The Cable

SitRep: Intel Wars; China Hits Back at Trump; Pentagon Looks to Loosen War Rules

Russian Missiles Deployed; Aleppo Falls; More Commandos to Syria; And Lots More

US President Barack Obama speaks alongside US Vice President Joe Biden (2nd R), US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson (L) at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, April 13, 2016, following a meeting with the National Security Council. / AFP / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks alongside US Vice President Joe Biden (2nd R), US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson (L) at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, April 13, 2016, following a meeting with the National Security Council. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

 

Intel. Two months after a joint statement from the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence concluded that the U.S. “is confident that the Russian Government” hacked emails from Democratic party operatives, and “these thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process,” the fight over what the Russians did, and who believes what they might have done, grinds on.

One group who finds the U.S. intel community unpersuasive will soon move into the White House. Reince Priebus, President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming chief of staff, told Chuck Todd of Meet the Press on Sunday that “there’s been no conclusive or specific report” that points to the Russians, and his boss, Donald Trump, told Fox News’ Chris Wallace Sunday, “I don’t believe it,” and “they have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody. It could be somebody sitting in a bed some place.”

Back story. The issues exploded on Friday, when the Washington Post reported the CIA concluded that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine the U.S. electoral system. Trump labeled that “ridiculous” in his Sunday Fox interview. On Saturday, the Post followed that up with a report that the FBI wasn’t quite as sure as the CIA over Russian intentions.

Whatever the CIA and FBI might believe about Russian intentions, there is one thing they agree on: Moscow was involved in trying to undermine democratic institutions in the United States. As the Post’s Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous write: “The FBI is not sold on the idea that Russia had a particular aim in its meddling. ‘There’s no question that [the Russians’] efforts went one way, but it’s not clear that they have a specific goal or mix of related goals,’ said one U.S. official.”

Democrats pushing investigation. A House Intelligence Committee member told Foreign Policy’s John Hudson, Elias Groll, and Dan De Luce that congressional Democrats who want to declassify the intelligence assessment also will push to investigate whether Moscow directly coordinated with the Trump campaign during the election.

Bipartisan consensus. On Sunday, U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Jack Reed (D-RI) released a statement saying the Russian hacking “cannot become a partisan issue. The stakes are too high for our country…we will seek to unify our colleagues around the goal of investigating and stopping the grave threats that cyberattacks conducted by foreign governments pose to our national security.”

Of Trump’s dismissal of any Russian role, McCain told CBS’ Face the Nation Sunday, “I don’t know what to make of it because it’s clear the Russians interfered…Facts are stubborn things. They did hack into this campaign.” He added that he wants to establish a select subcommittee — the kind that investigated Benghazi and Watergate — to examine the Russian activities.

Trump and Ukraine. Trump will encounter sharp opposition in Congress from both parties if he seeks to cut a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin that jeopardizes Ukraine’s sovereignty or the security of NATO allies in Eastern Europe, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware told Foreign Policy on Friday. “I think the idea that Donald Trump the great deal maker could cut some deal with Putin that in any way involved Ukraine, and Ukraine’s territorial integrity, [or] the Baltic states and their status, would run into a wall of opposition in the Congress,” Coons said in an interview with FP.

Now, try some Trump on China. Beijing on Monday said it had “serious concern” about Trump’s comments Sunday that he didn’t feel “bound by a one-China policy.” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said that the policy is the “political foundation” for diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington, and tossing that out the window could render cooperation “out of the question.” Geng added, “we urge the new U.S. leader and government to fully understand the seriousness of the Taiwan issue, and to continue to stick to the one-China policy.”

A Chinese nuclear-capable bomber flew along the disputed “Nine-Dash line” Thursday, which surrounds the South China Sea and dozens of small, disputed islands, many of which are claimed by other countries in the region. What’s more, China says Japanese F-15s put the Chinese military aircraft at risk by flying too close and deploying warning flares — a claim that Japanese officials subsequently denied.

New Pentagon rules. The Pentagon is putting together a list of options for the incoming Trump administration to ramp up U.S. involvement in the fight against the Islamic State, the Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Lubold reports. Defense officials wouldn’t provide specifics, but said that ideas include “moving some tactical authority back to the Pentagon,” by giving military commanders more leeway, easing restrictions on troops involved in operations, and expanding the zone where U.S. airstrikes can hit suspected militants.

More SOF to Syria. One thing the Obama administration has already signed off on is sending 200 more U.S. Special Operations Forces to Syria, FP’s Paul McLeary reports. The announcement is another uptick in the growing American presence in both Syria and Iraq, where local forces — backed by U.S. and coalition airpower — have steadily pushed the Islamic State into smaller pockets of control over the past year. There are currently about 300 American special operations forces in Syria.

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: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

Philippines

The U.S.-Philippine military relationship took another hit with the announcement that the annual PHIBLEX joint exercise will not take place in 2017, Military Times reports. U.S. and Philippine forces had taken part in the exercise for the past 34 years, but the newly-elected President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly railed against Manila’s alliance with the U.S. military, calling for the withdrawal of American special operations forces, the cancellation of joint exercises, and arms deals with Russia and China. In 2017, the two countries forces will instead train together on amphibious operations in support of disaster relief mission a move that Marine Corps spokesman said was part of a “mutually agreed upon plan.”

Kaliningrad

Russian Iskander-M ballistic missile systems are no longer just visiting Kaliningrad, they’re there to stay and just bought a cozy little bungalow in the enclave’s interior. Researchers Jeffrey Lewis and Veli-Pekka Kivimäki found social media imagery posted by Russia’s 152nd Missile Brigade and combined it with commercial satellite imagery to uncover Russia’s construction of “tent-mobile” shelters designed to house the nuclear-capable missile systems. The permanent deployment is a reversal of precedent in which Russia has sent Iskanders to Kaliningrad for temporary exercises. Their indefinite placement, as Russian officials point out, puts U.S. missile defense systems in Poland in range.

Turkey

A bombing at a soccer game in Istanbul killed 38 people over the weekend and now a splinter group of Kurdish PKK terrorist group is claiming responsibility for that attack. The BBC reports that a group called TAK claimed the suicide bombing in a statement posted online, saying it was in retaliation for Turkish security forces security crackdown in Kurdish areas in the country’s southeast. Turkish officials, however, have pinned the blame for the bombing squarely on the PKK.

Syria

The Islamic State has once again captured the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria’s Homs province after a Russian military operation took the city back from the group in March of this year. The Wall Street Journal reports that Assad regime forces have fled the city and Islamic State propaganda claims to hold the city center, releasing footage of its fighters moving about unopposed and capturing abandoned tanks and armored vehicles. The loss is a blow to Russian prestige after it held a very public military campaign involving Russian special operations forces and a subsequent concert held in Palmyra’s ancient amphitheater to celebrate its liberation.

Opposition groups tell Reuters that Russia and the U.S. have been negotiating plans for a humanitarian corridor to allow rebels to leave the besieged opposition-held eastern Aleppo as Assad regime forces capture more territory. The talks, however, have yet to produce a deal, with Russia blaming the U.S. side for insisting on what it calls “unacceptable terms.” An agreement would allow rebel groups and civilian family members to leave the city securely, thereby handing control of all of the city of Aleppo to the Assad regime.

Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told 60 Minutes that he’s looking forward to working with President-elect Donald Trump and hoping that Trump will help him scrap the nuclear deal the Obama administration negotiated with Iran. During the presidential campaign, Trump promised he would tear up the deal and negotiate a new one which would be better in ways he has yet to specify. Netanyahu said there are “various ways of undoing” the deal and predicted that breaking it wouldn’t cause Iran to rush to build a bomb.

 

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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