SitRep: Russian Bombs Just Miss Brit Commandos; Trump and NATO
Journos ok With Pentagon; China Diplomacy; and Lots More
Russians cutting it close. Russian aircraft bombed a secret U.S. and British special operations base in southeast Syria last month, followed by another strike on a CIA-backed site, defense officials tell the Wall Street Journal. The strike happened just hours after about two dozen British commandos pulled out of the site.
The leak about the strikes — which had previously been reported as a strike on a U.S.-backed rebel facility — comes about a week after Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Moscow to pitch a new intelligence-sharing proposal with the Russians that would combine the efforts of the two countries to fight the Islamic State and other Islamist groups in Syria. The Pentagon and CIA are highly skeptical of the proposal. U.S. military and intelligence officials told the Journal that the strikes “were part of a campaign by Moscow to pressure the Obama administration to agree to closer cooperation in the skies over Syria.”
Talking about talks. After two days of talks in Washington among the members of the U.S.-backed coalition fighting the Islamic State, John Kerry said that “the tide has turned” in the battle against the group. He struck a measured tone when referring to the proposed Russian cooperation however, saying, “I can’t say I’m confident, because there are very tough issues that are being resolved” in U.S.-Russia talks. “We’re going steadily and carefully down a road without making promises in public that we can’t keep, because I think people are already frustrated enough.”
The speech. Republican candidate for president Donald Trump delivered his much-anticipated acceptance speech Thursday night in Cleveland, where among other things, he backtracked just a bit on earlier comments indicating he would toss aside some key components of the NATO alliance, namely, refusing to commit to backing up allies in the event they were attacked by Russia.
“Recently, I have said that NATO was obsolete. Because it did not properly cover terrorism,” he said Thursday evening. “Shortly thereafter, it was announced that NATO will be setting up a new program in order to combat terrorism. A true step in the right direction.” It is unclear what new NATO program he was referring to. A NATO Response Force was set up in 2002, and bolstered in 2015, but the alliance has set up no new counterterror programs in the 24 hours since the New York Times published its now-infamous interview with the candidate, where he outlined his foreign policy views.
Fallout. The Baltic states hit back hard, FP’s John Hudson and Siobhan O’Grady write, with Estonian and Latvian officials blasting Trump’s hints that he would leave them high and dry. FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary followed that up with a deeper dive into the implications of Trump’s proposal to walk away from the NATO alliance. “If carried out by a future President Trump, the policies would also represent an effective surrender to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has spent years trying to undermine NATO, which he derides for accepting the membership of Baltic states he sees as part of Russia’s sphere of influence. Over the past decade, Putin has used cyberweapons against Estonia; invaded Georgia; and annexed Crimea while sending uniformed troops and operatives to back separatist forces throughout eastern Ukraine.”
Heading East. U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice is heading to Beijing next week, following a recent trip by Navy chief Adm. John Richardson, in an attempt by the Obama administration to soften the impact of a recent ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that China has no historic claim over the South China Sea. Beijing has flatly rejected the verdict, angrily sending more ships and military planes to the region in recent days. The visit coincides with a trip by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Laos and the Philippines, he’ll reassure Southeast Asian partners of Washington’s commitment.
Off the list. The Defense Department has revised its Law of War manual, and there’s some good news: Your SitRep correspondents are no longer considered targets. Mostly. “The manual was restructured to make it more clear and up front that journalists are civilians and are to be protected as such,” Charles A. Allen, the Pentagon’s deputy general counsel, said Thursday. The last revision to the manual in 2015 said that journalists “in general” are considered civilians, but they “may be members of the armed forces, persons authorized to accompany the armed forces, or unprivileged belligerents.”
Back on. The U.S. European Command announced Friday that Turkey has turned the power back on at the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, which is a major hub for the U.S.-backed airstrikes on ISIS in Syria. The base was without power since July 16 and was operating on backup generator power.
“The United States, in close coordination with the Turkish military, will continue to work towards ensuring our facility, the U.S. servicemembers who live and work on it, and the operations occurring there remain fully prepared to take on a myriad of missions as we work together to defeat terrorism” the command said in a statement.
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Beijing is still pretty steamed about an international court’s ruling against its territorial claims in the South China Sea and now it’s issuing veiled threats by showing off its missile and bomber arsenal. The South China Morning Post reports that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command showed a little leg on TV this week, including shots of the PLA’s DF-16 missiles and H-6K bombers. Chinese officials recently showed off pictures of the H-6K flying near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, saying that the PLA Air Force would begin routine patrols of the region.
Iraqi officialdom is frustrated as security forces’ gains against the Islamic State aren’t necessarily translating into improved security. Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi met with reporters on Thursday and lamented that the Islamic State is still able to carry out suicide attacks in Iraq’s interior despite losing a record amount of territory. Obeidi also described the myriad challenges that await Iraqi security forces in the event of an offensive against Mosul, including massive refugee issues and the need to coordinate with Peshmerga and Shia militias.
al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has released the latest issue of its online magazine Inspire, leaving the jihadist group to celebrate an attack claimed by its rival, the Islamic State. In a statement released after the attack, the Islamic State claimed that Nice attacker Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhel was a “fighter” for the group and French authorities say they found a hand-drawn picture of the group’s flag in his home. But you wouldn’t know that from reading Inspire, which praised Bouhel for his operational acumen in employing an innovatively lethal attack method.
Forces aligned with the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli lost 13 men in the fight to oust the last remaining Islamic State troops from Libya’s city of Sirte, Reuters reports. The forces say they’re making progress at squeezing the jihadists, but say they’re disappointed in what they claim is lackluster support from international allies who haven’t provided enough supplies and medical equipment.
A joint report prepared by two human rights groups is accusing both the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebels of torturing suspected spies and arbitrarily detaining civilians to keep as “currency” in prisoner exchanges. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International teamed up for the report, named “You Don’t Exist,” detailing 18 instances of abuse divided evenly between the two sides. Torture methods included waterboarding and electrocution used against those suspected of espionage. The report also accuses Ukrainian intelligence of running unacknowledged black site-style detention facilities.
Photo: Vadim Savitsky\TASS via Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary