SitRep: Turkey, Russia Planning Joint Ops in Syria; Crimea on the Edge
Pentagon Tallies Up Body Counts; Air Force Losing Pilots; And Lots More
Russia and Turkey to fight ISIS: Days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Moscow with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Turkey says talks are underway for the two countries to start carrying out joint operations against Islamic State in Syria. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday, “we will discuss all the details. We have always called on Russia to carry out anti-Daesh operations together,” using an alternate name for the group. “Let’s fight against the terrorist group together, so that we can clear it out as soon as possible,” the minister said. Conversely, talks between Moscow and Washington over sharing intelligence on ISIS and Nusra Front in Syria have stalled, according to reports.
FP’s Keith Johnson and John Hudson have lots more on the efforts that Moscow and Ankara are undertaking to repair — and bolster — their relationship, and what that means for NATO at a time of increased tensions with Russia, and NATO ally Turkey.
Russians moving in Crimea. Is it happening again? Russians often talk about the “August curse” — it’s month that has seen multiple wars, and coups, start — and with new intrigue Crimea, one wonders if Europe is headed for another short, sharp conflict, the kind Moscow has specialized in recently.
Quick recap: Russia’s state security service, the FSB, said Wednesday it had foiled two attempted incursions by Ukrainian special forces into Crimea over the past week. The FSB said one of its officers and a Russian soldier have been killed after coming under “heavy fire” from the Ukrainian side.
Putin does his thing. Russian President Vladimir Putin says he’s not having it. “There is no doubt that we will not let these things pass,” he said on state television Wednesday. “I think it is clear now that today’s Kiev government is not looking for ways to solve problems by negotiations, but is resorting to terror.” Putin called a meeting of his security council on Thursday to discuss “antiterrorist security scenarios at the land border, sea, and in the airspace of Crimea,” according to a Kremlin news release.
Kiev having none of it. Ukrainian officials have flatly denied the accusations, FP’s Reid Standish writes, “dismissing the claims as fake, adding that the assertions from Moscow could be used as a pretext for further ‘offensive operations.’” Reports have been circulating that Russia is moving military equipment and personnel to Crimea’s northern border with Ukraine. Some of those movements are a planned troop rotation, but others may be to goad Ukraine into overreacting, allowing Moscow to play the victim, rather than a provocateur.
August is the cruelest month. Just a recap of what the role August plays in recent Russian military history. In August 2014, Russian forces pushed into Ukraine’s Donbas to prop up their staggering separatist allies. In 2008, Russian armor poured into Georgia to kick off the summer war between the two countries. Looking back further, of course, there was the failed coup in Moscow in 1991, the kickoff of the second Chechen war in 1999, and the tragic sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000. If we want to push it, there was the infamous “Guns of August” in 1914, which saw the start of WWI.
Bloody Wednesday. Wednesday was a big day for body counts at the Pentagon, with two top generals boasting of big numbers of ISIS fighters killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said that Afghan forces and U.S. airstrikes — along with American commandos on the ground — have killed 300 Islamic State members in Nangarhar province over the past few days. And Gen. Sean MacFarland, the U.S. commander in Iraq, said that the United States has killed about 45,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria since August 2014. Body counts. They don’t matter until they do.
MacFarland also offered some real talk when it comes to the idea of defeating ISIS. “I’d like to register a note of caution,” he told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday. “Military success in Iraq and Syria will not necessarily mean the end of [ISIS]. We can expect the enemy to adapt, to morph into a true insurgent force and terrorist organization capable of horrific attacks,” MacFarland.
A note on body counts. To put the 45,000 number in some perspective, consider that of the 26,300 targets hit by U.S. and coalition pilots in Iraq and Syria over the past two years, the Pentagon says it has only killed 41 civilians and injured 28 others, according to U.S. Central Command. Human rights groups say that count is extremely low. The Pentagon is currently investigating several airstrikes in Syria that may have killed dozens of civilians.
Peacekeepers need not apply. The White House push to reinforce a struggling United Nations peacekeeping force in South Sudan encountered stiff resistance this week from its once-reliable ally President Salva Kiir, highlighting Washington’s waning influence in a country it helped create only five years ago, FP’s Colum Lynch and Siobhan O’Grady report. Washington wants 4,000 new peacekeepers to protect South Sudanese civilians after more than 300 people were killed when violence broke out between government and rebel soldiers in the capital of Juba last month.
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On the heels of calling on Moscow to hack Hillary Clinton’s email, the Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, said Wednesday night the Crimean people “wanna be with Russia.” Last month, Trump claimed that Russia is “not going into Ukraine, O.K…You can mark it down.”
Beijing has launched a new satellite which it says will keep an eye on the country’s controversial artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea. China Daily reports that China launched the Gaofen-3 radar imaging Earth observation satellite via a Long March 4C rocket. Xu Fuxiang, who lead the Gaofen’s development for the the China Academy of Space Technology, said that the Gaofen-3 and others like it “will be very useful in safeguarding the country’s maritime rights and interests.” Xu also said the satellite will be used to predict and monitor natural disasters.
Senior Air Force officials are once again raising the alarm about its pilot shortage, the AP reports. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein spoke at a Pentagon press conference about their concerns over a shortfall of 700 fighter pilots. James and Goldfein warned that the service could lose an additional 300 pilots if the problem is left unchecked. The two Air Force leaders pointed to increasing competition from the private sector as a threat to retention and urged Congress to give them the authority to shell out more for pilot bonuses in order to deal with the problem.
Russia has proclaimed a unilateral ceasefire in Aleppo, which will last for three hours starting at 10 am local time on Thursday. The plan form Moscow says the ceasefire will take place every day during those three hours, during which a humanitarian corridor will allow food and aid supplies to reach the city, which has been under siege following a renewed push by the Assad regime to reclaim it from rebel groups. United Nations Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Stephen O’Brien, however, said the three hour duration wasn’t nearly enough time to carry out thorough aid distribution. It might not matter. Reports from Aleppo Thursday say the bombs didn’t stop at 10:00 am.
The U.S. Air Force is talking up its bombing of $11 million worth of the Islamic State’s oil after a weekend of airstrikes targeting tankers hauling the group’s most valuable commodity. USA Today reports that American warplanes, including A-10 Warthogs and F-16s, struck a convoy of 83 tankers belonging to the group in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province. Air Force officials say the Islamic State’s unwise massing of valuable supplies represents a breakdown in command and control within the group. Coalition forces have pointedly targeted the Islamic State’s oil infrastructure, which some analysts estimate have made up nearly half the group’s revenue.
Canadian police killed a Toronto man on Wednesday whom they say was an adherent of the Islamic State preparing to carry out a suicide bombing. CBC News reports that police stormed the Ontario home of Aaron Driver and shot him after he detonated an explosive device. Police tell CBC that they believe Driver was planning to use a second explosive device to carry out a terrorist attack in Canada. Driver first appeared on Canadian intelligence officials’ radars after he tweeted support for the Islamic State. He was subject to a peace bond — a kind of parole for criminal offenders — when police raided his home on Wednesday.
Nazi Germany’s arsenal of weapons is coming back to haunt Egypt as the Islamic State digs buried weapons out of the ground. Newsweek reports that ISIS operatives group is using components and explosives scavenged from World War II-vintage anti-tank planted by Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps to make its improvised explosive devices. Fathy el-Shazly, Egypt’s top official in charge of removing mines, tells the magazine that there are at least 10 reported incidents of bombings that using recycled mines.
Bots o’ war
Drones belonging to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have taken a beating from Russian-backed rebels throughout the conflict in Ukraine, according to Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFIR Lab). The OSCE, a multinational observer organization which monitors conflicts, has been using its Special Monitoring Mission drone to keep track of ceasefire violations and the movement of equipment and fighters from both sides of the conflict. DFIR Lab rounds up evidence of multiple attempts by Russian-backed separatists to take out the drones, ranging from jamming with Russian electronic warfare equipment to small arms and anti-aircraft fire.
The United States is gearing up to sell ScanEagle drones to Iraq, IHS Jane’s reports. There’s no word yet on how many drones will be part of the sale but the contract is worth $8 million and will be concluded by 2017. The Defense Department has been greenlighting sales of the Insitu ScanEagle quite a bit this year, with sales to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kenya. Iraq already operates much the larger armed CH-4B, courtesy of a recent sale from China.
Photo Credit: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images