SitRep: Syria Ceasefire Dead As Airstrikes Pound Aleppo; Hillary’s Putin Warnings
Congress Blames Moscow for Hacks; And Lots More
It’s over. In the middle of a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday, an aide leaned in and told Secretary of State John Kerry about a massive new Syrian offensive in Aleppo, quite literally blowing up any hope of maintaining a ceasefire deal between Moscow and Washington. But by time the assault kicked off, it was clear that the deal was already in shambles.
“We can’t go out to the world and say we have an agreement when we don’t,” Kerry said after meeting with diplomats from over a dozen European and Middle Eastern countries on Thursday. Speaking with reporters late Thursday night, one administration official said the meeting was “pretty contentious,” and given the barrel bombs falling on Aleppo and the attack on a U.N. aid convoy Monday, “I want to stress at this point that it’s going to require something extraordinary” from the Russians to get the deal back on track.
FP’s Colum Lynch tracks the charges, counter-charges, and accusations of bad faith that Russian and American officials have been trading in New York all week.
Overnight, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Aleppo was hit with at least 30 air strikes, one targeting the city’s water pumping station while government troops assaulted the rebel front line in the divided city. Ammar al Selmo, the head of the civil defense rescue service in eastern Aleppo, told Reuters early Friday that “what’s happening now is annihilation.”
Blame. American diplomats and White House officials haven’t been shy about blaming the Russians for Monday’s deadly strike on a U.N. aid convoy, which killed 20 civilians. And now President Barack Obama’s top military advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, backs up those charges. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Russians are responsible,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. “Two Russian aircraft were in the area at that time…My judgment would be that they did [it].”
The day after in Raqqa. Dunford also told the panel that while U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels will play a big role in pushing the Islamic State out of its de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa, the Kurds won’t hold the city. There are plenty of reasons why, most importantly Turkish sensitivities over Kurds gobbling up more territory on Turkey’s southern flank, FP’s Paul McLeary reports. The role of holding Raqqa would likely be played by some of the roughly 14,000 Syrian Arabs in the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, he added. But, the general admitted, when it comes to the day after in Raqqa, “we have a plan but it is not resourced.”
Hillary and Putin and Trump. When leaving the State Department in 2013, Hillary Clinton advised President Barack Obama to take a hard stance against Russian President Vladimir Putin, a posture she hasn’t changed in the ensuing three years. “Clinton’s aggressive approach to Moscow — that Putin cannot be trusted and must be met with force — diverts sharply from Trump’s cozy take,” writes FP’s Molly O’Toole in a new look at Clinton’s history of warnings about the Russian leader.
But the Democratic candidate’s views “also commits her to a far more confrontational policy in Syria if elected, giving the clearest indication yet that there and elsewhere, she’d try to handle the Russian bear head-on.” In many ways, Russia also “remains central to the argument the Democratic nominee has embraced in the tough fight against her Republican rival: Experience trumps instinct.”
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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been on a smack-talking tear lately about Manila’s military relationship with Washington, but the two countries will be carrying out joint exercises in early October nonetheless. Twice in the past few weeks, Duterte has said that the Philippines shouldn’t carry out exercises with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea because it could provoke a confrontation with China. The exercises, scheduled to begin the first week of October, will take place at a Philippine gunnery range.
The FBI now believes that a mysterious hacking organization calling itself the Shadow Brokers managed to obtain a set of classified NSA hacking tools through a mistake made by an NSA employee, rather than an inside leaker. Reuters spoke to a handful of officials familiar with the Bureau’s investigation of the incident, which was triggered by the publication of the tools on a website. The FBI is reportedly working on the assumption, thus far unproven, that Russia is behind the Shadow Brokers hack and publication of the software.
The top Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees, however, are more pointed about who’s behind the series of recent hacks targeting Democratic party organizations and state electoral databases. Two California Democrats, Rep. Adam Schiff and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, released a joint statement stating that, “based on briefings we have received, we have concluded that the Russian intelligence agencies are making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election.” The two lawmakers say the hacks are intended to undermine the public credibility of America’s electoral system.
The U.K. may be on its way out the door of the European Union (EU), but that won’t stop it from throwing a wrench into the EU’s defense plans before it leaves. Reuters reports that France and Germany are pushing for EU countries to approve a plan for a joint security and defense headquarters in Brussels at an upcoming summit in December. But U.K. Secretary of Defense Michael Fallon says his country will block any attempts to create a “rival” to NATO for as long the country can vote in the European Council.
The Iranian president says Washington isn’t keeping up its end of the nuclear deal. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took the occasion of the U.N. General Assembly meeting on Thursday to complain about “a lack of compliance” with the deal. Specifically, Rouhani is upset over the recent Supreme Court decision that will give families of the victims of Iranian terrorism first dibs on $2 billion worth of frozen Iranian assets before the larger pile of money is handed back to Tehran.
One of Afghanistan’s most notorious insurgent leaders just signed a peace deal with the Afghan government. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the head of Hezb-i-Islami who’s known as the “butcher of Kabul” for his rocket attacks on civilians, signed a deal with Afghan officials to lay down his arms in exchange for government recognition of his party and the removal of U.S. and U.N. sanctions on him. The peace deal, however, is still just a draft and it’s unclear whether the Afghans can successfully pressure the U.S. government to lift sanctions against Hekmatyar.
The Air Force Association threw its big annual industry exhibition this week, but as National Defense magazine reports, startups were noticeably absent from the trade show. The absence comes amidst a push by Defense Secretary Ash Carter for the Pentagon to reach out to startups through the recently-created Defense Innovation Unit (Experimental) offices. Nonetheless, Air Force officials shrugged off the absence, with Air Force Materiel Command’s Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski saying that the defense expo format isn’t a format that startups are traditionally interested in and that parallel outreach efforts are already underway.
The Washington Post reports that a Marine Corps Harrier crashed in the sea off Okinawa on Thursday, marking the third crash of a Marine aircraft in two months. Fortunately, the Harrier pilot managed to eject and was brought to safety by an Air Force search and rescue crew. The incident follows the lethal crash of a Marine Corps F/A-18C in July and the crash of another Hornet in Nevada in August where the pilot again managed to safely eject. Marine Corps leaders and some lawmakers blame shortages in spare parts due to years of flat budgets for the recent spate of accidents.
Photo Credit: AMEER ALHALBI/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary