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SitRep: Russia Implicated in Airline Shoot Down; U.S. Strike in Afghanistan Under Investigation

SitRep: Russia Implicated in Airline Shoot Down; U.S. Strike in Afghanistan Under Investigation

 

Russia shot down airliner. A Dutch-led investigation to be released Wednesday has concluded that a Russian surface-to-air missile system shot down a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine two years ago, killing all 298 on board. A team of prosecutors from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine found that the Buk missile system was shipped to Ukraine from Russia, and returned to Russia on the night of the tragedy

“The report largely confirmed the already widely documented Russian government role not only in the deployment of the missile system…but the subsequent cover up, which continues to this day,” the New York Times writes.

Russia has always denied involvement in the attack, instead heaping blame on the Ukrainian government. But after the attack, the European Union and Washington imposed sanctions on Russia in response. A Russian attempt to offer evidence to prove it had nothing to do with the strike fell flat earlier this week, after Moscow published radar images purporting to show that the missile could not have come from rebel-held areas. The claims were widely dismissed. On Tuesday, Russian officials again blamed Ukraine for the strike.

Aleppo crumbling. Syrian government forces have punched through to take a critical rebel-held neighborhood in Aleppo, but rebels there are promising to launch a counterattack to regain the territory. The government offensive, combined with a massive Russian and Syrian bombing campaign, appears to have shut the door on the abandoned ceasefire agreement between Moscow and Washington.

“We will stay here until we die or we win,” activist Ali Abo Al-Jod told NBC. “I lost my whole family, I have nothing else to lose. I will not leave. I will stay here until I die.” There are fewer than 30 doctors left in the eastern, rebel-held areas of the city to service an estimated 300,000 remaining residents, according to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). On Tuesday, the State Department said it has earmarked another $364 million worth of aid victims of the fighting in Syria. Of that, $205 million will be sent to organizations working inside the country.

From Russia, with denial. Russian airstrikes helped scrap the cease-fire in Syria. “Now, Russian foot-dragging threatens to derail another diplomatic effort by the United States and its allies: sanctioning Damascus for using chemical weapons against its own people,” FP’s Colum Lynch writes in a critically important new piece.

U.S. strike in Afghanistan under scrutiny. U.S. military officials are looking into the details of an American airstrike in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province Wednesday that locals claim killed 18 people, including three civilians. Spokesman for the U.S. military command in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, told SitRep Wednesday that U.S. forces “did conduct one counter-terrorism airstrike in Achin district,” on Wednesday, and “are aware of some claims of Afghan casualties, and are currently reviewing all materials related to this strike.”

Watch what you say. The White House has told the Pentagon to knock it off about China. Or at least, wants military spokespeople to choose their words more carefully. The Navy Times gets the scoop on a National Security Council directive to Pentagon brass to stop using the phrase “great power competition” when referring to China, because the term “inaccurately frames the U.S. and China as on a collision course,” the Times’ David Larter writes. “This needlessly muddies leaders’ efforts to explain the tough measures needed to contain China’s rise, these critics say.”

The Cyber. The FBI’s investigation into hacking attempts against Democratic party officials and organizations has taken a new twist, according to a scoop from Reuters. Sources tell the wire service that they believe Russian hackers tried to break into the phones of an unspecified number of Democratic notables with FBI agents warning suspected targets that their phones might have been breached by Moscow. American intelligence officials also suspect Russian intelligence-linked hackers of breaking into systems owned by the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Meanwhile, a 26 year-old Russian living in the western reaches of Siberia, Vladimir M. Fomenko — who owns a server rental business identified by American cybersecurity company, ThreatConnect, as managing the servers linked to the attacks — appears willing and able to talk, according to the New York Times. But no American law enforcement agencies have reached out to him, he claims.

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: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

Russia

Icelandic authorities are accusing Russia of flying its bombers a little too close for comfort near a civilian airliner. Icelandic officials say three Russian Tu-160 bombers flew beneath an Iceland-bound passenger plane with their transponders switched off. Iceland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs says the close calls have been a repeat problem with the Russians. Russia’s Defense Ministry, however, says its bombers were flying safely far away with transponders on, countering that Iceland’s accusations are part of a plot to “incite Russophobia in Europe.”

Iraq

Contrary to early reports, shells fired at U.S. troops in Iraq by the Islamic State did not contain mustard agent. A spokesman for the anti-Islamic State operation tweeted that subsequent tests of the munitions show “no mustard agent present.” That assessment contradicts early tests in the field and testimony by Joint Chiefs Chairman, who told congress last week that the Pentagon believed it “to be a sulfur-mustard blister agent.” An anonymous official tells Stars and Stripes that Dunford’s testimony drew on the early tests in the field, before lab tests discounted the presence of mustard agent.

Congress

Defense Secretary Ash Carter is lending his voice to the administration’s campaign against a bill that would allow 9/11 victims to sue the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In a letter to Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tx.), a supporter of the legislation, Carter wrote that he’s worried the bill could create a precedent that would allow foreign plaintiffs to sue the U.S. military. In that case, Carter wrote, the Pentagon might be forced to choose between complying with a foreign court’s discovery process and jeopardizing classified information or suffering a civil judgment.

Two congressional Democrats are looking to leverage doubts about Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s fitness for president in order to rein in the power of president to use nuclear weapon. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Ma.), the backers of the bill, argue that the president’s ability to order a nuclear strike represents an unconstitutional usurpation of congressional authority to declare war. Their bill would demand that the president receive approval from congress before using nuclear weapons. Lieu sent out a press release citing a Public Policy Polling survey showing that a majority of respondents don’t trust Trump with nuclear weapons.

The few. The proud. The rebranded

The Marines may soon get rid of their nearly 40 year old slogan, “The few. The proud. The Marines.” Marine Corps Times reports that the Corps is in search of a new tagline.  A spokesman for Marine Corps Recruiting Command told the paper that their new branding will seek to emphasize the elite, distinct nature of the Marines and “frame everything that we do as a fight — a fight that we intend to win.”

Cold, Cold War

Climate change is slowly melting away a classified underground compound built by the U.S. military in Greenland and powered by a mobile nuclear reactor, the Guardian reports. The network of tunnels and housing facilities, dubbed Project Iceworm, looked to create a secret nuclear missile launch site. The project effectively closed in 1964, though, after determining that the hidden ice-silo concept wouldn’t work. Given the currently-projected temperature increases, however, the ice and snow around the compound will start to lay the facility bare, raising tricky questions about whether the U.S. or Denmark should take responsibility for the remnants.

Photo Credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images