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Situation Report: Syria talks in Vienna; Iran and Saudi Arabia sitting at the same table, but might not be happy about it; Ash Carter to Asia, again; Bowe Bergdahl decision coming soon, but fight might not be over; tensions surrounding Chinese islands continues to roil; and lots more

Situation Report: Syria talks in Vienna; Iran and Saudi Arabia sitting at the same table, but might not be happy about it; Ash Carter to Asia, again; Bowe Bergdahl decision coming soon, but fight might not be over; tensions surrounding Chinese islands continues to roil; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

The Assad question. Does he stay or does he go? And if he goes, when? Washington has long held that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must step down as part of any political settlement that ends the brutal Syrian civil war. But now that Russian and Iranian involvement has somewhat strengthened his hand, U.S. negotiators are taking a different approach. In meetings that kicked off on Friday in Vienna with a group of Mideast and European allies — including Russia and Iran — American officials are floating a resolution that would allow Assad to remain in place for a brief time after a cease-fire is reached in the bloody, four-year conflict. And the Iranians, so far at least, are saying that they’re not intent on backing Assad forever, FP’s Colum Lynch and John Hudson report.

While John Kerry and his team will have their hands full in Vienna managing overall expectations, one major point of friction will be the exchanges between the Saudis and Iranians, who remain in a bitter contest for influence in the Middle East, and appear to be in no mood to improve relations.

Road warrior. Defense Secretary Ash Carter leaves Friday on an eight-day trip through Asia — his third in eight months — where he’ll attend the 47th annual U.S-Republic of Korea Security Consultative Meeting in Seoul, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Defense Ministers Plus meeting in in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His trip is coming on the heels of the much-discussed freedom-of-navigation mission conducted by the USS Lassen, in which the ship sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island constructed by China in the South China Sea.

Decision point. A respected Army general is about to render his decision on what kind of punishment U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will receive, if any at all, for walking out on his unit in Afghanistan in 2009. But recent comments by Sen. John McCain (R-Az.), are raising concerns that he may be influencing the decision. After an Army officer presiding over Bergdahl’s preliminary hearing suggested that Bergdahl not receive any jail time, focus has shifted to what Gen. Robert Abrams will decide to do with the case. The trouble is, as head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain has promised to hold hearings on the case if Bergdahl isn’t punished, and Abrams, as he well knows, must be confirmed by that very same committee if he’s ever to have another job in the Pentagon. FP’s Paul McLeary has more on the tension.

Blimpin’ ain’t easy. That poor U.S. Army blimp that got away on Wednesday just can’t catch a break. Not only was it roundly mocked on social media as it floated helplessly over central Pennsylvania, but after it crashed to earth, the indignities continued. Word came late Thursday that the giant hasn’t fully deflated, so State Police have taken to using shotguns to deflate the 240-ft. blimp as it flails helplessly on the ground.

Good morning, all, and welcome to another edition of SitRep. Thanks for clicking on through this week, 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.

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Syria

The death toll from Russia’s air campaign over Syria is now at 595, according to a Syrian human rights group. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based nonprofit which monitors the conflict, said that since the bombing campaign started on Sept. 30, around two thirds of the dead were opposition fighters, mostly from groups not named the Islamic State, and about 185 victims were civilians, 48 of them children. Overall, about 131 Islamic State fighters are part of the body count, and 279 other opposition fighters

Deso Dogg, we hardly knew ya. It looks like the one-one tour mate of DMX who left hip-hop to join the Islamic State has felt the beat drop one last time: when a U.S. airstrike killed him earlier this month. The 39 year old Denis Cuspert, a German national, had been reported dead before, but this time it looks like it’s for real.

Please stop using our music in your war videos. That’s the message that the electronic music group Crystal Method are sending to Russia after discovering that Russian state television used their song “High Roller” in drone footage showing Russian forces fighting in the ruins of Aleppo. “Our hearts go out to the people of Syria affected by this terrible war and their friends and families,” the group said in a statement emphasizing that they do not support the use of violence to resolve conflicts.

Iraq

An Iraqi camp that is home to members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) was hit with a rocket attack on Thursday, killing at least 20 people. Iranian exiles affiliated with PMOI have been living in Camp Hurriyet in Baghdad since they moved from Camp Ashraf in September 2013 — a site where residents had come under rocket attack before. The PMOI, which the U.S. removed from its list of designated terrorist groups in 2012, took residence in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and carried out a number of attacks in Iran during the 1980s, although residents of the Camps Hurriyet and Ashraf have since been disarmed. The group has since accused Iranian-backed militias of carrying out attacks against it.

The Islamic State

The Islamic State has found yet another platform on which to spread its much-talked about social media propaganda and recruit new followers. Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, is becoming popular with the jihadist group, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). The apparent lack of content monitoring or a policy forbidding terrorist content and Telegram’s promises of encrypted anonymity lead MEMRI to conclude that the app could soon become an even more popular venue for the group.

Russia

It’s not just Syria or Eastern Europe where Russian warplanes are harassing their American counterparts. Navy Times reports that the U.S. scrambled four F/A-18 fighter jets to meet Russian Tu-142 bombers that showed up off the coast of the Korean peninsula while the U.S. was carrying out exercises with the South Korean military. Analysts say the Russians are trying to signal a return to projecting power over long ranges after years of relative dormancy since the end of the Soviet Union.

China

The U.S. and China just had a tense standoff in the South China Sea as an American Navy ship challenged China’s assertion of sovereignty over an artificial island. But you wouldn’t know it to hear the rhetoric out of the People’s Liberation Army lately. Naval relations between the countries are at “their best time in history” according to People’s Liberation Army Navy chief Wu Shengli.

Australia may be looking to conduct a passage of its own through waters claimed by China in order to assert their rights to freedom of navigation, according to the Wall Street Journal.  The news comes on the heels of a similar move by the U.S. Navy this week, but Australia is reportedly still mulling its options and could include either a sail-through of Chinese-claimed waters or overflights. Experts believe, however, that Australia is unlikely to telegraph any naval moves far in advance as the United States did.

Tech

The head of the Defense Department’s new Silicon Valley outreach office, the awkwardly named  Defense Innovation Unit – Experimental (DIUx), says the office will at least live up to the “experimental” part of its name, according to Breaking Defense. “We’re allowed to fail,” DIUx chief George Duchak said Thursday, explaining that Defense Secretary Ash Carter has given the organization wide berth to try new things — and fail — in its mission to bridge the gap between the nimble innovation of the private sector with Pentagon’s more careful approach. Outreach to private technology companies in Silicon Valley has been a high priority for Carter during his tenure as defense secretary.

Defense Department chief information officer Terry Halvorsen told reporters on Thursday that the Pentagon is not moving fast enough to keep up with the rapid pace of cyber threats, The Hill reports. Halvorsen said he’s starting slowly, working on teaching employees the basics like avoiding phishing attacks and trying to develop a scorecard that will measure the Pentagon’s progress in improving cybersecurity.

The Army is putting money into three new robots, National Defense Magazine reports. The robots include man-transportable robotic system for explosive ordnance disposal, and two other small robots for transport and for use by mounted and dismounted troops.