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Situation Report: The new selfie wars; Centcom Special Ops chief stepping down; Dunford has problems landing in Iraq; U.S. F-16 hit over Afghanistan; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Meet the new intel analysts. Welcome to the age of the selfie war, where intel analysts and armchair military watchers scrape the open Web for news of troop movements, ship transits, and planeloads of weapons being shipped to suspect regimes around the world. FP’s Elias Groll surveys the new ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Meet the new intel analysts. Welcome to the age of the selfie war, where intel analysts and armchair military watchers scrape the open Web for news of troop movements, ship transits, and planeloads of weapons being shipped to suspect regimes around the world. FP’s Elias Groll surveys the new landscape, and finds that some longtime intel analysts are as surprised as anyone by the amount of information that ordinary Russian grunts in Syria and Ukraine regularly share on social media. The explosion in publicly available satellite imagery has gone a long way in making this kind of intel gathering possible, but it also comes with a downside.

Ruslan Leviev, a 29-year-old Russian who founded what he calls the Conflict Intelligence Team, leads a half-dozen staffers in trying to piece together the digital dust being left behind by Russian service members in Syria. “We are not journalists. Are we combatants? It certainly seems so,” he told FP, admitting that he has received death threats, and calls from Russian authorities looking to find out more about what he’s doing.

Coming back to town. The U.S. Army Special Forces two-star general who has been in charge of the failed train and equip program for Syrian rebels is said to be stepping down some time over the next few weeks, and will likely pin on another star when he gets to D.C. to take a new counterterrorism job. Maj. Gen. Mike Nagata has led all U.S. special operations in the Central Command since June 2013, and was the officer on the ground charged with trying to make the $500 million Syrian program work. The Pentagon scrapped the program after burning through about $300 million earlier this month, with only a few dozen fighters actually trained.

“The setback in training Syrian rebels does not appear to have derailed his career as one of the Army’s rising stars,” writes the New York Times’ Eric Schmitt, adding that it is expected Nagata will “take a senior position at the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington.” Nagata is also leaving just as the Pentagon Inspector General begins probing allegations that military leaders have pressured Centcom analysts to skew intelligence reports about the campaign against the Islamic State in order to bolster White House claims of progress.

Up in the air. The U.S. Air Force C-17 plane carrying America’s top military officer was almost diverted to Baghdad by insistent ground controllers in Erbil, the northern Kurdish city, on Tuesday. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is on an extended trip that has already taken him to Israel and Jordan, and was eventually allowed to land once the mix-up was resolved, but not before “a flurry of activity on the plane, as military staff quickly yanked phones and cords out of containers to make urgent phone calls to officials on the ground, as the C-17 flew toward Baghdad.” Dunford will spend Tuesday in a series of briefings with Iraq’s Kurdish regional government, President Massoud Barzani and other officials.

Fight or flight. Hundreds of Russians and Belorussians who came to Ukraine to fight for the Kiev government in the face of Russian-backed separatists are stranded, unable to go back home after their names were leaked to intelligence services, making return all but impossible, writes FP contributor Maria Antonova. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has heaped plenty of praise on these foreign fighters, and his government has promised to provide them with Ukrainian passports, but months — and sometimes over a year later — hundreds of these fighters remain off the grid and scattered around Ukraine, unsure of what country they’ll be able to call home.

New days. On Monday, Canada elected a new Prime Minister, the 44 year-old Justin Trudeau, the head of the country’s Liberal Party. And what’s at the top of his defense agenda? Scrapping Ottawa’s already troubled (and currently stalled) $44 billion purchase of the Lockheed Martin-made F-35 fighter plane. That sound you hear might be screech of Lockheed execs peeling out of their driveways on their way to the airport to buy Ottawa-bound tickets.

Good morning all! Thanks for joining us yet again here at SitRep. We like to think that we cast a pretty wide net over here, but if you have any juicy tidbits, or national security-related events pop up on your radar, please pass them along! Best way is to send them to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Afghanistan

On Oct. 13, a U.S. Air Force F-16 was hit hit by small arms fire while flying over Paktia province in Afghanistan. The ground fire apparently hit one of the aircraft’s stabilizers and damaged one of the munitions the plane was carrying. But a U.S. military official tells SitRep, “the pilot jettisoned two fuel tanks and one of the munitions before safely flying the F-16 back to Bagram Airfield, where he landed unharmed.” There was no word about how serious the damage is, or how often attacks like this occur. “Our pilots routinely face threats from the ground,” the official said, “however they are well-trained and prepared to respond to any threat or attack.”

Ahmed Rashid, a reporter, author and early chronicler of the Taliban’s rise, has a new piece out in the New York Review of Books examining President Obama’s decision to extend the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Rashid’s take is grim, offering that the extended troop presence is too little to achieve much beyond maintaining international attention on Afghanistan. With Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour using a new offensive to quiet internal challenges to his leadership, more provinces threatened by Taliban advances and the group’s forces buoyed by their albeit brief success in the city of Kunduz, Rashid wonders how long the Afghan government can hold on.

Syria

The humanitarian cost of the war in Syria just keeps rising. The Assad regime, with help from Russian airpower and Iranian ground troops, has been pressing an offensive in Aleppo, taking back a handful of villages in the south of the city. But the fighting and heavy bombardment has reportedly displaced over 70,000 Syrians from their homes. The displacement comes as Europe is already struggling with an influx of refugees from Syria and other conflicts throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

The Islamic State

Vice News reports on the Islamic State’s new media offensive calling for attacks against Jews in the wake of a number of terrorist attacks against Israelis carried out by Palestinians armed with knives. The theme is a slight departure for the Islamic State, which, despite its deep anti-Semitism, has not produced an overwhelming amount of propaganda delving into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nonetheless, the new videos features members of the group urging Palestinians to carry out more lone wolf attacks against Jews in Israel.

Iraq

Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford is saying don’t hold your breath for the much-rumored Russian airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. Dunford made the comments while on his first trip to Iraq as chairman and relayed that his Iraqi counterparts told him no one there has requested that Russia carry out airstrikes.

Libya

Reuters is carrying breaking news out of Libya that jets have carried out airstrikes against the Islamic State in the city of Sirte, which the group has used as its homebase in the country. No word yet on who’s responsible for the attacks or what they’ve yielded.

NATO

It’s been military exercise season in Europe ever since Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, as both NATO and Russia look to keep their forces sharp. In the latest display of martial flexing, NATO kicked off “Trident Juncture,” a drill involving over 36,000 troops from 30 countries at Trapani Air Base in Sicily — the alliance’s largest exercise since 2002. The exercise is built around a fictional scenario in which the Atlantic alliance responds to an internal crisis in the fictional country of Sorotan which is being menaced by a stronger neighbor.

Russia

Switzerland is about the last country you’d expect to get caught up in the recent airborne theatrics that have caused spats between Russian and European militaries, but the Russians are steaming mad that a Swiss F-18 buzzed an airliner ferrying a Russian parliamentarian over France. The Swiss, who have an agreement with France that allows them to fly over parts of French airspace, say their fighter jet approached the plane carrying Sergei Naryshkin, Chairman of the State Duma, to note its registration. Moscow, which initially mistook the Swiss jet for a French one, is still royally displeased by the incident.

China

Lighthouses seem like pretty innocuous structures, but in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, their construction can be a contentious political maneuver. Reuters reports that China is defending its construction of lighthouses on reefs near the Spratly Islands where a number of countries claim ownership rights. The Philippines, which claims some of the islands, has criticized China’s lighthouse construction as a move designed to buttress Chinese territorial claims there, but China is pushing back on the grounds that its territorial claims are “indisputable” and thus construction activities should be unremarkable.

Air Force

The president may be about to get a new ride. Air Force One, the call sign for the iconic Boeing 747s that ferries the president of the United States from place to place is in line for an update, according to the New York Times. A new jet will cost over $5 billion and won’t be ready until at least 2023, but it will be crammed with all manner of top secret nuclear apocalypse-proofing gear.

The business of defense

The Defense Department is preparing to submit a request to Congress to sell Saudi Arabia as many as four Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) for $11 billion, according to Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio and Madeline McMahon. The State Department has already signed off on the deal, which would replace older American ships in the Saudi navy, and represent a real upgrade in technology from what the Saudis are sailing now. The U.S. Navy is buying dozens of versions of the ship in two very different designs, one built by Lockheed Martin Corp. and another by Austal Ltd. Reports indicate the Saudis are interested in the Lockheed ship. Of course, any sale of advanced technology to a Middle Eastern country is tricky, due to the U.S. commitment to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge over its neighbors, but the boats are likely a way to soothe Saudi concerns over the nuclear deal with Iran that will allow the country to reap billion of dollars in sanctions relief.

Who’s where when

8:00 a.m. Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tx.) will discuss the National Defense Authorization Act and the possible presidential veto at the Brookings Institution.

Think Tanked

Brookings scholar to Russian President Vladimir Putin: I must break you. Brookings’ Benjamin Wittes issued a challenge to Putin to defend his claims to martial arts prowess in a fight with him, saying that the Russian leader’s skills are cynically overhyped propaganda facilitated by opponents too fearful to offer a genuine challenge. Wittes offered to fight Putin in any country where Russia lacks jurisdiction. He is a student of Aikido; Putin studies Judo. There’s no word yet from the Kremlin on whether the challenge will be taken up.

Finally…

This absolutely stunning video reportedly shot by a Russian drone of Syrian tanks maneuvering amid the ruins of the Jobar, a Damascus suburb, really drives home the total destruction the war has caused over the past several years.

 

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