The Cable

SitRep: Trump’s War; Russia Angry Over U.S. Strike In Syria; Russian Frigate Headed For Syria

Footage Of Damaged Airfield Emerges; What Does It Mean For U.S. Troops On The Ground?; Moscow To Improve Syrian Air Defenses; And Lots More

170407-N-FQ994-031 MEDITERRANEAN SEA (April 7, 2017) USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a tomahawk land attack missile April 7, 2017. USS Ross, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, forward-deployed to Rota, Spain, is conducting naval operations in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe and Africa. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert S. Price/Released)
170407-N-FQ994-031 MEDITERRANEAN SEA (April 7, 2017) USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a tomahawk land attack missile April 7, 2017. USS Ross, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, forward-deployed to Rota, Spain, is conducting naval operations in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe and Africa. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert S. Price/Released)


With Adam Rawnsley

Strike one. President Donald Trump performed an abrupt about face from previous policy statements decrying foreign wars and promoting cooperation with Russia Thursday night by launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at an airbase in Syria, deepening American involvement in the civil war there while infuriating Russia, a country he had long said he wanted to find common ground with in fighting the Islamic State.

The strikes came in response to a chemical weapons attack the Syrian government launched against civilians on Tuesday, which killed 70 people and sickened hundreds more. The Syrian Ministry of Defense said Friday that six people were killed in the American bombardment, which also damaged several Russian-made aircraft, according to initial reports.

What does this mean? As of Friday morning, “it’s not clear exactly what the administration seeks to achieve in Syria,” FP’s Paul McLeary writes. “Just a week ago, it signalled a willingness to let Assad continue in power — or why a limited strike on a single airfield would somehow change the calculus of the Syrian leader, who has deployed every weapon in his arsenal to crush the uprising that began in 2011.”

But “shifting the ongoing U.S. military effort in Syria to target the regime of Bashar al Assad and his forces, rather than the Islamic State, would be legally and operationally tricky,” FP notes in another analysis. Syria’s air defenses are robust, existing legal authorities to fight Islamist terrorists likely wouldn’t apply to a sovereign state like Syria, and Syrian, Iranian, and other forces backed by Tehran could make life difficult for the 1,000 U.S. troops on the ground in northern Syria.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Thursday night that “there has been no change” American policy on Assad. But he went after Moscow hard, charging, “either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent,” in keeping the Syrian government to its promise to destroy all of its chemical weapons. Tillerson is due in Moscow next week for a planned visit with top Kremlin officials.

From Russia with… Tillerson also called the strike on the airbase, from which the chemical weapons attack was launched, “proportional.” But Russian President Vladimir Putin disagrees. A Kremlin spokesman said Friday that the Russian leader “considers the American strikes against Syria an aggression against a sovereign government in violations of the norms of international law, and under a far-fetched pretext.”

U.S. Defense officials have confirmed that the U.S. military communicated with their Russian counterparts in the hours before the attack, warning them off since Russian troops and helicopters are based at the airfield. On Friday, Moscow cancelled its involvement in a critical “hotline” that U.S. and Russian military officials have maintained since 2015 which allows officers from both countries to speak on a daily basis to ensure their fighter jets stay away from one another over Syria.

Russian response. The Russian frigate Admiral Grigorovich, entered the Mediterranean on Friday, according to Russian news outlet TASS, and is heading toward Tartus, the Russian port in Syria. The ship is armed with Kalibr cruise missiles, a government official said. A Kremlin official added that Moscow is undertaking “a number of measures aimed at strengthening and improving the effectiveness of the Syrian air defense system…in order to protect the vital parts of the Syrian infrastructure.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also slammed the attack on Friday, calling it “an act of aggression under a completely far-fetched pretext.” He compared it to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, “when the US and the UK, along with some of their allies, invaded Iraq without the consent of the UN Security Council and in violation of international law.”

From the ground. Syrian state TV has been broadcasting what is says is amateur footage of the impact last night. A Russian reporter from Russia 24 visited the airfield Friday morning, and posted pictures and video to his social media accounts showing damaged runways and burned out fighter planes sitting in their bunkers. A longer clip is available on YouTube. And here’s more from Russian television that shows footage of the base taken by a Russian drone after the attack.

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

Xi has landed. Chinese President Xi Jinping is in the U.S. and at Mar-a-Lago for his first visit with President Trump. The two leaders spoke over a dinner but so far appear not to have made any headway on the issues facing Beijing and Washington. At a press conference, Trump quipped that “so far I’ve gotten nothing, absolutely nothing” to report on discussions between the two leader but that the two had “developed a friendship.” Issues like North Korea’s provocative ballistic missile tests, China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, and trade are on the agenda for the meeting, but Trump has struck a noticeably milder tone towards Xi than the strident rhetoric he’s traditionally used to describe China.

Island chess. Meanwhile, in the South China Sea, China has sent a fighter jet to an island in the South China Sea also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative obtained satellite imagery showing a Chinese J-11 fighter parked on Woody Island in the Paracel Island. China has sent military aircraft to the island before on a rotational basis, but the J-11’s appearance marks the first known appearance during the Trump administration.   

Marines United with Russian cybercriminals. A Russian cybercrime forum has obtained a cache of revenge porn shared by Marines on social media, raising questions about potential blackmail of U.S. military personnel. Military Times reports that AlphaBay, a Russian “dark web” cybercrime forum accessible only through the Tor anonymity service, is now offering pornographic images of American civilians and troops previously shared by the Marines United, a Facebook group of active duty and retired Marines currently under investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Investigations. The FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible connections to Russian intelligence dates as far back as the summer of 2016, the New York Times reveals in a new scoop. The intelligence community began briefing congressional leaders in late August, with former Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan saying that members of the Trump campaign may be working to facilitate Moscow’s covert involvement in the election. The FBI, however, had begun an investigation into the issue a month earlier but did not brief Congress at the time. FBI officials initially didn’t share the CIA’s analysis that Russia was trying to help the Trump campaign win the election, but came around to the conclusion shortly before the election.

They’ll be back. The formed head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division warns in a new opinion piece that Russian hackers will be back again to meddle in the 2020 presidential election. Over at Politico, John Carlin writes that the Russian hacking that took place against the 2016 election “might just be the opening salvo of even more sophisticated attacks,” pointing to statements from FBI Director James Comey NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers indicating they expect Moscow will reprise their role in the 2016 election. In response, Carlin argues that the U.S. should beef up its cyber defenses and create a less politically fraught process lead by career Justice Department officials to provide warning about foreign interference attempts.

And finally. Thursday was the centenary of America’s entrance into World War I. To mark the occasion, the Washington Post put together a series of heretofore unpublished photos of American troops in Europe during the war.


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