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SitRep: Blackwater Founder And Trump-Putin Go Between; Chemical Attack in Syria; U.S. Bombards AQAP in Yemen

SitRep: Blackwater Founder And Trump-Putin Go Between; Chemical Attack in Syria; U.S. Bombards AQAP in Yemen

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Why not? In yet another strange twist involving the Trump administration and its surrogates, reports have emerged that the United Arab Emirates set up a “secret meeting” just days before Trump took the oath of office in January between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian official. The meeting with the unnamed Russian who is reportedly close to President Vladi­mir Putin was “part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump,” several U.S., European and Arab officials told the Washington Post.

It is not clear exactly what was discussed, but the officials said that the UAE “agreed to broker the meeting in part to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria, a Trump administration objective that would be likely to require major concessions to Moscow on U.S. sanctions.” Few believe that Moscow or Tehran could be induced to break ties, even with concessions from Washington. In fact, the two countries — despite real tensions within the relationship — are working to align interests across several fronts.

More spy games. A foreign policy advisor for the 2016 Trump campaign passed along documents to a Russian spy in the U.S. in 2013, according to a new scoop from Buzzfeed. The news outlet learned that Carter Page is the man identified only as “Male-1” in documents filed by prosecutors after the breakup of an alleged Russian spy ring in 2015. The filings claim that “Male-1” — which Page now confirms was him — passed “provided documents to [alleged Russian Foreign Intelligence service officer Victor Podobnyy] about the energy business.”

Breaking: Another chemical attack in Syria. It appears that there has been another in a long line of atrocities conducted by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against civilians. On Tuesday morning, videos and eyewitness accounts flooded social media showing the aftermath [warning: graphic video] of what locals say was an attack in Idlib that killed at least 58 people.

The Syrian government has been accused of launching chemical weapons strikes on civilians for years, despite the 2013 agreement brokered between the United States and Russia to rid the country of its chemical stockpiles. The attack comes days after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, and White House spokesman Sean Spicer said, in separate comments, that Washington would not push for the removal of Assad in Syria.

Yemen strikes. American drones and manned aircraft hit over 20 al Qaeda targets in Yemen over the past week, bringing the total number of strikes over the past month to more than 70. Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters Monday that the strikes targeted “militants, infrastructure, fighting positions and equipment.” Military officials declined to offer a body count for the strikes, or describe the targets in detail. FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce recently outlined the new willingness of Washington to get more involved in fighting al Qaeda in Yemen, and provide more support for the Saudi and U.A.E.-led fight against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in the country.

Meet ‘n greet. President Trump hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the White House Monday, signaling a warmer relationship between Washington and Cairo that had existed under the Obama administration, which slowed some military aid in response to human rights violations by al-Sisi’s government.

“There’s a type of personal warmth in their relationship,” Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told FP’s Emily Tamkin and Robbie Gramer. The relationship kicked off when Trump was still a presidential candidate, when al-Sisi met both Trump and his Democratic political rival Hillary Clinton during the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York. “He placed his bet back then. His statements made it very clear he was hoping Trump would win,” Dunne said

“It could be a do-or-die moment for the Egyptian leader,” Tamkin and Gramer write. With “a precarious situation back home with an economy in shambles, disenchanted political constituencies, and growing terrorism threats.” Dunne said the visit sends an “important signal” to the military, his prime constituency, that he can deliver with the new White House.

On the road. Presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner is in Iraq after having been invited by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford to hear firsthand from Iraqi leaders and U.S. military commanders how the fight against the Islamic State is going. The traveling party met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Monday to discuss the conflict.

Dunford’s invitation to Kushner — who has no prior government, military, or foreign policy experience — is part of a wider Pentagon outreach to the White House, Politico’s Bryan Bender reports, in which Dunford and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are making an effort to align their plans with as many in Trump’s inner circle, and at the State Department, as possible.

The politics of Nyet. Moscow has derailed the appointment of a dual American-German national as the U.N.’s top official in Libya, FP’s Colum Lynch and Kavitha Surana write in a new report. The move comes as Moscow flexes its diplomatic muscle in a region where Moscow has been steadily seeking to expand its influence, according to several diplomatic sources.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres had decided in recent weeks to tap Richard Wilcox, a senior official at the World Food Programme who served as director of U.N. affairs in the Clinton White House, as his special representative in Libya. But before an official offer was made, Russian diplomats in New York registered concerns about Wilcox’s fitness for the job.

“Two sources familiar with the matter said that Moscow said he didn’t have the right profile, or have sufficient stature, for a job that was previously held by senior foreign diplomats, including Martin Kobler, a former German ambassador to Egypt and Iraq, and Bernardino León, a former Spanish diplomat who left the job in disgrace.”

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

Subway attack. The deadly attack on the subway system in St. Petersburg, Russia that claimed over a dozen lives looks to have been carried out by a native of Kyrgyzstan who had Russian citizenship, according to Russian officials. Little is known about the man, 22 year old Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, and many issues remain unresolved, including whether he acted alone or as part of a wider plot — or even whether he survived the attack. Some officials are calling it a “suicide attack,” however, leading to the conclusion that the bomber was dead.

Hacks. North Korean hackers may have stolen a glimpse at the U.S. and South Korea’s war plans in the event of a throwdown on the Korean peninsula, according to a South Korean newspaper. Anonymous sources from South Korea’s defense ministry tell Chosun Ilbo that North Korean hackers broke into Seoul’s cyber command in September 2016 and accessed documents containing portions of OPLAN 5027, the masterplan used by R.O.K.-U.S. Combined Forces Command in the event of war with North Korea. U.S. and South Korean officials are reportedly now trying to figure out whether parts of the plan need to be changed now that North Korea may be aware of it.

More hacks. In 2014, an unnamed Western U.S. ally broke into computer systems and surveillance cameras used by hackers working for Russian intelligence, according to the Washington Post. The access allowed the ally to tip off the U.S. that Russia had broken into an unclassified State Department’s networks. National Security Agency (NSA) Deputy Director Richard Ledgett described the subsequent attempts by the NSA and FBI to boot the Russian hackers from the system as “hand-to-hand combat,” with the hackers aggressively trying to maintain persistence on the department’s email system.

Goals. The Trump administration and Navy proponents all agree that they’d like the service to reach the oft-state goal of a 350 ship fleet, but saying that and getting there are two different things. Nearly three months into the Trump administration, Defense News checks in and finds no clear path in sight. The Trump administration is still behind in getting a Navy secretary in place and hasn’t signaled what its preferred composition of vessels would be in a shipbuilding plan. With the Budget Control Act still in place, no one in the Trump administration has explained how it plans to get around the current spending caps in order to pay for a larger fleet.

Foreign fighters. New York magazine profiles Brace Belden, an American foreign fighter from San Francisco who joined up with Syria’s YPG as it fights the Islamic State. Belden has gained a large following on Twitter where he provides daily updates on life in YPG-controlled parts of Syria. He joins a number of westerners who’ve flocked to the group since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.

This again. There’s bad news for those hoping that last month’s seizure of oil tanker by Somali pirates was a one-off fluke. Reuters reports that pirates have once again taken control of a ship, this time an Indian commercial vessel. Local authorities in Puntland are saying they’ll intervene to try and block the pirates from docking the ship and European Union naval forces patrolling the Gulf of Aden say they’re trying to establish communications with the ship. But the incident raises questions about whether the precipitous drop in Somali piracy seen in recent years will continue to hold.

 

Photo Credit: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images