The Cable

Situation Report: Hillary’s Syria plan not popular among Dems; combat in Iraq; runaway Army blimp returns to earth; U.S. Navy’s cruise past fake Chinese island took too long, Pentagon says; lawyers, guns, and bin Laden; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley It is what it is, but what is it? American troops are in combat in Iraq. It’s obvious, Pentagon officials now say, even if U.S. officials have pushed away the combat label at every opportunity over the past year. “I mean, of course this is a combat zone” Col. ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

It is what it is, but what is it? American troops are in combat in Iraq. It’s obvious, Pentagon officials now say, even if U.S. officials have pushed away the combat label at every opportunity over the past year. “I mean, of course this is a combat zone” Col. Steve Warren, U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday. “There’s a war going on in Iraq, if folks haven’t noticed. And we’re here and it’s all around us.”

Despite months of promises that U.S. forces would not engage in combat in Iraq — despite U.S. pilots carrying out thousands of bombing runs and five U.S. troops being wounded in action — the awkward denials of the U.S. role in the wake of the killing of a Delta Force soldier in Iraq last week finally became untenable. “We’re in combat,” Warren said. “That’s why we all carry guns.  That’s why we all get combat patches when we leave here. That’s why we all receive imminent danger pay. So, of course it’s combat.”

Out of step. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has bucked the general consensus in her party by calling for a U.S.-enforced “no-fly” zone in northern Syria that would protect civilians from Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs while shielding them from attacks by the Islamic State. But enforcing the zone would require U.S. pilots to patrol it, and shoot down any Syrian — or Russian — planes who wandered into the cordoned-off region. FP’s Dan De Luce spent some time on Capitol Hill asking Democrats what they thought of her no fly zone idea, and the response wasn’t great.

Clinton’s stance puts her “clearly at odds with many of the Democratic lawmakers she’d rely on for support during the primaries this fall and the actual presidential vote in a year’s time,” he writes. “Democrats in Congress see a no-fly zone as a risky step that could draw the United States into a large-scale military commitment and possibly into direct conflict with Russia, which has launched an air war against rebels opposing the Assad regime.”

Lawyers, guns, and bin Laden. The May, 2011 raid by SEAL Team 6 on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan has been endlessly picked apart and scrutinized. But one aspect of the story that has remained hidden is that of the handful of government lawyers who worked to provide legal cover for President Barack Obama’s decision greenlight the mission. The four lawyers from the Pentagon, the C.I.A., the National Security Council, and the Joint Staff worked in secret, not even telling Attorney General Eric Holder until the very last moment, the New York Times’ Charlie Savage reports. One thing that becomes immediately clear while reading the story is the extent to which the lawyers sought to provide legal justification for any possible course of action that the president decided to take, and to provide cover for just about any scenario the SEALs found once they breached the compound.

Sail away. After months of debate inside the Obama administration, the U.S. Navy ship USS Lassen finally cruised by one of the artificial islands built by China in the South China Sea earlier this week. But Reuters reports that the decision — which many feel could have been taken earlier, and with less fanfare — created lots of headaches at the White House and inside the Pentagon. “Delaying the patrols actually made it into a bigger deal,” one source told Reuters. “This may have diminished the initial strategy that these patrols should be a regular, ordinary matter.” To try and work through the tensions, U.S. chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson and his Chinese counterpart, Admiral Wu Shengli, are planning to hold a video teleconference on Thursday.

Friends again. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Defense Secretary Ash Carter made sure to accentuate the positive in U.S.-Israeli relations during a joint press conference at the Pentagon Wednesday. The two were trying to rekindle the relationship ahead of an upcoming meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama and in the wake of an acrimonious dispute over U.S. nuclear diplomacy with Iran. Ya’alon appeared to signal the end of Israel’s argument over the Iranian nuclear deal, saying “Our disputes are over. And now we have to look to the future.”

The price of freedom. A rainy, fall Wednesday afternoon got a little brighter for thousands of people on Twitter when the social media site exploded with reports of a runaway blimp that broke free from its moorings in Maryland and floated 160 miles to central Pennsylvania before crashing in a field.

The massive, 240-ft. U.S. Army surveillance blimp — known as the JLENS — had been parked in the skies above the Aberdeen Proving Grounds near Baltimore since December, but decided to go on walkabout just after noon on Wednesday, eventually ripping through power lines in Pennsylvania and plunging the good people of the town of Bloomsburg into total darkness. At one point it floated as high as 16,000 ft., causing two F-16 fighter planes to scramble to keep the thing in their sites. While the blimp reportedly broke into two pieces when it finally crashed, what the Army lost, Twitter users across the world have gained. We’re just glad no one was hurt.

Good morning, all, and welcome to another edition of SitRep. Thanks for clicking on through, and hope you find this little thing we have going on here useful. As always, 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.

Don’t forget to check out this week’s new FP podcast episodes! The E.R., with David Rothkopf, Rosa Brooks, Kori Schake, and Tom Ricks, looks at where the U.S. military is now and asks if it’s still too much of an industrial-era relic to operate in the Information Age. Global Thinkers features 2014 Global Thinker Anat Admati and the Peterson Institute’s Pedro da Costa. They discuss and explore why regulators won’t reign in big banks. Subscribe and listen on iTunes and Stitcher: http://atfp.co/1K7nhrI

Syria

Russia is giving Iranian weapons a ride to Syria on its aircraft, according to a new scoop from Fox News. Citing intelligence sources, Fox writes that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force chief Qassem Suleimani is coordinating the deliveries via unregistered Russian cargo planes flying into Russia’s base in Latakia, Syria. The shipments are an apparent violation of U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran.

Turkish President President Tayyip Erdogan is threatening to attack Syrian Kurdish militants if they take the town of Tel Abyad near Syria’s border with Turkey, Reuters reports. Speaking on Turkish television, Erdogan appeared to warn Syrian Kurds like the YPG, which has worked closely with the U.S., that Turkey will carry out further strikes against them if they expand their territory to Tel Abyad, regardless of their relationship with Washington. Turkey has already clashed with Syria’s Kurdish militants in recent months and officials worry that groups like YPG could be piecing together the elements of a Kurdish state along the border.

Iraq

The special operations raid in Iraq that freed 70 hostages from the Islamic State and took the life of one U.S. Army commando came as a surprise to many, but the U.S. special operatiors have reportedly been secretly carrying out ops in Iraq for some time, according to Bloomberg‘s Eli Lake and Josh Rogin. The U.S. has quietly set up a task force of special operations commandos working out of an operations center in Erbil, Iraq which works to locate senior officials from the Islamic State. Other commandos have been on the ground directing U.S. air strikes at targets from the group.

Iraq’s finance minister says the country’s military will hire 10,000 more militia members to prosecute the war against the Islamic State despite the toll that lower oil prices have taken on the country’s budget. Iraqi Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told a Reuters summit that Iraq will spend a fifth of its budget on defense this year but plans to pause major weapons purchases and refocus its procurement plans from artillery to small arms.

NATO

The Wall Street Journal reports that NATO is mulling a plan to put more member state troops under its command and deploy them eastward towards Russia. The move, which could involve sending up to 4,000 troops to Poland and the Baltics, is designed to signal that the alliance remains committed to defending its territory against Russia even as the conflict in Ukraine has become relatively quieter in recent weeks.

Russia

The Islamic State is going on a recruiting binge in Russia’s Dagestan province with hundreds of jihadists reportedly signing up to fight for the Islamic State in Syria, according to the AP. The number of Russians who have fought with the Islamic State is estimated at around 2,500 overall, but police and intelligence officials also estimate that between 419 and 700 fighters from the group have returned to Dagestan, where authorities worry they could use their skills and contacts to carry out attacks at home.

Business of defense

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Katrina McFarland told an audience of defense contractors this week that the Navy is looking to emphasize volume, lower cost, and greater simplicity in its future ship purchases, according to National Defense Magazine. She said the Pentagon also wants to buy weapons like the Navy’s new electromagnetic railgun that are cheap to build but expensive for adversaries to defend against. “I want to do it in a manner in which I create the cost imposition on my adversaries,” McFarland said.

The Air Force has had a rough time getting enough qualified drone pilots to fulfill its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) needs and so the service’s ISR chief Lt. Gen. Robert Otto is looking for ways to halve the size of crews needed to run the MQ-9 Reaper drones. Breaking Defense reported on Lt. Gen. Otto’s remarks at a recent AUVSI conference, where he floated the idea that the ground control stations used to pilot drones could be redesigned to allow a single crewmember, instead of two, to operate the aircraft and its sensors.

 

Correction, Oct. 29, 2015: The U.S Army blimp that broke away from its moorings yesterday was part of a $2.8 billion contract for two of the surveillance zeppelins. An item in Situation Report incorrectly said that the blimp itself had cost $2.8 billion.

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

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