SitRep: Response to North Korean Missile Launch; Flynn in Trouble; Chaos Inside the National Security Council
Chinese Aircraft Carrier News; Rockets Rain on Baghdad; Russian Sanctions; and Lots More
Testing, testing… Both Iran and North Korea have conducted controversial ballistic missile tests in the three weeks since Donald Trump moved into the White House, but the presidential campaign rhetoric about sinking Iranian boats and stopping Pyongyang’s missile programs has been in short supply.
The Trump administration continues to weigh its options in the wake of North Korea’s ballistic missile launch on Saturday, as the White House confronts, early on, a problem that has vexed Washington for decades. The U.N. Security Council is expected to hold an emergency meeting Monday about the issue.
Wedge issue. When word of the launch reached the U.S., president Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were eating iceburg wedges in a dining room full of paying customers at the president’s private Mar-a-Lago retreat. And the launch didn’t interrupt their dinner. According to a report from CNN, the guests, who paid the president $200,000 for the proximity, were able to watch as White House aides poured over government documents and made hurried phone calls while they briefed the two leaders who continued to dine by candlelight in the center of the room. Later, the president would drop in at a wedding being held at the estate, telling guests how much money the wedding party had paid him.
Call and response. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn continues to feel the heat after new revelations that he may have mislead Vice President Mike Pence over his December phone calls with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
The episode — in which Flynn reportedly chatted with the ambassador about the possibility of lifting sanctions on Moscow before President Donald Trump took office — reinforces growing concerns among lawmakers in Congress and European allies about Trump’s apparently unshakable affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin. And it’s likely moving the deckchairs within the White House, writes FP’s Dan De Luce: “With Flynn already mired in a power struggle with the president’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, and other officials, the embarrassing incident threatens to further undercut his influence and bolster Bannon’s role.”
What’s the word? According to reporting over the weekend, the situation inside the NSC is tense. Administration officials told a variety of news outlets that Flynn appears increasingly isolated. “The knives are out for Flynn,” one administration official told the Washington Post.
“Flynn is running out of friends, no question,” a different administration official said. “The broad consensus in the White House is that he lied. The vice president feels like he lied. In a position that needs to be no drama, it’s nonstop drama. I would be very surprised if he lasts much longer.”
Another story that appeared in Politico reports that while Trump is unlikely to dump Flynn in the short term, he has told people he’s unhappy with the situation. “He thinks he’s a problem,” said one person familiar with the president’s thinking. “I would be worried if I was General Flynn.”
The scene. National security council staffers, according to a New York Times report, are alternatively confused by Trump’s erratic public statements on foreign policy issues, and paranoid about internal probes to suss out leakers, and have taken to using encrypted communications to talk to one another.
I conversations with staffers, the Times reports that since the council staff draws heavily from the military, particularly former officers who worked for Flynn, “many of the first ideas that have been floated have involved military, rather than diplomatic, initiatives.” In response to the Iranian missile launch last month, and its continued efforts to supply Houthi rebels in Yemen, Defense secretary Jim Mattis reportedly was looking at options to wanted to board Iranian ships, but shelved the plan.
The Blackwater of jihad. A group calling itself Malhama Tactical, led by a 24 year-old Uzbek jihadist, can developed a new business model: contracting out its services to militant groups in Syria and elsewhere, looking to sharpen their tactical prowess.
In a remarkable story, FP contributors Rao Komar, Christian Borys, and Eric Woods write that while the group only consists of 10 well-trained fighters from Uzbekistan and other Muslim-majority republics of the Russian Caucasus, “Malhama promotes its battles across online platforms, and the relentless marketing has paid off: The outfit’s fighting prowess and training programs are renowned among jihadis in Syria and their admirers elsewhere.”
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The Pentagon wants to increase the number of freedom of navigation operations it conducts near man-made Chinese islands in the disputed territory of the South China Sea. Anonymous military officials told Navy Times that the carrier strike group attached to the USS Carl Vinson would carry out the operations if approved by the Trump administration. The operations began under the Obama administration and involve sailing within 12 nautical mile of the islands in order to content Beijing’s claims of exclusive territorial sovereignty surrounding them.
The Trump administration responded to North Korea’s test of a ballistic missile during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit with an assertion of American commitment to Japan’s security. Speaking on the Sunday show circuit, White House senior advisor Stephen Miller said the U.S. will “reinforce and strengthen our vital alliances in the Pacific” in response to the test. President Trump had expressed skepticism about American security guarantees for South Korea and Japan during the 2016 campaign, claiming that the defense of the two countries represented a net drain on the national coffers.
China’s homemade aircraft carrier is coming along but won’t quite be up to part with its American counterparts just yet. The South China Morning Post reports that China’s second aircraft carrier, still under construction, is opting for a steam catapult to launch jets off its deck in the face of difficult developing a more advanced electromagnetic catapult system. The steam system still represents a step up from China’s first carrier, the Liaoning, bought from Ukraine, which uses a curved ramp ski jump to launch aircraft. India has also struggled to implement an electromagnetic launch system on its indigenously-built carrier, the INS Vikrant, leading to an offer from the Defense Department to share American technology.
Will the Trump administration pull back sanctions put in place against Russia? To judge by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s statement saying Washington will keep them in place until Moscow forks over its control of Crimea, it doesn’t sound like it. But Defense One asked Kevin Harrington, the Trump National Security Council’s deputy assistant to the president for strategic planning, to explain. Harrington said that “These things are always changing” and hinted that the Trump administration was wary of sanctions driving Russia closer to China. He suggested that one path towards sanctions relief may lie in Russia offering counterterrorism cooperation with the United States. Nonetheless, Harrington ruled out lifting sanctions on Russia’s defense sector anytime soon, saying “It’s obvious if weapons are being used to kill people in the Donbas region of Ukraine that you not sell them weapons.”
A new report from the Atlantic Council uses open source evidence from satellite imagery and social media to analyze the impact on civilians of Russia’s bombing campaign in Aleppo. The report, “Breaking Aleppo,” pushes back on Russian claims that its bombing did not damage hospitals, using security camera footage and satellite imagery to show damage done by Russian bombs to the M2 and M10 hospitals in the city. The investigators also documented Russia’s use of incendiary and cluster munitions, which Russia has previously denied.
Iraq experienced an uncomfortable flashback to the mid-2000s over the weekend, with rockets raining down on the Green Zone in Baghdad, home to international embassies and Iraqi government facilities. Reuters reports that the katyusha rocket fire caused no casualties, but it came amidst increased fighting among Iraqi Shiite groups protesting over Iraq’s electoral commission. Gunfire at the protests killed four people with a fifth dying from unknown causes. It’s unclear who was behind the rocket fire but Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an organizer of the protests, denied his militia had a role in the attacks.
Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary