The Cable

Situation Report Exclusive: Congresswoman Visits Damascus; Top U.S. General Briefs Trump; Obama offers clemency for Manning, Gen. Cartwright

By Paul McLeary and FP Staff BRUSSELS — In two days of high level meetings last week, top Pentagon and White House officials met with President-elect Donald Trump and his staff to walk through the biggest national security issues of the day. While traveling in Brussels on Wednesday, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff ...

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By Paul McLeary and FP Staff

BRUSSELS — In two days of high level meetings last week, top Pentagon and White House officials met with President-elect Donald Trump and his staff to walk through the biggest national security issues of the day.

While traveling in Brussels on Wednesday, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford told FP and a small group of reporters that he met with Trump last Thursday in New York, and has held hours-long meetings with retired Gen. Keith Kellogg and Mira Ricardel – leaders of Trump’s national security transition team — at the Pentagon.

The Trump Tower meeting included not only President-elect Trump, his national security advisor Michael Flynn, but deputy K.T. McFarland, and Vice President-elect Mike Pence, Dunford said.

In the weeks after the election, Dunford hosted Kellogg and Ricardel at the Pentagon, where he and his staff walked them through the classified National Military Strategy, and the current risk assessment. Dunford said that since then, there has been “a dynamic relationship back and forth answering questions they have.”

In another meeting on Friday in the Executive Office Building attended by President Obama’s Homeland Security Advisor Lisa Monaco, Chief of Staff  Denis McDonough, and other White House and Pentagon officials, the Obama national security team walked Trump’s staff through “a series of things that could happen in the early days” of the incoming administration, Dunford said, such as plans for disaster relief operations, responses to a domestic terrorist attack, and sudden issues that might pop up overseas.

Damascus calling. Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii has just departed war-torn Damascus following a trip her aides described as a “fact finding” mission to work toward ending the nearly six year conflict in Syria, FP’s John Hudson reports in an exclusive story.

In describing the purpose of the trip to FP, Gabbard spokeswoman Emily Latimer said the congresswoman “felt it was important to meet with a number of individuals and groups including religious leaders, humanitarian workers, refugees and government and community leaders” on the ground. Gabbard has long been an opponent of removing Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad from power, and in interviews, has called for the U.S. to abandon its goal of regime change in Syria and focus on eliminating the Islamic State and al Qaeda. Latimer declined to comment on whether she met with the Syrian leader, citing security and logistical concerns.

“To her critics, Gabbard is insufficiently critical of a regime that has committed countless war crimes and destabilized the greater Middle East,” Hudson writes, but “to her supporters, she’s a lonely voice of sanity against a growing tide of bipartisan interventionism that risks bogging down the United States in another conflict in the Middle East.”

Some agreement. The highest-ranking French general in the NATO alliance said Tuesday that parts of the organization have indeed become obsolete, seemingly echoing the latest criticism hurled at the institution by President-elect Donald Trump.

“But unlike Trump, who has slammed NATO for not fighting terrorism, French Air Force Gen. Denis Mercier said that it was precisely NATO’s focus on deploying to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban that overshadowed its other missions,” FP’s Paul McLeary reports. As a result, “NATO has failed to look at the change in the strategic background,” Mercier told a small group of reporters at NATO headquarters. And now, “we have some structures that are obsolete.”

The general outlined all of the ways in which the alliance has been meeting these shortfalls, however — initiatives that date further back than the PEOTUS’ criticisms. Read the rest of it here.

Clemency for Manning and Gen. Cartwright

In one of his final acts before he leaves office, President Obama on Tuesday commuted the 35-year prison sentence for Chelsea Manning, the Army intelligence analyst who was convicted of the 2010 mega-leak that embarrassed the White House by divulging reams of secret diplomatic cables and military intelligence reports. The extraordinary document dump introduced the world to WikiLeaks, which received the secret files from Manning.

Manning, a transgender woman who tried to kill herself twice last year at a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., has already been behind bars for six years. And her sentence had set a record for punishment of someone convicted of leaking classified information.

Obama also pardoned former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, retired Gen James Cartwright, who pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about conversations he had — in which he discussed classified information — with a New York Times reporter asking him about cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear program. Cartwright had been a darling of the White House for his keen intellect and his views that contradicted much of the top brass. FP’s Elias Groll has lots more on the cases, and fallout.

For Russia, With No Love: Obama’s outgoing U.N. envoy Samantha Power scolded Trump Russia in an unusual 11th hour speech, days before she steps down from her post and Trump takes office. FP’s Robbie Gramer has the story here.

Who is having more fun than Vladimir Putin? In rejecting the unsubstantiated report that Trump had taken part in all sorts of salacious activities while staying at hotels in Russia, President Vladimir Putin called the report, “bogus stories” which are “clearly fake.”

The Russian president also said Trump critics are hurting American democracy, and are working to “undermine legitimacy of the US president-elect.” And because he just couldn’t help himself, he dropped a reference to the protests in Ukraine that caused the ouster of the Kremlin-friendly government there in 2013. “One has the impression that upon gaining the required experience they may go as far as staging Maidan type of protests in Washington in a bid to prevent Trump from taking office.”

Peep this. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are pushing Trump’s pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), not to bury investigations into the president-elect’s possible Kremlin ties. In a letter Tuesday to Sessions, the nine Democrats of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is responsible for confirming his nomination, asked him to recuse himself from any FBI or Justice Department inquiry examining allegations that Trump associates perhaps exchanged intelligence with Moscow.

A Jab in the Five Eyes: There’s a growing rift in the U.S.-U.K. special relationship, and it has a lot to do with Donald Trump’s rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Senior U.K. officials told Bloomberg that Theresa May’s government was more worried about the fallout from Trump and Putin’s blossoming relationship, including the safety of sharing British intelligence with the U.S., than even Brexit.

Leaked Intelligence, from the history vaults: 100 Year Anniversary of the Zimmermann Telegram: Tuesday marked the 100th anniversary of the infamous Zimmermann telegram. On January 17, 1917, British military code breakers decrypted a coded message from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government asking Mexico to join a war against America in exchange for reclaiming its lost territory in southwest United States. It was an explosive find — one that Britain used to bring the United States into World War I. The BBC’s Gordon Corera has the full story here.

African countries rally to oust one of their own dictators: The president of Gambia, one of Africa’s smallest and most impoverished nations, is refusing to step down after initially conceding defeat in a (surprisingly) democratic election in December. Now its neighbors, including Senegal and Nigeria, are reportedly poised for a military intervention, deploying naval forces off Gambia’s coast. FP’s Robbie Gramer has more on the latest chapter in the country’s bizarre and tragic history.

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

PEOTUS

Way back when President-elect Trump was just a candidate, Republican national security wonks in the Never Trump movement banded together and signed an open letter stating their opposition to him, saying that Trump was “utterly unfitted to the office” of president. Now, the Washington Post reports that those in the movement believe they’ve been blacklisted for top jobs in the Trump administration and rumors among the Trump skeptics abound that their 122 signatory-strong letter has morphed into an enemies list. Still, some Never Trumpers aren’t sweating the possibility too much. Eliot Cohen, a former adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the George W. Bush administration, tweeted that the complaints were “unseemly” and that “All of us understood the risks. If your principles are at stake, stand up for them & don’t whine.”

The Pentagon is cooking up a number of options for the Trump administration to take on the Islamic State, CNN reports. The Defense Department already presented President Obama with similar options but the president passed on the reportedly more risky courses outlined in them. On the menu is whether to arm Kurdish militants in northern Syria which have been fighting alongside American Special Forces advisors against the Islamic State. Kurdish forces have preven some of the Pentagon’s most effective allies against the group but Turkey has grown increasingly impatient by Washington’s relationship with groups it considers terrorists.

China

China isn’t one of the players one usually sees in diplomacy surrounding the war between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebels but Beijing says it’s willing to take a swing at diplomacy on the conflict. Reuters reports that Chinese President Xi Jinping told Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that China is would help play a “constructive role in promoting a political resolution to the crisis” if need be. So far, China has straddled the divide between the Western-backed Ukrainian government or Russian-backed rebels and that doesn’t appear likely to change. But it’s willingness to wade into diplomacy, however, gingerly marks a noteworthy shift.

All grown up

And in Davos on Tuesday, it was China again sounding like the grown-up in the room. Instead of an American president preaching the value of free trade, there was  President Xi Jinping offering a strong defense of the idea before an elite audience of bankers, CEOs and political leaders at the World Economic Forum.

The speech highlighted how China sees an opening to assert itself as a global leader in the wake of Trump’s election and his “America First” mindset. But China also has pushed back hard on Trump’s threat to discard the “One China” policy that has underpinned Washington diplomacy since the 1970s. Two major state-run papers on Monday warned that if Trump kept up his provocations, Beijing would have no choice but to respond and “take off the gloves.”

No backsies

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is offering a prebuttal to any attempts by the Trump administration to try and renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump criticized the agreement hammered out between Iran and the Obama administration, saying he’d tear it up and negotiate a new one. Rouhani called the campaign talk “slogans” and said the chances that the Trump administration would follow through on the rhetoric “unlikely” and that going back to the drawing board would be like saying one should “turn a shirt back to cotton.”  Republican staffers in Congress and even pro-Israel lobbyists tell FP that the Trump White House does not appear ready to pull the trigger on any drastic action to dismantle the deal in its first days in office.

Syria

Turkish armor has taken a pounding after venturing into northern Syria, where militant groups have access to an unprecedented array of anti-tank missiles. Stars and Stripes reports that Turkey has lost at least 10 of its German-made Leopard 2 tanks in the fighting near the Islamic State-held town of al-Bab. German media has reported that the tanks were damaged by U.S. made TOW and Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles. The CIA has supplied rebel groups with TOWs and the Russian military has provided the Assad regime with Kornets with militant groups capturing the supplies in the back and forth of combat.

They can definitely hear you now

Tired of your mobile plan? Consider signing up with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which is offering a new cell service for residents of Syria. Iranian and Syrian officials announced a deal on Tuesday to allow an Iranian consortium owned by the IRGC to start providing mobile service to Syrian customers. The IRGC has become increasingly enmeshed in Iran’s economy ever since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, with many accusing its economic ventures of fostering corruption and undue political influence in Iran.

Air Force for sale: If you’ve always wanted your own air force but a brand new F-35 isn’t quite in the budget, you may be in luck. Florida-based Raptor Aviation put 20 jet trainers and light strike aircraft up for sale for the bargain bin price of $200,000. A Raptor Aviation representative told The Aviationist, which first reported the story on Tuesday, selling ‘fleets’ wasn’t exactly unusual. “I could list you a dozen fleets for sale right now, everything from these to other types of retired trainers,” the representative said. But don’t break out your checkbook just yet — you’ll have to go through the FAA, FBI, and a whole slew of other federal agencies before you can set up your fleet in the U.S.

Around town

9:00 AM: The American Enterprise Institute will be hosting Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein for a discussion on the future of American airpower in the face of budget caps, rising procurement costs, and a shortfall in pilots. The event will be held at AEI’s offices and livestreamed here for those who can’t attend in person.

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