SitRep: A First FP Presidential Endorsement; Trump Scraps With Own Veep on Syria, Russia
U.S. Ship Fired On; Russia Builds Up in Syria; North Korea Readies; and Lots More
Threats, and a split at the top of the Republican ticket. In an ugly, uncomfortable, often angry performance Tuesday night, we saw two things that have never happened before in a U.S. presidential debate. First, Republican nominee Donald Trump promised — if elected — to politicize the U.S. Justice Department by ordering an investigation into Hillary Clinton, making a very direct threat to send her to jail. Second, Trump contradicted his own vice presidential pick, Mike Pence, who last week outlined a military policy for Syria and criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin, two things Trump said he disagreed with.
On Syria and Russia. As FP’s Molly O’Toole and Elias Groll report,Trump “came out in support of two strongmen that have thrown a wrench in U.S. foreign policy, implicitly backing the Assad regime in Syria and arguing that a military partnership with Russia — which is currently reducing the city of Aleppo to cinders — is the best way to solve the Syrian impasse. He also denied, despite U.S. intelligence briefings and public findings to the contrary, that Russia could be behind recent hacks of the Democratic National Committee.”
Trump said that while “I don’t like Assad at all…he’s killing ISIS, Russia is killing ISIS, Iran is killing ISIS.” Of course, U.S. military leaders, independent analysts, and maps of the Syrian and Russian bombing campaign show that Syrian and Russian warplanes largely avoid ISIS-held parts of the country, and focus their efforts on other anti-Assad rebel groups.
He said, he said. At last week’s vice presidential debate, Republican VP nominee Mike Pence blasted Russia, and said if Moscow “continues to be involved” in airstrikes on civilians alongside the Syrian government, “the United States of America should be prepared to use military force” to strike the Syrian military. When asked about those comments Sunday night, Trump dismissed his own VP, saying, the two “haven’t spoken, and I disagree.”
Clinton called again for a no-fly zone in Syria – an idea that has found little support at the Pentagon — saying, “we need some leverage with the Russians.” But asked whether she’d threaten military force against either Moscow or Damascus, she instead repeated she would not send U.S. ground troops into Syria.
Mosul and Raqqa. In Iraq, Trump criticized U.S. and Iraqi officials who have spoken about the coming assault on the ISIS-held city of Mosul, complaining “why can’t they do the attack, make it a sneak attack? … How stupid is our country?” Clinton was more measured, suggesting “I do think that there is a good chance that we can take Mosul” in coming weeks. Most analysts believe the fight for Mosul could take months, given how well entrenched the jihadist fighters are there, but the White House has shown increasing eagerness to have the battle well underway by time President Barack Obama leaves office.
U.S. combat in Afghanistan? Not a word was mentioned by either candidate about the 7,000 U.S. troops currently on the ground in Afghanistan, and both ignored the unsettling fact that over the past week, one Green Beret was killed in combat, and two others injured, while fighting ISIS in Nangarhar province.
Foreign Policy news. For the first time in it’s history, Foreign Policy’s editorial leadership has endorsed a candidate for President of the United States, calling for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to be elected to the highest office in the land. The editors write, “as first lady, New York senator, and secretary of state, Hillary Clinton regularly distinguished herself by her intelligence, dogged work ethic, ability to work across the political aisle, and leadership on difficult issues. She has devoted her entire life to public service and has been a powerful and effective advocate for women, children, and those in need at home and abroad. Whether you agree with all the policy stances of her campaign or not, impartial eyes will conclude that her proposals on climate change, combating terrorism, and human rights are thoughtful and comprehensive — and ultimately worthy of consideration.”
Good morning and as always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
A U.S. Navy ship came under fire Sunday while operating off the coast of Yemen, U.S. military officials say. The two rockets fired from Houthi-held areas of Yemen splashed harmlessly into the sea. No American sailors were injured and no damage was done to the USS Mason, a guided missile destroyer.
Last week, three American ships – guided-missile destroyers USS Nitze, USS Mason, and the afloat forward staging base USS Ponce, were dispatched to the Yemeni coast after a Houthi rebels launched a guided missile attack on the HSV Swift, a high-speed ferry leased to the UAE.
After a Saudi-led airstrike on a funeral in the Yemeni city as Saana killed well over 100 civilians, the U.S. has vowed to conduct “an immediate review” of its support for the Saudi-led coalition, according to a statement from Ned Price, the National Security Council spokesman. “U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check,” the statement said. “Even as we assist Saudi Arabia regarding the defense of their territorial integrity, we have and will continue to express our serious concerns about the conflict in Yemen and how it has been waged.”
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a statement on Friday saying in public what officials have so far only said in on background: the U.S. government “is confident” that Russia is behind the string of hacks targeting Democratic party organizations. Johnson and Clapper also wrote that emails and other data stolen in the hacks and later published on WikiLeaks and by the DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 personas came from the Russian hacks and that “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities” given the sensitivity of the intrusions and publication. FP’s Elias Groll has lots more on the issue.
But it’s not just Democrats who’ve had their data and party infrastructure hacked. NBC News spoke to dozens of officials and cybersecurity experts and found that a number of senior Republicans have been targeted by the Russian hacking campaign which began in 2015 — they just haven’t had their documents leaked. One official estimates that “hundreds” of high profile American political figures have been targeted, telling NBC “The only thing I can tell you is that there are going to be more leaks.”
Is North Korea prepping another rocket launch? 38 North, an expert analysis site for all things DPRK, obtained satellite imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station and found signs of new activity at the site. Photos show new vehicles and crates at the launch pad and work going on near an engine test pad. It’s unclear whether the activity is a sign that the North will carry out another engine test as it did in September or whether the activity is maintenance following the previous test.
Washington’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said over the weekend on a visit to South Korea that the United States is “committed to using all the tools in our tool kit to address this serious threat including the diplomatic pressure that we are mobilizing around the world to convince other nations to isolate the regime.” FP’s Dan De Luce broke the news last week that the Obama administration is considering tougher sanctions on the North, and the companies that do business with the regime.
German police are looking for a Syrian man whom they say was planning a bomb attack, according to the AP. Authorities raided an apartment believed to be connected to the plotter, Jaber Albakr, and found a large cache of explosives. Police detained the man who rented the apartment, calling him a “possible co-conspirator” but the search for Albark continues.
The Guardian reports that Iran’s covert operations chief and Syria war chief, Qassem Soleimani, is hoping for a march to the sea. Iranian-backed militias are now occupying a patch of land that officials like Soleimani hope will help them secure a land corridor stretching west from the Iranian border, north through Baqubah and Iraq, and zigzagging through Syria to the Mediterranean. Iranian-backed groups began trying to secure areas along the route beginning in 2014, unnerving countries like Turkey, which fears it could lead to a rapprochement between Iran and the Kurdish PKK.
al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, just got a bit bigger. The Syrian Islamist rebel group Jund al-Aqsa pledged allegiance to the group, according to a statement published online. The State Department designated Jund al-Aqsa a terrorist group in September, citing its close relationship with al Qaeda, suicide bombings it carried out in Idlib, and a massacre of 40 civilians it carried out in Hama. The merger also comes as Jund al-Aqsa is locked in a conflict with another powerful Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham.
The battle to clear Taliban militants out of the northern city of Kunduz in Afghanistan continues, now with the help of American airstrikes. U.S. forces have carried out 24 airstrikes in support of Afghan forces and are helping with logistics to transport Afghan troops to the fight. Afghan military officials say they’ve recaptured a handful of police districts from Taliban fighters, but the extended battle is causing residents to flee, with around 24,000 having left so far.
Photo Credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary