The Cable

Situation Report: Russia warns Turkey, shifts forces; second Russian pilot rescued; big Kunduz briefing coming today; former DoD official speaks out; Brits looking for Russian sub; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Seventeen seconds. That’s how long Turkish officials say a Russian Su-24 airplane was over Turkish airspace before one of Ankara’s F-16 fighter planes shot it down. While videos released by Syrian rebels appear to show one pilot dead after being shot after parachuting from the plane, Syrian commandos rescued ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Seventeen seconds. That’s how long Turkish officials say a Russian Su-24 airplane was over Turkish airspace before one of Ankara’s F-16 fighter planes shot it down. While videos released by Syrian rebels appear to show one pilot dead after being shot after parachuting from the plane, Syrian commandos rescued his co-pilot, Moscow announced Wednesday after a 12-hour operation. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Wednesday that the Russian forces that rescued the pilot will receive decorations and that the Su-24’s deceased copilot will receive the Hero of Russia medal.

The guns of November? In response to the shootdown, angry Russian officials continue to issue statements hinting at a military response, even as officials from Ankara, Moscow, and NATO insist that no one wants the situation to spiral out of control. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday called Turkey’s action “criminal,” and insisted that there will be “consequences” for the shootdown. In similarly pointed comments, Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters on Wednesday that Moscow “cannot exclude some kind of other incidents. And if they occur, we, in one way or another, will have to respond.”

The Russian Ministry of Defense has already started to move. By Tuesday afternoon Moscow had severed all military-to-military contact with Turkey, moved the Moskva, a guided missile cruiser with anti-aircraft capabilities, closer to the Syrian coast to protect Russian warplanes, and announced that all Russian bombers flying over Syria will be accompanied by fighter planes to protect them from similar incidents, writes FP’s Paul McLeary. In addition, Russia will send its most advanced air defense system, the S-400, to Syria.

No choice. Despite the new tensions between Moscow and Ankara, the demands of the energy market likely mean “the two countries seem condemned to keep working together” to maintain their growing natural gas partnership, FP’s Keith Johnson writes in a smart piece that expands the terms of the discussion. Turkey gets about 60 percent of its natural gas from Russia, and “Moscow can’t easily forsake the one European market where demand for natural gas is growing, especially at a time when low oil prices have hammered its export-dependent economy,” Johnson reports.

Familiar refrain. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama’s initial response to the incident is to keep hammering an old demand: that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down to allow for a political transition to happen in Damascus, FP’s David Francis reports.

Close call. Syrian rebels destroyed a downed Russian Mi-8 helicopter with a U.S.-supplied TOW missile in the hours after the shootdown, and have the video to prove it, which FP’s Henry Johnson, promptly posted. The helo was brought down by small arms fire, Russian officials said on Tuesday, and made an emergency landing while looking for the downed Russian pilots. A Russian marine was killed in the incident. Once on the ground, and with the crew evacuated, Syrian rebels blasted the bird with the TOW for good measure.

Kunduz report. Last month, U.S. military officials promised they would work to quickly deliver the results of an investigation into how an American AC-130 gunship came to attack a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz on Oct. 3. Almost two months later, we’re about to get a readout on the investigation, though it will only be a broad-brush explanation of what went wrong, according to defense officials.

FP first reported last week that the report would come before the holiday, and on Wednesday morning, U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, will brief reporters at the Pentagon on the report. Initial word is that the gunship, relying on reports from Afghan troops the ground and unable to use onboard instruments, targeted the wrong building in the dense urban environment. If that’s the case, however, it remains unclear why the Afghan troops wouldn’t redirect the strike, which Doctors Without Borders officials have said lasted as long as an hour.

Good morning yet again from SitRep HQ, and wherever you may be this morning, we appreciate you checking in. 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 paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Post-Paris

French President François Hollande met with President Obama on Tuesday to talk about the two countries’ efforts against the Islamic State in the wake of the Paris attacks. The two leaders were short on details about any changes in the current strategy, but senior administration officials said the leaders will try to leverage the current heightened threat awareness to press countries in Europe to support operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and pitch in on the air campaign against them in Syria.

Iraq

The Pentagon says shipments of anti-tank weapons to Iraqi Security Forces have, in part, decreased the effectiveness of the Islamic State’s suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs), Stars and Stripes reports. The jihadist group has used SVBIEDs to punch through Iraqi lines and spread panic, but it’s suicide bombers are only effective against Iraqi forces about 5 percent of the time due to better Iraqi tactics and U.S. airstrikes, officials say. The U.S. and its allies have supplied Iraq with AT4 recoilless rifles which can destroy an inbound vehicle and coalition airstrikes have targeted the Islamic State’s SVBIED factories to decrease the supply of the improvised weapons.

Kurdish forces discovered that the Islamic State dug a large network of tunnels under Sinjar during their control of the northern Iraqi city, the AP reports. Kurdish peshmerga troops, who recaptured Sinjar, say the Islamic State carved out 30 to 40 tunnels in the rock underneath Sinjar in order to hide from U.S. airstrikes and store ammunition.

Tunisia

An explosion ripped through a bus carrying members of the presidential guard in Tunisia’s capital on Tuesday, killing twelve. Al Jazeera reports that Tunisian officials are calling it a terrorist attack and Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi declared that the country is now in “a state of war.” The attack comes on the heels of a reported plot to kill former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki.

Djibouti

U.S. Africa Command chief Army Gen. David Rodriguez confirms what many have long suspected: China will construct its first African military base in Djibouti. Rodriguez told reporters that China has signed a 10-year contract for a logistics facility that will “extend their reach” in the region.

U.K.

Britain’s Royal Air Force and Royal Navy are busy doing, well, something off the coast of Scotland, with local press reporting that the services are combing the waters looking for a Russian submarine. The Scotsman reports that a British ship and submarine have linked up with French and Canadian maritime patrol aircraft to investigate reports of a Russian sub lurking in the waters nearby.

Air Force

The Air Force’s top acquisition official William LaPlante gave his farewell speech on Tuesday, expressing concern over the service’s continued access to space. Defense News reports that LaPlante viewed the Air Force as caught in a policy trilemma, unable to simultaneously wean itself off of a reliance on Russian engines to launch satellites while ensuring competition and “two independent ways to get into space.” The U.S. recently banned the use of Russian engines in space launches in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, leading United Launch Alliance to pull out of competition for launch services.

Life after the Pentagon

Evelyn Farkas only left the Defense Department at the end of October, but she’s not wasting any time in saying all the things her job as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia prevented her from saying openly. In a new essay, Farkas takes on the Russian policy agenda, turning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comment that Turkey’s downing of a Russian plane on Tuesday was a “stab in the back” back on Moscow.

“It is Russia that is wielding the knife here,” she writes in Politico, “shredding international law and conventions that have held firm for decades. The hard cold truth is that the sum of Russia’s agenda, not just in Syria but globally, runs counter to the values and interests of the United States, its allies and partners. Russia’s challenge is so fundamental to the international system, to democracy and free market capitalism that we cannot allow the Kremlin’s policy to succeed in Syria or elsewhere.”

Think Tanked

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace interviews Charles Lister, the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center expert on Syrian rebel groups and author of a recent book on the Syrian civil war.

 

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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