SitRep: Exclusive with Centcom Chief; President Trump’s Shadow Budget, Safe Zones in Syria
Iran in Yemen; Next Steps in Iraq, Yemen Raid; and Lots More
The defense budget that wasn’t. President Trump is set to propose a $603 billion budget for the Pentagon, representing a $54 billion increase over current spending. White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney offered few clues as to where the extra money would go but did offer a brief hint that the new budget would aid in “restoring our nuclear capabilities.” The proposal would fund the Defense Department’s increase by slashing spending at the Environmental Protection Agency and from American foreign aid.
Defense hawks like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), however, remain unmoved by the proposal — saying the increase is actually closer to $18 billion rather than the number touted by the White House. FP’s John Hudson and Molly O’Toole have lots more on what this means for the State Department, and Capitol Hill.
Safe zones. Speaking in Beirut, Lebanon on Monday, Washington’s top military officer in the Middle East said the idea of creating a safe zones in Syria — which President Trump has said is his top national security priority — is “a viable concept” in “areas that have already been secured where we already have humanitarian and stabilization activities ongoing.”
But, U.S. Central Command leader Gen. Joseph Votel added it wouldn’t be easy. “You’ve got to have all of the resources” in place first, including ground troops, to hold and protect the area. Note, however, that he didn’t say U.S. ground forces, meaning it could be a job for local U.S.-trained troops. (FP’s Paul McLeary visited Syria this week to meet some of these Syrian militia members.) Plans for any kind of safe zone would likely have been included in the Pentagon’s package of options for defeating ISIS delivered to the White House this week.
Last call. On the airplane ride home from Beirut, FP had a last one-on-one sitdown with the general for his thoughts on the region.
Turkey and the Kurds. On concerns that Turkey and its allies in the Free Syrian Army will turn their attention to the U.S.-allied Kurds in Manbij, which Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan threatened to do on Tuesday, Votel said any such move could “have an impact on the coalition campaign plan,” adding, “we are fully engaged with our Turkish partners” to try and work out of solution in northern Syria which avoid U.S. and Turkish-backed forces fighting one another.
U.S. footprint in Syria, and humanitarian aid. There are dozens of U.S. Army Special Forces training Kurdish and Arab fighters in northern Syria, and a small but critical dirt airstrip and logistics hub where U.S. soldiers live behind sand-filled Hesco barriers, ferrying weapons and humanitarian supplies into the country for Syrian Arab fighters and civilians. Votel said there are already U.S. military civil affairs teams on the ground working on an assessment of what more might be needed on the humanitarian front, but stressed there needs to be a “broader international effort” to tackle the problem.
Iraq. Next door in Iraq, Votel said that he doesn’t “want to repeat what happened when we left in 2011,” which saw increasing sectarianism in Baghdad’s security forces, and the deterioration of the Iraqi army to the point where several hundred ISIS fighters routed whole divisions in Mosul, Fallujah, and Ramadi in 2014.
Once major combat in western Mosul is finished, “the Iraqis understand they will require U.S. and coalition support,” he said. “They are looking for continuing support that allows them to prevent the reemergence of this enemy, and to give them the ability to handle this on their own.”
Iran and Yemen. While former Centcom commander and current SecDef Jim Mattis said he woke up each morning thinking about “Iran, Iran, Iran,” he didn’t have to confront the ISIS fight that Votel does. But Tehran’s actions in the region are still a big concern.
When it comes to Iranian support for Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Votel said flatly that “Iran is providing assistance to the Houthis — as I look at some of the capabilities that we have seen displayed in the Red Sea, they look very similar to some of the layered threats that Iran presents in the Gulf. I don’t know if the Houthis are sophisticated enough to provide that capability on their own.”
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State budget. While the Pentagon fares better under Trump’s first budget proposal, the State Department’s bottom line takes a beating. An official tells Reuters that State could see cuts as deep as 30 percent with offices and positions shuttered as a result of the proposed cuts. That idea isn’t sitting well with State Department advocates — a group which includes 120 retired generals and admirals who wrote a letter to congress arguing against deep cuts to the department’s budget. The letter cites a famous Mattisism from Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who said “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition” back when he was commander of U.S. Central Command in the Obama administration.
Yemen raid. The controversial special operations raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL and as many as 25 civilians didn’t produce any significant intelligence, NBC News reports. White House press secretary Sean Spicer had said the raid produced “an unbelievable amount of intelligence that will prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil” but sources who spoke to the news outlet say they’ve seen little evidence that the operation produced valuable intelligence. The purpose of and motivation behind the operation are still unclear, with Pentagon officials characterizing the raid as a “site exploitation” mission intended to collect intelligence.
Syria plans. The Defense Department’s plan for defeating the Islamic State is on President Trump’s desk, according to the AP. The specifics of the document are unclear and Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis characterized it as only the beginnings of a strategy to be fleshed out later. Officials still won’t rule out the possibility that the plan could see more U.S. ground troops sent to Syria to finish off remaining Islamic State strongholds there but sources who’ve seen the document say the plan still puts local Syrian forces, supported by American troops, at the forefront of the fighting.
More American involvement in Syria could also prompt Canada to join in on the operation according to the National Post. Canadian military officials are reportedly studying the possibility of participating in joint operations with the U.S. in Syria although there’s no public indication so far that the U.S. has formally request Canadian support for operations to come in Syria. Canada has contributed troops to the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition but
Tweet of the day
If you’ve ever seen troops writing snarky messages to the enemy on munitions, it’s not just a 20th or 21st century thing.
RT @MykeCole 4th C. B.C. lead sling “bullet.” The slinger carved ΔΕΞΑΙ into it. Which roughly translates to: “Catch!” Man, warriors never change.
Photo Credit: Paul McLeary
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary