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.

Fight Against IS to Take Years; Obama’s Kiss and Tell Problem; Turkey Complicating IS Fight; Your Suggestions for IS Mission Name; and Much More.

By David Francis with Nathaniel Sobel As the fight against IS rages on, President Barack Obama warned yesterday that the battle against the group would take time. The president’s remarks were another reminder that the United States would be in the Middle East for years to come in a fight that the president does not ...

By David Francis with Nathaniel Sobel

By David Francis with Nathaniel Sobel

As the fight against IS rages on, President Barack Obama warned yesterday that the battle against the group would take time. The president’s remarks were another reminder that the United States would be in the Middle East for years to come in a fight that the president does not want.

From the NY Times:  "President Obama on Tuesday predicted "periods of progress and setbacks" in the war against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria as he sought to demonstrate a unity of purpose during an unusual face-to-face meeting with senior military chiefs from 21 nations. In remarks after a 90-minute session at Andrews Air Force Base, Mr. Obama defended the coalition’s "important success" against the Islamic State, including the defense of the Mosul Dam in Iraq in the summer. But he said the coalition of nations allied against the militants should understand that "this is going to be a long-term campaign." More here.

As the president lowered expectations about a quick fight to end the rise of IS, there are reportedly disagreements within the administration about how to deal with the group.

Washington Post’s Whitlock and DeYoung: "Two months after the start of its campaign against the Islamic State, the U.S.-led coalition conducting operations in Iraq and Syria has expanded significantly but remains beset by lingering strategic differences that threaten to undermine the fight. The Obama administration has emphasized the breadth of the coalition it has assembled to combat the militant group, including the participation of five Arab countries that have played a supporting role in the campaign of airstrikes in Syria. But serious disagreements remain, particularly over the coalition’s plan for Syria and whether the fight against Islamic State militants there will strengthen or weaken Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad in the long run." More here.

As FP’s Ratnam and Hudson argued earlier this week, the Obama administration has a "kiss and tell" problem. "The White House is eager to show a war-weary American public that the United States won’t be fighting alone, but many Middle Eastern countries don’t want to rile up their own populations by advertising their roles in the coalition. The other is a more basic and troubling one: that Washington may be consistently misreading its partners and overestimating just how committed they are to the fight."

Ratnam and Hudson report this isn’t the first time this has happened: "In September, when Foreign Policy reported details of a secret offer by the nation of Georgia to host a training camp for anti-ISIS fighters, the story prompted a strong public backlash in Tbilisi due to security concerns for the tiny Caucasian nation of 4.5 million. Within 24 hours, Georgian officials denied having made any such offer."

Also from the Washington Post – the coalition of the willing is back. "A number of administration officials have used the Bush-era term "coalition of the willing" while emphasizing that members may differ widely on what they are willing to contribute."

Speaking of the coalition of the willing, FP’s Justine Drennan outlines who has done what in the fight against IS. "The U.S. State Department currently lists more than 60 nations as members of the "Global Coalition to Degrade and Defeat ISIL. But the bar for appearing on that list is apparently fairly low. While many countries have pledged military or humanitarian support, the State Department indicates that simply "exposing ISIL’s true nature" can qualify a nation for inclusion in the coalition." Read the rest here, including a helpful chart that specifies who’s done what.

The x-factor in the fight against IS appears to be Turkey. From AP, Ankara is picking at old wounds. "Turkey is launching airstrikes against Kurdish rebels inside its borders this week despite pleas from the Obama administration to instead focus on an international campaign to destroy Islamic State militants wreaking havoc in the region… The Turkish airstrikes occurred Monday and marked the country’s first major strikes against Kurdish rebels on its own soil since peace talks began two years ago. The strikes came amid anger among the Kurds in Turkey, who accuse the government there of standing by while Syrian Kurds are being killed by Islamic State militants in the besieged Syrian border town of Kobani." More here.

FP’s Lauren Bohen writes that fight for Kobani has inevitably stoked tensions between Turkey and the Kurds. "The struggle for Kobani, a small Syrian Kurdish city along the border with Turkey, has reignited tensions between Kurds, a disenfranchised minority that makes up a fifth of Turkey’s population, and the state. Many Kurds blame the Turkish government for not doing enough to save their Syrian counterparts and for blocking Kurdish efforts to send fighters across the border to Kobani. As the Islamic State jihadists entered the embattled town last week, the "Kurdish street" erupted in rage across Turkey: The military deployed tanks in Diyarbakir, the de facto capital of the country’s Kurdish region, and enforced a curfew after more than a dozen people died in protests that turned violent." Read more here.

From the NY Times’ C.J. Chivers: We’ve Finally Found Iraq’s WMDs. "From 2004 to 2011, American and American-trained Iraqi troops repeatedly encountered, and on at least six occasions were wounded by, chemical weapons remaining from years earlier in Saddam Hussein’s rule.

In all, American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs, according to interviews with dozens of participants, Iraqi and American officials, and heavily redacted intelligence documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act." More here.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International is charging that the Iraqi government is killing Sunnis in retaliation for IS attacks. From NBC: "In a report released Tuesday, Amnesty International charged that government-backed Shiite militias have been abducting and killing Sunni Muslim civilians without any interference from the Iraqi government. The abductions increased after the Iraqi Army, on the run from ISIS, abandoned a third of the country and the Shiite militias filled the power void, it said." Read the full report here.

ISIS advances in Anbar. Al Awsat’s Hamza Mustafa: "Despite suffering setbacks elsewhere in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to advance in the country’s western Anbar province. ISIS seized an Iraqi military camp in Hit on Monday, around 90 miles (150 kilometers) from Baghdad, after Iraqi forces carried out what it termed a ‘tactical retreat’ from the area. Iraqi military officials claimed to have removed equipment and arms from the base, in addition to burning food supplies in order to deny ISIS fighters’ provisions. This is the third Iraqi military base seized by ISIS fighters in Anbar over the past month." More here.

From War on the Rocks, more on the fight for Anbar province. Also, a reminder that Baghdad is on the brink of falling, this time from US News.

Der Spiegel warns against violating civil rights in the fight against IS. More here.

This WSJ editorial warns that the United States isn’t taking the fight against IS seriously.

After Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Paris, the U.S. and Russia agree to share more intel on ISIS. The NYT’s Michael Gordon: "Just six months ago, Obama administration officials suggested that their goal was to isolate President Vladimir V. Putin following Russia’s decision to annex Crimea and provide military support to separatists in eastern Ukraine. But Mr. Kerry made it clear that he would welcome expanded cooperation with Mr. Putin after a meeting here with Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.

"…Opening the door to cooperation in Iraq, Mr. Kerry said Mr. Lavrov had agreed to explore whether Russia could do more to support Iraq’s beleaguered government as it battles the Islamic State – including by providing weapons. The bulk of the conversation, Mr. Kerry asserted, was on issues other than Ukraine, including how to fight the spread of Ebola; matters involving North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen; and efforts to negotiate an agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, which Mr. Kerry insisted was not out of reach." More here.

In Iraq, workers commute daily between Kurdish-and Islamic State-controlled territory: "The jihadists’ push has deepened the nation’s splintering into three distinct regional entities: the northeastern region controlled by Kurds and their peshmerga forces, who are pushing for independence; the Sunni region south and west of it, which the Islamic militants largely control; and Baghdad and southern Iraq, where the largely Shiite-dominated national army still holds sway. These geographic divides are evident at the Maktab Khaled checkpoint, an imposing new boundary that is both a front line and an economic passage for communities now on Islamic State side of the battle zone but that rely on Kirkuk, a city of half a million people now controlled by Kurds, for basic needs. Each day about 15,000 people-mostly Sunni Arabs-cross Maktab Khaled, one of the few civilian crossings along a 645-kilometer (400-mile) front line across northeastern Iraq from Islamic State-controlled territory into the Kurdish north." Full story here.

The response to my request for names of the US mission against IS was overwhelming. It’s hard to draw any conclusions from the names offered, but I will say this: SitRep has an engaged, intelligent and global audience (I got responses from all over the world), and the names offered up show a huge disparity in opinion. Some show resolve, while others reflect a growing criticism – one might say cynicism – of Obama’s strategy. Some of the best are below; email me if you’d like to receive the full list.

Operation Empty Chair; Operation Oops, Sorry About That; Operation Good Intentions; Operation Seriously?  Again?; Operation Passive-Aggressive; Operation Coalition of the Dragged Kicking and Screaming; Operation Did I Leave My Keys Here?; Operation Slam Dunk; Operation IS you IS, or IS you Ain’t? Operation Syri-ous about Iraqi Freedom; and Operation Iraqi Freedom 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Welcome to Wednesday’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 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. Follow us: @davidcfrancis and @njsobe4.

Yesterday, I asked for your feedback, and it came in droves. Keep it coming. Send along notes on SitRep, and send suggestions for areas you’d like to see covered more. A lot of you suggested topics; I’ve noted them all. Send along contact info. Tell me what’s going on in your world, on or off the record. Remember, this isn’t a one-way conversation. It’s a dialogue, with some really exciting things coming soon.

Who’s where when: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel delivers remarks at the AUSA Sustaining Member Luncheon on the topic of "Readiness and Defense" at 11:30 a.m… Commander, U.S. Cyber Command, director, National Security Agency, and chief, Central Security Service, Adm. Michael S. Rogers Delivers keynote remarks on security at the Grid Security Conference in San Antonio, Texas at 9:30 a.m.

Stripes’ Chris Carroll on Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno’s remarks on growing "military risk" at the AUSA annual convention in Washington yesterday, here.

For the Atlantic, former NYT reporter Howard French examines the dangerous chess game China is playing with its neighbors: "If China can impose its will in the South China Sea, at least five rival claimants-all much smaller, weaker Asian states-will be limited to a narrow band of the sea along their coastlines. China would gain greater security for its crucial supply lines of oil and other commodities; exclusive access to rich fishing areas and potentially vast undersea oil deposits; a much larger buffer against what it regards as U.S. naval intrusions; and, not least, the prestige and standing it has long sought, becoming in effect the Pacific’s hegemon, and positioning itself to press its decades-old demand that Taiwan come under its control. Arguably, it would achieve the greatest territorial expansion by any power since imperial Japan’s annexation of large swaths of Asia in the first half of the 20th century." Full story here.

While the West is focused on IS, Russia picks away at the fragile EU-US partnership on Ukraine.  FP’s Trindle: "On legal, political, and economic fronts, Russian officials and companies are exploiting differences to chip away at the united trans-Atlantic approach. While the West is focused on other problem regions, such as Iraq and Syria, sanctions against Russia are vulnerable to legal challenges in EU courts and could benefit from dwindling public support for a costly fight.

"One Russian counterpunch is to point out the economic pain sanctions are inflicting on Europeans. Although Russia is the intended target, the drop in trade with Moscow hurts the EU, too. Shortly before meeting with his U.S. counterpart Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov emphasized that the EU is paying more dearly for sanctions than the United States, the bloc’s more aggressive sanctions partner. He said the prohibitions would cost the EU 40 billion euros this year and 50 billion euros next year in lost business." More here.

Australian Prime Minister, still incensed about Putin’s behavior after the Ukraine, Malaysian Airlines disaster, which claimed 27 Australian lives, backs away from comments that he would "shirtfront" Putin at the G-20 next month, snuffing out the possibility of potentially the greatest confrontation in international affairs in recent memory. But seriously, have we forgotten that a civilian plane was shot down? I’ve never felt as if this was taken seriously enough. It got caught up in the Putin-as-international-villain narrative, and the families of those who were killed have never received closure.

A classified review concluded that many of the CIA’s past attempts to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. The NYT’s Mark Mazzetti: "The Central Intelligence Agency has run guns to insurgencies across the world during its 67-year history – from Angola to Nicaragua to Cuba. The continuing C.I.A. effort to train Syrian rebels is just the latest example of an American president becoming enticed by the prospect of using the spy agency to covertly arm and train rebel groups. An internal C.I.A. study has found that it rarely works.

"The still-classified review, one of several C.I.A. studies commissioned in 2012 and 2013 in the midst of the Obama administration’s protracted debate about whether to wade into the Syrian civil war, concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground." More here.

Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s once elusive spymaster, is out of the shadows in Iraq. FP’s O’Grady: "In recent weeks, photos of Suleimani on a mountaintop alongside Yazidi elders who had faced extermination at the hands of the Islamic State and shaking hands with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters on battlefields in Kurdistan have been widely shared on Twitter, Facebook, and Iranian state-run media. That means the once-elusive leader of the Quds Force, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard responsible for high-profile missions outside of Iran, is enjoying a strange form of celebrity among those cheering Iran’s willingness to deploy small numbers of ground troops against the Islamic State, something Washington has steadfastly refused to do.

"Suleimani’s emergence highlights the vastly different ways Washington and Tehran are trying to portray their roles in the fight against the Islamic State. While the United States downplays its involvement in strikes against the militants by hiding under the umbrella of a fragile coalition, the Iranian government is taking a totally different approach: boasting of its solo ventures into Iraq and trying to argue that Iran, not the United States, deserves credit for recent victories, no matter how temporary." More here.

DOD’s top WMD expert is joining State to fight Ebola, calling it the "biggest biological event" of his lifetime. FP’s Brannen: "Whether we’re at the beginning, in the middle, or near the end of the Ebola outbreak is going to depend on the ‘impact of international action,’ said Andrew Weber, the soon-to-be deputy at the State Department’s recently created Ebola Coordination Unit. That’s because if the world doesn’t get a handle on the disease soon, the number of people infected with the disease is going to skyrocket, according to U.S. and international health officials." More here.

Aaron David Miller writes for FP that the time of great American leadership is over, here.

Israel’s defense minister warns of a ‘bad Iranian deal.’ Al-Monitor’s Ben Caspit, here.

Here’s your daily reminder that Europe’s economy is threatening to make NATO irrelevant.

And finally, David Greenglass, part of the Rosenberg spy ring which stole nuclear secrets and sister of Ethel Rosenberg, died yesterday, a reminder that things were much simpler during the Cold War.


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.