Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

France: use force; Spies, experts: it’s likely it was a gas attack; Dempsey on Syria: no one side with which to side; Wheels up for Hagel today; Bradley Manning to be known as “Chelsea;” and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold If chemical attacks in Syria prove true, France says: use force. Mounting bodies with no visible signs of how they died strongly suggests mounting evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its people, killing as many as 1,300. That pushes the U.S. and western powers closer to the much-aligned "red ...

By Gordon Lubold

By Gordon Lubold

If chemical attacks in Syria prove true, France says: use force. Mounting bodies with no visible signs of how they died strongly suggests mounting evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its people, killing as many as 1,300. That pushes the U.S. and western powers closer to the much-aligned "red line" that would force military intervention there. France this morning said that if it’s true that the Syrians used chemical weapons, then force is a must. AFP this morning: "France is seeking a reaction with ‘force’ if a massacre in Syria involving chemical weapons is confirmed, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Thursday, although he ruled out the use of ground troops. ‘If it is proven, France’s position is that there must be a reaction, a reaction that could take the form of a reaction with force,’ Fabius told BFM-TV. ‘There are possibilities for responding,’ he said without elaborating." More here.

American spies and other experts say it’s likely a chem attack strike did happen, in the East Ghouta region east of Damascus. FP’s Noah Shachtman and John Hudson: "The early analysis is based on preliminary reports, photography and video evidence, and conclusions are prone to change if and when direct access to the victims is granted. Over the past nine months, the Syrian opposition has alleged dozens of times that the Assad regime has attacked them with nerve agents. Only a handful of those accusations have been confirmed; several have fallen away under close scrutiny. But Wednesday’s strike, which local opposition groups say killed an estimated 1,300 people, may be different."

Gwyn Winfield, editor of CRBNe World, the trade journal of the unconventional weapons community, to FP: "No doubt it’s a chemical release of some variety — and a military release of some variety."

And, Shachtman and Hudson write: "While the Obama administration says it has conclusive proof that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in the recent past, the White House has been reluctant to take major action in response to those relatively small-scale attacks. (‘As long as they keep the body count at a certain level, we won’t do anything,’ an American intelligence official told Foreign Policy earlier this week.) But this attack appears to be anything but small-scale. If allegations about this latest attack prove to be accurate, the strike could be the moment when the Assad regime finally crossed the international community’s ‘red line,’ and triggered outside invention in the civil war that has killed over a hundred thousand people."

The Russians and the Chinese are blunting American efforts to reinforce the powers of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors. FP’s Colum Lynch, writing on The Cable: "Seizing on rebel claims that Syrian authorities massacred hundreds of civilians by firing chemically-laced rockets onto a Damascus suburb, the United States joined Britain and France in calling for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council to rally international support for an investigation into the incident. The three western powers also wrote a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon, signed by 32 other governments, calling for an urgent investigation. But the efforts failed to result in anything other than a tepid statement from the Security Council thanks to some final edits by the Russians and Chinese. The Obama administration’s goal was to have a U.N. chemical weapons team, which was already in Syria to investigate other chemical weapons allegations, launch a probe into the new allegations. That team, headed by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, arrived in Damascus on Sunday. ‘The United States, which was represented by the second highest ranking American official at the United Nations, Ambassador Rosemary Di Carlo, circulated a draft resolution, which was obtained by Foreign Policy, that called on U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon to ‘urgently take the steps necessary for today’s attack to be investigated by the U.N. mission on the ground.’ But it also would have applied pressure on Syrian President Bashar al Assad to grant the inspectors greater latitude." More here.

The NYT’s lede on the images coming out of Syria: "… row after row of corpses without visible injury; hospitals flooded with victims, gasping for breath, trembling and staring ahead languidly; images of a gray cloud bursting over a neighborhood."

Alleged chemical weapons use aside, Dempsey explains the nuance of picking sides in a possible U.S. military intervention. Writing on Aug. 19, before the attack, Dempsey explained to Rep. Eliot Engel, the Democrat from New York who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, how much so as he lays out the ways in which the U.S. could "tip the conflict in favor of the opposition." Dempsey wrote: "Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not. The crisis in Syria is tragic and complex. It is a deeply rooted, long-term conflict among multiple factions, and violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s rule ends. We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context."

And: "We can destroy the Syrian Air Force. The loss of Assad’s Air Force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict. Stated another way, it would not be militarily decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict. In a variety of ways, the use of U.S. military force can change the military balance, but it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict." Dempsey’s letter, here.

Welcome to Thursday’s edition of Situation Report. Sign up for Situation Report here or just e-mail us and we’ll stick you on. If you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease. And remember, if you see something, say something — to Situation Report. Follow us @glubold.

Hagel is wheels up on the Doomsday plane this morning for Honolulu, then Southeast Asia. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is headed out from Andrews Air Force Base on the E4-B Doomsday to Hawaii, where he’ll meet with PACOM Commander Adm. Sam Locklear, then with Marines at Kaneohe Bay. He’ll then head to Asia, where he’ll attend the meeting of Asian defense ministers at the ASEAN summit in Brunei; he’ll also visit Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Remarks today at 2:30 p.m. Hawaii time, on the Pentagon Channel, here.

Staffers on a plane: Chief of Staff Mark Lippert, Senior Military Assistant Lt. Gen. Tom Waldhauser, Incoming Senior Military Assistant Maj. Gen. Robert "Abe" Abrams, Trip Director JP Eby, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little, Assistant Press Secretary Carl Woog, Speechwriter Greg Grant, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia Pacific Policy Peter Lavoy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Southeast Asia Vikram Singh.

Right seat, left seat: This is the first trip for Abrams, who will succeed Waldhauser as the senior officer in Hagel’s front office advising the Secretary, and presumably the last for Waldhauser.

Reporters on a plane: AP’s Bob Burns, Reuters’ Phil Stewart, AFP’s Dan De Luce, WSJ’s Julian Barnes, Bloomberg’s Gopal Ratnam, Defense One’s Kevin Baron, NPR’s Larry Abramson, BBC’s Joan Soley.

Did not see that coming: Bradley Manning gets 35 years. And wants to live as a woman – "Chelsea Manning." NBC, this morning: "Bradley Manning, the Army private sentenced to military prison for leaking classified documents, revealed he intends to live out the remainder of his life as a woman. ‘I am Chelsea Manning. I am female," the Army private wrote in a statement read on [NBC’s Today show] Thursday. ‘Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition.’ Manning, 25, was sentenced to 35 years in prison on Wednesday after having been found guilty of 20 charges ranging from espionage to theft for leaking more than 700,000 documents to the WikiLeaks website while working in Iraq in 2010." NBC here. Manning’s statement here.

The NSA’s massive surveillance network rapped by the spy court. WSJ’s Siobhan Gorman, Devlin Barrett and Jennifer Valentino-Devries: "National Security Agency violated the Constitution for three years by collecting tens of thousands of purely domestic communications without sufficient privacy protection, according to a secret national-security court ruling. In the strongly worded 2011 ruling, released Wednesday by the Obama administration, the court criticized the NSA for misrepresenting its practices to the court. It noted that the illegal collection was the third instance in less than three years in which the government made a ‘substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program,’ specifically how the NSA collected Internet communications and phone data." More here.

The dangers of relaxing export controls on arms: A new report from the Center for International Policy. The report, released yesterday, shows how the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce controls on the export of thousands of weapons and weapons components – in the name of efficiency and increased trade – poses risks. CIP Project Director Bill Hartung: "Early in its first term, the Obama administration announced the outlines of a new approach to arms export controls designed to reform ‘what we control, how we control it, how we enforce those controls and how we manage our controls.’  The stated goal of the reform effort was to focus on ‘controlling the most critical products and technologies’ while ‘enhancing the competitiveness of key United States manufacturing and technology sectors.’ A central element of the administration’s approach has been to move items from the United States Munitions List (USML) – a compendium of arms and arms-related technologies monitored by the State Department – to the Commerce Control List (CCL), which subjects equipment destined for export to less rigorous scrutiny.

But: "The Obama administration’s loosening of controls goes far beyond anything contemplated by the Clinton or Bush administrations. The White House has asserted that, ‘At the end of this process, we anticipate that a significant percentage of the items that are transferred off of the USML would be permitted to be exported without a license.’ This means that oversight would be lifted from these items." Link to intro, report here.


Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold

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