- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London., Adam RawnsleyAdam Rawnsley is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering technology and national security. He co-authors FP’s Situation Report newsletter and has written for The Daily Beast, Wired, and War Is Boring.
Trump, Flynn, Putin, and Aleppo. Throughout the presidential election, Donald Trump promised he would hit the Islamic State hard and “quickly” wipe the group off the face of the earth. Keeping with other vague promises, he declined to share with the public his plans to do so. But with a limited number of options beyond increasing bombing runs, sending more advisors, and greenlighting additional commando raids against ISIS leadership, there’s one thing he can do: send U.S. ground troops into Syria.
Trump’s national security advisor, Mike Flynn, has already floated the idea, FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary report, including splitting Syria into sectors administered by Washington, Moscow, and other allied nations. But the big fight will be for the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa. And it’s there that trained ground troops will be key in pushing ISIS out of the city.
Trump has shown himself to be wary of partners however, and has dismissed the U.S.-backed Kurdish and Syrian Arab rebels currently pushing toward the city. “That could mean outsourcing Raqqa to other forces, such as Russian aircraft, Iranian militias, and Syrian troops,” FP says, “though that would likely mean an unpalatable civilian carnage.” In the end, according to some analysts, instead of a small U.S.-armed rebel force moving on the city, it’s much more likely that Russian and Iranian-backed fighters will isolate and bomb the city into bloody submission.
Mattis and Iran. Whatever happens, it looks like retired Marine general James Mattis will be at the helm of the Pentagon, helping shape war plans. While there’s talk that Mattis has been clashing with the Trump team over who his deputies will be — and the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe and Adam Entous report that respected U.S. foreign policy leader Michele Flournoy turned down Mattis’ offer to be his deputy after she met with the Trump Tower team — he will be a powerful voice in the room.
The Post details then-head of U.S. Central Command’s hawkish views on Iran, including sending plans to the White House to hit targets inside Iran in 2011 after a deadly spate of rocket attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. FP’s De Luce and McLeary recently had a lot more on Mattis and the Iran problem here.
Full week. We’re sure Mattis will be asked about those plans on Thursday when he appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing. The hearing is part of a searingly busy week for Trump appointees that will also feature retired Gen. John Kelly, nominated for homeland security secretary, sitting down with the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Tuesday.
Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee takes on ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who was given the nod for secretary of state, and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence questions Rep. Mike Pompeo, for CIA director.
That list doesn’t take into account Tuesday’s mega conference at the United States Institute for Peace which features Michael Flynn his incoming deputy KT McFarland, in what will be their first major public remarks since the election. Others, like outgoing Obama national security advisor Susan Rice, Michele Flournoy, and several Trump transition officials, will also speak.
Pushing paper. Democrats and plenty of others have hammered the Trump nominees for not going through the traditional ethics screening and tax release process, saying that the lack of transparency clouds the normally open process of assessing people for their fitness to serve. Mattis isn’t among that number however, as he has already filed the requisite forms and is cutting ties with his current employers. Politico reports that Mattis’ financial disclosure shows he has somewhere between $3.5 million and $10 million in assets, which includes between $600,000 and $1.25 million in stock and options in General Dynamics, where he’s currently on the board of directors.
Trump nods in Moscow’s direction. Trump’s chief of staff incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus said Sunday that Trump recognizes Russia was behind the theft of the Democratic Party emails, although he wouldn’t bite on whether the President-elect agreed the hacks were directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He accepts the fact that this particular case was entities in Russia, so that’s not the issue,” Priebus said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Carter looking for pushback. Appearing on “Meet the Press” Sunday for the last time as Defense Secretary, Ash Carter said Washington shouldn’t limit itself in how it responds the Russian hacks. “I don’t think it should be a military, or purely military response,” he said. Asked if he agreed with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that the hacks were an act of war, he replied, “well, whatever you call it, it’s an aggressive act against our very democracy and I think that’s why all Americans need to regard it very seriously.”
Moscow on the Euphrates. Russia and Turkey are growing closer, and Russian airstrikes in support of Turkey’s Euphrates Shield mission in northern Syria is the most tangible sign of the two countries’ recent rapprochement. The New York Times reports that the airstrikes appear to be part of a quid pro quo between Ankara and Moscow with Russia helping Turkey blunt Syrian Kurds’ expansion of territory in northern Syria in exchange for Turkish acquiescence to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule over the country. Turkey and Russia also recently struck a deal for a ceasefire between Assad regime aligned forces and rebels, although the truce appears to be fraying as many before it have.
Not helping matters in this regard is a great new piece by the Washington Post’s Liz Sly, who visited a Kurdish-run training camp in northern Syria for Syrian Arab rebels. The U.S.-backed Kurds do some initial training before the U.S. takes over for more intensive instruction. Problem is, the Kurds are tipping their hand about their ties to a Kurdish organization considered by the U.S. and Turkey to be a terrorist organization.
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
President-elect Trump and hawks in the Republican party are on a collision course over Russia, according to the Wall Street Journal. The paper reports that Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) are teeing up new sanctions legislation targeting Russia’s financial and energy sectors. The move flies in the face of President-elect Trump’s expressed desire to improve relations with Russia and sets up an early standoff between the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans if it passes.
Asia Pivot 2: The Re-pivoting
President-elect Trump may try to accomplish what his predecessor could not: a pivot to Asia. Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin writes that Trump’s national security transition team is looking to make Asia a big focus on the incoming administration’s priorities, taking a more aggressive line towards China. Rogin reports that Carnegie scholar Ashley Tellis is likely to be picked as ambassador to India and Randall Schriver and Victor Cha, both former George W. Bush administration Asia hands, in the running for the top Asia policy jobs at the Departments of State and Defense.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter says the U.S. can and will shoot down a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile aimed at the United States. Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press, Carter said the U.S. would use its missile defenses to intercept a North Korean missile “if it were coming towards our territory or the territory of our friends and allies.” North Korea has put its ballistic missile programs into high gear over the past year and it’s expected that Pyongyang will test its road-mobile Musudan missile sometime soon.
Reuters snagged a look at a confidential report at a forthcoming United Nations report in which the organization calls out Iran for violating an arms embargo on it. In the report, outgoing Secretary General Ban Ki Moon cites a speech by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in which the Lebanese terror group head praises Iran for supplying it with weapons. In the report, Ban writes that he is “very concerned by this statement,” which amounts to a tacit admission that Iran has violated U.N. Security Council resolution 1747, which banned arms exports from the Islamic Republic.
Saudi Arabia says a Pakistani general will take charge of a Saudi-organized anti-terrorism alliance of Islamic countries. Reuters reports that Gen. Raheel Sharif, who recently stepped down as Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff, will command the alliance of 34 countries. What exactly the alliance will do, where, or how remains unknown as Saudi Arabia has been mum on the subject since first announcing it in December of 2015.
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