- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is the Pentagon reporter for Foreign Policy., Adam RawnsleyAdam Rawnsley is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering technology and national security. He co-authors FP’s Situation Report newsletter and has written for The Daily Beast, Wired, and War Is Boring.
Cleared hot. Still no deal between the U.S. and Russia on a ceasefire agreement in Syria, despite talks in Geneva last week and two meetings over the weekend between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during the G-20 summit in Hangzhou, China. President Obama said over the weekend that the “gaps of trust” between the two sides make it a “tough negotiation, and we haven’t yet closed the gaps in a way where we think it would actually work.”
The proposed deal, first outlined by Kerry to Putin in July, would ground the Syrian air force to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians trapped in cities across the country. If that works, then, and only then, would Washington begin talking to Moscow about working together to target Nusra Front. But the Pentagon, and the White House, aren’t so sure about the whole thing. “I don’t trust the Russians one iota,” a senior defense official with knowledge of the negotiations told FP’s Paul McLeary. “No one thinks that any of this is actually going to come to pass.”
China’s summit games. While the Americans and Russians danced around one another at the summit, China made some seriously provocative moves over the past several days, sailing eight ships around the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which both the Philippines and Beijing claim as their own. The flotilla, spotted by a Philippine Air Force patrol, may have contained two ships capable of carrying troops and a dredging ship. China and the Philippines have clashed over territorial disputes in recent months, including a protracted legal battle at the International Court of Arbitration, which rejected some of Beijing’s claims to territory in the South China Sea.
Despite this, don’t expect the ongoing Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference attended by President Barack Obama in Laos, to make much of a stink over the latest Chinese provocations. A draft of a joint statement to be released at the summit, seen by Reuters, completely ignores the July ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. The statement is a diplomatic victory for China, coming on the heels of ASEAN’s leaders during a meeting in July to reject a U.S.-backed proposal to insert the ruling in the text of a joint statement.
ISIS changing the game. While talks drag on over next steps in Syria, the Islamic State is changing tactics. On Monday, the group launched a series of suicide bombings that killed at least 40 people across the country — including in two cities held by the Syrian government. The largest bomb hit Tartus, a coastal city normally immune to violence that also hosts a Russian naval base. Another ISIS attack hit the city of Homs while two others struck the Kurdish-held cities of Qamishli and Hasakeh. The Long War Journal has more.
Losing ground. The bombings occurred a day after ISIS was pushed out of its last toeholds along the Turkish border by Turkish forces and Syrian rebels. The ongoing assault has been aimed at cutting off the group’s most important resupply routes while having the added benefit of allowing Turkey to block the establishment of a Kurdish semiautonomous zone there. Elsewhere, Russian airstrikes pounded rebel positions in Aleppo, allowing government forces to take more ground in the besieged city.
Good morning and 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
Since North Korea wasn’t invited to the G-20 summit, it took the opportunity to launch some ballistic missiles into the ocean. Pyongyang launched three No Dong missiles on Monday, according to Yonhap News Agency. The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff say the missiles took off from Hwangju, North Korea and landed in the East Sea, within the territory covered by Japan’s air defense identification zone. North Korea has been testing ballistic missiles frequently this year, testing a potential intercontinental ballistic missile in January as well as road-mobile and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. President Obama said the international community should tighten sanctions against the regime in the North.
Staffers at the Pentagon drafted a five-page memo earlier this year outlining how the building should play “hardball” on Capitol Hill and push back against House Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan to shift $18 billion from the warfighting account to pay for a range of programs the Pentagon says it doesn’t want, and doesn’t need. Politico got a copy of the memo, and reports that it calls for playing the House and Senate against one other, while taking advantage of the “discomfort” one key Republican lawmaker feels over the shift in funding. It also calls for Defense Secretary Ash Carter to meet with top Democrats — even at the risk of the appearance of partisanship — while pushing “significant senior military leader involvement” in the lobbying effort.
In light of the tensions between Beijing and Manila, the Philippine government is proposing to increase its spending on defense by 14 percent next year. Reuters got the scoop on the budget proposal, which calls for a total of around $2.8 billion for the country’s armed forces in 2017. Not all of the money is earmarked for a hedge against China, though. Philippine defense officials tell the wire service that some of the money will go to close air support aircraft to tackle increasingly aggressive Islamist militants from the Abu Sayyaf group.
Covert Ops and the 2016 election
American spies believe there’s a chance Russia might be waging a covert influence campaign to disrupt public confidence in the electoral system ahead of the November presidential election, the Washington Post reports. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has launched an investigation to determine the goals and scale of a possible “active measures” effort. A congressional aide says Senate Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) emerged “deeply shaken” from an intelligence community briefing on the subject. The inquiry follows recent reports that Russian hackers broke into several Democratic party organizational networks and hacked electoral databases in Arizona and Illinois.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton used some of her strongest language yet on Monday blaming Russia for the DNC hacks, and bringing Trump into the fray. “We’ve never had a foreign adversarial power be already involved in our electoral process with the DNC hacks,” she said. “We’ve never had the nominee of one of our major parties urging the Russians to hack more. So I am grateful that this is being taken seriously and I want everyone—Democrat, Republican, independent—to understand the real threat that this represents.”
McClatchy reveals the ordeal suffered by three American contractors in Iraq after they were kidnapped and tortured by a Shia militia aligned with Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr back in January. Contrary to claims made by the Iraqi government at the time, the men, contractors for General Dynamics, say they weren’t kidnapped while at a brothel but rather taken from the apartment of a recently-hired interpreter for Iraqi commandos. While in captivity, the men were held in stress positions and subjected to repeated mock executions.
Air Force drones
The U.S. Air Force has plenty of drones, but not nearly enough pilots. The solution? Civilian contractors! The New York Times reports that due to the increased fighting in Iraq and Syria this year, “over the past 10 months, the Pentagon has added four drones flown by contractors to the roughly 60 that are typically flown every day by uniformed Air Force personnel.” Not everyone is comfortable with the deal, though there has been a civilian contractor presence flying drones in war zones for years.
Photo Credit: Xinhua/Zha Chunming via Getty Images