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SitRep: U.S Blames Russia For U.N. Convoy Attack; China’s Space Race

Moscow Told U.S. to Stop Syria Strike; Taiwan Building Up Air Defenses; And Lots More

Syrians gather near damaged trucks carrying aid on the side of the road in the town of Orum al-Kubra on the western outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on September 20, 2016, the morning after a convoy delivering aid was hit by a deadly air strike.
The UN said at least 18 trucks in the 31-vehicle convoy were destroyed en route to deliver humanitarian assistance to the hard-to-reach town.
 / AFP / Omar haj kadour        (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians gather near damaged trucks carrying aid on the side of the road in the town of Orum al-Kubra on the western outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on September 20, 2016, the morning after a convoy delivering aid was hit by a deadly air strike. The UN said at least 18 trucks in the 31-vehicle convoy were destroyed en route to deliver humanitarian assistance to the hard-to-reach town. / AFP / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)


Russia did it. The White House, the U.S. intel community, and the Pentagon came together Tuesday to point the finger at the Syria — and more directly, Russia — as being responsible for bombing the U.N. aid convoy near Aleppo Monday that killed approximately 20 civilians.

“There only could have been two entities responsible, the Syrian regime or the Russian government,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters in New York while attending this week’s United Nations summit. “We hold the Russian government responsible for airstrikes in this space,” he added, since the Russian and Syrian governments had full knowledge of the convoy, where it was, and what it was doing.

More U.S. officials look at Moscow. Several unnamed U.S. officials told Reuters they had tracked two Russian Sukhoi SU-24 warplanes in the skies above the aid convoy at the time it was hit. Unnamed officials also told the Wall Street Journal that the Russians were likely to blame. One person who went on the record — though didn’t go quite as far as the unnamed officials — was the U.S. Central Command’s Col. John Thomas, who told reporters at the Pentagon, “it was certainly not the coalition who struck from the air,” and the “only other entities that fly in Syria are Russia and Syria.”

Getting the word out. Moscow insists it had nothing to do with the airstrike, but just for good measure, the Ministry of Defense released what it says is drone footage of a pickup truck hauling a heavy mortar system past the convoy in the hours before it was hit, though The Interpreter has called the video into question. The Ministry also started livestreaming areas around Aleppo to provide a level of “transparency” about the ceasefire.

But…Some rebel leaders fighting the Syrian regime warned U.N. officials not to send the convoy, since government forces were conducting airstrikes in the area — warnings U.N. officials in Damascus dismissed, the Journal reports in another story.

Think tanked. The Institute for the Study of War’s Genevieve Casagrande writes in an analyst note Wednesday that pretty much everyone managed to benefit from the now collapsed ceasefire. Everyone, that is, save the U.S.-led coalition. Russia and Syria used the cessation of hostilities “to consolidate recent gains in Aleppo City and to redeploy military assets to other critical frontlines in likely preparation for upcoming offensives,” she writes. Likewise, the more radical segments of the opposition took advantage of the failures of the ceasefire to bolster their standing among mainstream opposition factions, “undermining efforts by the U.S. to compel independent opposition groups to distance themselves from al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria.”

Ill communication. There have been more incidents in Syria over the past week, of course, including the American-led coalition’s airstrike on Syrian troops Saturday that killed as many as 60 soldiers, and wounded about 100 more. FP’s Paul McLeary reports that Pentagon officials have admitted that about 30 minutes after the strike started, a Russian official called the coalition’s command center in Qatar, but couldn’t find his American counterpart to warn the planes off. The Russian had to call back several minutes later, and the Americans eventually called off the strike, which had already been going on for almost an hour.

Trump irks Ukraine again. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump already has a contentious relationship with Kiev, angering the Ukrainian public and government officials with his praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Moscow-friendly views on the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine — once he realized, a bit later than most, that Russia took Crimea in 2014. Now, FP’s Molly O’Toole and Reid Standish write, Trump turned down an invitation to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly this week. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton met with Poroshenko in New York on Monday.

United Nations. Elsewhere at the U.N. meeting, FP’s Colum Lynch writes that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon “delivered a full-throated, and thinly veiled, broadside against a host of world leaders from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to South Sudan’s Salva Kiir Mayardit during his tenth and final speech at the U.N. General Assembly.” Lynch and John Hudson also dissect President Barack Obama’s final address before the assembly, in which he made “an impassioned plea for an open world order, even as walls rise against refugees, protectionism makes a comeback, and the West faces the prospect of a simmering cold war with Russia and other authoritarian states.”

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: or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

Dark side of the moon

By 2020, China plans to be the first country on earth to send an object to the dark side of the moon, marking an important step along its path to becoming a “space superpower,” according to PopSci. The People’s Republic has been building up its space program for a generation, and now that work is starting to bear fruit, with the Tiangong-2 space lab scheduled for launch next year, a quantum encryption satellite already in space, and an annual rate of successful space launches this year that’s second only to Russia. China’s annual space budget is less than the NASA’s but its continued focus on prioritizing space has launched it into the top tier of space powers.


Satellite imagery shows that Taiwan is building anti-aircraft towers on Taiping Island in the South China Sea, the latest in a series of moves by countries across the region to buttress defenses amidst territorial disputes with China. Taiping Island is located in the Spratly archipelago, where China has been building up man-made islands and deploying arms to buttress its territorial claims. The buildings built by Taiwan house anti-aircraft guns and face west.


The Atlantic alliance has rejected a Russian proposal to require all planes flying over the Baltic to have their transponders switched on at all times, the Wall Street Journal reports. All NATO aircraft already fly with the transponders on….usually. Some U.S. reconnaissance flights take to the skies with the tracking devices off, and some Russian planes aren’t even equipped with transponders, NATO officials say. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are scheduled to meet in New York Wednesday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.


The Obama administration is considering directly arming Kurdish fighters in Syria, a move that would help in the fight against ISIS, but make Turkey very, very unhappy, the New York Times tells us. “Directly providing weapons for the first time to the Syrian Kurds, whom American commanders view as their most effective ground partner against the Islamic State, would help build momentum for the assault on Raqqa. But arming them would also aggravate Mr. Obama’s already tense relations with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The United States and Turkey sharply disagree over Syria’s Kurdish militias, which Turkey sees as its main enemy in Syria.”

South Asia

The border between Pakistani and Indian-controlled territory in disputed Kashmir is heating up as another attack struck an Indian military outpost. Reuters reports that the attack killed one Indian soldier. Indian military officials say they killed between eight and ten members of the raising party, which they estimate at as many as a dozen members. The attack on Tuesday follows a militant raid which killed 18 Indian troops on Sunday. India accuses Pakistan of orchestrating the attacks; Pakistan denies the charges.


Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security is warning the country’s legislators that Russian hackers from the APT28 group linked to Russian military intelligence have been targeting German political parties. Süddeutsche Zeitung reports that the cybersecurity agency warned that the hackers have focused on targets from the Social Democrats and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. The hackers targeted party officials with spear-phishing emails purporting to come from NATO and contain information about the recent coup in Turkey and the earthquake in Italy.

Air Force

It’s the Air Force Association’s annual conference this week, which means lots of hints from senior Air Force brass about the service’s big ticket acquisition programs and aspirations. On Tuesday, Air Mobility Command commander Gen. Carlton Everhart offered a sneak preview of Air Force thinking about the KC-Z tanker. Defense News writes that Everhart hinted that the next generation of tankers, due out around 2030 at the earliest, might look substantially different than their commercially derived predecessors. While the service is still at the drawing board stage with the KC-Z, Everhart says the tanker could use autonomy software and and stealthy reduced radar cross section design.


The Army is working on developing its first new grenade in over four decades, the BBC reports. The new grenade, known as the Enhanced Tactical Multi-Purpose or ET-MP, will be a little easier on lefties, allowing them to throw it in the same manner that right-handed users do. In the past, southpaws have had to use a different arming procedure before letting the device fly. The ET-MP will also allow soldiers to choose between two modes, with a switch for fragmentation and concussion effects.


Photo Credit: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

Adam Rawnsley is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering technology and national security. He co-authors FP’s Situation Report newsletter and has written for The Daily Beast, Wired, and War Is Boring.