The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Situation Report: What’s next for Putin?; U.S. plans more passes of Chinese islands; where are the Syrian rebels; U.S. tanks heading for Egypt; Chalabi passes away, and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Home front. How will Russian President Vladimir Putin react if his bombing campaign in Syria causes Islamist blowback at home? FP’s Dan De Luce reports that there have already been some rumblings among militants in Syria and the Middle East. The leader of al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s branch in ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Home front. How will Russian President Vladimir Putin react if his bombing campaign in Syria causes Islamist blowback at home? FP’s Dan De Luce reports that there have already been some rumblings among militants in Syria and the Middle East. The leader of al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, has appealed to his supporters to stage attacks on troops and civilians in Russia in retaliation for Moscow’s entry into the war on behalf of Assad’s regime, calling on militants in the Caucasus region to “distract” Moscow from its mission in Syria. And the Islamic State’s offshoot in Egypt has claimed responsibility for the downing of the Russian plane that broke up over the Sinai Peninsula over the weekend, killing all 224 people onboard, although no direct evidence has emerged to support that claim.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper isn’t ruling out terrorism as a cause. FP’s John Hudson reports that on Monday, the director said he had no “direct evidence” that terrorism was behind the crash, but said “we really don’t know” and that the world will have to wait to see what evidence the aircraft’s black box yields before conclusive judgments can be made.

No eye poking, please. An anonymous defense official told Reuters that the U.S. Navy plans to conduct more freedom-of-navigation patrols within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands Beijing has built in the South China Sea, and they’ve come up with a nice little schedule. “We’re going to come down to about twice a quarter or a little more than that,” the official said. “That’s the right amount to make it regular but not a constant poke in the eye. It meets the intent to regularly exercise our rights under international law and remind the Chinese and others about our view.” Just last week, during meetings between American and Chinese naval delegations, China’s naval commander warned that even a minor incident or miscalculation could spark war in the South China Sea if Washington did not stop its “provocative acts” there.

There have been reports that Chinese fishing vessels acted pretty aggressively toward the USS Lassen when it cruised near the Chinese islands last week, crossing its bow and circling the ship. FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary wrote about the Chinese maritime militia last month, and how the commercial fishing boats present a real, and dangerous, wild card in the region.

Army of one. Defense Department officials continue to insist that the coalition of rebel groups known as the Syrian Democratic Forces will eventually be capable of retaking the Islamic State capital of Raqqa in Syria. But first, the group has to exist. The New York Times recently headed for northern Syria to track down the leadership of the group, and found a mostly leaderless collection of ragtag Arab fighters with light weapons, waiting for help. The Times says the alliance “exists in name only” and that Kurdish forces make up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces’ manpower, but their willingness to fight for the largely Arab-held lands the Pentagon is hoping to reclaim is up for debate. Moreover, the Kurdish groups’ greater experience, command and control, and logistical capabilities threatens to upend the balance of power within the coalition and further aggravate tensions.

Obit. The man who will forever hold a central, and controversial, place in the history of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Ahmad Chalabi, died of natural causes at his home in Baghdad on Tuesday. He was 71. A charismatic exile politician, Chalabi cultivated influential friends among American and British officials in the years leading up to the war, taking millions of dollars from the CIA to fund programs to try and destabilize Saddam Hussein’s grip on power. While he was at one time loudly championed by many in the Bush administration as the only man who could put Iraq back together, it quickly became clear that his evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program was at best exaggerated, if not completely fabricated. Soon after the invasion, most — but not all — in the Bush administration distanced itself from him. He remained a key player in Iraqi politics until his death, however.

Quote of the day

Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, commander, U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, on the training and advising missions his troops are conducting with local African forces: “we are coffee breath close with our partners.”

Good morning, all, and thanks again for clicking on through. We hope you find this little thing we have going on here useful. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along! Best way is to send them to or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Get the new Editor’s Roundtable (The E.R.) podcast, just posted today. In this week’s debate, David Rothkopf, Rosa Brooks, Kori Schake, and Ed Luce raise a fundamental question: Does America’s meddling in global affairs –whether it’s using the wrong tools or dreaming too big — actually make the world a better place? Or should the United States focus on creating jobs abroad rather than fighting wars? Catch the latest episode on iTunes and Stitcher:


The diplomatic talks in Vienna searching for a political accord on the Syrian conflict have hit a snag as the Iranian delegation is hinting they’ll walk out. Reuters reports that Iran is threatening to quit the talks following contentious exchanges with their Saudi counterparts. The feuding has escalated as far as Iran’s president’s office, with President Hassan Rouhani obliquely chastising Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir on Saturday for his alleged “rudeness in front of elders” after al-Jubeir criticized what he labeled as Iranian meddling in the region.

British Prime Minister David Cameron would like the Royal Air Force to play a larger role in the war against the Islamic State in Syria, but political opposition at home is getting in the way of an expanded British mission in the conflict. Cameron has thus far been unable to find enough support from the Labour party to compensate for defections from his own Conservative party and has shelved plans for a vote on the possible extension of airstrikes.

Syrian rebel group Jaish al-Islam is exploiting human shields in a gruesome fashion to deter Syrian airstrikes against rebel-held neighborhoods in the suburbs of Damascus. Agence France Presse reports that the rebel group has put captured regime soldiers and civilians — including men, women, and families — in cages throughout East Ghouta with the aim of trying to dissuade the Assad regime from continuing its aerial bombardment of the neighborhood.


Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, announced Monday that Iran has begun dismantling its uranium enrichment centrifuges as part of its implementation of nuclear accord signed with the United States and other countries. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the agreement is known, calls on Iran to reduce the number of centrifuges it has from roughly 19,000 down to 6,000.

South Korea

The U.S. and South Korea will implement a joint missile defense plan to defend the Republic of Korea against North Korean missiles, according to an agreement signed by Defense Secretary Ash Carter and South Korean Defense Minister Han Min Koo. The move is a sign that the U.S. and its allies are paying closer attention to the North’s growing missile capabilities, following a series of recent tests by the Hermit Kingdom.


Two can play at that game. After the U.S. sailed through disputed waters claimed by China in the South China Sea and threatened to do so again, China has responded with a message of its own. The South China Morning Post reports that China’s defense ministry published pictures of armed Chinese fighter jets based at Woody Island in the Paracels off the coast of Vietnam and not far away from the disputed islands where the USS Lassen recently passed through.

There seems to be a bit of confusion over whether the CIA has had to remove personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after a breach of personnel records from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Back in September, anonymous officials told the Washington Post that the CIA removed some of its spies under diplomatic cover at the U.S. Embassy in China because they could be identified by examining the data lost in the OPM hack. But at the Defense One summit on Monday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper bluntly told the audience that the U.S. had not, in fact, removed any CIA personnel.


The good news is that Congress and the White House have agreed on a budget deal that will fund the government for the next two years, rather than through smaller and serially contested increments. But the bad news, according to Undersecretary of Defense Bob Work, is that the budget deal will leave the Pentagon with a $14 billion shortfall once fiscal year 2017 rolls around.

Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry (R-Tx.) said on Monday that lawmakers are hacking their way through the 2016 U.S. defense policy bill, and are looking for places to cut about $5 billion from weapons programs, calling the cuts “painful.” Everything is on the table, he said, including the gold-plated example of contract bloat, the F-35 fighter jet. “We’re looking at them all, and trying to do the least damage, but nobody should be under the illusion that you do this in a non-painful way,” he said.

The business of defense

Egypt will soon have a whopping 1,130 Abrams tanks, now that General Dynamics and Cairo have signed a deal to reopen the Army-run Egyptian Tank Plant 200 near Cairo. The long-standing deal has General Dynamics build all the parts for the tanks, and then ship the tank parts to the facility, where local workers put the pieces together. Since Washington unlocked the annual military equipment shipments to Egypt last year as part of its $1.3 billion annual military aid package, Cairo has received 10 of the 12 AH-64 Apache helicopters — made by Boeing — ordered from the U.S. in 2009, along with 12 F-16 fighter jets ordered from Lockheed Martin.

The U.S. has allegedly also approved the sale of V-22 Ospreys to Israel, which has raised eyebrows as Israel has reportedly mulled using the long-range aircraft to take out Iranian nuclear facilities by ferrying commandos into Iran. Washington turned down Israel’s request for the advanced helicopters made by Boeing and Bell Helicopter in 2012, but is now open to the idea, according to reports coming out of Israel. Jerusalem is already on the books to receive more than 30 F-35 fighter planes, though Israeli officials have said they may actually want to buy more.

Who’s where when

2:00 p.m. House Armed Services Committee holds a hearing, “Aircraft Carrier – Presence and Surge Limitations. Expanding Power Projection Option,” featuring Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development, and acquisition; Vice Adm. John Aquilino, vice chief of naval operations; Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, director, air warfare; and Rear Adm. Thomas Moore program executive officer, aircraft carriers. Livestream here.

Revolving door

Former National Security Council director for NATO and European strategic affairs, and more recently, chief of staff to the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, Lisa Sawyer Samp has moved on to the Center for Strategic and International Studies as a fellow in the International Security Program. She’ll focus on U.S. defense strategy and policy toward Europe.

Reading list

The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, by New York Times correspondent Steven Lee Myers

Russia lurks behind a number of the most pressing U.S. foreign policy problems at the moment and the New York Times‘s former Moscow bureau chief Steven Lee Myers is out with a timely biography of Vladimir Putin, the man at the center of these challenges. The review in the Times (by non-NYT staffer Gal Beckerman) is worth reading in itself, and includes this chilling passage: If Putin “has built his autocratic rule on the need to beat back the barbarians at the gate, thoroughly crushing every other source of power in the country, how does he justify the fact that there is no one and no party that can replace him, that civil society has been decimated and the parliamentary system has been turned into a joke? As becomes increasingly clear reading this biography, Putin himself now represents the chaos he so abhors — the chaos that will surely come in his wake.”

More from Foreign Policy

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