The Cable

Situation Report: Ash Carter profiled; Russian air war in Syria ramps up; Washington struggles to respond; C-130 down in Afghanistan, and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Ash Carter: Profiled. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has been on the job for just over seven months, and has about 16 more to go before the clock runs out on the Obama administration — not a lot of time to get things done in the bureaucratic maze of Washington, ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Ash Carter: Profiled. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has been on the job for just over seven months, and has about 16 more to go before the clock runs out on the Obama administration — not a lot of time to get things done in the bureaucratic maze of Washington, D.C.

FP’s Dan De Luce takes the helm on a long, insightful profile of Carter, what he’s done so far, and more importantly, what his legacy might be at the end of his service running the Department of Defense. There’s no shortage of work to be done. Washington’s Syria policy is crumbling, defense budgets are squeezed; China is building airstrips all over the South China Sea; Ukraine continues its slow-burn of a war with Russian-backed rebels, Iraq is locked in a stalemate with the Islamic State, and Russia, Syria, and Iran have set up shop in Baghdad to share intelligence.

But Carter came into office with plenty of fanfare as the type of personality that can get things done, and as someone with the political capital to modernize the way the Pentagon does business. While he has made some progress, “Carter is shaping up to be more of a caretaker than a reformer,” De Luce writes. “Rather than seeking to change administration policies, the 61-year-old defense chief has — to the consternation of many within the military he oversees — instead become an enthusiastic public advocate of them.”

The interpreter of enemies. Overnight, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced another 18 airstrikes, mostly near the rebel-controlled cities of Aleppo, Homs, and Idlib — all places in western Syria where there is little to no Islamic State presence.

Parallel Or Together? It’s clear that Russian jets — despite Moscow’s insistence — are not attacking Islamic State positions in Syria. Indeed, one of their first strikes on Wednesday targeted U.S.-backed Syrian rebels who had been trained and equipped by the CIA. The Daily Beast reports that over the past two days, Russian aircraft hit the Damascus suburb of Daraya, targeting “the Southern Front, a 30,000-strong anti-Assad umbrella group backed by Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate and the CIA.” So what does that mean for the often vaguely-worded assurances from officials in Washington that U.S.-trained forces in Syria would receive some protection?

Not much, it appears. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has had little to say on the issue, despite telling a Senate panel in July that the U.S. has “an obligation” to help the rebels after they receive U.S. training and equipment. And on Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook used the word “hypothetical” thirteen times by way of declining to answer questions from reporters over  whether the U.S. would protect U.S.-backed rebels, despite numerous reports that the Russians were targeting them. American warplanes have already flown sorties to back up a group of rebels. U.S. warplanes hit fighters from the al Qaeda-backed al Nusra Front back in July when they attacked the first group of U.S. Special Forces-trained Syrians to re-enter the country from their training bases in Turkey.

Top talks. As Russian and American bombs slammed into Syria, U.S. and Russian officials held an hour-long video teleconference on Thursday to discuss how to keep their warplanes from running into each other. The U.S. side was led by Elissa Slotkin, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the two sides discussed “ensuring that military personnel operating inside of Syria are communicating on internationally recognized channels,” and “this was the first discussion of what I anticipate will be a series of additional discussions about de-conflicting our efforts.”

The end of the beginning. A close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow has done the one thing politicians always do, and always get wrong: predict the end date of a war. Alexei Pushkov, the head of the lower house of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee said on Friday, “there is always a risk of being bogged down but in Moscow, we are talking about an operation of three to four months,” in Syria.

More politics Presidential candidate and private email enthusiast Hillary Clinton has come out in favor of establishing a no-fly zone in Syria. In an interview with an NBC News affiliate, Clinton said she “personally would be advocating now for a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors to try to stop the carnage on the ground and from the air, to try to provide some way to take stock of what’s happening, to try to stem the flow of refugees.”

We wrapped up September this week. As we enter a brave new month full of cooler weather (and hurricanes) we’re happy you’ve come along for the ride. 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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More Syria Links

The Guardian investigates the triggers for Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict and finds that Moscow’s shock over the weakness of President Assad’s forces, combined with Iranian prodding, helped push it into a more direct role in the fighting. Sources in Syria said that the crumbling of the Syrian military weighed heavily on Russia, as did Iran’s warning that the Assad regime was on the brink of collapse and Tehran was reaching the limit of its ability to keep propping it up.

“I have a low level of trust in the Russians,” Gen. Robert Otto, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance tells the AP. Otto said that while he’s comfortable sharing information about the zones of operation where American aircraft expect to operate, he can’t envision a scenario in which he would actually share intel with his Russian counterparts.

Earlier this week, the Internet noticed that strike footage released by Russia showed a warplane missing its target when dropping bombs. Russia is using “dumb bomb,” munitions without precision guidance systems in Syria, according to Otto. The potential consequences from Russia’s use of unguided bombs extend beyond simple poor marksmanship, increasing the risk to any civilians near Russian targets.

On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it’s only possible to end the conflict in Syria with Russian help. “We have all known for years that there can only be a solution with Russia and not without Russia,” the German leader remarked.

Reuters scoops that hundreds of Iranian troops have allegedly deployed to Syria, and are planning a joint push to recapture ground lost by the Assad regime. The plan is for Russian jets to provide airstrikes while Assad’s military, aided by Hezbollah and Iranian forces, press a ground attack. The operation is reportedly likely to take place around Idlib and Hama.

The Assad regime and its allies aren’t the only ones coming closer together. In Qalamoun, the mountainous area near the Lebanese border where Syria and Hezbollah have fought bitterly with Islamist rebel groups, rebels have created a new umbrella group, Saraya Ahl al-Sham. According to NOW News, the name and rhetoric coming from the group lines up closely with that of the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s footprint in Syria. But Nusra is not an official member of Saraya Ahl al-Sham, which includes a number of smaller rebel factions fighting in the area, and its relationship to the new group is unclear.

Iraq

Iraq’s decision to share intelligence on the Islamic State with Russia, Iran, and Syria as part of a new Baghdad-based coordination cell has made for some strange bedfellows. The U.S. is now asking Iraq if it would kindly not share any of it too widely. Defense Department spokesman Col. Steve Warren says the U.S. has asked Iraq to segregate the intelligence it receives from the U.S. from the information it shares with Russia and others — a demand to which Iraq has apparently acquiesced.

Afghanistan

A U.S. C-130J transport plane crashed in Jalalabad, Afghanistan late Thursday, killing 11 people, with six American troops and five contractors among the dead. The Taliban attempted to claim credit for the crash, but Stars and Stripes reports that the Pentagon has said “with high confidence” that enemy fire doesn’t appear to have caused the incident.

Amnesty International took a look at what life was like for Afghans under the Taliban’s reign over Kunduz this week. Amnesty reports that Taliban fighters committed a number of atrocities during their occupation. Fighters reportedly went on search and destroy missions using a hit list that “includ[ed] the names and photos of activists, journalists and civil servants based in Kunduz,” who displeased the insurgent group. But among the most vile crimes are allegations that the Taliban committed a string of rapes to punish female relatives of policemen, women who provided reproductive health services to other women, and female inmates at a local prison.

Israel

Israel charged seven Israeli citizens with making contact with the Islamic State in Syria and planning to carry out an attack in Israel. The seven Israeli-Arab men are accused of purchasing weapons in a plan to shoot Israelis in an attack in the Emek Valley in northern Israel.

Drones

Breaking Defense runs down the draft National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2016 and finds that Congress increased funding for its unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance drone. Congress and the Navy have differed over how to shape the program, with the Navy preferring to emphasize its surveillance and reconnaissance functions while Congress has pushed for the aircraft to act more as a bomber. The authorization bill increases funding for the program from the $135 million requested to $350 million but instructs the service to use the money to shape the program more toward Congressional views on how the program should proceed.

Navy

The Navy has had to delay the availability of the USS Gerald Ford, scheduled to be the first of the next generation of Ford-class aircraft carriers, as the program has run into snag after snag. DoDBuzz reports on a verbal thrashing handed out by Sen. John McCain to Navy and Pentagon acquisition officials at an oversight hearing on Thursday. Sen. McCain labeled the Ford carrier program “one of the most spectacular acquisition debacles in recent memory,” and questioned whether, in the face of a five-year delay for the Ford’s successor and a $6 billion cost overrun for the acquisition program, the Pentagon was capable of conducting such large and complex programs.

Business of defense

The defense industry and the Pentagon’s acquisition chief are in a bit of a spat over whether consolidation and a smaller number of major contractors is a good thing for the weapons business, the Washington Post reports. This week, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics Frank Kendall said that a smaller number of big suppliers means higher prices and less innovation — comments made on the heels of Lockheed Martin’s acquisition of Sikorsky. On Thursday, the Aerospace Industries Association took issue with Kendall’s comments, saying that consolidation is the result of a smaller defense budget and that it produces a “leaner and more efficient” defense industry.

Think tanked

The Federation of American Scientists snagged the latest edition of the Congressional Research Service’s continually updated report, “Navy Irregular Warfare and Counterterrorism Operations: Background and Issues for Congress” by Ron O’ Rourke.

 

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