The Cable

FP Security Brief: Syrian and Israeli Forces Clash; Israeli F-16 Downed

Israeli and Iranian forces directly clash for the first time since 1982.

A picture taken in the northern Israeli Kibbutz of Harduf on February 10, 2018, shows the remains of an Israel F-16 that crashed after coming under fire by Syrian air defenses. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
A picture taken in the northern Israeli Kibbutz of Harduf on February 10, 2018, shows the remains of an Israel F-16 that crashed after coming under fire by Syrian air defenses. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

By Elias Groll, with Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Sharon Weinberger

Escalation. Israeli forces attacked Iranian and Syrian air defenses and command and control forces inside Syria over the weekend after an Iranian drone strayed into Israeli airspace and was shot down.

The fighting left one Israeli F-16 jet shot down and Syrian air defenses in tatters in what analysts are calling a dangerous new phase to the civil war marked by the first direct fighting between Israel and Iran since 1982.

The sequence of events began when Israeli forces spotted an Iranian drone — a Saeqeh, or Thunderbolt, model copied from a captured American stealth drone, the RQ-170 — entering Israeli airspace during the early hours of Saturday. At 4:25 a.m., an Israeli Apache helicopter shot down the drone, according to a timeline provided by Israeli authorities to reporters.

An hour later, eight Israeli jets launched on a mission to attack the command and control facilities that had supported the Iranian drone’s mission. While returning from that attack on facilities near Palmyra, air defenses belonging to forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad downed one Israeli F-16. The pilot and navigator were wounded but survived after bailing out.

Israeli forces then launched a second wave of fighter jets, targeting Syrian air defense systems. According to Haaretz, those strikes destroyed half of Assad’s air defenses.

American officials issued immediate statements in support of Israel’s right to defend itself. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on a swing through the region, but amid the latest tensions, his itinerary doesn’t include a stop in Israel.

The fighting between Israeli and Syrian forces comes on the heels of massive American air strikes against pro-Syrian forces last week that left perhaps more than 100 pro-regime fighters dead after they reportedly attacked forces allied with the United States in its campaign against the Islamic State.

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The week ahead. With the Trump White House set to reveal its full budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 on Monday, this week will be a busy one on Capitol Hill, where Pentagon officials will appear before a number of different committees to discuss the proposal. Defense News has the full rundown on what’s in store this week.

Budget woes. While the Pentagon’s budget is going up to a record setting $700 billion in the two-year budget deal signed Friday, diplomats are bracing for cuts. The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development face deep funding reductions under a budget deal worked out last week that ended a government shutdown, and lawmakers are struggling to find additional funds to plug the gap, FP’s Dan De Luce and Robbie Gramer report. The funding shortfall of about $8.8 billion would impose the biggest reduction in resources for the diplomatic corps and development programs since the 1990s.

Put the gloves back on. A draft Pentagon report examining the recent ambush of U.S. forces in Niger recommends that American forces reduce the number of ground missions and decrease commanders’ authority to order missions without the approval of their superiors, the New York Times reports. The draft investigation represents the latest fall out from the deadly ambush in Niger that left four Americans and five Nigeriens dead and raised questions about the U.S. military’s presence in West Africa.

U.S-Turkey tensions. Western diplomats are planning on using a high-level NATO meeting this week to defuse tensions between the United States and Turkey, according to the Wall Street Journal. With U.S. forces in Syria supporting Kurdish and Arab allies in the fight against the United States, tensions between Washington and Ankara have reached an all time low amid a Turkish military incursion into Syria. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster huddled with a senior aide to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the weekend, pledging to “jointly fight all forms of terrorism,” according to a Turkish readout of the meeting.

JSTARS is dead. The Air Force plans to kill a program to recapitalize the JSTARS battlefield management and surveillance aircraft, Defense News reports. Instead of buying 17 new JSTARS recap planes, the service “will push forward with a system-of-systems approach that will link together existing platforms to track ground targets and do command and control,” according to Defense News.

B-1 and B-2 phase out? As the Air Force’s next-generation B-21 bomber begins operation, the Air Force plans to phase out the stealthy, nuclear capable B-2 bomber and its conventional, non-stealthy cousin the B-2, Aviation Week reports.

U.S. talks with North Korea. Vice President Mike Pence opened the door to talks with North Korea, the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reports. Traveling back from the opening of the Winter Olympics, Pence said that while the United States plans to maintain pressure on North Korea, Washington and Seoul agreed on a way forward for talks. That policy of engagement will begin with talks between the North and South, with dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang perhaps to follow.

Mattis weighs in. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said it’s too early to tell whether the diplomatic overtures around the Olympic Games will lead to a lasting breakthrough. Mattis is on a weeklong swing through Europe, and told reporters traveling with him that it remains unclear whether talks will have “any traction once the Olympics are over,” according to the Associated Press.  

Olympics cyberattack. With the opening of the Winter Olympics come reports that the games may have come under immediate cyberattack. Internet service in the stadium hosting the ceremony went down, and when officials took servers offline to deal with the problem some spectators were unable to print out tickets.

Spy wars. A man described by the New York Times as a “shadowy Russian” bilked American spy agencies out of $100,000 as part of an attempt by Washington to buy back hacking tools stolen from the National Security Agency. That deal was said to also include damaging information about President Donald Trump — material that the CIA rejected buying — but ultimately fell apart amid a trail of broken promises by the Russian intermediary.

Bridge of spies. Estonian and Russian officials met on a bridge Saturday to engage in an old fashioned prisoner swap, trading two men imprisoned by the respective countries on espionage charges. In a fascinating story, BuzzFeed recounts how Russian authorities recruited Artem Zinchenko to spy on behalf of Russia by invoking his family’s history of military service on behalf of the Soviet Union — a favorite tactic of Moscow spy masters.

The Bomber retirement: The Air Force in the coming weeks will announce its plans to retire its B-1 and B-2 bombers, Aviation Week reports. The Air Force has been working on a new bomber, the B-21 “Raider,” which won’t be operational until the 2020s. Details surrounding the B-21 are highly classified, but the Air Force’s plans to announce a timeline for the retirement of the other two bombers would seem to indicate officials are confident in its progress.

Changes for the Navy. The U.S. Navy may be in for a major reorganization, according to Defense News. The changes “could strip U.S. Pacific Fleet of some or all of its manning, training and equipping functions and consolidate that power under U.S. Fleet Forces Command on the East Coast,” the outlet reports.

New PACOM commander. Adm. Phil Davidson, the head of Fleet Forces Command, is set to become the next head of American forces in the Pacific, Defense News reports. PACOM’s former commander, Adm. Harry Harris, has been tapped by the Trump White House to serve as the next U.S. ambassador to Australia.

Wild card. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who now has a clean legal bill of health after federal prosecutors dropped bribery charges against him following a mistrial, has taken back the reins as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. An outspoken hawk on Iran, his return to the influential post on the committee represents a wild card for the politics of the Iran deal. He will have to balance his preference for a tough line on Iran with a reluctance to align too closely with the Trump White House, FP’s Dan De Luce and Robbie Gramer report.

Now I see you. Railway police in one Chinese city are now wearing eyeglasses equipped with facial recognition software linked to a database to help them identity wanted criminals on sight. That’s cool — but also alarming. Facial recognition software isn’t perfect. What happens if it misidentifies an innocent traveler as an armed murderer, and police react with force?

But everyone is doing it! Russian authorities arrested engineers at a secretive nuclear weapons lab amid allegations that they used their facility’s supercomputer to mine for bitcoin. “There was an attempt to unauthorized use of office computing capacities for personal purposes, including for so-called mining,” a spokesperson for the facility told Interfax.

Security breach at Apple. A core component of Apple’s operating system was posted on GitHub last week, information that security experts believe could be used to undermine the security of the company’s ubiquitous phones, Motherboard reports.

Crime pays. American prosecutors indicted three-dozen members of the cybercrime forum Infraud, arresting 13 hackers allegedly involved in a forum that they claim had netted half a billion dollars for its masterminds, Brian Krebs reports.

Expanding the Afghan air war. U.S. bombers struck a little-known Chinese terror group in Afghanistan earlier this month, and it’s an example of how the American military presence in that country is changing under President Donald Trump, the Washington Post reports. The bombing run in Wurduj district targeted members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

Modi in Oman. The Indian prime minister just signed a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation with the Gulf state of Oman, which occupies a strategic position on the Persian Gulf. It’s just the latest in India’s recent spate of military outreach across the greater Indo-Pacific.

The incredible shrinking German navy. Germany may soon be forced to cease sending ships on NATO and UN missions, because it simply doesn’t have enough ships. That’s what Hans-Peter Bartels, the parliamentary commissioner for the military, said in an interview on Sunday. German vessels have played key roles in anti-smuggling and migrant rescue missions in the Mediterranean.

US military to hold exercise with Myanmar. The US-led Cobra Gold military exercises in Thailand beginning on Feb. 13 will include Myanmar, despite protests from U.S. lawmakers. The Myanmar military has been complicit in acts of genocide committed against the country’s Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority over the past year. “Simply put, militaries engaged in ethnic cleansing should not be honing their skills alongside U.S. troops,” said US Senator John McCain.

Reporting out the future. Gizmodo’s Kashmir Hill connected every possible device in her home to the internet, as an experiment in what the internet of things reveals about its users. The result is a somewhat terrifying study of how internet-connected devices reveal a pattern of life of its user.

More bunker busters. The Pentagon last week ordered an additional $20 million worth of GBU-57 massive ordnance penetrators from Boeing. The GBU-57, also known as a “bunker buster,” is designed to strike underground targets, like for example, a hidden nuclear site in rogue countries, like North Korea.  

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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