SitRep: New Front Lines Between Washington and Moscow; Another Clinton Hack
India and Pakistan Squaring Off; Syrian Rebels Inch Toward Nusra; Aleppo Teeters; And Lots More
Only getting worse. Washington and Moscow are flexing in Syria, the Black Sea, the Baltics, and right on through to the hacking of computer networks. But Moscow is doing most of the jabbing, with the Americans crying foul.
Aleppo is where things are taking the most gruesome human toll, with Russian bombs obliterating entire apartment blocks and hospitals while Washington threatens to shut down ceasefire talks — to Moscow’s annoyance and seeming amusement.
Reacting to State Department spokesman John Kirby’s comment this week that Moscow’s bombing runs on Syrian civilians could lead to terror attacks in Russia and Russian soldiers coming home in “body bags,” Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for Russia’s Defense Ministry, said the comments were “the most frank confession by the U.S. side so far that the whole ‘opposition’ ostensibly fighting a ‘civil war’ in Syria is a U.S.-controlled terrorist international,” using a Soviet-era term. Meanwhile, some Syrian rebels in and around Aleppo, feeling burned by Washington, are drawing closer to the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s powerful affiliate in the country.
Slamming ceasefire. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Thursday dismissed Secretary of State John Kerry’s call for another seven-day ceasefire in Syria, adding that Kerry’s threat to walk away from negotiations was little more than an “emotional breakdown.”
Tweet war. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zaharova uncorked a series of Tweets Thursday calling for an international investigation into a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan this week that may have killed up to 15 civilians. Russian officials also on Thursday slammed what they say is a dangerous new U.S. nuclear strategy that directly threatens Russia.
U.N. in Afghanistan. The United Nations in Afghanistan has backed up local reports from Nangarhar province that the American airstrike killed 15 and injured another 13 civilians, and has called for an independent investigation. U.S. military officials in Kabul have said that American planes were operating in the area at the time of the strike on Wednesday, and say they’re looking into the reports.
Clinton hack. It looks like one of Hillary Clinton’s staffers was hacked, and an audio recording of a private speech the candidate gave to political donors in February was leaked to the conservative outlet, the Washington Free Beacon. The hacker remains unidentified, but the recording shows Clinton questioning a key part of the Obama administration’s controversial $1 trillion nuclear weapon modernization program, while promising to come down harder on Russian and Chinese hackers. “They have physical assets that are also connected on the internet,” she said. “So they have to know we would retaliate. So that provides a certain level of deterrence.” It’s unclear if the hack was part of the DNC hack earlier this year.
Washington struggling with all of this. When it comes to Moscow’s intentions, “the bigger question confronting American intelligence officials,” the New York Times’ David Sanger writes, “is whether the Russian president has a grander scheme at work. So far, their conclusion is probably not. Mr. Putin’s moves, they argue in background conversations, are largely tactical, intended to bolster his international image at a moment he has plenty of troubles back home.”
Still, there’s dissent within the White House over how much leeway to give the Russians. The White House so fair has not publicly blamed Russia for hacking of the Democratic National Committee, stealing voter registration rolls in Arizona and Illinois, or the Democratic cell phone beak-in. This “has led to something of an uprising in parts of the White House and the State Department,” Sanger continues. “A range of cyberstrategists and younger diplomats have complained over the past nine months that the failure to draw lines has encouraged Mr. Putin to see what else he can accomplish, especially at a time of political transition in the United States.”
Growing U.S. war in Somalia. U.S. forces came under fire in two separate incidents in Somalia over the past week, leading to the American Special Operations Forces to call in airstrikes to fight off the attackers.
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The Assad regime and its allies have assembled a force of around 6,000 ground troops near Aleppo as the battle for control of the city intensifies. Around 5,000 of those fighters, according to the Guardian, are members of Shia militias drawn from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon. Prominent militia leaders like Akram al-Kaabi have framed the fight for the city in sectarian terms, comparing the fight against predominantly Sunni Syrian rebels to pivotal seventh century battles between Sunnis and Shia.
For real this time, we swear. American officials are once again threatening to send more and more-sophisticated weapons to Syrian rebels now that Russia has walked away from talks on a ceasefire in the city of Aleppo. Anonymous officials whisper to Reuters that the joint Syrian government and Russian assault on the city has the Obama administration considering options ranging from increased weapons shipments to rebels, to humanitarian airdrops in rebel-held areas, to air strikes on Assad regime air assets. Despite the rhetoric, the consideration so far hasn’t reached higher levels and the State Department has yet to officially give up on the diplomatic track, much less embrace an alternative.
Syrian activists in Deir Ezzor say U.S. airstrikes knocked out two bridges over the Euphrates, cutting off supply routes to residents in Mayadeen and al-Eshara, according to Syria Direct. The anti-Islamic State coalition says it hit two bridges in the area, describing them as “ISIL supply route[s].” Local counter that they’re dependent on the bridges, as well, but lack the ability to build and use alternative bridges, like Islamic State has at times.
India’s border conflict with Pakistan in the disputed territory of Kashmir has escalated, with India saying it carried out a “surgical strike” on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control separating the two countries’ forces. India Today reports that Indian authorities say the operation lasted for four hours and involved special operations forces venturing as far as two kilometers across the Line in order to hit what they claimed were militants on the verge of infiltrating Indian territory. Separately, Pakistan says it captured an Indian soldier on Thursday, according to Reuters, and Indian officials say the prisoner “inadvertently crossed over to the Pakistan side of the Line of Control.”
Amnesty International alleges in a new report that Sudan used chemical weapons against civilians in Darfur, killing between 200 and 250 people from January through September 2016. Researchers from Amnesty talked to medical personnel and witnesses on the ground, collecting statements as well as photos. Experts consulted by Amnesty say the data is consistent with the use of blister agents. Sudanese military forces allegedly delivered the chemical weapons in bombs and rockets, producing what witnesses say were toxic clouds that turned from black to blue.
We did what now? Congress is starting to have doubts about a bill allowing 9/11 victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia in court — a day after overriding a presidential veto to pass it into law. The Hill reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) both said they’re now open to altering the bill, which both supported, and now say they didn’t fully realize what was in it. Ryan said he’d like to see some as-yet undefined middle ground that would simultaneously allow 9/11 victims to “have their day in court” without opening the Defense Department and military personnel up to similar lawsuits by foreign plaintiffs. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, and Saudis, are struggling to understand, and define, what the bill means for the 70 year-old alliance.
The U.S. Consulate in Munich has issued an urgent warning for U.S. residents visiting the famously-boozy Oktoberfest events in the city: pace yourselves, lightweights, you’re making the rest of us look bad.
Photo Credit: ALEKSEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary