The Cable

SitRep: White House Drone Report; Pentagon Transgender Ban Scrapped

Turkey Confronts More Internal Problems; Washington and Moscow Coming Together in Syria; Russian Ships in the Med; And Lots More

UNSPECIFIED, PERSIAN GULF REGION - JANUARY 07:  A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), (R), returns from a mission to an air base in the Persian Gulf region on January 7, 2016. The U.S. military and coalition forces use the base, located in an undisclosed location, to launch drone airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, as well as to transport cargo and and troops supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. The Predators at the base are operated and maintained by the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, currently attached to the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED, PERSIAN GULF REGION - JANUARY 07: A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), (R), returns from a mission to an air base in the Persian Gulf region on January 7, 2016. The U.S. military and coalition forces use the base, located in an undisclosed location, to launch drone airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, as well as to transport cargo and and troops supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. The Predators at the base are operated and maintained by the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, currently attached to the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

 

White House drone report. The Obama administration is expected to announce as early as Friday that it believes around 100 civilians have died in nearly 500 U.S. drone strikes since 2009. As part of the disclosure, President Barack Obama is expected to issue an executive order requiring annual reporting of how many civilians have been killed in the strikes, and outlining how the administration tries to protect civilians.

The report isn’t expected to tell us much about the strikes themselves or the people who were killed, and several organizations that have been tracking American drone strikes offer higher casualty numbers than Washington is expected to, with the bottom range coming in at about 200 deaths, all the way to over 1,000. The report will cover strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia, but not ones in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria.

Amnesty International published a statement Thursday saying that the executive order is a “vital step in the right direction,” as it “sets a precedent for how future administrations, and other governments, use lethal drone technology.” But Jennifer Gibson, an attorney at human rights group Reprieve, told SitRep that without information on how the civilians were accidentally targeted and killed, the report promises to be  “a cooked book of numbers – but without the names, faces and detail necessary for real accountability to take place.” Reprieve also issued a new report Thursday about the Obama administration’s drone program.

More on drones. Earlier this year, FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary filed a story on the Obama administration’s “signature strike” policy, which allows American drones to strike groups of people who show signs of militant activity.

Future tense. There are now no restrictions on who is eligible to serve in the U.S. military. Defense Secretary Ash Carter tore down the last wall on Thursday by tossing out policies that barred transgender Americans from serving, and abolishing rules that demanded involuntary separation for those who were on active duty.

Some on Capitol Hill aren’t so sure, however. Republican Senator John McCain wants hearings on the subject. McCain said he was never briefed on the change, and “I happen just to be the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and it’s customary in all the years I’ve been on it to give members, particularly the chairman, a briefing…something like this will require some legislation,” McCain said.

Staying power. For years, militants from the former Soviet Union passed through Turkey on their way to go fight in Iraq and Syria. Now they’re staying behind and hitting soft targets like the Ataturk Airport, FP’s Elias Groll, Dan De Luce and Reid Standish report. That new normal raises a pair of new security challenges for a Turkey: “Large numbers of migrants from former Soviet nations like Uzbekistan already live and work in Turkey, so militants sent into the country from Syria or Iraq have a tight-knit community of expatriates they can disappear into.” Also, “Turkish security personnel who have long focused on their country’s restive Arab and Kurdish populations must now look for signs of radicals hiding among their Caucasian and Central Asian communities.”

Scuttled. After being detained upon straying into Iranian waters this past January, several U.S. sailors cooperated too readily with their captors, the U.S. Navy says, and quickly handed over information like phone and laptop passwords. The Navy released a redacted version of its investigation into the incident on Thursday, and it pulls no punches in heaping criticism on both the sailors on the boats and the officers in their chain of command, FP’s Paul McLeary writes.

Overall, nine enlisted sailors and officers have been recommended for non-judicial punishment, including three members of the boat crew, which FP’s Dan De Luce reported previously. The report quotes Vice Adm. Kevin M. Donegan, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, as saying he finds the failures highlighted in the investigation are “a symptom of a poorly led and unprepared unit thrust into a confusing situation that they were unable to comprehend and react to, until it was too late.”

Syrian pivot. The Obama administration has offered to work with Russia to target forces from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in Syria. Under the plan — sent to Moscow on Monday — the U.S. would partner with Russia if it agreed to get the Assad regime to halt airstrikes against U.S.-backed rebels fighting the regime. The plan would create zones off-limits to bombing in order to protect rebels, in lieu of the U.S. communicating their exact positions to Russia.

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: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

China

China has launched a new spy satellite into orbit, according to Spaceflight Now. The satellite, dubbed Shijian 16, was launched from the Gobi desert atop a Long March 4B rocket. China says the satellite will perform “spacial environment detection and technological experiments,” but experts believe it’s bound for less pedestrian work. Based on Shijian 16’s orbit, analysts believe the satellite will likely be used to eavesdrop on electronic communications.

Taiwan

Taiwan’s navy has accidentally fired off a supersonic anti-ship missile, killing one person aboard a fishing trawler, according to Agence France Presse. A Taiwanese navy missile ship in port in Tsoying mistakenly fired the Hsiung-feng III in a westerly direction towards China, piercing directly through the fishing boat. The missile was fired during an exercise but it remains unclear what the cause of the accidental launch was.

Russia

The United States is operating two carrier strike groups in the Mediterranean, and over the past two weeks, both have had close calls with the Russian Navy frigate Yaroslav Mudry. The U.S. Naval Institute’s San LaGrone discovered that the latest incident took place Thursday, when the Russian ship came within 150 meters of the USS San Jacinto and “displayed maneuvers rarely seen by professional mariners at sea combined with an aggressive approach” toward the U.S. ship, which is escorting the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower as it carries out airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. On June 17, the Yaroslav Mudry tangled with the U.S. destroyer USS Gravely, which is escorting the USS Harry S. Truman. Moscow complained that the Gravely came within a “dangerous distance” of nearly 600 feet and “violated international and bilateral agreements.” American officials say the Gravely was just protecting the carrier, as the Mudry was “intentionally trying to interfere with Harry S. Truman operations.”

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is clearing house within the Russian navy’s admiralty. Shoigu canned dozens of top officers from the Baltic Fleet, citing “dereliction of duty” and “distortion of the real state of things” as the reason for the dismissals. The firings took out Vice Baltic Fleet commander Admiral Viktor Kravchuk and flowed through his senior aides. What, specifically, led to the shakeup remains unclear but Russia has been on a consistent course of confrontation with NATO forces in the Baltics, intercepting American spy planes there and buzzing U.S. intelligence ships.

Instagram user @rus_foxhound_rus posts an up-close happy snap of what appears to be a U.S. RC-135U spy plane. U.S. Air Force RC-135s have been the target of harassment by Russian fighter jets recently with the warplanes carrying out what the U.S. has labeled as dangerous intercepts of the aircraft.

Armenia is now officially a part of Russia’s air defense network. Reuters reports that Armenia’s parliament has okayed an agreement to integrate its forces into a regional air defense network with Russia, which Armenian Defence Minister Seyran Ohanyan says “will allow us to have serious reconnaissance data.” Armenia is locked in a long running conflict with its neighbor Azerbaijan, with the Nagorno-Karabakh serving as a recent flashpoint. The regional air defense network, however, will not cover Nagorno-Karabakh.

Russia has accused a U.S. diplomat who was tackled by a Federal Security Service (FSB) guard of being a spy. Sources tell Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the FSB officer broke the diplomat’s shoulder after sacking him outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Russia’s Foreign Ministry, however, claims that the American is a CIA officer under diplomatic cover who threw an elbow at the FSB guard and denies that his shoulder was broken in the incident. The confrontation comes amid reports from the Washington Post of Russia increasingly harassing American diplomats in Moscow, killing their pets and defecating on their carpets.

NATO

Canada is kicking in a battalion of troops for NATO’s new Eastern European deployment. The other three battalions for the alliance’s 4,000-strong force near Russia’s border will come from the U.S., Germany and the U.K. Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan said the deployment is meant to signal Canada’s displeasure with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Nonetheless, Sajjan said Canada also wanted to “send an equally strong message that we are open for dialogue” with Russia if it wants to cool down tensions in the region.

Iceland

Iceland has added its name to the growing list of countries in search of closer military relations with the U.S. in the face of Russia’s more aggressive military posture. Iceland signed an agreement with the U.S. to allow rotation of American troops to the NATO country. The U.S. has been interested in Keflavik air base for some time, recently using it to conduct surveillance flights. The most recent U.S. defense budget includes $21.4 million to upgrade the base to host P-8 maritime patrol aircraft.

Iraq

U.S. and Iraqi forces carried out a series of massive airstrikes against Islamic State vehicles earlier this week. On Wednesday, warplanes from the two countries struck an Islamic State convoy of 120 vehicles near Ramadi and likely headed to Abu Kamal on the border between Iraq and Syria. In another strike on Tuesday, U.S. planes hit vehicles belonging to the jihadist group near Fallujah, which Iraqi forces recently took back from the group.

And finally…

Fridays marks the centenary of Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1, 1916 and would ultimately claim a million lives drawn from Britain, France, and Germany.

 

Photo Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

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