SitRep: Bannonism: Chaos, or Part of a Plan?; Russia Bristles at NATO Deployments; Moscow’s New Syria Buildup
The Battle for Raqqa; New Iranian Missile Test; Rebel Leaders in Ukraine Ending Up Dead
Bannonism. The first several weeks of the Trump administration have been intense, controversial, chaotic, and often confused. But that might very well be by design. The president’s chief advisor, Steve Bannon, has long espoused a Leninist philosophy that aims to bring the institutions of the state crashing down in order to birth a new political and cultural reality.
“What by conventional measures looks like a string of setbacks and misfires,” FP’s Dan De Luce writes in a new piece, “could to an ideologue like Bannon be proof that the administration is on the right track to achieving its goal — destroying what he calls the Washington “establishment.” What’s less clear is what might take its place.”
Moscow not having it. The Kremlin is bristling as thousands of NATO troops and dozens of tanks settle into position in the alliance’s Baltic member states, a move the alliance says is necessary given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and other provocative moves over the past two years that threaten its neighbors. And Russian officials are using more provocative language to express their concern.
“This deployment is of course a threat for us,” Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov said Thursday. For the first time since World War Two we see German soldiers along our borders.”
In a similar move, another Russian official complained Thursday that a U.S.-funded anti-missile shield in Romania represents a direct threat to Moscow. The U.S. military has long argued that the system is needed to protect from Iran, and doesn’t threaten Russia, but the Kremlin isn’t buying it. “Romania’s stance and the stance of its leadership, who have turned the country into an outpost, is a clear threat for us,” Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, a senior Russian foreign ministry official, said.
Despite the rhetoric from Moscow, and President Trump’s complaints about the NATO alliance and threats to pull Washington out of the pact, U.S. and NATO officials appear confident that the deployments to Eastern Europe and the Baltics are here to stay.
Russia sends big shipment to Syria. While all this is happening in Europe, Russia has gone ahead and shipped its largest cache of missiles to Syria to date, FOX News reports. The shipment of 50 SS-21 short-range ballistic missiles arrived at the Syrian port of Tartus along the Mediterranean Sea this week, a U.S. defense official said. “For someone winding down a war, that’s a big missile shipment,” another official added.
Waiting for my man. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s likely pick for his next ambassador the the United States, Anatoly Antonov, is a well-known figure among U.S. diplomatic and foreign policy hands. Several of those officials and Russian watchers “characterized him as a tough, well-prepared negotiator who can also act as an unrepentant propagandist when the need arises,” FP’s Paul McLeary and Reid Standish write in a mini-profile of the long time diplomat.
But many of Antonov’s comments about terrorism sound much like the rhetoric coming out of the White House under the Trump administration. And it might be a fruitful time for a new ambassador to come to town. An advisor to U.S. national security officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity told FP that Trump’s top advisers, notably White House strategist Steve Bannon and national security advisor Michael Flynn, see Russia as a potential partner. It’s “not that they’re Russia lovers. They have a view that in the scheme of things, Russia is not the real problem. We need to rethink how we work with Russia, and in the end Russia can actually be — at times — a partner to deal with real problems like China and radical Islam,” the official said.
Six months to Raqqa? The head of the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on Thursday predicted that “within the next six months” both Raqqa and Mosul could fall completely. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told reporters traveling with him that the terrorist group is on its heels, and that U.S.-backed Kurdish and Syrian Arab forces are close to encircling Raqqa, after which a push into the city will begin. In Iraq, the eastern half of Mosul has fallen to government forces, who are beginning their push on the more densely populated western half of the city.
Elsewhere in Syria, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels — supported by American air power — are pressing on the ISIS stronghold of al Bab form the north, while Syrian government forces, backed by Russian aircraft, are pressing from the south, leading to some jittery times for all of the countries involved.
Not so fast. The Trump administration has hinted that it might sanction the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political group, as a terrorist organization. But Politico reports that the CIA is pushing back against the idea, arguing that the group is actually ideologically at odds with the Islamic State and al Qaeda, has largely given up on violence as a political tool, and that designating the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization could lead its broad base of supporters to abandon the political process and take up arms. An anonymous State Department source tells Politico that the move to sanction the Brotherhood met resistance at the department and is likely no longer “on the front burner” in the Trump administration.
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President Trump’s first outreach to Chinese President Xi Jinping has come in the form of a letter rather than a phone call, Reuters reports. In contrast to the hard line Trump has taken against Xi and China in speeches and tweets, the letter expressed a desire to form a “constructive relationship” with China under the new administration. A phone call between Trump and Xi might not be in the cards anytime soon — one anonymous foreign diplomat tells the wire service, as Trump’s penchant for going off script and berating even close allies like Australia means Xi is unlikely to risk an embarrassing conversation with him.
A recent change in Russian law has opened up the door to Russian private security companies operating abroad. Zeit Online reports that Russia’s Law No. 53 classifies any veteran of basic military service in the country who fights terrorism abroad to have legal status as a member of the Russian military. Recruiters have taken advantage of the new law, using social media to sign up would-be private security guards.
Someone is appears to be killing rebel commanders in Donetsk. The Wall Street Journal reports that Ukrainian rebel warlord Mikhail Tolstykh was killed in an explosion attack at his office, with rebel sources claiming a rocket attack as the cause of death. Other high profile rebel commanders, such as Arseny “Motorola” Pavlov, have died in mysterious explosions, raising questions about who is behind the attacks. Rebels blame the Ukrainian government for the killings, while the Ukrainian government claims that Russia is getting rid of hard-to-control commanders in its proxy war against Kiev.
Iran has launched another missile, but it wasn’t the one observers were initially expecting. Fox News reports that Iran test fired a short range Mersad missile from a launch pad in Semnan. Earlier this week, Fox reported that Iran satellite imagery showed that Iran had placed a Safir rocket, capable of launching a satellite into orbit, onto the launch pad. The switch comes after the Trump administration pronounced Iran to be “on notice” in the wake of an earlier ballistic missile test and applied a new round of sanctions. The U.S. has argued that Iran’s ballistic missile tests violate U.N. Resolution 2231, but Iran, Russia, China regard the resolution banning ballistic missiles as more of a suggestion. The Mersad missile tested on Wednesday is not a ballistic missile.
The AP reports that Israel came under rocket fire from militants in Egypt on Wednesday. The rockets targeted the southern Israeli city of Eilat, triggering Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket system. Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has increasingly been home to Islamist militants, including an affiliate of the Islamic State.
The U.N. has taken a look at the Afghan air force airstrikes throughout 2016 and claims to have found a troubling uptick in civilian casualties. The U.N. counted 252 civilians killed in Afghan air strikes throughout the year, which represents nearly twice the number of civilians killed in 2015. The uptick in civilian deaths comes as the U.S. military has tried to quickly stand up an independent Afghan air capability in order to allow the country’s military to assume greater responsibility for its own security.
Photo Credit PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary