The Cable

SitRep: Washington Rattles Swords On Syria; Bannon Out, But Still In; Changes in Rhetoric, But Not Policy

Russia Pushes Back on Washington; Chinese Ships Pushing Out; Russian Spy Deported; Pentagon Wants Cheaper Drones

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 05:  U.S. President Donald Trump and King Abdullah II of Jordan participate in a joint news conference at the Rose Garden of the White House April 5, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump held talks on Middle East peace process and other bilateral issues with King Abdullah II.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 05: U.S. President Donald Trump and King Abdullah II of Jordan participate in a joint news conference at the Rose Garden of the White House April 5, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump held talks on Middle East peace process and other bilateral issues with King Abdullah II. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)


With Adam Rawnsley

Shifting? It’s hard to know if U.S. policy on Syria changed Wednesday when President Donald Trump spoke in the Rose Garden, vaguely threatening the regime in Damascus after a chemical weapons attack in Idlib killed more than 70 civilians.

Standing next to Jordan’s King Abdullah II during a joint press conference, Trump flipped his “America First” campaign rhetoric on its head, stating the attack “crossed a lot of lines for me,” and affirmed his “attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”

Quick turnaround. Trump wouldn’t go into detail about what has changed in his thinking, but his comments reflect an about face from a policy two top cabinet members recently rolled out. Last week, Washington’s ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said, “our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out,” a break from the Obama-era policy that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also flatly stated that Assad’s future “will be decided by the Syrian people,” despite the fact that the government is at war is a large part of its own population, and maintains a military edge against the rebels thanks to Russian and Iranian backing.

Tough talk, same policies. The change in rhetoric on Syria is part of an emerging pattern with the Trump administration that sees officials challenge and threaten problem countries, without any immediately apparent change in policy. Last month, Tillerson warned North Korea that “the policy of strategic patience has ended” during a press conference in South Korea. “Certainly we do not want for things to get to military conflict, [but] if they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, then that option’s on the table.” In early February, then-national Security Advisor Mike Flynn said the administration was “officially putting Iran on notice” following Iranian missile tests. In both cases there has been no indication that U.S. policy has actually shifted.

But what has changed? We’re not sure. “For the moment, the biggest changes from the Obama years are in style and rhetoric,” writes the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe. “Trump often has seemed more ambivalent than outraged over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea. His interest in NATO, the cornerstone of security in Europe, is often largely confined to whether the allies are paying their fair share and the United States is getting a good deal.”

Pressure on Moscow. Both Haley and Tillerson called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to abandon his alliance with Assad, something he is unlikely to do given the Russian naval and air bases in the country that guarantee Moscow a foothold in the Middle East. “There’s no doubt in our mind that the Syrian regime under the leadership of Bashar Assad is responsible for this horrific attack,” Tillerson said Wednesday, “and we think it’s time that the Russians really need to think carefully about their continued support for the Assad regime.”

In an impassioned speech at the U.N., Haley asked, “how many more children have to die before Russia cares?” she said. The ambassador also hinted at military action. “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action,” she said.

Fighting it out. FP’s Colum Lynch, Robbie Gramer and David Kenner have more on the scene at the U.N. and Russia’s angry denials that Assad was involved in the attack. Russian officials, like president Trump, blamed former President Barack Obama’s infamous “red line” for the current violence. The New York Times has a good rundown of the holes in Russia’s various accounts of that happened in Idlib on Tuesday. The Guardian reports that Syrian aid workers have already sent soil samples from the town to “western intelligence officials” for testing in the suspected sarin attack.

Bannon out, but still in. Fighting it out for the front page was the announcement Wednesday that the president has removed advisor Steven Bannon from the National Security Council.

“The move signals that Trump’s national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, has managed to assert his authority by ending an unorthodox arrangement that raised concerns among lawmakers and foreign-policy experts from both parties,” writes FP’s Dan De Luce. The original setup also marginalized the country’s top intelligence and military officers, who were to attend the principals committee only when the topics on the agenda required it. But now, the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, are back in, while McMaster also scored another bureaucratic victory in the reshuffle. The Homeland Security Council is also now under McMaster’s authority instead of operating as a separate body.

Despite all of the headlines over the move, Bannon, will still attend NSC meetings, and there’s no indication his access to the president has been diminished at all.

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

Patrolling. Chinese coast guard ships are staking out positions around reefs deeper in the South China Sea, according to ship tracking data. The Guardian reports that two think tanks, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, collected data on the position of the Chinese vessels and found that they maintain a persistent footprint around reefs off the coast of Malaysian Borneo, far from China’s shores. China and Malaysia have clashed over Beijing’s presence in the region before, with Chinese ships reportedly chasing away Malaysian fishermen to make way for Chinese fishing vessels.

Personnel. The Pentagon is inching closer to filling at least one of its many high level vacancies with a decision pending on a candidate for undersecretary of defense for policy. Defense News reports that SecDef Jim Mattis is considering Randall Schriver, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the George W. Bush administration, for the position. Schriver also worked for Richard Armitage during his tenure as deputy secretary of state in the Bush administration, later following him into the private sector at the Armitage International consulting firm. Armitage, however, publicly supported Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign and it’s unclear yet whether the notoriously sensitive Trump White House will weight the connection against Schriver.

Deported. The U.S. has deported a Russian man convicted of acting as an undercover officer for Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. Immigration and Customs Enforcement put Evgeny Buryakov on a plane and sent him to Moscow after he served 16 months in prison. Buryakov was part of a ring of Russian intelligence agents acting as “illegals” — intelligence officers operating outside of official, diplomatic cover —  hunting for economic intelligence and information about U.S. sanctions policy towards Russia, according to federal prosecutors.  

Drones. The Navy and Marine Corps love them some drones but they’d like future unmanned systems to be cheaper, National Defense reports. At the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference, Navy and Marine officials echoed similar concerns about the cost of drones. Col. James Jenkins of the Marine Corps’s  rapid capability office told attendees that in the future the service wants drones that are “small, smart, cheap and abundant” rather than “exquisite” and “expensive.” Navy director of surface warfare Rear Adm. Ronald Boxall emphasized the lifecycle maintenance costs as a factor that needs to be considered in unmanned systems acquisition.

He’s ok. An Air National Guard pilot and the neighborhood below him had a close call on Wednesday when his F-16C crashed near Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The pilot managed to steer the jet away from buildings in a residential area as the plane crashed, safely ejecting and parachuting  into nearby woods. No one was seriously injured in the incident and a picture posted to social media showed the pilot in seemingly good health after the crash.

Grounded. One day after Fox News reported on a protest by Navy pilots over the safety of a training jet, the service is grounding the aircraft. A Navy spokeswoman tells the cable news outlet that the service will use the time to “engage with the pilots, hear their concerns and discuss the risk mitigations as well as the efforts that are ongoing to correct this issue.” Around 100 pilots, including the son of Vice President Mike Pence, engaged in the protest after repeated incidents of histotoxic hypoxia, a form of oxygen deprivation, plagued those flying the T-45 Goshawk.



Photo Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images


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