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The Cable

SitRep: Sanctions, Not War, With North Korea; Trump Hands More Power to Pentagon; U.S. Forces Close to Turkish Bombs

Did Israel Hit Damascus; Defense Contractors Tempering Trump Expectations; Assad’s Chemical Weapons; Russia Investigation to Get Fresh Blood; Houthi Bot Boat Blasted

US Defense Secretary James Mattis (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford are seen on West Executive Drive after briefing US senators on the situation in North Korea in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House on April 26, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US Defense Secretary James Mattis (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford are seen on West Executive Drive after briefing US senators on the situation in North Korea in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House on April 26, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)


With Adam Rawnsley

Senators not impressed with super-secret White House meeting. The big meeting is over and the reviews are coming in. And so far, a handful of Republican and Democratic senators have responded to the much-hyped classified briefing the White House delivered on North Korea Wednesday with a collective, “meh.”

The hour-long brief was carried out by Trump cabinet’s top national security officials, including the secretaries of State and Defense, along with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Director of National Intelligence. Asked by reporters afterwards, the lawmakers offered assessments like Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-Tenn.) declaration that “it was an OK briefing,” and Sen. Jeff Merkley’s (D-Ore.) conclusion that he “learned nothing you couldn’t read in the newspaper.” At least one anonymous Republican Senator complained to the Washington Post that the administration was short on “straight answers on what the policy is” toward North Korea’s weapons programs.

So, what’s the strategy? It’s becoming more apparent that despite some heated rhetoric, the Trump administration has little appetite for war with Pyongyang.

“We want to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses, not to his knees,” Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. Harris said the U.S. aircraft carrier and several other warships near the Korean peninsula, along with a new U.S. missile defense system dispatched to South Korea are classic deterrent measures, and not the start of a military buildup. (For a sense of what that might look like, look back to President Bill Clinton’s tense standoff with the regime in 1994.)

“We want to solve this through political or economic measures,” an anonymous senior administration official told the Daily Beast’s Kim Dozier. “There are no good military options.” And the Wall Street Journal reports Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to use a United Nations meeting on Friday to ask allies to increase economic pressure on Pyongyang by enforcing economic sanctions, and closing North Korean embassies.

More than North Korea.  Adm. Harris also warned about increasing Chinese and Russian capabilities in the Pacific region. FP’s Paul McLeary reports that U.S. officials have been concerned for some time over new submarine deployments by both countries in the Pacific, which Harris said represent “dramatic improvements” from previous classes of ships. He added that he has only about half the subs he needs for the region, and expressed concern that a shrinking U.S. submarine fleet is eroding long-held advantages over Beijing and Moscow. “The gap between us and the next best is closing,” Harris said.

Pentagon calls the shots. The White House has handed off decisions over troop levels in Iraq and Syria to the Pentagon in an effort to do away with the Obama-era troop “caps” that military commanders have long complained privately were arbitrary. Buzzfeed was first to report the move on Wednesday.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement that “no change to current authorized force levels has been made. This does not represent a change in our mission in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS.” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has undertaken a review of force levels, which are capped at 500 in Syria — despite there being some 1,000 U.S. troops there using some bureaucratic hand waving — and about 5,000 in Iraq. It’s unclear how many U.S. forces are actually in Iraq currently, but it’s likely hundreds over the cap, since “temporary” assignments aren’t counted against the total. The Pentagon says the new system will make the process more accountable.

About those troops in Syria. U.S. forces were only about six miles away from the airstrikes Turkey launched against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria Tuesday, drawing a rebuke from the Pentagon. Spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria Col. John Dorrian told reporters Wednesday that the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, some of whom Turkey considers terrorists, “have been integral in fighting ISIS. They’ve been reliable in making progress against ISIS fighters under very difficult and dangerous conditions.” Over the past year, “they have made many, many sacrifices to help defeat ISIS and that keeps the whole world safer. So that is our position on that.”

The Trump administration’s deputy presidential envoy for the anti-ISIS fight, (ret.) Lt. Gen. Terry Wolff, told an audience at the Middle East Institute in Washington on Wednesday the U.S. relationship with Turkey takes work, and “there’s nothing we manage on a daily basis more intensely than Turkey.” But, he said — echoing several top U.S. generals who have told FP the Kurds are a critical and necessary partner to fight ISIS in Syria — the Kurds “weren’t our first choice. The moderate [Sunni Arab] opposition the Turks are training was our first choice,” but when the training faltered, Washington had to turn to the Kurds, who were ready and willing to go.

Assad’s chemical weapons. France on Wednesday released new evidence directly linking the Syrian regime to an April 4 chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people, including many children, and prompted President Donald Trump to order Tomahawk missile strikes against a Syrian air base. “The new evidence, contained in a six-page National Evaluation prepared by French intelligence, represents the most detailed public account of Syria’s alleged use of the deadly nerve agent sarin in the attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun,” FP’s Colum Lynch reports.

The French report calls into question what was viewed that the time as a landmark U.S.-Russian chemical weapons pact, which was signed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in late 2013. “The pact was touted as practically eliminating Syria’s ‘declared’ chemical weapons program. France also said that since 2014, Syria has sought to acquire dozens of tons of isopropanol, a key ingredient of sarin, even though it committed to destroying its chemical arsenal in October 2013.”

New blood in Russia investigation. The flagging U.S. probes into the Trump administration’s ties to the Kremlin are about to get an injection of fresh blood, FP’s ELias Groll and Jenna McLaughlin tell us.

“Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats have tapped April Doss, a former NSA lawyer, to join the committee’s investigation of Russia’s intervention in the U.S. election. Meanwhile, Rod Rosenstein, who was confirmed as deputy attorney general on Tuesday, will take the reins of the Justice Department’s sprawling probe into Trump’s Russia ties and Kremlin meddling.

The two veterans are poised to bring legal and intelligence heft to probes that have been hobbled by a shortage of technical expertise and a lack of political cover at the Justice Department.”

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

Airstrikes. Damascus international airport was hit by an airstrike late Thursday evening, believed to be the result of Israeli warplanes. The BBC reports that Hezbollah’s media channel Al Manar has accused Israel of carrying out the strike. Israel’s Intelligence Minister Israeli Israel Katz was circumspect in describing the incident, saying only that it was “compatible with Israel’s policy” of disrupting arms transfers to Hezbollah but refusing to specifically claim responsibility for the attack. However, an anonymous Middle Eastern intelligence source tells Reuters that the strike targeted a major Iranian arms shipment hub at the airport.  

Neighbors. Israel is growing warier of the prospect of a permanent Iranian military footprint on its doorstep in Syria and it wants the Trump administration to help. Israel’s Intelligence Minister Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz is in D.C. this week looking for “an understanding, an agreement” with the Trump administration to help stop Iran from putting even deeper roots down in Syria. Katz is hoping that sanctions and the diplomatic intercession of Russia could curb Iranian influence, but with thousands of militia members and military advisors holding territory for the Assad regime’s manpower-deprived forces, Tehran still holds great sway in Syria.

Shrinkage. New data shows that the Trump administration is relying on fewer contractors to support its wars, according to US News and World Report’s Paul Shinkman. U.S Central Command has shaved 3,000 contractors off its total under the Obama administration, dropping from 45,500 down to 42,000. The vast majority of Central Command’s contractors are supporting the war in Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, with 13,500 contract personnel supporting unspecified operations in the Middle East. Syria commands around a thousand contractors in order to support the roughly 1,000 troops currently in the country, sources tell the magazine.

Exodus. Will the last person to leave the caliphate please turn the lights out? With the U.S.-led coalition closing in around the Islamic State’s remaining strongholds in Iraq and Syria, more and more foreign fighters are searching for the exits and fleeing towards Turkey. The Guardian reports that a British couple and a Florida man have turned themselves in to Turkish authorities after fleeing the group, part of a wave of foreign fighters defecting recently. European diplomats report receiving phone calls from Islamic State members looking for information on how to surrender and return to their home countries.

Bots of war. Saudi forces stopped a remotely-operated boat laden with explosives from carrying out an attack off the coast of Yemen, according to NBC News. Saudi officials say the boat belonged to Houthi forces and was headed towards a Saudi Aramco oil terminal before it was stopped. The incident marks the second appearance of an unmanned explosive boat off the coast of Yemen, with Houthi forces using one of the vessels to attack a Saudi Navy frigate in January.

That loving feeling. President Trump came into office promising a renaissance in defense spending with a 350 ship Navy, new nuclear weapons, more fighter jets, and more troops, leading defense stocks to soar. Now, however, the bloom is off the rose and the defense industry is starting to adjust its expectations to a much less lavish defense budget future. Defense One reports that the heads of the big defense contractors have shifted their rhetoric back towards the budget caps put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act. Both Lockheed chief Marillyn Hewson and Textron boss Scott Donnelly used their quarterly earnings calls warn investors that the budget caps and short term spending bills are hindering potential earnings.


Photo Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

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