The Cable

SitRep: Syria Chemical Weapons Attack; White House on Pyongyang; Drones Getting Closer to Fight

U.S. Pilots Go On Strike; Pentagon, White House Meet Middle East Allies; North Korean Hackers

A Syrian child receives treatment at a small hospital in the town of Maaret al-Noman following a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, a nearby rebel-held town in Syrias northwestern Idlib province, on April 4, 2017.
Warplanes carried out a suspected toxic gas attack that killed at least 35 people including several children, a monitoring group said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said those killed in the town of Khan Sheikhun, in Idlib province, had died from the effects of the gas, adding that dozens more suffered respiratory problems and other symptoms.
 / AFP PHOTO / Mohamed al-Bakour / ADDING INFORMATION IN CAPTION        (Photo credit should read MOHAMED AL-BAKOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian child receives treatment at a small hospital in the town of Maaret al-Noman following a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, a nearby rebel-held town in Syrias northwestern Idlib province, on April 4, 2017. Warplanes carried out a suspected toxic gas attack that killed at least 35 people including several children, a monitoring group said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said those killed in the town of Khan Sheikhun, in Idlib province, had died from the effects of the gas, adding that dozens more suffered respiratory problems and other symptoms. / AFP PHOTO / Mohamed al-Bakour / ADDING INFORMATION IN CAPTION (Photo credit should read MOHAMED AL-BAKOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Syria attack. The suspected chemical attack on civilians in Syria presents a “moment of truth” for the U.N. Security Council, Secretary General António Guterres said Wednesday while traveling in Brussels. “The horrific events of yesterday demonstrate that unfortunately, war crimes are going on,” he added. Local reports from Syria put the death toll at 72 as searing images of dead toddlers shoot across the globe, adding another outrage to the list of horrific events that Syrian civilians have endured in six years of civil war.

By Tuesday night, Britain, France and the U.S. were working on a resolution for the  Security Council which condemns the attack and orders the Syrian government to provide all flight logs, flight plans and names of local commanders, but it remains unclear if the international community will take any concrete steps.

Washington’s reaction. The White House and State Department condemned the attacks, which comes days after top American officials said they would do nothing to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week that Assad’s fate “will be decided by the Syrian people,” but on Tuesday, he demanded Assad’s allies Russia and Iran “exercise their influence over the Syrian regime and to guarantee that this sort of horrific attack never happens again,” adding “Russia and Iran also bear great moral responsibility for these deaths.”

One State Department official who requested anonymity told reporters that the strike bore the hallmarks of a chemical weapons attack carried out by the Assad regime, and “if it is what it looks like, it’s clearly a war crime.” The officials admitted that Washington “doesn’t have that much influence over the actors on the ground” in Syria, but “Russia and Iran claim to the guarantors of the ceasefire arrangement, and [have shown] an inability or unwillingness to hold the regime to account.”

The U.K. on Tuesday took a different approach to Assad’s staying power. Prime Minister Theresa May said that the Syrian leader has “no future” as the ruler of Syria, and called “on all the third parties involved to ensure that we have a transition away from Assad.”

Moscow, not so much. On Wednesday, Russia — Assad’s largest international backer — said in a statement that the Syrian government wasn’t to blame for the attack, and that a rebel “terrorist warehouse” was hit by a conventional airstrike from Syria’s military – causing the release of the “toxic substances” in the area.

If the attack is ultimately blamed on the Assad regime, FP’s Robbie Gramer writes, “it would mark Damascus’ latest escalation of the crackdown on rebel elements in the six-year old civil war, and lay bare the Trump administration’s delicate balancing act as it backs away from demands for Assad’s ouster even as he apparently gasses his own people. In 2014 and 2015, the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on rebel-held areas, U.N. investigators found. Tuesday’s attack would be the largest chemical weapons attack since the Assad regime carried out a sarin gas attack in August, 2013 that killed hundreds.”

Pyongyang tests again. North Korea launched another medium-range ballistic missile on Wednesday morning, testing the international community just a day before President Donald Trump sits down with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time at Trump’s private resort in Florida.

The U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii said the missile was launched from Sinpo on the country’s East Coast, and spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command, Cmdr. Dave Benham, said that initial assessments indicate the missile was a KN-15 medium range ballistic missile. The State Department issued a terse statement Tuesday night, saying, “United States has spoken enough about North Korea.  We have no further comment.”

The KN-15 is nuclear-capable ballistic missile North Korea sent up for the first time in February. The launch will undoubtedly add to the tension between Trump and Xi, as the Trump administration has said in recent days it would use the meeting to pressure Beijing to do more to contain North Korea and its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

“I can tell you that it is now urgent,” a senior White House official told reporters on Tuesday in advance of Xi’s visit. “The clock has now run out, and all options are on the table for us.” President Trump also recently warned that “if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.”

Meetings. Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visits the Pentagon Wednesday for a series of meetings with military leaders and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. At 1:00 p.m., President Trump and Jordan’s King Abdullah II will hold a press conference in the White House’s Rose Garden after a morning of meetings about the fight against the Islamic State, and Mideast peace.

Iraq. Presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner continues his travels in Iraq, where he told Iraqi generals on Tuesday near Mosul that “it’s been an absolute honor to be here to see the progress that everyone’s made together,” adding, “the partnership that’s been formed here truly is something that is very impressive to me and something that I know I hope endures for many generations.” A State Department offici

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

Heist. North Korean hackers are getting more aggressive, breaking into and robbing banks in up to 18 countries. The figure comes from a new report from Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky, which cites North Korea-linked break-ins at financial institutions ranging from Asia, to Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. The hacking group, referred to as “Lazarus,” has changed its focus from gaining intelligence on foes like South Korea to the more prosaic work of stealing money. Lazarus hackers have been working to help North Korea sidestep the international financial sanctions against it, using money from successful heists to fund illicit front companies with access to the global financial system.

Close air support. The U.S. military is increasingly relying on its Reaper and Predator drones to provide close air support in the war against the Islamic State. Defense News reports that the Air Force has found the drones’ extended loiter time has made them particularly useful in urban close air support operations, such as the current fight to oust the terrorist group from Mosul, where the dense population and proximity of friendly forces has made precision even more important. 432nd Wing and 432nd Expeditionary Wing commander Col. Case Cunningham, told the news outlet that missions he’s flown with the MQ-9 Reaper are often “just as demanding” as those he’s flown with other manned aircraft.

Strike. Navy pilots, including the son of Vice President Mike Pence, are refusing to fly the service’s T-45 Goshawk training aircraft because of repeated problems with its oxygen system, according to a scoop from Fox News. Several pilots have cited repeated incidents of histotoxic hypoxia or oxygen poisoning, estimating three incidents of the dangerous condition taking place every week. Up to 100 instructor pilots have taken part in the protest and Navy officials say they’re looking into the problem.

Password manager. If you’re planning on visiting the U.S., some in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would like you to cough up your passwords, contacts, and browser history before officials interrogate you about your politics. The Wall Street Journal reports that Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly is mulling whether to make such extreme measures part of the entry process for visitors beyond just those listed in the Trump administration’s travel ban. Details of the proposal are scarce, but senators will likely press Kelly on aspects of the plan when he appears before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

Soap opera. The self-proclaimed former lover of a slain Hezbollah commander is stirring up controversy over his mysterious death in Syria last year. Ynet News reports that a woman calling herself the former girlfriend Mustafa Badreddine posted a video to YouTube asserting that rivals in Hezbollah killed Badreddine in May of 2016, saying she was “sure the knife of treachery killed him.” Hezbollah officials blamed Badreddine’s death in Damascus on Israel and Syrian jihadist groups but Arab media outlets subsequently reported that he had been killed by rivals in Hezbollah — a claim later supported by Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.

INF. Strategic Command chief Gen. John Hyten General says he’s now “reviewing” the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in light of evidence that Russia has violated the agreement with the deployment of a nuclear-capable cruise missile. Hyten told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. currently has “no defense” for its European allies or forces in theater against the ground-launched cruise missile deployed by Russia. Hyten also clarified that he has not been directed by President Trump to review the New START treaty, despite recent criticism of the agreement by the president.

 

Photo Credit: MOHAMED AL-BAKOUR/AFP/Getty Images

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