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SitRep: Turkey Threatens U.S. Troops in Syria; Tillerson Tosses Human Rights; Russia’s Race to The Arctic

SitRep: Turkey Threatens U.S. Troops in Syria; Tillerson Tosses Human Rights;  Russia’s Race to The Arctic

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Action, reaction. American forces raced for the Syria/Turkish border last week after Turkish warplanes bombed Kurdish fighters allied with Washington in the fight against the Islamic State. The move angered Ankara, which considers the Kurdish YPG to be a terrorist group, and placed Washington in the uncomfortable position of defending one non-state ally against a longtime NATO partner. It’s also put U.S. forces in the middle of a shooting war, in the role of a human buffer in armored vehicles.

On Wednesday, a top aide to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a radio program that those troops aren’t safe: “we won’t be considering the fact that there are armored American vehicles…All of a sudden, by accident, a few rockets can hit them.”

Strangeways. “The U.S. show of force is a very public reminder of American support for the Kurds, who make up a majority of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a 50,000-strong collection of local militias currently moving on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa,” FP’s Paul McLeary reports. U.S. military commanders have said repeatedly that the Kurds are the only viable military option to defeat ISIS on the ground in Syria.

On his way. The threats come about two weeks before Erdogan is due in Washington to meet with president Trump. On Wednesday, the Turkish leader met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where the two talked about creating “safe zones” in Syria for civilians. Russia pushed the idea at peace talks in Kazakhstan between the moderate Syrian opposition, the Syrian regime, Russia, Iran, and Turkey Wednesday, but representatives of the opposition walked out of the talks over continued Syrian government bombing of hospitals and civilian targets, and the role Iran is playing in the Syrian civil war.

The opposition returned to the table Thursday, and the Russians hope to sign a memorandum calling for the safe zones by the end of the day. Damascus appears to be a fan of the idea, but U.S. defense officials say they are not planning to create any safe zones, or no-fly zones in Syria.

Values here. In his second address to his department since taking up his new job, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on his staff to forget what they thought they knew and approach their jobs “with no constraints” on their thinking, writes FP’s Emily Tamkin. Tillerson did not address the expected budget cuts that could decimate plenty of departments, though he did implicitly promise organizational changes.

Tillerson also said the days of Washington attempting to export its values — and push for respect for human rights abroad — are over. Insisting that potential partners uphold international norms only “creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests,” he said.

Pressure points. But the secretary did outline the White House’s North Korea policy more explicitly than any U.S. official has in the Trump administration. He said that the plan is to lean hard on China to lean harder on Pyongyang. “It’s a pressure campaign that has a knob on it,” he said. “We’re at dial setting five or six now.”

Tillerson added that Washington would negotiate with North Korea “when conditions are right,” but there are conditions. “We are not going to negotiate our way to the negotiating table. That is what Pyongyang has done for the last 20 years, is cause us to have to negotiate to get them to sit down. We’ll sit down when they’re ready to sit down under the right terms.”

Road rules. On Tuesday, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee boarded a bus to Langley, Virginia, as part of their probe into Russian election meddling. Many facets of the congressional probe into Russian election meddling are unusual, but these field trips are part of yet another “first” for the intelligence panel: access to raw intelligence, reports FP’s Jenna McLaughlin. After “significant negotiations,” the chairman and vice chairman got access to “categories and types of intelligence documents that have never been provided to Congress before” — even beyond what the Gang of Eight has received in the past, one Senate staffer emailed. More on what they saw here.

Over there. President Trump is due to travel to Brussels later this month for a critical NATO meeting, which will be the first time many alliance members will meet him in person. He’ll encounter an alliance that is changing, and while he will likely take credit for those changes, most of the reforms and new spending plans were in the works well before January 2017.

“For NATO’s newest members, it is Russia, not Trump, that is motivating their spending,”  writes FP’s Paul McLeary. Romania is one of the countries at the forefront of this new spending push, and the country’s ambassador to the United States recently pointed out to FP that “Crimea sits less than 200 miles from its shores, and Romania shares a long border with Serbia, which has moved closer to the Kremlin as it buys Russian warplanes and air defense systems. And when NATO opened a missile defense site in Romania last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the country to be in Moscow’s ‘crosshairs.’”  

Best coast. The commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard issued a stark warning on Wednesday that Russia was leagues ahead of Washington in the Arctic. And while the warming Arctic opens up, the United States could be caught flat-footed while other geopolitical rivals swiftly step in, according to a new report by FP’s Robbie Gramer.

Paul Zukunft, the coastie commandant, warned Moscow is building up a huge military and industrial presence in the region while the United States dawdled. Russia is showing “I’m here first, and everyone else, you’re going to be playing catch-up for a generation to catch up to me first,” said Zukunft in remarks before the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They’ve made a strategic statement,” he said.

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

The news today, oh boy. North Korea is extra grumpy with its neighbor to the north following signals from China that it’s open to a tougher line on Pyongyang’s antics. The flareup started with a war of words between both countries’ state-run media. North Korea’s KCNA warned China that the daily “absurd and reckless remarks” in Chinese state media calling for sanctions against North Korea could lead to “grave consequences” and advised that “the DPRK will never beg for the maintenance of friendship with China.” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang responded to the broadside by saying that Beijing is still interested in having “good neighborly and friendly cooperation” with the North.

Ain’t no party like a Balad party. Two former investigators for a private security company charged with protecting an Iraqi F-16 base say that company employees engaged in a booze-soaked campaign of corruption, theft, and human trafficking. The AP reports that Virginia-based contractor Sallyport fired investigators after they allegedly uncovered rampant misconduct by company employees at Balad Air Base, where the company had a $700 million contract to provide security. The investigators say employees charged with directing traffic on the tarmac at Balad regularly showed up to work drunk, popping Vodka-soaked gummy bears and smuggling in so much booze, and guns, that a plane carrying the illicit cargo tipped over. Investigators also allege that Balad was home to a prostitution ring patronized by Sallyport employees.

Yemen. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) effort to piece together a national army in Yemen is faltering due to political divisions within Yemeni society, Reuters reports. UAE forces fighting as part of the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi movement in Yemen have been trying to train up local forces to buttress the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. But UAE troops tell the wire service that their Yemeni trainees are often unwilling to fight alongside troops from other parts of the country. One of the biggest rifts in the force is the hesitance of troops from southern Yemen, previously an independent country, to fight in the north.  

Missiles. Iran is trying to get its midget submarines to fire cruise missiles, according to Fox News. Anonymous sources tell the cable news outlet that Iran tried to fire a cruise missile from a Ghadir submarine, based on North Korea’s Yono-class design, but the launch failed. The tiny subs are usually reserved for firing torpedoes and laying sea mines. Iran claimed to have successfully fired a missile from a submarine for the first time back in February but whether that claim pertains to a Ghadir cruise missile launch or another platform remains a mystery.

Raider. Congressional appropriators tweaked the funding for the B-21 stealth bomber in the latest spending bill, shaving off $20 million for the program and attaching a handful of new oversight requirements, according to Defense News. The 2017 omnibus spending bill shelled out $1.338 billion for the B-21, down from $1.358 billion. Appropriators also called for an inspector general review of the program and clamped down on the Air Force’s ability to transfer and reprogram funding without Congressional approval.

Bonus. The Army wants to stand up a new brigade to improve the training of Iraqi and Afghan forces and so it’s offering troops with training experience a $5,000 bonus to sign up for the new unit. The program is aimed at mid-career non-commissioned officers and hopes to address some of the problems caused by the piecemeal approach to training as parts of other units carry out training missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pic of the day. To the observant celebrating today’s holiday, May the Fourth be with you. Always.