The Cable

Situation Report: Carter backs his commanders; U.S. stays away from Chinese islands; moves at State Dept.; cool new drone tech; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Baghdad backup. Defense Secretary Ash Carter is standing behind his general running operations in the Middle East. Despite a stalemate in Iraq, a crumbling program to train Syrian rebels, and an expanding intelligence scandal in the U.S. Central Command (Centcom) headquarters, spokesman Peter Cook said on Thursday that Carter ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Baghdad backup. Defense Secretary Ash Carter is standing behind his general running operations in the Middle East. Despite a stalemate in Iraq, a crumbling program to train Syrian rebels, and an expanding intelligence scandal in the U.S. Central Command (Centcom) headquarters, spokesman Peter Cook said on Thursday that Carter maintains “full confidence” in Centcom chief Gen. Lloyd Austin.

In the face of all this trouble — made worse by a messy Capitol Hill appearance on Wednesday in which a bipartisan group of Senators lined up to bash U.S. policy in the region — Carter is sticking with his guy. The effort in Iraq and Syria “clearly has faced challenges,” Cook said, but Carter “still believes Gen. Austin can get the job done.”

Meetings to plan meetings. The U.S. official taking point on much of the interaction with allies in the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry, visited the Pentagon to meet with Carter and his team late Thursday afternoon. The two were scheduled to talk about the fight against the  Islamic State and the increasing Russian involvement in Syria, according to defense officials.

The tyranny of distance. While secretary Carter has yet to speak with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in the seven months he’s been in office, and has often not played a large public role in working through the thorny issues of Iraq, Syria, and Russian adventurism in Ukraine, he has been more outspoken about the Chinese land reclamation project in the South China Sea.

In a speech earlier this month, Carter voiced his “deep concern” over China’s island building, which Beijing claims gives it territorial rights over not only the islands, but also a 12-mile zone around them. Carter says he’s having none of it: “Let me be clear: the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world.”

He repeated that line word for word in a speech on Wednesday, adding, “turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.”

But the reality is a bit different. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, David Shear, assistant secretary of defense for Asia-Pacific security admitted, “I believe the last time we conducted a freedom of navigation operation within 12 nautical miles of one of those features was 2012.” Head of the U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Harry Harris also said that the United States has never conducted a flyover of any of the islands, either.

On the move

Dr. Karin von Hippel, chief of staff to Gen. John Allen (ret.), President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, will step down later this year in order to take over as director of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London-based security think tank. SitRep reached out to the State Department to find out who might replace her, but officials there are being tight-lipped on who might be coming on board.

Good morning! Thanks for joining us yet again this week. 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.   

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Top Tweet

RT @Conflicts Video released of what is said to be a Syrian airforce jet shot down by #ISIS in #Homs #Syria last night – @fimloy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jS-lSkfGwOU

The social media front

A group claiming to be from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, showed up on the social media site Reddit on Thursday, asking for help in fighting off the Islamic State in Syria. FP’s Henry Johnson writes that while the YPG has already enlisted about 56 American citizens in the fight — according to a report by FP contributor Adam Rawnsley — they’re looking for more. A social media offshoot of the YPG, the Lions of Rojava, was responsible for organizing the “Ask Me Anything” session. The Lions of Rojava actively seeks foreign recruits via its Facebook page and a dedicated website.

Britain’s Independent reports that GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency, hacked the phones of the Islamic State’s own self-styled hacker Junaid Hussain and his colleague Reyaad Khan Britain’s by sending Hussain a malicious link on Surespot, an encrypted chat app used by fighters from the group. The Brits then reportedly used the data from the phones to locate and ultimately kill the men in a Royal Air Force drone strike in Syria.

The business of defense

Buzzfeed‘s Aram Roston dropped a monster investigative piece on Thursday detailing the Pentagon’s botched effort to buy rocket propelled grenades (RPG) from a small contractor as part of its troubled effort to arm Syrian rebels. The 1984-vintage RPGs made for unreliable weapons — so much so that one ultimately took the life of a U.S. contractor when it blew up in his hands. The company also received a green light from the State Department to purchase anti-tank missiles from Belarus, which raised eyebrows given that the country is under European Union sanctions for human rights violations, making it subject to extra scrutiny for weapons deals in the United States.

Terrorist Sci-Fi

Military futurist and New America fellow P.W. Singer takes a speculative look at what kinds of technologies the terrorists of tomorrow might use in Vice’s Motherboard. Among the technologies Singer thinks are in store for 21st century terror: Harry Potter-style invisibility cloaks made of special metalized fabrics that can counter thermal imaging, 3D printed guns and drone-borne improvised explosive devices.

Afghanistan-Pakistan

The Long War Journal reports that the Haqqani Network, the militant group which controls territory along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, has a new video out which devotes special attention to showing off its Salahadin Ayyubi training camp, the base which turned out the attackers who carried out a recent suicide attack on the Afghan National Directorate of Security in Ghazni. The video shows off the usual terrorist training program: basic calisthenics, marksmanship courses and instructions in how to fire rocket propelled grenades.

Iran

Britain’s Sky News reported earlier this week that Iran agreed to a prisoner swap with al-Qaeda, exchanging five senior figures held by the country in exchange for an Iranian diplomat being held in Yemen. The New York Times offers a little more context on the prisoner swap, which reportedly took place in March. Intelligence analysts reached by the Times said that the release of the men is troubling and could reenergize al-Qaeda at a time when the group’s fortunes have waned with the rise of its rivals in the Islamic State.

Drones

Air Force special ops chief Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold would like his AC-130 gunships to be able to deploy smaller drones while out on missions. The drones, labeled tactical off-board sensing, would deploy from the planes, fly underneath the weather and scout out ahead of the aircraft to survey the ground for potential targets, according to Defense Tech.

Darpa is looking to expand its Gremlins program, which looks to build drones that can be launched and recovered from the air. The idea is to allow planes to launch smaller Gremlins drones while airborne and in larger numbers that would be recoverable but disposable after a certain number of uses.

Nigeria

Boko Haram, Nigeria’s Islamist terrorist menace, has taken a toll on the country. But now  UNICEF has put a number to one of the costs of the group’s war against the Nigerian state and society. A staggering 1.4 million children have been displaced in Nigeria and neighboring countries as families flee the group. In northern Nigeria alone, 1.2 million children — more than half younger than five — have been forced to flee, while another 265,000 have been displaced in Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

Cybersecurity

The Finnish infosec company F-Secure has been following the Duke group, the name given to a cluster of hackers that many believe is employed by the Russian government, and on Thursday released a report detailing seven years worth of activity by the group. The Duke group is fairly advanced, using a number of undisclosed software vulnerabilities to carry out its breaches and has targeted systems around the world, including against foreign affairs ministries, think tanks, NATO, drug traffickers, and Chechen terrorists.

Who’s where when

9:00 a.m. U.S. Air Force Gen. “Hawk” Carlisle, Commander, Air Combat Command, speaks with Dr. Kathleen Hicks director, International Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Think tanked

The Russian buildup in Syria should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, says Dmitri Trenin, director of Carnegie’s Moscow Center. “The Kremlin’s upping the ante in Syria is explained by its vision of IS as a threat to Russia itself, and Putin’s view of Assad as one who stands up to that threat and refuses to give up,” he writes. “Fighting the enemy abroad, by bolstering an ally is preferable, of course, to having to fight in the Caucasus or Central Asia. It is also important not to appear weak under pressure: in Putin’s memorable phrase, “the weak get beaten.””

Weekend reading

FP contributor Filip Warwick is on the front lines of Eastern Ukraine, and files a dispatch about the new cease-fire that comes just in time for the first day of school, and the locals who don’t believe for a second that it’ll last.

 

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