

Cyber

A group of hackers many believe is tied to the Russian government has now targeted investigators examining the cause of the Malaysian Airlines MH17 crash in eastern Ukraine, according to the cybersecurity firm Trend Micro. The company found that the hacking group dubbed “Pawn Storm” set up fake file servers and virtual private networks designed to look like those used by the Dutch Safety Board, likely used in order to steal credentials for their legitimate analogs. Security firms have observed the Pawn Storm group attempting to break into networks used by the White House, NATO, and Arab governments critical of Russian involvement in Syria’s civil war.

China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) is reportedly planning on centralizing its various cyber units into a unified command, according to Bloomberg. At the moment, PLA units conducting cyber operations are spread across a number of departments, but the military will discuss integrating them into a single command at a meeting next week. The goal is to leverage more efficient organization for greater effectiveness in a bid to construct forces along the lines of the U.S. Cyber Command.

Cold War

The Soviets really did think the United States was on the verge of launching a nuclear attack in the early 1980s, according to a 1990 study carried out by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. A number of historians have claimed that the Cold War tensions culminating in the 1983 NATO Able Archer exercise convinced the Soviets that the west would use the drill as a pretext for a nuclear first strike. But the intelligence assessment adds weight to the conclusion, writing that the U.S. “inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger.”

Think Tanked

Maps! The Center for Strategic and International Studies maps out the myriad territorial dispute in the waters of east & southeast Asia

 

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

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