SitRep: Trump in Brussels; NATO Joins ISIS Fight it’s Already Fighting; Navy Challenges China

SitRep: Trump in Brussels; NATO Joins ISIS Fight it’s Already Fighting; Navy Challenges China


With Adam Rawnsley

Trump meets NATO. In a move meant primarily to appease President Donald Trump, NATO leaders said on Thursday that the alliance was joining the fight against the Islamic State. Every nation among the alliance’s 28 member states already support the effort in Iraq and Syria in some way, and several fly daily bombing missions targeting the terrorist group. In addition, some NATO countries, like France and the U.K., have special operations forces operating on the ground in Iraq and Syria.

Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday that joining the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition “will send a strong political message of NATO’s commitment to the fight against terrorism and also improve our coordination within the coalition.” But he underscored that “it does not mean that NATO will engage in combat operations.” The alliance will instead establish a new intelligence unit to track foreign fighters in Europe and appoint a counterterrorism coordinator.

Several diplomats, in fact, told Reuters that the decision to join the fight is window dressing meant to hand Trump one of his much-needed public wins. “NATO as an institution will join the coalition,” said one senior diplomat involved in the discussions. “The question is whether this just a symbolic gesture to the United States. France and Germany believe it is.”

A spokesman for newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron said he would tell Trump he is “attentive” to Trump’s call, but the decision will not be a step toward “transforming NATO into the sole strike force against Islamic State.”

Allies will also be eager to show the American delegation that they’re making progress toward spending two percent of their GDP on defense, and will be watching to see if Trump finally affirms Article 5, the mutual defense provision in the alliance’s charter, which the president has pointedly refused to do so far.

Where’s Russia? One thing the allies won’t talk about is Russia, apparently. “The alliance is so anxious about pleasing the U.S. president that it tailored its first major meeting with him around topics that touch on his long-standing criticisms of the 28-member organization rather than the Kremlin’s latest provocations,” Buzzfeed reports.

Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and in the Baltics dominated NATO’s last two summits in Wales and Warsaw, but didn’t make the cut as a formal agenda item for the alliance’s meeting in Brussels. “The meeting will be short, and focused on two main topics: stepping up NATO’s role in the fight against terrorism, and fairer burden sharing,” spokesperson Oana Lungescu said.

The alliance has also tailored the event to meet Trump’s famously short attention span, cutting remarks to about 5 minutes each, as FP recently reported.

Eastern Europeans are into it. Given the focus on ISIS rather than the threat present by Russia, one would think NATO’s Eastern European leaders would be unhappy with the new administration. But think again, writes FP’s Emily Tamkin. “Diplomats from those countries are thrilled with what they’ve seen, heard, and gotten from the Trump administration so far — belying some initial concerns that he might throw American allies under the bus and cozy up to Moscow.”

“Really, looking at it, we have to say we have had amazingly good, high-level meetings that we didn’t have at this early stage of the last administration,” Kairi Saar-Isop, a counsellor at the Embassy of Estonia in Washington, told Foreign Policy. The three Baltic foreign ministers have already met with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, she noted. “They never met Obama’s.”

Trump and Russia, chapter whatever. If it’s a weekday, there’s a scoop about the Trump campaign and Russia. Wednesday didn’t disappoint. “American spies collected information last summer revealing that senior Russian intelligence and political officials were discussing how to exert influence over Donald J. Trump through his advisers, according to three current and former American officials familiar with the intelligence,” the New York Times reported.  The conversations focused on Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman at the time, and Michael Flynn. “Some Russians boasted about how well they knew Mr. Flynn. Others discussed leveraging their ties to Viktor F. Yanukovych, the deposed president of Ukraine living in exile in Russia, who at one time had worked closely with Mr. Manafort.”

Setting sail. For the first time under the Trump administration, a U.S. Navy ship sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea. The USS Dewey cruised close to the Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, one of the land features China is in a dispute over with other countries in the region. The patrol was the first since October.

Head of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, has been a vocal proponent of more freedom of navigation patrols, but has been denied three times under the Trump administration as the president has worked to forced closer ties with Beijing. The Wall Street Journal notes that Harris paid a visit to a Japanese radar station on an island in the East China Sea recently, “signaling the U.S. commander’s intention to press China on such disputes. In the little-noticed visit, Adm. Harris touched down at the Yonaguni Coast Observation Unit, an intelligence-gathering facility, on an island in the Ryukyu Islands with Adm. Katsutoshi Kawano, the chief of staff of Japan’s self-defense force, officials said.”

Anchors aweigh. While the 2018 defense budget unveiled Tuesday may have included funding for just one extra ship, some senators appear to be more than willing to help him out with his campaign promises of building a 350 ship Navy. After Sen. Roger Wicker chaired a hearing with shipbuilding executives on Wednesday, he told Breaking Defense that the Trump budget is “a placeholder,” and “we’re going to work with the administration…to try to help the president get to his goal of more than 350 ships.”

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

Network. The man who made the bomb that killed 22 people in a suicide attack at a concert in Manchester on Sunday may still be at large, according to the Washington Post. Experts believe that Salman Abedi, the British-Libyan man who carried out the suicide attack may not have been the person who made the bomb but only a “mule” for the device. British authorities arrested seven people in the U.K., including Abdedi’s brother, Ismail. In Libya, counterterrorism authorities also arrested Abedi’s father, Ramadan, and another brother, Hashem, charging him with plotting to attack Tripoli.

Leaks. The New York Times published photographs of bomb fragments from the device used by Abedi at the concert in Manchester, capping off a series of leaks from American authorities and leading British officials to stop sharing intelligence about the attack with the United States. A British counterterrorism official tells Reuters that they’ve halted the flow of intelligence to their American counterparts “until such time as we have assurances that no further unauthorized disclosures will occur.” British authorities have been unusually outspoken over their anger at U.S. leaks, with Home Secretary Amber Rudd calling them “irritating” and Prime Minister Theresa May saying she’ll raise the issue with President Trump directly, telling him “that intelligence that is shared between our law enforcement agencies must remain secure.”

Personnel. The Trump administration may finally be getting closer to picking a number three for the Pentagon. The Washington Times reports that Justin Rood is emerging as the administration’s top choice for undersecretary of defense for policy. Rood formerly served as acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security during the George W. Bush administration. Rood has already interviewed with Secretary of Defense Mattis and an announcement of his appointment could be ready soon.

Call me. Russia’s threats to abandon a hotline to deconflict operations in Syria with the U.S. have proven hollow.  Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, says the number of phone calls on the hotline with Russia has increased since the U.S. carried out a cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Russia threatened to stop using the channel after the missile attack but Harrigan says that the two countries are now operating in closer proximity as the Islamic State’s territory shrinks, necessitating greater coordination.

Philippines. An Islamist militant group pledging fealty to the Islamic State has taken control of Marawi City in Mindanao. The Philippine government has declared martial law on the island and sent in around 100 troops backed by helicopters to take back the city from Abu Sayyaf militants affiliated with the Islamic State. Philippine troops raided an apartment in Marawi on Tuesday in hopes of catching Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, sparking a series of violent clashes in the city.   

Disinformation. The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab has a new report out analyzing how hackers linked to Russian intelligence broke into a journalist’s email account and leaked a mixture of forgeries and real email from his inbox. After tricking reporter David Satter into clicking on spear phishing emails, Russian hackers posted his emails online using the CyberBerkut persona, forging fake correspondence intended to make it appears as though Satter was using Radio Free Europe to pay journalists for negative coverage of Russia. Citizen Lab researchers also found 198 other email addresses targeted by the same group of hackers.



Photo Credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images