Situation Report

FP’s Situation Report: Questions multiply on U.S. strategy in Syria; Washington left confused by Iraqi PM’s terror warning; Britain debates strikes in Iraq; U.S. starts Yemen pullout; and a bit more.

By Kate Brannen Four days into U.S. airstrikes in Syria and a lot of questions remain about the short-term effects and the long-term strategy. Chief among them: How is the United States going to keep bombing Islamic State targets without helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war? The NYT’s Ben Hubbard and Anne ...

By Kate Brannen

Four days into U.S. airstrikes in Syria and a lot of questions remain about the short-term effects and the long-term strategy. Chief among them: How is the United States going to keep bombing Islamic State targets without helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war? The NYT’s Ben Hubbard and Anne Barnard from Beirut: "The confident statements by Syrian leaders and their allies showed how difficult it already is for Mr. Obama to go after terrorists operating out of Syria without getting dragged more deeply into that nation’s three-and-a-half-year-old civil war. Indeed, the American strikes have provided some political cover for Mr. Assad, as pro-government Syrians have become increasingly, even publicly, angry at his inability to defeat the militants."

The pressure to go after Assad is coming from Persian Gulf allies as well. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, emir of Qatar, in a Thursday interview with New York Times editors: "We need to create an army to fight the terrorists, but we also have to fight the regime. We have to do both."

Meanwhile, Syrian rebel commanders say the airstrikes aren’t helping them on the ground. McClatchy’s Roy Gutman and Mousab Alhamadee in Reyhanli, Turkey: "In the skies over Syria, U.S. and Arab combat aircraft have bombed Islamic State targets 20 times since Tuesday. But on the ground, commanders for rebel groups that are part of a CIA-run program say they’ve pleaded in vain for arms, ammunition and even field rations so they can fight the same extremists.

Although they are among the few chosen to receive aid under the covert U.S. program, the commanders say the U.S. has done little to help them as they struggle to hold onto their main supply route from Turkey against a determined Islamic State offensive." More here.

How is the United States going to capitalize on its gains without ground troops? This was the focus of several questions at yesterday’s press briefing with Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby, who provided details on the recent strikes against the Islamic State’s oil refineries.

He said the refineries were not obliterated but severely degraded so that they could one day "contribute to a stable economy in what we hope will be a stable country when the Assad regime is not in control anymore."

Kirby tried to assure reporters that the Pentagon sees what it’s up against: "Nobody here in the building is taking anything but a sober, clear-eyed view of the challenge in front of us." The full briefing transcript is here.

CENTCOM’s latest bulletin says the U.S. military attacked the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria with 10 airstrikes, conducted yesterday and today. In Iraq, five airstrikes south of Kirkuk destroyed three Humvees and one vehicle, disabled two armed vehicles and damaged one MRAP. An airstrike west of Baghdad destroyed an Islamic State guard shack, an armed vehicle and a bunker. One airstrike near Al Qaim destroyed four armed vehicles, a command and control node and a checkpoint.

In Syria, three airstrikes south and southeast of Dayr Az Zawr, which is roughly 87 miles from Raqqa, destroyed four tanks and damaged another.

Retired Gen. David Petraeus, in a hotel in Tokyo this morning, said ground forces and lots of time are needed to be successful in Syria. Bloomberg’s Isabel Reynolds with his comments here.

What happened to the Khorasan Group, the cell of Al Qaeda operatives who were plotting to attack the West? We don’t know. Kirby: "We cannot confirm the demise of any particular leaders of the Khorasan group in the strikes that were taken the other night in and around Aleppo."

F.B.I. Director James B. Comey in a NYT article: "I believe the group still exists." More here.

Khorasan Group’s meteoric rise in infamy this week returns the spotlight to Al Qaeda, which appears to be far from defeated. It also raises questions about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, where clusters of al-Qaeda fighters remain even if its leadership ranks have been depleted. The WaPo’s Greg Miller and Kevin Sieff: "The emergence of the Khorasan group has complicated a debate within the administration over the pending U.S. departure from Afghanistan, reinforcing the rationale for shifting resources to more pressing crisis points, including Syria, but raising concerns about the risks of leaving even a vestige of al-Qaeda intact." More here.

Iraqi Prime Minister’s terrorist attack warning raises some eyebrows here in Washington. It was an odd moment for the PM as he stepped on the international stage for the first time since taking office. FP’s Shane Harris: "In an exchange with reporters at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Thursday, Haider al-Abadi seized global attention by saying that the Iraqi government uncovered a plot by the self-proclaimed Islamic State to attack subway systems in the United States and in Paris.

"…But Abadi’s warning was immediately met with deep skepticism by U.S. national security officials, who were scratching their heads trying to figure out what the new Iraqi leader was talking about and where he’d obtained such alarming information."

A senior administration official: "No one in the U.S. government is aware of such a plot and it was not raised with us in our meetings with Iraqi officials here in New York." More here.

This morning, the British Parliament is debating whether to get involved in the airstrikes in Iraq, where France is already bombing targets with the U.S. For now, participating in strikes in Syria is totally off the table, especially because the British Parliament refused to back military action a year ago in Syria after chemical weapons had been used there. The NYT’s Alan Cowell: "This time, senior officials argue that Britain has been invited by the new government in Baghdad to come to its defense, offering a legal basis for intervention." More here.

Perspective from on the ground: Der Spiegel’s Christoph Reuter with a portrait of what life is like in Aleppo, where the Assad regime is in control and dropping barrel bombs. You can read it here.

And the view from Turkey: Over the past week, 150,000 Syrian Kurds have flooded into Turkey to escape an offensive by the Islamic State that is threatening the Syrian city of Kobani. For now the refugees are welcome in Turkey, but already the mood is growing tense. FP’s David Kenner in Suruc, Turkey: "On this day in Suruc, cordons of police in riot gear watch the Kurdish demonstrations welcoming new refugees to Kobani warily from a distance. The Kurdish civilians, meanwhile, are no less suspicious of the government’s actions.

A Syrian refugee named Rashad: "The Turkish government didn’t give us any help; only the Kurds in Turkey have helped us. Turkey helped daesh [an Arabic term for the Islamic State]." More here.

Shells from Syria have hit Turkish soil as the fight for Kobani intensifies. Reuters’ Jonny Hogg: The Sunni insurgents appeared to have taken control of a hill from where fighters of the YPG, the main Kurdish armed group in northern Syria, had been attacking them in recent days, 10 km (6 miles) west of Kobani, a Reuters correspondent said.

"Booms of artillery and bursts of machinegun fire echoed across the border, and at least two shells hit a vineyard on the Turkish side. There were no immediate reports of casualties in Turkey and paramilitary police arrived to inspect the site." More here.

Turkey’s tone seems to be changing now that its hostages have been freed. Semih Idiz for Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper: "It seems that Turkey is finally getting off the fence with regards to confronting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) head-on now that it has secured the release of its hostages held by the group. President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an has uttered unequivocal remarks in this regard. He did not just express strong support for the ongoing air strikes against ISIL targets in Syria by the U.S. and five Arab countries, but said there must be no lapse in these operations." More here.

What does it take to be a member of the anti-Islamic State coalition and just how many members are there? 40? 50? 62? In Syria, five Arab partners have participated in air strikes, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates taking the lead among them. But the involvement of other countries is less clear. The WaPo’s Sebastian Payne has a run down of the contributions here.

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Who’s Where When: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will conduct a press briefing with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey today at 1:15 p.m. at the Pentagon.

This morning, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus will host a naming ceremony for Joint High Speed Vessel Five in New Jersey, and tonight, he’ll attend a Phillies baseball game, where he’ll host a reenlistment ceremony. In other sports news, the Army Black Knights are taking on the Yale Bulldogs at 1 p.m. tomorrow. In the audience will be Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno. Hooah!

Fort Bliss, a movie about a female Army medic, who juggles two tours in Afghanistan with her life back home in the States, opens tonight in Washington, D.C. The WaPo’s Ann Hornaday’s review: "‘Fort Bliss’ joins ‘Coming Home’ and ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ as a movie deeply in sync, not just with the military characters it depicts, but also with the civilian world that awaits them with such confoundingly mixed messages. More here.

It opens tonight at West End Cinema with a Q&A with the producer, John Sullivan, who’ll also take questions at the 7 p.m. screenings Saturday and Sunday.

House Speaker John Boehner wants Congress to debate granting the president the authority to use military force against terrorists, but not until the new Congress is in. The NYT’s Carl Hulse: Boehner believes a post-election, lame-duck session is the wrong time for such a weighty decision. ‘Doing this with a whole group of members who are on their way out the door, I don’t think that is the right way to handle this,’ he said." More here.

Looking for the perfect send-up of the president’s strategy against the Islamic State? Then you’ve got to read Rosa Brooks’ latest for FP (Remember: Brooks has worked at both the Pentagon and the State Department during the Obama administration.): "I and other members of my administration therefore took great pains to communicate the Islamic State’s threatiness to you, the American people, although of necessity we had to speak of this in ways both alarming and nonspecific." More here.

Daniel Altman, writing for FP, asks whether the defense industry influenced the Syria debate. You can read that here.  

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold … U.S is pulling staff out of Yemen. The WaPo’s Carol Morello: The State Department on Thursday pulled some of its diplomats out of Yemen and advised Americans already there to depart quickly, as the country plunged deeper into turmoil with rebels in control of the capital, Sanaa.

"Though the U.S. Embassy in Yemen remains open for the time being, the State Department said concerns over the worsening security situation led to the decision to make what it termed a ‘temporary reduction’ in the levels of U.S. government workers there." More here.

Big deal brewing in Gaza: Hamas says it will cede some power to Fatah for the first time in seven years. The WaPo’s William Booth: "After two days of talks in Cairo, Hamas – which violently wrested control of the strip in 2007 – agreed to step aside and allow President Mahmoud Abbas and technocrats in the Palestinian Authority to administer civil affairs in the war-ravaged coastal enclave." More here.

The Pentagon is offering a military path to citizenship for a small number of young immigrants who grew up in the U.S. without legal status. The NYT’s Julia Preston: "Undocumented young people who have been granted deportation deferrals by the Obama administration will be eligible to apply for the military under a recruitment program for immigrants with special language and medical skills, according to a memo issued Thursday by Jessica L. Wright, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness. More here.

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. @K8brannen

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