SitRep: U.S. Sells More Weapons to Gulf Kingdoms; General Warns of More Civ. Casualties; Trump Out-Drones Obama
Yemen Active on Capitol Hill; Day After Mosul; U.S. Balks at U.N. Peacekeeping; Saudi’s Nascent defense Industry; China’s Spy at State
With Adam Rawnsley
The blueprint. The Trump administration looks ready to shed previous concerns over human rights violations and will go ahead with a $2.8 billion sale of 19 F-16 fighters to Bahrain, several reports indicate. The sale would be a major policy change from the Obama administration, which previously held up the deal.
The White House informed Congress of the decision on Wednesday, kicking off a period of debate on the Hill, where the Republican majority is expected to greenlight the deal. The move is another indication that the Trump administration is placing a priority on supporting Sunni-led states in the Gulf region as a bulwark against Iran, which the administration is looking to confront in the region.
Long a critical ally in the region, Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and a British naval base currently under construction. The predominantly Shiite state is ruled by a Sunni monarchy which crushed a 2011 uprising by Shiites seeking more political power. President Obama yanked approval for the F-16 deal because it said the country hadn’t taken promised steps to improve human rights.
A new agenda. The New York Times’ David E. Sanger and Michael Schmitt note that “the decision to drop the human rights assurances as a condition of the sale is bound to be read by Saudi Arabia and other states in the region as a sign that the new administration plans to ease its demands to protect and respect political dissidents and protesters.” Earlier this month, the State Department approved the sale of $300 million worth of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia the Obama administration had held up due to concerns over the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen.
Military backing. Hours before reports over the deal emerged, head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, told the House Armed Services Committee that “the slow progress” on selling military equipment to the kingdom, “specifically additional F-16 aircraft and upgrades to Bahrain’s existing F-16 fleet, due to concerns of potential human rights abuses in the country, continues to strain our relationship.”
Overall, the moves can be seen as part of the White House’s recalibration of alliances in the Middle East, where more support is offered to friendly states — and fewer questions asked about internal politics — FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary wrote recently.
Bomb, repeat. In an update to a blog post from earlier this month, the Council on Foreign Relation’s Micah Zenko (also an FP contributor) notes that President Trump is looking far more interventionist than President Obama was, even though Trump promised the opposite during the campaign. During President Obama’s two terms in office, he approved 542 targeted drone strikes over the course of 2,920 days, equalling one every 5.4 days. From his inauguration through today, President Trump had approved at least 37 drone strikes or Special Operations Forces raids in 68 days, or one every 1.8 days.
Embassy Warning. Yemen’s government is apparently anxious about its image in Washington. The Yemeni embassy has written to Senate offices seeking to discredit a scheduled event today on Capitol Hill featuring two Yemeni civil society activists, FP’s Dan De Luce reports. The unusual step comes at a pivotal moment for Sanaa as it seeks more U.S. assistance for the Saudi-led military campaign in the country. Stay tuned for more on this story later today. While you’re waiting, read more from De Luce and Paul McLeary on the coming escalation of U.S. involvement in that war.
More strikes, more civilian casualties. The close-quarter fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants using human shields and booby-trapped houses to slow their advance in Mosul is making it harder to avoid endangering more civilians, a top U.S. military commander said Wednesday. “I believe that as we move into these urban environments, it is going to become more and more difficult to apply an extraordinarily high standard” for preventing civilian casualties, “but we will try,” Gen. Joseph Votel, told members of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee.
Human rights groups are increasingly alarmed by reports of civilian casualties in the Mosul fight, FP’s Paul McLeary writes, even as the U.S. launches multiple investigations into claims their aircraft killed dozens, if not hundreds, of civilians in recent weeks across Iraq and Syria.
So, what happens the day after Mosul falls? The Trump administration has given some hints that “it plans to largely abdicate a U.S. role in Iraq’s political future,” U.S. News’ Paul D. Shinkman reports. Most indications are that ISIS will be driven out of Mosul within weeks, an event that “starts the clock on a dangerous new era for a country on the verge of fracturing along rival warring factions.”
Mission critical. Facing about $1 billion in cuts to U.S. funding for peacekeeping operations, diplomats from the United Nations are underlining the organization’s work on counterterrorism, hoping to convince the White House they’re a key player on an issue at the top of Trump’s agenda. FP’s Colum Lynch and Ty McCormick write that “U.S. planners have so far left Mali off the chopping block,” however.
“U.N.-based officials say it’s too early to know whether the new administration will embrace the U.N. peacekeeping role in Mali or whether it just hasn’t begun internal deliberations on the mission’s fate. But an official familiar with U.S. thinking said the Trump administration is “most forward-leaning” on the U.N.’s “role in counterterrorism environments.”
“Mali is not in their sights right now,” added a senior U.N.-based official.
Russia investigation. With the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election collapsing amid partisan sniping, “the leaders of the Senate Intelligence panel appeared shoulder-to-shoulder on Wednesday to pledge that their probe will avoid partisan infighting and focus on the evidence, including evaluating reports of ties between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives,” FP’s ELias Groll reports from Capitol Hill.
“The investigation’s scope will always go where the intelligence leads,” Sen. Richard Burr (R.-N.C.), the panel’s chairman. “It is absolutely crucial that every day we spend trying to separate fact from fiction.” Just over two months into the Trump administration, Burr and Sen. Mark Warner (D.-Va.), the ranking member, provided the first public update on the progress of their investigation, saying that it is proceeding apace. That stands in stark contrast to the House committee’s investigation, which now appears frozen in its tracks after cancelling planned hearings this week.
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Homegrown. Gulf countries are some of the world’s biggest weapons buyers but now two of them are hoping they can start making at least some of that gear at home. The Wall Street Journal reports that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are starting to demand that international arms suppliers offer technology transfers as a condition of sale. Saudi Arabia in particular has stated that it wants to spend half its defense budget on Saudi companies by 2030. That move may hurt American technologies subject to export restrictions and favor other international suppliers more willing to share sensitive technologies.
Buzzfeed reports that the Defense Department Inspector General is investigating the U.S. Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM) contract with Purple Shovel, a novice contractor, to procure arms from Eastern Europe for Syrian rebels backed by the Pentagon. Purple Shovel subcontracted some of its work to two other firms, SkyBridge Tactical and Regulus Global, both of whom are currently being sued by the families of contractors who were killed when an allegedly faulty rocket propelled grenade procured by the firms exploded in Bulgaria. Regulus Global allegedly purchased anti-tank guided missiles from heavily-sanctioned Belarus — a move which SOCOM denies having known about in advance.
Drones. Reporter Jenan Moussa dug up documents on the Islamic State’s apparent drone master, Tunisian Fadhel Mensi. The group has been using small commercial drones to drop tiny munitions on targets below. But Moussa found that Mensi had been planning to pack a larger drone capable with explosives and crash it into a target, effectively using it as a homebrew missile. It’s unclear what status his kamikaze drone plane is at, nor is it clear whether Mensi is still alive.
Do you like drugs? The State Department has fired half a dozen employees for dealing drugs at the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan, according to the Wall Street Journal. The fired personnel were a mix of Afghans and Americans, some of whom were working for a security contractor, but it’s not yet known what kind of drugs they were selling. The drug ring reportedly came to light after one employee was found wandering about Kabul while stoned.
Charges. Prosecutors unveiled charges against a career State Department diplomat whom they accuse of failing to report foreign contacts with two people working for China’s intelligence services, USA Today reports. Prosecutors say Candace Claiborne traded on her knowledge of “sensitive diplomatic data” in order to receive cash and favors from the Chinese government. Court documents claim that Chinese agents helped one of Claiborne’s family members study fashion design at a university in Shanghai, paying her a stipend and shielding her from a police investigation following the student’s involvement in an undisclosed “serious crime.” Claiborne plead not guilty to the charges on Wednesday.
War of words. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is involved in an escalating war of words with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, whom he recently labeled a “crazy fat kid.” North Korea’s propaganda apparatus took umbrage at the statement, calling the statement a “grave provocation,” and threatening war in response. McCain responded to the statement on Twitter, asking “What, did they want me to call him a crazy skinny kid?” North Korea is currently on the verge of its sixth nuclear test, according to satellite imagery of the country’s nuclear test site.
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