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SitRep: Washington Charges Russian Cover-Up; Lavrov Blasts Washington; Trump Says No To Syria Escalation

SitRep: Washington Charges Russian Cover-Up; Lavrov Blasts Washington; Trump Says No To Syria Escalation

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Reset this. The acrimony between Washington and Moscow has only increased since President Donald Trump took office Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday, in one of the few assessments the leaders of both countries would likely agree on. “One could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved, but rather has deteriorated,” the Russian leader said.

Putin spoke after the Trump administration leveled its most serious accusations against the Syrian and Russian governments to date, alleging the two worked together to float a series of “false narratives” in the aftermath of last week’s deadly sarin gas attack on Syrian civilians.

The attack, which killed at least 80 people and spurred Trump to launch a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base, has shifted the terms of the debate over U.S. involvement in Syria from defeating the Islamic State to the possible removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and under what circumstances Washington might strike Assad’s forces again.

In the days since the American response, Trump administration officials have offered differing assessments of American policy in Syria, from focusing solely on the Islamic State, to working for Assad’s ouster.

No changes. While cabinet members appeared to be trying out new policy suggestions in public for much of the past week, the past 24 hours has seen the president finally weigh in, and Defense Secretary James Mattis issue a simple, definitive statement on the administration’s Syria policy.

Mattis told the Pentagon press corps Tuesday that “our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS.” President Trump put the presidential stamp of approval on that statement in two interviews released Wednesday morning, telling the New York Post, “we’re not going into Syria. Our policy is the same — it hasn’t changed. We’re not going into Syria.” In another interview broadcast early Wednesday morning, Trump told Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo that Putin is “backing a person that’s truly an evil person” in Assad, but said regime change isn’t in his plans. “We’re not going into Syria,” he repeated.

But we’re already there. The U.S. has around 1,000 troops on the ground in northern Syria, mostly training and advising Arab and Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State. But there are smaller contingents closer to the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa — Marines at a small base near the city, supporting the rebels with artillery — and groups of special operations forces advisors moving on Raqqa with the Syrian militias.

Can you hear me now? There has been plenty of confusion over U.S. foreign policy since January, summed up by one anonymous foreign diplomat telling the Washington Post that “nobody can tell us on Russia what the American policy is, on Syria what the American policy is, on China what the American policy is…I’m not sure there is a policy.”

This is a big deal. On Tuesday, the White House released a National Security Council assessment on the Syria strike that directly charges collusion between Damascus and Moscow on covering up Syrian government involvement.

The report stated that U.S. intelligence agencies have compiled evidence that sarin had been used in the attack, and accusing Russia of a cover-up in its aftermath. The document contends the United States has gathered evidence that includes satellite imagery, intercepted communications, and laboratory analysis to back its conclusions.

It referred to Russia as the Syrian government’s “primary backer,” and laid out a damning assessment of Syrian and Russian action following the chemical strike. Both countries “sought to confuse the world community about who is responsible for using chemical weapons against the Syrian people,” by blaming local rebels and Islamist groups for the atrocity.

Diplos. The assessment came out the day Secretary of State Rex Tillerson landed in Moscow for meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. In their first face-to-face meeting on Wednesday, Lavrov icily told Tillerson that Moscow considers the U.S. strike in Syria to be “unlawful,” adding, “I won’t hide the fact that we have a lot of questions, taking into account the extremely ambiguous and sometimes contradictory ideas which have been expressed in Washington,” Lavrov said. “And of course, that’s not to mention that apart from the statements, we observed very recently the extremely worrying actions, when an illegal attack against Syria was undertaken.”

Previewing the discussion on Tuesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said the Kremlin is “somewhat confused about what the U.S. administration has in mind when at different levels it recalls zones of security or zones of stability,” in Syria, adding that the Trump administration’s policy towards Syria “remains an enigma to us.”

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

North Korea. Secretary of Defense James Mattis appeared to try and lower the temperature of discussion about the USS Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group’s return to the waters off the Korean Peninsula. When the Navy announced that the Vinson was canceling a visit to Australia and instead heading towards Korea, the move was widely interpreted as a show of force in advance of a possible nuclear test by the North. But in his press conference on Tuesday, Mattis said “there’s not a specific demand signal or specific reason we’re sending her up there.” Nonetheless, North Korea is sticking to form and issuing threats as the Vinson’s approaches its shores, saying “we will take the toughest counteraction against the provocateurs in order to defend ourselves by powerful force of arms and keep to the road chosen by ourselves.”

Warrants. The FBI sought and received a warrant to surveil one of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy advisors as a result of his ties to Russian intelligence, according to a scoop from the Washington Post. Federal agents convinced the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to approve a surveillance warrant for Carter Page because of his dealings with Russian intelligence officers in 2013 as well as other, thus far unspecified contacts with Kremlin intelligence services. Page has repeatedly denied acting as an agent for Russian intelligence and Trump campaign officials have previously sought to downplay his role on the campaign.

Addiction. The Navy’s SEAL teams have a growing drug problem, according to an investigation by CBS News. The network spoke to a handful of former SEALs recently kicked out of the units for drug abuse who say they’ve abused drugs ranging from marijuana to cocaine. Drug use prompted Naval Special Warfare Group 2 Commander Capt. Jamie Sands to order a “safety stand down” during which he told SEALs that “I feel like I’m watching our foundation, our culture, erode in front of our eyes” as a result of substance abuse issues.

Troll so hard. The Guardian profiles the trolliest Twitter account in international diplomacy, the @RussianEmbassy account for the Russian diplomatic mission in the United Kingdom. The account has become famous for its aggressive, sarcastic, and at times off-beat sense of humor as it hurls barbs at Western foreign policy. The account has become notorious for missives like a May 2016 tweet which used a screenshot of the classic “Command and Conquer” video game to illustrate its claim that Syrian rebel groups in Aleppo were supplied with chemical weapons. Other tweets have included the alt-right and allegedly anti-semitic icon Pepe the Frog in a broadside against British Prime Minister Theresa May and a picture of a lame duck aimed at President Obama after he ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats in December 2016.

East Africa. Somalia. Somalia’s al Qaeda-linked Shabaab terrorist group is vowing to respond in kind to the Trump administration’s proposed expansion of operations against it. The group’s Shahada News Agency propaganda outlet issued a statement on social media promising a “doubled response” to the Trump administration’s moves in East Africa. The group pointed to a suicide bombing attack on Somalia’s new defense chief as an example of its capacity for retaliation.

Hire away. The federal hiring freeze put in place by the Trump administration is officially over. USA Today reports that the end of the freeze doesn’t mean a return to business as usual, with the White House asking agencies only to staff up in areas outlined for expansion in the Trump administration’s proposed budget. That marks a reprieve for the Defense Department, where the Trump budget has offered relatively more funds in its proposed spending for the next fiscal year.

 

Photo Credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images