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: Kobani puts more pressure on U.S. and Turkey; A Chechen leads ISIS advance in Anbar; U.S. hostage efforts are chaotic; Suicide bomb in Yemen kills at least 40; and a bit more.

By Kate Brannen and Nathaniel Sobel The focus today remains on the Syrian border town of Kobani, whose fate is still up in the air. The Islamic State and Syrian Kurdish fighters are in a fierce battle to control the town, while U.S. and coalition airstrikes continue to pummel targets where they can. Questions about ...

By Kate Brannen and Nathaniel Sobel

By Kate Brannen and Nathaniel Sobel

The focus today remains on the Syrian border town of Kobani, whose fate is still up in the air. The Islamic State and Syrian Kurdish fighters are in a fierce battle to control the town, while U.S. and coalition airstrikes continue to pummel targets where they can. Questions about Turkish inaction are also intensifying, both in Turkey and from the international community. But Turkish officials continue to tamp down expectations.

The BBC is reporting this morning that Turkey’s foreign minister says it cannot be expected to lead a ground operation against Islamic State militants in Syria on its own.

"Mevlut Cavusoglu also called for the creation of a no-fly zone over its border with Syria after talks in Ankara with new Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg." More here.

As of this morning, the Islamic State has seized one-third of the town, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Reuters’ story here.

With the clock running out on Kobani, Retired Gen. John Allen, coordinator of the U.S.-led coalition, is holding high-level meetings in Turkey today. One of the big questions is where the U.S. stands on creating a protective buffer zone along Turkey’s border with Syria. So far, the signals from Washington have been very mixed.

The WSJ’s Dion Nissenbaum in Washington, Ayla Albayrak in Yatirtepe, Turkey, and Nour Malas in Beirut: "Though Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday said the creation of a buffer zone is ‘worth looking at very closely,’ Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Defense Department press secretary, said a buffer zone ‘is not now on the table as a military option that we are considering.’ White House press secretary Josh Earnest said a buffer zone is ‘not something that is under consideration right now.’

What do our allies think? "French President François Hollande backed the idea of a buffer zone in a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, the French presidency said. U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said it was a possible option." More here.

What’s behind Turkey’s reluctance? Part of it has to do with the Kurds, but Turkey also wants the U.S. to refocus on ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Instead, U.S. airstrikes appear to be indirectly helping him. The NYT’s Anne Barnard and Eric Schmitt report from Beirut that U.S. airstrikes in Syria are freeing up the Assad regime to attack more moderate rebel groups. More here.

Vice President Joe Biden says sorry to the Saudis.  Arab News’ story, here.

Meanwhile, Kirby urged reporters and the public to take the long view yesterday, saying towns like Kobani could fall to the Islamic State over the course of this difficult fight. ""I think we all understand that that’s a possibility, that Kobani could be taken. We recognize that. We’re doing everything we can from the air to try to halt the momentum of [the Islamic State] against that town, but that air power is not going to be alone enough to save that city." For more from Kirby’s briefing, FP’s Kate Brannen with the story here.

Kirby also wondered why the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq were receiving so little attention compared to Kobani. Clearly part of the reason lies in the fact that journalists are huddled on the Syrian-Turkish border, watching the battle not far from the frontlines. But the administration also seemed to be playing down the strategic importance of the town yesterday trying to get ahead of criticism should the Islamic State prevail.

The U.S. has started hitting Islamic State targets in Mosul, showing a willingness on the U.S.’s part to hit inside heavily populated areas when the conditions are right. The WaPo’s Karen DeYoung with the story here.

This level of precision costs money though. For example, destroying a $30,000 Islamic State pickup truck can cost the U.S. $500,000. FP’s Justine Drennan: "In throwing its hugely expensive 21st-century weaponry at a band of insurgents, the Pentagon is using planes that can cost nearly $200 million apiece against pickup trucks costing virtually pennies in comparison.

"That’s not a new problem for the United States. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush famously told four senators that he wasn’t ‘going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt.’" More here.


Writing for War on the Rocks, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross takes a look at the Islamic State’s offensive in Iraq’s Anbar province and what it tells us about the group’s strengths and weaknesses. He writes that most of its success in this region can be attributed to a young Chechen field commander. You can read his analysis here.

The mother of Abdul-Rahman Kassig, formerly known as Peter Kassig, appealed to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, who threatened to behead Kassig in a video last week. CNN’s Ed Payne with the story here.

Today’s must-read: Insiders and administration officials tell Foreign Policy that efforts to free Americans held by the Islamic State are uncoordinated, inconsistent, and crippled by bureaucratic infighting. FP’s Shane Harris: "Based on long-standing practice and presidential orders, when an American is taken abroad, a network of experienced officials from law enforcement and intelligence agencies, the military, the State Department, and the White House is supposed to snap into place and marshal all the resources of U.S. power to free the person.

"But that isn’t happening now. And in the absence of a coherent strategy about how to win the Americans’ release, the process has languished — and so have the final two American hostages: Peter Kassig, a 26-year-old humanitarian aid worker from Indiana, and a female aid worker, who, like Kassig, was kidnapped in Syria." More here.

DHS says reports claiming that Islamic State fighters are crossing the Mexican border are "categorically false." McClatchy’s Franco Ordonez with more here.

Welcome to Thursday’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: @k8brannen and @njsobe4.

Who’s Where When: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel leaves today on his second trip to Latin America this year. It’s a six-day, three-country trip that includes visits to Colombia, Chile and Peru … Tonight, if you’re in Washington, you can attend a book launch for The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War by Yochi Dreazen, FP’s managing editor. It’s being hosted by the Center for a New American Security. More info here.

Correction: The Christian Science Monitor’s event with White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Michael Daniel begins at 9:30 a.m. today (not yesterday). It’s being co-hosted with the Center for National Policy. You can sign up at and you’ll receive info about how to watch online.

Next week, Kerry is in Cairo for talks on Gaza, Paris for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and then Vienna for Iran negotiations.  More on his travel from State, here.

The AP’s Josh Lederman on Obama’s Pentagon meeting yesterday: ""Flanked at the Pentagon by the top U.S. military brass, Obama said he was heartened to see that a broad international consensus had emerged that the Islamic State group poses a threat to the world’s security. He said nations across the globe have come to the conclusion ‘that their barbaric behavior has to be dealt with.’" More here.

It’s now been 36 days since North Korea’s Kim Jong-un was last seen in public and his disappearance is starting to draw lots of attention. FP’s Isaac Stone Fish takes a look at why Kim’s return would be a good thing: "Setting aside for now the impossible question of where Kim has gone — Pyongyang’s state-run media say he is sick, though he could also be under house arrest, dead, on vacation, or simply bored of appearing in public — North Korea is arguably much more stable with Kim at the helm.

"… In Pyongyang’s fog-filled corridors of power, Kim, who took power in December 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, is a relatively known quantity." More here.

The NYT’s Choe Sang-Hun with a report on the disappearance rumor mill: "Some of the rumors are relatively benign, suggesting that the corpulent Mr. Kim is simply recovering from that nemesis of many a leader with a soft spot for rich food: gout. But others suggest that Mr. Kim, who is believed to be about 30, has finally lost power to older North Korean power brokers more schooled in the country’s treacherous politics, either through a planned revolt or a more subtle takeover that would leave him as a figurehead." More here.

If Kim doesn’t reappear Friday, we’ll know (sort of) that something is up. Reuters’ James Pearson and Tony Munroe: "Friday is the 69th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s Workers’ Party, an event Kim has marked in the past two years with a post-midnight visit to the Pyongyang mausoleum where the bodies of his father and grandfather are interred." More here.

At least 40 people were killed when a suicide bomber struck a demonstration in Sanaa today. The BBC with the developing story here.

Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak has rejected the Yemeni government’s nomination of him to be the country’s next prime minister. Al Jazeera with that story here.

Shiite militias are running the show in Yemen and Tehran couldn’t be happier.  Amal Mudallali for FP: "The takeover of Sanaa in mid-September by the Houthis, a Shiite minority group, has dire implications for Yemen’s neighbors and for the American war on terror. And further escalation seems likely. On Oct. 8, Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi called for mass demonstrations against foreign meddling in the country’s politics." More here.

Violence is escalating in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, where pressure is growing for Interim President Samba Panza to step down. Reuters with more here.

Send in the Marines — the next step in the fight against Ebola. Military Times’ Andrew Tilghman: "About 100 Marines based in Spain will deploy temporarily to West Africa to join the fight to contain the Ebola virus." More here.

An outgoing defense official says that extremists could capture infected samples of Ebola, but the risk is low. US News & World Report’s Paul Shinkman, here.

Meanwhile the U.S. is stepping up Ebola screenings at five major airports. Yahoo News’ Olivier Knox, here.

The UN reports that 331 people have died since Ukraine signed a cease-fire last month.  The NYT’s Nick Cumming-Bruce: "The latest toll brought the number of people reported killed in the past six months to at least 3,660, including combatants and civilians, with more than 8,756 injured, Gianni Magazzeni, a senior United Nations human rights official, told reporters in Geneva … Most civilians deaths had been caused by indiscriminate shelling of residential areas by both pro-Russian separatists and by the Ukrainian armed forces, the report said." More here.

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik on America’s growing tendency to panic and how "terrorists have become skilled at manipulating the Western imagination." You can read that here.

The Islamic State’s methods may be medieval, but the group’s propaganda is second to none. The Islamists target their professionally produced videos at specific audiences — sometimes to spread a specific message, sometimes merely to terrify. Spiegel’s Christoph Reuter, Raniah Salloum and Samiha Shafy, here.

The New America Foundation did a Google Hangout with counterterrorism experts Brian Fishman and Douglas Ollivant on where the fight against the Islamic State could go next. You can watch the video here.

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.