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: Easy to hard: the challenges of a Syria airstrike campaign; An Army two-star, demoted; A stealth invasion into Ukraine?; Military Times’ Tobias Naegele resigns; and a bit more.

  The Islamic State executes dozens of Syrian soldiers – Reuters this hour:  "Islamic State fighters have executed dozens of members of the Syrian army they took hostage after capturing an air base in the northeast of the country, a group monitoring the violence said on Thursday. Islamic State… stormed Tabqa air base on Sunday ...



The Islamic State executes dozens of Syrian soldiers – Reuters this hour:  "Islamic State fighters have executed dozens of members of the Syrian army they took hostage after capturing an air base in the northeast of the country, a group monitoring the violence said on Thursday. Islamic State… stormed Tabqa air base on Sunday after days of clashes with the army and said it had captured and killed soldiers and officers in one of the fiercest confrontations yet between the two sides.

"The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict using sources on the ground, said the soldiers who were executed had been trying to escape from the airport when they were taken hostage by militant fighters of the Islamic State." More here.

A Syria airstrike mission has all kinds of challenges, and it’s not clear the degree to which the Obama administration is ready to mount them. But if it did, it’s likely it would hit the low-hanging fruit and go from there. FP’s Lubold, Shane Harris and Kate Brannen: "If the Obama administration actually takes the fight to the Islamic State in Syria, it would likely do so in stages, hitting the easiest targets first and the most difficult ones later as it develops a richer picture of the battlefield, former intelligence and experts say.

Retired Air Force two-star Maj. Gen. Jim Poss, a career intelligence officer, to FP: "That’s generally how an air war progresses."

"…Depending on when the ‘go-order’ is issued, U.S. military personnel could quickly identify the ‘low-hanging fruit’ targets — armored vehicles, artillery, and other relatively easy to spot from the air hardware. The United States could establish a ‘no-drive’ zone to prevent enemy forces from crossing the border into Iraq and armed aircraft could strike them once they were identified, Poss said.

"The next stage would require refined intelligence gathered from drone feeds taken over days or weeks and hit ammunition supply points and other such targets. The most difficult mission — one that the White House may not have an appetite for — would go after the Islamic State’s leadership." More here.

Obama feels pressure to get an OK from Congress before ordering strikes inside Syria. But, unlike last year, the debate is more about whether he needs Congress, not if he should order strikes.  Defense News’ John Bennett, here.

The NYT’s editorial board this morning on airstrikes and the lack of a strategy: "… there are too many unanswered questions to make that decision now and there has been far too little public discussion for Mr. Obama to expect Americans to rally behind what could be another costly military commitment…No comprehensive strategy has been worked out. And, without that, it would be unwise to expand a mission that President Obama has acknowledged ‘won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick.’" More here.

Wanna be smart today about the Islamic State operating in Syria? Then click here to read this AP explainer this morning.

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Remember when sexual assault was the issue du jour? The Army just demoted a two-star general for failing to pursue a sex assault claim in his command and announced it. Military Times’ story: "Maj. Gen. Michael T. Harrison, former commander of U.S. Army Japan, will retire as a brigadier general, according to a news release from the Army. Army Secretary John McHugh directed that Harrison be retired at the lower rank, the release states.

"…Harrison was suspended from his duties in June by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and McHugh. The Army provided no details about the alleged sexual assault case. However, Stars and Stripes reported that a woman alleged in March that an officer in the command who was her supervisor sexually assaulted her and repeatedly subjected her to unwanted advances. The woman said she was removed from her job after other employees complained the officer shower her favoritism, Stars and Stripes reported." More here.

What the Fort Lee shooter Sgt. Paula Walker thought of the 2009 Fort Hood massacre. U.S. News & World Report’s Paul Shinkman, here.

Search continues for pilot of military jet from Massachusetts that crashed in Virginia. The Boston Globe’s Bryan Bender and Matt Rocheleau, here.

Read below about the news of Military Times’ Tobias Naegele resigning.

Who’s where when today – A bunch of folks, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, are headed to Tampa today to bid adieu to the outgoing commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, Bill McRaven, and welcome Lt. Gen. Joe Votel in as the new guy. McRaven, who oversaw the raid that killed bin Laden, is headed to the University of Texas. … Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos also attends events in Tampa…

Tom A. Peter recounts the time he was captured while reporting in Syria and says that the life-threatening risk he took to get the facts weren’t worth it. Read Peter’s piece for TNR, here.

ICYMIThe New Yorker’s George Packer on the importance of reporters like Jim Foley, and the perils of relying on punditry as a substitute, here.

Abdullah boycotts the Afghanistan vote audit. Bloomberg’s Eltaf Najafizada, here.
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Dan Feldman arrived in Afghanistan on August 27 to work on the election. Full statement from State, here.

An Afghanistan Times editorial on the "alarming" brain drain there. Read it here.

Read our own story from this spring on the "diplomatic brain drain" in Afghanistan, here.

Meantime, Pakistan is on the brink, again. Shuja Nawaz for FP: "With thousands of young Pakistanis besieging their capital to demand the ouster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan — a key element in the United States’ plan to withdraw from neighboring Afghanistan by the end of 2016 — is slipping into political anarchy. Only one year after the country’s first-ever democratic transfer of power, the elected government in Pakistan is at risk of another military takeover. Yet Washington is showing little sign that it is paying the situation the urgent attention it requires." More here.

The Islamic State is raking in the dough. The WSJ’s Nour Malas and Maria Abi-Habib: "The Islamic State runs a self-sustaining economy across territory it controls in Syria and Iraq, pirating oil while exacting tribute from a population of at least eight million, Arab and Western officials said, making it one of the world’s richest terror groups and an unprecedented threat.

"That illicit economy presents a new picture of Islamic State’s financial underpinnings. The group was once thought to depend on funding from Arab Gulf donors and donations from the broader Muslim world. Now, Islamic State-the former branch of al Qaeda that has swallowed parts of Iraq and Syria-is a largely self-financed organization.

A Western counterterrorism official: "Can you prevent ISIS from taking assets? Not really, because they’re sitting on a lot of assets already…So you must disrupt the network of trade. But if you disrupt trade in commodities like food, for example, then you risk starving thousands of civilians." More here.

A meeting about the Islamic State in Jeddah this week brought together unlikely allies. Al Monitor’s Ali Hashem, here.

Iraq’s ambassador offers a window into the new PM’s worldview. FP’s John Hudson: "The Iraqi government is poised for a significant overhaul following this month’s nomination of Haider al-Abadi as the country’s next prime minister. But at least one senior official won’t have to worry about cleaning out his desk: Iraqi ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily.

Amb. Faily said Abadi’s rise brings an opportunity for better relations with Washington: "He speaks English. He doesn’t need a translator. He can tune into the D.C. frequency quite easily."

"…But those hoping for a dramatically different chief executive in Baghdad will likely be disappointed. Faily emphasized that the two Dawa Party members share a broadly similar worldview and cautioned against those depicting the political transition in stark terms. ‘He’s also an Islamist by background. He will not have that much of a different vision than Maliki,’ said Faily." More here.

The former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Lloyd Austin, now CENTCOM commander, met with Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad. John Lee for Iraq Business News: "…The two men were discussing the changing nature of US-Iraq security cooperation in the face of the ongoing offensive of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)." More here.

Iraqi forces are preparing to break ISIS’s siege of Amerli. The Daily Star’s story: "Iraq was massing forces Wednesday for an operation to break a two-month jihadist siege of the Shiite Turkmen town of Amerli, amid growing fears for residents short of food and water…According to a civilian volunteer commander, thousands of Shiite militiamen from groups including Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization are gathering in the Tuz Khurmatu area of Salahuddin province, just north of Amerli, in preparation for a battle to break the siege." More here.

The many ways to map the Islamic ‘State’ by the Atlantic’s Kathy Gilsinan, here.

A stealth invasion of Ukraine? Reuters this hour: "Ukraine accused Russia on Thursday of bringing troops into the southeast of the country in support of pro-Moscow separatist rebels. Ukraine’s security and defense council said the border town of Novoazovsk and other parts of Ukraine’s south-east had fallen under the control of Russian forces who together with rebels were staging a counter-offensive… President Petro Poroshenko, in a statement explaining his decision to cancel a visit to Turkey, said: ‘Russian troops have actually been brought into Ukraine.’" More here.

Finally, with new Russian troops in Ukraine, NATO offers a plan to counter Putin. David Francis for FP: "NATO response to Russia’s latest incursion into Ukrainian territory came into focus on Tuesday — and its forceful. Russian tanks, troops and artillery reportedly crossed into a previously unbreached border of eastern Ukraine Tuesday, opening a third front near the city of Novoazovsk and leading Ukrainian forces into a chaotic retreat. Western officials told the New York Times they fear Russia is carving out a landbridge to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed earlier this year.

"NATO answered by announcing it would deploy troops to new bases in Eastern Europe, the first time soldiers serving under the NATO banner have been sent to a former Soviet bloc nation. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the move is a direct response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Rasmussen to European newspapers: "We will adopt what we call a readiness action plan with the aim to be able to act swiftly in this completely new security environment in Europe…We have something already called the NATO response force, whose purpose is to be able to be deployed rapidly if needed. Now it’s our intention to develop what I would call a spearhead within that response force at very, very high readiness." More here.

There will never be peace in the Holy Land until Hamas is totally disarmed. Israel’s FM Avigdor Liberman for FP: "…The circumstances in Gaza must be changed radically. Israel fully supports a broad international effort to provide all the necessary means to rebuild the civilian infrastructure and economy in Gaza, provided there is a concerted parallel effort to prevent Hamas from rearming itself with weapons systems and rebuilding its terrorist infrastructure. Hamas cannot be allowed to rebuild its military force and prevent the essential international aid being directed to the Palestinian residents. Ultimately, the best guarantee for rebuilding Gaza and developing its economy will be demilitarization.

"As long as Hamas remains armed, its weapons represent the strongest and most violent veto of peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike." More here.

Bibi is under attack from the right for his truce deal with Hamas. Ha’aretz’s Jonathan Lis, here.

FP’s Siobhán O’Grady on the Rubble Bucket Challenge, Gaza’s version of the ice bucket, here.

For Der Spiegel, Markus Becker reports from Tel Aviv on the close link between Israel’s government and defense industry: "…G-Nius is a textbook example of the way technology is created in Israel. The company’s headquarters are located in the High-Tech Park development in the city of Yokneam in northeastern Israel, surrounded by numerous other technology firms. It’s a joint venture of the space and electronics firm Elbit Systems and the state-owed aviation and defense company Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). It also has excellent ties with the military." More here.

As Egypt and the UAE launch airstrikes on Tripoli, a cadre of politicians, militia leaders, and businessmen with links to both countries hopes to take advantage of a popular swell against Libya’s Islamists. Mary Fitzgerald in Tripoli for FP, here.

The U.S. still needs Saudi oil. Al-Awsat’s Fatah Al-Rahman Youssef: "Saudi oil exports to the US will not be affected by the latter’s recent push to increase domestic oil production, the official spokesman for the US Embassy in Riyadh told Asharq Al-Awsat. W. Johann Schmonsees denied that the recent boom in the US production of shale oil would affect Saudi oil exports to the US, which he said is hoping to keep its share of Saudi oil exports-currently at 16 percent-unchanged despite recent moves to boost domestic oil production." More here.

Back to Washington…

Fair winds and following seas: Tobias Naegele, who hired us at Military Times five jobs ago and helped us begin to learn everything we needed to know about military journalism, and there was a lot, just announced he is resigning after more than 22 years in the biz. He had been promoted a year ago into the business side of the business, leaving journalism largely behind, and realized he missed it terribly. He has plans to return to those roots.

Even now, we miss that famous (or sometimes infamous) furrowed brow, the last-minute edits on a Friday afternoon that always made a story have more impact, and the mostly friendly arguments about that next week’s "cover words." His email to colleagues yesterday morning reminded us of how much the act of journalism means to those of us who commit to it each day, why we may be miserable doing it and miserable not doing it, and how awesome, in the truest sense of the word, it is to have been given the opportunity to go to some incredible places and to have seen some life-altering things, all under his leadership. Under that leadership, we remember saying to ourselves with relative frequency: "very few people get to do what I’m doing right now." That’s a feeling we still have.

Military Times’ Jeff Schogol: "…Naegele, 52, spent more than 22 years with Gannett Government Media, formerly Army Times Publishing Co., where he groomed and mentored hundreds of journalists who covered the U.S. military and defense industry from the company’s headquarters in Springfield, Virginia. For reporters and editors alike, no story was truly complete until Naegele signed his initials, ‘TN,’ on the page proof. He would find any weakness in a story and make sure what appeared in print was strong.

"…Naegele, vice president and general manager of Defense News, was not yet 30 years old when he joined the company as editor of Navy Times. He later was promoted to editor in chief of the entire newsroom. One of his proudest achievements in journalism was launching Marine Corps Times, he said. He is also proud of the newsroom’s coverage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for which Gannett Government Media’s parent company named him editor of the year in 2004.

"’When we invaded Iraq and the Pentagon set up an embedding system, we were able to lead and coordinate Gannett’s participation in that," he said. "We had, I believe, 11 reporters, photographers and editors in theater. For a newsroom our size, that was about 10 percent. We were heavily forward deployed."

Naegele, on the biz: "I believe, more than ever, in the power of journalism – and the need for great journalism that makes a real difference in people’s lives… There’s an enormous amount of journalism today that is repetition of what already has been reported and gaggle reporting of the same press conferences. Great journalism goes out and finds news and information that people should know about but isn’t in plain sight, and it shines a light on that. I want to be part of that." Military Times’ full 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.

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