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.S. airstrikes over Iraq have begun; mil dropped food and water; Not a “sustained campaign” against ISIS; McChrystal endorses a Dem; Kerry’s back in Afg; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel Breaking in SitRep just minutes ago: At 6:45 this morning EDT, the U.S. military conducted an airstrike against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS terrorists with two F/A-18 aircraft dropping 500-pound laser guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece near Irbil, marking the beginning of a ...

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

Breaking in SitRep just minutes ago: At 6:45 this morning EDT, the U.S. military conducted an airstrike against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS terrorists with two F/A-18 aircraft dropping 500-pound laser guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece near Irbil, marking the beginning of a significant development in President Barack Obama’s Iraq policy. From a statement from Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby: "ISIL was using this artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Erbil where U.S. personnel are located. The decision to strike was made by the U.S. Central Command commander under authorization granted him by the Commander in Chief. As the President made clear, The United States military will continue to take direct action against ISIL when they threaten our personnel and facilities."

Obama went back to Iraq but insists the scope of the mission is very limited. After proudly declaring the U.S. out of Iraq in 2011, President Obama announced last night that he had authorized the U.S. military to conduct airstrikes in Iraq as needed to stop the brutal advance of Sunni militants, and said the U.S. had dropped thousands of MREs and thousands of gallons of water for Iraqi minorities stranded on that mountain.

This morning, that authorization became reality. In addition to the ones over Irbil, other such strikes could be used to ensure the safety of Iraqi minorities and to protect the Kurdish capital of Irbil, now threatened by the advance of ISIS over the last several days. Strikes could also be used to protect the massive Mosul dam, which, if militants destroyed, would send a catastrophically large wall of water downriver. Obama has also said airstrikes would be used to protect American personnel. About 40 U.S. troops are at a joint center in Irbil, along with hundreds of others in Baghdad and other locations.

There was a lot of talk last night of "laying down markers." And senior administration officials briefing reporters late last night said the authorization of airstrikes, which had not yet begun at the time, was to send a signal to ISIS that the U.S. would protect its personnel and facilities.

Obama, last night: "I’ve said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world. So let me be clear about why we must act, and act now. When we face a situation like we do on that mountain — with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help — in this case, a request from the Iraqi government — and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain."

There is still a read-my-lips moment when it comes to boots-on-the-ground. Although there are hundreds of armed American troops conducting assessments and security in Iraq, they are not there to be "combat boots on the ground," as administration officials have said. Obama’s redline for Iraq is not to commit American troops to conduct ground operations there. Of course if those troops had to protect themselves for any reason and got into a shooting fight with ISIS, this quickly could become an issue of semantics for the American public.

But the return to Iraq is still rather limited. Senior administration officials briefing reporters by phone late last night said the White House’s approach was consistent with what it’s been saying, that Iraq must help itself by committing to political reconciliation and that Iraqi security forces would carry the bulk of the burden when it came to stabilizing Iraq, where the security situation has steadily declined all this year and most pointedly since ISIS made advances starting in June. "We are not launching a sustained U.S. campaign against [ISIS] here," a senior administration official said last night. "We’ve always made it clear that Iraq’s future is up to the Iraqis."

Meantime, defense officials said the humanitarian mission was conducted from a number of air bases within the U.S. Central Command "area of responsibility" and included one C-17 jet and two C-130 cargo jets. The two dropped a total of 72 bundles of supplies. Senior administration officials said the supplies were for about 8,000 people – far short of the 40,000 thought to be stuck on that mountain.

Check for more updates throughout the day on FP, here.

The WSJ’s Carol Lee and Felicia Schwartz on Obama’s policy reversal: "…The return to military engagement in Iraq is a reversal for Mr. Obama, whose early opposition to the war that toppled Saddam Hussein, and his promise to end it, fueled his long-shot campaign for the White House." More here.

The NYT’s Peter Baker noted that Obama’s move yesterday marked the fourth U.S. president to order military action in Iraq, "in that graveyard of American ambition." More here.

The NYT editorial page on preventing slaughter in Iraq: "… Mr. Obama made a wise policy call, and showed proper caution, by keeping his commitment not to reintroduce American ground troops in Iraq, but humanitarian assistance for the imperiled civilians was necessary." More here.

Iraq’s Christians are being wiped out by the brutal Islamic State. Sophie Cousins for FP: "…U.N. Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Izsák Rita says she is gravely concerned about not only the safety of Christians in Iraq, but also other minority groups — including Yazidis, Shabaks, and Turkmen. Tens of thousands of Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority group, were recently forced to flee Sinjar, in the country’s western Nineveh province, after Islamic State fighters captured the town last Sunday.

"Roughly 200,000 people fled the Islamic State invasion of northern Iraq to the relative safety of the Kurdish cities of Dohuk and Erbil. However, U.N. groups said at least 40,000 have taken refuge on Mount Sinjar, where they are currently stranded — and facing dire water and food shortages. At least 40 children have already died, according to UNICEF, while Kurdish leaders have appealed to the United States for immediate assistance to help reach the stranded refugees. The U.S. government is now reportedly considering air strikes on Islamic State fighters and humanitarian food drops." More here.

What the legal basis for Obama’s airstrikes in Iraq looks like.  For Lawfare, Harvard’s Jack Goldsmith quickly lays out the options. They are: (1) 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force; (2) 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force; (3) the President’s inherent power under Article II. Read the full post here.

A bit more on Iraq below.

Welcome to Friday’s edition of Situation Report. 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.

Europe proposes a U.N. mission for Gaza. FP’s Colum Lynch with this exclusive: "Major European powers have outlined a detailed plan for a European-backed U.N. mission to monitor the lifting of an Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip and the dismantling of Hamas’s military tunnel network and rocket arsenals, according to a copy of the plan obtained by Foreign Policy.

"…It remains unclear whether the European plan has the support of Hamas, Israel, or the United States. It does, however, include several elements the Obama administration believes are essential, including the need to ease Gazans’ plight, strengthen the role of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and ensure the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip." More here.

Israel launched airstrikes into the Gaza strip today in response to Palestinian rockets fired and talks failed to extend the 72-hour truce. Reuters this morning: "…As rocket-warning sirens sounded in southern Israel, the military said Hamas had fired at least 18 rockets from Gaza and Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ interceptor system brought down two. Gaza militants said they had fired 10 rockets on Friday. In the first casualties since hostilities resumed on Friday, Palestinian medical officials said a 10-year-old boy was killed in an Israeli strike near a mosque in Gaza City. In Israel, police said two people were injured by mortar fire from Gaza." More here.

ICYMI – Ha’aretz’s editorial yesterday: Time to resume negotiations with Abbas, here.

Mike Flynn left DIA yesterday after an event held for him at the sprawling headquarters building outside Washington. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey was supposed to preside, but was tied up at the White House with Iraq. So the NSA’s Mike Rogers was a last-minute stand-in. Rogers told the group he would not sing like Dempsey might have, but said that if he did sing, he would have sang "Danny Boy" just as Dempsey likes to do. But then he would add his own touch, another song, maybe Stairway to Heaven.

There were a number of foreign representatives at the event held for Flynn, including some Chinese reps. Flynn, one of nine kids from Rhode Island, talked about how his mother, who joined the event via VTC, gave up sorting socks when he was a kid as there were so many, and how to grow up Flynn was to grow up wearing white socks. Flynn thanked his staff, the security guys and the caterers – and even gave a shout-out to the DIA cafeteria for having great food. He’ll be succeeded, for now, by his civilian deputy at DIA, David Shedd.

DC-Seen at Flynn’s DIA departure: J.C. Campbell, Scotty Miller, Doug Brown, Tom O’Connell, Dan McNeill, Stan McChrystal, Mike LeFever, his wife Patty, Sally Donnelly, Julian Barnes and an assortment of shadowy intel folks who like to stay out of the SitRep limelight.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island’s statement on Flynn for the Congressional Record: "… [Flynn] has overseen DIA’s rapid tactical, operational, and strategic intelligence support to U.S. warfighters as they confront a variety of threats-from militancy in North Africa and the crisis in Ukraine, to tracking terrorists and weapons proliferation. In all of his assignments, General Flynn has provided outstanding leader- ship with integrity and has offered sound advice on numerous issues of importance to the Army and our Nation."

Flynn’s "fixing intel" piece for CNAS that put him on more people’s radar years ago, here.

Maj. Gen. Harold Greene’s body arrived at Dover yesterday, where it was received by his family and Army Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno. The WaPo’s Dan Lamothe assembled the pictures, here.

Kerry is back in Afghanistan to get an agreement on the presidential election. The NYT’s Michael Gordon and Matthew Rosenberg: "Secretary of State John Kerry made an unannounced visit here on Thursday to press Afghanistan’s rival presidential candidates to form a government of national unity and rescue the political agreement he negotiated almost four weeks ago. The Obama administration is urging Afghan politicians to accept the result of an internationally monitored audit so a new president can be inaugurated before NATO nations hold a summit meeting in Wales in early September.

"…A delay in picking a president could have enormous ramifications for Afghanistan’s security. Mr. Karzai has left to his successor the decision of whether to sign two security accords that would provide the legal basis for American and other NATO troops to remain after this year. Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah have each made clear that he would sign those accords if he became president." More here.

The State Department’s statement on Kerry’s trip, here.

Without a shift in Afghan strategy, the Taliban are the only winners. US Institute of Peace’s Scott Smith: "…It is clear that Karzai should sign the BSA immediately, while the Obama administration should reconsider its troop withdrawal timeframe, basing it instead on clear conditions on the ground rather than an abstract timetable. And the two candidates should also agree to abide by the result of the audit on the United Nations’ terms. The only ones who don’t have to change their strategy to come out on top are the Taliban." More here.

Hagel visits India in a bid to strengthen defense ties. The WSJ’s Santanu Choudhury: "U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel landed in India Thursday on a trip to reach out to the new government and strengthen ties with the South-Asian nation, which has recently become the largest importer of American arms. In his first official trip to India, Mr. Hagel is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as Defense and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Friday. He is also scheduled to meet with Indian and U.S. defense company executives.

"…While Indian and U.S. government officials wouldn’t disclose the specifics of what would be discussed during the visit, Jon Grevatt, an Asia-Pacific defense industry analyst for defense publisher IHS Jane’s, said Mr. Hagel would probably try to promote U.S. military equipment deals, including a next-generation Javelin antitank missile, unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters." More here.

Boehner told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he can’t offer him an opportunity to address Congress in September. FP’s John Hudson with this exclusive: "Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not address a joint session of Congress during his visit to the United States in September, his first since becoming the country’s leader, Foreign Policy has learned.

From Boehner’s letter, obtained by FP: ""I would be very interested in exploring with you the possibility of a visit to the United States Capitol and an address to a joint meeting of Congress should your travels bring you back to our country in the months and years ahead."

"…Many expected Modi to address Congress in the last week of September when he’s in the United States to meet President Barack Obama and address the United Nations General Assembly. But House leadership is contemplating calling an early recess in September ahead of mid-term elections, which would mean lawmakers would be in their districts during Modi’s trip." More here.

The New Normal? With ambassadors’ confirmations held up, "acting" officials could become a regular thing. The Hill’s Robert Rizzi and Andrew Borene: "…If White House history is any indicator, during the next two years many of the president’s appointed officials will begin a natural process of transition from public service to the private sector, academia, NGOs or other political campaigns. One consequence of this upcoming exodus will be that a new tier of leadership must step into the void as ‘acting’ officials, assuming all responsibility until a Senate confirmed successor can formally assume each of those offices. That said, the powers and responsibilities of these ‘acting’ officials during this period of the Obama administration will be subject to a number of special laws that can be carefully navigated, in order to avoid legal liability and political jeopardy." More here.

47 IGs complain about impediments to access to information from the executive branch agencies they oversee. Andy Wright for Just Security, here.

A new study shows that combat stress among veterans who had it for a decade or more after serving in Vietnam don’t see it go away. The NYT’s Benedict Carey on Page One, here.

As wars end, a complicated benefits system makes the idea of moving on for spouses of fallen warriors rather difficult. The WaPo’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff, here.

Stan McChrystal just endorsed a Democrat (and former Marine) for Congress.  CS Monitor’s Anna Mulrine: "Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal this week endorsed congressional candidate Seth Moulton, a former Marine, in his bid to unseat US Rep. John Tierney (D) of Massachusetts in a September Democratic primary.

"…McChrystal said he had never endorsed a political candidate before. ‘But I thought it was time to change it, and change it for one person,’ he told a group of 100 people gathered at a Peabody, Mass., Elks Lodge."

"…McChrystal told the Elks Club audience that he had never endorsed a candidate before, and that he is not planning to run for office himself, adding that he is not a Democrat, Republican, or Independent. ‘That’s the kind of thing someone says up front when they know they are about to do something controversial,’ he adds." More here.

Plagiarism and politics, never a good cocktail: Democratic Sen. John Walsh pulled out of his Senate re-elect campaign in Montana because of the distraction caused by allegations he plagiarized his Army War College research paper in 2007. He’ll serve the rest of his term. Read the rest from the Billings Gazette, here. 

A cell phone video allegedly shows the security detail of the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo beating a protestor outside the Capella Hotel in Washington. Watch it on Buzzfeed, here.

Richard Danzig says that focusing on cyber ‘existential’ threats undermines U.S. preparedness. Inside Cybersecurity’s Chris Castelli:

"Washington’s recurring tendency to label cyber attacks an ‘existential’ threat to the United States exaggerates the danger and fails to focus attention on managing significant cyber risks to critical infrastructure and U.S. national security, according to … Danzig, a key administration adviser and author of a recent cybersecurity study." here.

The Lebanese Army is in control after militants flee Arsal. The Daily Star’s Hasan Lakkis and Hussein Dakroubl: "he Lebanese Army tightened its grip around Arsal Thursday after Islamist militants withdrew from the northeastern town, taking with them captive soldiers, according to officials. Meanwhile, Cabinet approved the recruitment of 11,000 security personnel in a major boost for the Army in its battle against terrorism. A cease-fire went into effect Thursday, ending five days of ferocious fighting between the Army and Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants in and around Arsal, in the most serious fallout of Syria’s war into Lebanese territory. The truce, brokered by mediators from the Committee of Muslim Scholars, allowed troops to free seven soldiers and ambulances to evacuate wounded people." More here.

Back to Iraq: The U.S. gambled on local militias to keep ISIS in check – the President’s authorization of air strikes is an admission that bet didn’t pay off. The Daily Beast’s Jacob Siegel: "…Since ISIS began its rampage through Iraq in early June, both the U.S. and Iraqi governments have tacitly bet on the Kurds ability to repel ISIS advances in the north. But betting on the Peshmerga to hold the line now looks like a riskier proposition after ISIS broke through Kurdish defenses and set in motion the current crisis. In truth, it was never that safe of a bet. Since early June, representatives of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government have warned the United States that the Kurdish Peshmerga were not positioned to protect the Yazidi and Christian minorities in the Kurdish region." More here.

Erbil goes from a tourist playground to a refugee haven. Dalshad Abdullah for Al-Awsat: "Despite strenuous efforts to establish itself as the Arab world’s next big tourism and business hub, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan today faces pressing financial problems, jeopardizing its once-auspicious future. Thanks to economic sanctions imposed by Baghdad and an overwhelming influx of refugees fleeing radical Islamist attacks in northern and western parts of Iraq, Erbil’s authorities are scrambling to preserve the city’s image as the destination for Arab entrepreneurs and holidaymakers alike." More here.

Vikram Singh from the Center for American Progress on Obama’s move: "The Obama administration has so far taken many of the calibrated steps that CAP recommended in June to degrade ISIS’s ability to further destabilize Iraq or threaten U.S. interests and citizens. Striking ISIS-as it targets the Yazidi population in northern Iraq, mounts pressure on the Kurdish controlled city of Irbil, and takes over the critical Mosul Dam-can be one important piece of a larger strategy to help stabilize Iraq and counter ISIS." Those recommendations, 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

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.