Situation Report: EXCLUSIVE: Details on U.S.-Russian Ceasefire in Syria; China’s Navy Showing Up Everywhere
- 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
Details, doubt, and deliberations. A confidential U.S.-Russian cease-fire agreement for southwestern Syria that went into effect Sunday calls for barring Iranian-backed foreign fighters from a strategic stretch of Syrian territory near the borders of Israel and Jordan, according to three diplomatic sources who spoke with FP about the proposal.
But Congressional staffers and military officials in Washington say they know little of the proposed deal, announced last week by President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 Summit in Germany.
Any agreement would have to include the buy-in of the Syrian regime and those doing most of the fighting: Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias. One U.S. military official told FP U.S. troops won’t be working directly with Iranians or Syrians, however. “Our operating assumption is if the Iranians and Syrians will want to be informed, the Russians are going to be the intermediary on all things,” the official said.
Not coming home just yet. That’s the word from U.S. Lt. Gen Stephen Townsend, who told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday that despite the fall of Mosul, U.S. troops will be sticking around Iraq for some time. “This fight is far from over. So I wouldn’t expect to see any significant change in our troop levels in the immediate future because there’s still hard work to be done by the Iraqis and the coalition,” Townsend, who is the U.S. military’s top commander in Iraq, said.
Own goal. The White House is reeling from the latest self-inflicted wound by a member of the Trump clan, as Donald Trump Jr.’s emails confirming that he expected to receive damning information on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government have gone public. From Jr.’s own Twitter account….and the New York Times, which forced the younger Trump’s hand.
China sends ships, marines to Djibouti. The tiny country on the Horn of Africa already hosts a large U.S. military base and Japan’s only overseas military installation. And now Beijing has joined in, building its own base literally next door to the sensitive American facility. The AP reports that photos on the PLA’s website “showed naval officers and marines in battle dress lining the rails of the support ships Jingangshan and Donghaidao” at a farewell ceremony at a Chinese port wishing the marines and ships well as they head to Africa.
Boom from Beijing. In a demonstration of the Chinese navy’s expanding global reach, new Chinese warships conducted live-fire drills in the Mediterranean this week while steaming for a training exercise with the Russian navy. More from the AP: “The destroyer Hefei, frigate Yuncheng and support ship Luomahu took part in Monday’s drills involving the ship’s deck guns and small arms.”
Should we talk about the weather. The Trump administration’s nominee for Navy Secretary believes climate change is real and is committed to mitigating its impact on Navy operations. Richard V. Spencer made the statement in response to questions from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Tuesday, striking a different note than his boss, President Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax” invented by China.
Spencer also seemed to break with President Trump’s pledges during the 2016 campaign to increase the size of the fleet to 355 ships. Spencer swaddled his discussion of the 355-ship plan with plenty of conditional terms, damning it with faint praise as a “great goal” and something “good number for people to focus on” rather than a hard and fast target for the service to hit.
Marine Raiders involved in another accident. The tragic C-130 accident this week that killed 16 U.S. Marines and sailors claimed the lives of six Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) personnel en route to a training exercise. The WSJ reports, “the plane contained weaponry and ammunition that could have contributed to additional explosions after the crash, which occurred in a soybean field in rural Mississippi, officials said. A special team of explosives technicians are examining the site to assure it remains safe.” It was the second major accident to hit the elite Marine unit. In March 2015, a helicopter accident in the Gulf of Mexico killed seven MARSOC personnel.
Arms sales. The Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency has finally announced the long-discussed potential sale of Patriot anti-missile systems to Romania. The proposed sale involves seven Patriot batteries and would cost an estimated $3.9 billion. Speaking with FP’s Paul McLeary this spring, Romania’s Ambassador to the U.S. outlined the country’s front line position vs. Russia, and why Bucharest says it needs the air defense system, along with lots more American military equipment.
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Special envoy. So who is Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer who offered Donald Trump Jr. damaging information on Hillary Clinton on behalf of the Russian government? At Just Security, former Defense Department counsel Ryan Goodman and CIA intelligence officer Rolf Mowatt-Larssen argue that Veselnitskaya’s “interaction had all the hallmarks of an overture by Russian intelligence to the [Trump] campaign,” suggesting that she could have been a “dangle” by the Russian government designed to test the Trump campaign’s appetite for collusion.
Natalia who? “No, we don’t know who that is and obviously we can’t monitor all meetings Russian lawyers hold both in Russia and abroad” — Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denying any knowledge of Veselnitskaya’s meeting at Trump Tower.
What information? For her part, Veselnitskaya is denying any knowledge of damaging information on Clinton, telling NBC News “I never had any damaging or sensitive information about Hillary Clinton. It was never my intention to have that.” Despite email records showing Veselnitskaya promising incriminating information on Clinton that was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” she now claims to have had no connection to the Russian government during her meeting with Donald Trump Jr.
Not it. North Korea’s biggest trading partner is getting pretty tired of being held accountable for North Korea’s behavior. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang pushed back against what he called the “China responsibility theory,” saying that “China is not to be blamed for the current escalation of tension, nor does China hold the key to resolve the issue.” The Trump administration and others have leaned hard on China to try and use its leverage with Pyongyang to curb its provocative missile and nuclear tests.
Hurdles. North Korea’s new missile may be able to reach intercontinental range, but the warhead it packs will still have a difficult time making it through reentry into the atmosphere. Yonhap News Agency reports that South Korean intelligence believes the Hwasong-14 missile launched on July 4th probably doesn’t have the technology to allow the warhead to keep from burning up once it descends back into the earth’s atmosphere.
Semaphore. The martial pageantry of deterrence against North Korea continues, with the U.S. testing its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system off the coast of Alaska. A THAAD battery in Kodiak, Alaska successfully knocked down a simulated North Korean ballistic missile dropped from a C-17 flying off Hawaii. The U.S. deployed a THAAD to South Korea in order to defend against North Korean ballistic missiles but the system has proven politically controversial in Seoul.
Super Friends. The U.S., Japan, and India are participating in the Malabar naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal, including Japan for the second time since the annual U.S.-India drill first began in 1992. The exercise is widely perceived as a hedge by China’s neighbors, wary of its military growth and expansive territorial claims.
Mosul. Drone footage of Mosul shot by Al Jazeera reveals the extent of destruction to the formerly Islamic State-held city.
Our house. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is threatening the U.S. with unspecified retaliatory measures if it doesn’t fork over the property seized when former President Obama expelled Russian diplomats and a compound used by the Russian embassy in response to allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. “If this does not happen, if we see that this step is not seen as essential in Washington, then of course we will take retaliatory measures,” Lavrov said, according to Reuters.
Personnel. Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would like to put a door stopper in the revolving door between the defense industry and senior positions in the Trump Pentagon. Defense News reports that McCain told reporters he “did not want people from the top five corporations” of the defense industry appointed to any positions. The complaint comes after the Trump administration nominated Boeing’s Patrick Shanahan, Textron’s Ellen Lord, and Lockheed’s David Ehrhart for top Pentagon jobs.
Photo Credit: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images