Situation Report: Unintended Consequences in Syria; Help wanted at CFIUS; Torture allegations in Yemen; Trump’s Tapes; and a bit more.
By David Francis, Adam Rawnsley, and FP Staff
U.S. taxpayers are helping Bashar Al-Assad in eastern Syria. Aide shipments heavily funded by American and European taxpayers are ending up in Deir Ezzor, where it’s helped the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian backers. FP’s Colum Lynch: “The feeding of Deir Ezzor provides a poignant illustration of how Syria and its allies have harnessed the good intentions of the United States, the United Nations and other international donors to advance its military interests during the country’s more than 6-year civil war.” More here.
For more, FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary recently wrote about how the increasing U.S. role in the Syrian conflict is putting U.S. troops in closer proximity to Iranian-backed militias in the country’s southeast. And FP reported last week about an internal debate in the administration about whether to go after the Iranian proxies more aggressively near the Syria-Iraq border. Meanwhile, Turkey announced on Thursday that it had reached an agreement with Russia to send more troops to Syria’s northwest Idlib province.
Vacancies at CFIUS. The panel responsible for strengthening government scrutiny of foreign investment is stymied by a lack of staffing and a massive workload. FP’s David Francis: “The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States is charged with making sure that foreign acquisitions of American firms do not present a threat to U.S. national security. CFIUS, in theory, could be a valuable tool to curb Chinese investments in America, a central concern for the current White House.” More here.
Secret prisons in Yemen. The Associated Press reports that hundreds rounded up in the hunt for al-Qaida militants are missing in a maze of secret prisons where “abuse is routine and torture extreme — including the ‘grill,’ in which the victim is tied to a spit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire.”
AP: “Senior American defense officials acknowledged Wednesday that U.S. forces have been involved in interrogations of detainees in Yemen but denied any participation in or knowledge of human rights abuses. Interrogating detainees who have been abused could violate international law, which prohibits complicity in torture.” More here.
What tapes? President Trump now denies that he made secret recordings of his talks with former FBI Director James Comey. FP’s Elias Groll: “Trump himself raised the possibility that there were ‘tapes’ of those discussions in a tweet last month, but then he backtracked in a series of tweets on Thursday, saying he ‘did not make’ and does not have recordings of his talks with the former FBI chief.”
Yemen strikes. The U.S. Central Command announced Thursday that a U.S. airstrike in Yemen killed Abu Khattab al Awlaqi, the emir for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Shabwa province, and two other militants. A statement from the command described Al Awlaqi as a “senior leader responsible for planning and conducting terrorist attacks against civilians.” The June 16 strike was the latest in what has been a stepped-up pace of strikes in Yemen against the terrorist group under the Trump administration, which has given commanders on the ground more leeway to carry out military operations than the Obama administration. Read more here from FP’s Dan De Luce and McLeary about the new wave of U.S. bombing in Yemen under Trump.
Welcome to Situation Report. Your regular presenter, Paul McLeary, is out today, but will be back in the saddle Monday. You can reach him at email@example.com or either he or Adam on Twitter @paulmcleary and @arawnsley.
China’s way. A delegation of Chinese security officials, among them Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, met with their counterparts at the White House on Thursday, including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. But there’s no sign of a major breakthrough on the Trump administration’s bid to persuade Beijing to come down hard on North Korea. White House and State Department officials say China has taken some “modest” steps to curtail trade with North Korea, but the results are not the sea-change desired by the administration.
“They’re making their own judgements on how much pressure to bring on North Korea,” an administration official told FP’s Dan De Luce. “There’s no change in their fundamental calculation,” the official said. China wants to discourage North Korea’s missile launches and other violations of U.N. Security resolutions, but it’s also determined to avoid causing the collapse of the Pyongyang regime. “China has sought to steadily increase pressure on North Korea. But it’s for their own purposes and based on their own assessment of what the traffic will bear.”
Russia sanctions. The Trump White House is closely watching the progress in the House of a sanctions bill passed by the Senate to ratchet up punitive measures on Moscow. The bill would require congressional approval for sanctions to be lifted, and the White House would like to see the measure watered down. A senior White House official told Foreign Policy on Thursday that the Trump administration is looking to maintain flexibility in the relationship with Russia but refused to say exactly what changes they are seeking in the measure. The bill is currently caught up in a procedural dispute between the House and Senate, and senior lawmakers said on Thursday they are looking to make a quick fix and advance the measure. But the bill’s final shape and when it might be passed into law remains in flux.
Starship troopers. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) wants the Air Force to set up its own Space Corps and he’s not going to take “no” for an answer. Breaking Defense reports that the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee told reporters that he’s “outraged” that the service isn’t considering his proposal to carve out one of the Air Force’s missions for a separate space service. Newly-confirmed Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has dismissed the idea as unnecessary bureaucracy, but Rogers says the service needs to either reform its space operations or brace for reforms driven by Congress without their input.
Espionage. Federal prosecutors have charged a former State Department diplomat with spying for China and selling classified documents for cash. In court documents released Thursday, the government alleges that Kevin Mallory, who worked at the State Department in the late 1980s and as a defense contractor afterwards, was stopped by customs officials at the airport while carrying $16,500 in undeclared cash on a trip back from Shanghai. A search of an electronic device belonging to Mallory allegedly turned up documents classified as Secret and Top Secret sent to a contact in China.
F-35. A software glitch in the logistics system for the F-35B has grounded the Marine Corps’s stealth fighter at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, AZ, Inside Defense reports. The problem is in the jet’s Autonomic Logistics Information System, which helps maintenance personnel and flight planners to keep track of repairs, supply chains, and other logistical issued. Marine Corps officials say the halt in flights is “very temporary” and they expect the problem to be solved shortly.
Loaners. Turkey says the Defense Department told it the U.S. will take back all the weapons it’s giving to the anti-Islamic State Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) once the fight is over. Turkey has been irritated by the U.S. decision to directly arm the predominantly Kurdish forces, fearing that the weapons and support could bolster militant Kurdish nationalism among groups Turkey considers to be terrorists. Reuters reports that Turkish officials claim Secretary of Defense James Mattis promised to give Ankara a running inventory of all the weapons it provides to SDF troops as part of the push to dislodge the Islamic State from eastern Syria and its capital in Raqqa.
Transgender plans. Top Pentagon officials were due to meet this week on plans to open the door to transgender troops. Each of the armed services were supposed to draw up a blueprint for how to educate troops about the change and to start accepting recruits after July 1. The last defense secretary, Ash Carter, made the policy change last year. But it’s unclear if Defense Secretary James Mattis will take action to delay or reverse the policy, which is opposed by many Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators.
Longshot. A Canadian special operations soldier has recorded the longest distance kill in history, according to the Globe and Mail. Canadian military sources told the paper that a member of Canada’s Joint Task Force 2 killed an Islamic State fighter in Iraq from over two miles away using a .50 caliber sniper rifle. The Canadian Special Operations Command confirmed the story to the BBC, saying that the shot prevented Canadian forces from having to hit the target with an airstrike, potentially risking nearby civilians. Canadian troops in Iraq operated under strict rules of engagement, with troops forbidden to engage in combat unless they detect hostile intent from potential enemies. But the claim has been met with some skepticism in the twitter-sniper-verse.
Casualties. Reporters for The Intercept spoke to locals present at the scene of a U.S. airstrike on a mosque in Syria back in April and they paint a drastically different picture of the incident than the Pentagon. Defense Department investigators didn’t interview eyewitnesses for their report into the strike, but they say the airstrike targeted a meeting of al-Qaeda officials and that only one person, possible a child, was killed in the strike. Locals and first responders tell the news outlet that the mosque was filled with civilians attending services and religious teachers who had no connection to militant groups. Human rights groups have estimated that as many as 38 civilians were killed in the strike.
Tick tock. It can be hard keeping track of the tit-for-tat incidents of escalation between the U.S. and pro-Assad regime forces in Syria. Thankfully, Just Security has you covered with a handy timeline of events since the April 2017 chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun.