SitRep: Pentagon Braces For Russian Cooperation; Japan and U.S. to Patrol South China Sea
Syrian Ceasefire Frays; But Humanitarian Aid on The Way; And Lots More
In circles. If one thing became clear Thursday, it’s that few in Washington know how they’re going to pull off the recent ceasefire deal with Russia. But there’s a sense that the Pentagon and State Department are scrambling to iron out all of the known unknowns by Monday, when the deal hits the one-week mark and the two sides are supposed to start talking.
Defense officials have so far refused to offer much of a hint as to how they’ll share information with their Russian counterparts should the agreement hold, or when they’ll even start talking to the Russians, (though one defense official gave FP some preliminary details of how they think the information sharing will take place.) On Thursday, both State and Pentagon spokesmen declined to offer much information, insisting that plans are in flux as everyone watches events in Syria.
End transmission. We know this much: the Pentagon is trying to figure out how and when to move drones and intel analysts around in order to step up airstrikes in Syria — and monitor the terms of the ceasefire. The AP tells us that U.S. defense officials “will need to take assets from other parts of the world, because U.S. military leaders don’t want to erode the current U.S.-led coalition campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.”
But in order for American forces to begin talks with the Russians, Defense Secretary Ash Carter first must submit a waiver that overrides a law passed by Congress banning any military-to-military contacts between the two nations. Some on the House and Senate armed services committees thought the Pentagon should have submitted a waiver last fall when U.S. civilian defense officials began talking with their Russian counterparts.
Where it matters. But none of this matters if the guns in Aleppo and elsewhere don’t fall silent. Reports from the critical supply route into the besieged city, Castillo Road, Friday morning were confused. The Russians, Syrians, and some monitoring groups say the Syrian army has started to pull back from the road, but the anti-Assad rebels say they haven’t seen any movement. Another report says Russian troops have deployed along the road that goes right into the rebel-held neighborhoods of Aleppo, but that fighting has broken out near Damascus, in what would be a serious violation of the ceasefire.
What we do know is this, however. The regime in Damascus looks to have finally allowed U.N. aid trucks held up in Turkey to enter Syria, according to the latest. The 40 U.N. trucks are hauling wheat flour for more than 150,000 people, and are expected to arrive late in the day Friday. The Syrian Observatory on Human Rights said Friday, however, that a series of violations of the ceasefire have killed a number of civilians, including airstrikes in Deir Ezzor that left 23 dead.
Open society. Despite an ugly public discourse on the place of Muslim Americans in American society stoked by the campaign of Republican nominee for president Donald Trump, there are thousands of Muslims serving their country across the Defense and State Departments. FP’s John Hudson spoke to a few prominent Muslim-American officials in government working on critical national security programs, and found that despite the rhetoric, and some heartbreaking personal stories, their commitment hasn’t waivered. Hudson writes, “those who did speak to Foreign Policy pointed to an irony: The public discourse in America surrounding Islam has never been more disparaging, but due to concerted efforts by the Defense Department to accommodate a diverse workforce, there’s never been a better time to be a Muslim at the Pentagon.”
“I cannot think of a single time at the Pentagon when I felt anything but completely supported by my leadership and peers,” said Jasmine El-Gamal, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who advised Carter and three previous Obama administration secretaries of defense on Middle East policy.
Your shot of 2016. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said Thursday that the whole ceasefire rests on the back of the Russians. “Whether or not this works is really up to the Russians,” she told reporters after a campaign rally in North Carolina. “It is up to whether or not Vladimir Putin decides that it’s time to do what the Russians can do to bring this conflict into a period where there can be the beginning of political discussions, a hoped-for protective zone for people who are under relentless assault from the air, and a commitment to going after the terrorist groups that pose a threat to everyone.”
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Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada says Japan will conduct joint patrols in the South China Sea with the U.S. Navy in order to help train its forces, CNN reports. Inada told at audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the patrols would also include working with and providing aid to neighboring countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines. China’s neighbors have grown increasingly concerned at its aggressive assertion of territorial rights in the South China Sea.
In a series of recent speeches, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has proposed ending cooperation between the Philippine military and U.S. special operations forces against Islamist militants, buying weapons from Russia and China, and canceling joint patrols of the South China Sea with the U.S. Navy. However, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook took the long view in a press conference on Thursday, according to Defense News, referring to the Philippines as “a longtime ally” and emphasizing that Manila and Washington have one of “most enduring relationships” in the region. Cook said that, regardless of Duterte’s rhetoric “these are issues that can be resolved and worked out.”
American prosecutors are working to build a case against hackers tied to Russian intelligence and suspected of hacking into various Democratic party organizations and prominent public figures. Reuters reports that the Department of Justice is looking to see if it can muster the evidence to support an indictment. Officials tell the wire service that the Russians have stepped up the pace of breaches and leaks, promoting competition between Russian intelligence agencies.
For the record, Defense Secretary Ash Carter would like you to know that Pentagon will never give robots their own license to kill. On his way back from Austin for the opening of the Defense Innovation Unit (Experimental), Carter told reporters that “whenever it comes to the application of force, there will never be true autonomy,” according to Breaking Defense. Humans, Carter said, will always be “in the loop” — meaning that a meatbag will always have to green light any decisions to use lethal force.
America’s military enjoys its longstanding air superiority, but staying master of the skies is increasingly difficult in an era where small, cheap drones are proliferating. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking to help the military keep track of small, unmanned systems with what it’s calling the Aerial Dragnet program. Aerial Dragnet will seek to map the movements of small drones here in the United States with the goal of eventually transitioning a functioning program to the military.
Snowden’s Twitter fight
The House Intelligence Committee released its own assessment on the damage from the revelation of files leaked by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, sparking a tweetstorm from exile himself. The assessment alleges “tremendous damage” from the Snowden revelations and accuses him of being “a serial exaggerator and fabricator” who lied on his resume, was reprimanded by his superiors, and never attempted to use existing whistleblower channels before releasing an untold number of classified documents to journalists.
Snowden responded on Twitter to the release of the report, calling it “artlessly distorted” and “a serious act of bad faith.” In response to the House panel’s charge that he began mass downloads of classified material shortly after being reprimanded for a dispute over software updates, Snowden said his downloading was authorized activity carried out by a program he wrote and used with senior managers’ permission.
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary