The Cable

SitRep: U.S. No-Fly Zone in Syria? Russian Hack Fail

Top General Skeptical Over Russian Deal; Kurds in New Fight; And Lots More

TOPSHOT - A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) rests on a rooftop on the outskirts of the town of al-Shadadi in the northeastern Syrian province of Hasakeh, on February 19, 2016.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance dominated by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), seized on Friday the town of al-Shadadi, a bastion of the Islamic State group (IS) in the Hasakeh province, in northeastern Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. / AFP / Delil souleiman        (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) rests on a rooftop on the outskirts of the town of al-Shadadi in the northeastern Syrian province of Hasakeh, on February 19, 2016. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance dominated by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), seized on Friday the town of al-Shadadi, a bastion of the Islamic State group (IS) in the Hasakeh province, in northeastern Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. / AFP / Delil souleiman (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

 

No fly? No way. American jets scrambled over northern Syria twice last week to chase away Syrian warplanes which had bombed U.S.-backed Kurdish forces — coming uncomfortably close to a group of American commandos advising the Kurds. Afterward, U.S. military leaders issued a stern warning to both the Syrians and Russians not to fly combat operations in areas where Americans are operating.

If that sounds like a no-fly zone, the Pentagon would respectfully disagree. Spokesman Peter Cook insisted Monday that “we are going to tell the Syrians and anyone else who may threaten our force in that area that we will defend them and they have a right to defend themselves.” But “it’s not a no fly zone,” he said.

In a long back-and-forth with reporters during a Monday press conference at the Pentagon, Cook also swiped at an issue that has long been the focus of debate: whether the United States would use force to protect U.S.-backed Kurdish and Syrian Arab rebels on the ground in Syria. Those forces “that are taking the fight to [ISIS] and partnered with us, will enjoy the support of the United States,” Cook said, adding, “we’re going to continue to support, and protect, and provide that military support for our coalition forces and…our coalition partnered operations on the ground.”

Dangerous new fight for the Kurds. The Syrian bombing runs come amid heavy clashes between the Syrian regime and Kurdish forces, who have mostly kept a shaky peace in northern Syria. The Wall Street Journal points out that the fighting “comes amid a warming of relations between Turkey and Mr. Assad’s allies Russia and Iran. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this month followed by a visit by Turkey’s foreign minister to Iran. Kurdish leaders see the regime’s new aggression toward their forces as a sign of a rapprochement between Syria and Turkey in a conflict with constantly shifting alliances.”

On Tuesday, Syrian Kurdish forces said that after days of intense fighting with the Syrian army, they had gained control over almost the entire city of Hasakah, and that government forces were surrounded in a few buildings in the center of the city.

Deal or no deal. The top American military officer in Iraq says he’s skeptical that Washington and Moscow can reach any real agreement to share intel on ISIS and Nusra front in Syria, but that he can get the job done, regardless. Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who took command on Sunday, said “as a soldier, I’m fairly skeptical of the Russians,” and he’s hesitant “to believe the coalition can cooperate with them.” Secretary of State John Kerry’s team is leading the talks with Russia, but speaking in Kenya on Monday, Kerry didn’t sound like a man who was about to strike a deal. “it is my hope that we are reaching the end of those discussions one way or the other,’ he said, adding, it is possible that something could be agreed at upon before the end of the month but I can’t tell you whether it’s likely. I wouldn’t express optimism — I would express hope.”

Hack slack. War is messy, and mistakes are made. But in Russia’s information war against the West, mistakes are made and then published for all the world to see. FP’s Elias Groll flags a good one, writing that after two “supposedly independent hacking groups, believed by security experts to have ties to the Kremlin, posted the same documents stolen from a philanthropy run by George Soros. But the hack included a twist: Some of the documents taken by one group were altered in a bid to try and link Soros to Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, revealing how hackers likely working for Moscow are editing documents to smear their victims.”

Good morning and 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

2016

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has insulted a Gold Star family, criticized Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for being captured in Vietnam, and suggested that troops in Iraq stole “millions and millions of dollars” in aid money for Iraq — and veterans overwhelmingly support him for president in recent polls. The Washington Post explores some former troops’ affection for Trump, finding that his calls for reform of the Department of Veterans Affairs, (newfound) distaste for U.S. intervention in Iraq, and a traditional preference for Republican candidates within the military have given him double digit support over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Still, in the end, the views offered by the vets don’t sound all that much different from other civilians who support the Republican candidate.

China

Chinese military jets flew into South Korea’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) just as the two countries’ foreign ministers are set to meet. The Korea Times reports that three Chinese planes showed up at the margins of the two countries’ ADIZs, prompting South Korea to scramble fighter jets to intercept them. The incident comes before Wednesday’s meeting of foreign ministers from Japan, China, and South Korea for talks in Tokyo. The talks are likely to touch on disagreement between China and South Korea over the deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to defend against North Korean ballistic missiles. China opposes the deployment, fearing the system could be used to target Chinese missiles, as well as North Korean ones.

Europe

Finland is moving quickly to sign an agreement with the United States on closer military cooperation, Reuters reports. The deal doesn’t involve NATO or commitments for collective defense, but would increase joint training and information-sharing. The move follows increased anxieties in traditionally neutral Finland over an increasingly aggressive Russia. Finnish officials are trying to hurry the agreement through in the waning days of the Obama administration before a new administration comes in.

Lithuania has signed a deal with Germany’s Rheinmetall to armor up its military, according to UPI. The deal, worth $441 million, will supply 88 Boxer infantry fighting vehicles equipped with 30mm cannons. The vehicles are expected to be delivered through 2021.

Yemen

France may be lending military support to the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen, according to new satellite imagery. War Is Boring reports that hangars consistent with French designs show up in the latest Google Earth imagery of the United Arab Emirates-run Assab air base in Eritrea, which is used as a transshipment hub to support the war in Yemen against the Houthi movement. Little is known about what’s in the hangars, but the distinctly French constructions follow a series of supportive recent statements from French leaders about the country’s commitments to its Gulf allies.

Phillippines

The Philippines’ new president Rodrigo Duterte has called for Filipinos to kill drug dealers in response to the long national problem of drug addiction, FP’s Henry Johnson writes.  Now, the country has responded, killing 1,900 people since Duterte came to office. The figures come from the Philippine National Police’s top cop, Director-General Ronald dela Rosa, who said about 750 of the deaths are to due to police actions with the remaining 1,150 carried out by civilians. Duterte’s calls for vigilantism have received harsh criticism, both at home and abroad, from close allies including the United States.

 

Photo Credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

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

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