The Cable

SitRep: Washington Frozen Out as Iran, Turkey, Russia Meet on Syria; Mike Flynn Meets With Pro-Putin Austrian Pol

North Korea and its Subs; Women, Trans, and Gay Troops Worried about Trump Policies; And Lots More

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) welcomes his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) during their meeting in Moscow on December 20, 2016.   / AFP / Natalia KOLESNIKOVA        (Photo credit should read NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) welcomes his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) during their meeting in Moscow on December 20, 2016. / AFP / Natalia KOLESNIKOVA (Photo credit should read NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)

 

Berlin tragedy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the attack on a Christmas market in Berlin where 12 people died Monday was most likely a terrorist attack, but authorities were still investigating. “We must assume at the current time that it was a terrorist attack,” Merkel said. Early reports indicate a 23 year-old Pakistani migrant was likely responsible for the attack, and that he plowed a hijacked truck into the market. The suspect is in police custody.

Attack in Ankara. The attack came on the same day a 22 year old former Turkish police officer fired point-blank into the back of Andrey G. Karlov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey at an art gallery in the Turkish capital. While the ambassador lay mortally wounded on the ground, the gunman shouted “God is great!” and “don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria!” raising questions over possible ties to terrorist groups fighting in Syria.

There were initial worries that the assassination would lead to a break between Russia and Turkey, but Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone and reportedly agreed to cooperate in investigating the killing, and in combating terrorism broadly. The shooting was aimed at “disrupting the peace process in Syria that is being actively advanced by Russia, Turkey and Iran,” Putin said late Monday. “There can be only one answer to this – stepping up the fight against terrorism, and the bandits will feel this.”

Russian warplanes have operated with the regime in Syria to pound civilian targets — especially in Aleppo — since September 2015. Airwars, a group that monitors reports of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria, estimates that Russian airstrikes in and around Aleppo killed over 1,000 civilians in November alone.

Power trio. Left out of the statements by Russian and Turkish officials about fighting terrorism in Syria is any mention of the United States. On Tuesday, Russia, Iran and Turkey kicked off a new round of meetings in Moscow aimed at finding a resolution to the civil war in Syria. While foreign ministers from the three countries huddled in one part of the Russian capital, a separate meeting brought together defense ministers from the same trio, where “Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan praised military cooperation between Ankara and Moscow in Syria,” according to Reuters.

Aleppo burns. The U.N. Security Council on Monday unanimously called for U.N. officials and others to play a role in observing the evacuation of people from the last rebel-held silvers of eastern Aleppo. “The 15-member council overcame long-held divisions – that have pitted Syrian ally Russia and China against Western powers over the Syrian conflict – to adopt a French-drafted resolution calling for U.N. officials and others “’to carry out adequate, neutral monitoring and direct observation on evacuations,’” Reuters reports.

Mike Flynn’s meetings. President-elect Donald Trump’s national security advisor Mike Flynn recently sat down with the leader of the Austrian far-right, anti-immigrant Freedom Party at Trump Tower in a previously unreported meeting. It’s not clear what the two talked about, but Heinz-Christian Strache wrote about the encounter on his Facebook page, according to the New York Times. He also announced the signing of a cooperation agreement with United Russia, the party of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The agreement with United Russia is “the latest sign that the Kremlin is forging bonds with political parties across Europe in what some European leaders suspect is a coordinated attempt to meddle in their affairs and potentially weaken Western democracies,” the Times reports. “Many of these efforts are murky and involve obscure groups, and it is unclear what, if any, direct involvement President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia may have.” The Freedom Party was founded in 1955 by former Nazi party members.

Social policy in the Pentagon. Women and transgender troops in the U.S. military, seeking to defend their hard-fought access to combat roles against attacks from conservatives in Congress, are worried President-elect Donald Trump will overturn revolutionary Defense Department policies as part of his declared war on so-called “political correctness,” FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary write in a new story.

“The Pentagon personnel changes, pushed through by Defense Secretary Ash Carter over the last year, have been portrayed by Trump and his incoming security advisors as ill-advised “social engineering” imposed on the armed forces. That puts the newly won rights for women and transgender troops at risk, activists say, and calls into question the fate of the groundbreaking policy changes that were years in the making.”

Army secretary nomination. On Monday, Trump nominated as his Army secretary Vincent Viola, an Army vet and West Point grad worth around $1.8 billion after founding an electronic trading firm. He also owns the Florida Panthers hockey team. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Viola put up $2 million of his own money to found the highly-regarded Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, and later rounded up a group of funders to keep it going.

He has contributed to both Republican and Democratic Congressional campaigns, including his Senator in New York, Chuck Schumer, and in 2012, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Viola’s NHL team didn’t play Monday night but is back in action Tuesday in Florida where they take on the Official Team of SitRep, the Buffalo Sabres. The upstart Sabres haven’t lost in regulation in six straight games, FYI.

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

North Korea

The submarine that North Korea is hoping can one day launch nuclear-armed ballistic missiles may be heading out to sea. Satellite imagery of the Gorae submarine shows piles of supplies in port next to a submersible test barge — signs that the sub may be gearing up for a trip out on the ocean. North Korea has carried out a series of ballistic missile tests this year, including eject tests for the KN-11 missile with which it plans to equip the Gorea submarine.

Russia

Air Force Secretary Deborah James says German jets had to scramble 30 times between August and November in order intercept Russian fighter jets flying with their transponders off in civilian air routes, according to Defense Tech. The Russian flights are part of what James said is a pattern of dangerous Russian military harassment, which includes a string of incidents in which Russian jets have come dangerously close to American ships and spy planes. The Air Force secretary said the incidents highlight the urgency for NATO countries to increase defense spending in order to meet the alliance’s budget targets.

Ukraine

There’s been an uptick in the fighting in eastern Ukraine as the Ukrainian military faced off against Russian-backed rebels in Debaltseve, the BBC reports. The Ukrainian government and rebels offered contradicting figures for the number of killed and wounded on each side, with the Ukrainian government claiming it lost five troops and killed 25 rebels and rebels claiming to have killed 10 government troops. Ukrainian officials say the death of five troops in the battle marks the most severe losses in the war.

Afghanistan

The New York Times reports that American Caitlan Coleman, kidnapped by the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan, issued a video plea to President Obama asking him to help release her before his last day in office. Coleman appears in the video alongside her husband Joshua Boyle and the two small children born to the couple since both were taken four years ago. American officials tell the Times that talks to secure their release suffered after a U.S. drone strike killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in May.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia says it won’t use British cluster munitions in its war against the Houthi movement in Yemen, according to Reuters. The announcement from the Kingdom follows an admission by British defense secretary Michael Fallon that Saudi Arabia had in fact used BL 755 munitions in the war sold to Riyadh long before Britain signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions. European countries have faced increased pressure to curb arms sales to Saudi Arabia since its war in Yemen began but British Prime Minister Theresa May recently promised to increase cooperation with the Kingdom to counter Iran’s regional influence.

Air Force

Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, program executive officer for the F-35, is pushing back against claims by President-elect Donald Trump that his “program and cost is out of control,” Defense One reports.  Bogdan said bluntly that “This program is not out of control” but said that it nonetheless needs another half a billion dollars in order to finish flight testing by 2018.

Budgets

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) unloaded on what he says is wasteful Pentagon spending in a new report, “America’s Most Wasted,” outlining $13 billion in spending the senator says is unnecessary, according to the Hill. Most of that money is taken up by the Littoral Combat Ship program, which McCain’s report labels a “classic example of acquisition gone awry.” McCain also cited a half billion in travel reimbursement for costs lacking complete documentation and a million dollars spent by Pentagon employees at strip clubs and casinos.

 

Photo Credit NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

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