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: Still no hard evidence to pin downing of jet on separatists; Three-star: military force and passion don’t mix; Israel targets Hamas tunnels, ops; Dunford on ambiguity on drawdown plans; and a bit more.

  By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel  The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has created a full-blown international crisis. The origins of the anti-aircraft missile that U.S. officials confirm blew the jetliner out of the sky as it passed over a rebel-controlled area of eastern Ukraine are still unclear this morning. But it’s certain ...



By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel 

The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has created a full-blown international crisis. The origins of the anti-aircraft missile that U.S. officials confirm blew the jetliner out of the sky as it passed over a rebel-controlled area of eastern Ukraine are still unclear this morning. But it’s certain that the crash of the plane, killing all 298 people aboard, will bring extreme international pressure to resolve the problems that have been festering in Ukraine for months since Russia annexed Crimea in Ukraine this winter. But for now, there are still a number of questions for which there are few easy answers.

AP is reporting just minutes ago that Putin is calling for peace talks. AP: "Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a cease-fire Friday in eastern Ukraine and urged the two sides to hold peace talks as soon as possible. A day earlier, Putin had blamed Ukraine for the downing, saying it was responsible for the unrest in its Russian-speaking eastern regions – but did not accuse Ukraine of shooting the plane down and did not address the key question of whether Russia gave the rebels such a powerful missile." More here.

Meantime, the origin of the missile remains unclear even if suspicion falls heavily on Russian-backed rebels operating in that region of Ukraine. U.S. and international military and intelligence officials are trying to pinpoint just where the missile that shot the plane down came from. If that effort confirms that rebels shot the plane – even mistakenly, because they may have thought it was the kind of Ukrainian cargo jet they’ve shot down in the past – it will force the White House and other countries to come to grips with how they will address Moscow, which is seen by many as having created the conditions in which this could happen in the first place.

A NATO official in an email to Situation Report this morning on tracking the missile: "Two NATO AWACS surveillance planes were on patrol over Poland and Romania at the time of the incident. Their flight records are being reviewed. However, given the great distance of the AWACS patrol routes from the area where the Malaysian airlines flight went down, we do not expect that our aircraft recorded the incident."

The Kyiv Post reports that intercepted phone conversations between Russian-backed Cossack militants prove the origin of the missile. Citing information released by Ukraine’s security agency, SBU, the Kyiv Post reports: "…One phone call apparently was made at 4:40 p.m. Kyiv time, or 20 minutes after the plane crash, by Igor Bezler, who the SBU says is a Russian military intelligence officer and leading commander of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. He reports to a person identified by Ukraine’s SBU as a colonel in the main intelligence department of the general headquarters of the armed forces of the Russian Federation Vasili Geranin regarding the shot down plane, which is about to be examined by the militants." More here.

Putin puts it all on Ukraine: FP’s Reid Standish: "In a televised statement, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Ukraine bore sole responsibility for the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a ‘disaster’ that he said would not have occurred if Kiev had not resumed its military campaign against pro-Russian separatists. ‘And without doubt the government of the territory on which it happened bears responsibility for this frightening tragedy,’ he said, before adding that he had urged Russian authorities to do everything possible to help investigate the incident."

Still, a number of other things remain unclear, too. Chief among them is who missed what intelligence that would have ceased flights of commercial jetliner traffic across Ukraine, putting ML17 within shooting distance of weaponry U.S. and international officials knew pro–Russian separatists to have had. Commercial aviation had been operating in and over Ukraine but no one put two plus two together. Naturally, major airlines have now banned such flights from the region.

Why was Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 flying through a war zone?  Clive Irving for the Daily Beast, here.

There is still no official confirmation of the number of Americans dead. But reports indicate more than 20 Americans were on the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight with a total of 298 passengers and crew on board.

What now? As American and European flight crash investigators are headed to the scene to investigate the crash and there are calls for the U.N. to step in. FP’s Colum Lynch: "Britain’s newly minted foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, called for a ‘U.N.-led investigation into the facts’ of the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, saying he was ‘deeply shocked’ by the incident, noting that an unknown number of British nationals were on board the plane. ‘This must be resolved by an international investigation,’ Hammond said, adding that British authorities were still trying to determine the number of British nationals on board the plane when it crashed in Ukraine. ‘We believe the United Nations, particularly the United Nations civil aviation organization, is the right body to lead that investigation,’ Hammond said. ‘We are prepared to make Air Accident Investigation Branch assets and specialists available to aid such an investigation.’"

Read more of FP’s live blog on ML17 all day today, here.

What the right says on this: Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, in a statement: "The failure of the United States and our allies in Europe to enact serious consequences against Russia for their involvement in Ukraine has allowed the crisis in Ukraine to fester with deadly and tragic consequences. If the culprit is confirmed as Russia, President Obama should address the issue head on and institute serious ramifications."

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of NATO Land Command in Turkey, thinks the situation is grave but doesn’t think jumping to military solutions right now is the answer. Hodges, in an interview with SitRep this morning, said as the investigation unfolds, the most important thing is for the international community to do more to push forcefully for political solutions in the region. But in the meantime, assuming Russian-backed separatists did in fact shoot down the plane, it means Moscow will be forced to rein in those separatists, he said.

"This is really going to put pressure on Russia to get these guys under control," Hodges told SitRep.

Meantime, he said, expanding exercises in the region to demonstrate a show of force while pushing Russia and Ukraine on the political front is the first answer even as critics will inevitably demand a more military-oriented response to the downing of the jet. "A political solution is so much better than any other course of action," he said. "To launch forces… when you’re passionate, that’s not the best circumstances in which to use military force."

Congress has been debating the European Reassurance Initiative, a $1 billion program to increase training in the region and build up necessary infrastructure in the region for allies to conduct such training. Hodges said such exercises are critical right now – not only for their training value but for the show of force they provide. He said he hopes Congress acts fast to approve the initiative.

You’d think the downing of the Malaysian jet would seem to be a game-changer in the conflict. But security analysts hold out little expectation that will be the case. CS Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi, here.

Welcome to Friday’s edition of Situation Report. Poor timing, but we’re going off the grid for a little while. FP’s own Kate Brannen will be driving this SitRep train through the end of the month and we know SitRep will be in very capable hands with her and Nathaniel. Be back soon. Meantime, if you’d like to be one of our subscribers, we’d love to have you. Sign up for Situation Report by sending us a note at and we’ll just stick you on. Like what you see? Tell a friend.  And if you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, you, send it to us early for maximum tease. And the more shovel-ready, the better. And hey! Follow us: @glubold and @njsobe4.

Of course there was another crisis – in the Middle East, and Israel launches a ground invasion in Gaza focused on the tunnels. FP’s Hudson: "…The purpose of the ground offensive, according to a statement by the Israeli government, is to destroy the tunnels connecting Gaza to Israel that enable Hamas fighters to attack Israeli citizens. ‘[The operation] will deal significant damage to the infrastructure of Hamas and other terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip,’ Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said in a statement.

An Arab diplomat in New York told FP: "There is intense effort being made by President Abbas in Cairo in trying to finalize what would be a cease-fire… That’s where all the efforts are for the moment." More here.

And the first Israeli solider was killed in the northern Gaza Strip. AP: "Israel on Friday announced its first casualty since the start of a ground operation in Gaza, with one soldier killed following a night of heavy fighting in the Hamas-ruled enclave. The military said the soldier was killed in the northern Gaza Strip, but the circumstances behind his death were not immediately clear… In a statement, the military said it killed 14 militants in a number of exchanges of fire. It targeted rocket launchers, tunnels and more than 100 other targets. The military said 50 rockets have been fired at Israel since the start of its ground operation, out of more than 1,500 since the fighting began last week." More here.

Israel’s late-night assault shows the past week’s attempts at talks were a sham all along. Gregg Carlstrom for FP: "The day started with a cease-fire, and ended with a ground invasion. Israeli troops moved across the border into the besieged Gaza Strip on Thursday night, the first large-scale ground offensive since a 2008-2009 war that killed more than 1,400 people and caused widespread destruction. The invasion, announced at around 10:30 p.m. local time, followed hours of heavy shelling aimed at clearing improvised explosive devices from the border.

"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the offensive would seek to destroy "terror tunnels," after two attempted Palestinian incursions into southern Israel in the past two weeks, one of which left eight Hamas gunmen dead on Thursday morning. The army will also target the launchers which various groups have used to fire more than 1,000 rockets at Israel. It is a major escalation that was never really supposed to happen: By all accounts, Netanyahu was reluctant to send ground troops into Gaza, despite mounting pressure from the public and the right flank of his coalition." More here.  

Why collateral damage foils the best-laid plans of "limited" war makers. FP’s David Rothkopf: "Modern low-intensity conflicts are won and lost on their ragged edges. Nations act as though the careful plans of their militaries and intelligence operations can harness the chaos of combat and guide it to advance their interests. And then the unplanned happens, collateral damage occurs, and it has a bigger impact on politics and the position of combatants than all the calculated elements of the conflict added up." More here.

Meantime, former CIA director Michael Hayden and former Indiana Senator Evan Bayh warn of Tehran’s attempts to leverage its involvement in Iraq to extract a better nuclear deal: "What is missed is that Tehran and Washington have incompatible strategic objectives. The U.S. needs a stable and inclusive Iraq, while Iran’s ambitions lie in preserving a Shiite-dominated state that relies on Tehran for its survival. If we are not careful, the clerical regime will seek to leverage the chaos in Mesopotamia to extract nuclear concessions from us before the Sunday deadline for a deal as talks continue in Vienna this week. We need to be careful not to create indebtedness, even perceived indebtedness." More here.

Hawks looking to sanction Iran are facing opposition from U.S. businesses.  FP’s Jamila Trindle,here.

Meantime, this would have been bigger news on any other day. Gen. Joe Dunford, nominated to become the next Marine Corps Commandant after his long tour as the Afghanistan war commander, was asked yesterday during his confirmation hearing as Commandant about President Barack Obama’s decision to announce the U.S. drawdown plans over the next two years – a move that many Afghan hands and other critics have decried was foolish and, for the White House, politically unnecessary.

McCain, at the hearing: "Is there any doubt in your mind that the announcement of a complete withdrawal by 2017 has had effect on the morale of the Afghan army?"

Dunford: "Senator, I think all of us in uniform, to include the Afghans, would have preferred that that be a bit more ambiguous."

Lawmakers vow a swift confirmation for Dunford. Military Times’ Hope Hodge Seck: "Afghanistan’s future was the most popular discussion point during Thursday’s confirmation hearing on Gen. Joseph Dunford’s nomination to become the next Marine Corps commandant. And while lawmakers’ questioning at times became intense over the Afghan National Security Forces’ preparedness to take over counter-terrorism missions when U.S. troops exit at the end of 2016, the panel made clear it intends to quickly confirm Dunford for his next post." More here.

Afghanistan begins its presidential election audit. The NYT’s Matthew Rosenberg in Kabul: "Afghan election workers on Thursday began auditing the votes cast in last month’s presidential election runoff, monitored by American and United Nations observers.

"…Increasing the international presence here to handle the large volume of votes to be audited has proved a challenge. Many of the roughly 30 foreign observers who took part in Thursday’s initial auditing session were United Nations officials and American development experts who had been pulled off other projects. An additional 70 observers are being flown in from Europe and the United States, and they should be in place by next week, officials said. The American-led military coalition is flying ballot boxes from across Afghanistan to Kabul so they can be audited." More here.

Read the story that takes you inside John Kerry’s diplomatic save in Kabul. Time’s Mike Crowley, this morning: "As the sun went down over Kabul on Saturday, July 13, Afghanistan’s future hung in the balance. Accusations of fraud in the country’s recent presidential election had paralyzed the country’s politics and threatened to trigger a civil war that could destroy the progress America’s costly military and diplomatic efforts had delivered since 2001. The parties in the dispute had convened at the residence of the American ambassador in Kabul, but the two sides couldn’t reach agreement. "U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived on the scene that Saturday evening just as key Afghani players were headed out to the patio for their evening prayers. Scheduled to depart 90 minutes earlier for Vienna, where he was to join the ongoing international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, Kerry had delayed his departure to make a last ditch effort to broker a deal." Read the rest of this tale here.

Buildings the U.S. built for Afghan troops could go up in flames – literally. FP’s Kate Brannen: "Some 1,600 facilities that the U.S. built for Afghan soldiers, including barracks, medical clinics, and fire stations, were put together so hastily that they’re now at increased risk of fire, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The response from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who oversaw this $1.6 billion program: Don’t worry, the Afghan soldiers who will be inside these buildings are young and fit enough to escape if they need to.

"Needless to say John Sopko, the inspector general, is not satisfied with this answer. ‘I am very troubled by such logic, which seems to argue that fire hazards for a building are somehow remediated by the youthful speed and vigor of the occupants,’ he wrote in a July 9 letter to Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, head of the Army Corps of Engineers. ‘This logic pales in light of not only the speed with which these buildings will be consumed by fire as well as the fact that a number of the buildings in question are infirmaries and sleeping quarters.’" More here.

Meantime, Congress approved the $500 million for training moderate rebels in Syria. Breaking Defense’s Sydney Freedberg, here.

For al Awsat, Amir Taheri offers constitutional reform as a way out of Afghanistan’s presidential impasse, here.

The Islamic State claims responsibility for a suicide bombing in central Baghdad that killed nine. Reuters’ Raheem Salman: "A suicide bombing claimed by the Islamic State militant group killed three people on Thursday in the centre of Baghdad and a second bomb outside the Iraqi capital killed six people, police and medics said. The bomb in central Baghdad, claimed by the al Qaeda offshoot, exploded near the Shi’ite mosque of Abdullah bin Rawah in the main wholesale market of Shorja, the sources said. The Islamic State said on an affiliated Twitter feed that a man it called Abu Bakr al-Australi (the Australian) had detonated explosives in a vest he was wearing near the mosque." More here.

Former State Dept. official Peter Van Buren writes that the current mini-Surge in Iraq is likely to fail just like the first one did. Find it on Reuters’ blog, here.

Will we defeat al Qaeda? Lt. Gen. Jim Dubik for Army magazine: "…The U.S. and its allies need a more comprehensive strategy-one that retains the efforts to make partners out of some nations and to wear down selective al Qaeda network leaders and operatives-but it involves more. Perhaps the most critical component is conceptual. The President rightly lauded American post-World War II wisdom in creating institutions that helped keep the peace and support human progress. Such wisdom and leadership have been absent in creating the international legal and diplomatic institutions necessary to fight a global war against a non-nation-state. If al Qaeda were a nation-state invading countries and using force to achieve the strategic goals as it has, the world response would be much different from what it is now." More here.

Building a better mouse trap: As the military gets smaller, why not create a smarter, better educated military and educate folks before service – not after. Michael Crow and John Paul Parker for FP’s Best Defense with Tom Ricks: "…Budget constraints and other factors will ensure that the Army of tomorrow will have fewer soldiers, but we will increasingly need them to operate more independently, and be agile and innovative. That can’t be done with technology or organizational changes alone. Moreover, uncertainty about the future suggests that what soldiers of tomorrow will need is more broad-based knowledge and education, and not more drills and rote training. It’s time to require every soldier entering the force to have a college degree." More here.

The U.N. Security Council on Thursday condemned recent ballistic missile launches by North Korea. Reuters’ story, here.

Gordon Lubold is a senior writer at FP and author of Situation Report  with help by Nathaniel Sobel, director of research at the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. Follow him @glubold and him @njsobe4.

More from Foreign Policy

Vladimir Putin speaks during the Preliminary Draw of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia at The Konstantin Palace on July 25, 2015 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Vladimir Putin speaks during the Preliminary Draw of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia at The Konstantin Palace on July 25, 2015 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

What Putin Got Right

The Russian president got many things wrong about invading Ukraine—but not everything.

Dmitry Medvedev (center in the group of officials), an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who is now deputy chairman of the country's security council, visits the Omsktransmash (Omsk transport machine factory) in the southern Siberian city of Omsk.
Dmitry Medvedev (center in the group of officials), an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who is now deputy chairman of the country's security council, visits the Omsktransmash (Omsk transport machine factory) in the southern Siberian city of Omsk.

Russia Has Already Lost in the Long Run

Even if Moscow holds onto territory, the war has wrecked its future.

Sri Lankan construction workers along a road in Colombo.
Sri Lankan construction workers along a road in Colombo.

China’s Belt and Road to Nowhere

Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy is a “shadow of its former self.”

Dalton speaks while sitting at a table alongside other U.S. officials.
Dalton speaks while sitting at a table alongside other U.S. officials.

The U.S. Overreacted to the Chinese Spy Balloon. That Scares Me.

So unused to being challenged, the United States has become so filled with anxiety over China that sober responses are becoming nearly impossible.