The D Brief: Gaza mediators’ frustration; Ukraine’s latest plea; War-in-space race; China tapping ocean cables?; And a bit more.

The D Brief: Gaza mediators’ frustration; Ukraine’s latest plea; War-in-space race; China tapping ocean cables?; And a bit more.

Meet the frustrated negotiators seeking an end to war in Gaza: Five months after mediating a weeklong ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, Qatar’s top diplomat confessed his frustration that his team has not been able to repeat that success, Defense One Executive Editor Bradley Peniston reports from Doha.

“This case is precisely one of the most difficult and complicated cases that we faced, historically,” Qatar Minister of State Mohammed bin Abdulaziz Al-Khulaifi said Monday at the 2024 Global Security Forum. (Defense One is a media partner of the forum, which is organized by the Soufan Center.) 

Two reasons: “The first one is the extreme lack of trust between the two sides. That makes the job of the mediators even more difficult: to try to find a breakthrough or bridge the two sides and fill the gaps to reach an agreement. The second difficulty, or challenge, that we’re facing is simply the military operations on the ground.”

Context: For nearly three decades, this tiny, energy-rich monarchy has built up its practice of international mediation in a bid for security among its larger neighbors and for respect on the world stage. Al-Khulaifi’s talk on Monday impressed Peter Pham, a former U.S. ambassador, who called it “the closest I have heard of a systemic exposition of their approach and the reasons motivating it.” Read on for more, including Al-Khulaifi’s explanation for how Qatar keeps its politics and mediation efforts distinct, here.

View from the Pentagon: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday offered one of his strongest criticisms yet of the Israeli Defense Forces campaign in Gaza and its new focus on Rafah, telling reporters at the Pentagon, “There’s a better way to do this.”

Austin pointed to a lack of a plan for civilian care as Israeli forces make their way into the packed area on Gaza’s southern border. But he stopped short of saying the United States would stop providing aid to Israel, and dodged questions on recent UN arrest warrants against two of Israel’s top leaders for war crimes, Defense One’s Patrick Tucker reports. 

Austin: “I think you can conduct military operations effectively and also account for civilians in the battlespace,” the Pentagon chief told reporters Monday. “The United States has learned a lot in terms of this type of operation over the past several years and, again, there’s better ways to do this…where you can account for both. You can protect the people and also accomplish your objectives.” Read more, here. 

Related reading: 

  • “Nuts & Bolts of Int’l Criminal Court Arrest Warrant Applications for Senior Israeli Officials and Hamas Leaders,” from Tom Dannenbaum of Just Security, writing in an explainer on Monday; 
  • “Timeline of Int’l Criminal Court Arrest Warrant Applications for Gaza War: What Comes Next and How We Got Here,” which is a joint effort from State Department, Pentagon, and ICC veterans writing Monday for Just Security;
  • See also, “To foster regional security, forge a long-term counterterrorism partnership with Iraq,” argues Chris Costa, former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council in the Trump administration, writing Tuesday in Defense One.

Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Share your newsletter tips, reading recommendations, or feedback here. And if you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1994, local leaders in southern Yemen tried to break away from the Republic of Yemen, which helped ignite a civil war.

U.S. officials are afraid Chinese undersea cable repair ships are not always operating above board, as it were, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday. It’s especially concerning because, as four reporters for the Journal write, “Silicon Valley giants, such as Google and Meta Platforms, partially own many [undersea] cables and are investing in more.” 

Washington’s concern is centering on a Shanghai-based, state-controlled cable repair company known as S.B. Submarine Systems, whose ships have been known to turn off their transponders while working around Taiwan, Indonesia, and elsewhere in the Pacific region, raising suspicions about what’s truly going on below the surface.

Caveat: “The gaps in the company’s ship-location data could be explained by spotty satellite coverage rather than as an effort to hide their positions,” a source familiar with SSBS said. 

Why U.S. officials might worry: Precedent and projection. After all, “In the 1970s, the U.S. secretly placed wiretaps on underwater Soviet lines in an intelligence coup known as Operation Ivy Bells.” Read on (gift link), here. 

Space-race latest: The U.S. military wants “to acquire a new generation of ground- and space-based tools that will allow it to defend its satellite network from attack and, if necessary, to disrupt or disable enemy spacecraft in orbit,” the New York Times reported Friday. 

Motivating the Pentagon’s classified effort: Russia’s renewed pursuit of a space-based nuclear weapon, along with China’s growing space programs and satellite launches. 

China has reportedly tripled its number of surveillance and reconnaissance satellites since 2018. In April, Space Force Gen. Stephen Whiting described that growing effort as a “kill web over the Pacific Ocean to find, fix, track and, yes, target United States and allied military capabilities.” 

Another way of looking at Beijing’s boosted space ambitions: China has launched more than 400 satellites over the past two years, more than half of which are designed to track things on Earth, Space Force intel chief Maj. Gen. Greg Gagnon said earlier this month. 

By this time last year, China had just over 600 satellites in orbit. Russia had about 180. The U.S., by contrast, had almost 5,200 in orbit, which is about 500 more than it had at the start of 2023, according to the U.S. Air Force (PDF).

For a stark picture of how global satellite launches have really taken off (ahem) in just the past couple of years, consider this chart and data set from renowned astronomer and restless statistician Jonathan McDowell. Much of the U.S.-based efforts have come from SpaceX launches of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet network. 

Additional reading: 

New: Ukraine’s president wants partners in Europe to help shoot down Russian missiles and he wants permission to attack Russian troops clustered near the border with Ukraine, Reuters reported in one of several interviews Volodymir Zelenskyy has given in the past two days. 

Zelenskyy also said the delivery of vital weapons seems to be “late by around one year.” Still, he said, “it is what it is: one big step forward, but before that two steps back. So we need to change the paradigm a little bit,” he told Reuters. 

Other notable input from the Ukrainian leader: 

  • “Russians are using 300 planes on the territory of Ukraine. We need at least 120, 130 planes to resist in the sky.”
  • “I don’t believe that Republicans are against support for Ukraine, but some messages that are coming from their side raise concerns.”

He brought the same message to the New York Times on Tuesday. “Give us the weapons to use against Russian forces on the borders,” he said. And on the question of additional allies helping shoot down Russian missiles, Zelenskyy asked, “Is it an attack on Russia? No. Are you shooting down Russian planes and killing Russian pilots? No. So what’s the issue with involving NATO countries in the war? There is no such issue.” Read the rest, here. 

Developing: Russia just sentenced another hypersonics researcher to more than a dozen years in prison. Like two others before him, he’s accused of “divulging information considered a state secret while participating in an international conference or research,” Reuters reports following the end of a trial that’s been closed to the press. And for that reason, it’s difficult to know exactly what’s going on or how the 77-year-old physicist Anatoly Maslov found himself on the wrong side of Russian law. 

Said one Russian lawyer: Russian authorities may be “seek[ing] to show that intelligence services around the world are trying to steal the secrets of Russian weapons.”

Additional reading: 

America’s first Black astronaut candidate has finally traveled to space. Ninety-year-old Ed Dwight was an Air Force pilot when President John F. Kennedy nominated him to be an astronaut candidate in 1963. But it’d be another 15 years before NASA selected a Black astronaut, as the Associated Press recounted Monday. 

Dwight flew above the planet with five other passengers in a capsule from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin company on Sunday. Dwight and the others “skimmed space on a roughly 10-minute flight” after takeoff from west Texas, AP writes. The trip now makes Dwight the oldest person to have ever traveled to space—just ahead of Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner. Dwight spoke to “Good Morning America” about his experience on Monday; you can find that, here. 

And lastly: We tip our hats to journalist and historian Mark Urban, who says he’s finally quitting conflict zones after more than three decades of reporting for the BBC. He recounted several career highlights in a social media thread Sunday, along with requisite pre-digital photography on location in conflicts as diverse as the 1991 Gulf War, Bosnia in 1992, Afghanistan the same year, Bosnia again, Iraq for George W. Bush’s invasion, Afghanistan during the “surge years,” Libya for the NATO campaign to dislodge Gaddafi, and just last year for Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion.  

Urban’s travels remind us of one of our favorite books of all time, “Facing the World: Great Moments in Photojournalism,” featuring the work of Agence France-Presse photographers from conflicts all around the world leading up to Sept. 11, 2001. To this day, the book remains both a touching time capsule and a vital snapshot of the planet before America’s war on terrorism consumed so much of the country and the world’s attention. 

Maybe you have similar books on your shelf. We’d love to hear about them, so feel free to write us an email to share your story. And all the best to Mr. Urban on the next chapter after his well-traveled tenure with the BBC.

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