SitRep: Trump’s World: Russia, China, Syria, and Tillerson; Iran’s New Nuclear Plans
Chemical Weapons in Syria; Lasers!; New ISIS Weapons; And Lots More
Russia hack. Beginning in September 2015, the FBI tried multiple times to warn the Democratic National Committee about intrusions by known Russian hackers into their networks, but staffers there didn’t know what to make of the calls, or even discern if they were pranks.
But the FBI’s failure to escalate the matter beyond a couple of calls also meant that “Russian hackers could roam freely through the committee’s network for nearly seven months before top D.N.C. officials were alerted to the attack and hired cyber experts to protect their systems,” the New York Times’ Eric Lipton, David E. Sanger, and Scott Shane report.
The failure meant that the first, best chance to stop the hacking was lost, and the DNC’s “fumbling encounter with the F.B.I. meant the best chance to halt the Russian intrusion was lost…And the White House’s reluctance to respond forcefully meant the Russians have not paid a heavy price for their actions, a decision that could prove critical in deterring future cyberattacks.”
President-elect Donald Trump, of course, has refused to accept the consensus view among U.S. intelligence agencies that Russian government-linked hackers were behind the theft of emails and documents.
Bipartisan oversight? One thing the hack might — might — produce is some genuine bipartisan oversight on Capitol Hill. Members of the Republican and Democratic parties have reacted with outrage to the Russian intrusions and meddling in the U.S. presidential election, and are promising to hold hearings to investigate what happened, why, and how to stop it.
But there are issues to work through first. Many senior Republicans want to funnel any potential investigation through the House and Senate intelligence committees, over which they exercise greater control than some other subcommittees. But some Democrats are pushing the formation of an independent body of outsiders modeled on the Sept. 11 commission. Buckle up for this one.
China. Beijing is still reeling from Trump having questioned over three decades of American ‘one China’ policy over the weekend. Speaking on Wednesday, An Fengshan, a spokesman for China’s important Taiwan Affairs Office said that peace in the region hinges on the policy remaining in place. “If this basis is interfered with or damaged then the healthy, stable development of China-U.S. relations is out of the question, and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait will be seriously impacted,” An said.
Taiwan. Speaking in Washington Tuesday, the Pentagon’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Abraham Denmark said the Obama administration’s “one China” policy remains unchanged, but he can’t predict what Trump will do. Either way, Taiwan needs to be ready to meet Chinese aggression, he added. “This makes it incumbent on Taiwan to prepare and invest in capabilities to deter aggression and mount an effective defense if deterrence fails,” he said. “Defense resourcing is critical. Taiwan’s defense budget has not kept pace with the threat developments and should be increased.”
U.S. ships ready. The head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, said Wednesday that if Beijing continues to act in an “aggressive” manner in the South China Sea, Washington is ready to respond. “We will not allow a shared domain to be closed down unilaterally no matter how many bases are built on artificial features in the South China Sea,” he said. “We will cooperate when we can but we will be ready to confront when we must.”
Aleppo. After a brief ceasefire Tuesday brokered by Russia and Turkey to allow civilians to flee Aleppo fell apart on Wednesday, some 50,000 people remain trapped in rebel-held zones in the eastern part of the city. Both the Syrian government and the rebels accuse the other of opening fire first, but civilians in rebel neighborhoods are reporting heavy shelling and renewed airstrikes.
Locals are claiming that Iranian-backed Shiite militias — who led the fighting in the city — are refusing to allow civilian to leave, and The Guardian tells us that Yasser al-Youssef, a spokesman for one of the anti-government groups, “said Russia was attempting to convince the Assad government to accept the ceasefire. The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said discussions were ongoing with Russia and Iran to continue the planned evacuations.”
Tens of thousands of civilians have been streaming into the government-held western half of Aleppo, or making a break for the countryside. Government forces control virtually the entire city after years of grinding war that has left the historic city a shattered ruin, with thousands dead.
The Tillerson fight. By tapping ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state Tuesday, President-elect Donald Trump “is facing his first major test with Senate Republicans who are wary of his warming relations with Russia — and have warned his cabinet pick is far from assured,” FP’s John Hudson writes in a new story. “Trump is betting Tillerson’s corporate management experience and support from former GOP statesmen will ease the concerns of a handful of Republican hawks over the oilman’s extensive business dealings with Moscow.”
Longread of the day: Dig into Tim Weiner’s new story in Esquire, “What Was James Comey Thinking?” Don’t let the title fool you, it’s a balanced piece worthy of your attention as the Russian hack story continues to churn.
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: email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
Iran says it’s going to buy nuclear-powered ships in what looks like a retaliatory move against the recent sanctions placed on Tehran by Congress. The Wall Street Journal reports that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said he wants nuclear powered ships and a study outlining how Iran can produce the nuclear fuel to power them. Whether Iran could, much less would, use nuclear fuel for those ships permitted under the terms of the nuclear deal signed in July of last year is hard to say. Experts say it’s theoretically possible to power a ship with uranium enriched to less than the 3.67 percent level allowed by the deal but an impractical way of going about it. Rouhani specifically tied the nuclear-powered ship proposal to what he called “foot-dragging in fulfilling its commitments under the multilateral nuclear deal” and the extension of sanctions on companies doing business with Iran.
We’re learning more about reports of chemical weapons use in Palmyra. The Guardian reports that locals in the city recently retaken by the Islamic State say 93 people died from an apparent chemical weapons attack following airstrikes on five villages held by the group. The head of a regional council Ahmad al Hamawi described symptoms among the dead — convulsions, foaming at the mouth — consistent with sarin gas usage. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has attributed chlorine gas attacks to both the Islamic State and the Assad regime in the past. In 2013, Western intelligence services as well as Human Rights Watch concluded that the Assad regime carried out an attack on a rebel-held neighborhood in Damascus with a nerve agent.
Reports about Assad regime forces carrying out war crimes against civilians trapped in east Aleppo have raised alarm bells as observes rush to monitor the situation. Now, according to the BBC, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that Assad regime forces have killed at least 82 people, including women and children. Separately, the humanitarian White Helmets group said that 70 people remain trapped under the rubble of the bombed out city, unable to get out.
The Islamic State
The weapons-monitoring group Conflict Armament Research (CAR) tagged along with Iraqi forces entering Mosul in November and got an up close look inside the Islamic State’s weapons industry. Emphasis on the industry. According to a new report from CAR, the terrorist group created a “complex, centrally controlled industrial production system” for churning out weapons. The “improvised” weapons made by the Islamic State include mortar rounds and rockets all machined to uniform standards complete with quality control processes to ensure the weapons. The end result, according to CAR, is an Islamic State weapons industry whose products would “easily conform to national military specifications.”
The Pentagon says an early December airstrike in Syria killed three members of the Islamic State, two of whom played a role in orchestrating the group’s deadly November 2015 attacks in Paris. Reuters reports that plotters Salah Gourmat and Sammy Djedou alongside Walid Hamman, whom Belgium convicted of trying to carry out another attack the same year. A drone strike hit their call, killing all three.
The Islamic State’s last territorial stronghold in Libya has fallen but conflict between the country’s warring factions continue. War Is Boring reports on the recent attempt by the Islamist Benghazi Defense Brigade to seize oil terminals in the country’s oil crescent from the country’s internationally-recognized government based in Tripoli’s Libyan National Army (LNA). The LNA responded with Mi-35 helicopter gunships and MiG-21 fighters scrambled to intercept convoys from the Benghazi Defense Brigade, forcing a retreat by the group and its allies after a half hour of airstrikes.
The Department of Pew
A new study by the Air Force says that strapping lasers to AC-130Js is likely within the realm of doable. Flight Global reports that a new study by the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board says that existing laser technology is promising and could work with the existing power sources on board with Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) AC-130Js. The finding could tee up a near term demonstration of the concept. AFSOC officials have been arguing for the past year that lasers would add a valuable capability to their gunships.
Photo Credit: KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary