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.

FP’s Situation Report: U.N. talking to al-Qaeda in Syria

McMaster picks up a third star; Guardsmen acting badly; A Navy CO channels George Costanza; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

The United Nations has been quietly cultivating informal contacts with al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate to get humanitarian assistance into the country. FP’s Colum Lynch with this exclusive: "…The contacts with leaders from the Jabhat al-Nusra terror group, which have not previously been reported, are mostly informal and sometimes involve little more than conversations between U.N. relief workers and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters at a specific checkpoint. In other cases, the U.N. funnels requests for safe passage through other more moderate armed opposition groups. Other more direct communications remain a closely-held secret. "We don’t talk about the details," said a senior U.N. official who confirmed the contacts. ‘These are not face to face contacts – they usually take place on telephone or Skype.’

"The outreach is highly sensitive within the U.N. and the broader international relief community. U.N. officials fear that the disclosure of any dealings, however incidental, with terror groups could fuel criticism that the world body is conveying such groups a kind of political legitimacy they don’t deserve. Still, U.N. officials say they have no choice but to deal with the militants. The world body is racing against time to get food and aid to the hundreds of thousands of civilians who are facing starvation in Homs, Aleppo, and other besieged Syrian towns and cities. It has been pressing the Syrian government to allow aid workers to cross through military-held territory, but senior officials say such permissions — even if granted by Damascus, which is far from certain — would be insufficient if Jabhat al-Nusra and other armed opposition groups didn’t make similar guarantees.

"…There are early signs that the outreach efforts may be paying off. Jabhat al-Nusra fighters have so far largely refrained from targeting relief workers inside Syria, and have provided assurances that their forces will not target U.N. aid convoys. That stands in stark contrast to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an even more extremist al Qaeda-inspired movement that has abducted foreign relief workers, seized aid supplies, and launched attacks against hospitals and other opposition forces." Read the rest here.

Next door, Lebanon is hosting about a million refugees from the Syrian conflict – that means that one in four people in Lebanon are Syrian. The BBC’s Kim Ghattas this morning: "The pictures of Hezbollah’s martyrs hang from the lampposts and balcony railings. They are plastered on walls and car windshields. The men died not fighting Israel – Hezbollah’s arch enemy – but supporting the forces of its ally President Bashar al-Assad, across the border in Syria. The southern suburbs of Beirut, a predominantly Shia area, are Hezbollah’s support base. The area is often referred to as a ‘stronghold’ of the radical Shia Islamist militant group. The term conjures up images of dark alleys and military installations, devoid of civilian life. But it is more of a middle-class suburb, bustling with traffic, cafes and shops, with expensive cars parked outside buildings." More here.

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Page One: It’s getting really ugly in Kiev. The NYT’s Andrew Higgins and Andrew Kramer: "Protesters in Kiev stoked what they are calling a ‘ring of fire’ separating themselves from the riot police in a desperate final effort on Wednesday to defend a stage on Independence Square that has been a focal point of their protests and keep their three-month-old movement alive. Men staggering with exhaustion dismantled the tents and field kitchens from the movement’s earlier and more peaceful phase and hauled their remnants onto the fires. They piled on mattresses, sleeping bags, tent frames, foam pads and whatever else looked flammable, burning their own encampment in a final act of defiance.

"Ukraine’s Health Ministry said on Wednesday that 25 people, including police officers, protesters and a journalist found dead on a side street near the square, had been killed after hundreds of riot police officers advanced on the antigovernment demonstrators Tuesday and in subsequent fighting on streets in the government district of the Ukrainian capital. The Health Ministry said that 241 people had been injured and that nine of the dead were police officers. The Interior Ministry said all the police officers had died from gunshot wounds, although witnesses said it appeared that several officers had been trapped in a burning armored vehicle.

"In an indication of deepening concern in Washington, the State Department issued an urgent warning late Tuesday telling American citizens in Ukraine to avoid all protests, keep a low profile and remain indoors at night while the clashes continue.

"With hundreds of riot police officers advancing from all sides after a day of deadly mayhem here in the Ukrainian capital, antigovernment demonstrators mounted a seemingly doomed act of defiance late on Tuesday. The attack on the square began shortly before 8 p.m., when police officers tried to drive two armored personnel carriers through stone-reinforced barriers outside the Khreshchatyk Hotel on the road to the square. The vehicles became bogged down and, set upon by protesters wielding rocks and fireworks, burst into flames, trapping the security officers inside one of them and prompting desperate rescue efforts to save those caught in the second vehicle, which managed to pull back from the protesters’ barricade." More here.

Reuters this morning: "Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich accused pro-European opposition leaders on Wednesday of trying to seize power by force after at least 26 people died in the worst violence since the former Soviet republic gained independence. European Union leaders said they were urgently preparing targeted sanctions against those responsible for a crackdown on protesters who have been occupying central Kiev for almost three months since Yanukovich spurned a far-reaching trade deal with the EU and accepted a $15-billion Russian bailout." More here.

Leave no man behind: If there was ever a time for the "interagency" to work together, it was now, says Duncan Hunter.  Rep. Duncan Hunter, the former Marine turned California Republican, is calling on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to appoint a single individual to coordinate government-wide efforts to get Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl returned safely to the U.S. Bowe has been held by the Taliban since 2009, and the WaPo reported yesterday that the U.S. was considering a prisoner swap with the Taliban to get Bergdahl home. "While I am aware that U.S. Central Command is in direct control of the Bergdahl situation, I am concerned by the lack of cohesiveness and interagency coordination overall," Hunter wrote Hagel. "Since CENTCOM is not designed to effectively implement and manage an "all government approach," I believe it would be extraordinarily beneficial to establish centralized control of the Bergdahl operation that is fully capable of linking broader government activity." Hunter added: "It is absolutely critical that efforts to free Bergdahl are not overcome by bureaucracy." Read the whole letter, provided to Situation Report, here.

Steven Green, convicted of the shockingly brutal rape of an Iraqi girl, found dead in his cell. The LAT’s David Zucchino: "It was one of the most disturbing war crimes to emerge from the brutal conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan: U.S. Army Pfc. Steven Dale Green raped and killed a 14-year-old Iraqi girl in 2006 after shooting and killing her parents and younger sister. Then he and his combat buddies from a nearby U.S. Army checkpoint set the girl’s corpse on fire. Green, 28, serving five life sentences, apparently has committed suicide eight years after the crimes. He was found hanging in his cell at the federal maximum security prison in Tucson last week and died Saturday, prison officials announced Tuesday. They said Green’s death was being investigated as an apparent suicide." The rest here.

The Army regroups: H.R. McMaster’s going to pick up a third star. Breaking Defense’s Sydney Freedberg on the spate of Army general officers announced for promotion yesterday: "…Then there’s H.R. McMaster. A blunt-spoken bulldog of a man who made his name as both a scholar and practitioner of counterinsurgency in Iraq, McMaster long looked like the classic Army maverick who did well on the battlefield but made too many enemies on his own side to rise past the rank of colonel. After McMaster was passed over for brigadier general twice in a row – normally the death knell for an Army career – getting him his first star required the arch-counterinsurgent, Gen. David Petraeus himself, temporarily taking over the Army promotion process. Petreaus’s own star has fallen since. And there’s lots of talk in national security circles about his "COINista" followers are following him down, now that we’re done with a messy guerrilla wars forever (again) and can focus on a proper high-tech enemy like the Soviet U-excuse me, China. Whatever truth of the trash talk in general, however, McMaster in particular has gone on from strength to strength to strength: This will be his third star in less than six years." More here.

Move over China – Iran’s the new cyber threat. FP’s Shane Harris: "In March 2012, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, publicly announced the creation a new Supreme Council of Cyberspace to oversee the defense of the Islamic republic’s computer networks and develop news ways of infiltrating or attacking the computer networks of its enemies. Less than two years later, security experts and U.S. intelligence officials are alarmed by how quickly Iran has managed to develop its cyber warfare capabilities — and by how much it’s willing to use them.

"For several years, Iran was believed to possess the ambition to launch disruptive attacks on Western, Israeli or Arab computer networks, but not necessarily the technological capability of actually doing so. Those doubts have largely evaporated. In late 2012, U.S. intelligence officials believe hackers in Iran launched a series of debilitating assaults on the Web sites of major U.S. banks. The hackers used a well-honed technique called a denial of service attack, in which massive amounts of traffic are directed at a site’s servers until they crash. But the traffic flow in the bank attack was orders of magnitude greater than anything U.S. security officials had seen up to that point, indicating a remarkable degree of technical sophistication… Officials now say it took the Navy four months to fully clear its systems and recover from the breach, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal." Read the rest here.

Remember the Pentagon’s "unfunded priorities lists?" They’re probably back. Time’s Mark Thompson on Swampland: "…Such ‘wish lists’ all but died under defense secretary Robert Gates. But if lawmakers have their way, they’ll be back…The Air Force was Gates’ primary target. In 2008, its list totaled more than those of the three other services combined. That year, the Air Force’s wish list topped out at $19 billion-in addition to its White House-approved $144 billion budget request-and included dozens of extra airplanes. By two years ago, the practice had all but stopped… But, like a leaky basement that inevitably surrenders to the unrelenting pressure of water building up outside its walls, Congress is renewing its requests for such lists now that Gates is gone…

"Hagel is insisting any responses go through his office before they’re sent on to Capitol Hill. ‘He just wants to be informed about what they’re submitting,’ Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday. That’s the choke point that Gates used to throttle earlier lists. Just how lengthy any new wish lists are will be a key test of Hagel’s clout inside the Pentagon." Read that here.

Channeling George Costanza: Was that wrong? Navy Times’ Meghann Myers: "The commanding officer and senior enlisted leader of a Florida-based ordnance testing unit have been fired after determining their command sought Submarine Birthday Ball funds from local strip clubs, the Navy said Tuesday. Capt. John Heatherington, the CO of Naval Ordnance Test Unit in Cape Canaveral, Fla., was relieved of duty Tuesday by Vice Adm. Terry Benedict, the director of Strategic Systems Programs, SSP spokesman John Daniels told Navy Times. NOTU’s senior enlisted leader, Master Chief Missile Technician (SS) Eric Spindle, has also been relieved as part of the investigation. The firings stem from the command’s fundraising for the 2014 Submarine Birthday Ball at Cape Canaveral, with NOTU members soliciting sponsors for a November golf tournament to raise funds for the ball, Daniels said, including local dry cleaners, restaurants and two local adult entertainment businesses. Daniels said Heatherington knew of the donations from the strip clubs but did not rectify the situation. The fund-raising team included active-duty, civilian and contract personnel, who are being handled administratively, Daniels added." The rest here.

Seinfeld’s Costanza’s full quote after he was busted having sex on a desk at the office: "Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I tell ya, I gotta plead ignorance on this thing because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon…"  Watch it here.

The conservative advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America’s new campaign is blunt: "America’s veterans are dying, it’s the VA’s fault." Military Times’ Leo Shane: "… The line, pulled from a CNN piece earlier this year, refers to VA Inspector General findings of 31 preventable deaths at Veterans Affairs Department medical centers nationwide in recent months. The deaths have been the focus of increased scrutiny from congressional Republicans, who have accused VA leaders of failing to hold employees accountable for a variety of failures. The CVA effort – online at – is a continuation of that criticism. Organizers note that no senior officials have been fired over the preventable deaths or problems such as the ongoing disability claims backlog. ‘Overall, VA is a calcified bureaucracy unable to meet the basic needs of veterans,’ the new website states. ‘VA responds to criticism by denying problems, stonewalling inquiries, and finding quick fixes to distract the media and watchdog groups.’ More here.

A group of National Guardsmen took some really stupid selfies that went viral. Army Times’ Joe Gould: "The Wisconsin National Guard has suspended a soldier from a funeral honors detail over two photos that sparked outrage and shock after the pictures were posted to social media. One image shows a group of soldiers – some grinning, some striking comic poses – beside a casket draped in the American flag. The accompanying caption said, "We put the FUN in funeral your fearless honor guard from various states." The other, posted on Instagram, is a selfie of a woman who appears to be in an honor guard accompanied a caption that reads: "It’s so damn cold out…WHY have a funeral outside! Somebody’s getting a jacked up flag…"

Said Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, in a news release: "We expect all of our Soldiers and Airmen to live by a core set of values, in word and deed… I was appalled by the offensive photos and comments that appeared on this Soldier’s social media site regarding her duties as a funeral honor guard member." More, including an image of the soldiers posing with a likely empty casket, 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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