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: Few are on the same page on the war; A mole in the Syrian embassy; A dying soldier fights the fight for vet suicide; Buy your “CONOP 8888” shirt now and avoid the rush; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel With apologies, once again, for the delay in SitRep this morning. We swear these delays are caused by problems beyond our control, but we deeply regret them just the same…  As the U.S. heads to war, there are very few people, including many Americans, who are on the same ...

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

With apologies, once again, for the delay in SitRep this morning. We swear these delays are caused by problems beyond our control, but we deeply regret them just the same… 

As the U.S. heads to war, there are very few people, including many Americans, who are on the same page. The White House’s move to fight the Islamic State has been slow and deliberate, but that hasn’t given enough time for voters, the military and Congress to all get on the same page. A new poll shows Americans are leery of what President Barack Obama is attempting to do. At the same time, there appears to be light between a White House and a Pentagon over boots on the ground even as the two seem to be just talking past each other. And members of the House of Representatives, which just authorized a plan to fight the Islamic State, aren’t so sure about Obama’s strategy even after Obama himself made a brief war speech at U.S. Central Command just yesterday that was meant to spell it all out.

FP’s John Hudson, Shane Harris and Elias Groll on the House vote yesterday: "In a crucial vote of support for the White House’s declared war on Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, the House of Representatives voted to give President Barack Obama authority to arm and train Syrian rebels in the war-torn country. The plan passed 273-156 despite concerns by House Democrats about a new U.S. military commitment in the Middle East and Republican concerns that the president’s proposal is far too limited.

"…The administration’s request was an amendment to a must-pass, stopgap measure to keep the government running through mid-December. Although the amendment had the early support of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi D-Calif., a number of lawmakers in both parties began defecting, prompting a last-minute push by party leaders to build support." More here.

But as the U.S. lays the groundwork for entering a war in the Middle East, there is still a difference between the way the military sees it and the White House. Take a look at these two headlines in the NYT yesterday, as a friend to Situation Report pointed out: One, "Obama insists that the U.S. will not get drawn into ground war in Iraq," and two, "U.S. Army Chief Says Ground Troops Will Be Needed Against ISIS." The two headlines reflect the apparent discord between a President who has boxed himself in rhetorically as he tries to respond to a public that doesn’t want another big war, and a military that needs the flexibility to execute the strategy it’s given. In many ways, the two sides are talking past each other: Obama is taking pains to make sure Americans don’t think another ground war with tens of thousands of American troops is in the offing; the military, meanwhile, just wants the room to insert a small number of special operations forces, many of whom might not even be American forces, into the mission if that’s what’s required.

The NYT’s Michael Shear in Tampa with Obama: "President Obama on Wednesday repeated his vow to destroy Islamist terrorists in Syria and Iraq, but he insisted that the United States would not go it alone and promised a military audience that he would not send them back into direct combat. More here.

The NYT’s Alison Smale in Germany reporting on Army Chief Gen. Ray Odierno’s remarks: "The United States general who beat back Islamic extremists in Iraq in 2007 suggested on Wednesday that the battle against Islamic State jihadis would only succeed with the use of ground forces.

"Speaking a day after his commander, [sic] Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that American ground troops might be needed in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno was careful not to specify that those ground troops had to be American. But he made clear that success would be dependent on the presence of forces from all of Iraq’s sectarian groups." More here.

Obama plans to tightly control strikes on Syria. The WSJ’s Julian Barnes and Carol Lee: "The U.S. military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control, going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory, officials said. The requirements for strikes in Syria against the extremist group Islamic State will be far more stringent than those targeting it in Iraq, at least at first. U.S. officials say it is an attempt to limit the threat the U.S. could be dragged more deeply into the Syrian civil war." More here.

Meantime, Obama has a poll problem. The NYT’s Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Dalia Sussman: "For the first time in his presidency, more Americans disapprove of President Obama’s handling of terrorism than approve of it, as discontent about his management of foreign affairs and the fight against Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria weighs on an anxious and conflicted public, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll… the survey finds broad support for United States airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, but it also demonstrates how torn Americans are about wading back into battle in the Middle East. A majority is opposed to committing ground forces there, amid sweeping concern that increased American participation will lead to a long and costly mission." More here.

The WaPo’s Ed O’Keefe and Paul Kane dig into the numbers and the politics, here.

Five Things to Know about President Obama’s War Plan, from the White House, here.

At the same time, the U.S. needs to take a cold, hard look at the ulterior motives of its partners in the war against the Islamic State.  The Wilson Center’s Aaron David Miller for FP: "…The Europeans and NATO allies may well be able to bring real assets to the table. After all, they are real, functional countries — and actually are allies of the United States. That, of course, is not necessarily the case for the regional parties across the Middle East that the Obama administration is trying to enlist. Far from a coalition of the willing and enabled, these partners represent more of coalition of the semi-willing, the constrained, and the self-interested. Perhaps, over time, they will prove their worth. And indeed, they will have plenty of time do so. The fight against IS may prove to be a long one." More here.

Welcome to Thursday’s edition of Situation Report. If you’d like to become 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, send it to us early for maximum tease. And the more shovel-ready, the better. And hey! Follow us: @glubold and @njsobe4.

A mole inside the Syrian embassy in Washington provided passports to foes of President Bashar al-Assad. The WSJ’s Adam Entous with this Page Oner that belongs on Page One: "Bassam Barabandi, a diplomat in the Syrian embassy here, was leaving Ramadan prayers at a mosque late one night two years ago when he ran into an opponent of the Syrian regime. Mr. Barabandi knew the man slightly and offered him a ride home. The chance conversation that followed transformed the diplomat’s life. It also altered the fortunes of scores of Syrians working to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. ‘I need to ask you something,’ the regime opponent, Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, said as they trundled through Washington in a rusty Audi 2000. ‘There are these activists, and they need passports.’ Mr. Barabandi thought for a few seconds, then said he would help.

"…Mr. Barabandi, a career Syrian diplomat, became an opposition mole, working on behalf of moderate elements battling the Assad regime. With limited U.S. support, these groups have been struggling to hold on amid a battering from Syrian regime forces and Islamist militants competing for the same territory. The White House now is promising to provide support, mainly to help counter the militants, known as Islamic State.

"In his embassy post over the course of a year, Mr. Barabandi issued travel documents for nearly 100 Syrian activists, according to interviews with him and more than a dozen opposition leaders. Through his efforts, activists were able to flee and campaign against the same regime he officially represented." More here.

The organization Third Way argues for why Congress has to pass a new authorization to fight the Islamic State. From the abstract: "As the U.S. pursues a long term strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Congress must fulfill its Constitutional duty in declaring war and representing the American public. To do so, it should pass new authorization for use of force against ISIS. Here, Third Way analyzes the policy challenges facing lawmakers and details what such an authorization should contain." Read the piece by Third Way’s Mieke Eoyang and Peter Billerbeck, here.

And the National Security Network’s Bill French and (former FP-er) Dana Stuster argue for what a new Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, should look like in a new policy brief. The two look at a number of legislative aspects of the AUMF, the limits it should have that the legislation didn’t have in 2001 and 2002 and how the administration’s case is flawed. They make a number of points, but here’s the thrust: "In navigating an Islamic State AUMF, Congress should pursue two tasks. First, Congress should ensure that the Administration meets it burden of justifying an escalation of conflict and demonstrates the soundness of its developing, but incomplete, strategy…Second, if the Administration can meet its burden, any AUMF against the Islamic State should be constructed to take into account American interests relevant to the appropriate scope of the conflict." Get smarter about the issue with this brief, here.

New subject: Army Captain Justin Fitch is fighting terminal cancer, but he’s fighting something else, too: combat veteran suicide. There has to be true heroism in the fact that Fitch, who is very sick, has taken it upon himself to raise awareness of suicide among veterans. Boston’s WBZ’s Jonathan Elias: "Army Captain Justin Fitch is dying. He has only months left. But before he was even diagnosed with cancer he thought about killing himself…But Justin, like thousands of other soldiers, was suffering. The war took friends from him and broke his spirit."

Justin Fitch to Elias: "When I first joined the Army in active duty there was a culture, a very quiet culture, of suffering in silence… Mission first, never worry about yourself… I felt like there was no way out, better just death before dishonor… So I grabbed a gun and almost put 4.5 pounds of pressure on the trigger into my head and ended it."

…But in that moment he says the voice of a lost comrade came to him. When things would get bad, his buddy would say "drive on." He put the gun down and asked for help.

Fitch: "Seeking help, I believe, made me a stronger person… From that point I was able to get rid of ever wanting to kill myself, and be happier, and enjoy life more, and deal with those dark things and face them head on." Read the rest of this story here. And for more information about the group Fitch thinks can help, Carry the Fallen, click here. 

At a tense VA hearing in the House yesterday, doctors linked delays to patient deaths. Stripes’ Heath Druzin, here.

The Air Force nixes the ‘so help me God’ requirement in oaths. Military Times’ story, here.

Who’s where when today – Navy Secretary Ray Mabus attends the USS Vermont Ship Naming in Burlington, VT… DISA Chief Technology Officer David Mihelcic, DISA Director of Network Services Cindy Moran and DISA Mission Assurance Executive Mark Orndorff participate in panel discussion about DISA at the Young AFCEAN panel at Microsoft’s Offices in Chevy Chase at 8:30 a.m… U.S. Strategic Command Commander Adm. Cecil D. Haney delivers remarks on the "Importance of the Nuclear Triad" at the Army and Navy Club at 1:00 p.m… NSA Director Adm. Michael S. Rogers, NGA Director Letitia Long, and DIA Acting Director David Shedd participate in the "What Should the Nation Expect from its Intelligence Community" panel at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association/Intelligence & National Security Summit in Washington at 1:00 p.m…

Meantime, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testifies, alone, since Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey is traveling, before the House Armed Services Committee on the administration’s strategy in Iraq and Syria, in Rayburn 2118 at 11:15.

Chuck Hagel’s tenure isn’t turning out the way he planned. Politico’s Phil Ewing with a rare national security story on the top of Politico’s page: "Chuck Hagel’s tenure as defense secretary isn’t turning out the way anyone expected – especially him. After he emerged, politically battered, from his confirmation process a year and a half ago, the road ahead looked clear: Here was an old Senate pal of President Barack Obama whose assignment was to superintend a shrinking defense budget, a smaller military and fewer adventures overseas. Here was a guy who, despite his command of the world’s most powerful military, ranked himself as lower in importance than the secretaries of state, treasury and the attorney general.

"Here was a guy who last year became one of the loudest voices of caution as the president and Congress contemplated attacking Syria. Damascus has some of the most formidable air defenses in the Middle East, Hagel said. A military campaign could take months or more. Washington would be opening Pandora’s box, he warned. This week, Hagel has been on Capitol Hill selling a new war. He’s trying to convince Congress the U.S. must take on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, be prepared to escalate the conflict in Syria and, for good measure, restore the Pentagon’s budget." Read the whole piece here.

Speaking of Politico, former FP editorial chief Susan Glasser, who hired us two years ago and has been running Politico Magazine for the last year or so, was just named Editor of Politico. She now has "full authority" over the site’s coverage, the magazine and Politico Pro verticals, as Politico’s Dylan Byers writes here.

Who remembers the story we did about zombies? A few months ago we were the first to write about the Pentagon’s secret counter-zombie plan that kinda wasn’t really a secret plan cuz it was a training document… but still. Anyway, our story about "CONOP 8888" – the name the U.S. military gave the unclassified but secret plan – almost broke the Internet. And it was, improbably, one of our biggest stories ever. Well, someone liked CONOP 8888 so much they made a shirt. Yup, the "Counter-Zombie Dominance Operations Conplan 8888 Hoodie Sweatshirt" is now available on Amazon as we write. Get your hoodie shirt "for as little as" $32.99 here.

And read our exclusive story from May, "The Pentagon Has a Plan to Stop the Zombie Apocalypse. Seriously," here. 

Back to the world –

Ukrainian’s president is in Washington today for a White House meeting and address to Congress, asking hat in hand for help for his beleaguered nation. FP’s Jamila Trindle: "Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is coming to Washington Thursday, seeking support and financial backing in his ongoing battle with Russia over whether his country’s political and economic future lies with Moscow or the rest of Europe. A year ago, Poroshenko, known as the ‘chocolate king’ because of his Roshen candy company, thumbed his nose at Moscow, faulting Russia’s strong-arm tactics for pushing Ukrainians toward the European Union. Today, he hopes the United States will bolster his former Soviet republic against those same bullying tactics, which have pushed him to compromise both on territory and his Westward aims as Russia’s willingness to fight for Ukraine has proved stronger than Europe’s." More here.

Coordinator for Cyber Issues Christopher Painter traveled to Israel September 13-16 to deliver remarks at the Fourth Annual International Cybersecurity Conference at Tel Aviv University. A bit more from State, here.

It’s the second and final day of this round of P5+1 Iran talks in New York. Find who’s on the U.S. delegation from State’s press release, here.

Before leaving Tehran, Iran’s FM said that the US is "obsessed" with sanctions against Iran. AFP’s story, here.

Feel like a party? Just Security, the New York-based online forum for "for the rigorous analysis of U.S. national security law and policy" is having a big party to celebrate it’s one-year anniversary (and, as far as we’re concerned, to also celebrate the arrival of former FP-er John Reed who is now Just Security’s managing editor.). The party will commence after a CQ Roll Call and Just Security host a discussion of "the role of national security in the 2014 midterm elections" – and in shaping the agenda of the next Congress. That discussion will include CQ Roll Call’s David Ellis, Carnegie’s Rachel Kleinfeld, the WSJ’s Jerry Seib, CQ Roll Call’s Tim Starks, Heritage Foundation’s Cully Stimson and Just Security’s Steve Vladeck. Event and party is on Monday, Sept. 22, at 5:30 at NYU’s Washington, D.C. Center on L Street. More deets here.

Speaking of the law: for Lawfare, Robert Chesney examines Obama’s legal justification for the fight against ISIS, here.

The infamous Benghazi panel opens with a whimper, not a bang. FP’s Reid Standish: "…After two years of intense political battles between Republicans and Democrats over the attack that cost the lives of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, the panel moved in a surprisingly bipartisan fashion. Lawmakers reviewed a recently released Accountability Review Board (ARB) report, the State Department’s own internal review panel’s recommendations for fixing the kinds of problems that led to the attack." More here.

The Saudi Council of Senior Scholars warns against "heinous" terrorism. Al Awsat’s story from Riyadh: "Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority issued a statement on Wednesday reaffirming that terrorism is a "heinous crime, injustice and aggression" rejected by Islamic Shari’a law, as part of the Kingdom’s ongoing efforts to clamp down on extremist ideology. The declaration came after the authority, the Council of Senior Scholars, met earlier this week to discuss the threat of terrorism and ways to address it. It also follows Saudi Arabia’s increasing efforts to combat terrorism-particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)-in recent weeks, hosting an international anti-terror conference in Jeddah and agreeing to join an international alliance against ISIS." More here.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon are desperate to legalize their status there. The Daily Star’s Samya Kullab Mohammed Zaataril: "Syrian refugees across Lebanon flocked to General Security centers for the second day Wednesday to settle their residency status, as the Interior Ministry sought to reorganize the country’s refugee file. Earlier this month, Sept. 11, the Interior Ministry announced its decision to allow Syrian refugees who were in Lebanon illegally, or who had overstayed their legal stay, to remain in the country an extra six months free of charge.

"As a result, hundreds of refugees packed the courtyard and main entrances to Tripoli’s Serail Wednesday to apply for their six-month residency, while scores of others lined up outside the gates toward the highway, causing monstrous traffic jams. Police had to intervene to ease the traffic by closing the serail’s gates and reorganizing the queues." More here.

Israel is passing intel on the Islamic State to the U.S. says a senior IDF officer. Ha’aretz’s Amos Harel: "A senior Israel Defense Forces officer said Wednesday that the Islamic State organization has amassed extraordinary economic resources that are enabling it to entrench itself in wide areas of Syria and Iraq and form alliances with tribes and other groups in those regions. According to the officer, the group controls areas that contain some 60 active oil fields. He said the Islamic State’s income from these oil fields is estimated at $3 million to $6 million a day. Alongside its oil revenues, the group also finances its activities by collecting ransoms for hostages and through various forms of theft and extortion." More here.

Hamas says ceasefire talks will resume next week. The Times of Israel’s story, here.

Israelis "f***ing love Lady Gaga, too!" Here’s the subhed of a tribute to Gaga by the Times of Israel’s David Horovitz: "The pop singer displayed more clear-headed morality than any international statesman could manage this terrible summer." Read that bit 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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