The Cable

SitRep: Leaked DoD Memo Says Trump Ignoring Russia; Republican Senate Fight Over Hacks

Moscow Replacing Washington as Middle East Power Broker; U.S. Bombing in Libya Ends; Syria and War Crimes; And Lots More

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (C), his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend a news conference in Moscow on December 20, 2016.  
The foreign and defence ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran are meeting in Moscow for key talks on the conflict in Syria. Iran and Russia are sharing a base in war-torn Syria to help coordinate their support for President Bashar al-Assad's forces, a top security official in Tehran said on December 20. 
 / AFP / Natalia KOLESNIKOVA        (Photo credit should read NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (C), his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend a news conference in Moscow on December 20, 2016. The foreign and defence ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran are meeting in Moscow for key talks on the conflict in Syria. Iran and Russia are sharing a base in war-torn Syria to help coordinate their support for President Bashar al-Assad's forces, a top security official in Tehran said on December 20. / AFP / Natalia KOLESNIKOVA (Photo credit should read NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)

 

The list. A Pentagon memo outlining the incoming Trump administration’s top “defense priorities” identifies defeating the Islamic State, eliminating budget caps, developing a new cybersecurity strategy, and finding greater efficiencies as the president-elect’s primary concerns. “But the memo, obtained by Foreign Policy, does not include any mention of Russia, which has been identified by senior military officials as the No. 1 threat to the United States,” writes FP’s John Hudson, Paul McLeary, and Dan De Luce in an exclusive get.

The memo reflects the four-point list of priorities conveyed to the department by Mira Ricardel, a former Bush administration official and co-leader of Trump’s Pentagon transition team, and ignores Russia despite years of top cabinet officials at the Defense Department and the intelligence community citing Moscow “as the foremost threat because of its vast nuclear arsenal, sophisticated cyber capabilities, recently modernized military, and willingness to challenge the United States and its allies in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and other regions.”

Long distance runaround. Secretary of State John Kerry called the Russian and Turkish foreign ministers Tuesday to talk Syria and discuss Monday’s assassination of Russian Ambassador to Turkey. It was the only way Washington could get an update since the two diplomats pointedly did not invite him to participate in talks being held with Iran in Moscow to hash out next steps in Syria.

Gritted teeth. State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday that the ministers “provided the Secretary a sense of how the discussions went,” but “if not having us in the room can lead to finally a cessation of hostilities that can actually matter,” then Kerry — publicly, at least — is ok with that. But Washington’s exclusion is a profound rebuke after two years of American bombing, and months of fruitless diplomacy between Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

The cost. The new role Russia is playing in the Middle East comes with a price tag. And the Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov pulls the thread on what it means for Moscow in the long run. Moscow may be a new power broker in the region, but “the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey on Monday, however, highlighted the flip side of this dizzying rise. As America’s influence has shrunk, Russia has taken the place the U.S. long occupied in the minds of many people in the Middle East: an alien imperialist power seen as waging war on Muslims and Islam.”

While protests against Washington have dwindled in Middle Eastern capitals, “tens of thousands of protesters converged this month outside Russian missions from Istanbul to Beirut to Kuwait City—where the chanting, led by local lawmakers, was clear: ‘Russia is the enemy of Islam.’”

Hack flak. Republicans in the U.S. Senate are heading for a split on investigating the theft of emails from the Democratic party and one of Hillary Clinton’s top advisers during the presidential election. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) told Politico he would introduce a bill that would mandate a new select Senate committee on cybersecurity to investigate the issue.

“The move could intensify pressure on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who so far has resisted appointing a select committee on cybersecurity. He insists the chamber’s traditional committees, led by the intelligence panel, should handle the issue.” GOP Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), along with incoming Democratic leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) have already called for a special panel.

Sanctions game. The Kremlin on Wednesday pushed back against a new round of sanctions imposed by Washington. “We regret that Washington is continuing on this destructive path,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, adding, “Russia will take commensurate measures.” Another person who doesn’t like the sanctions that Washington and its European allies have slapped on Moscow after its 2014 annexation of Crimea is Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil CEO nominated by Trump to be his Secretary for State. The New York Times hashes out how Tillerson went from being a critic of Moscow in 2008 to claiming to have “a very close relationship” with Putin just last year. A hint: billions in oil contracts might be involved.
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

PEOTUS

President-elect Trump held a summit with big tech companies like Apple and Facebook last week, but the presence of relatively small-fry Palantir raised some eyebrows. That’s because Peter Thiel, Palantir’s chairman, was a big Trump supporter during the presidential campaign and in attendance for the tech meeting. The company makes software that allows users to visualize large data sets and has won big contracts with the Army. Observers say that Palantir’s presence at the summit is a sign that its already strong political power in Washington may only increase under the Trump administration.

Three former Navy SEALs tell the Intercept that former SEAL Team 6 member Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT), Trump’s pick for secretary of interior, filed fraudulent travel reimbursement requests in order to receive payment from the government for traveling to Montana to renovate his home. The SEALs did not formally punish Zinke or seek criminal charge against him but allegedly kicked him off the team. He stayed in the Navy for years after that, where he was promoted and retired in 2008.

North Korea

North Korea’s Musudan road-mobile ballistic missile system has been a big priority for the hermit kingdom, the subject of eight tests and much attention from the country’s engineers. Seven of those tests have been failures, and 38 North reports that much of the missile’s troubles can be traced to North Korea’s decision to depart from the design characteristics of the Soviet R-27 missiles the Musudan is based on. North Korea’s designs took the original Soviet design and elongated it, reducing the stability of missile in flight — a design choice which later necessitated the application of grid fins.

Syria

Syria isn’t a member of the International Criminal Court, which means the myriad war crimes carried out throughout its civil war aren’t subject to prosecution by the court. But the New York Times reports that diplomats at the United Nations are pushing to at the very least preserve evidence of war crimes committed in the conflict. The move is designed to collect evidence of atrocities in the event that prosecutors in another national or international court can find jurisdiction in order to punish offenders.

Iran says it’s now sharing a base with Russia in Syria. Iran’s Supreme National Security Council secretary Ali Shamkhani told Iranian media that its “advisors” in Syria are working out of a shared facility with Russia. The subject of Russian bases and Syria has been a touchy one for Iran ever since Russia’s revelation that its jets had used an airbase in Iran to support its air campaign over Syria. Iranian officials reacted strongly to the announcement, saying that the Russians violated their trust and revoking their access to the facility.

Happy Xmas (War is over)

It’s official. The U.S. air campaign to oust the Islamic State from its last stronghold in Libya is now over. U.S. Africa Command released a statement on Tuesday declaring that Operation Odyssey Lightning has ended, following the internationally-recognized Libyan government in Tripoli’s declaration that its operations in Sirte, where the Islamic State had holed up, have wrapped up. The U.S. carried out a total of 495 airstrikes during the air campaign.
Photo Credit NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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