The Cable

Situation Report: Russia presses forward in Syria; Obama apologizes to aid group bombed by U.S. warplanes; Ash Carter speaking at NATO meeting; Washington and Moscow still not speaking over airstrikes; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley The guns of October. Moscow took its muscle flexing in Syria to a whole new level on Wednesday, launching 26 cruise missiles from four warships in the Caspian Sea to hit targets in Syria. (The Kurdish Peshmerga claims to have filmed a few of the missiles racing over northern ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

The guns of October. Moscow took its muscle flexing in Syria to a whole new level on Wednesday, launching 26 cruise missiles from four warships in the Caspian Sea to hit targets in Syria. (The Kurdish Peshmerga claims to have filmed a few of the missiles racing over northern Iraq.) The strikes, which the Russians say caused no civilian casualties, were part of a larger Syrian ground offensive to push toward the city of Idlib, which has been a stronghold for a coalition of primarily Islamist rebels.

The Russians have also parked 10 warships in the eastern Mediterranean, and have placed mobile rocket launchers, attack helicopters, and artillery pieces around government-controlled areas in Latakia, a Syrian government haven. And Russian airplanes remain aggressive in the skies. After repeatedly violating Turkish airspace over the weekend and locking their radars on Turkish warplanes, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said on Wednesday at least one American fighter plane had to redirect its route to avoid coming into contact with one of Moscow’s warplanes.

Here we are! The cruise missile launches caught the American Central Command by surprise, an unfortunate situation in a region that is seeing dozens of U.S. and allied flights a day conducting bombing runs against Islamic State targets. Both analysts and some American intelligence officials have also expressed some surprise over the range of the Russian missiles, and their trajectory, passing over Iraq and Iran.

Russian jets have also shadowed U.S. Predator drones over Syria on three separate occasions in recent days, though they haven’t fired at the drones or tried to impede their flight path in any way. But again, the moves came as a surprise. “The first time it happened, we thought the Russians got lucky,” one U.S. official told Fox news. Then it happened two more times.”

No change in talks. Still, U.S. and Russian military officials aren’t talking about how to keep their jets and drones from bumping into one another in the skies above Syria. “We are not prepared to cooperate on strategy which, as we explained, is flawed, tragically flawed, on the Russians’ part,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said while meeting with Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti in Rome on Wednesday.

The two sides have debated the conditions under which they would hold another round of talks, following one hour-long video conference last week. Washington says the discussion should be focused narrowly on aviation safety, while Moscow wants to expand the conversation to include cooperation on airstrikes against the Islamic State and other jihadist groups operating in Syria.

Targeting who? While Russia insists that it’s hitting Islamic State targets, State Department spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday, “greater than 90% of the strikes that we’ve seen them take to date have not been against Isil or al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists.”

So, what is the Russian endgame? FP’s Colum Lynch offers that one of President Vladimir Putin’s prime motivations is to portray Moscow as a reliable partner to other Middle East regimes who have grown uneasy over the depth of Washington’s commitment to them, with the added benefit of embarrassing President Barack Obama. The key quote: “The region is falling apart, and states are collapsing, and the Russians are willing to intervene to protect their interests and assert their power, and the United States is not,” said Andrew Tabler, an expert on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Kunduz fallout. President Barack Obama took the rare step of apologizing to the president of Doctors Without Borders on Wednesday for the U.S. attack on a hospital in Afghanistan that killed 22 civilians over the weekend, including 12 staffers and three children. But administration officials have stayed silent on whether the U.S. would support the aid group’s push to open an independent investigation of the incident at a never-before used international commission in Switzerland.

“We need an establishment of facts from a body that’s not going to have a conflict of interest in the matter,” Doctors Without Borders Executive Director Jason Cone told FP’s John Hudson in an interview on Wednesday. “That’s essential to making a final determination to whether or not there was a war crime.” Investigations are currently being carried out by U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Richard C. Kim, and another by the Operation Resolute Support command, which is the name of the 14,000-troop NATO mission in Afghanistan, and includes Afghan officials.

Good morning from the crew over here at SitRep. As always, we’re more than happy to hear from you. 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.

Want more foreign policy analysis, insight and commentary? Head on over to iTunes or Stitcher and check out FP’s podcast programs – The E.R. and Global Thinkers. This week, The Editor’s Roundtable discusses the future of the Iran deal, and in Global Thinkers, the panel dives into the immigration crisis in Europe. Listen and subscribe today: http://atfp.co/1K7nhrI

Who’s Where When

10:00 a.m. Defense Secretary Ash Carter wraps up a swing through Europe by speaking at the NATO Ministerial in Brussels. Live stream here.

10:00 a.m. Prince Sultan bin Khaled Al Faisal, former commander of the Royal Saudi Naval Forces, and Counter-Insurgency Special Operations Task Force speaks on “A Saudi Arabian Defense Doctrine for a New Era” at the Center for Strategic and International Studies with Anthony Cordesman. Live stream here.

Syria

Syria Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham has been backpedaling on its radicalism as of late, seeking to rebrand itself as a palatable, anti-Assad alternative to al Qaeda-backed al Nusra Front and the Islamic State. Backed by Turkey, the group “has sought to recast itself as a player acceptable to Washington and the West,” while distancing itself from the jihadist groups who have found themselves on the receiving end of plenty of American and Russian ordnance.

NATO is expressing its displeasure at Russia’s escalation in Syria and warning that it would be prepared to send troops to Turkey in the wake of Russian jets’ recent violations of Turkish airspace. Speaking ahead of a meeting of the NATO defense ministers scheduled to take place on Thursday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg cited the alliance’s “preparedness to deploy forces including to the south, including in Turkey.”

Iran

Sorry, American diplomats, but the Ayatollah has had just about enough of you, thanks. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday that there’ll be no more negotiations with the United States since talks can “open gates to [American] economic, cultural, political and security influence.” The Supreme Leader warned that the U.S. is trying to reshape Iranian society through political engagement, which would pose a threat to Iran’s attempts at preserving its anti-western, revolutionary political system.

Korean peninsula

Northern Command chief Admiral Bill Gortney told an audience at the Atlantic Council on Wednesday that North Korea is capable of hitting the continental United States with a nuclear weapon, Reuters reports. Gortney said intelligence reports he’s seen say the North’s rockets are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that can reach the United States. But the admiral also warned that the U.S. was prepared to block any nuclear attempt: “we’re ready 24 hours a day if he should be dumb enough to shoot something at us.”

The colors! The pageantry! The ballistic missiles! South Korean officials are leaking a sneak peak of the weapons North Korea will put atop its parade floats for Saturday’s big military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the North’s ruling Korean Workers Party. “Informed” government sources told South Korea’s Dong-a Ilbo that North Korea might show off the submarine-launched ballistic missiles it recently tested, alongside likelier appearances by intermediate range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. In a first for North Korean military parades, there will be a live naval demonstration in the Taedong River in Pyongyang. Korean People’s Air Force planes will also spell out the number 70 in formation, which should be a real treat for the kids.

South Korea is turning to the Pentagon to learn how to do defense acquisition following a string of scandals over corruption and ballooning costs at the Defense Ministry, according to Yonhap News. Yonhap says South Korea will send 50 Defense Ministry personnel to take courses from the Pentagon’s Defense Acquisition University in defense procurement planning, strategy and contract negotiations. What could possibly go wrong?

European Union

The European Union (EU) is launching Operation Sophia, a naval effort to cut down on the often deadly trips across the Mediterranean by refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East. The BBC reports that Operation Sophia, named after a baby born to a Libyan woman rescued from the Mediterranean, will use EU warships to go after ships suspected of being used to smuggle migrants. European navies will board the ships at sea and, if necessary, seize them in order to disrupt the illicit economy of human trafficking.

Ukraine

As the quiet in eastern Ukraine continues to hold, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says the country right now has a “real truce” but remains in need of a broader solution to the crisis. After the February Minsk II truce aimed at quieting violence between Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels slowly fell apart, the central government forged another ceasefire with rebels in September following a later summer spike in fighting. Praising the calm, Poroshenko nonetheless warned, “this is not the end of the war,” and saying that true peace will only come when Ukraine has recaptured territory taken by rebels and annexed by Moscow.

Technology

The Debbie Downers at the University of Maryland’s START Consortium take the fun out the coming rise of driverless cars, currently being explored by major tech companies like Google and Uber, and find they’d be great for taking the suicide part out of the suicide car bombs which have become a choice weapon for terrorist groups. UMD’s Jeffrey W. Lewis argues that the self-driving cars could be a kind of poor man’s missile, letting terrorists pack up a vehicle with explosives and precisely guide it to a target.

 

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