The Cable

SitRep: SecDef Says North Korea Biggest Threat; Saudi Arms Deal Under Fire

Russia Sanctions On The Way; ISIS Calls For Ramadan Attacks; al Baghdadi Still On The Run

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis (R) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, Jr., (L), testify during a US House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Fiscal Year 2018 budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, June 12, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis (R) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, Jr., (L), testify during a US House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Fiscal Year 2018 budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, June 12, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

 

With Adam Rawnsley

We stay awake, so you don’t have to. In a marathon Monday evening hearing, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis confirmed that North Korea has eclipsed Russia as the “most urgent and dangerous threat to peace and security.”

Appearing before the House Armed Services Committee alongside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford, Mattis switched course from his confirmation hearing in January, where he identified Russia as the country’s biggest threat. But after a spate of apparently successful missile tests, Mattis said, “the regime’s nuclear weapons program is a clear and present danger to all.”

Russia didn’t get off the hook completely, however. “I do not see any indication that Mr. Putin would want a positive relationship with us,” the SecDef continued. “That is not to say we can’t get there as we look for common ground…But at this point, he has chosen to be competitive, a strategic competitor with us and we will have to deal with that as we see it,” he said.

And the big troop and equipment buildup that candidate Trump promised on the campaign trail last year, but didn’t fund in the 2018 defense budget? It’s coming next year, Mattis promised, but only if Congress lifts spending caps and grows Pentagon funding by about $19 billion a year. Budget experts have been skeptical that this is possible.

Strong words. The secretary took it to Congressional leadership for the budget problems he says he faces. Congress has “sidelined itself from its active constitutional oversight role,” Mattis said. “It has blocked new programs, prevented service growth, stalled industry initiative and placed troops at greater risk.” The committee members themselves understand the problem, he said, but “Congress as a whole has met the present challenge with lassitude, not leadership.”

Senate vs. Saudi arms deals. Sources say that the Senate is likely to vote on a controversial measure Tuesday that would block a $500 million sale of precision guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, which several Democrats and Republicans have opposed due to the civilian casualties caused by indiscriminate Saudi bombing in Yemen over the past two years. A previous attempt to vote on the measure last week was put on hold as senators like Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) continued to wrangle votes.

FP has been told the vote will come after a Top Secret briefing provided by Pentagon and State Dept. officials to senate staffers about the deal, which is part of a series of potential weapons deals with Riyadh worth $110 billion. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Monday said he supports the push to stop the sale.

Russia Sanctions. Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate are working on legislation that would extend and increase sanctions on Russia and Iran, including a provision that would prevent the White House from easing sanctions without congressional approval.

“The Foreign Relations and Banking Committees have been negotiating for about a week on an amendment to an Iran sanctions bill that also would impose sanctions to punish Russia over issues including its alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and support for the government of Syria in that country’s six-year-long civil war,” Reuters reports.

Congress Set to Grill Rex Tillerson on Massive Budget Cuts to State: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will run the congressional gauntlet this week, facing a hostile Congress to defend the Trump administration’s controversial diplomacy and foreign aid budget already deemed “dead on arrival.” Tillerson will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, then the House Foreign Affairs Committee and House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. Before all four panels, Tillerson will face a wall of Democrats seething at how the administration has handled foreign policy so far, multiple congressional sources tell Foreign Policy. “Democrats are going to come out swinging,” as one Congressional staffer put it. FP’s Robbie Gramer has the story.

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

This again. Former Chicago Bulls power forward Dennis Rodman has headed back to North Korea, leading to speculation that he might be trying to spring one of the detained American citizens held by Pyongyang. Fox News reports that Rodman touched down early Tuesday, telling reporters that he’s “just trying to open a door” to the country amid increased tensions with the United States although he’s said freeing American citizens detained by the North is “not my purpose right now.” Rodman visited North Korea in 2013 to the evident delight of dictator Kim Jong-un, a huge Chicago Bulls fan who has praised Rodman as “the only American that has ever kept his word.”

Propaganda. Islamic State spokesman Abi al-Hassan al-Muhajer has released a new audiotape calling on supporters to carry out terrorist attacks abroad during Ramadan. Al-Muhajer specified Western countries as worthy targets for followers, also singling out Iran and the Philippines, where the group and its affiliates have recently carried out how profile attacks. The tape has been circulating on social media, as well as encrypted chat rooms on the Telegram messaging platform.

Chemical weapons. The State Department offered a small glimpse of intelligence on the Islamic State’s chemical weapons capabilities when it sanctioned two members of the Islamic State’s chemical weapons production section. The sanctions designation targets Attallah Salman ‘Abd Kafi al-Jaburi and Marwan Ibrahim Hussayn Tah al-Azawi, who the State Department says are in charge of production of chemical munitions for use against Iraqi forces. Officials tell CNN that the U.S. believes the terrorist group is now evacuating its chemical weapons stockpiles and personnel from Iraq and sending them to Syria as part of a “new chemical weapons cell.”

Smokey and the bandit. The Islamic State’s caliphate is crumbling but many people believe its caliphate Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will be able to hold out for years before he’s caught by the U.S. and its allies. Iraqi counterterrorism officials and experts on the group tell Reuters that Baghdadi keeps a vigilant, almost paranoid security regimen, communicating only through couriers and moving every 72 hours in civilian vehicles back and forth across the border between Iraq and Syria. The U.S. has a designated task force to find and kill Baghdadi but February marked the last known instance in which American forces had enough intelligence on his possible location to warrant an airstrike.

Civilian casualties. Local officials in Ghani Khel district of Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan say U.S. troops killed three civilians in a firefight there on Sunday. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Defense Department confirmed that American forces in the area came under attack that day and returned fire but denied any knowledge of confirmed civilian casualties from the attack. U.S. forces in Afghanistan have been on edge following the deaths of three U.S. special operations troops killed by one of their Afghan colleagues in an insider attack last week.

 

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

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