- 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.
Tough night. In a preview of the upcoming presidential debates, candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were each given 30 minutes Wednesday night to make the case why they should be the next Commander in Chief. And neither scored a knockout blow.
Clinton. The Democratic nominee is a storied wonk, but on Wednesday remained vague about plans for fighting ISIS and dealing with the hard problems of an aggressive Iran, a resurgent Russia, and how and when she would deploy American troops abroad. Clinton also was careful, and very lawyerly, when talking about her email issues, a conversation which took up a good chunk of her allotted time.
One awkward moment occurred when she promised that “we are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again. And we’re not putting ground troops into Syria,” despite the fact that there are over 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and around 300 special operations forces in Syria. Since October, three Americans have been killed in combat in Iraq.
Trump. The Republican candidate took the opportunity to double down on his continuing praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin while insisting that U.S. troops should have stayed in Iraq to guard oil sites, which would have allowed U.S. companies to take the oil by force. He also insisted that he has always opposed the Iraq war, which isn’t true.
One moment stuck out in particular. Trump took the unprecedented step of using the intelligence briefings he is receiving from the U.S. intel community to claim that President Barack Obama is doing “exactly the opposite” of what the intel community has recommended. The briefings showed him that “Obama did not follow…what our experts said to do,” he said. These intel experts are the same people Trump had previously said he didn’t trust.
In another moment that raised eyebrows, Trump suggested that he would get “different generals” than the officers currently serving in top positions if he doesn’t like the war plan they would deliver him to defeat ISIS. It is unclear if he believes he would appoint a new slew of military leaders upon assuming office.
Not on the agenda. The rise of China, tensions in the South China Sea, NATO, how to handle high-profile hacking cases, and the defense budget were not mentioned at all.
No deal. Same story. Secretary of State Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov continue to struggle to forge a ceasefire agreement in Syria. They spoke by phone Wednesday, and Moscow says they’ll be back at it Thursday, though U.S. officials wouldn’t confirm the meetings. Not much has changed over the past several weeks of on-again-off-again negotiations, though the Washington Post reports that the Americans have told their Russian counterparts that they’ve had about enough. “A final proposal” was handed to the Russians while President Obama met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday in China, but there’s been no movement since then.
In circles. Far away from the negotiating table, somewhere over the Black Sea, Americans and Russians came together over another issue: high speed aerial intercepts. On Wednesday, a Russian SU-27 Flanker came within about 10 feet of a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon submarine-hunting aircraft flying in international airspace, buzzing the spy place for almost 20 minutes, according to Pentagon officials. The Russians responded that the American plane didn’t have its transponders turned on — a charge the U.S. denies — and approached the Russian border twice. This sort of thing has happened several times in recent months. The most serious encounter occurred in April, when several Russian Su-24 bombers buzzed the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea, and an Su-27 barrel rolled over an American RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft.
Meanwhile, in Syria. While the talks drag on, Syrian civilians continue to pay a heavy price. Government warplanes kept up their daily airstrikes on rebel and civilian targets in Aleppo, dropping what appear to be bombs full of chlorine gas on civilians, sickening more than 120 people, including 10 women and 37 children, and killing two. FP’s Colum Lynch and David Kenner recently reported that the U.N. had found evidence that the regime in Damascus failed to declare all of its chemical weapons facilities, and had used them after claiming to have handed over everything it had.
End of the line? Since the start of his presidency, Barack Obama has offered Saudi Arabia $115 billion worth of arms and military supplies, the most of any president in history, a forthcoming report from the Center for International Policy finds. Those sales — billion of dollars of which are still pending — includes everything from ammunition and small arms to advanced guided bombs, tanks, warships, and fighter planes. But multiple congressional aides tell FP’s John Hudson that Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut are preparing legislation, to be filed this week, opposing a new $1.5 billion U.S. package of tanks, ammunition, and machine guns to Saudi Arabia.
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
China is gearing up to start producing the largest aircraft on planet earth, the Ukrainian An-225, according to Defense One. Way back when Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union, officials built just a single one of the 250-ton aircraft. Now China has announced a deal with Antonov to build two more An-225s for $300 million. There’s no word yet on what, specifically, Beijing plans to use the massive aircraft for, but it’s capacity offers a range of roles, from space launch to commercial transport.
As the noose tightens around the Islamic State and its territory in Iraq and Syria begins to shrink, the Washington Post’s Liz Sly looks ahead to what could be as a host of regional actors vie for control of the captured territory. Sly outlines ten potential wars that could follow in the caliphate’s wake. The potential outcomes include a host of possible conflicts between Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq, Turkey, the Assad regime, Shiite militias in Iraq, and the United States.
An Iraqi Shiite militia backed by Iran is sending 1,000 fighters to fight for the Assad regime against rebels in Aleppo, Reuters reports. Harakat al-Nujaba announced that the troop deployment alongside pictures of some of its fighters, already in Syria, with Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s covert action arm. The militiamen will be sent to southern Aleppo where forces aligned with the regime have renewed their efforts to maintain a siege of the city.
The Globe and Mail found documents suggesting that a Canadian company may have violated sanctions against Sudan by shipping armored vehicles from the United Arab Emirates to Khartoum. Export documents indicate that the Streit Group shipped at least 30 Typhoon armored trucks to Sudan. A spokesman for the company told the paper that it does not consider the vehicles to be military equipment. Nonetheless, the vehicles are equipped with gun mounts and images found on Facebook indicate that the Sudanese military used Typhoon armored vehicles in 2013.
U.S. Central Command killed 13 members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in three airstrikes over the past two weeks in Yemen’s Shabwa province. The Long War Journal reports that, in contrast to previous U.S. counterterrorism airstrikes in Yemen, the most recent round of attacks hit lower level AQAP fighters, rather than so-called high value targets. Central Command says the strikes were part of 15 such attacks against the group so far in 2016, although reporting by the Long War Journal indicates that as many as 25 airstrikes have taken place against the group in 2016.
Bots o’ war
Heather Roff and P.W. Singer, two fellows at the New America Foundation, have penned an op-ed for Wired outlining the stakes for robotic weapons policy in the 2016 election. For the next president, they write, “the most important decision they will make for overall human history is what to do about autonomous weapons systems (AWS), aka ‘killer robots.'” With unmanned systems growing in number throughout the armed services and artificial intelligence on the cusp of a technological breakthrough, the 45th president will have to make some hard choices about how, when, and under what circumstances military robots might be allowed to kill.
Was Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas a KGB spy in the 1980s? A newly-discovered document in a KGB archive smuggled out of the Soviet Union by one of the spy service’s former archivists suggests that he might have been. Researchers at the Truman Institute at Hebrew University of Jerusalem released their discovery on the eve of Russia’s attempt to organize a summit between Abbas and Russian president Vladimir Putin. A document in the archive lists a “Abbas, Mahmoud” born in 1935 as a Soviet recruit with the codename “Mole.” Palestinian officials deny the charges.
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