SitRep: Tillerson Roasts The Kremlin; U.S. Syria Policy Changes Daily; South Korean Politics Raise Questions for U.S. Policy

SitRep: Tillerson Roasts The Kremlin; U.S. Syria Policy Changes Daily; South Korean Politics Raise Questions for U.S. Policy


With Adam Rawnsley

Welcome to Moscow! Just hours before he was due to land in Moscow for talks with Russian officials (notably, Vladimir Putin will not be among them) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson set the tone for the meetings by warning the Kremlin must choose between aligning with U.S. and its allies, or with Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah.

The warning likely won’t play well in Moscow, which was angered over the American cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base last week, and has pushed for more coordination with the Americans in Syria. Tillerson’s comments came after he met with foreign ministers from the Group of Seven nations in Italy. Tillerson said Moscow can help Syrian civilians, or “can maintain its alliance with this group, which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interests longer term.”

Policy questions. Since two U.S. warships rained 59 cruise missiles on a (still functioning) Syrian base last week, Trump administration officials have offered mixed messages over U.S. policy in Syria. On Tuesday, Tillerson told reporters “it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end…But the question of how that ends and the transition itself could be very important in our view to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria.”

Tillerson arrives in Moscow with the full backing of the G7, including the very specific, and public, support of Germany and the U.K. But he also arrives as Moscow is rushing more warships to the Syrian coast.

Did they or didn’t they? The Secretary’s comments will likely be compounded by the remarks of several anonymous U.S. officials on Monday, which raised the issue of potential Russian involvement in the alleged Syrian chemical weapons attack that killed over 80 civilians last week.

The AP reports that one government source “has made a preliminary conclusion that Russia knew in advance of Syria’s chemical weapons attack,” but so far has no hard proof of Russian involvement. “The official said that a drone operated by Russians was flying over a hospital as victims of the attack were rushing to get treatment. Hours after the drone left, a Russian-made fighter jet bombed the hospital in what American officials believe was an attempt to cover up the usage of chemical weapons.”

In that same story, another official walked that back a bit saying that there has been no final determination over Russian involvement in the strikes. That reluctance was underlined by another (again anonymous) official who told U.S. News that the Pentagon wasn’t ready to conclusively tie the Russians to the strike. The White House also pushed back on Monday night, saying the intel community has reached no consensus over Russian involvement in the strike.

What is the U.S. policy on Syria? The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman points out that there have been five different and distinct U.S. policies on Syria articulated by U.S. officials over the past two weeks, and it remains a mystery which actually represents the thinking of President Donald Trump, who has remained silent on the issue.

The New York Times’ Peter Baker and Gardiner Harris also note Washington’s conflicting announcements, writing, “with all the murky signals, Mr. Trump has done little to clarify how he will proceed” in Syria. “While his cabinet and other advisers seem to be reading from different talking points, the president has not spoken publicly about Syria at all since the missile strike last Thursday night. Even his famed Twitter feed has largely avoided the subject, beyond thanking military personnel.”

When will the U.S. strike? The White House sent another muddled message on Monday when Press Secretary Sean Spicer appeared to broaden the range of Syrian actions that could bring more Tomahawk missiles raining down.

“If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president,” Spicer said at the White House during his daily press briefing. But after reporters questioned if Spicer was articulating a new White House policy, he issued a follow-on statement to clarify, “nothing has changed in our posture…the president retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.”

Korea questions. The Trump administration’s threats to ratchet up pressure on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program “could face a major setback next month if South Korea elects a more progressive president who has argued for a less confrontational approach to Pyongyang,” FP’s Dan De Luce writes. “The imminent political shift in Seoul, after a decade of close alignment with Washington, will require a deft diplomatic touch from a White House that has so far shown a preference for improvising policy and military operations on the fly, and which has yet to name an ambassador to South Korea or fill key senior posts overseeing Asia policy at the State Department and the Pentagon.” The Pentagon has dispatched the USS Carl Vinson strike group to the Korean coast in recent days, ratcheting up pressure on the North.

Super Tucanos. The U.S. sale of A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to Nigeria is back on after the Obama administration nixed the sale on human rights grounds. Nigeria has been fighting an insurgency and terrorist campaign waged by Boko Haram, an Islamic State affiliate, but has been accused by human rights groups of carrying out indiscriminate abuses — charges which lead the Obama administration to withhold the counterinsurgency aircraft from Nigeria and cancel a proposed Israeli sale of Cobra attack helicopters to the Nigerian military. The sale highlights the Trump administration’s skepticism towards conditioning arms sales on human rights concerns and follows the removal of human rights conditions on the sale of American fighter jets to Bahrain.

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

China. China is following through on its ban of North Korean coal imports in the wake of Pyongyang’s controversial missile tests, sending North Korean cargo ships full of coal back home, according to a scoop from Reuters. As Chinese President Xi Jinping was meeting with President Trump at his private, for-profit resort in Florida, China told its domestic trading companies to send back any coal cargo from North Korea and shipping data shows North Korean ships heading back home still laden with coal. The Trump administration has pressured China to use its leverage as Pyongyang’s most powerful remaining ally to curb it provocative tests of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

Post-strike. American forces operating in Syria are on guard in the wake of the cruise missile strike on Shayrat air base ordered by President Trump, shifting to a defensive crouch in order to protect operations by the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State from possible retaliation. A Pentagon spokesman says that the move is temporary one ordered by Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the anti-Islamic State coalition in Baghdad. So far, coalition aircraft have reduced the number of offensive strikes against the terrorist group in Syria, opting instead for defensive operations for the time being.

Breaking. Agence France Presse and Russia’s Interfax news agency reported early Tuesday morning that two Russian troops have been killed in Syria.

By the numbers. Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces have reduced the size of the Islamic State’s footprint in Iraq dramatically, according to Iraqi Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool. The group now controls 6.8 percent of Iraqi territory, down from a height of 40 percent in 2014.

Libya. America’s European allies are worried that the U.S. will walk away from the Obama administration’s previous support for Libya’s internationally-recognized government and begin supporting warlords like the Russian-backed Khalifa Haftar. European diplomats tell the Guardian that White House advisor Sebastian Gorka, reportedly jockeying for a job as a special envoy for Libya alongside former Michigan Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra and intelligence veteran Phillip Escaravage, once proposed partitioning Libya into three separate areas based on Ottoman empire-era divisions.

Cybersecurity. A Russian hacker arrested by Spanish authorities working with the U.S. Justice Department is wanted for his alleged role in creating a massive botnet and not for any involvement in hacking during the 2016 election. American and Spanish authorities accuse Pyotr Levashov, arrested on Monday, of controlling the Kelihos botnet, a vast network of infected computers used to send ransomware and millions of spam emails to thousands of unsuspecting victims. Levashov’s wife had told reporters that he was arrested for allegedly participating in hacks intended to disrupt the 2016 election but U.S. sources have denied any connection between his arrest and election interference.  

Air Force. With North Korea lighting off ballistic missiles on an almost regular basis, the U.S. Air Force would like to use any additional money from Congress to improve radar coverage of any potential missile launches against the U.S. mainland. Defense Tech reports that Northern Command chief Gen. Lori Robinson warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. “ability to provide actionable warning continues to diminish” in written testimony submitted to the panel. When asked what she would do if Northern Command received an extra billion dollars from Congress, Robinson said she’d put the money towards “putting the right radars in the right place.”

Something you don’t see everyday. A 12-ft. long Russian torpedo has washed up on a beach in Lithuania just a short kilometer from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Tensions between Baltic countries and Russia have been high as Russian naval forces have become more active in the region since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.