The Cable

Situation Report: Syrian rebel air force; Iranian losses in Syria; debate over civilian casualties begins anew; Afghan war general in town while Taliban fractures; London sticking around Iraq; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley You’ve got a friend. The Defense Department has spent a staggering $36 million to train and equip a paltry force of 60 Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State in Syria, and have now backed that up with an aerial umbrella of U.S. drones and attack aircraft worth tens ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

You’ve got a friend. The Defense Department has spent a staggering $36 million to train and equip a paltry force of 60 Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State in Syria, and have now backed that up with an aerial umbrella of U.S. drones and attack aircraft worth tens of millions of dollars more. What these 60 Syrian fighters are doing, and where in northern Syria they’re doing it, is unclear. But Washington’s commitment to them can now be measured not only in dollars, but in sorties flown, writes FP’s Paul McLeary.

On Monday, a Pentagon spokesman confirmed that armed U.S. drones have started flying from the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to support the fighters, and have already bombed members of an Islamist group that attacked the small group. Things have the potential to get messy, as U.S. officials pledge to hit anyone who threatens Washington’s favorite anti-Islamic State fighters, including Syrian government forces.

The damage done. A new report by independent monitoring group Airwars aimed at tracking the almost year-long U.S. led campaign to hit the Islamic State from the air reports that at least 459 civilians have died in those airstrikes. Up to this point, the U.S. has only acknowledged two civilian deaths in Syria — both children — as a consequence of its air war. While not speaking to those numbers specifically, on Monday night Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis confirmed that there are currently six ongoing investigations into civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria — four in Iraq, and two Syria — while four more have already been wrapped up by the U.S. government. Three of these determined that allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded. In a number that the Pentagon might like a little more, the group also says that 15,000 Islamic State militants have been killed over the past year.

Add it up. The Iranian government has long been the biggest supporter of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But we haven’t been able to get a good sense for how much the Iranians have actually bled to support their client state. But a new report from the Washington Institute — based on accounts in Persian-language media of funeral services for Iranian, Afghan, and Pakistani Shiite fighters in Syria, gives us some sense of the level of involvement. Overall, 113 Iranians, 121 Afghan nationals, and 20 Pakistanis — all Shiites — have died fighting in Syria since January 2013.

The report states that all of the 113 of the Iranians killed had served in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), eight of whom coming from the elite Qods Force. All of the Afghan fighters killed were members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade — a Shiite militia founded in 2014 by Tehran — while the Pakistanis served with the Zainabiyoun Brigade. Unsurprisingly, both of these groups are believed to report to the Qods Force. While you’re here, don’t forget to revisit the recent story by FP’s Dan De Luce looking at the losses that Iranian-backed Hezbollah has sustained in Syria.

It’s another fine morning here at Situation Report HQ, where as usual, we’re on the lookout for anything noteworthy or interesting to flag, so please pass any items along to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or send a shout or DM on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Afghanistan

The fallout from the news of Mullah Mohammed Omar’s death continues. Within the Taliban, not everyone is thrilled at the choice of Mullah Akhtar Mansour to succeed Omar. Syed Tayyab Agha, one of the group’s negotiators managing talks with the U.S. in Qatar and a former personal aide to Mullah Omar, has resigned in protest over Mansour’s ascension. Agha blasted the selection of Mansour as a “a great historical mistake,” suggesting that Pakistani officials had a hand in his rise.

The head of NATO’s training mission in Afghanistan is in Washington Tuesday to speak at the Brookings Institution about the fight there. Gen. John Campbell cancelled a press briefing last week just a day before news broke of Mullah Omar’s death, so he’s had more than usual on his plate. But the long-scheduled talk has taken on a new importance, and we’ll be listening for any hints that the new instability within the ranks of the Taliban, the postponement of peace talks, and the rise of the Islamic State in the country will lead Campbell to begin pushing for an extension of American military involvement there. There are currently about 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a number slated to slowly decline by the end of 2016, when the American involvement will mostly come to an end.

Iran deal

President Barack Obama has picked up a pretty big endorsement of the deal his team forged with Tehran to curb that country’s nuclear weapons program. The administration locked up the public support of the Gulf Cooperation Council — a collective of oil-rich states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain – at a meeting in Qatar. Speaking at a press conference with Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah said, “this was the best option amongst other options in order to try to come up with a solution for the nuclear weapons of Iran through dialogue, and this came up as a result of the efforts exerted by the United States of America and its allies.” While welcome, we’ll see how much opponents of the deal in Washington care about the endorsement.

U.K.

British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon is keeping the country’s aging fleet of Tornado fighter jets around for another year to stay in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq. The Brits recently extended the operational lifespan of the warplanes to 2016. But Fallon says the Royal Air Force Tornados have proven useful and reliable enough to keep around for another year.

Russia

Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is reorganizing to create the new Aerospace Forces branch, which combines the current air force, air defense, anti-missile and space forces. The new force will be led by Russia’s current air force chief, Gen. Viktor Bondarev.

Islamic State

American defense and intelligence officials are split over which group presents the biggest threat: al Qaeda or the Islamic State. “This is not an academic argument,” the New York Times’ Eric Schmitt reports. “It will influence how the government allocates billions of dollars in counterterrorism funds, and how it assigns thousands of federal agents, intelligence analysts and troops to combat a multipronged threat that senior officials say is changing rapidly.”

Marine Corps

In a piece for FP, the Center for Public Integrity‘s Julia Harte explains how Marine Corps bookkeepers couldn’t account for over $800 million in an audit last year. The Defense Department is notoriously terrible at accounting, with its books so chaotic that it has been nearly impossible to audit for the past 25 years. The Corps had received an initial clean audit last year only to have the inspector general walk it back in March. A new Government Accountability Report released Monday suggests that officials in the inspector general’s office may have improperly overruled subordinates who recommended giving the Marines’ books an all-clear.

Darpa

Darpa, the Pentagon’s high-tech research shop which helped create the Internet, is looking for some help managing its darker side. The organization will host what it is billing as a “proposer’s day” in September to give researchers a heads up on its new Extreme DDoS Defense program. DDoS attacks use networks of hacked computers to flood websites or Internet-connected applications with traffic in a bid to knock them offline or make them inaccessible. For an organization like the Pentagon, which runs military command and control systems and other important networks, the threat is obvious. So Darpa’s in the market for defenses and mitigations that improve on existing approaches to the DDoS threat.

Who’s where when

2:00 p.m. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ Todd Harrison and Evan Montgomery discuss their recent report, “Are U.S. Nuclear Forces Unaffordable?” today at the CSBA offices in downtown Washington, but the talk will also be streamed live here.

On the move

Would you like to be the head of the office for Anticipating Surprise? It’s a thing, and it exists within the U.S. intel community’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). The position opened up on Monday when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper announced that Dr. Jason Matheny will leave to office to take over as director of IARPA, which serves as a kind of in-house tech incubator for the intel community.

Tag: War

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