The Cable

SitRep: Russian Jet Shot Down Over Syria; Israeli Targeted Killings

A new case of MANPAD usage in Syria; Ronen Bergman provides a new history of Israeli targeted killings.

A picture taken on February 3, 2018, shows smoke billowing from the site of a downed Sukhoi-25 fighter jet in Syria's northwest province of Idlib. AFP PHOTO / OMAR HAJ KADOUR
A picture taken on February 3, 2018, shows smoke billowing from the site of a downed Sukhoi-25 fighter jet in Syria's northwest province of Idlib. AFP PHOTO / OMAR HAJ KADOUR

Shootdown. Al Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria claimed that it shot down a Syrian fighter jet using a portable shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile over the weekend, raising questions about the origin of the weapon and the wider proliferation of the dangerous class of weapons.

American officials are denying they have provided shoulder-launched missiles to Syrian rebels groups, a move U.S. officials have considered in the past but ultimately concluded too risky. Researchers have in recent years documented the presence in Syria of a variety of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles manufactured by Russia and China but have found no evidence of significant numbers of American models. 

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which publicly broke with al Qaeda last year, said its forces had shot down the plane, according to the Washington Post.  

Syrian and rebel forces are battling in Idlib over control for the highway that connects Damascus with Aleppo. “That is the least revenge we can offer to our people, and those occupiers should know that our sky is not a picnic,” a rebel commander was quoted as saying by Ebaa News, an outlet associated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

The pilot of the Su-25 managed to eject from his aircraft and appears to have made it to the ground alive before engaging in small arms fire with nearby militants. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the pilot died in the ensuing shootout. Videos and photographs posted on social media show the plane being shot down over the opposition-controlled town of Saraqib in Idlib province, debris from the plane, and images of the pilot’s body.

Essential read. In a new FP excerpt, the Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman chronicles how Israeli intelligence adopted an aggressive policy of targeted killings in response to a wave of suicide bombings. “Starting at the end of 2001, Israel would target the ‘ticking infrastructure’ behind the attacks. The person who blew himself up or planted the bomb or pulled the trigger was, after all, usually just the last link in a long chain. There were recruiters, couriers, and weapons procurers, as well as people who maintained safe houses and smuggled money. They would all be targets.”

The piece includes the kind of candid assessment you don’t see every day from a former head of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service: “I call it the banality of evil,” Ami Ayalon later told me, channeling Hannah Arendt. “You get used to killing. Human life becomes something plain, easy to dispose of. You spend a quarter of an hour, 20 minutes, on who to kill. On how to kill him: two, three days. You’re dealing with tactics, not the implications.”

Side note: No one has better sources inside the Israeli intelligence community than Bergman.

Welcome to this Monday morning edition of SitRep. Congratulations to all the Philadelphia Eagles fans! Glad you made it safely off the canopy of the Ritz-Carlton and could join us. As always, please send your questions, comments, and tips to elias.groll@foreignpolicy.com.

Speaking of Israel. The New York Times reveals that Israel has carried out a covert campaign of airstrikes inside Egyptian territory over the past two years, all with the approval of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The airstrikes — more than 100 in total — marks the latest remarkable shift in relations between Israel and the Arab world, as Egypt and Israel made common cause against jihadist militants in the Sinai.

Ah, yes, the memo. It’s been a remarkable few days in Washington as congressional Republicans declared open season on the FBI on Friday, releasing a memo attacking the bureau for alleged abuses in targeting Trump aide Carter Page for surveillance. President Trump touted the memo over the weekend as evidence of a political conspiracy within the FBI, but the document appears to have a thin factual basis.

According to the Washington Post, Justice Department officials informed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that some of the information justifying Page’s surveillance had come from a “political entity,” undermining congressional Republicans’ claims that the FBI deceived the court and improperly relied on a so-called “dossier” of material on Trump’s Russia ties authored by the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele and indirectly funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign.

And with every day, we learn more about Page and his strange relationship with Russian officials. In a 2013 letter obtained by Time, Page touts his ties to the Kremlin. “Over the past half year, I have had the privilege to serve as an informal advisor to the staff of the Kremlin in preparation for their Presidency of the G-20 Summit next month, where energy issues will be a prominent point on the agenda,” Page wrote.  

With Democrats pushing for a vote Monday to release their rebuttal memo, House Intelligence Committee Republicans broke with Trump over the weekend to argue that the memo does nothing to undermine the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Brennan goes further. Former CIA Director John Brennan argued over the weekend that Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) abused his chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee by orchestrating the memo’s release.

#releasethememo was a likely Russian op. An analysis by social media researchers finds that the viral Twitter hashtag #releasethememo, which volubly pushed for the document to be published, was heavily promoted by pro-Russian bots.  

Nuclear posture review. A new American nuclear weapons strategy document endorses the development of two new types of submarine-launched low-yield nuclear weapons, a ballistic missile and a cruise missile. In releasing the Nuclear Posture Review, Pentagon officials argued that the new weapons are necessary to counter Russian military doctrine that envisions the use of small tactical nuclear weapons at the early stages of a conflict. Non-proliferation activists argue that the embrace of tactical nuclear weapons will only lead to a greater risk of nuclear war, but Pentagon officials contend that the new weapons are necessary to deter the use of nuclear weapons by Moscow.

Selva walks back. Air Force General Paul Selva dismissed the notion that the United States would respond to a cyber attack with a nuclear weapon. “The idea that we would resort to a nuclear attack based on cyber is actually not supported by the document,” Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week, referring to the Nuclear Posture Review. A leaked version of the document raised the possibility of using nuclear weapons in response to a cyber attack on the United States.

North Korea. The White House is frustrated at the lack of military options for striking North Korea, the New York Times reports. Pentagon officials are reluctant to give the president too many options for fear that he will embrace a so-called “bloody nose” strike that could lead to a broader conflagration. The news comes as the White House has killed the nomination of Victor Cha to serve as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, the widely respected Korea hand has been warning the Trump administration about the danger of a strike on North Korea, a view that did not sit well with his new bosses.

Writing for FP, Geoffrey Cain profiles Cha, the hawk who wasn’t hawkish enough for Trump.

North Korea in Berlin… The head of Germany’s intelligence agency has said that North Korea used its embassy in Berlin to procure equipment for its nuclear program.

…and North Korea in Myanmar and Syria. A new UN report alleges that North Korea has sold ballistic missiles to Myanmar and may be helping Syria with a chemical weapons program. The report also states that Pyongyang has been flouting sanctions, selling up to $200 million in coal, steel, and other products in 2017.

It could have been worse, Pats fans. Reporter Jana Winter got her hands on a fascinating intelligence document describing the threat to the Super Bowl from drones. The pesky aircraft “ “continue to provide a significant challenge to special event security in the U.S.,” a DHS official said, adding that the department has no good way of taking them down. After all, shoot down a drone over a packed stadium, and there aren’t too many good places to land.

Tillerson on the move. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson kicked off a swing through Latin America by praising the Monroe Doctrine, a perhaps less than diplomatic move as he set off to repair rocky relations with Latin American states. “I think it’s as relevant today as it was the day it was written,” the former oilman said during remarks in Austin. The six-day trip includes stops in Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Jamaica and comes as Tillerson warns of rising Chinese influence in the region, FP’s Robbie Gramer and Keith Johnson report.  

And about Chinese influence. State-owned Chinese firms have been on a buying spree as of late, snapping up cargo terminals from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean, FP’s Keith Johnson reports. “The port deals are one of the clearest manifestations of Beijing’s ambitious plans to physically link China to Europe by sea, road, rail, and pipeline. The ports underpin the maritime half of the Belt and Road Initiative, snaking from the South China Sea across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal and into the soft underbelly of Europe.”

The world’s first railgun at sea. If you’re one of the many Ghost Fleet obsessives at the Pentagon, you may remember that an electromagnetic railgun mounted on a ship played a key role near the end of the book. Recent photos indicate that the PLA Navy has mounted what appears to be a railgun aboard one of its vessels, and may be conducting tests as it prepares to send the ship out to sea.

‘Minority Report’ comes to life. China has developed a comprehensive, high-tech totalitarian state in its far western region of Xinjiang. As Beijing seeks to export its technologies and governance model abroad, its new comprehensive surveillance may become a hot commodity among the strongmen of the developing world. The renowned China scholar James Millward puts it this way: “As China’s profile grows on the international stage, everyone would do well to ask if what happens in Xinjiang will stay in Xinjiang.”

AI on subs. China plans to improve the computer systems aboard its nuclear submarines by incorporating artificial intelligence, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.

India on the move. Eyeing China, India is seeking military cooperation with the Philippines and ASEAN countries. China’s increasingly assertive military advances in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean are spooking its neighbors. This is the latest in a series of potential trans-Asia military cooperation deals, purposefully excluding China, that may be in the works.

Air Force General leaves the NSC. An Air Force general has been removed from the National Security Council over a controversial memo he wrote, and it has nothing to do with Marxist memes.The Washington Post reports that Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding, who wrote a memo proposing the government take over the U.S. 5G network, has left his White House position. Axios published a leaked version of the 5G report, sparking considerable controversy. Spalding was the NSC’s senior director for strategic planning.

Step forward for the Zumwalt. The second of the Zumwalt-class destroyers, the USS Michael Monsoor, passed its sea test last week.

Al-Udeid grows. Qatar’s defense minister, Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah, says his country plans to expand the American base hosted there with the addition of family housing and entertainment options, the Associated Press reports.

Another failed missile test. The American military conducted a failed test of its Aegis ashore missile defense system last week, CNN reports. A Raytheon SM-3 missile failed to intercept another missile fired from an aircraft near Hawaii.

Ukrainian killer robots. Ukrainian soldiers fighting Russian-backed separatists are fielding some innovative new weapons. Atlantic Council researchers report that Ukrainian forces have fielded “a remote-controlled turret on six wheels and with an attached camera” and have used the weapon in combat against  Russian-led separatist fighters.

Disinformation inoculation. Amid all the talk of disinformation and technological methods to improve the information ecosystem, Nina Jankowicz reports on a more basic, perhaps more useful approach: educating your citizens.  

This won’t make folks happy. Defense Secretary James Mattis is considering banning all personal cell phones in the Pentagon, CNN reports. Personal cell phones have already been banned in the White House’s West Wing. But a decision to ban all cell phones in the world’s largest office building would likely cause bigger waves — and gripes.

Fight another day. Thousands of Islamic State fighters are fleeing Iraq and Syria as the group retools and prepares to return to its guerrilla roots, the New York Times reports. The new assessments come as the United States and its allies have mostly rolled back the Islamic State emirate in Iraq and Syria.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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