The Cable

SitRep: The Wait for Raqqa; North Korean Missile Plans; Moscow Hacks; Drones for South Korea

Empty Chairs at DoD; Tillerson Heads to Asia; Oil Wars in Libya; Drone Busters, And Lots More

AAManbij

With Adam Rawnsley and Dan De Luce

White House waiting? The situation in northern Syria is becoming increasingly unpredictable with American, Russian, Turkish and Syrian troops — along with local Kurdish and Arab militias of varying allegiances — swirling between the cities of al Bab and Manbij.

At issue is not only who controls the areas near the Turkish border, but also which local force leads the fight to wrest Raqqa from the Islamic State. For the moment, at least, the White House looks likely to hold off on any decision approving military assistance for Syrian Kurds until after Turkey’s constitutional referendum on April 16, congressional aides and military officers told FP. Waiting until then could help avoid inflaming Ankara, as President Recep Erdogan cannot afford to be seen at home as tolerating an assertive role for the Kurdish YPG during the political campaign.

One side. The Pentagon has made clear its view that there is no realistic alternative to arming the Syrian Kurds in the battle for Raqqa, and military officers remain skeptical of Turkey’s proposal to take the city with the help of a Syrian Arab force that it has built up.

The Obama White House didn’t act on the Kurdish question, but in its last weeks the administration was in favor of sending arms to the Kurds and decided to ask the incoming Trump team if they wanted to take the decision themselves. Trump’s then national security advisor, Michael Flynn, told the Obama staff to hold off, as the incoming president wanted to make the decision.

We have since learned, however, that Flynn was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by a company linked to the Turkish government during the election season, raising questions over whether his business dealings had an influence on his decision making with it comes to Washington’s Turkish policy. One thing the administration appears to be stepping back from, according to U.S. News’ Paul Shinkman, is partnering with Russia in Syria.

Full plate. At the moment, however, the White House is preoccupied with other problems, such as the growth of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, the growing threat posed by North Korea after its recent missile tests and political turmoil in South Korea that could result in the election of a left of center president more inclined to a conciliatory approach to Pyongyang.

But the decision in Syria looms large, as the Pentagon is busily sending more troops to the Middle East and likely Afghanistan, while building up air bases in the region for what they expect to be a long-term fight against ISIS and al Qaeda.

Working dinner President Donald Trump will have dinner Monday evening with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, just prior to Tillerson’s travel to Japan, China, and South Korea on a critical trip amid heightened tensions with North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and a Chinese military buildup.

The trip comes just after Washington began deploying a new missile defense system to South Korea, and announced plans to send Gray Eagle surveillance drones to South Korea, and a warning from arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis in FP that “North Korea is developing an offensive doctrine for the large-scale use of nuclear weapons in the early stages of a conflict.” FP’s Robbie Gramer also passes on this stark infographic on the range of those North Korean missiles.

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Moscow hacks

Russian cyber criminals aren’t necessarily breaking into computers in search of classified information, but that hasn’t stopped Russian intelligence from looking over the data they steal in case any turns up. Anonymous sources tell the New York Times reports that Russian authorities have searched through files accessed by malware created by cybercrime boss Evgeniy M. Bogachev looking for any files marked with text of interest like “top secret.” Bogachev built a botnet that infected millions of computers, leading the FBI to offer a $3 million reward for information leading to his arrest and prompting the White House to add him to a sanctions list. Ukrainian intelligence has told the FBI that Bogachev works for a special unit of Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB).

The Kremlin would appreciate it very much if their counterparts in the White House would hurry up and get on with a reset in relations. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a better understanding of when this dialogue can begin,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a recent interview with CNN. Peskov also cited what  he called a climate of “hysteria” in Washington about Russia, saying that it “is doing lots of harm to the future of our bilateral relations.”

The U.K. is determined not to suffer the same fate as the United States and is moving to warn political parties about the potential of Russian hackers disrupting British politics. The Daily Telegraph reports that General Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s equivalent of the National Security Agency, has written a letter to British political parties that cites allegations of Russian hacking against political organizations in the U.S. and Germany. In response the British government plans to host seminars to train British politicians and their staff on how to thwart hackers.

Empty chairs at empty tables

Nearly two full months into the Trump administration, Secretary of Defense James Mattis is the sole political appointee the White House has managed to install at the Pentagon. Military Times reports that the Trump administration has so far offered up four names for Senate confirmable positions, with the nominees for top civilian Army and Navy jobs, Vincent Viola and Philip B. Bilden, respectively, dropping out of the confirmation process. The Trump administration has put forward two other nominees, Heather Wilson for Air Force Secretary and John J. Sullivan for Pentagon general counsel, but the administration has been slow to move them through the confirmation process.

Oil wars

The battle for control of Libya is playing out around the country’s oil infrastructure, according to the AP. Armed forces from Libya’s internationally-recognized government in Tripoli as well as the Russian-and-Egyptian-backed eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar are massing around a refinery in Ra’s Lanuf and depot in Sidr, as both sides jockey for ownership of the country’s oil wealth. Haftar’s forces seized the facilities in 2016 only to see them retaken by forces loyal to Libya’s government in Tripoli.

Eye spy

Aside from the DroneDefender UAV-jamming rifle, U.S. officials have been tight-lipped on the composition of systems they’re using to knock out the Islamic State’s drone arsenal in Iraq. In January, Blighter Surveillance Systems revealed that the U.S. was using one of its Anti-UAV Defence Systems (AUDS) in an unspecified location. But sharp-eyed security analyst Alex Mello managed to spot a Blighter AUDS deployed on a Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles truck in Mosul, confirming its presence in Iraq. The terrorist group has used scores of small, commercial drones to drop small munitions on Iraqi forces.

 

Photo Credit: Paul McLeary

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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