- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
With Adam Rawnsley and Robbie Gramer
BREAKING: The Islamic State has claimed credit for two brazen attacks in Tehran on Wednesday. The latest comes from CNN, which reports at least a dozen people have been killed and dozens more wounded. “The violence unfolded at about 10 a.m. local time (2 a.m. ET) when gunmen apparently dressed as women stormed the main gate of the parliament building in central Tehran and opened fire…The attackers took a number of hostages and at least one detonated a suicide bomb.” At the same time, shots were fired and a suicide bomber targeted civilians at the Ayatollah Khomeini mausoleum about 15 miles away.
Qatar fallout. Operations at the massive Al Udeid air base in Qatar, which houses over 10,000 U.S. military personnel, appear to be running as normal despite the harsh — and unexpected — economic blockade put in place this week by five other Gulf countries, and president Trump’s Tweeted approval of the move, in which he took credit for the action.
Whodunnit. A news story allegedly planted by hackers helped widen the rift between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors, and now the FBI is trying to figure out who may have broken into the Qatar News Agency’s website and posted it. Published last month, the story featured purported quotes from Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, offering warm words for Iran and Israel. Faced with a backlash from its neighbors, Qatar invited the FBI to investigate the apparent breach. CNN reports that the American investigators believe Russian hackers may have planted the story but the New York Times’s Sheera Frenkel tweets that “CNN’s report doesn’t get the details of this quite right” according to her reporting.
That was then…Trump met with al Thani during his visit to Saudi Arabia last month, saying “one of the things we will discuss is the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment…and for us, that means jobs and it also means, frankly, great security back here, which we want.”
Lots of money on the table. There are billions of dollars of military deals on the table, and Trump made no public comments at the time of the meeting over terrorism worries. Still in the pipeline are 32 F-15 fighter planes approved under the Obama administration, a number that could swell to 72 by the time the deal is completed. (FP’s Dan De Luce has the story on the Obama administration’s deliberations over selling the planes to the kingdom, citing its support for terrorist organizations.)
There’s still no formal contract with Boeing for the planes, however. Raytheon also announced a $1.1 billion contract for an early warning radar last year, and Qatar has purchased several Patriot air defense units and missiles. A $6.5 billion sale of two Raytheon-built THAAD missile defense system has also been approved, but there’s no firm contract in place there, either.
U.S. vs. Iran in Syria. American warplanes bombed an Iranian-backed militia that entered a supposed no-go zone near a U.S garrison in southern Syria on Tuesday. It was the second such U.S. strike in less than a month and signals a growing risk of direct conflict between American and Iranian forces and their partners in Syria. The air raid came after the militia aligned with the Syrian regime and Iran failed to heed a warning to leave the area.
The strike came on the same day U.S. and coalition aircraft were busy supporting thousands of Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces assaulting the de-facto Islamic State capital of Raqqa. FP’s Paul McLeary reports:
“The Raqqa assault comes even as U.S. officials acknowledge that most of the Islamic State’s leadership has already fled the city for the more isolated Euphrates River Valley running from the city east to the Iraqi border. But military planners have stuck with plans drawn up under the Obama administration and continued under President Donald Trump, predicated on the fall of Mosul and Raqqa before launching an effort to push the terror group out of the valley and Deir Ezzor province.”
Colin Kahl, who served as national security adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden, told FP’s Dan De Luce the Iranians appear to covet the border area. He called the episode “a harbinger of dangers to come as U.S. and Iranian-backed forces converge in the lower Euphrates and along the border in the weeks and months ahead.”
Ottawa walks away from Trumpism. Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland announced Tuesday that in response to the Trump administration’s policies on trade and climate change, Ottawa was going its own way, an unprecedented splintering in the relationship between the two stalwart NATO allies. “To rely solely on the U.S. security umbrella would make us a client state,” she said. “Such a dependence would not be in Canada’s interest.…The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course,” Freeland added.
Yes, there is a State Department. Heather Nauert, the State Department’s new spokesperson (formerly a Fox News host), gave her first on-camera press briefing Tuesday, the first for the building since April. At times, she paused for 20 to 30 seconds to shuffle through a thick binder of notes before responding to questions, drawing derision from some veteran journalists on social media. But it’s a tough gig. Here’s what she said:
On Qatar: Washington only learned of Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut ties with its neighbor “immediately prior” to the move, and then learned of it through the United Arab Emirates — not Riyadh. She also rapped Qatar for not doing enough to stop the bankrolling of terror groups, saying “Qatar has made great efforts to try to stop financing of terror groups…but they still have work to do.”
On empty desks: There are still 120 politically-appointed positions unfilled at State, five months into Trump’s term. Nauert said there are plenty of people “moving through the pipeline” but the rigorous security clearance process is holding things up. “It’s going to take these things longer.” Longer than what, we’re not sure.
Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to email@example.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
China Power. The Defense Department has released its annual public report on China’s military, known by its much longer name, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017.” This year’s report forecasts that China’s second international base after its facility in Djibouti will likely be in Pakistan. The report also concludes that Chinese government hackers are still breaking into the networks of U.S. “diplomatic, economic, and defense industrial base” targets.
Running interference. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told friends that President Trump asked him to get since-fired FBI Director James Comey to drop the Bureau’s investigation into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, according to the Washington Post. Trump reportedly pulled Coats aside in March after Comey had testified that the FBI was looking at the Trump campaign, making his pitch to Coats for intervention against the probe. Coats later told colleagues he decided against agreeing to Trump’s request. He testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee today on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act legislation, but lawmakers will likely have other issues on their mind, as well.
Investigations. Congress got a tip from an unlikely source hinting that Justice Department special counsel Bob Mueller may be looking into presidential son-in-law and White House advisor Jared Kushner. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, telling lawmakers, “I think there are numerous investigations that are looking into” Kushner and that he thinks “it’s part of the Bob Mueller investigation.” Kushner has come under press scrutiny for his post-election meeting with former Russian Federal Security Service spy turned banker Sergey Gorkov.
Hazards. Suspected Houthi militants fired rocket propelled grenades at an oil tanker off the coast of Yemen last year, USNI News reports. Pentagon officials tell the news outlet that militants fired the weapons from skiffs, aiming at a tanker sailing under a Marshall Islands flag. The incident took place in the vicinity of an incident late last year when Houthi militants fired anti-ship cruise missiles at guided missile destroyer USS Mason.
Fallout. Nearly a month after Turkish security personnel assaulted a crowd of demonstrators protesting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the House of Representatives passed a resolution on Tuesday to condemn the attacks. The resolution, passed by a 397-0 margin, calls out the Turkish security detail and pro-Erdoğan protesters for their efforts to “brutally attack the demonstrators” and calls on the State Department to ask Turkey to waive diplomatic immunity for those involved so they can be prosecuted.
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