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Situation Report: Major U.S.-backed offensive in northern Syria; Chinese islands about to get up close and personal with the U.S. Navy; training foreign armies might not be Pentagon’s strong suit; multiple takes on war in Syria; and lots more

Situation Report: Major U.S.-backed offensive in northern Syria; Chinese islands about to get up close and personal with the U.S. Navy; training foreign armies might not be Pentagon’s strong suit; multiple takes on war in Syria; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Full steam ahead. After three years of giving Chinese land claims in the South China Sea a wide berth, the U.S. Navy is preparing to ignore China’s so-called “Great Wall of Sand.” FP’s Dan De Luce drops the exclusive story of how Washington has finally decided to challenge the legitimacy of Chinese claims of territorial sovereignty over the artificial islands Beijing has built in the South China Sea. Just last month, head of the U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Harry Harris admitted that U.S. ships and aircraft haven’t come within 12 miles of the Chinese “islands” since 2012, which gives the piles of rocks a false air of legitimacy.

But now, De Luce reports, “the Obama administration is heavily leaning toward using a show of military might after Chinese opposition ended diplomatic efforts to halt land reclamation and the construction of military outposts in the waterway.”

“It’s not a question of if, but when,” a Defense Department said.

A tale of two stories. We kick the week off with two stories in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal which touch on the same topic: the flailing U.S.-led program to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State. But that’s where the similarities end. The Journal  focuses tightly on the failures of the $500 million program, which has only managed to produce about 120 fighters since the spring, many of which have been killed, captured, fled, or handed their equipment over to the al Qaeda-backed al Nusra Front.

As a result, the Journal portrays the White House as tentative, risk-averse, and unable to fully corral the rebels who often chafed at both lengthy delays after receiving training and the lack of U.S. support for a mission that would include targeting the Assad regime, in addition to the Islamic State.

The Times on the other hand, portrays a White House that is finally kicking into gear, with President Barack Obama greenlighting a bold new program to “empower” as many as 5,000 Arab fighters to join about 20,000 Kurdish combatants, “in an offensive backed by dozens of coalition warplanes to pressure Raqqa, the Islamic State’s main stronghold in Syria. Plans are also moving forward to have Syrian opposition fighters seal an important 60-mile part of the country’s border with Turkey,” to sever critical supply lines of the Islamic State.

The stories don’t contradict one another in any substantive way. But they do show just how fluid the situation on the ground in Syria continues to be, all the more so now as Russia and Iran begin to throw their weight around in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and U.S. officials are under pressure to move the fight forward.

And then there’s this. For another take, check the other Times piece from this weekend, detailing the tens of billions the U.S. has spent training foreign troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and northern Africa, without a whole lot to show for it.

Russia playing a dangerous game. It might be time for the Russian air force to update its maps. Multiple reports Sunday night flagged the incursion of a Russian warplane into Turkish airspace on Saturday, “prompting Turkey to scramble two F-16 jets which intercepted the Russian aircraft and forced it to fly back into the Syrian airspace.”

In town. On Monday morning, the Department of Defense announced that Gen. John Campbell, head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, will hold a press conference at the Pentagon at 9 a.m. The unscheduled presser is likely the result of the airstrike in Kunduz over the weekend which hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital. The strike killed 22 people, including 12 staff members. The aid group and the military command have sharply opposing views on what happened, with the military saying that Taliban fighters were using the building as a firing position, while the group vehemently denies any combatants were in the area. Campbell is in town to give testimony on the war before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, and the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

As we kick off a new week here at SitRep HQ, there’s plenty to drag us out of our beds before dawn each morning. 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.

Don’t forget to download and listen to last week’s FP podcasts – The E.R. and Global Thinkers. In The E.R., David Rothkopf, Kori Schake, Rosa Brooks and Bob Kagan debate who has been the world’s most successful leader since Obama took office. Katharine Hayhoe and Bill McKibben talk with FP’s Mindy Kay Bricker and Keith Johnson about climate change and denialism in the latest Global Thinkers podcast. Stay tuned for new episodes this week! Listen and subscribe here: http://atfp.co/1K7nhrI

Scandinavia

Sweden is warming up to the idea of closer military cooperation with NATO countries and is now flirting with membership in Britain’s Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), a joint coalition of European militaries designed to respond quickly to global contingencies. Defense News reports that the country has held a series of secret, unofficial talks with Britain through the Swedish embassy in London to explore the idea of JEF participation, and some members of the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, are now demanding greater transparency and a formal proposal from the government on JEF membership.

Syria

For all the headlines it’s garnered, Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict is unlikely to return the country to the status quo ante or fundamentally turn the war around, the Washington Post reports. The Post took the pulse of experts in Russia and the U.S. and found that older, accident-prone aircraft, a glut of man-portable surface-to-air missiles, and less accurate munitions will likely limit Russia’s ability to win the war for its clients in the Assad regime.

Opposition to Russia’s involvement in Syria’s war on behalf of the Assad regime is not universal in the Arab world. Egypt, which has been carrying on something of a whirlwind diplomatic affair with Russia lately, has blessed Moscow’s intervention in the war. Over the weekend, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that Russia’s participation in the conflict “is going to have an effect on limiting terrorism in Syria and eradicating it.”

NATO

Poland is playing a new role as quartermaster for Eastern European countries frightened by Russian expansion and aggression by providing discount arms through its newly-launched Regional Security Assistance Program, Defense News reports. The program is aimed primarily at a handful of countries, including Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states. Experts say Poland is trying to lead regional security efforts in the face of a newly assertive Russia while also expanding the reach of its arms industry.

Drones

In 2005, Britain bet big on the Watchkeeper unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) but now a decade later the program is roughly $600 million over budget and still hasn’t produced the full order of Watchkeeper UAVs. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that the U.K. has thus far only received 33 of the 54 drones it order from French arms maker Thales and only three of them have ever been used in combat for a grand total of just two days worth of missions per aircraft. Due to a lack of pilots and a series of problems with the Watchkeepers, the British military has had to push back the Watchkeeper’s “full operational capability” date from 2013 to 2017.

Sudan

Air Force Magazine takes a deep dive into the harrowing December 2013 special operations mission to extract Americans from a United Nations compound in South Sudan. The U.S. told rebels near the town of Bor that it planned to send aircraft, but as the V-22 Ospreys neared their landing site, “it just erupted” with small arms and anti-aircraft fire, according to flight engineer David A. Shea. Shea took a round to the chest, stopped by his body armor, and a number of the crew were wounded while the ground fire damaged critical systems on the aircraft, forcing the mission to be canceled.

Iraq

The infamous, and heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad — which houses government buildings — has finally opened to the general public for the first time since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi said that opening the area was a campaign promise, and one that he had an obligation to keep, even as a new wave of car bombs have swept through the capital in recent months.

Russia

A U.S. defense official told the Washington Free Beacon that Russia violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF) on Sept. 2 by testing its SSC-X-8 cruise missile. The INF treaty restricts nuclear missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles. Russia’s September test of the weapon did not extend beyond 300 miles, but the U.S. considers the missile a violation as it’s believed to have a range that falls within the range limited by the INF Treaty.

China

Chinese-North Korean relations have been frosty lately as the People’s Republic has taken a dim view of North Korea’s recent string of provocative acts. But there may be a nascent thaw at work as China is about to send an emissary to attend a commemoration for the anniversary of the Korean Workers’ Party founding this month. The two countries have registered their mutual displeasure with one another through a series of ceremonial snubs, as North Korean leader Kim Jong has so far declined to visit his northern neighbor.

Somalia

Somali Prime Minister Omar Sharmarke has announced some ambitious goals for his country’s armed forces, including recapturing of territory taken by the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab and having Somalia’s armed forces take responsibility for security in the country. In an interview with the Associated Press, Sharmarke cited the declining rate of Shabaab suicide bombing as evidence of the country’s progress against the group, and said he hopes the Somali military can slowly take over for the African Union troops in the country over the course of the next two to three years.

Tweet of the day

Busier days ahead for U.S. forces at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey?

RT @aaronstein1 #Confirmed: US and Turkey building housing for 2500 people at Incirlik. Also – and more importantly – expanding the apron for more aircraft.

Think tanked

What have a year of western sanctions against Russia achieved? The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Simond de Galbert takes a look a new in a new report.