The Cable

Situation Report: More on downed Russian airliner; next steps in Syrian peace talks; ex-Pentagon official talks internal divisions in Obama administration; lots of Syrian news; Italy getting armed drones; and more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Plane mystery. What brought down that Russian civilian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai peninsula earlier this week? American and British officials are taking very seriously indications that the Islamic State may have placed a bomb on board the plane, which broke apart in midair, killing all 224 passengers on board. ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Plane mystery. What brought down that Russian civilian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai peninsula earlier this week? American and British officials are taking very seriously indications that the Islamic State may have placed a bomb on board the plane, which broke apart in midair, killing all 224 passengers on board. A senior U.S. intelligence official told FP that the plane’s scattered fuselage — parts of which reportedly were strewn over 20 square kilometers — suggests it was downed by a bomb onboard. Planes that explode due to engine troubles or fuel leaks usually break in half.

If it was an Islamic State plot,  FP’s Dan De Luce, David Francis and Lara Jakes report, it “raises troubling questions about whether the Islamic State has adopted a new strategy of carrying out mass casualty terror attacks outside the borders of its self-declared caliphate — and about why one of the Middle East’s best intelligence services failed to stop the plot.” Elsewhere, U.S. intelligence officials have told both CNN and the AP that communications intercepts suggest that the Islamic State may have smuggled a bomb on board the plane. CNN’s sources said the loose security and potential insider help may have assisted in getting a bomb on the aircraft.

Talks, or maybe not? There’s some uncertainty over who will be at the table for the next round of Syria peace talks later this month, when a group of 17 nations meets to discuss ways to end the civil war. Continued feuding between Shiite Iranian negotiators and the Sunni Saudi team threatens to scuttle talks between the two countries fighting a proxy war in the country, and Secretary of State John Kerry and other diplomats are scrambling to keep the group together, FP’s Colum Lynch writes. A key part of any deal will be the participation of the U.N., which was originally left off the guest list at the recent Vienna talks, but muscled its way into the room at the last minute.

Get that paper. At the same time that the generals and admirals who run the show at the Pentagon have complained to Congress that they can’t make do with the hundreds of billions of dollars they’re given to spend each year, military P.R. staffs have been spending tens of millions on sports sponsorships. Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake unveiled the findings of a months-long investigation into what they call “paid patriotism” on Wednesday, documenting the $53 million the Defense Department has spent between 2012 and 2015 on marketing and advertising contracts, $10 million of which went straight into the pockets of pro football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer teams. But hey, FP’s Paul McLeary writes, watching a National Guardsman repel from the catwalk of a hockey arena to deliver the puck to center ice doesn’t come cheap.

Fight club. Evelyn Farkas stepped down last Friday from her job as the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. While she insists she didn’t quit in frustration, Farkas did admit Wednesday that some of her most important recommendations were ignored by the Obama team. “Certainly I’ve advocated for things internally, and I have personal views that may be further afield or may be slightly different than what the current administration’s position is,” she said at a breakfast roundtable. Some of the ideas she pushed for included stationing U.S. troops in NATO’s Eastern European member nations, and providing “lethal, defensive assistance to Ukraine, primarily anti-tank weapons.”

Permanently placing troops in Eastern Europe would violate the terms of an agreement between NATO and Russia about where they can place forces in the region, but Farkas said Moscow already blew the agreement to bits when it invaded Crimea and Ukraine in 2014. “Russia’s broken it, but somehow we’ve decided that we and our allies are going to kind of keep up with the letter of it,” she said.

On a plane. While Farkas has expressed some frustration with how the Obama administration is handling Russia’s actions in Europe, the Defense Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Elissa Slotkin is in Kyiv, Ukraine, this week to meet with Ukrainian defense and government officials. After a series of meetings in the capital on Thursday, Slotkin heads for the Yavoriv training site in western Ukraine to visit with the 300 U.S. soldiers stationed there to train Ukrainian forces. The soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade have already trained up about 900 Ukrainian National Guardsmen, and will begin training Ukrainian Ministry of Defense forces later this month.

Good morning, all, and thanks again for clicking on through. We 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.

Start the day off with some new FP podcasts posted this week! In the latest Editor’s Roundtable, David Rothkopf, Rosa Brooks, Kori Schake, and Ed Luce discuss why the military can’t fix a broken foreign economy. In this week’s Global Thinkers podcast, 2014 Global Thinker and President of Water-Gen Arye Kohavi joins writer Charles Fishman and host Amanda Silverman to talk water and why it is a fundamental national security issue. Tune in tomorrow for a new Backstory episode! Download and subscribe here: http://atfp.co/1K7nhrI

Syria

The U.S. and its allies have agreed to ramp up lethal military support for Syrian rebels at the same time that diplomats try and hash out a peace process at European negotiating tables. “The deliveries from the Central Intelligence Agency, Saudi Arabia and other allied spy services deepen the fight between the forces battling in Syria, despite President Barack Obama’s public pledge to not let the conflict become a U.S.-Russia proxy war,” the Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous reports.

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson testified before Congress Wednesday that Russian airstrikes predominantly target anti-Assad rebel groups rather than the Islamic State. Patterson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that around 85-90 percent of Russian strikes in Syria don’t target the Islamic State and that many hit civilians. Patterson’s estimates largely mirror independent news analysis of who and what Russia is bombing in Syria.

During the same hearing, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) complained that Russia launched eight times as many strikes in Syria during October than did the United States. While most of Russia’s estimated 800 airstrikes last month were aimed at anti-Assad opposition fighters, “we managed just 100 against ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the militant group also known as the Islamic State. FP’s John Hudson has more here.

One of the places where Russia has bombed is an area in the country’s northwest where regime and rebel forces had been observing a local ceasefire, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group. The towns of of Maarat Masrin and Ram Hamdan had been under a ceasefire brokered by Iran and Turkey since September.

There’s a new Russian base in Syria, bringing the grand total to four, NBC News reports. A U.S. official tells NBC that the Russians have opened a base near Tiyas, close to the ancient city of Palmyra and have moved five attack helicopters to the facility. Russia has also increased its troop presence in Syria to about 4,000 soldiers and airmen in recent weeks, a doubling of its presence from the outset of airstrikes in late September.

The Assad regime claims that the Syrian military and its allies have retaken control of a highway linking Aleppo with Hama and the rest of Syria. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports Syrian state media claimed its forces had “gained full control of the Aleppo-Khanasser-Ithriya-Al-Salmiyeh road” after fighting forces from the Islamic State.

Egypt

Egypt is calling on NATO to help it cope with the security vacuum in Libya opened up by the alliance’s bombing campaign which eventually ousted the regime of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi specifically asked for NATO help to stem “the flow of funds and weapons and foreign fighters to the extremists.”

Afghanistan

A dissident Taliban faction upset with Mullah Akhtar Mansoor’s ascension to leadership of the group has broken away and named a new leader of their splinter group as chief. According to the BBC, dissident Taliban in western Farah province have appointed Mullah Mohammad Rasool as their new leader, citing Mullah Akhtar Mansoor’s alleged greed as a reason for their rejection of his leadership.

NATO

Trident Juncture, NATO’s largest exercise since 2002, is underway in Spain and officials from the alliance are hoping that Russia takes notice. The exercise is designed to stretch out the alliance’s much-touted Response Force and by extension add to the deterrence factor against further Russian aggression in Europe. Nonetheless, Russia is, at least officially, snubbing the exercise, with Russian observers declining an invitation by NATO for front row seats to witness Trident Juncture in progress.

Italy is about to join the U.K. as the only countries to which Washington has agreed to sell armed drones. The U.S. State Department has approved a $129 million deal that would sell Hellfire missiles, laser-guided bombs, and other weapons to Italy to allow it to arm its two American-made MQ-9 Reaper drones. Reuters notes that “this would be the first effective sale of armed drones approved since the U.S. government established a policy in February for exports of the new type of weapons that have played a key role in U.S. military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.” Turkey has also said that wants to buy armed drones from the United States, but no word on any movement there.

Cybersecurity

The Center for Public Integrity has an investigative piece up at the Daily Beast with allegations that the U.S. Army hired a contractor who farmed out coding responsibility for software on sensitive communications equipment to a group of Russian nationals, which ultimately resulted in malware being installed on Defense Department systems. A former employee of the Defense Information Systems Agency says NetCracker Technology Corporation hired the Russian programmers, who didn’t have security clearances, because they worked cheaper.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been hacking the email accounts of Obama administration officials, State Department Middle East hands, reporters and academics, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Journal reports that the recent uptick in IRGC hacking activity coincides with the arrest inside Iran of Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi.

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

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