RUSSIA TALKS STALLED: The diplomatic effort might have been doomed from the start. The idea was for the U.S. to find a way to coordinate with the Russians who have been bombing some areas of Syria mercilessly, including Aleppo where a humanitarian crisis is growing worse by the day. But there’s no sign Moscow has any interest in turning its sights toward the Islamic State and away from support of Syrian President Bashar Assad. At the Pentagon, Press Secretary Peter Cook threw buckets of ice water on the idea that any agreement was close. “Contrary to recent claims, we have not finalized plans with Russia on potential coordinated efforts. Serious issues must first be resolved,” Cook said at Monday’s Pentagon briefing, accusing Moscow of “indiscriminate” bombing. “We are not there yet and the regime and Russia's recent actions only make it harder to consider any potential coordination.”
The new counter-Islamic State commander is not a fan. Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who just took over the anti-ISIS mission, made it clear in an interview yesterday that any decision to cooperate with Russia is a policy matter that’s above his paygrade. But he also made clear his deep misgivings. “As a soldier, I’m fairly skeptical of the Russians,” Townsend told The Associated Press. “I’m not sure how much I’m inclined to believe that we can cooperate with them.” It’s a sentiment widely shared in the Pentagon.
IT’S NOT A NO-FLY ZONE, YOU JUST CAN’T FLY THERE: Cook had a devil of a time yesterday explaining why the U.S.-coalition combat air patrols aimed at keeping Syrian planes from flying or bombing over northeast Syria was not a de facto no-fly zone. The action came after two Syrian jets bombed close to where U.S. special operations forces were assisting Kurdish fighters, and the U.S. scrambled fighters in response. “It remains the same warning that we've had in effect since we started our operations in Syria. We're going to defend our people on the ground and do what we need to to protect them. That's what we did last week.”
Cook's explanation raises some obvious questions: 1. How can you bar a nation from flying over its own territory, but say it’s not a no-fly zone? 2. Are the coalition warplanes protecting U.S. troops on the ground, or the Kurdish and Syrian forces backed by the U.S.? 3. If the U.S. can protect American troops and its “partner forces” with a no-fly zone, why can’t it protect Syrian civilians who have died by the thousands from Syrian and Russian bombing? Armed Services Chairman Sen. John McCain, a long-time advocate of creating a no-fly zone, may have some new pointed questions the next time Pentagon officials go to the Hill to testify.
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MEANWHILE IN IRAQ: Reports from the front lines have Iraqi forces advancing on the town of Qayyarah, where in July the air base to the west of the city was retaken from Islamic State fighters. The base is being turning into a logistics hub. It another sign that the liberation of Mosul just to the north could come this year. But as the Islamic State loses more ground, it’s turning more brutal, “killing deserters and relying on younger and younger recruits,” according to the AP.
THE OTHER WAR: The Pentagon confirms about 100 U.S. troops have been deployed to Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, to help beat back a Taliban offensive. Spokesman Cook said the troops include advisers and trainers, along with a robust force-protection package. “They've gone down there to assist the police zone headquarters and their leadership team with a focused train, advise and assist mission,” he said. “This will not be a permanent presence. They will return to their base at some point.”
PAYMENT TO IRAN: The fallout continues over that $400 million paid to Iran in January. Sen. Mark Kirk has promised to hold a hearing to determine whether taxpayer money was used for the payment, which the State Department acknowledged last week was paid to Iran on the condition that four U.S. prisoners are freed, Kelly Cohen writes. "The American people have a right to know if any U.S. taxpayer money sent to Iran is going to finance the new 'Shiite Liberation Army,' Hezbollah or Hamas terrorists targeting our allies in Israel, or any other Iranian terrorist activities," he said.
Sen. Roy Blunt, likewise, is interested in a full accounting of the $400 million, Susan Ferrechio reports. "I have serious concerns that the $400 million you provided in hard currency to a terrorist regime will also come out of U.S. taxpayers' pockets," Blunt wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.
Critics will likely get more ammunition after State then confirmed it paid the remaining $1.3 billion, for a total of $1.7 billion, to Iran over the failed arms deal from 1979, yet couldn’t say who in the government received the money, Pete Kasperowicz reports. The State Department also admitted it can't guarantee that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps wouldn't be able to get its hands on the money eventually. "We can always hand it over to someone who can hand it over to the IRGC," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters. Many in the U.S. see the IRGC as being responsible for helping to finance terrorism.
TURKEY NOW NOT SO SURE: In the aftermath of a deadly suicide bombing of a wedding party over the weekend, which killed more than 50 people, Turkey’s president said the bomber appeared to be a child between 12 and 14 years old. Now Turkey’s prime minister says he’s now so sure. The investigation continues, but Turkish authorities are still pointing an accusing finger at ISIS. Reuters has a story this morning on the increasing use of child bombers by terrorists groups.
NATO Commander Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti was in Ankara yesterday for discussions with senior Turkish leaders. In a statement following the visit, Scaparrotti said “Turkey can count on NATO and the United States. The alliance stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Turkey and is committed to partnering with them to promote security throughout the region.”
INSIDE JOB AT NSA? The online leak of data pilfered from the National Security Agency more likely came from an agency insider than from hackers linked to Russia, according to an expert on the intelligence community, Rudy Takala reports. "If Russia had stolen the hacking tools, it would be senseless to publicize the theft, let alone put them up for sale," James Bamford, a former naval intelligence officer, wrote in a column late Sunday evening. "It would be like a safecracker stealing the combination to a bank vault and putting it on Facebook."
ARCTIC TRIP: Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, left Monday for a three-day trip to Greenland with Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft, where they’ll look at the impact that melting ice and opening sea lanes are having on America’s national security. His first day in the country included a visit to the Jacobshavn Glacier, the country's largest and fastest moving glacier that lost five square miles over just two days last summer.
TOP INDUSTRY ADVOCATE RETIRES: Retired Gen. Craig McKinley, who served for two years as president of the National Defense Industrial Association, will retire at the end of this year, according to a release on Monday. The association is starting the look for his replacement, and said he will continue to serve as an adviser on defense industry and government issues.
COOK TIMER: Peter Cook kept to his pattern of starting his scheduled Pentagon briefing just under 10 minutes late. Maybe it’s just a courtesy to give stragglers time to get a good seat.
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THURSDAY | AUGUST 25
10 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, speaks at CSIS about the future of military innovation and joint capabilities. csis.org
MONDAY | AUGUST 29
10 a.m. 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW. The Brookings Institution hosts a panel discussion on the defense budget and overseas contingency operations spending. brookings.edu
1 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Government officials from the U.S. and the Netherlands will discuss how to improve information sharing between allies to better counter terrorism. csis.org
TUESDAY | AUGUST 30
11 a.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. A panel of experts discusses the defense items Congress must address in the remaining months of 2016. heritage.org