SitRep: Trump Stomps Feet in Brussels; U.S. Avoids Responsibility in Mosul Strike; Russian Military Buildup;
New AUMF Floated; Kushner in FBI’s Sights; Pyongyang’s Rocket Men; and Lots More
With Adam Rawnsley
BREAKING: A U.S. service member died of injuries “sustained during a vehicle roll-over in northern Syria,” on Friday, the U.S. Central Command has announced. No other information is currently available.
Brussels beat. President Donald Trump is in Taormina, Sicily today for meeting with G7 allies, and so far things have been quiet. Brussels? Not so much.
At an unveiling of two memorials to the Berlin Wall and the 9/11 attack, the president took the opportunity to again dress down NATO allies over defense spending, inventing a new complaint: that they owe “massive amounts of money from past years.” Thing is, no such dues actually exist. It is true that only five of 28 allies meet the agreed-to two percent of GDP threshold for defense spending, but all have charted a course to get there in the coming years.
The optics of the meetings were problematic as well. Trump appeared to push aside Montenegrin prime minister Dusko Markovic to get to the front of the pack for a photo op, was visibly snubbed by French President Emmanuel Macron, and stood silently while other leaders ignored him during several public gatherings.
Lots more on Brussels from FP’s Robbie Gramer.
Louder than bombs. The Pentagon and U.S. Central Command said Thursday that a U.S. airstrike against a building in Mosul on March 17 detonated a cache of explosives placed there by the Islamic State, killing around 105 Iraqi civilians. The strike, which leveled the building, also killed two ISIS snipers who herded the civilians into the building before firing on Iraqi troops.
An unclassified summary of the U.S. military investigation concluded that the 500-pound bomb used in the strike set off additional explosives, and that 36 other civilians could not be accounted for, because of “insufficient evidence to determine their status or whereabouts.” Local reports said that over 200 bodies were pulled from the rubble in the days following the strike.
Amnesty USA released a statement saying its people in the field have found that “Iraqi forces and the US-led coalition did not refrain from using explosive munitions in heavily populated areas, where civilians were being used as human shields by the group calling itself the Islamic State.” Civilians in Mosul have called the U.S. narrative into question.
Allies, too. Washington’s coalition partners in Iraq and Syria are responsible for at least 80 confirmed civilian deaths, several U.S. military officials confirmed to the Airwars monitoring group and FP contributor Samuel Oakford. Despite this, “none of their 12 allies will publicly concede any role in those casualties. These dozen partner nations have launched more than 4,000 airstrikes combined, the vast majority of which were undertaken by the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Belgium, and the Netherlands. However, they have so far claimed a perfect record in avoiding civilian casualties. An Airwars investigation for Foreign Policy has now uncovered evidence that disproves that assertion.” More here.
My war. Two senators are working to restart a stalled congressional debate over authorizing the war against the Islamic State — an effort that would include mechanisms to curtail executive power. Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) unveiled a new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) on Thursday that names ISIS, al Qaeda and the Taliban while according lawmakers more oversight over where — and against whom — President Trump employs military force.
“We owe it to the American public to define the scope of the U.S. mission against terrorist organizations, including ISIS, and we owe it to our troops to show we’re behind them in their mission,” Kaine said. “It’s our constitutional duty in Congress to authorize military action, yet we’ve stood silent.”
Syrian army inching forward. Just a week after U.S. jets smoked several tanks while hitting Iranian-backed pro-Damascus fighters who had moved too close to a U.S.-base in southern Syria, government troops continue to move east. The Syrian army on Thursday said it had captured areas south of Palmyra in southeastern Homs province in their march toward areas held by U.S.-backed militias. The push threatens to put the collection of Syrian forces, Tehran-backed Iraqi Shiite fighters and Hezbollah soldiers on a collision course with U.S. special operations forces and the Syrian Sunni fighters they’re training, as FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary recently noted.
Eyes on. The federal investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election inched ever closer to the Oval Office on Thursday, with news that the FBI is focusing on President Donald Trump’s son in law. According to NBC and the Washington Post, FBI investigators are examining a series of meetings between White House adviser Jared Kushner and Russian officials as part of their sweeping probe.
Investigators want to better understand separate meetings between Kushner and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak and with the head of Vnesheconombank, a Kremlin development bank. Last month, FP profiled Vnesheconombank, which functions as a slush-fund for Vladimir Putin’s pet projects. Asked if there was any confusion about how competitive the Russia story has become for the Washington press corps, NBC beat the Post in publishing by one minute.
One final Brussels bit. The Wall Street Journal’s Julian Barnes offers a deep analysis of the handshake between Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron’s grip-and-grin on Thursday, giving Marcon the decision after Trump decided to change things up and go for a traditional shake, while Marcon gripped tightly and refused to let go.
Note: SitRep is sleeping in on Monday for Memorial Day, so we wanted to wish everyone a safe and peaceful long weekend.
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Upgrade. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu says Russia is keeping up with the neighbors, maintaining “strategic parity” with NATO thanks to a series of new weapons, the AP reports. Shoigu specifically cited out Russia’s new Yars intercontinental ballistic missile, Borei-class nuclear submarines, and upgraded bombers, as well as forthcoming deliveries of the T-50 fifth generation stealth fighter jet and S-500 air defense missile as helping Russia modernize. Nonetheless, modernization may be difficult over the next few years in the face of deep cuts to defense spending forced by Western sanctions and slumping energy prices.
Torture. An Iraqi photographer who embedded with an Iraqi special operations unit fighting the Islamic State has published footage and photographers showing troops torturing and murdering civilians. ABC News licensed the imagery from Ali Arkady, who followed the Interior Ministry’s Emergency Response Division as they fought in Qabr al-Abed and and Bazawia. Arkady witnessed Emergency Response Division troops torturing suspects by hanging them from ceiling in stress positions, beating them, electrocuting them, and carrying out summary executions. According to Arkady, many of those tortured by the unit were civilians who had nothing to do with the Islamic State.
The Emergency Response Division has not worked directly with U.S. forces, but in the past the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq has gone out of its way to praise the unit, with Task Force Strike commander Col. Brett Sylvia calling it “a very effective fighting force.” The Washington Post reports that Iraqi officials say they’re looking into the alleged abuses, pledging to “investigate the matter clearly and impartially.” Emergency Response Division members deny Arkady’s allegations.
Rocket men. North Korea’s frenetic pace of ballistic missile launches has raised the profile of three top officials in the country’s weapons of mass destruction program. Reuters reports that Ri Pyong Chol, Kim Jong Sik, and Jang Chang Ha have all been earning an unusual amount of relaxed face time with the boss, Kim Jong Un. Kim has taken the trio for rides on Goshawk-1, his personal airplane and posed for a number of smiling, ebullient photographs with the men. Ri Pyong Chol is head of the North’s missile programs and has been sanctioned directly by the U.S. Treasury Department. and Kim Jong Sik is a rocket scientist who worked on the North’s satellite launch. Relatively less is known about Jang Chang Ha, who heads the North’s Academy of the National Defence Science.
Sorry about that. Russia has apologized to the U.S. military for carrying out what U.S. officials say was an “unprofessional” intercept of a U.S. Air Force KC-10 tanker flying over Syria. A Russian fighter jet barrel rolled over the tanker, leading U.S. commanders to raise the issue with their Russian counterparts. Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, told reporters that the Russians “came back, quite frankly, and apologized for that particular intercept.”
Bombers. The Air Force is haggling with Congress over the size of the B-21 stealth bomber buy, looking to purchase anywhere between 100 and 165 of the next generation aircraft, according to Breaking Defense. Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch from the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition testified before the House Armed Services Committee that the service needs “at least 100” of the stealth bombers. How many more than 100 would the service need? Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic plans, programs and requirements, told lawmakers that 165 B-21 raiders “is probably what we need to have.”
Photo Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images