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SitRep: Trump Hits the Road; U.S. Bombs Syrian Troops; White House Readying Plan to Hit Back at Critics

SitRep: Trump Hits the Road; U.S. Bombs Syrian Troops; White House Readying Plan to Hit Back at Critics

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Miles ahead. President Donald Trump leaves Friday for a busy eight-day swing through the Middle East and Europe, marking his first international travel since moving into the White House. The trip kicks off in Saudi Arabia, where the president will deliver a speech on Islam and counterterrorism that advisors say will be a rallying cry to allies in the region to redouble efforts to stamp out extremism.

National security adviser, H.R. McMaster said earlier this week that the speech “is intended to unite the broader Muslim world against common enemies of all civilization and to demonstrate America’s commitment to our Muslim partners.” It’s a dicey moment for a president who often used overtly anti-Muslim rhetoric in his presidential campaign and has tried to institute a travel ban on Muslims from several Arab countries seeking to enter the United States.

Trump will also visit with Israeli leadership in Jerusalem, sit down with Pope Francis in Rome, confer with NATO allies in Brussels and attend a G7 summit in Sicily.

Safe European home? The Brussels leg of the trip — normally a stop where U.S. presidents can nestle safely within the cocoon of the NATO alliance — is also fraught with complications. Trump’s repeated criticisms of NATO allies not pulling their weight and ongoing investigations into his campaign’s ties with Russia have allies on edge.

The Washington Post notes that “in conversations with more than two dozen current and former European ministers, lawmakers, diplomats, intelligence officials and military officers in recent days, there was a common theme: After nearly four months of the Trump administration, many fear that mounting domestic scandals could sap Washington’s ability to respond to challenges ranging from Russia to terrorism to North Korea.”

Trump retaliation. The White House is war-gaming how best to respond to the Washington Post’s bombshell report that the president shared classified intelligence with the Russians about an Islamic State plot, sensitive information reportedly passed to the United States by Israel.

FP’s Jenna McLaughlin writes in an exclusive get that one option under consideration is to attack former President Barack Obama and his administration over their handling of sensitive data. More: “According to a source with knowledge of a White House meeting that took place Wednesday morning, Trump’s team is considering launching an investigation into a Department of Homeland Security program that shares information on cyberattacks in an effort to coordinate globally on countering digital threats, insinuating that it inappropriately opened up streams of sensitive data to Russia and other non-allies. Another option under consideration is placing a story in the media about the program, similarly accusing it of sharing sensitive information.”

Government issue. For the first time in the two-plus years that U.S. and coalition aircraft have been bombing the Islamic State in Syria, American aircraft targeted Syrian government troops on Thursday. The U.S. strikes came after the Syrian convoy came too close to a U.S commando base in southeast Syria and failed to respond to multiple warnings, according U.S. defense officials. FP’s Paul McLeary notes that “the strike showed American commanders are willing to use force to maintain de facto safe zones in the country’s east, where U.S. forces are training local militias to battle the Islamic State and provide security in liberated regions.”

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis rejected the idea that the strike indicated the United States was becoming more deeply involved in the Syrian civilian civil war, saying, “we are not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war, but we will defend our troops. And that is a coalition element made up of more than just U.S. troops, and so we will defend ourselves (if) people take aggressive steps against us.” An update from the U.S. Central Command on Friday added that the two air strikes “destroyed two front-end loaders, a piece of construction equipment, a tactical vehicle and a tank.”

The Syrian government on Friday said the strikes killed several soldiers, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov added, “of course it’s completely unacceptable. It’s a violation of the sovereignty of Syria.”

Out front. Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford will brief the press at the Pentagon on Friday at 1p.m., where they’re expected to deliver an upbeat assessment of the effort against the Islamic State.

Cashout. President Trump’s promised big defense budget increase looks like it’s going to have to wait. The final number for the 2018 budget looks to hold at $603 billion, or about $18 billion more than the Obama administration projected. House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Chair Kay Granger, (R-Texas), said Thursday that $603 billion for the 2018 defense appropriations bill is “reasonable,” and the $640 billion goal  — which blows past budget caps by roughly $90 billion — won’t be reached, “unless something drops from heaven.” Defense News reports that the representative offered a cautious note going forward, saying, “I don’t see how we get to that number this year, though we can get as close as we can this year, and the next year and the next year.”  

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

Negative, Ghost Rider. Relations between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping may be going much better than expected, but things can still get tense in the skies off China’s coast. A pair of Chinese Su-30 fighter jets intercepted a U.S. Air Force WC-135 Constant Phoenix radiation sniffing aircraft in the East China Sea on Wednesday, prompting cries of “unprofessional” behavior from U.S. officials. The Chinese jet came within 135 feet of the plane, which is used to take atmospheric samples and find evidence of nuclear explosions. Air Force spokesperson Lt. Col. Lori Hodge said that the U.S. is addressing the incident with the Chinese counterparts through diplomatic channels.

Loitering with intent. American commandos in the Middle East have sent up an urgent request to be supplied with hundreds more Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition Systems, small drones equipped with explosive warheads that can loiter over a target and then crash into it, kamikaze-style. Defense One reports that Special Operations Command ordered 325 Switchblades from AeroVironment for use in the war against the Islamic State. The loitering munitions blur the difference between drones and missiles, and are launched from small tubes with the ability to fly for up to 15 minutes and smash into targets at high speed.

Blue screen of death. Which country is the source of intelligence on the Islamic State laptop bomb plan that President Trump shared with Russia? The New York Times reported earlier this week that Trump had shared Israeli information about a source on the terrorist group, but Al Jazeera posted a piece on Thursday with anonymous Jordanian intelligence officials saying Trump had disclosed information from a Jordanian source. The officials cast doubt on Israeli claims, saying that Jordan had human sources inside a number of militant groups in the region, including the Islamic State.

NATO. NATO officials are hoping the alliance will be able to announce it’s joining the coalition against the Islamic State at next week’s summit, according to the Wall Street Journal. A number of NATO member countries are already contributing to the U.S.-led coalition against the terrorist group but the move would mark NATO’s first involvement as an organization. Alliance participation in the conflict would likely take the form of additional surveillance assets or training, rather than direct combat.

Diplomatic immunity. The fallout over a brawl initiated by Turkish security officials against protesters during President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visit to Washington, D.C. continues, as video of Erdogan watching the melee has surfaced. Voice of America posted footage of Erdogan sitting his vehicle looking on as Turkish security broke through a police line and attacked protesters. Whether Erdogan ordered his detail to charge the protesters or merely looked on silently is unknown. Law enforcement detained two Turkish security officials for assaulting American diplomatic security personnel but let them go because they held diplomatic immunity.