The Cable

Situation Report: Pentagon starting over on Syrian rebel program; arctic spying programs; defense official hits northern Europe; Pakistan droning; Putin in Syria; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Training day(s). The U.S.-led effort to train and equip groups of “moderate” Syrian rebels is in some trouble. The quick dismantling of the first 54 U.S.-trained recruits sent into Syria last month at the hands of the al Qaeda-aligned al Nusra front wasn’t the first indication that the $500 ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Training day(s). The U.S.-led effort to train and equip groups of “moderate” Syrian rebels is in some trouble. The quick dismantling of the first 54 U.S.-trained recruits sent into Syria last month at the hands of the al Qaeda-aligned al Nusra front wasn’t the first indication that the $500 million program was struggling, but it was the bloodiest. Now, Pentagon officials tell the New York Times, big changes are in the works. Changes may include sending the next group to a different area of Syria, and providing them with better intelligence once they get there. The U.S. spent about $41 million to get the program off the ground and train those first 54 fighters, making that group a very expensive lesson in the realities of the war on the ground in northern Syria.

True north. Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work is in the middle of a long road trip, hitting Iceland, the U.K., and Norway where he’s slated to talk quite a bit about security in the Arctic. His visit to Norway comes at a time when the NATO ally is involved in a complicated balancing act, both honoring its commitment to the NATO alliance while trying to maintain its traditionally open commercial relationship with Moscow. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year, however, Norway suspended all forms of military cooperation with Moscow, and Oslo is also considering taking part in a NATO missile defense program strongly opposed by Moscow.

Don’t sleep on Norway. Norway is also considering partnering with Poland to buy three submarines over the next several years, and a Norwegian surveillance ship, the Marjata, is currently being overhauled at a shipyard in Virginia, after which it’s expected to head to the Arctic to start keeping tabs on Russian military maneuvers in the region. (There has even been a far less pressing, but still significant, diplomatic spat recently over a Norwegian TV show that dramatizes what life would be like if the Russians invaded and occupied the country. Moscow, unsurprisingly, gives it the thumbs down.)

Spies like us. Work’s trip also comes on the heels of a big push by all of the big U.S. spy agencies to reacquaint themselves with the far north. The Los Angeles Times reports after a 14-month effort by U.S. analysts at the various agencies, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently held a “strategy board” meeting so the analysts could compare notes about what is happening at the top of the world.

Fuel, meet fire. As if the Greeks didn’t have enough to keep themselves occupied these days, they’re now being dragged into a diplomatic tug of war between the United States and Moscow. Washington recently asked Greek officials to deny Russia the use of its airspace for supply flights to Syria. There have been multiple reports over the past week of Russian equipment and even troops taking part in the fighting in Syria, in support of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Now it’s for real. The first week of September is in the books, the kids are finally (!) back at school, and Congress has shuttled into town. Let’s get to it. As always, please pass along any tips, notes, or otherwise interesting bits of information that you may have at your disposal. Best way is to send them to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.   

Congress

They’re back, but Congress was never rally far from our minds during the August recess. We hope lawmakers are rested because the session we’re entering is going to look more like a sprint than a marathon. First up is the Iran nuclear deal, which the Republican majority hopes to crush, but President Barack Obama has won enough support among Democrats to uphold his veto of their expected vote of disapproval. Then there’s the matter of passing a federal budget by time the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. There is talk of Congress passing a stopgap year-long funding measure, but no one seems very happy with that solution. Stay tuned.

United Kingdom

On Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed that a Royal Air Force drone flying over Raqqa, Syria carried out the targeted killing of two British nationals who had joined the Islamic State. The strikes killed Junaid Hussain, an amateur hacker for the group, and Reyaad Khan. A third man, Ruhul Amin, was also killed in the attack. Cameron called the circumstances “unique” but vowed that the U.K. would strike British nationals again if the circumstances warranted.

Pakistan

Drones. They’re here, they’re spreading, and the genie can’t ever be put back in the bottle. Pakistan has joined the small club of countries who have carried out a successful missile strike from an unmanned combat aerial vehicle. Pakistani officials say a Burraq drone killed three militants in North Waziristan on Monday. The Burraq is reportedly derived from China’s Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation CH-3 drone.

France

French President Francois Hollande has told the country’s military to prepare to join the coalition of western countries fighting in Syria and carry out airstrikes there, the BBC reports. Hollande cited the rash of terrorist plots connected to the Islamic State in Syria, saying French warplanes would likely conduct reconnaissance flights over Syria and eventually drop ordnance on targets belonging to the Islamic State.

Russia

The Associated Press spoke with political analysts in Russia about President Vladimir Putin’s latest moves in Syria and heard that the Russian leader may be looking to pitch the United States on an alliance against the Islamic State. Russia has reportedly deployed a handful of troops and military assets to the frontlines in Syria. Why? Well, Russian pundits believe Putin may be trying to offer the U.S. help in defeating the Islamic State in exchange for some consideration in easing sanctions on Russia that came after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Afghanistan

Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour has had just about enough of your criticism of his succession to the throne of Mullah Mohammed Omar, his predecessor in leading the Afghan Taliban. The New York Times reports that Mansour, who took over the Taliban following the delayed recent revelation of Mullah Omar’s death, is sending fighters to take on forces loyal to senior Taliban leader Mullah Mansour Dadullah, who refuses to accede to Mansour’s leadership claims. Dadullah, along with other dissidents, has been a vocal critic of Mansour and the process that lead to his coronation as successor to Omar.

Iraq

Iraq’s new American-built F-16 fighter jets finally arrived at Balad Air Base this summer, but only last week made their combat debut, carrying out airstrikes against targets from the Islamic State, according to the Washington Post. The attacks reportedly took place in Salaheddin and Kirkuk provinces. Iraq has ordered a total of 36 of the fighter jets from the United States, with 32 of them still pending delivery to the country.

Top Tweet: RT @@USFOR_A #TWallTuesday – This week’s T-Wall on Bagram Airfield really likes its veggies. on.fb.me/1LUTRfZ

Military justice

Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. Army sergeant who walked away from his outpost in Afghanistan only to be promptly kidnapped by the Taliban, (and whose release following a prisoner swap with the group created a political firestorm), is now facing charges under Article 99 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Article 99, an infrequently used charge, punishes “misbehavior before the enemy,” involving cowardice on the battlefield. In theory, Bergdahl could face as much as life in prison if convicted, though others charged under the law have received as little as two years.

Africa

Ugandan officials have admitted that al Shabab killed at least 12 of its troops after the jihadist group attacked a base housing African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops near the Somali capital of Mogadishu earlier this month. The Long War Journal reports that Shabab’s Sheikh Abu Zubayr Battalion launched the attack. The unit is  named after the Shabab leader who was killed by an American drone strike in 2014. In June, the jihadist monitor reported, “the jihadist group said the battalion killed more than 60 Ethiopian troops. Shabaab released photographs which appeared to back up that claim.”

In a surprising alliance born out of necessity, the two main militias operating in the western part of Libya continue to keep the terms of a three-month cease-fire aimed at halting the march of Islamic State aligned jihadist groups westward, out of the central city of Sirte.

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