The Cable

SitRep: Comey Day; Threats, Troops on the Move Across Middle East; North Korea Fires Up

Hezbollah Warns U.S. in Syria; Senate Works to Block Saudi Arms Sale; Germany Heading to Jordan

US President Donald Trump (C) and Saudi's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (C-R) pose for a picture with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (C) and Saudi's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (C-R) pose for a picture with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

 

With Adam Rawnsley

It’s Comey Day! Buckle up, friends, because former FBI director James Comey is heading to Capitol Hill Thursday to tell a Senate panel that President Donald Trump pressured him to drop the bureau’s investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, according to prepared remarks released Wednesday.

“Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee comes as U.S. spy chiefs refused on Wednesday to answer questions about their own conversations with Trump, which reportedly involved separate entreaties from the president to scupper the FBI investigation of Flynn,” FP’s David Francis and Elias Groll write. White House officials have indicated that President Donald Trump will watch at least some of the testimony, and will likely Tweet his reactions. So we got that going for us.

Middle East mess: The crisis in the Arabian Gulf deepened on Thursday, as five Gulf nations led by Saudi Arabia pressed forward with the diplomatic exile of Qatar, and continued to enforce an air and sea blockade of the tiny nation.

President Donald Trump, who earlier this week cheered the move and took partial credit despite 11,000 U.S. servicemembers serving at at Al Udeid military base in the country, offered to mediate the crisis at the White House. The president moderated his initial stance, placing calls to Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan. A readout of the later conversation said Trump called for unity among Gulf Arabs “but never at the expense of eliminating funding for radical extremism or defeating terrorism.”

Washington’s confused reaction: The New York Times reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have spent the last several days reminding the White House that Washington “could not afford a rupture between Saudi Arabia and Qatar,” given how critical Al Udeid is for U.S. military efforts in the region. “The Qataris were shocked at the contradiction between evenhanded statements from the State Department and Pentagon, and Mr. Trump’s tweets castigating the tiny Gulf state. They began asking American officials whether their longtime alliance was in peril.” The Qatari foreign minister is scheduled to visit Moscow on Saturday.

Iran. Complicating matters is the Islamic State’s attack on the Iranian parliament on Wednesday, which left 17 dead and dozens more wounded. Iran — an ally of Qatar — blamed Saudi for the attack. The situation in Qatar and the attack in Tehran underscored the complicated and fractious politics of the region, which in many ways defy the easy black and white definitions and solutions Trump offered during the presidential campaign and his recent swing through the Middle East.

Turks deploying. Turkey has pledged support for Qatar, and is readying to rush troops to the country to help bolster defenses and train local forces. Both Iran and Turkey have offered to break the blockade and send supplies to the country, as well. A group of Gulf countries are currently drawing up a list of demands for Qatar to meet in order to resolve the crisis, including cutting funding for al Qaeda-related groups, breaking ties with Hamas and Iran, and curtailing the Doha-based al Jazeera news network.

Making it worse. The White House didn’t help matters Wednesday when it issued a terse statement about the attacks in Tehran, saying, “We grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people, who are going through such challenging times,” But “we underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.” Iranian officials called the statement “repugnant.”

North Korea test, and THAAD drama. North Korea fired four anti-ship cruise missiles into the waters between Korea and Japan on Thursday morning, just a day after the new president of South Korea put the brakes on an upcoming deployment of four American missile defense systems to his country, FP’s Paul McLeary reports.

The administration of new president Moon Jae-in, a left-leaning politician who favors rapprochement with North Korea, suspended the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems (THAAD), in what appears in part to be a concession to Chinese objections to the deployment. It is also in direct defiance of the American policy to confront North Korea’s growing ballistic and mid-range missile programs. More on the situation here.

Hezbollah warns US troops. Just two days after U.S. planes bombed an Iranian-backed militia group in Syria after it strayed too close to a U.S. base and ignored warnings to back off, Hezbollah warned it would strike U.S. forces if they crossed any “red lines.”

Germany heading to Jordan. After Turkish officials continued to refuse to allow German officials to visit German troops stationed at the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, Berlin announced it would move its 250 troops, four Tornado fighter planes, and a refueling aircraft to Jordan. They’ll join troops and aircraft from the U.S., Belgium, and The Netherlands at the base there.

Senate looks to block Saudi arms sale. A proposed sale of $500 million worth of U.S. precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia is coming under growing scrutiny from Congress, with lawmakers poised to vote on a resolution Thursday that could prove embarrassing for Riyadh and the Trump administration, FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary report.

The planned sale of munitions would replenish the kingdom’s depleted stocks after two years of daily bombing raids by a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. But human rights groups say the coalition’s forces have carried out a reckless air war in Yemen that has inflicted a heavy toll on civilians, and an increasing number of lawmakers are losing patience with Riyadh as a result. Lots more here.

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

Sanctions. The Senate is looking to hit Russia with another round of sanctions, advancing a bill with bipartisan support, Bloomberg reports. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is pushing for a bill that would take existing sanctions established by executive orders and turn them into statute, adding new penalties on Russian energy, debt, and mining sectors. One proposal under consideration would combine the Russia bill with legislation adding new sanctions against Iran in retaliation for its continued ballistic missile testing, which the U.S. considers a violation of U.N. restrictions place on Tehran.

Spending. The European Union is planning to invest over half a billion dollars in new development projects for defense, according to the AP. The fund would cover high risk development of new technologies like drones, developing prototypes and offering grants for new research. The Trump administration has put pressure on NATO countries to spend more money on defense, but many consider the EU’s defense arm to be a potential rival to the Atlantic alliance.

Threats. Hezbollah’s Al Manar television station broadcast footage of what it claimed was an Iranian Shahed-129 drone shadowing a U.S. Predator drone over Syria on Wednesday. Military Times reports that the terror group claimed the footage was recorded over al Tanf, where U.S. forces have clashed with Iranian-backed militias. A narrator during the broadcast warns that “we could shoot you down anytime, but we take pity on you.” One slight problem with that claim, though — the Shahed-129 has no air-to-air weapons.  

Review. The Pentagon is defending an airstrike on a mosque in Syria that human rights groups say killed dozens of civilians, claiming the strike was a legal hit against an al Qaeda meeting that killed only one civilian. Brig. Gen. Paul Bontrager led the investigation and dismissed media claims that several civilians had been killed in the strike, despite an admission that investigators did not speak to any witnesses. Bontrager also said that those conducting the strike did not have “all the best information” and that some were unaware the building they were hitting was being used to hold religious meetings.    

Propaganda bots. Someone has enlisted an army of social media bots in the ongoing feud between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors. The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog reports that Twitter bots have been pushing a handful of anti-Qatar hashtags over the past few weeks, like #AlJazeeraInsultsKingSalman, a reference to the Qatari government funded news channel, and “Qatar is the treasury of terrorism.” Analysis of the hashtags revealed that up to one in five accounts tweeting them were bots, many of them also pushing out content promoting the Saudi relationship with the Trump administration.

Ukraine. Someone threw an explosive device onto the lawn of the U.S. embassy in Kiev, according to the AP. Ukrainian police say the incident resulted in no casualties. The embassy said the explosive involved was a “small incendiary device” and that it’s not treating the incident as an act of terrorism.

Philippines. Philippine forces are finally getting the upper hand over a cluster of Islamic State-aligned militants in Marawi City in the country’s south. Philippine forces say they’re in the final stages of mopping up fighters from the group and the operation could be finished within days. Some experts believe that the siege was an attempt by the group to establish an Islamic State governorate in the city. Military officials say that around 40 foreign fighters from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, India, and Chechnya participated in the fighting.  

 

 

Photo Credit:  MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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