SitRep: Aleppo Stalemate; U.S. Surges Intel Effort on Moscow

SitRep: Aleppo Stalemate; U.S. Surges Intel Effort on Moscow


Here’s your ceasefire. Syrian government and rebel forces are due to pull back from their positions along the critical Castello road in Aleppo on Thursday, allowing humanitarian aid convoys to begin entering the bloodied and besieged city by Friday. But so far, no one’s moving. And it looks like both sides are waiting for the other to go first.

Even if they pulled back, the first convoy of 40 U.N. aid trucks slated to enter the city remains stuck in Turkey. The international body’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said Thursday that the Syrian government has yet to issue “facilitation letters” that would to allow the convoy’s passage into Aleppo.

Prime time players. Earlier this week, the Russian army moved some troops into position along Castello road in preparation for the rebel/government withdrawal, but in an embarrassing moment, two officers came under heavy fire while giving a briefing on live television. FP has footage of the gunfight, and the confused officers, here.

Things seem to be going well enough in the overall ceasefire for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to agree Wednesday to keep it going. The AP got its hands on more details of the agreement Wednesday, most of which is consistent with other small leaks by officials.

Washington to Moscow, cooperating because they have to. It’s clear that most people in Washington are pretty wary of Russia’s intentions in Syria, as comments from a variety of military and civilian officials spelled out Wednesday. Speaking at an event hosted by the Institute for the Study of War, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, Gen. Joseph Votel, said there’s “a trust deficit” between the two sides, and “it is not clear to us what their objectives are,” in Syria. The Russians “say one thing and then they don’t necessarily follow up on that.”

Defense Secretary Ash Carter — no fan of the deal in Syria — added during a speech in Austin, Tx., “we’ve got a ways to go” to see whether the ceasefire be implemented, but if it is, “it will mean that Russia gets on the right side of things in Syria, not on the wrong side, and that’s good news.”

The new, old Cold War. Washington’s spy agencies “are playing catch-up big time” with Russia, an intel official tells the Washington Post. The new effortinvolves clandestine CIA operatives, National Security Agency cyberespionage capabilities, satellite systems and other intelligence assets, officials said, describing a shift in resources across spy services that had previously diverted attention from Russia to focus on terrorist threats and U.S. war zones.” Washington has been scrambling to rebuild its Russia-focused capabilities that atrophied over the past 15 years, as all eyes were on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Same old story in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has long been a corrupt place, FP’s David Francis writes, and the United States has nothing to make it better. In fact, it’s made it worse, according to new findings released Wednesday by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. “In its first ‘Lessons Learned’ report, the watchdog agency concluded that the American presence in Afghanistan since 2001 helped grow corruption by injecting tens of billions of dollars into the local economy with poor oversight and broken contracting practices. SIGAR also found the United States partnered with corrupt Afghan players.”

Remember these guys? Congress is back, however briefly, before taking October off to prep for the presidential and congressional elections in November, and the Senate Armed Services Committee has invited the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Hill Thursday to discuss “long-term budgetary challenges.” There’ll be 16 stars perched atop shoulders at the table, including Army Chief Gen. Mark Milley, Navy CNO Adm. John Richardson, Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, and Air Force Chief Gen. David Goldfein. It’s all happening at 9:30 a.m. and livestream is here.

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: or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

Korean peninsula

There’s no end in sight for North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions with experts estimating that Pyongyang now has enough fuel to make 20 bombs. Reuters polled nuclear experts, who told the wire service that the North’s production capability has expanded thanks to the end of international constraints on its plutonium production and a growing indigenous uranium enrichment program. Going forward, the Hermit Kingdom is expected to be able to produce enough fuel for an additional six nuclear weapons every year.

South Korea may be quietly inquiring whether the United States would be willing to share control of some nuclear weapons, in order to cope with the threat of North Korea’s growing nuke ambitions. Asahi Shimbun says “a source well-versed in U.S.-South Korea relations” told the paper that U.S. officials asked if they’d be interested in re-deploying nuclear weapons to the South and giving Korean officials joint control of them. The U.S. removed all of its nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991. American officials were reportedly cold to the suggestion and didn’t want to entertain it for fear of destabilizing the region.


Faced with an onslaught of attacks both directed and inspired by the Islamic State, France is trying its hand at deradicalization. The Washington Post reports that France is opening a dozen deradicalization centers throughout the country aimed at helping those who want to leave the life of Islamist militancy behind. The voluntary 10-month course offers a civics and patriotism-heavy curriculum with instruction in French culture and history. Critics, however, doubt that the centers will be effective and accuse the government of improvising unproven strategies.


There’s a push underway to grant the next Nobel Peace Prize to Syria’s White Helmets, according to the New York Times. A handful of celebrities have signed onto a petition urging the Norwegian Nobel Committee to grant the prestigious Peace Prize to the White Helmets, also known as Syrian Civil Defense. The volunteer group works to help rescue civilians trapped under the rubble of airstrikes carried out by Russian and Assad regime aircraft. So far, celebrities like George Clooney and Aziz Ansari have signed the petition.


Iraq’s factions are preparing both for the battle to retake Mosul and the battle for the remains of the Islamic State’s caliphate. The Wall Street Journal reports that Kurdish forces are trying to seize as much territory from the jihadist group as possible as leverage in negotiations for greater independence from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad. For the moment, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani appears to be heeding calls from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to reign in Kurdish advances. But the towns and villages the Peshmerga have captured around Mosul could be used to bargain for more oil revenue or referendums on joining Kurdistan.


Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced on Wednesday that Austin will be getting its own Defense Innovation Unit (Experimental) or DIU(X) office, which he set up last year to function as the Pentagon’s in-house effort to reach out to the private sector and stay on top of emerging technologies. The DIU(X) Austin office will have a comparatively light footprint compared to the Boston and Silicon Valley offices, renting offices in an existing technology incubator and employing troops from the local National Guard and Reserve, according to Breaking Defense. The Pentagon says it’s teeing up $65 million to invest in another 22 agreements for the DIU(X) program.


The first woman to try out for the Special Forces after the Pentagon lifted a ban on women in ground combat roles failed to finish the course, according to a scoop from the Washington Times. Officials aren’t saying what caused the unnamed enlisted soldier to flunk the grueling Special Forces Assessment and Selection course. A number of reasons — from quitting, to injury to being removed by instructors — could explain her leaving the course.


Photo Credit: Ensar Ozdemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images