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: Qatar played a role in release of journo; Pressure mounts on Obama; Islamic State takes over a base; Winnefeld takes off his uniform – for the ice bucket challenge; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel The pressure continues on the White House to do something about the Islamic State, but there is no sense of imminent action. On one hand, there is, among those who think the U.S. can’t afford to ignore IS, a coalescing around the notion that a coalition of the willing ...

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

The pressure continues on the White House to do something about the Islamic State, but there is no sense of imminent action. On one hand, there is, among those who think the U.S. can’t afford to ignore IS, a coalescing around the notion that a coalition of the willing could pummel the militant group, in both Syria and Iraq, with a combination of special operations forces from a variety of countries on the ground with a strategic airstrike campaign from above. On the other hand, there is deep unwillingness within the White House and its chief ally, Great Britain, to dramatically widen the scope of its current operations in Iraq and expand them in any way into Syria, where the militant group is based. The idea that President Barack Obama would take a major step toward war seems far off.

The WSJ’s Colleen McCain Nelson and Adam Entous on Page One: "The leading options under consideration for strikes in Syria-if Mr. Obama decides to expand the fight-are narrow in scope, designed to prevent the Islamic State from carrying out any plots that threaten Americans and from resupplying its forces in neighboring Iraq. Officials played down prospects for a broad-based campaign to uproot and destroy Islamic State’s vast fighting force in Syria.

"All options must be on the table for defeating Islamic State, including deploying U.S. ground troops in Syria if military commanders decide they are needed, said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on CNN’s ‘State of the Union.’ ‘We’ve got to win and stop these guys,’ he said." Read the rest here.

Defense One’s Gayle Lemmon of CFR on why Obama insiders are frustrated, here.

IS Militants snag an air base in Syria from the Assad regime and effectively take control of northern Syria’s Raqqa Province, the NYT’s Ben Hubbard, here.

The Nusra in Syria release American freelance writer Peter Theo Curtis after two years in captivity, McClatchy’s Hannah Allam and Jonathan Landay, here.

The Qataris helped free him. The NYT’s Rukmini Callimachi: "…Relatives of Mr. Curtis said in interviews that after numerous failed starts and after having received ransom demands ranging from $3 million to $25 million, his panicked family was introduced to the Qatari ambassador to the United Nations, after learning that Qatar had successfully won the release of Europeans kidnapped by Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen. As soon as Qatar became involved, the relatives said, they felt as if an avenue of communication had been opened, and they were able to send a proof-of-life question which only Mr. Curtis could have answered." More here.

A statement from the Curtis family, here.

But fears grow for another freelancer, American Steven Sotloff, who appeared in the video depicting the beheading of Jim Foley, Al Jazeera’s William Roberts, here.

London’s Sunday Times says that the UK has identified Foley’s murderer. Mark Hookham, Richard Kerbaj and Marie Woolf for the Sunday Times: "MI5 and MI6 have identified the British fighter suspected of murdering the American journalist James Foley, senior government sources confirmed last night. The masked man with a London accent, who is said to be known to fellow fighters as ‘Jihadi John’, was seen in the shocking video of Foley’s death released by the Isis extremist army last week. While sources gave no details of the man they have identified, a key suspect is Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, 23, who left his family’s £1m home in Maida Vale, west London, last year. He recently tweeted a picture of himself holding up a severed head." More here.

Former captives called their captors by names of the Beatles. The NYT’s Scott Shane: "…other hostages held by ISIS have said they began calling their British captors by the names of the Beatles, and the killer of Mr. Foley was known as ‘John,’ with others nicknamed ‘Paul’ and ‘Ringo.’" More here.

There are twice as many British Muslims fighting for ISIS than there are in the U.K.’s armed forces. Madeline Grant and Damien Sharkov in Newsweek, here.

Meantime, Britain assigns a ‘security envoy’ to the Kurdistan region. Rudaw’s story, here.

Newt: Can Obama Handle ISIS? Newt Gingrich, writing for CNN, here.

Jack Keane and Danielle Pletka argue that American airpower and a band of special forces are essential to defeating ISIS – combined with a political and economic strategy. But also – time to give Qatar an ultimatum, they write: "… the time has come to confront the government of Qatar, which funds and arms ISIS and other Islamist terrorist groups such as Hamas. The tiny Gulf potentate has never had to choose between membership in the civilized world or continuing its sponsorship of regional killers. The U.S. has the most leverage. We have alternatives to our Combined Air and Operations Center in Doha, the al Udeid air base, other bases and prepositioned materiel. We should tell Qatar to end its support for terrorism or we leave." Read the rest on the WSJ’s op-ed page, here.

Five signs your "limited" Iraq intervention is spiraling out of control. CFR’s Micah Zenko for FP: "…As America’s recent intervention in Iraq gathers steam, the phrase and its implicit warnings have reemerged among policymakers and public commentators. Worryingly, though, it seems some top officials don’t get it. As President Barack Obama noted on Tuesday: ‘Typically, what happens with mission creep is when we start deciding that we’re the ones who have to do it all ourselves. And because of the excellence of our military that can work for a time. We learned that in Iraq.’ This is a puzzling lesson to take away from Iraq: rather than preferring unilateralism, the Bush administration begged every country with deployable military forces to participate in the invasion and occupation." More here.

Why James Foley did not die in vain. Stephen Kinzer for Al Jazeera, here.

Slightly more on Iraq and Syria below.

Welcome to Monday’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.

Pivoting: The Pentagon says one Chinese commander is responsible for a spate of air confrontations.  FP’s Lubold: "A Chinese PLA wing commander has repeatedly harassed U.S. military aircraft in the South China Sea, most recently directing a Chinese jet fighter to do a Top Gun-like barrel roll that came dangerously close to an American patrol jet on a routine mission, the U.S. Defense Department confirmed on Friday, Aug. 22.

"An armed Chinese fighter jet conducted ‘a dangerous intercept’ of a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon submarine-hunting plane on a mission Aug. 19 in international waters near Hainan Island in the South China Sea, according to the Pentagon.

"In a series of risky maneuvers that mimicked the barrel rolls flown by the character Maverick, played by Tom Cruise, in the 1986 movie Top Gun, the Chinese fighter, known as a J-11, flew under the U.S. Navy jet, with one pass coming within 50 feet of the U.S. plane… the Pentagon [called] it one of the ‘most unsafe intercepts’ since the downing of a Navy EP-3 in 2001 on Hainan Island.

"…One Defense Department official likened the two jets to a ‘school bus and a Ferrari,’ with the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) J-11 being the fast sports car doing circles around the lumbering Navy jet. But U.S. military officials say many Chinese fighter pilots are not necessarily well trained, making the incident particularly dangerous. It was unclear whether the American plane was armed. Even if it was, it is not designed to have any ‘air-to-air’ capability to shoot down another plane."

"…That all instances apparently involve one commander from one unit means American officials believe there is a bigger problem with one individual inside the PLA. That PLA officer may find himself in hot water with Chinese officials — or maybe he’ll be rewarded. ‘He’ll either be fired, killed – or promoted,’ quipped one Pentagon official." More here.

Ice cubed: Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was at the Nats game on Saturday out of uniform. He appeared on the Jumbotron at Nationals Park to take the ice bucket challenge, allowing vets to pour the requisite cold-water-and-ice bucket over his head, and then nominated, among others, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough for the much-hyped ALS fundraising effort. But Winnefeld observed the Pentagon’s rules – he appeared in shorts and a T-shirt, not in uniform, to take the challenge. Military Times’ Jeff Schogol reported on those rules last week here.

The Pentagon’s James Swartout has moved on up. Swartout, who served as the public affairs bubba for then Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, begins his first day today two decks up inside the building – in the office of Under Secretary of the Air Force up and comer Eric Fanning as a senior aide.

From his former boss, Brent Colburn, who is Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, in an email to friends and colleagues Friday: "…[Swartout] has been a rock in this organization whose contributions will be felt well beyond the time he has spent here. Most of you have worked directly with James, so I don’t have to tell you about the incredible work ethic, talent and attitude that he brings to every single assignment he tackles.  But more importantly, James is a true team player.  He leads by example and always puts his teammates first, and those skills are invaluable in the type of crisis oriented, high pressure, collaborative environment we work in every day."

The Army’s second ever test of an Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) was expected early this morning.  Sobel: A sub-program of Conventional Prompt Global Strike, the Army’s AHW is a non-nuclear weapon designed to strike distant targets within minutes.  While the Pentagon has not explicitly stated the potential missions that these weapons are being developed for, there is speculation that they could include kicking down the door of China’s anti-access/area denial capacities and attacks on Iranian or North Korean ballistic missiles.  

James Action, a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment, told Situation Report on Friday the three criteria of a successful test.  First, the rocket must be able to travel a distance of approximately 4,000 miles. Second, it must accurately strike the target.  And lastly, it must be able to maneuver cross-range. 

Action said that "accuracy is everything with this test." He explained: "One possibility is that [the missile] isn’t armed with anything explosive.  They’re just moving so fast that that they can destroy stuff by slamming into it.  But the accuracy requirements for that really are pretty tough." 

If the test is successful, there will likely be a push to move ahead with the program since the Chinese recently tested a hypersonic weapon. Action said that the next big step is "deciding how these weapons would be based."  The two options are putting them on a submarine, or building a land-based system, in which case Guam would be the most obvious location. Read James Action’s comprehensive Carnegie report from last year here.

No let up in fighting in Gaza as Egypt presses on with truce efforts, Reuters this hour, here.

Netanyahu issues a warning to citizens in Gaza after Israel leveled an apartment building in Gaza. Reuters’ Nidal Al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller, here.

Israel fears that Hamas is tracking visits to the south by senior officials. Ha’aretz’s Gili Cohen and Amos Harel, here.

Iran says it shot down an Israeli drone near Natanz. Reuters: "Iran said on Sunday it had shot down an Israeli spy drone that was heading for its Natanz nuclear enrichment site, Iranian media reported. ‘The downed aircraft was of the stealth, radar-evasive type and it intended to penetrate the off-limits nuclear area in Natanz … but was targeted by a ground-to-air missile before it managed to enter the area,’ state news agency ISNA said, citing a statement by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards." More here.

Iran unveils new missiles and drones. AFP’s story, here.

Kremlin-backed separatists humiliated the Ukrainian army in a parade in Donetsk yesterday. The Kiev Post’s Helen Mukhina, here.

Warplanes attacked Tripoli this weekend. Reuters’ Heba Al-Shibani: "…In recent weeks Libya has seen the worst fighting since the NATO-backed campaign to oust Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Renegade general Khalifa Haftar has declared war on Islamist-leaning forces, part of growing anarchy in the oil producer.

"His forces claimed responsibility for air raids on Tripoli on Saturday and last Monday, targeting a group called Operation Dawn. But this group, consisting mainly of fighters from Misrata, said on Saturday that it had captured Tripoli’s main airport from a rival faction from Zintan in western Libya." More here.

The story of one Marine from Two Marines Moving and how he survived bankruptcy. The WaPo’s Thomas Heath: "Nick Baucom was 23 and flat on his back in 2007 after his nascent home fixer-upper business in Memphis, Tenn., went bankrupt. ‘I made a mistake and had bitten off too much,’ said the former-Marine and Iraq War infantryman… Now 30 and running a growing Alexandria business called Two Marines Moving, the hard-charging veteran said he eventually made good on his debts and learned some important lessons about business. Baucom, who said he would rather go back to Iraq than go through another bankruptcy, lists his three takeaways thusly…" More here.

More on Iraq and Syria:

In the Middle East, Muslim leaders are denouncing ISIS. The AP’s Sarah El Deeb in Cairo: "The top Islamic authority in Egypt, revered by many Muslims worldwide, launched an Internet-based campaign Sunday challenging an extremist group in Syria and Iraq by saying it should not be called an ‘Islamic State.’

"The campaign by the Dar el-Ifta, the top authority that advises Muslims on spiritual and life issues, adds to the war of words by Muslim leaders across the world targeting the Islamic State group.

"…The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shawki Allam, previously said the extremists violate all Islamic principles and laws and described the group as a danger to Islam as a whole. Now, the Dar el-Ifta authority he oversees will suggest foreign media drop using ‘Islamic State’ in favor of the ‘al-Qaida Separatists in Iraq and Syria,’ or the acronym ‘QSIS,’ said Ibrahim Negm, an adviser to the mufti." More here.

Bashar al-Assad is America’s strange bedfellow, and the price is 190,000 dead Syrians. FP’s Elias Groll: "With its decision to bomb Islamic State militants in Iraq and funnel aid to the fragile Iraqi government in Baghdad, the United States has found itself with a set of strange bedfellows. Russia has been giving outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fighter jets for use against the extremists. Tehran has ramped up its military assistance to Baghdad. And in the strangest of bedfellows, Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad has been carrying out a sustained series of airstrikes against Islamic State targets inside both Iraq and Syria, in some ways doing Washington’s work for it." 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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