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: A failed rescue operation for Foley, U.S. refused ransom request; Iraqis offer up airbases; John McLaughlin on why IS is scarier than AQ before 9/11; Bob Work works it in Guam; And a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel The U.S. military endeavored to rescue Jim Foley and other hostages, and may have missed them by mere days. As some media outlets sniffed out news of a failed rescue attempt of Foley and others, the Obama administration confirmed that indeed it had launched a commando operation in Syria ...

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

The U.S. military endeavored to rescue Jim Foley and other hostages, and may have missed them by mere days. As some media outlets sniffed out news of a failed rescue attempt of Foley and others, the Obama administration confirmed that indeed it had launched a commando operation in Syria but had come up empty handed. FP’s Kate Brannen and Elias Groll: "Nearly two years into James Foley’s captivity at the hands of Islamist militants and shortly before his execution, U.S. Special Forces troops attempted to free the American journalist and a group of other American hostages. That operation failed when the captives were not to be found where U.S. intelligence assessments had indicated they would be. On Tuesday, Islamic State militants released a video depicting Foley’s beheading.

"Details on the nature of the unsuccessful operation remained sparse late Wednesday. When American forces landed in eastern Syria — most likely in Raqqa province, where Foley is thought to have been held and killed — they came under heavy fire. The elite troops killed a number of militants, and one of the pilots involved in the operation sustained a minor injury when his aircraft came under fire, a senior administration official told Foreign Policy." More here.

The White House put out an unusual statement defending the "timing" of its announcement/confirmation of the rescue effort, saying it never intended to disclose the operation. NSC spokesperson Caitlin Hayden: "…An overriding concern for the safety of the hostages and for operational security made it imperative that we preserve as much secrecy as possible. We only went public today when it was clear a number of media outlets were preparing to report on the operation and that we would have no choice but to acknowledge it."

A U.S. official told SitRep that the WaPo was first: "a number of outlets were gathering details right around the same time but I’d say in a photo finish the [Washington Post] has it…. Can’t stress enough how much we did not want to talk about this operation. We did so because of unauthorized disclosures of classified information."

Jeff Stein for Newsweek on why most rescue attempts fail, here.

ISIS pressed for a ransom before killing Foley. The NYT’s Rukmini Callimachi: "[ISIS] pressed the United States to provide a multimillion-dollar ransom for his release, according to a representative of his family and a former hostage held alongside him. The United States – unlike several European countries that have funneled millions to the terror group to spare the lives of their citizens – refused to pay." More here.

Some European governments pay ransoms should the White House pay for Steven Sotloff, whom IS has threatened to kill? James Traub unpacks the ethical and operational dilemmas for FP, here.

But British officials are scrambling to find out more about who the man was who killed Foley. And if the answer is that he was a British citizen, that will underscore the threat the Islamic State poses to the West – and to the U.S. There are as many as 400 British Muslims who are suspected of fighting with militant groups; there are as many as 100 American citizens with U.S. passports who are also thought to be fighting. That’s been known for some time. But the situation in Iraq, coupled with the execution of Foley could motivate the U.S. and its allies to widen the mission in Iraq – and even Syria. The WSJ’s Margaret Coker and Nicholas Winning: " The possibility of involvement by a British national in Mr. Foley’s death underscores what for many U.K. officials has become their top national security threat: that some of the estimated 400 British Muslims suspected of fighting with jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq could come home radicalized and threaten their homeland with terror attacks." More in the WSJ here.

Obama, using stronger rhetoric even if U.S. officials insist the scope of the military mission in Iraq has not widened: "…From governments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread. There has to be a clear rejection of this kind of nihilistic ideologies… Friends and allies around the world, we share a common security and a common set of values that are rooted in the opposite of what we saw yesterday. And we will continue to confront this hateful terrorism and replace it with a sense of hope and civility." The rest of Obama’s statement yesterday about the murder of Jim Foley, here.

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Baghdad is open to letting U.S. warplanes fly from Iraqi bases. FP’s Dreazen and Lubold: "Iraqi officials have given their American counterparts clear signals that Baghdad is willing to let U.S. fighter jets operate out of Iraqi air bases, a move that would allow planes to stay airborne longer and deliver more strikes. But the Obama administration, at least for now, doesn’t seem all that interested.

"The back-channel discussions over the bases, which have not previously been reported, highlight the White House’s uncertainty about escalating its low-level air war against the Islamic State. President Barack Obama proudly pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq in late 2011. He has repeatedly stressed that the military campaign there that began Aug. 8 will be limited in both scope and duration. With broad swaths of Syria and Iraq under Islamic State control, key U.S. allies are pressing the administration to step up the fight. Taking off from Iraqi bases would make it much easier to do so because it would put the American aircraft closer to their targets.

A senior military official: "Everything is harder when you’re doing it from the outside." Full story here.

As Iraqis ask for more assistance from the U.S., they also say insurgents are retreating – and slipping back into Syria. The WSJ’s Nour Malas in Erbil: "Iraqi officials say U.S. airstrikes have driven some ground commanders of the Sunni radical group Islamic State from northern Iraq across the border into Syria. Buoyed by a victory over the insurgents at Mosul Dam this week, the Iraqi military renewed efforts to retake Tikrit, a key Sunni city. But the operation appeared to stall on its second day Wednesday." Read the rest here.

John McLaughlin on why the Islamic State is a greater threat than Al-Qaida before 9/11. Former acting CIA director McLaughlin, writing for Ozy, his BLUF: "The bottom line is that none of these things marks the beginning of the end for the IS. In fact, the more appropriate characterization may be Winston Churchill’s famous quote about the vastly different battle in 1942, when he said that the fight against the Nazis had only reached ‘the end of the beginning.’" Read the rest here.

Kurds are discussing senior posts in the new Iraqi government. Rudaw’s Sangar Abdulrahman: "Iraq’s outgoing foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari said Kurdish delegates are heading to Bagdad to negotiate ministerial posts in the new Iraqi government, and called for Kurdistan rights and demands to be respected.?

Zebrai, a Kurd, in an interview: "The decision of the Kurdish leadership and all the Kurdish parties is that we should participate in the next government, but it must be based on our rights. We won’t take part without a clear plan."

On Iraq’s new prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s position toward the Kurds, Zebrai said: "It’s too early to judge him.?We know him and the role he plays now will be different from (his) role in Parliament. Now he has a responsibility and needs to form the government within a month. Otherwise, someone else might be named (prime minister)." More here.

As extremism spreads in the Middle East, there are some pockets of stability.  FP’s David Rothkopf interviews Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh: "When asked to point out some areas in which [Judeh] sees signs [of progress], he says, ‘The new government in Iraq is a step in the right direction. Of course it is too early to assume any final outcomes, but they are at least trying to address the vital issue of inclusiveness in the government. And the international community is trying to support them. You will see more signs of support in the near future too, I believe.’" More here.

ICYMI – For George W. Bush it was "Mission Accomplished." For Barack Obama, it may be "mission creep." TIME’s Michael Crowley on the U.S. operation in Iraq, here.

Vocativ’s Adi Kochavi and Matan Gilat go inside the data ISIS keeps on the attacks it launches. Kochavi and Gilat to Situation Report: "One thing is abundantly clear: ISIS is a more potent force than ever before. Of particular note, given Tuesday’s gruesome beheading video, will be the gradual increase in assassinations (the red line in the graph below). ISIS has been tracking them since late 2011. We broke down the data into quarters, and in Q1 of 2011, they counted 94 executions. Two years later, in Q1 of 2014, that number had more than quadrupled, to 399 assassinations over a three-month period." More here.

Iran speaks more softly but keeps building bigger sticks. Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio: "While Iran’s military has toned down its rhetoric about military capabilities and exercises, it continues a low-profile buildup of weapons in and near the Strait of Hormuz, according to a classified Pentagon assessment.
"‘Iran’s military strategy is defensive’ and designed to ‘deter an attack, survive an initial strike, retaliate against an aggressor and force a diplomatic solution’ while avoiding major concessions, says the unclassified executive summary of a congressionally mandated Pentagon report submitted to lawmakers on July 7." More here.

NYT reporter Matt Rosenberg is ordered to leave Afghanistan for refusing to name his sources for a story about unnamed officials seizing power. The WaPo’s Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul: "…Rosenberg, 40, who has covered Afghanistan for three years, was summoned Tuesday by the attorney general’s office and asked to name his sources for the article published in that day’s Times…" More here.

The article that got Rosenberg in hot water with Karzai, here.

SitRep corrects the record – we noted in a story the other day that SitRep had exclusively reported the news Aug. 11 that Wendy Anderson, deputy chief of staff to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, was headed to Commerce. Must have been too much beach sun. In fact, Politico’s Mike Allen had reported it in Playbook, unbeknownst to us, the Friday before, on Aug. 8. Apologies for the false claim.

A laden Who’s Where When today – Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel hosts an honor cordon and meeting with Greek Minister of Defense Dimitrios Avramopoulos at the Pentagon at 1:45 p.m… Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work is in South Korea.  He visits Camp Humphreys, medical campus and family housing, CP Tango, recognizes service members and government civilians, visits Osan AB, speaks with troops at a Troop Event, conducts a media engagement with local press and departs for Japan in the evening… Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey conducts a Town Hall on Facebook and answer questions from the force and the public about issues of importance to the military family at 1:45 p.m… Navy Secretary Ray Mabus meets with Chilean Minister of Defense Jorge Burgos in Santiago, Chile.  He also speaks to Marines in Valparaiso, Chile, as they continue their participation in the ongoing exercise Partnership of the Americas… Chief Information Officer Defense Information Systems Agency David Bennett delivers remarks on Information Technology Consolidation at the 2014 FedScoop Lowering the Cost of Government with IT Summit at the Newseum at 8:35 a.m…

Yesterday, at Marine Corps Day at Nats stadium, Commandant Gen. Jim Amos threw out the first pitch at the Nats-Diamondbacks game. Amos and other senior leaders participated in pre-game activities, a retired Marine officer sang God Bless America, the Quantico Marine Band played the National Anthem, children of Marines were "the starting eight" on the field when the Nats players took the field at the beginning of the game, and the Silent Drill Platoon and Marine Color Guard performed.  Then, the Nats pulled out a 3-2 win in the bottom of the ninth.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work plugged the "rebalance to Asia" at a Q&A with troops in Guam yesterday. Citing the redeployment of troops in the Pacific, strengthening alliances and partners in the region, and economic measures like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Work said, "Now we have a good plan."

Work told a story about a Marine patrol in Afghanistan that finds an IED attached to a donkey cart.  The sergeant decides to unhook the donkey, which, in turn, leads the Marines directly to the terrorists who planted the bomb.  After they apprehend the culprits, the lieutenant asks the sergeant how he knew to follow the donkey.  The sergeant, in Work’s words, replies: "Sir, I was born on a farm. I was raised on a farm… I’ve been following jackasses my whole life."

Work was making the point that the U.S. military will never become a "hollow force" because of the high quality of its people.  "It’s not the generals; it’s the enlisted force. You have always been the backbone of the American military," he told the troops.  Read the full transcript, here.

About those sailors who cheated on their nuke tests – there are more of them than initially reported.  FP’s Kate Brannen: "It turns out that a Navy cheating scandal at a nuclear power training site in Charleston, South Carolina, is much bigger than originally feared. Senior Navy officials said in February that roughly 20 sailors had cheated on their qualification exams. Now, 78 enlisted sailors are implicated and the Navy is kicking out at least 34 of them, according to the military. Meanwhile, 10 of the sailors remain under criminal investigation. So far, the cheating appears to be limited to this unit in Charleston, but it dates back to at least 2007, according to an internal Navy investigation." More here.

Palestinians say an Israeli airstrike missed a top Hamas commander in the Gaza Strip. The WaPo’s William Booth and Orly Halpern: "Palestinians on Wednesday accused Israel of attempting to assassinate the top Hamas military commander in the Gaza Strip as the hopes for a cease-fire were dashed by a day-long exchange of taunts and threats, alongside escalating rocket fire and airstrikes that left 22 Palestinians dead. In a brief news conference outside the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that all combatants in the Palestinian militant factions were legitimate targets.
"Hamas, though, was not backing down. In a televised statement Wednesday, a masked representative for the Hamas military wing, known as the Qassam Brigades, warned that Hamas rockets would begin to strike Israel’s strategic interests, including Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv, on Thursday morning." More here.

It’s not too late for Israel to pursue a UN Security Council resolution that would, in the long run, change the reality in Gaza. Ha’aretz’s diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid: "The collapse of the Cairo talks over a long-term truce in Gaza was a failure foretold. One needed to be extremely optimistic or totally clueless about the diplomatic realities to think that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most generous positions would meet the minimum demands of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal.

"…It’s not too late for Israel to initiate a resolution in the UN Security Council that resembles Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War. Such a resolution would not just bring an end to the war in Gaza, but also would establish international mechanisms and launch a long-term process to change the reality in Gaza in a way that would serve Israel and its allies and isolate the Hamas and its patrons." More here.

A profile of the Palestinian General Intelligence Services chief who could be Abbas’ successor. FDD’s Grant Rumley for the National Interest, here.

Ukrainian troops press rebels in their eastern strongholds. The NYT’s Andrew Kramer: "With street fights and artillery barrages, the Ukrainian military pressed its advance on Wednesday on the two eastern provincial capitals held by pro-Russian separatists in a day of violence that killed 52 civilians and Ukrainian soldiers and an unknown number of rebels.
"In one of the heaviest artillery attacks yet on the center of Donetsk, the larger of the capitals, shells struck street kiosks and residential apartment buildings near the stadium of the Shatyorsk soccer club, in the city’s heart. Fighting on the outskirts, particularly around the strategic town of Ilovaysk, a transportation hub, has also flared in recent days." More here.

Have cuts in defense spending hurt U.S. national security interests? Dov Zakheim for FP: "The National Defense Panel originally was established by the Congress to provide a non-partisan evaluation of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The members of the 2014 panel, chaired by former Secretary of Defense William Perry and retired General John Abizaid pulled no punches in its assessment of the 2014 QDR. Its language bordered on the harsh, and its critique of the Obama administration’s policies lacked all subtlety.

"The bipartisan panel, which included Michèle Flournoy, under secretary of defense for policy in the first Obama administration, and retired General James Cartwright, once regarded as President Obama’s ‘favorite general’ took the administration to task for emphasizing notions such as the primacy of ‘nation building at home’ and the utility of ‘leading from behind.’ To the contrary, the panel pointed out early in its report that the current international order ‘is not self-sustaining; it requires active, robust American engagement.’ Acknowledging that there is a cost to American global leadership, the panel nevertheless pointed out that such a cost was ‘nowhere near what America paid in the first half of the 20th century when conflict was allowed to fester and grow until it rose to the level of general war.’" More 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.

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