The Cable

Situation Report: New U.S. plan in Syria; Russia bringing Syrian rebels together; Kurds razing conquered villages; Putin’s popularity; is Syria a sideshow for Moscow; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Special delivery. No more than 72 hours after the White House and Pentagon announced the scuttling of the disastrous $500 million train and equip program for Syrian rebels, approximately 50 tons of weapons and ammo began falling from the sky from U.S. cargo planes to rebel groups in Syria. ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Special delivery. No more than 72 hours after the White House and Pentagon announced the scuttling of the disastrous $500 million train and equip program for Syrian rebels, approximately 50 tons of weapons and ammo began falling from the sky from U.S. cargo planes to rebel groups in Syria. The deliveries by U.S. C-17 aircraft with fighter escort are intended to help fuel an upcoming push against the Islamic State’s headquarters in Raqqa, and come on top of an already robust CIA program to push weapons and ammo — including TOW anti-tank missiles — to the rebels.

The missile program has been going on for years, and the U.S.-led coalition reportedly has not been stingy in supplying them. One rebel leader near the town of Hama in Syria said “we can get as much as we need and whenever we need them…just fill in the numbers.”

Second order consequences. The Russian bombing campaign in western and northern Syria has changed the game to a degree that all sides are struggling to fully understand. But the Wall Street Journal reports there are some early indications that the airstrikes are having one previously unimaginable consequence: pushing many of the fractious rebel groups into mutually beneficial alliances.

In one of the hardest hit areas, “three local rebel alliances have emerged across the provinces where President Bashar al-Assad aims to regain ground and consolidate control. Although such alliances have been short-lived in the past, rebels said more were expected in the coming weeks.” Some of the CIA-backed groups have even set up a joint coordination post with other militias, all of whom worked together earlier this week to push government forces out the town of Kafar Nabouda, which the Syrian army had previously taken over.

Support doesn’t equal control. It’s not all positive press for anti-Assad forces in Syria, however. Amnesty International has dropped a new report accusing the U.S.-allied Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) of destroying entire villages after taking them from the Islamic State, reportedly in retaliation for the residents’ support for the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman, and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Sochi over the weekend, to discuss Syria and the fight against terrorism in the region, but other than the usual polite diplo-speak, no real word on the substance of the talks has leaked yet.

Death from above. The Pentagon says it isn’t in the business of body counts. Unless it is. The estimated count of Islamic State dead since the U.S.-led bombing campaign kicked off 14 months ago has now risen to 20,000 reports USA Today’s Tom Vanden Brook. The alleged slaughter hasn’t meant much for the group’s ability to recruit or replenish its ranks, however. Officials in Washington maintain that they believe there are 20,000 to 30,000 Islamic State militants in the region. In July, officials estimated that about 15,000 fighters had been killed, but admitted that they have no real way to know, since pilots bombing Islamic State positions can only estimate how many fighters they think occupied the car or compound they had just obliterated.

The continuing scandal over American military officers allegedly pressuring intel analysts to offer more positive assessments of the war than reality warrants casts a pall over reports like this, however. The matter is still being investigated by the Defense Department Inspector General.

Good morning from the pre-dawn crew over here at SitRep HQ. We’re keeping our eyes peeled, but 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.

Syria

A French airstrike in Syria have reportedly killed jihadist French citizens who had travelled to the country to fight, according to Agence France Presse. Citing sources close to France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls, the agency reports the incident likely took place at a camp near Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State, which trains European jihadists. France recently expanded its participation in the coalition against the Islamic State to include airstrikes in Syria following a series of terrorist plots targeting French territory.

Iran wasn’t the only member of the international pro-Assad coalition to announce the death of a senior commander last week. On the heels of Iran’s admission that it lost a brigadier general in the conflict, Hezbollah held a funeral on Monday for Hassan Hussein al-Hajj, a commander in the Lebanese terrorist group killed in the fighting in Syria. Al-Hajj was reportedly in charge of Hezbollah’s operations in Idlib, where Syrian rebels have made progress in recent months and where a Russian-backed Syrian offensive is now looking to claw back territory for the regime.

A pro-Russia rally in Damascus in front of the Russian embassy was broken up by two mortar shells fired from the city’s suburbs on Tuesday, scattering the placard-holding rally-goers who were in the process of extolling the virtues of President Vladimir Putin and his intervention on behalf of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia

The weather forecast over Iraq and Iran looks to be mostly sunny with a chance of cruise missiles, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) says. The agency recently issued an alert to airliners, warning them to keep their eyes peeled for low-flying cruise missiles in Iranian and Iraqi airspace on account of Russian warships in the Caspian Sea launching missiles targeting Syrian rebels last week.

The Associated Press reports pro-Assad Syrians and some Iraqis are joining the Putin fan club following Russia’s deployment of troops and aircraft to support the Syrian regime, and pledges to help target the Islamic State in Iraq. The AP writes that billboards and posters featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin have been popping up in Damascus, where Russian intervention has propped up flagging morale among the regime and its supporters. In Iraq, Putin fandom has apparently taken on a sectarian angle, with the Russian president portrayed as defending the county’s Shia while the U.S. is painted as supporting the Islamic State.

Business of defense

The annual Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) exhibition in downtown Washington, D.C. is upon us. For the uninitiated, the confab is a bit like Comic-Con, with nerds flocking to a convention center to get sneak previews at multi-million dollar sci-fi weapons instead of multimillion dollar sci-fi movies. Among the more intriguing offerings this year is this Raytheon’s Pike missile. Defense Tech got a closeup look at the munition, a small, 17 inch guided missile for use by special operations troops and infantry. The nearly two pound missile can hit targets up to 2 kilometers away and Raytheon hails it as a cheaper option for engaging enemy personnel than the pricey Javelin anti-tank missile.

The event is also the first real chance newly-minted Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has had to get out in front of the public. The chief unsurprisingly stumped for the need for ground pounders to meet Washington’s national security needs. “At the end of the day, the first and opening shots of any conflict are likely fired from the sea or the air, but the final shots are usually delivered on the ground,” he said on Monday.

Asia

The U.S. is gearing up to join India and Japan for joint naval drills in the Bay of Bengal, with officials promising that the joint naval exercises will become an annual occurrence between the three countries, Reuters reports. The U.S. has been looking to work more closely with allied militaries in the region as China has stepped up its defense spending and made expansive, contested territorial claims in the South China Sea. The announcement is an unwelcome one for China, which takes a dim view of U.S. and particularly Japanese military activity in the region.

Iraq

The Daily Telegraph takes notice of an odd trend that we here at SitRep have observed for some time, namely the Iraqi Ministry of Defense’s penchant for adding melodramatic movie soundtrack music to video releases. While the Telegraph reports on the soundtrack additions to a recent airstrike video, the action-movie music isn’t just confined to videos with, well, action in them. The ministry has scored humdrum videos featuring new ambulance inspections and meetings with dramatic cliffhanger music.

Afghanistan

After billions of dollars, thousands dead, and 14 years into America’s longest war, the war grinds on. The United Nations reports that the Taliban now control more territory than they have since the war began, and over the past two weeks, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has evacuated four of its 13 provincial offices in the country “the most it has ever done for security reasons,” according to the New York Times.

Think tanked

Gustav Gressel of the European Council on Foreign Relations has an interesting new paper out, arguing that Russia’s new military aggressiveness shouldn’t surprise western policy makers, since “current Russian strategy is the culmination of a systematic military reform that has been insufficiently appreciated by the European Union and the US.”

There’s also this point, which is not being made enough in the hour-by-hour updates on the Russian campaign in Syria: “although Russia’s action in Syria is now in the spotlight, it is a sideshow to Russia’s military planning. The Syrian deployment does not draw on the core strengths of the armed forces, or on Moscow’s military vision. That vision is centred on the Eurasian landmass, and above all those areas surrounding Russia’s post-Cold War borders.”

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