SitRep: BREAKING: U.S., Russian, Turkish Generals Meet Over Syria; U.S. Missile Defense Rushed to South Korea; Tehran Tests Missiles
Iran Harasses U.S. Ship; ISIS Underground; EU Training Mission; SecState Rex Tillerson Continues to be MIA; And Lots More
BREAKING: The Pentagon announced Tuesday that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford will meet with his counterparts from Russia and Turkey to talk military operations in Syria. The meetings will take place in Antalya, Turkey, and include Chief of the Russian General Staff, Gen. Valeriy Gerasimov, and Chief of the Turkish General Staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar. According to a statement from the Pentagon, “the purpose of this meeting will be to enhance senior-level military communications and improve operational deconfliction of our respective military operations in Syria.”
American, Russian, and Turkish troops are face-to-face around the Syrian city of Manbij, which is under the control of the U.S.-backed Manbij Military Council (MMC), a coalition of Arabs and Kurds formed to fight the Islamic State. Last week, the Syrian regime sent a “humanitarian convoy” to the city to head off a drive by Turkish troops and their Syrian proxies to take it — a convoy the Pentagon says included Russian troops and armored vehicles. In response, the Pentagon sent U.S. special operations forces to the area in a visible show of force, while the MMC continues to block the Syria/Russian column from entering the city.
“This is a new effort, this is the first time we’ve had to do something like this, which is to ensure that we are out there as a visible symbol that the enemy is cleared out of Manbij,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters Monday. The MMC has also struck a deal with the Syrian regime to hand over control of some villages near the city in order to block the Turkish forces.
Missile defense. After months of wrangling, the United States deployed the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense system to South Korea on Monday, in response to North Korea’s latest missile launches over the weekend.
“Continued provocative actions by North Korea, to include yesterday’s launch of multiple missiles, only confirm the prudence of our alliance decision last year to deploy THAAD to South Korea,” said Adm. Harry Harris, commander, U.S. Pacific Command. The deployment of the missile defense system will not only anger Pyongyang, but also Beijing, which has for months publicly opposed the deployment of the system so close to its borders, considering it a threat.
While four North Korean missiles slashed into the Sea of Japan on Monday, the Pentagon hinted that more missiles were fired, but may have failed. “There were four that landed,” Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters. “There may be a higher number of launches that we’re not commenting on.”
Russia not into the idea. Lawmakers in Moscow also rejected the THAAD deployment on Tuesday. “Washington is creating a new regional segment of the US global missile defense system in North-Eastern Asia, close to the Russian border,” head of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, Leonid Slutsky, said. “This may put the security of our country at risk.”
Bravado. “North Korea’s state media reported on Tuesday morning that the missiles were aimed at U.S. military bases in Japan, a reminder that the North Korean threat to U.S. troops isn’t reliant just on its ability to hit the American homeland with an ICBM,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
Tehran tensions. In the latest in a string of incidents since President Donald Trump took office in January, Iran launched two ballistic missiles into the Gulf of Oman over the weekend and sent small attack boats to harass a U.S. naval vessel in the Strait of Hormuz. The missile tests scored a direct hit on a target barge in the waterway over 150 miles away, according to Fox News’ Lucas Tomlinson.
Pentagon officials confirmed the Iranian boats approached within 600 yards of the tracking ship USNS Invincible, which was accompanied by three ships from the British Royal Navy. All of the ships were forced to change course. Last month, then-NSA Mike Flynn warned the White House was “officially putting Iran on notice,” but the administration has said nothing since about Iranian actions.
Just to note. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has not commented on any of these incidents. Word is, the department will hold its first press conference of the Trump administration on Tuesday. Time will tell.
Here we are. The deployment of THAAD and the North’s missile tests come as both the South Korean and U.S. governments are mired in scandal and disarray. In Seoul, President Park Geun-hye faces indictment on bribery charges, while President Donald Trump has created a fresh crisis by claiming former President Barack Obama “tapped” Trump Tower during the election, as he continues to fight off suggestions that members of his team colluded with Russian officials during the election. Trump also fired his National Security Advisor Michael Flynn one month into his seven week-old presidency, and his replacement, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, is only just settling into the job.
The boss. McMaster took over last month after Flynn was fired for misleading Vice President Mike Pence over his contacts with the Russian Ambassador. FP’s John Hudson takes a look at the changes the general has already made to the staff, and those that he might be unable make.
“McMaster is discovering the limits to any ambitious overhaul at the NSC, leaving him relying on people in many cases recruited by the former national security advisor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and other Trump confidantes. A wholesale purge is not expected, and several key NSC officials focused on the Middle East and other vital areas will keep their positions in the near term,” a senior White House official told Hudson. McMaster appears before a closed-door hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
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Hostages. North Korea has provoked a small and hopefully temporary crisis by declaring that all Malaysian citizens within the country are prohibited from leaving the country pending the return of the North’s ambassador to Malaysia. The move follows Malaysia’s expulsion of North Korea’s ambassador in retaliation for the North’s apparent complicity in the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, dictator Kim Jong Un’s brother, in the Kuala Lumpur airport. Not to be outdone, Malaysia has responded to the North’s exit ban by instituting one of its own for North Korean citizens currently in Malaysia.
Command. The European Union is taking another small step towards building its own military organization. The Wall Street Journal reports that the EU is creating a headquarters based in Brussels that will be in charge of coordinating training missions carried out under EU auspices. Thus far, the office’s mission remains narrow in large part due to concerns from more Atlanticist corners of Europe like the U.K. and Baltic countries, who are anxious that Brussels not try to duplicate or replace NATO efforts. The 30-strong staff at the office is expected to focus predominantly on EU training missions in Africa.
Drones of the caliphate. The analysts at Jane’s take a look at the increasing use of small drones by terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria. The use of commercial drones in the conflicts has evolved over time, starting with small scale reconnaissance and the filming of attacks for propaganda to dropping small munitions on enemies. The Islamic State, in particular, has made extensive use of the latter but Jane’s analysts say the battlefield threat is limited because the commercial drones used by the group have constrained payload capability, limiting the damage done by dropping relatively small and less capable munitions.
Underground. As Iraqi forces take back ever greater swaths of territory from the Islamic State, they’re finding ever more clues about how the group operated in the cities it controlled. In Mosul, Reuters reports, they’ve uncovered a train tunnel where the terrorist group built a training course for its special operations troops. The Islamic State has long used underground tunnels carved out in cities it controlled in order to hide people and equipment from coalition airstrikes. In Mosul, the group packed the tunnel with various training obstacles where fighters would run through bearing sand-filled backpacks to hone their strength and skills.
Upgrade. Russia’s rusty, smokey aircraft carrier will get an overhaul after its trip to Syria late last year. The Diplomat reports that the Russian navy plans will spend the next two and a half years carrying out upgrades to the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier starting in July. The upgrades will include new electronic warfare, navigation, intelligence, and communication systems and cost somewhere around $340 million. The Kuznetsov’s trip to Syria earned derision from many international observers where it lost a MiG-29K/KUB and Su-33 fighter on takeoff and landing.
Kony 2017. President Obama deployed American Special Forces troops to Uganda to try and track down Joseph Kony, the notorious warlord in charge of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Kony’s penchant for using child soldiers and attacking civilians earned him a notorious reputation and a viral online slacktivist campaign, “Kony 2012.” But NBC News took a deep dive inside the U.S. hunt for Kony in Uganda alongside American Green Berets. U.S. troops have been using accounts from LRA defectors to build maps of the group’s camps and hiding places. The intelligence has allowed local forces to reduce the number of LRA camps and forced the group to splinter and move into poaching in order to raise funds.
Anti-tank drone. A new video from RFE/RL shows off the efforts of Ukraine’s homebrew drone makers. Unmanned technology became important after the Russian invasion of Ukraine but the country had few drones capable for military use and so local engineers began improvising them for use in reconnaissance against Russian-backed forces. But one new homebrew Ukrainian drone stands out. Engineers have been tinkering on the “Commander,” an oversized quadrotor that aims to be able to carry and fire anti-tank guided missiles.
Photo Credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary