The Cable

SitRep: Trump Offers to Talk; Syria Chemical Attacks; North Korea Said to Step Up Nuke Program

U.S. Missile Defense in South Korea Up and Running; NATO and Counterterrorism; Afghanistan War Grinds On; Hamas Claims Moderation; Army Secretary Runs into Opposition

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 29:  President Donald Trump is seen through a window speaking on the phone with King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, in the Oval Office of the White House, January 29, 2017 in Washington, DC. On Sunday, President Trump is making several phone calls with world leaders from the Oval Office.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 29: President Donald Trump is seen through a window speaking on the phone with King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, in the Oval Office of the White House, January 29, 2017 in Washington, DC. On Sunday, President Trump is making several phone calls with world leaders from the Oval Office. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)


With Adam Rawnsley

Total recall. The Trump administration has been forced to spend the early part of the week walking back some of the president’s off-the-cuff statements and clarifying his professed openness to meet with world leaders at the bottom of the international dinner invitation list.

In an interview with Bloomberg on Monday, Trump said he was willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “under the right circumstances.” But the rest of the White House isn’t so sure.

“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it,” Trump said. By the afternoon however, White House spokesman Sean Spicer clarified that talks aren’t in the cards, as “clearly conditions are not there right now.”

The president’s willingness to consider a meeting with Kim follows the invitation he extended to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has encouraged a vigilante campaign against drug users that has killed thousands, drawing condemnation from the world community. White House aides were taken by surprise by the invite, but Duterte brushed it off, saying he was probably “too busy” to come to Washington.

“The most serious risk with this series of uncoordinated and controversial statements is that they undermine the most important currency of U.S. power: the credibility of the president’s words,” Evan S. Medeiros, who served as a senior Asia adviser to President Barack Obama told the New York Times.

Long distance runaround. Speaking of speaking with world leaders, Trump is slated to chat by phone with President Vladimir Putin of Russia at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, where they’ll discuss the war in Syria. U.S. Army Rangers and Russian troops remain eye-to-eye in northern Syria near the city of Manbij, and president Trump recently ordered 59 cruise missiles to hit a Syrian air base where Russian troops are stationed.

War games. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross thought the strike was good fun, telling an audience in Los Angeles on Monday that Trump informed Chinese President Xi Jinping about the strike as it was happening, as the two shared dinner at the president’s for profit Mar a Lago resort in Florida. “Just as dessert was being served, the president explained to Mr. Xi he had something he wanted to tell him, which was the launching of 59 missiles into Syria,” Ross said. “It was in lieu of after-dinner entertainment.”

Different damage. North Korea is saying that thanks to Washington’s harsh rhetoric over its missile and nuclear programs,  it’s stepping up efforts to make progress. (As if they were slow rolling it up to now.) In a statement on Monday, the government in Pyongyang said “now that the U.S. is kicking up the overall racket for sanctions and pressure against the DPRK, pursuant to its new DPRK policy called ‘maximum pressure and engagement’, the DPRK will speed up at the maximum pace the measure for bolstering its nuclear deterrence.”

Up and running. The U.S. missile defense system sent to South Korea to counter growing threats from the North is now operational, officials said on Tuesday. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery has emerged as a major point of contention in the South Korean presidential election slated for next week, and has drawn objections from China.

Office space. NATO is weighing the appointment of a senior official to oversee counterterrorism efforts, “a move aimed at meeting one of President Donald Trump’s demands that the alliance focus more on terror threats,” the Wall Street Journal’s Julian Barnes reports. “The proposal is similar to NATO’s recent decision to create a top intelligence post, a move that Mr. Trump has repeatedly praised and that he has cited as evidence the alliance has responded to his criticisms and is no longer obsolete.”

The idea seems to still be in its early stages, with no one in the alliance vocally opposing it, but some diplomats “are skeptical about the role’s impact unless alliance members also agree to expand the organization’s counterterror efforts, including funding additional training initiatives.”

Bomb, repeat. The Syrian government most likely used a Soviet-made weapon containing the nerve agent sarin in an April 4 attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, according to an investigation by Human Rights Watch. “The findings by the New York-based advocacy group add to the mounting evidence that Syria carried out the deadliest chemical weapons attack in the country since March 2013,” FP’s Colum Lynch reports, “when the U.S. government alleged that Syrian helicopters dropped sarin bombs on the town of eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, killing more than 1,400 people.” The Syrian government has employed nerve agents in at least four separate attacks since December 2016, the report states.

Afghanistan, forever. Just a few days after two U.S. soldiers were killed fighting the Islamic State in Afghanistan, a Congressionally-mandated watchdog reported that the Taliban controls or contests about 40 percent of the districts in the country, 16 years after the U.S. war there began. In the first two months of 2017, over 800 Afghan troops were killed fighting the Taliban, according to a new report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Fighting in Afghanistan follows a seasonal pattern with downturns in the winter and spikes in the spring, making the sharp uptick in violence during what would normally be a dormant period especially worrying. The spike in casualties comes as the Taliban has claimed more territory in the country, with the U.S. sending 300 Marines back to Helmand Province to provide additional training to Afghan forces.

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

Missiles. North Korea’s new anti-ship ballistic missile is the new it-girl in Pyongyang’s arsenal, described as a potential “carrier killer.” But as the North Korea nerds at 38 North say, it’s got some significant technological hurdles to jump through if it’s ever going to live up to that billing. The KN-17, as the U.S. calls it, made appearances in the North’s April 15 military parade and at three recent tests. But in order to hit a moving target at sea, a missile needs precise coordinates — something which North Korea’s rudimentary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets can’t yet provide. That the KN-17’s three recent tests were all apparent failures also indicates that the North has a ways to go before its supposed carrier killer can present a threat to ships at sea.

Bonkers. The craziest thing you will read today is CNN‘s story about an FBI translator who secretly traveled to Syria to meet her husband, a rapper turned Islamic State commander. The cable news channel discovered that Daniela Greene, an FBI translator with a top secret security clearance, told her bosses she was headed to see family in Germany but instead headed to Syria to meet Deso Dogg, a German rapper who converted to Islam and traveled to Syria and fought for the Islamic State. In Syria, the two married but Greene quickly had second thoughts about her new life in the caliphate, returning home where she was immediately arrested. Greene, however, received a two year sentence that many observers view as suspiciously light relative to sentences handed down to other Americans who traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State.

Justice. Six years into Syria’s heinously bloody civil war, a United Nations war crimes panel is finally moving to begin to identify the culprits of atrocities committed in the conflict. Agence France Presse reports that the panel, established in December 2016, is just now getting staff and a $13 million budget to start work. The panel doesn’t have the jurisdiction to prosecute those it identifies but it’s aiming to compile enough evidence on guilty parties such that it can refer them to courts which would have standing to try cases.

Paperwork. The terrorist group Hamas has tweaked its charter to say that it’s open to the possibility of a settlement with Israel based on its 1967 borders. Hamas’s leadership also altered the document’s identification of its enemies, changing the 1988 draft’s articulation of a “struggle against the Jews” to one against “occupying Zionist aggressors.” Hamas says the new version of its charter will make it easier to engage with the wider world but Israeli officials dismiss the language shift as merely cosmetic rather than a sign that the group is amenable to change.

Army. The Trump administration’s pick for Army Secretary is running into stiff opposition from Democrats for his views on LGBT people. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the number two Democrat in the House, said Trump should withdraw Tennessee State Senator and former Army officer because his “disgusting statements” about LGBT people “would send the absolute wrong signal about the values for which our military service members are risking their lives.” Green has referred to transgenderism as a “disease” and demanded that the state of Tennessee refuse to comply with federal law and not issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

Photo Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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