SitRep: SecDef Says Syria Has Chemical Weapons; Second Guessing U.S. Generals; Militaries Scramble to Meet North Korea Threat

SitRep: SecDef Says Syria Has Chemical Weapons; Second Guessing U.S. Generals; Militaries Scramble to Meet North Korea Threat


With Adam Rawnsley

There it is. Speaking in Israel on Friday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis confirmed recent press reporting that Syria still possesses chemical weapons, and has been moving its military planes around the country in the wake of the American cruise missile attack on an air base earlier this month.

“I can say authoritatively they have retained some, it’s a violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions and it’s going to have to be taken up diplomatically and they would be ill advised to try to use any again, we made that very clear with our strike,” Mattis said during a press conference with  Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Earlier this week, Israeli officials said that Syria retained round three tons of chemical weapons materials.

We on an award tour. On the day Mattis landed in Tel Aviv, Lebanese Hezbollah representatives took reporters on a tour of the southern Lebanese border to point out the defensive measures Israel is taking to shore up the frontier between the two countries.

Tensions have increased between the two sides in recent weeks, leading to fears that the fragile peace that has held since 2006 could be broken. Israeli officials say Hezbollah has more than restocked its supply of weapons since the war, and leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which supplies Hezbollah, have bragged the group has around 100,000 rockets and missiles at its disposal. “For the first time in the history of this enemy, its doctrine has switched from an offensive to a defensive one,” a Hezbollah military commander said. The tour was coordinated with the Lebanese army.

Iran plan. Mattis also confirmed that Iran was keeping up its end of the bargain when it comes to the 2015 deal struck with Washington and other Western allies to curb its nuclear weapons program. “As our secretary of state said about three days ago, Iran appears to the degree we can determine it — we are pretty confident — they appear to be living up to their part of the agreement,” he told reporters. Just hours earlier, President Donald Trump was decidedly more vague when describing Iranian compliance, warning that Iran is not “living up to the spirit of the agreement.” The State Department certified to Congress earlier this week that Iran is honoring the accord, but Trump administration officials have said they’re reviewing the deal.

North Korea watch. Both South Korea and China appear to have placed their armed forces on high alert in recent days U.S. officials have told multiple news outlets, ahead of another North Korean military parade and an expected nuclear test. Officials have said they have noticed Chinese bombers and military aircraft being prepared to launch quickly.

President Trump swiped at the crisis during a press conference on Thursday, saying “some very unusual moves have been made over the last two or three hours” in North Korea — he didn’t elaborate — but that he was confident Chinese President Xi Jinping would “try very hard” to pressure Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs.

Gaming out the North. The regime in Pyongyang is “ruthless and reckless, but they’re not crazy,” said William Perry, a former defense secretary under President Bill Clinton.

Perry, speaking on a conference call on Thursday,  said three generations of family rule by the Kim dynasty in Pyongyang have shared one unifying philosophy: “Keeping the regime in power.” FP’s Robbie Gramer and Paul McLeary have lots more international fallout from the recent war of words between Pyongyang and Washington in a new story here.

Freedom isn’t free. The Trump administration has given military commanders far more discretion for conducting their own operations without the approval of the White House, a new way of operating that has won the praise of those commanders, but has led to a few recent SNAFUs.

Not only was there a disconnect between the U.S. Pacific Command and Washington over the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson strike group in the far western Pacific recently, but the decision by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan to drop the massive MOAD bomb on Islamic State tunnels has also been questioned by the Pentagon in retrospect, according to the New York Times. “Commanders always want more freedom to act within their own judgment,” said Adm. James A. Winnefeld, a retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Sometimes those same commanders may not sense which of their decisions will bleed over into the strategic level.”

Spies add up the numbers. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secretive judicial branch responsible for approving surveillance requests made by the intelligence community, published its first batch of statistics from 2016 — a requirement since reformers passed the USA Freedom Act. In 2016, the court received 1,752 applications, 1,378 of which were approved immediately. Of the remaining requests, 339 were modified, 26 partially denied, and 9 denied in full, which were more rejections than any other previous year. The reporting comes after disclosures made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who described the court as a “rubber stamp” that approved nearly every request without question. Since then, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, requiring more information about the court’s annual activities. — Jenna McLaughlin

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

France attack. A gunman shot and wounded two policemen in an attack at the Champs Elysee in Paris on Thursday in an apparent terrorist attack. Police shot and killed the man as he tried to escape on foot and at least one suspected associate of the attacker has turned himself into authorities in Belgium. The man had previously been imprisoned in over a decade ago for a similar attack on police, according to the BBC. The Islamic State has since claimed the man as one of its “fighters.”

Syria. Russia has suffered one of its highest-ranking casualties yet in Syria, losing a marine major in an artillery attack on a Russian base. Reuters reports that Major Sergei Bordov, who had previously commanded a reconnaissance unit, was killed in an attack that took place on Tuesday. Russia claims it has lost around 30 troops in the fighting in Syria but reporting indicates the death toll is much higher than the official tally.

Carrier fallout. The Trump administration’s misleading claim about an aircraft carrier heading to Korean Peninsula has cost it some goodwill and trust among South Korean allies, according to the New York Times. Trump had claimed that an “armada” was steaming towards Korea earlier in the week but it was soon revealed that the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier was actually in the Indian Ocean and headed south, away from Korea. Coming amidst heightened tensions with the North and a presidential election campaign, South Korean media and defense experts have slammed the U.S. for the apparent misdirection, characterizing it as a reckless bluff and an embarrassing blunder.

WikiLeaks. The U.S. Justice Department is preparing to seek the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, according to a scoop from CNN. Prosecutors reportedly believe that Assange played a role in helping National Security Agency contractor leak a massive cache of top secret documents stolen from the agency. Assange had previously been a supporter of President Trump’s campaign, championing him against Hillary Clinton and publishing hacked emails from the Clinton campaign on the WikiLeaks website. But despite praise from Trump himself during the campaign, the Trump administration has since changed its tune, with CIA Director Mike Pompeo labeling it “a non-state hostile intelligence service” in a speech earlier this week.

Gulf. Anonymous officials tell Reuters that the U.S. is willing to step up arms sales to help the Saudi-led coalition in its war in Yemen, but only if members agree to take additional steps to prevent civilian casualties. A group of Democratic lawmakers in Congress has pushed back hard against the sale of additional munitions to Saudi Arabia, citing the high cost to civilians of its air war in Yemen, with over 4,800 civilians killed in the conflict so far. The Trump administration is hoping that adding a conditionality for the protection of civilians will help it pass the sale of $390 million worth of munition guidance kits through Congress.

Bomb damage assessment. How many people were killed in the much-talked about use of the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan? SecDef Jim Mattis told reporters Friday that “frankly, digging into tunnels to count dead bodies is probably not a good use of our troops.” Mattis said he’s not that interested in the enemy body count, dismissing the metric as a misguided relic of the Vietnam War. Earlier in the week, Afghanistan’s TOLO News reported that 96 people had been killed in the bombing of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, with the majority of casualties coming from the Pakistani Taliban alongside 13 Islamic State commanders.

Spending. The Trump administration’s defense spending will not live up to President Trump’s rhetoric about a massive buildup of the military, according to private conversations between Secretary of Defense Mattis and Congress. CNN reports that Mattis told lawmakers that next year’s budget won’t cover any of the big ticket items Trump has called for, including a 350 ship Navy, more fighter jets, and increased end-strength across the services. Mattis has reportedly pushed President Trump for more funding along the lines proposed by defense hawks like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), but lost the argument to fiscal hawk and White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.


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