The Cable

Situation Report: Ash Carter meets the Kurds; Turkey throws in on Islamic State fight; Russian subs; McCain blasts Marine general; anthrax scandal finally makes Pentagon brass angry; and lots more to round out the week

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Change of heart. The week began with a vicious attack by a suicide bomber with suspected links to the Islamic State in the Turkish border town of Suruc, killing 32 people and wounding more than 100. And it’s ending with Turkey rushing soldiers to the Syrian border to engage ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Change of heart. The week began with a vicious attack by a suicide bomber with suspected links to the Islamic State in the Turkish border town of Suruc, killing 32 people and wounding more than 100. And it’s ending with Turkey rushing soldiers to the Syrian border to engage in a cross-border firefight with the jihadists, agreeing to allow American warplanes to hit Syria from the the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, and for the first time sending its own F-16 fighters to smack jihadists in Syria.

The reluctant ally in the fight against the Islamic State joins the coalition just as Kurdish forces have been making real gains in northern Syria — alarming the Turks who have pledged not to allow a Kurdish state to spring up on its border — and represents a major shift in Turkey’s willingness to allow the U.S. to use Incirlik. But events, and 1.5 million Syrian refugees straining Turkey’s ability to care for them, have been forcing Ankara’s hand, FP’s Dan De Luce writes, even if Washington continues to ignore Turkish proposals for establishing a no-fly zone over northern Syria.

Northern alliance. Defense Secretary Ash Carter continued his Iran and Islamic State-themed barnstorming through the Middle East on Friday, following up his visit with Iraqi officials in Baghdad with a hop over to the Kurdish city of Erbil in northern Iraq to meet with Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government, and other Kurdish government and military officials. It’s a significant visit, since the Kurds — and some members of the U.S. Congress — have been pushing for the Pentagon to start directly arming Kurdish fighters, who have been holding the line against the Islamic State in Iraq’s north. The administration of President Barack Obama isn’t as eager as some others in Washington to start pushing weapons to the Kurds, which would antagonize both Baghdad and Ankara, instead preferring to go through the government in Baghdad.

It’s always sunny in Kurdistan. The Kurds remain the darling of the western media and politicians, who love the hard fighters who have scrapped for decades to try and carve out their own homeland along the ethnic faultlines for northern Iraq, Iran, and Syria. But now that they have the excuse to do so, are they pushing out Sunni Arabs in the guise of fighting against the Islamic State? FP contributor Sara Elizabeth Williams writes from northern Iraq that witnesses there say the Kurdish Peshmerga, the military force of Iraqi Kurdistan, “has an agenda that goes beyond fighting the Islamic State: establishing the boundaries of a future Kurdish state and moving the Arabs out.”

Can we start over? The nominee to be the next commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Neller, didn’t really get off to a great start in his relationship with Senate Armed Services Committee chief Sen. John McCain. The general drew the ire of the Arizona lawmaker by telling the panel on Thursday that the Islamic State is essentially fighting to a draw in Iraq and Syria. McCain took the opportunity and ran with it, telling the Iraq vet that “I’m very disappointed in a number of your answers,” on the Islamic State, promising to send along more questions to push the general on his views. It was an unexpected ending to what had been a hum-drum confirmation hearing, and if McCain wants to press the issue, it could hold up a vote on Neller’s confirmation until after the August congressional recess.

Can’t stop. Won’t stop. After two months of measured statements in between bouts of complete silence on the topic, the Pentagon’s senior leadership finally appears to be angry and embarrassed over a U.S. Army lab having inadvertently sent samples of live anthrax to at least 86 labs in 20 U.S. states and seven foreign countries. Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday that the debacle is “a massive institutional failure,” and has directed the Army to launch a full investigation into the leadership at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, which sent out the samples. Work also said that the government is still scrambling to find more live samples it believes to be out there, and he has no doubt that the number of sites will rise in the coming weeks.

We’re back to close out the week here at the Situation Report, and we’re always on the lookout for anything noteworthy or ahead of the news cycle to flag, so please pass any items along to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or send a shout or DM on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

The business of defense

Just a week after Washington and Tehran came to an agreement on stopping work on Iran’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for sanctions relief, the U.S. government signed off on a months-old contract to sell Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia (along with South Korea and Taiwan) $1.5 billion worth of Patriot missiles made by Lockheed Martin. The Defense Department made the announcement Thursday night. Timing is everything.

The Army is also looking to fast track upgrades to the Stryker armored fighting vehicles it has sent to Europe with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment. 2nd Cavalry’s commander, Col. John Meyer, says the Strykers need a 30mm cannon in order to make them effective against Russian fighting vehicles.

Ukraine

When trying to convince the world of secret American arms transfers to Ukraine, it’s best not to copy and paste from video games to make footage of said weapons seem more credible. GlobalVoices‘ Aric Toler tells the story of a video recently released by the Russian-backed Luhansk People’s Republic in which fighters for the breakaway pseudo-state appear to discover, Blair Witch-style, American Stinger missiles in a captured Ukrainian basement arms cache. Any credibility the video may have had disappeared when online sleuths noticed the alleged missiles had misspelled English markings, used the wrong shipping case, copied and pasted a serial number from one video game (Operation Flashpoint) and used a fictional model name marking from another (Battlefield 3).

Russia

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced on Thursday that Russia will be investing in new civilian and defense infrastructure on the Kuril Islands in the Sea of Okhotsk, which both Japan and Russia claim as their own. Medvedev also said that he plans to make another visit to the islands, following visits he made there during his tenure as Russia’s president.

Subs!

The U.S. Navy’s Vice Adm. James Foggo III, 6th Fleet commander, is worried about Russian submarines. The fleet, which patrols the waters around Europe, Russia, and Africa, has been in the middle of the growing Cold War-style cat and mouse game with Russian fighter jets in recent  months, seeing Russian Su-24s flying over the decks of U.S. ships conducting war games in the region. All that is in good fun, Foggo told Stars and Stripes, but what worries him is Russia’s growing submarine activity. In response, unsurprisingly, Foggo says that he needs more U.S. hardware. “Although he declined to discuss American operations undersea, Foggo said that submarines rotating to 6th Fleet have been busy and that the fleet could use even more subs,” Stripes reports.
Future of War

Back in April, the Army Research Laboratory rounded up a gaggle of Defense Department nerds and asked them to hash out their sci-fi predictions for what the future of war would look like. The product of that brainstorm, “Visualizing the Tactical Ground Battlefield in the Year 2050,” was just released and outlines a few predictions for the future. In brief, the authors predict a diminished role for humans in the decision-making loop for military robots, and see humans on the battlefield taking on more of the characteristics their robotic brethren, with mechanical exoskeletons and enhanced cognitive integration with various sensors. So more machine than man, which shouldn’t worry any of us, really.

Iraq

Iraq’s Ambassador to the U.S. Lukman Faily got in a few passive aggressive digs at the Obama administration during a panel at the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday. By way of implied contrast, he boasted that Iran offered Iraq a virtual blank check for military assistance in Iraq’s fight against Islamic State and brushed off American concerns about Iran’s growing influence in the country, saying “that’s a Washington problem, not an Iraqi problem.” Real talk.

Syria

Over at the Wall Street Journal, Adam Entous lays out the suspicions of the U.S. intelligence community and international weapons inspectors that Syria is still hiding some of its chemical weapons arsenal, following a deal in which the Assad regime agreed to give it up. Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons describe an inspection regime tightly controlled by the Assad regime and doubts about certain facilities that were suppressed in order to prioritize the removal of known and declared stockpiles at the expense of suspected ones.

Somalia

While it hasn’t received much attention over here (yet), it looks like American drones are essentially acting as close air support for Somali, African Union, and Kenyan forces slugging it out with al Shabab militants in Somalia. The U.S. has launched as many as six drone strikes against al Shabab targets in Somalia over the past week, all supporting ops on the ground, as opposed to hitting Shabab leadership. “It’s a change in how we’re providing support,” an anonymous U.S. military official told the L.A. Times’ W.J. Hennigan and David Cloud. “Up until now, we’ve focused strikes on high-value targets. These strikes were launched to defend forces on the ground.”

Japan

In an odd scene that played out on Japanese television earlier this week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pitched a skeptical Japanese public on his new slate of defense reforms. Using paper houses and cutouts of Japanese and American firefighters coming to the rescue. Abe wants to pump up the Japanese military’s ability to back up the U.S. in case a shooting war with China starts, and he wants to spend tens of billions of dollars over the next few years to beef up Tokyo’s defensive and offensive military technology. FP’s Elias Groll has some great screenshots of the TV hit where Abe argued that “Japanese firefighters are not able to come to the aid of a burning American house. Japan’s firefighters must stand and watch as their allies’ homes burn. Under his proposed reforms, Japan and the United States would be able to come to the aid of one another, Abe argued.”

 

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