SitRep: Pence Debates Trump Positions on Syria, Russia; New Drone Rules

SitRep: Pence Debates Trump Positions on Syria, Russia; New Drone Rules


Fight night. In Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence went to work as attack dogs for their respective campaigns, with Kaine pushing hard to make the case that Trump is a dangerous choice for president, and Pence staking out positions on nuclear weapons, Russia, and Syria, that were often at odds with those of his boss, Donald Trump.

While Kaine struggled to rebuff charges that the country is safer now than it was eight years ago, Pence called for more U.S. military intervention in Syria — including establishing safe zones for civilians — and said Washington “should be prepared to use military force to strike the military forces of the Assad regime.” Trump has remained vague about Syria, and has never publicly advocated any of Pence’s positions on Syria.

Pence also denied that he or Trump had lauded Russian President Vladimir Putin as a better leader than President Barack Obama, and ignored Kaine’s charges that they had praised the Russian leader, though both had repeatedly done so.

FP’s Molly O’Toole has more on the debate, and how it was received by a group of voters watching in North Carolina, here.

The long war. Another American servicemember was killed after triggering a buried IED in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday. Little is known about the incident — the latest in America’s longest war — but the attack came in Nangarhar province where American special operations forces are partnering with local Afghan forces to hunt down Islamic State fighters. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Tuesday that “this was a combat situation, clearly. This was a service member who faced risk alongside Afghan partners.”

The soldier’s death is the third American fatality in combat this year in Afghanistan, following the August death of Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. Matthew Thompson in Helmand province, and an incident in January that killed Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. Matthew McClintock, also in Helmand.

India, Pakistan, and dueling lunches. While Indian and Pakistani troops continue to exchange gunfire in Kashmir in the latest escalation of tensions in the long-disputed Himalayan region, the country’s diplomats are waging a different kind of fight inside Washington’s beltway: hosting dueling luncheons for reporters at their respective embassies to make their case. FP’s John Hudson and Siobhan O’Grady sat down to platters of chicken tikka masala, mutton korma and steaming cups of masala tea to hear the two sides out on Tuesday, writing, “the dueling luncheons demonstrated the importance both capitals place on their respective images in Washington, which maintains a complicated relationship with both South Asian rivals.”

Kerry rips Russia. In his first public comments since the State Department announced it was ending talks with Russia over restarting the failed ceasefire in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry slammed Moscow on Tuesday for enabling the chemical weapons attacks the regime of Bashir al Assad has unleashed on Syrian civilians, writes FP’s Paul McLeary. “People who are serious about making peace behave differently than the Russians have chosen to behave” in Syria, Kerry told an audience in Brussels in some of his strongest comments to date, amid the backdrop of Russia sending more warplanes, ships, and missile defense systems to Syria.

Info wars. “Without the cooperation of American companies — both voluntary and compelled — the National Security Agency’s system of mass surveillance simply would not have been possible,” FP’s Elias Groll writes, adding that we can now add the name of Yahoo to the list of companies that have cooperated with the NSA. According to a scoop by Reuters, Groll says, “the American internet giant designed custom software to filter its users’ emails according to a set of search terms, and deliver those messages to the NSA. The decision to enable NSA surveillance was reportedly made by CEO Marissa Mayer and without the knowledge of the company’s security chief, who quit in protest when he learned of the program.”

Drone rules. The Obama administration is set to announce Wednesday that it is working with 40 countries to establish a set of standards for the use and sale of armed and unarmed drones, setting the stage for a meeting next year to hammer out details. Bloomberg got the jump on the document, and an administration official tells SitRep that the idea is to ensure that drones are for the first time “subject to international law” while stressing “the need for transparency about exports.”

But Rachel Stohl of the Stimson Center emails SitRep that while the declaration “is laudable,” it doesn’t go far enough. “The standards in the joint declaration are lower than those that the United States maintains for its own export and there is little incentive for countries to strive for higher standards,” she said. What’s more, once countries have signed on to this declaration “they can tick a box that they have committed to high standards and are acting responsibly. The joint declaration could be seen as a blank check for future exports and use.”

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


Guccifer 2.0, the online account that intelligence officials and cybersecurity firms say is run by Russian intelligence, released a new batch of files Tuesday, claiming they were stolen from the Clinton Foundation’s servers. But the Clinton Foundation says the docs aren’t theirs. President Donna Shalala tweeted on Tuesday that there was “no evidence” of a hack, “no notification by law enforcement, and none of the files or folders shown are ours.” The Hill also notes that the files appear more closely tied to the Democratic Congressional campaign Committee, which authorities also say was likely hacked by the Russians.


Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is fond of threatening to cast the country’s lot with Russia and China and buy arms from them whenever he’s feeling miffed at the United States. But an actual shift in arms purchasing is easier said than done, as Reuters points out. The Philippine military’s long, deep ties with its U.S. counterpart makes it hard to untangle. The U.S. provides more military aid to the Philippines than any other country in the region. But even if Manila could afford a Russian or Chinese shopping spree, the difficulty in shifting from American to foreign gear would pose challenges for integrating and training on a patchwork of weapons systems.

Dead air

Iraqi warplanes struck a pirate radio station used by the Islamic State, according to NBC News. The airstrike took place on Sunday, silencing Al-Bayan radio, which issued calls to jihad to residents of Islamic State-held territory. The airstrike is the second blow to the radio station. Islamic State fighters have been searching for the station’s director, Abu Yaman Al-Iraqi, ever since he disappeared a few days before Iraqi jets bombed it.


He was the posterboy for disillusionment with the Islamic State, a defector who’d seen the horrors perpetrated by the group but managed to quit without getting his own hands dirty. Only it wasn’t true. The Washington Post found a video showing that the now-imprisoned German Islamic State militant Harry Sarfo was involved in carrying out public executions in Palmyra during the jihadist group’s control of the city. A member of the Islamic State sent the Post the video after taking umbrage with his campaign of vocal smack talk against the group. German authorities gave Sarfo a three year sentence for his associating with the Islamic State, crediting him for distancing himself from the group.


Afghan special operations forces managed to claw back parts of Kunduz captured by the Taliban on Tuesday, the New York Times reports. Kunduz governor Asadullah Omarkhel said Afghan troops were clearing Taliban fighters from hideouts in the city, via house-to-house searches. The fighting continues, however, with the city square in government control and areas beyond it still contested.


It’s fall again, which means the air is turning crisp, the drinks are turning pumpkin spice, and the Pentagon is shedding its old buzzwords like so many falling leaves. Gone are the hyphenated “air-land battle” of the 1980s and its trendy new counterpart “airsea battle.” From now on, please update your PowerPoint slides to include “multi-domain battle” instead, the new phrase presented by Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work at the Association of the United States Army conference on Tuesday, according to National Defense magazine. Gen. David Perkins, commander of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Commander, put the thinking behind the change succinctly, saying thinking about conflicts in terms of just two domains is “not enough.”

No concept is complete without a budget, though, and Work said he wants to put dollars behind multi-domain battle. That’s going to be tough under the current Budget Control Act caps, however. As Breaking Defense notes, the current budget schedule combined with Work’s desire to polish the concept before committing dollars means that multi-domain battle won’t get funding until a new administration is in office — one which may or may not have Bob Work around to deliver on that personal commitment.

We’re going to need a bigger boat

Two fisherman go out for a nice quiet day of crabbing when a Borei-class submarine sails by their boat.


FP’s Dan De Luce contributed to this report.


Photo Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images