SitRep: U.S. Diplos Slam Obama Syria Policy; JSOC and CIA Team Up On Drones
Russian Bombs U.S. Syrian Allies; CIA Chief Says No More Torture; and Lots More
Diplomatic revolt. Over 50 U.S. diplomats have signed an internal State Department memo sharply critical of the Obama administration’s Syria policy, in which they call for airstrikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The memo says Washington’s Syria policy has been “overwhelmed” by the continuing slaughter of civilians in Syria, and demands “a judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.”
The memo, sent along an established “dissent channel” within State that allows officials to vent frustrations and suggest changes in policy, would flip the existing American policy on its head, and there is little sign that the White House is open to changing course. The current strategy calls for airstrikes against the Islamic State, while participating in negotiations with the regime and the Russians. Those talks, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, have all but collapsed amid the continued bombing of civilian targets by Syrian and Russian aircraft.
More than 400,000 people have been killed in fighting in Syria since 2011, and over 11 million have fled the country or are internally displaced, according to U.N. figures.
JSOC takes control of drone program. Sort of. The CIA has seriously curtailed the number of drone strikes it has taken against militants this year, launching at most seven strikes, according to a new report. That puts the spy agency on course to take fewer shots from remotely piloted aircraft than in any year since 2007. But appearances may be somewhat deceiving.
A new collaboration between the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) sees the CIA still flying plenty of intel-gathering drone missions to track down militants in Yemen and Pakistan, but handing the controls over the JSOC at the last minute to actually pull the trigger. Law professor Robert Chesney has some smart things to say about the new arrangement. Amid all this, president Obama’s “signature strike” program continues to hit targets from Somalia to Yemen and Afghanistan, as FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary recently pointed out.
Russia vs. U.S.-backed rebels. In a sign of the confused situation on the ground in Syria, Russian warplanes hit U.S.-backed Syrian rebels near the town of al-Tanf in southern Syria Thursday. A senior defense official said that Russian aircraft had “not been active in this area of Southern Syria for some time, and there were no Syrian regime or Russian ground forces in the vicinity.” The official added that the bombing runs “raise serious concern about Russian intentions.”
Syrian rebels captured the al-Tanf border crossing with Iraq from the Islamic State in March. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the planes hit a meeting of U.S.-backed forces, killing two fighters and wounding four others.
War talk. There’s a chance that Beijing would risk a military confrontation with the United States if it started dredging on a disputed shoal off the coast of the Philippines, retired U.S. Navy Adm. Dennis Blair said Thursday. But FP’s Dan De Luce reports the admiral thinks in a clash with the United States and its allies, Beijing almost certainly would lose.
“If the Chinese push there, I think there’s going to be trouble,” said Blair, who once oversaw U.S. forces in the region as the former four-star head of Pacific Command. “And it’s trouble that the United States and the Philippines are going to win because the military situation is set up that way.” If it wanted to fight over the Scarborough Shoal, China’s logistics lines would have to stretch for hundreds of miles over open ocean, something that would stress the country’s still-emerging military capabilities.
Torture days are over. The head of the CIA John Brennan said Thursday his agency would never go back to torturing detainees, FP’s Elias Groll writes. In response to a question from Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon spurred by presumptive Republican nominee for president Donald Trump’s gleeful pro-torture stance, Brennan declared, “I certainly, while I am director of CIA, have no intention of bringing such a program back and would not engage in EITs such as waterboarding and other things — ever.”
Not Duffel Blog. Exciting news for the U.S. Army. On Thursday, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley announced that soon soldiers will likely be able to roll up the sleeves on the Army Combat Uniform, just like Marines have been able to do for years. But hold on, young grunt. First there’ll be a 10-day pilot program at Fort Hood to make sure the plan is feasible. That’s right. A 10-day pilot program. To ensure that United States Army soldiers are capable of properly, and responsibly, rolling up their sleeves. Can’t wait for the after action report on this.
Good morning again from the Sitrep crew, thanks for clicking on through for the summer 2016 edition of SitRep. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
Meet Maj. Gen. Chang Dingqiu, the up and comer in China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) whom the South China Morning Post suggests could be tapped to lead the service one day. Chang, 49, is currently both China’s youngest major general and the youngest deputy commander among China’s theater commands, recently established along the lines of the Defense Department’s unified combatant commands. The Post writes that current PLAAF chief is expected to retire next year, potentially paving the way for Chang’s ascension.
Russian hackers are on the march, but in the face of the threat, the New York Times declares NATO as essentially MIA on cyber. The Atlantic alliance has said that it can treat certain cyber attacks as events that would trigger its Article 5 collective defense provision. But it’s less clear what kinds of attacks could cause NATO to invoke Article 5 or what it plans to do to cope with breaches and attacks that fall short of it. Part of the problem, according to the Times, lies in the hesitance of more established NATO cyber powers like the U.S. and U.K. to share their secrets and tools with other members.
Israel’s top military intelligence officer says Syria is once again cranking out weapons to give to Hezbollah, according to IHS Jane’s. The Israeli Defense Force’s Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi is thought to be referencing a Syrian version of Iran’s Fateh 110 short-range missile. Halevi also hinted that Israeli intelligence has managed to recruit a number of sources from within Hezbollah, saying, “no military has had more intelligence” than Israel currently has about the group.
The war in Syria may have just gotten even more complicated as reports emerge of fighting within the Assad regime’s coalition. The Jerusalem Post reports that Hezbollah troops and Syrian army forces briefly engaged in open warfare near Aleppo following a dispute about military strategy after Syrian forces wanted to withdraw from positions that the Lebanese terrorist group had taken heavy casualties capturing. Reports of the fighting, sourced to a Syrian news outlet, claimed that Syrian warplanes carried out three airstrikes against Hezbollah troops as part of the conflict.
The Islamic State
The Islamic State now has more recruits than al Qaeda had at the peak of its strength, says CIA director John Brennan. Brennan, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday, puts the Islamic State’s end-strength at 20,000, which the U.S.-led coalition has helped to shave down from 33,000 since last year. The CIA chief warned that the group may try to carry out more attacks similar to those in Brussels and Paris as it loses territory in Iraq and Syria. Brennan also pointed to the Islamic State in Libya as the group’s “most dangerous” affiliate.
The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria, part of the group’s Human Rights Council, has released a report saying the Islamic State has and continues to carry out acts of genocide against the Yazidi populations of Iraq and Syria. The report says that the jihadist group is still holding at least 3,200 Yazidi women and children in captivity. The Islamic State began committing atrocities against Yazidis in Iraq after it laid siege to civilians from the minority group hiding on Iraq’s Mt. Sinjar. It has reserved some of its most horrific abuses against Yazidi women and girls, raping them and selling them into sexual slavery.
The Center for a New American Security has released its final report from the ISIS Study Group, a collection of national security officials it convened to study options for the next administration to take on the terrorist group. The report, Defeating the Islamic State: A Bottom-Up Approach, recommends that the U.S. put more emphasis on training and equipping Sunni Arab forces in Iraq and Syria to fight the Islamic State and use “coercive military threats,” to protect American-backed fighters from Russian and Assad regime attacks. It also calls for the next administration to remove “artificial manpower limitations,” restricting the number of U.S. forces involved in the fight against the jihadist group.
Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary
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