The Cable

SitRep: U.S. Calls Out Russian “Barbarism” in Syria; China Holding In Scarborough Shoals

Erdogan Spills on Mosul; Beijing’s Show of Force; And Lots More

A Syrian man carries the body of his nephew following a reported airstrike on September 23, 2016, on the al-Muasalat area in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.
Missiles rained down on rebel-held areas of Syria's Aleppo, causing widespread destruction that overwhelmed rescue teams, as the army prepared a ground offensive to retake the city. / AFP / THAER MOHAMMED        (Photo credit should read THAER MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian man carries the body of his nephew following a reported airstrike on September 23, 2016, on the al-Muasalat area in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Missiles rained down on rebel-held areas of Syria's Aleppo, causing widespread destruction that overwhelmed rescue teams, as the army prepared a ground offensive to retake the city. / AFP / THAER MOHAMMED (Photo credit should read THAER MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images)


Russian war crimes in Syria? “What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter terrorism, it is barbarism,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, charged at a volatile U.N. Security Council session Sunday, as other members slammed Moscow and Damascus for potentially carrying out war crimes.

Hundreds have been killed in Aleppo since the Syrian regime called off the ceasefire last Monday. Matthew Rycroft, British ambassador to the UN, added that despite the recent ceasefire, “the regime and Russia have instead plunged to new depths and unleashed a new hell on Aleppo.”

More bombs, more guns for rebels. Russian and Syrian jets have opened the floodgates on airstrikes and a ground offensive in rebel-held portions of Aleppo after what is widely believed to be Russian planes bombed a U.N. aid convoy last week, killing 20 and destroying about 20 trucks full of food and medicine. The strike ripped to shreds the U.S./Russian peace deal. Syrian rebels, however, are expecting a new batch of heavy weapons to begin flowing from their benefactors in the Gulf states.

Strikes driving rebels to al Qaeda. The failure to halt the fighting is not only a disaster for Syrian civilians, it could also accelerate the merger of mainstream rebel groups in Aleppo with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), an al Qaeda-affiliated group formerly known as the Nusra Front, FP’s John Hudson reports. “We’re seeing everything being done to force together all the groups inside Aleppo today,” Bassma Kodmani, a senior member of the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, told Foreign Policy. “That’s a deadly direction for everyone.”

“Would you go to war over Scarborough Shoals?” For the moment, at least, the answer coming from Beijing is “no.” For years, Chinese ships have been hovering around the outcropping of rocks just off the coast of the Philippines, but the Chinese have backed off a bit recently, now that the possibility of relations with the new government in Manilla may be taking a turn for the better. “It would be irrational to build it into a fortress now,” Zhang Baohui, a professor of international relations at Lingnan University in Hong Kong told the New York Times. “The government would like the Philippines to at least remain neutral in the rivalry between the United States and China. Now at least they have a chance.”

Mosul, on the calendar. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday was pretty blunt about when the much-anticipated fight for Mosul will kick off, saying “the battle for Mosul against Daesh will kick off on October 19 and that we all have to be prepared for this event,” according to a report from Rudaw, a Kurdish news source. He didn’t provide the time of day or the angles of approach, but the date, we suspect, is now guaranteed not to be the 19th.

Several U.S. officials have said the assault is likely to begin in the next few weeks, the latest of which was, Brig. Gen. William F. Mullen III, recently returned from a tour in Iraq as deputy commander of operations for the U.S.-led effort. He said last week that, “I think it’ll probably happen in October. I don’t think it’s going to take very long.” For what it’s worth, Erdogan also said that if the U.S. can keep the Kurds out of the fight for the ISIS capital of Raqqa, Turkey is more than willing to take part in the fighting.

Pirates grounded? No cargo ship has been successfully hijacked off the coast of Somalia since the spring of 2012. This year, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reported only three incidents. But, FP’s Dan De Luce notes, “the bad news is that while the counterpiracy recipe seems to have worked, shipping companies are already warning about complacency. Many fear that the United States and other navies operating in the area could declare victory and go home, potentially allowing pirates to return.”

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

North Korea

American and South Korean ships, aircraft, and submarines on Monday launched a major operation off the south’s coast “designed to send a strong message of unified resolve against continuing acts of North Korean aggression,” according to a statement from the U.S. Pacific Command. “This operation showcases the unwavering strength and resolve of the U.S. and ROK navies,” said Rear Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Korea. “We are by their side today at sea, and we will remain by their side to defend against North Korea’s unprovoked acts of aggression.”

Paris, Farnborough, Zhuhai, uh, Wonsan? North Korea held its first air show this weekend, the Wonsan International Friendship Air Festival. In keeping with the North’s international isolation, the big aviation powers were a no-show. While North Korean Air Force MiG-29s and SU-25s were on display, the closest attendees got to a foreign warplane were scale models of an American F-16 and Chinese J-10. On the southern side of the 38th parallel, the U.S. Air Force held a small air expo of its own, showing off the B-1B bomber to visitors at Osan Air Base for some deterrence PR.

Washington isn’t willing to negotiate over its planned deployment of a THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea, as part of international efforts to forge a new set of U.N. sanctions on North Korea after its latest nuclear test. It’s critical to get China’s signoff on any new plan, but Beijing objects strongly to the deployment, saying the system’s radar will be able to peek into Chinese territory. Daniel Russel, the senior U.S. diplomat for East Asia, rejected the idea that the THAAD deployment could be part of the talks, saying Friday, “no. The two countries have made a decision,” to send to South Korea.


Another day, another move in the increasingly-less subtle claim of territorial brinksmanship in the South China Sea. The latest incident, according to the BBC, involved Japan scrambling fighter jets after Chinese military aircraft flew by Okinawa and Miyakojima. China says its aircraft, which included a bomber and fighter jet, were out and about on exercises. The incident didn’t involve any violation of Japanese airspace, but highlights the uncomfortable proximity and increasingly tense atmosphere in the region.


American troops in Iraq are using controversial white phosphorus munitions in the war against the Islamic State. The Washington Post spotted the M825A1 155mm rounds in photographs of an Army artillery unit based in Iraq. The controversy over the munitions hinges on how they’re used. Firing the munitions to provide smoke or illumination is generally acceptable, but militaries can run afoul of international law when using them against human targets or in populated areas. It’s unclear at the moment how American troops are using the rounds in Iraq.


Israel is close to finishing a 40-mile long underground wall meant to block the building of underground tunnels by Hamas in Gaza. The AP reports that the wall burrows several yards deep in an attempt to build what Israeli Defense Force officials say will be a “death trap” for Hamas forces. Hamas has used tunnels to carry out attacks on Israelis and smuggle weapons and good into Gaza.

Zombie propaganda

al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s former top propagandist is helping to inspire terrorists from beyond the grave. Investigators looking into the alleged bombings in New York and New Jersey carried out by Ahmad Khan Rahami say they’ve discovered Rahami was a big fan of the jihadist American cleric, killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011. And he’s not alone. A study carried out by New York University researchers found that 25 percent of American court cases involving the Islamic State touch on Awlaki in some way.


Defense Secretary Ash Carter is set to give a speech on nuclear weapons at Minot Air Force Base on Monday. Despite his background as a physicist and nuclear weapons policy specialist, Carter has been hesitant to talk nukes as defense secretary, waiting until the waning weeks of the Obama administration to broach the subject in a speech. Carter has, however, been keener to talk about the other countries’ nuclear weapons, mostly about the threat they pose.

Saudi Arabia

Support for the U.S.-Saudi relationship in Washington used to be a bipartisan given, but while there’s no sign of America ditching Riyadh anytime soon, doubters in Congress are starting to speak up. Twenty-seven senators voted against a $1.15 billion arms deal with the Kingdom last week, ultimately losing but displaying “more willingness to challenge the nature of the relationship,” as Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). Congress also looks set to override a veto from President Barack Obama over his rejection of legislation that would allow 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government — the first and so far only veto override of the Obama presidency.

Photo Credit: THAER MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images

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