The Cable

Situation Report: Russia’s Syria ruse; Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran set up shop in Baghdad; Putin rips NATO ops; new Afghan plans; Baiji remains a stalemate; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Piggyback. There’s a new report claiming Russia, Iran, and Syria have set up a joint coordination cell in Baghdad that will work with the country’s Iranian-backed Shia militias fighting the Islamic State. One would think that Syrian military officials might have their hands full at home, but the unnamed ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Piggyback. There’s a new report claiming Russia, Iran, and Syria have set up a joint coordination cell in Baghdad that will work with the country’s Iranian-backed Shia militias fighting the Islamic State. One would think that Syrian military officials might have their hands full at home, but the unnamed U.S. intelligence officials in the Fox News story say they’ve seen the evidence. What is not so certain is how much the Iraqi government knows, or is involved, in the coordination group.

We’re also learning more about how the Russians managed to get roughly two dozen fighter planes into Syria without detection. A variety of U.S. officials over the past several days have suggested the planes came in with their tracking transponders off, and that the Su-25 Frogfoot and Su-24 Fencer attack planes actually flew in “tight formations” underneath the massive An-124 cargo planes in order to skirt radar.

Easy targets. In an interview that will be broadcast Sunday on “60 Minutes,” Russian President Vladimir Putin cleared up any misconceptions about Moscow’s intention to prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“There is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism,” he said. Putin also took a shot at two countries where the U.S. and NATO have recently ousted dictators, which then promptly descended into chaos. Any action “to destroy the legitimate government [in Syria] will create a situation which you can witness now in the other countries of the region or in other regions, for instance in Libya, where all the state institutions are disintegrated,” he said. “We see a similar situation in Iraq.”

Vlad the builder. The Institute for the Study of War has released a series of new satellite images showing new airstrip construction at the Istamo Weapon Storage Facility southeast of Latakia, Syria. The photos show fresh paving and clearing operations, along with new construction at the facility. Both Russian Mi-17 transport, and Ka-27/28 helicopters, “with possible anti-submarine capability,” the report says, are already parked on the new concrete.

Same as it ever was. And in Iraq, the fight grinds on. After 15 months of combat, the Iraqi army has yet to fully take control over the Baiji oil refinery. Despite previous claims by the Baghdad government that the sprawling facility and the nearby town had been cleared — or were on the verge of being cleared — of Islamic State fighters, there’s no real end in sight.

Just last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said retaking Baiji “is critical to ending Daesh’s presence in Iraq,” yet a U.S. official told Reuters this week that Iraqi security forces and their allied Shiite militia forces only control about 20 percent of the refinery and the town. The inability to retake Baiji despite having thousands of troops on the ground backed by months of daily pounding by U.S. warplanes and drones circling overhead has called into question how Baghdad will eventually wrest the heavily fortified city of Mosul from the Islamic State.

Same war, new plans. Again. In the constantly shifting assessment over what Washington can and should do in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell, commander of NATO forces there, has sent a list of recommendations on the path forward to the White House. The Wall Street Journal reports the options include “keeping the current U.S. presence at or near 10,000; reducing it slightly to 8,000; cutting the force roughly in half; and continuing with current plans to draw down to a force of several hundred troops by the end of 2016.”

While none of the plans appear hugely controversial, the history of troop recommendations from generals in both Afghanistan and Iraq to the White House of President Barack Obama is fraught with tension and accusations of playing politics. Campbell’s recommendations are hardly radical, but now that the numbers are out, the shouting can begin.

One more. Just to add to the day’s war news, new pictures coming out of Yemen show that American-made MRAPs continue to take a beating from Houthi rebels.

Good morning, all. There’s lots happening out there and we’re trying to fit it all in here. But as always, your voices are welcome. 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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Cybersecurity

That hack of the Office of Personnel and Management? We’re still working through it. That was Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s message to the House Intelligence Committee during a hearing on Thursday. FP’s Elias Groll reports that Clapper pushed back against reports that millions of federal employees’ fingerprints had been breached, saying that, months after the hack, “we don’t actually know what was actually exfiltrated.”

More Russia

Ahead of the forthcoming meeting in New York between President Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, SecDef Ash Carter is dangling the prospect that the U.S. could work with Russia in Syria to target the Islamic State — but only insofar as Russia is willing to help oust Assad from power. Carter, speaking alongside Ukrainian Minister of Defense Colonel-General Stepan Poltorak on Thursday, hastened to add that any cooperation with Russia would not lead to a shift in U.S. policy towards Ukraine or soften Washington’s views toward Russia’s military involvement there.

Business of defense

The Los Angeles Times drops a lengthy investigation into the JLENS program and finds it to be a $2.7 billion “zombie” — a wasteful defense program that cannot be killed. For the uninitiated, JLENS (Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System), is massive white aerostat hovering over a U.S. Army base near Baltimore designed to provide early warning of low-flying cruise missiles headed for the capitol. Pentagon testers have given JLENS a “low system reliability” rating, and that it has trouble telling friendly airborne platforms from incoming threats. The system also has trouble staying up for 30 days at a time, as originally intended, and can’t plug into existing air defense networks.

China

Do you like pageantry? You better, because the Chinese military might be serving it up on a regular basis coming soon. The recent World War II commemoration parade featuring the People’s Liberation Army’s latest and greatest weapons was apparently such a hit that China’s Defense Ministry is now signaling that it might make military parades a regular occurrence, even outside of major historical anniversaries.

Sci-Fi

This messenger will self-destruct. The Department of Homeland Security is working with Boeing to build an experimental secure phone that uses advanced chips to authenticate users through specific patterns of behavior, and then erase itself if it discovers attempts at tampering. Using the company’s “Boeing Black” secure smartphone as a test bed, the idea is to make a mobile device that can, for example, learn to recognize its owner’s gait and differentiate it from someone else’s walking pattern to determine if an unauthorized user is in possession of the device.

Nigeria

The White House announced on Wednesday that it will offer up $45 million to fund African countries’ fight against the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram. The U.S. will use the money, split between Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, to fund military training and ship supplies to the country’s’ armed forces.

North Korea

After much chatter and speculation that North Korea would launch a satellite (*cough* missile test *cough*), new satellite imagery of the country’s launch site suggests that the Hermit Kingdom won’t launch anytime before October 10. Analysts at the site took a look at recent snaps of the launch facility and found that it is lacking the kind of preparations and activity normally associated with a launch. Photographs of associated facilities like fuel storage buildings and a launch control facility also don’t show an uptick in the kinds of activity one would normally expect in advance of a major launch event.

The U.S. is sending an aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, to dock in the South Korean port of Busan next month to participate in a naval parade marking the 70th anniversary of Korean independence, Yonhap News Agency reports. The carrier will join two F-22 Raptors and a Global Hawk surveillance drone as part of a beefed up presence of U.S. military assets in South Korea in the wake of recent threats coming from North Korea.

Today in scandal

Pro tip: if you’re going to drop a load of money on casinos and strippers, maybe don’t use your Department of Defense (DoD) credit card to pay for it. The Senate Armed Services Committee is asking the Pentagon’s Inspector General to investigate reports that DoD employees had nearly a million dollars worth of transactions at casinos and roughly $100,000 worth of charges at Las Vegas strip clubs.

Think tanked

The Washington Institute’s Michael Knights and Alexandre Mello Horizon Client Access have a smart rundown of recent fighting in Yemen between Houthi rebels and Yemeni forces backed by American-made hardware and Special Forces from Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. “The ground operations to roll back Houthi control are progressing more rapidly than many critics of GCC military capacity expected. That said, Houthi resistance is stiffening, and the difficult task of liberating urban centers such as Taizz and Sana is still to come.”

The Congressional Research Service has updated two of its continuing publications on Chinese military developments. The Federation of American Scientists got its hands on the September update of analyst Ronald O’Rourke’s “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities,” and the latest edition of “The Chinese Military: Overview and Issues for Congress.”

 

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