The Cable

SitRep: Flynn Wants Immunity; Three White House Officials Spoke with Nunes; Trump Opens New War Front

ISIS Numbers in Mosul; U.S. Not Interested in Ousting Assad; Putin Getting Impatient About Trump Meeting; USAF, Marines, Looking at Lasers

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Retired Army Lt. General Michael Flynn arrives for the Presidential Inauguration of Donald Trump at the US Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. Flynn is appointed National Security Advisor to Trump. Donald J. Trump will become the 45th president of the United States today.  (Photo by Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Retired Army Lt. General Michael Flynn arrives for the Presidential Inauguration of Donald Trump at the US Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. Flynn is appointed National Security Advisor to Trump. Donald J. Trump will become the 45th president of the United States today. (Photo by Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty Images)

With Adam Rawnsley

 

Looking for a deal. Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, has offered to be interviewed by the FBI and House and Senate investigators examining the Trump campaign’s potential ties to Russia, in exchange for immunity from prosecution, “but has so far found no takers,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

In a statement on Thursday evening, Flynn’s lawyer Robert Kelner, said his client was willing to speak, and “General Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should circumstances permit,” the statement said.

White House connection. At least two White House employees “helped provide Representative Devin Nunes of California, a Republican and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, with the intelligence reports that showed that President Trump and his associates were incidentally swept up in foreign surveillance by American spy agencies,” the New York Times reports.

“The revelation on Thursday that White House officials disclosed the reports, which Mr. Nunes then discussed with Mr. Trump, is likely to fuel criticism that the intelligence chairman has been too eager to do the bidding of the Trump administration while his committee is supposed to be conducting an independent investigation of Russia’s meddling in the presidential election.” The Washington Post names three White House officials who may have been involved, including one high-ranking National Security Council intelligence official who national security advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster recently tried unsuccessfully to remove, after CIA officials complained about him.

What’s he got? Harvard law prof Alex Whiting write on Just Security writes that “the fact that Flynn and his lawyer have made his offer publicly suggests that he has nothing good to give the prosecutors (either because he cannot incriminate others or is unwilling to do so). If he had something good, Flynn and his lawyer would approach the prosecutors quietly, go through the proffer process in confidence, and reach a deal.”

A new front. President Trump has signed off on a Pentagon proposal to allow the head of the U.S. Africa Command to launch an offensive campaign against the al-Shabab militant group in Somalia, U.S. officials said on Thursday, clearing the way for more airstrikes, and potentially a more active presence of U.S. Special Operations Forces on the ground.

“It remains to be seen how active American forces will be in Somalia, where dozens of U.S. commandos already operate,” FP’s Paul McLeary reports. But the order gels with an increasingly forward-leaning posture in Yemen, where Trump also recently signed an order allowing for more U.S. military action. Last week, Africa Command head Gen. Thomas Waldhauser said that “I think the combatant commanders, myself included, are more than capable of making judgments and determinations on some of these targets,” he said. Giving his commanders the ability to launch offensive strikes would allow his “to prosecute targets in a more rapid fashion.”

Mosul. No one can say for certain how ISIS fighters have been killed in Mosul, but the spokesman for the U.S. military effort in Iraq and Syria, Col. Joseph Scrocca said there were about 2,000 fighters in western Mosul before the recent Iraqi offensive, and that the number has been reduced by at least half. He also said that the military is looking to release videos showing how ISIS uses human shields, packing civilians into buildings before luring the coalition to bomb them.

“What was see now is not the use of civilians as human shields…for the first time we caught this on video yesterday as armed ISIS fighters forced civilians into a building, killing one who resisted and then used that building as a fighting position.” The Washington Post also points out the ways in which the U.S. air campaign in Mosul has been influenced by the the Russian campaign in Chechnya in the 1990s that killed as many as 30,000 people.

Assad can do Assad. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on Thursday said Washington is no longer focused on ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, from power — something that the Obama administration considered essential to bring peace the Syria, even if it took no steps to make it happen.

“You pick and choose your battles,” Nikki Haley told reporters in New York. “Our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” Haley spoke just after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, traveling in Ankara, Turkey, said Assad’s long-term status “will be decided by the Syrian people.”

Not happy about all this. The remarks by Trump cabinet officials might mark a public break with the former administration’s policy on Assad, but the Obama administration had mostly focused on fighting the Islamic State and al Qaeda in Syria, to the frustration of some lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Two of those Senators, John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) issued strongly worded statements in response to the remarks.

“I hope President Trump will make clear that America will not follow this self-destructive and self-defeating path,” McCain said, adding that he was wary of any possible deal between the Trump administration, Assad, and Moscow.  Graham said it would be a “grave mistake” to drop the removal of Assad as an objective, and would be crushing news to the Syrian opposition and U.S. allies in the region.

A mouthful. At a press conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Tillerson listened as the Turkish official ticked off conspiracy theories about U.S. law enforcement officials being pawns of anti-Turkish actors, and how some in the U.S. government supported the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. In return, Tillerson remained vague when discussing a major rift between the two nations: U.S. support for Kurds fighting ISIS in northern Syria, saying only that there were “difficult choices that have to be made.”

Ankara accuses the U.S. of arming the Kurds, and doesn’t want Kurdish fighters to be involved in the push on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. But U.S. officials say the Kurds are the most effective fighting force in the region, and insist that some Kurds will be part of the fight. Earlier this week, Turkish officials announced they had wrapped up their “Euphrates Shield” military operation in northern Syria, aimed at pushing both ISIS and the Kurds from their southern border.

Yemen. The Yemeni embassy in Washington “has written to Senate staffers blasting a planned event on Capitol Hill featuring two Yemeni civil society activists, an unusual step betraying Sanaa’s acute sensitivity to criticism as it seeks more U.S. assistance for the Saudi-led military campaign in the country,” writes FP’s Dan De Luce. “The extraordinary email to lawmakers’ offices, obtained by Foreign Policy, appeared aimed at discouraging congressional aides from attending the briefing at the Dirksen Senate office building on Thursday afternoon with two established local advocates. The note warned Senate aides that participants in the event had a political “agenda” tied to Iran-backed Houthi rebels battling the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.”

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

Mar-a-Lago meetup. President Trump will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in early April for talks at Trump’s private, for-profit Mar-a-Lago club in early April. Trump and Xi have never met and spoken only once by phone, but Trump has gone on something of a tirade against Xi and Beijing, making the meetup a hotly anticipated one. Trump has hammered China for allegedly exploiting global trade rules and its more lenient attitude towards North Korean provocations, but backed off from abandoning the longstanding U.S. “One China” policy in his phone call with Xi. Both trade and North Korea are expected to be high on the list of subjects discussed at Mar-a-Lago.

How soon is now? Vladimir Putin is notorious for keeping world leaders waiting but the Russian president is getting impatient that he hasn’t had a meeting with President Trump yet. The Washington Post reports that Putin is annoyed that Trump has been “barred from implementing his agenda by unspecified Washington denizens allegedly keen to scuttle a rapprochement between the U.S. and Russia.” Putin told reporters that Moscow is ready for a meeting and a reset in relations but will likely have to wait until “squabbles” in American politics over Russia die down.

Confirmation. Senate Democrats tried to grill the Trump administration’s nominee for Air Force Secretary on her past as a contractor but Heather Wilson, a former congresswoman from New Mexico, managed to evade answering directly during her hearing on Thursday. The Hill reports that Democrats on the Armed Services Committee pressed Wilson on her work for Sandia National Laboratories, which a Department of Energy Inspector General’s report concluded earned her $464,000 despite no evidence she carried out any work. Wilson didn’t offer direct answers about why she was unable to prove she carried out the work. Despite the questions, Wilson appears set to glide through confirmation with bipartisan approval.

Pew pew pew. The Air Force and Marine Corps could one day strap lasers to the V-22 Osprey in order to give special operators more firepower so they could shoot their way out of a jam if need be. DOD Buzz was on hand as Boeing’s business development chief John “Bones” Parker told reporters that the services are pressing to add offensive weapons to the tiltrotor aircraft and are open to creative solutions. Boeing has already tested out arming the Osprey with rockets and missiles but says the services say they’d also be ok trying out non-lethal weapons like sound waves.

Response. The U.S. is convinced that Russia has violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty Experts with its deployment of a new nuclear-capable cruise missile. What’s less clear is what the U.S. should do about it. USNI News reports that a handful of experts testified that the U.S. has a number of ways to respond to the violation. Among the options discussed were building a new conventional air-launched cruise missile, exporting American cruise missiles to European allies, and deploying missiles and artillery to Eastern Europe.

Valor. The armed services have handed out a number of awards for valor to troops since 9/11, the narratives for which have been shrouded in secrecy. But on Thursday USA Today published a summary of documents handed over by the Army containing the classified details of a dozen Silver Stars awarded to special operations soldiers for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The narratives reveal stories of soldiers risking their lives to save comrades, braving gunfire from Afghan Taliban and Iraqi insurgents, fighting while injured, and refusing medical treatment until fellow soldiers were attended to.

 

Photo Credit: Saul Loeb – Pool/Getty Images

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

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