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SitRep: White House Warns Assad; U.N. Ambo. Adds Russia to List; Mattis Talks Dividing Up Syria

SitRep: White House Warns Assad; U.N. Ambo. Adds Russia to List; Mattis Talks Dividing Up Syria

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Chemical warfare. Late Monday evening, the White House issued a statement charging that it had “identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime” against civilians, a statement which took many Pentagon and State Department officials by surprise. Syrian and Russian officials denied the claims on Tuesday, with Ali Haidar, Syria’s minister for national reconciliation, telling the AP that the statement foreshadowed a “diplomatic battle” that would be waged against Syria at the U.N.

Speaking with reporters in Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin considers “such threats against the Syrian leadership to be unacceptable.”

Grave warning. The White House statement said the activities the U.S. detected were similar to preparations before an April 2017 attack that killed dozens of men, women and children, and warned that if “Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.”

About an hour after that statement, U.S. Ambassador to the United nations Nikki Haley upped the ante, Tweeting, “any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia & Iran who support him killing his own people.”

Bad blood. The April attack led president Trump to order the launch of 59 cruise missiles against the Syrian airfield from which the chemical strike was carried out. The White House and Haley’s statements heighten tensions at a time when the U.S. has increasingly targeted Syrian forces and their Iranian-backed allies, leading to a potentially deeper involvement in the Syrian civil war than American policymakers and military leaders have said they’re looking for.

Earlier this month, an American F-18 shot down a Syrian bomber after it attacked U.S.-backed forces near Raqqa, leading Russia to warn that it would begin tracking all U.S. and coalition flights over the country. American warplanes have also bombed Iranian-backed forces in southern Syria on two occasions after they strayed too close to a U.S. base at al Tanf, and two Iranian-made drones have been shot down in southern Syria by American warplanes.

The attacks come against the backdrop of a tug-of-war between Iran hawks in the White House who are pushing for a more aggressive U.S. stance against Tehran’s troops in Syria, and the Pentagon, which wants to focus solely on defeating the Islamic State, as FP recently reported.

Pentagon leaders overseas. The charges from the White House come as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is in Europe meeting with NATO allies, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford is in Kabul to hold several days worth of meetings with Afghan and U.S. military officials to hash out the final bits of the long-awaited Afghan strategy.  

Speaking with reporters on his plane to Munich, Mattis said that “we just refuse to get drawn into the Syrian Civil War.” As the fight moves past Raqqa and into the Euphrates RIver Valley where much of the Islamic State’s leadership has fled, Mattis said, the area will likely be drawn up into “deconfliction” areas, where the various players — the U.S., Russia, Syrian forces and their allies from Iran and Hezbollah, and American allies — can avoid coming in contact with one another. “You have to play this thing very carefully,” Mattis said. “The closer we get, the more complex it gets.”

Senators block new arms sales. Fed up with the Gulf states’ ongoing Qatar dispute, the Senate threw its hat in the diplomatic ring with an ultimatum of its own on Monday. FP’s Robbie Gramer and Dan De Luce report that Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said he’ll withhold consent on future arms sales to Gulf states until there is “a path for resolving the ongoing dispute.”

In a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Corker wrote that “before we provide any further clearances during the informal review period on sales of lethal military equipment to the GCC states, we need a better understanding of the path to resolve the current dispute and reunify the GCC.” Earlier this month, a $500 million arms package for Saudi Arabia barely made it past a Senate vote, signaling that future sales might not come without a fight.

Missile threats surge worldwide. A forthcoming Pentagon report about the proliferation of ballistic missiles finds that technology for the weapons “is advancing in countries from North Korea and Iran to Russia and China, increasing potential threats to the U.S. even if they don’t carry nuclear warheads,” according to Bloomberg, which obtained a copy of the report.

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

Assassination. Japan’s Asahi Shimbun has an intriguing but thinly-sourced exclusive claiming that impeached former South Korean President Park Geun-hye signed off on a covert plan to kill Kim Jong-un during an especially tense period in North-South relations. Details about the supposed plot are sparse but South Korean intelligence reportedly considered trying to make an assassination attempt against Kim look like an accident.

Dead enders. Iraqi forces captured another neighborhood in west Mosul’s Old City on Tuesday, and U.S. commanders estimate that there are still “several hundred” ISIS fighters left in the shrinking pocket. But they hold as many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians in their grip.

Broken promises. A Pentagon memo obtained by the Washington Post indicates that U.S. officials are considering a plan to withdraw its pledge of citizenship for immigrants who fought in the U.S. military. The program, meant to fast-track citizenship applications from non-citizens with needed language and medical skills, was implemented in 2009. The memo “describes potential security threats of immigrants,” and places about 4,100 troops — most of whom are naturalized citizens — under the threat of “enhanced screening,” according to the memo.

Number 8, never keep no weight on you. A Paraguayan man, Alexa Issa Chamas, was arrested in Miami on charges that he was trafficking drugs from Latin America to the U.S. Chamas, a native of the tri-border area between Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, wasn’t charged with terrorism offenses, but experts note that he has family ties to the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, leading some experts to interpret his arrest as a U.S. signal to the group.

Chopper pew. Directed energy weapons are the new hotness in the Defense Department, with weapons designers looking to bolt lasers on everything that will hold one. The latest candidate is the Army’s AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. The Drive reports that an Apache packing a high energy laser tracked and hit a test target with the weapon.

Pushback. Not every Republican congressman is on board with President Trump’s plans to build a closer relationship with Moscow. Politico profiles Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) who is the leader of a small but determined group of Congressional Republicans looking to raise “holy hell” over the issue, starting with a recent sanctions package passed by Congress.

We’re (not) number one. A new poll from the Pew Research Center shows confidence in and approval of the U.S. among 37 countries has plummeted during the Trump administration. Overall, the U.S. has fallen 15 points in favorability since the Obama administration, down from 64 to 49 percent with allies like Germany, Spain, and Canada witnessing particularly sharp drops. On the bright side, President Trump’s overtures towards Russia appear to be paying off — Russia was the only country in the survey where favorability of the U.S. has improved.

Bad reputation. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security detail is acquiring a bad reputation after Turkish security officials protecting him assaulted protesters in a bloody DC brawl. Washington, D.C. prosecutors issued arrest warrants for a dozen Turkish officials but now Germany is saying those charged “are not welcome in Germany” when Erdogan shows up for the forthcoming G20 meeting.

 

 

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