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Situation Report: Can the U.S. and Russia form an alliance over Syria; the French way of war; Syrian hospitals in the crosshairs; what Sinjar has hidden; U.S. bombers to Australia; Russian artillery in Syria; and lots more
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Bridging the gap. French President Francois Hollande may be preparing to shuttle between Washington and Moscow next week, but the chances of building a solid military partnership between the three countries in the fight in Syria remain a tricky business. Not only do American and Russian officials have different ...
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
Bridging the gap. French President Francois Hollande may be preparing to shuttle between Washington and Moscow next week, but the chances of building a solid military partnership between the three countries in the fight in Syria remain a tricky business. Not only do American and Russian officials have different goals — the removal of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vs. propping up, at the very least, the ruling apparatus around him — they have also been arguing over who is doing a better job in bombing legitimate targets in Syria.
Or put another way, “powerful centrifugal forces are still pulling the would-be partners apart as competing national interests challenge efforts” to build a “sustained collaboration over time,” as the New York Times’ Steven Erlanger and Peter Baker write. France and Russia may have just suffered grievous blows at the hands of Islamic State operatives, but the wrangling for influence in a critical part of the world between Washington and an increasingly insistent Moscow will likely drive the future of the conflict.
Get on board. One of the problems is that Russia and the United States each refuse to accept how the other is waging the war in Syria, FP’s Paul McLeary writes. Not only are Russian diplomats and American military officials trading barbs with one another through the press, but they are barely on speaking terms in the day-to-day waging of that war. When they do manage to speak, it’s simply to warn the other that the bombing is about to begin, and even that has only happened once over the past month.
Change around the bend? Still, we’re seeing some interesting changes in the global political landscape taking shape. Officials in Washington are beginning to whisper about tensions forming between Russia and Iran over a host of issues, and over the past several weeks, western and Arab leaders have met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to try and widen that gap. The Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon writes that in recent meetings with the Americans, Europeans, and Saudi Arabia, Putin has surprised his guests “by stressing Russia would seek to diminish Iran’s role inside Syria as part of the campaign,” and “the Russian leader specifically that said if the Arab states supported him he would help them in their efforts to contain Tehran.”
New model (French) army. Rand’s Michael Shurkin writes about the French way of war in a way we haven’t seen previously. Where the United States tends to go big — throwing money, material, and manpower at a problem — when the French deploy it is with an acceptance of everything they lack: a large ground force, endless pots of money, and layers of overhead protection from drones and fighter planes.
French action in the Central African Republic in March 2007, and Mali in January 2013, perfectly sum up how the French go about their business. In both cases, Paris dropped in a few dozen or a few hundred troops with stretched supply lines and little hope of medical evacuation, but with a mandate to break things. The French insist on “modest objectives, on limiting strictly the aims of a military [intervention] in line with a modest assessment of what the military can accomplish,” Shurkin says. They also “strive for sufficiency and hope to achieve limited goals through the application of the smallest possible measure of force.” While Paris “might act quietly,” Shurkin says, “one thing is certain: If the French are determined to hurt someone, they will.”
Over/Under. And what about the Islamic State way of war? We know all about the brutality and shock tactics, but the recent recapture of the town of Baiji and the adjacent oil refinery in Iraq, along with the city of Sinjar to the north, have exposed an elaborate system of tunnels that the group burrowed under the towns which they used to shelter from air raids, slip below enemy positions to plant explosives or outflank their foes, or to export illicit oil shipments.
Building tunnels is hardly new in the world of insurgent warfare. Vietnamese forces battling American troops long relied on vast tunnel systems, and Hamas and Hezbollah have boasted of their underground capabilities in their fight against Israel. Fighting a “subterranean war” is also something the U.S. Army has taken increasingly seriously over the past several years.
For the visual learners. Confused about who is bombing what, where, in Syria? FP’s Siobhan O’Grady tackles at least part of that problem in mapping where airstrikes have hit hospitals in the war-torn country, and the news is predictably grim. On Wednesday, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) released a new report “documenting how the Syrian regime has systematically targeted the only people left who can save Syria’s most desperately sick and injured: medical workers,” she writes. Since Moscow launched its airstrike campaign at the end of September, “Russian bombs have hit at least 10 medical facilities, resulting in injuries, collateral damage, and even the death of at least one medical staffer.”
Good morning all, and thanks for showing up yet again this morning. Hope this is helpful as we power through another week of Natsec news from around the globe. 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 email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
French prosecutors confirm that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged mastermind of the Paris attacks, was killed in Wednesday’s police raid. French officials had been examining the remains of the remains of two people killed when the police broke into a Paris apartment on Wednesday to see if Abaaoud, the apparent target of the raid, was among the dead.
Another not-so-accidental “oops moment” for Moscow? On Tuesday, Russian television briefly showed a map pointing out the positions of Russian ground troops in Syria. When asked about the map, Russia’s defense ministry reiterated its denial that its ground troops are present in the country, even as the map showed artillery pieces belonging to Russia’s 120th artillery brigade positioned in Sadad, south of Homs. Pictures posted to social media earlier this month by the Gozarto Protection Force, a Syrian Christian militia, showed the Russian military transporting Gozarto members to the town of Sadad.
The Islamic State
In the latest issue of its magazine Dabiq , the Islamic State writes that it executed two more hostages, Norwegian Ole Johan Grimsgaard-Ofstad and China’s Fan Jinghui. The AP reports that Norway’s foreign minister said pictures of Grimsgaard-Ofstad sent by the group to his family indicated he had been “harshly mistreated,” and adding that Norway doesn’t pay ransoms. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said China had “spar[ed] no effort” to return Jinghui.
Dabiq also published a photo of what it claims was the bomb that downed Russia’s Metrojet 9268 in Egypt’s Sinai Province, killing all 224 passengers on board. The New York Times’ C.J. Chivers asked bomb disposal experts to examine the device and they told him it looked like a not especially innovative design that would be fairly easy to make. The bomb, hidden inside a soda can, likely used explosive paste and would’ve been enough to damage the airliner enough to cause a crash.
Telegram, the encrypted chat app which has recently become a favorite publishing and communications vehicle for the Islamic State, has said it started blocking channels used by the jihadist group and will continue to do so in the future. The company offered a glimpse at the scale of the Islamic State’s presence on its app, saying that it blocked 78 channels in 12 languages used by the group and its followers.
Nigeria suffered another terrorist attack on Wednesday, less than a day after a separate bombing killed at least 32 people. Al Jazeera reports that two suicide bombers blew themselves up in a market in the city of Kano, killing fifteen. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, but many suspect that the bombings are the work of the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.
Boko Haram has also recently earned to dubious honor of being dubbed the “world’s most deadly terrorist organization,” according to the Institute for Economics and Peace’s most recent Global Terrorism Index. According to the institute’s estimates, Boko Haram was responsible the death of 6,665 people in 2014, while ISIS was responsible for 6,073 during that same period. Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has pledged his group’s allegiance to the Islamic State.
Russia has just inked a deal with China for the sale of 24 of its Su-35 fighter jets for a total of $2 billion. Reuters reports that the deal, involving Russia’s newest high-tech jets, is one of the biggest military sales between the two countries ever, and will provide much needed export revenue for sanctioned and cash-strapped Russia.
A top U.S. Air Force general says that the U.S. is working on an agreement to fly bombers and tankers out of Australia. Commander of Pacific Air Forces Gen. Lori Robinson told reporters this week that the two countries are still working on the timing of the agreement, and neither the U.S. nor Australia has yet to identify the types of bombers that will fly out of Australia.
The acquisition chiefs for both the Army and the Air Force are on their way out the door. The U.S. Air Force’s William LaPlante says he’ll head back to the MITRE Corporation where he worked before joining the Defense Department. The Army’s acquisition boss Heidi Shyu told her staff in an email that she’ll be stepping down in the new year, although no word yet on where Shyu will head after leaving.
The U.S. plans to buy 80-100 next generation bombers but the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies is calling for a doubling of the purchase to 200 bombers. A new report written by (ret.) Lt. Gen. Michael Moeller claims that a next generation bomber fleet at the current purchase size “would severely decrease the options available to national decision-makers.”
Tweet of the day
Another Iranian missile test? Tal Inbar, head of the Space and UAV Research Center at the Fisher Brothers Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, notes that Iran has issued a Notice to Airmen in a province that’s home to Iran’s satellite and missile launch site.
The Iliad has long been one of the seminal works of world literary tradition, but it can also be pretty daunting to those outside of academia. But translator Caroline Alexander is out to change all that. The epic poem has its “own charisma” that be appreciated by anyone, she said, and her new translation tries to bring the poem back to the land of the living, she told PBS NewsHour. “It is actually saying something true about a dimension of our life that will always matter, and that dimension is mortality, and particularly mortality as it is most exposed, which is in times of war,” she said.