SitRep: Which Way on Syria; U.S. Ships Push Toward Korea; Washington Lambasts Moscow
Trump Doctrine Talk; U.S. Soldier Falls in Afghanistan; Russian Hacker Arrested; McFarland to Singapore
With Adam Rawnsley
The Syria problem. The Trump administration sent some of its top officials out to make the rounds of the Sunday talk shows this weekend, but for all of the discussion of regime change in Damascus and defeating the Islamic State, U.S. policy in Syria remains a slippery thing.
“Our priority is first the defeat of ISIS,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on ABC. Once that fight is over — whatever the end state might look like and leaving aside al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise — “we hope to turn our attention to cease fire agreements between the regime and opposition forces.”
In another interview on CBS’s Face the Nation, Tillerson said Washington and its allies are looking to “navigate a political outcome in which the Syrian people in fact will determine Bashar al-Assad’s fate and his legitimacy.”
That diplomatic angle was challenged by Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, when she appeared on CNN. Haley, who has taken a harder line on Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad than others in the administration, said “regime change is something that we think is going to happen,” in Syria, and “we don’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there.”
Different, but similar. The differences in rhetoric and approach between the two officials are real. Yet both mark a break from President Donald Trump’s “American First” campaign by appearing to commit the United States to a deeper military and diplomatic role in resolving the Syrian civil war, which has raged for six years and displaced millions of Syrians.
Hill hawks. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) doesn’t like what he’s hearing. The senator blasted Tillerson’s comments over the weekend, saying “this idea that we’re going to get rid of ISIS and then we’ll hopefully use Assad and others to come up with a solution, it’s not going to work,” Rubio said. “There seems to be a difference between what Ambassador Haley is saying, and what she said last night that Assad really has no future, and what I heard this morning from Secretary Tillerson.”
A little of this, a little of that. National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster tried to split the difference between Tillerson and Haley on FOX News, saying there “has to be a significant change in the nature” of Assad’s regime, while calling for “a degree of simultaneous activity” between pressuring Assad to leave and fighting ISIS. He added, “we’re not saying that we are the ones who are going to effect that change” on Assad.
Let’s all agree on Russia. Tillerson wasn’t quite so diplomatic when it comes to Russia, however. “Clearly they’ve been incompetent, and perhaps they’ve just simply been out-maneuvered by the Syrians” he said when asked how Russian troops serving on a Syrian air base with Syrian chemical weapons could not know about the country’s activities.
“How could it be” that the Russians had advisors and troops at the base, McMaster said, and not know “the Syrian air force was preparing and executing a mass murder attack with chemical weapons?” He added, “I think everyone in the world sees Russia as part of the problem.” Tillerson is headed to Moscow on Tuesday for meetings with Russian officials, but so far doesn’t have a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin penciled into his schedule.
Why are we here? This new debate over what to do in Syria was prompted by last week’s apparent chemical weapons attack by the regime on civilians that killed at least 80, and sickened hundreds more. In response, president Trump ordered the firing of 59 cruise missiles at the Syrian base that launched the attack. “Looming over the broadly-cheered strikes on Friday was the apparent lack of any overarching strategy to lever Assad out of power or facilitate a political solution to the six-year old Syrian civil war,” FP’s Dan De Luce and Keith Johnson write.
Trump’s “first foray into armed conflict against Syria’s Russian-backed leader, Bashar al-Assad, underscored the president’s willingness to change course quickly and make decisions about war and peace without a long deliberative process, a tendency that might keep allies — and potential foes — off balance,” FP’s Paul McLeary and Colum Lynch add in another story looking at the international fallout from the strikes.
What strategy? What does all this mean for overall U.S. strategy in Syria? Is there a Trump Doctrine emerging? “I do think there is an emergent doctrine and I think it’s different from either Bush or Obama,” James Carafano of the Heritage told FP. Carafano, who has advised Trump and was part of the transition team, said that the administration is “not out to reshape the international order.”
Instead, there’s likely a middle ground between Obama’s refusal to become too deeply involved in overseas conflicts and the Bush administration’s rush into fights throughout the Middle East and Africa. The trumpers are “between the arguments to disengage, and going out and looking for dragons to slay.”
Don’t you forget about me. Almost lost in all of this is the fact that the Pentagon has dispatched the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group to the waters off the Korean coast. The carrier was ordered to leave its port call in Singapore, cancel a visit to Australia, and head north along with the guided-missile destroyers USS Wayne E. Meyer, USS Michael Murphy, and the cruiser USS Lake Champlain.
“North Korea has been engaged in a pattern of provocative behavior,” McMaster said Sunday, calling the country a “rogue regime.” North Korea has seen an unprecedented spate of ballistic missile tests this year, alarming Washington and its regional allies. Many regional experts have warned that the tests show North Korea is inching closer to its goal of producing a nuclear-capable rocket able to reach the United States The Trump administration has been floating the possibility of preemptive strikes, but China is pushing the U.S. to engage in direct diplomacy with Kim’s government to try and get them to halt their development.
“The strike group brings with it a ton of firepower,” the Navy Times notes, “including the strike- and air-combat capabilities of the Hornets, early warning radars, electronic-warfare capabilities and more than 300 missile tubes on the carrier’s escorts.”
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Afghanistan. A U.S. Special Forces soldier was killed on Saturday after being mortally wounded fighting the Islamic State in Afghanistan. U.S. Forces Afghanistan sent out a statement on Sunday afternoon announcing the death, announcing that the soldier was killed while “operating with Afghan Forces conducting counter-ISIS-Khorasan operations in Nangarhar Province.” The Pentagon is delaying publicly identifying the Special Forces soldier pending the notification of his family.
Road to Singapore. Deputy National Security Advisor K.T. McFarland is leaving the National Security Council and taking up a new job as U.S. ambassador to Singapore, according to the New York Times. McFarland’s departure is widely seen as the result of National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster’s effort to remove an appointment made by his predecessor, Michael Flynn, and bring in his own staff. It’s unclear still who will fill McFarland’s job after her departure but McMaster has recently hired Dina Powell as deputy national security adviser for strategy, which many saw as a step towards finding an alternative to McFarland.
Horror in Egypt. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for a two attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christian community during Palm Sunday. Suicide bombers attacked a church in Tanta, killing 27, and another 22 people were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up at church in Alexandria. CNN reports that the Islamic State issued a statement on the Telegram social media platform saying the bombers were Egyptian members of the group. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared a three month state of emergency in response to the attacks and announced the creation of a new counterterrorism council.
Sweden. An Uzbek asylum seeker stole a beer truck and drove it into a crowd in Stockholm, Sweden on Friday, killing four people. The New York Times reports that Swedish authorities has denied the attacker’s application for permanent residency in 2016 and ordered him to leave the country. The man was also apparently known to have Islamist extremist sympathies, particularly towards the Islamic State, according to Swedish authorities. The method used in Friday’s attack — using a large truck to run down civilians in crowded urban areas — has been a favorite of Islamist extremists in Europe, with the deadliest taking place in Nice, France, when an Islamic State supported killed 86 people at a crowded market during Bastille Day celebrations
Cybersecurity. Spanish police arrested a Russian computer programmer on Sunday and there’s conflicting information on whether or not the arrest is related to the U.S. investigation of Russian hacking during the 2016 presidential election. Reuters reports that Spanish police arrested Pyotr Levashov in Barcelona on Sunday on unspecified charges. Russian state-owned news channel RT reported that Levashov was arrested on charges related to Russia’s apparent interference in the 2016 election but a Justice Department source told Reuters that the Levashov was arrested on criminal and not national security charges. To cloud the picture even further, Agence France Presse tweeted early Monday that a “legal source” told the news agency that the arrest was indeed related to 2016 hacking incidents.
They’re back. NATO Allied Joint Force Command chief Admiral Michelle Howard says Russian naval activity has surpassed Cold War levels. In an interview with Reuters, Howard said the recent uptick is “precedential activity,” pointing to increased patrols by surface ships and submarines over the past two years. Howard stressed the importance of NATO allies not falling prey to a narrow view of Russian activity and focusing solely on countering naval operations closest to them.
Photo Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Paul McLeary was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2015-2018.
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