The Cable

SitRep: Moscow vs. Washington, Syria Edition

U.S. Commandos in Yemen; More Yemen Strikes; Chinese Fishing Boat Scuffle; and Lots More

SYRIA  JUNE 18, 2016: Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (C) inspects the Hmeymim airbase in Syria. Vadim Savitsky/TASS (Photo by Vadim SavitskyTASS via Getty Images)
SYRIA JUNE 18, 2016: Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (C) inspects the Hmeymim airbase in Syria. Vadim Savitsky/TASS (Photo by Vadim SavitskyTASS via Getty Images)


Moscow vs. Washington, Syria edition. American and Russian defense officials are offering conflicting versions of last week’s Russian bombing of U.S.-backed Syrian rebels. They aired their grievances during a weekend video conference where Pentagon officials “expressed strong concerns” over the Russian attacks. Russian planes hit opposition fighters on Thursday near the al-Tanf crossing, which sits on Syria’s border with Iraq. The bombing runs came after U.S. officials warned the Russians of coalition aircraft operating in the area, according to a statement from Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook. Ignoring the American warnings “created safety concerns for U.S. and coalition forces,” Cook’s statement said.

The Russians say the strikes were partially the Pentagon’s fault, however. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said on Sunday that the strike took place more than 180 miles away from where the U.S. told them opposition forces were operating. Konashenkov insisted Moscow had warned the U.S. in advance about the strikes, but the Pentagon’s refusal to coordinate air ops “mak[es] it impossible to take measures to adjust the Russian air force action.”

Russian cluster bombs? The Russian strikes may also have used cluster bombs. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights posted photos over the weekend showing the tail of a Russian RBK-500 cluster munition on the ground near al-Tanf. Several of the same bombs were seen strapped to the underbelly of a Russian bomber during the visit of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Syria earlier this month.

Yemen for keeps. American special operators are back in Yemen, and it doesn’t look like they’re going to leave any time soon. A group of about a dozen U.S. commandos sent to the country in April are going to stick around, U.S. defense officials say, and will help troops from the United Arab Emirates hunt down fighters from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

That sounds like a priority shift for Emirati troops, who have been fighting Houthi rebels for the past year. But Yousef al-Otaiba, the U.A.E.’s ambassador in Washington, told the Washington Post that said his country’s fight against AQAP “will go on for a long period of time…the military priorities have shifted from fighting the Iranian-backed Houthis to being more focused on AQAP.”

Drones are back.  On Friday, the Pentagon also announced three recent “counter-terror” airstrikes in Yemen, which occurred between June 8 and 12. The strikes are likely part of the recently disclosed joint operations between the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command.

Truck touch. And here’s something for you gear nerds out there: some smart Twitter users have spotted Iraqi special operations forces driving U.S.-made M-ATV’s, which have been painted the signature ISOF black. The lighter version of the MRAP made by Oshkosh Defense was introduced in 2009 has been used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan — and they’ve been sold the the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Poland, and given to African Union peacekeepers in Somalia. The Emirati special forces have been seen driving them in Yemen — and have lost some to Houthi rebels — but this is the first time they’ve been spotted in Iraq.

Good morning again from the Sitrep crew, thanks for clicking on through for the summer 2016 edition of SitRep. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national  security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

South China Sea

The Indonesian navy fired on a Chinese fishing boat near the Natuna islands, reportedly injuring at least one person, according to the BBC. Details on the incident are a bit hazy, with China claiming one injured and Indonesia denying anyone was hurt in the attack. Indonesia detained a number of fishermen following the shooting, but there’s no confirmation yet on whether they’re still in custody. China doesn’t claim the islands but it does call the area a “traditional Chinese fishing ground.” The two countries have clashed over fishing rights off the Natuna islands before, including an incident back in March when a Chinese coast guard ship rammed an Indonesian vessel trying to detain a fishing boat from the People’s Republic.

South Korea

South Korea’s military is training up the next generation of cyber warriors to match wits with their counterparts from the North. Reuters reports that the South Korean defense ministry is now funding classes at Korea University, known as the Cyber Defense curriculum, where students can pick up the skills necessary to defend networks against North Korean instructions. Students can have the government pick up the tab for their education if they agree to work for the South Korean army’s cyber warfare unit. North Korea has been beefing up its cybersecurity forces in recent years and is believed to have carried out a number of attacks against media, finance, and government networks.


Okinawans turned out for a massive protest against the U.S. military presence on the island following the murder of a woman allegedly carried out by a former U.S. Marine turned contractor, the New York Times reports. If the protest organizers’ claim of a 65,000-strong turnout at the demonstration is correct, it would make it the largest protest since three American servicemen raped a 12 year-old Japanese girl on the island in 1995. U.S. officials have been trying to soothe public anger, instituting a month-long mourning period following the victim’s death with both President Obama and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter offering apologies over the incident.


The British military has reportedly told its troops that it’s ok to give up classified information if they’re being held prisoner and tortured by jihadist groups. Britain’s defense ministry denies any change in policy from the traditional expectation that captive troops only give up name, rank, and serial number. But the Daily Telegraph reports that officials have quietly told pilots and special operations troops fighting the Islamic State that they should instead try to delay the release of information while being tortured, giving up the least important information first and holding onto the most sensitive details for as long as possible.


Planet earth has a horrible new record — the most displaced people since organizations started keeping track of the metric. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees now estimates the tally of displaced at a staggering 65 million people. Nearly two thirds of that figure is comprised of internally displaced people. The conflicts in Iraq and Syria have produced some of the largest numbers of displacements. The increasing tide of refugees has also contributed to a growing backlash against migration rippling through the politics of the U.S. and Europe.

A computer scientist and a nonprofit are teaming up to use technology designed to stop child pornography from spreading across the web to take on terrorist propaganda. Defense One reports on the effort by the Counter Extremism Project and Hany Farid to use hash values to spot and stop extremist media in its tracks. Hash functions can generate unique values for data, allowing users to assign a kind of serial number to digital files. Farid and and the Counter Extremism Project are now hoping to apply the same principle to known images and video propaganda from terrorist groups so that social media providers can swiftly scrub material off their platforms.

The Pentagon has wrapped up its bug bounty program, after forking over around $150,000 in exchange for 138 vulnerabilities found in Defense Department public-facing websites. The “Hack the Pentagon” program allowed a select group of 1,400 hackers to participate in the bug hunt, including one as young as 18 year old high school student David Dworken. Defense Secretary Ash Carter says he wants to expand the program to other parts of the department and include incentives to allow defense contractors to report bugs and vulnerabilities they find.


Photo Credit: Vadim Savitsky\TASS via Getty Images

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