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.

China, not into it; Senate supports use of force in Syria; Will Dems get in the way?; Military spouses go after CNN’s Barbara Starr to make a point; Hagel on Asia; Mark Milley on the zero option: “we haven’t been told to plan for that;” and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold China isn’t into it. Financial Times, this hour: "As the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations arrived in St Petersburg on Thursday for a G20 summit that has already been overshadowed by Syria, China said military action against the Assad regime would hurt the world economy and push up oil prices. ...

By Gordon Lubold

By Gordon Lubold

China isn’t into it. Financial Times, this hour: "As the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations arrived in St Petersburg on Thursday for a G20 summit that has already been overshadowed by Syria, China said military action against the Assad regime would hurt the world economy and push up oil prices. ‘Military action would have a negative impact on the global economy, especially on the oil price – it will cause a hike in the oil price,’ Chinese vice-finance minister Zhu Guangyao told a briefing before the start of the G20 leaders’ talks. In Beijing Hong Lei, China’s foreign military spokesman, said that any party resorting to chemical warfare should accept responsibility for it, but added that unilateral military action violated international law and would complicate the conflict." More here.

And even as momentum builds in the U.S. Congress to allow Obama to strike at Syria, his own party may be getting in the way. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee backed President Barack Obama’s push to strike Syria as the WSJ reports that the Pentagon prepared to employ "greater firepower" as targets in Syria shift, but the NYT reports this morning that intervention, even in the face-saving name of Syria’s apparent use of chemical weapons, is problematic for members of Obama’s own party. The WSJ’s Julian Barnes, Carol Lee and Adam Entous: "The revised options under development, which reflect Pentagon concerns that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has dispersed his military equipment, include the use of Air Force bombers to supplement the four Navy destroyers armed with missiles that are deployed in the eastern Mediterranean. Initially, Pentagon planners said they didn’t intend to use aircraft in the proposed strikes. The Pentagon shift came amid an accelerating tempo toward U.S. military action in response to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons on a large scale Aug. 21… The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution Wednesday saying a goal of U.S. policy will be to ‘change the momentum on the battlefield’ in Syria’s civil war and speed a negotiated removal of Mr. Assad. The measure would ban the use of ground forces in Syria "for the purpose of combat operations" and sets a 60-day limit for Mr. Obama to launch strikes. It includes a possible 30-day extension if Mr. Obama determined that was needed to meet the resolution’s goals." Read the Journal’s piece here.  Read the WSJ’s post on who voted for what at the SFRC, here.

But the NYT’s Jeremy Peters writes that it’s far from a done deal: "Congressional Democrats, torn over involving the United States in another unpredictable Middle East war, are emerging as a major barrier to President Obama’s plan to strike Syria. Many of the president’s core supporters, especially African-Americans and members of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing who voted repeatedly against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are expressing the deepest reservations. With rank-and-file House Republicans showing little inclination to back Mr. Obama on an issue on which he has staked his political credibility, scores of Democratic votes will be needed if a resolution authorizing force against Syria is to pass the House. Democrats say they are being confronted with a difficult choice: Go against the wishes of a president who is popular and well respected in their caucus, or defy voters back home who are overwhelmingly opposed to another United States military intervention overseas. In the first sign of how splits within the party will loom large over the Syria debate, two Democrats voted no and a third voted present on Wednesday when a divided Senate committee approved a use-of-force resolution with senators from both parties crossing over." Read the rest 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. And 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.

The cost of a Syrian operation would be in the "tens of millions of dollars," the administration said publicly for the first time yesterday, but Arab powers might be willing to pick up the whole tab. That was some of the news out of yesterday’s hearing on the House side at which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey and Secretary of State John Kerry appeared, their second such hearing in as many days. There was a bit about what Hagel said about Russia and Syria’s chemical weapons, and more. But Dempsey spoke for the first time about the target list, perhaps the most interesting bit from the hearing. FP’s Yochi Dreazen: "[Dempsey] said the overall mission would be to degrade Assad’s chemical weapons assets by striking targets "directly linked to the control of chemical weapons but without exposing those chemical weapons to a loss of security." Translated from military-speak, that means doing everything possible to ensure that those weapons didn’t fall into the hands of the Islamists flooding into Syria to battle Assad. Dempsey said other targets would include the "means of delivery" for the weapons, like the rockets and artillery shells that allegedly carried sarin gas into rebel-held areas of Damascus last month, and the country’s air defense systems, including its longer-range missile and rockets. That description closely tracks with recent news reports about the administration considering a target list of roughly 50 sites that would be struck over the course of one to two days. The White House has harshly condemned those leaked war plans and vowed to find those responsible."

Also, yesterday was a tough day for Hagel after he tied Syria’s chemical weapons to Russia. Dreazen: "Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) — best known for screaming ‘you lie’ at President Obama during a State of the Union address — made the most news at today’s hearing when he asked Hagel where Assad had gotten his chemical weapons. ‘Well, the Russians supply them,’ Hagel responded. Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves.’

Reports that Russia has been selling chemical weapons to Assad — or at least providing the ingredients and equipment his scientists needed to make them — have been floating around for years, but Hagel’s comments marked one of the first times a high-ranking American official made the charge publicly." Pentagon press secretary George Little, walking Hagel’s comments back: "In a response to a member of Congress, Secretary Hagel was referring to the well-known conventional arms relationship between Syria and Russia. The Syrian regime has a decades-old largely indigenous chemical weapons program. Currently, Russia provides the Syrian regime a wide variety of military equipment and support, some of which can be modified or otherwise used to support the chemical weapons program. We have publicly and privately expressed our concern over the destabilizing impact on the Syrian conflict and the wider region of continued military shipments to the Assad regime." Read Dreazen’s whole piece here.

CNN Reporter Barbara Starr, called on the carpet by military spouses. Longtime CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr spoke on camera last Thursday about the impact a Syria operation would have on the military. Here’s what Starr said: "Well, I think there’s no question that they can. And I don’t think it’s really going to affect military families at all. This is going to be, if it is ordered, a cruise missile strike, no U.S. troops on the ground, Navy ships out in the eastern Mediterranean that would be on deployment anyhow. So the capability is there. The money is there. Because what we’re talking about is something that will last, we are told, just potentially a couple of days."

It was a fair point in terms of explaining to the American public that such an operation isn’t envisioned (for now, at least) to require any boots on the ground. And Starr was well within her purview to say as much – the American public, clearly wary of military intervention anywhere, should understand that the operation under discussion does not literally mean sending troops into Syria. But all that didn’t sit so well with a couple of military spouses, Rebekah Sanderlin and Molly Blake, who wrote an "open letter to CNN Reporter Barbara Starr," on HuffPo. It reads, in part: "Dear Ms. Starr, We are writing to let you in on a secret. It’s a big one — so get to a fresh page in your reporter notebook and have your pen poised and ready… Here’s some inside information for you: There is no such thing as a person-less war. Our military cannot afford for Americans to forget that wars and battles and military strikes are fought by troops, that troops are people, and that those people have families."

Their beef: "In our military communities this summer we couldn’t even afford to pay federal employees for a five-day work week. Military families can’t get doctors’ appointments and can’t get the counseling services needed to grapple with the problems we already have, problems largely created by almost 12 years of war. And while Congress was busy sending a warning letter to the president to ensure they get to sign off on whether or not we go to war, they managed to ignore military families when the sequester hit. Today clinic hours are being slashed — along with pretty much every other service military families need. Walking around our communities lately, it doesn’t look like we can afford much of anything — and certainly not a whole new war. And that’s just taking ‘afford’ literally. Figuratively, the picture is even grimmer…"

The two spouses then explain the cost of "an entire generation of military kids" who have grown up with a parent they know "primarily through Skype," and the impact on couples "trying to piece together marriages" fractured by years spent apart. Sanderlin and Blake: "We grew hopeful that better days were coming as we watched the end of the Iraq war, and we’re thrilled that the end of our involvement in Afghanistan is nigh, and yet now all of cable news is breathless and giddy with talk of war in Syria." They continue: "You see, Barbara, there’s no such thing as ‘no boots on the ground.’ We in the military community sigh and shake our heads when we hear talk like that from the people on TV. Perhaps you consider a relatively small number of troops to be the same as zero — but we don’t. We know that each of those service members is somebody’s somebody…Sincerely, Rebekah Sanderlin and Molly Blake, Military Spouses." Read their whole letter here.  We reached out to Starr and will print a reply from CNN in tomorrow’s edition.

There are a number of reasons why the position in which Obama finds himself on Syria is, to quote FP’s Rosa Brooks, "painful." But in her piece on FP, "Obama Can’t Win," Brooks outlines three scenarios, none of which are good for the President. Brooks: "One: Congress votes against authorizing military action in Syria, so Obama decides not to move ahead with military action. But wait: Obama already informed the nation that as commander-in-chief, he has "decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets … based on what I am convinced is our national security interests." If that’s true — and if Obama also believes he has the authority to act without congressional authorization — how can he possibly refrain from military action merely because he can’t get enough votes in a famously dysfunctional, do-nothing Congress? Two: Congress votes against authorizing military action in Syria, and Obama — the one-time constitutional law professor — goes ahead with airstrikes anyway, ignoring the clearly expressed will of Congress. Three: Congress votes in favor of authorizing military action in Syria, leaving Obama permanently beholden to congressional Republicans. This means the White House can kiss its domestic legislative agenda goodbye." Read the whole piece in which Brooks cites her grandfather, a former Communist who loved quoting Marxist aphorisms, here.

Don’t forget about Afghanistan, Version 9.4: ISAF’s operational chief, Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, briefed Pentagon reporters yesterday in the middle of the Syrian crisis. It seemed like funny timing, but Milley, known for candor, also sat down with a Stripes reporter in Kabul this week and essentially said a "zero option" just isn’t accurate. Stripes’ Josh Smith:  "The commander of NATO ground forces in Afghanistan says there has been no discussions that the coalition would completely withdraw after 2014, despite continued uncertainty in political negotiations over the future of the international military effort. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the No. 2 commander for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, calls the term "withdrawal" a misnomer. ‘We have no indication whatsoever of a withdrawal completely from Afghanistan,’ he told Stars and Stripes in a Monday interview at his headquarters in Kabul. ‘We are going to change our mission, and we are going to reduce in size and scope.’"

And at the Pentagon yesterday, he told reporters that the conditions are set to win the Afghan war. AP’s Bob Burns: "The No. 2 American commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday he believes the stage has been set for winning the war, but hard fighting lies ahead for Afghan forces now suffering heavy casualties. [Milley] also told reporters by video teleconference from his headquarters in Kabul that he thinks the Taliban no longer are capable of overthrowing the U.S.-backed Afghan government. But, he said, the insurgents are resilient and capable of continuing to fight ‘for a fairly long period of time.’ The U.S. and its NATO allies are due to complete their combat mission in Afghanistan in December 2014. ‘Right now I would say that the conditions are set for winning this war. But it is not yet won, and it is not yet over,’ Milley said. He said the Taliban have failed to achieve their 2013 strategic goal of regaining lost ground." Read AP here. Read Stripes’ bit here.

Hagel explains the pivot and why engaging in Asia is important.  Hagel, who recently returned from a week-long trip to Asia, talked on a youtube video produced by the Pentagon about what he did on his recent trip to Asia and why it’s critical. Hagel: "There’s an entire universe of issues that you’re dealing with, challenges, threats, problems, and so you have to balance those, work through those, and so Egypt, Syria, big issues, immediate issues, I deal with those on this trip. Just because I’m in Asia and the Pacific, it doesn’t mean you divorce or leave behind all these other issues. They’re with you all the time. This trip, in particular, is an important trip for our security interests, for our geopolitical interest, for our economic interests, the United States is intricately connected to the Asia Pacific, so the more I can reach out to them, have their people in their countries understand what our intentions are… that communication is important, that exchange is important. It’s like visiting the troops: the best way to do it is just to go out and do it." See the video, with stills from the trip, 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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