SitRep: Mattis Hits Russia, Backs NATO; Tillerson, Lavrov, and Syria; American Taliban Release Coming
- 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
Mattis stays solid on Europe. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis doubled down on the U.S. military commitment to Europe on Wednesday, while taking a few swipes at Russia in the process. “The reason U.S. forces are in Europe is not out of charity to the Europeans,” he said during a speech in Garmish, Germany. “The security of the U.S. would be directly affected if Europe came under the domination of an unfriendly power.” Mattis made the stop in Germany before heading the Brussels to huddle with NATO allies.
He didn’t mention who that “unfriendly power” might be, but added: “Russia must know what we stand for, and equally, what we will not tolerate. We stand for freedom and we will never surrender the freedom of our people or the values of our alliance that we hold dear.” He also affirmed the U.S. commitment to an ongoing NATO buildup in Eastern Europe at least through 2020, which Moscow has denounced as a provocation.
Big bucks for NATO. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday that the alliance plans to spend $12 billion more on defense this year, as part of that buildup.
The Kremlin has noticed. Russia is watching, President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday. “Only advanced powerful mobile armed forces are capable of…protecting us and our allies from any potential aggressor,” he said. The Russian military modernization plan will also serve as a check on “pressure and intimidation by those who do not like the independent sovereign Russia,” he told Russian military academy graduates.
Tillerson told Lavrov about Syria concerns. In the hours before the White House surprised everyone — including some in the Pentagon and State Department — with its warning that Syria might be preparing another chemical weapons attack, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned his Russian counterpart about Washington’s concerns.
FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce write that “the stern warning marked the latest in a series of tense confrontations between Washington and the Syrian regime and its allies, Russia and Iran…Although some at the State Department and the Pentagon were caught off guard by the White House statement Monday evening, administration officials said it was not a unilateral move and that a small circle of senior leaders across government agencies took part in the discussions that led to the warning.”
United Nations chief trying to free American. In an exclusive get, FP’s Colum Lynch and Dan De Luce report that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres “is making a quiet appeal to Iran’s leaders to release an elderly American citizen detained on what the U.S. claims are trumped up charges of espionage, according to several officials.
“Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister and U.N. refugee chief, wrote a highly confidential letter a week ago to the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, to ask for the release on humanitarian grounds of Baquer Namazi, an 81-year-old retired UNICEF official.”
North Korea. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is holding a closed door briefing Wednesday on recent development in North Korea with Joseph Y. Yun, the special representative For North Korea policy at the State Department.
Islamic State’s Raqqa plan. On the ground reporting from Voice of America: “Unlike past battles, when IS militants attacked SDF front lines with hundreds of fighters and car bombs, the terror group’s new strategy involves using small groups of suicide bombers – six or seven — to cause large numbers of casualties. ‘This new method involves scattered attacks and most likely ends in the killing of all attackers,’ SDF commander Agid Muhammad told VOA from Raqqa.” Meanwhile, Turkey and Kurdish YPG fighters are trading artillery fire over the Turkish/Syrian border.
The ‘American Taliban’ likes Ireland. President Donald Trump spoke to the new Irish prime minister on Tuesday, and it’s unlikely they discussed John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” captured in Afghanistan only weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Lindh is due to be released in 2019 and would like to move to Ireland, according to an exclusive new report from FP’s Dan De Luce, Robbie Gramer, and Janna Winter. He has Irish citizenship thanks to his paternal grandmother, and wants to use it. More:
“Now 36 years old, Lindh is set to be released in less than two years. And he’ll leave prison with Irish citizenship and a stubborn refusal to renounce violent ideology, according to the U.S. government. Foreign Policy obtained two government documents that express concerns about Lindh: One details the communications of Lindh and other federal prisoners convicted of terrorism-related charges, and the second, written by the National Counterterrorism Center, addresses the intelligence community’s larger concerns over these inmates, once released.”
The plan. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir appears to have a plan for U.S.-Saudi relations if Qatar does not give into the other Gulf states’ demands that the tiny Gulf country cuts ties with Iran, shutters Al Jazeera and breaks off contact with groups like Hamas, FP’s Emily Tamkin writes. And it’s disarmingly simple: “Hope that Qatar gives in anyway.”
Shuttle diplomacy. “Players on all sides of the Persian Gulf diplomatic crisis were in Washington on Tuesday, making their cases to a divided administration that has been unable to stop the turmoil in the strategic region,” writes the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung.
Ill communication. The fate of a Senate bill to ratchet up sanctions on Russia remains bogged down in congressional gamesmanship. House Republicans used a procedural tactic to stall the measure last week, and the bill remains in limbo heading into the July 4 break.
Asked by FP’s Elias Groll whether the sanctions package remained before the House, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it had been sent back to the Senate. A few hours later, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he believed it remained with the House. With Democrats accusing Republicans of using procedural tactics to kill a measure opposed by the Trump administration, Groll attempted to clear the static by calling up the House Ways and Means Committee, where an aide said the bill remains in the House and that “the Senate has the tools to bring the bill back and fix it if it chooses.”
Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to email@example.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
Ransomware. A pandemic of ransomware infections has once again seized up networks around the world. The malware, dubbed “Petya,” follows in the footsteps of the WannaCry ransomware outbreak by exploiting a vulnerability in Windows first discovered by the NSA and later leaked by the mysterious Shadow Brokers hacking group. Petya appears to have hit Ukrainian systems the hardest but networks in Russia, India, and Western Europe.
Defectors. Ri Jong Ho, a former senior Korean Workers Party economic official who defected from North Korea in 2014, gives his first public interview to VOA in a two part series. Ri makes the pitch for more sanctions, saying ““Economic sanctions, if continued, will erode the North Korean regime’s grip on power, create more opportunities for market activities and stir all kinds of corruption and disorder in the country.”
In the loop. France’s newly-elected President Francois Macron has the Trump administration’s back on its warning to Syria against using chemical weapons, promising “to work on a common response in case of a chemical attack” in a phone call with Trump on Tuesday.
“We’ll do what we can.” That was Defense Secretary James Mattis’s response when asked by reporters on Tuesday whether the U.S. plans to recover the weapons it hands out to Kurdish fighters for the U.S.-backed anti-Islamic State coalition in Syria. Turkey claimed that the U.S. had promised that it would collect the weapons it hands out to groups like the YPG but Mattis’s aside that “it’s not like the fight’s over when Raqqa’s over” is a hint that they may be able to hang onto their guns longer than expected.
Supply runs. The Air Force’s 380th Expeditionary Force Support Squadron resupplied American forces stationed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar after they ran out of milk. Qatar’s Arab neighbors have cut off their air and ground supply links with it after expressing irritation at Doha’s flirtation with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, but so far the milk shortage is the only public sign of an impact on American troops stationed at Al-Udeid.
Reauthorization pitch. The FBI says the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program helped it track down one of the alleged perpetrators behind a New Year’s Eve nightclub bombing in Turkey. The disclosure is part of a lobbying effort by the intelligence community, facing newfound opposition to the program from Congressional Republicans angry that the U.S. eavesdropped on ousted former national security advisor Mike Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador.
Airstrikes. Syrian human rights groups claims that an airstrike by the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition went horribly wrong, killing roughly 57 people at an Islamic State prison in Mayadeen, Syria on Tuesday. The Pentagon says the coalition did carry out a strike there but told Reuters that it had been “meticulously planned” with the aim of protecting civilians.
Welcome gifts. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in town for a visit with President Trump and to celebrate, the Trump administration has signed off on the sale of 22 unarmed MQ-9B drones. The deal is worth around $22 billion but needs Congressional approval before it’s final.
Events back home in India, however, have not been nearly as cordial for Prime Minister Modi. China accused Indian border guards of straying into Chinese territory after India stopped a road construction operation by China along the still-disputed border between the two countries.
Personnel. The White House says it plans to nominate Textron CEO Ellen Lord as undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics.
Disarmed. Colombia’s FARC rebels have handed over the last remaining 40 percent of their guns, holding up their end of a peace deal to bring an end to the 50 year war with Colombia’s government.
Venezuelan crisis. “If Venezuela was plunged into chaos and violence and the Bolivarian Revolution destroyed, we would go to combat. We would never give up, and what we failed to achieve with votes, we would do with weapons.
Photo Credit: Lennart Preiss/Getty Images