SitRep: Huge Changes in Saudi; Iranian Drones Downed in Syria, Pakistan; Mattis Praises Ukraine in Russia Fight
State Dept. Slams Saudi; U.S. and China Defense Officials Meet
With Adam Rawnsley
King maker. In a surprise announcement, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has anointed his 31-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, to be next in line to the throne. The young prince, who has been serving as defense minister, has been the driving force behind the kingdom’s often disastrous war in Yemen, more aggressive stance toward Iran, and push to increase domestic manufacturing, including huge new investments in the country’s nascent defense industry.
Just last month, he told the New York Times his country is “a primary target for the Iranian regime…We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran.” The campaign in Yemen has made little progress in two years, while earning the kingdom international condemnation for the killing of thousands of civilians in errant, or poorly-planned, bombing missions. Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate barely defeated a measure that would have barred some arms sales to Saudi from going through, in a protest of the conduct of the war.
State policy. Just hours before the announcement, the State Department delivered a harsh warning to both Saudi and the U.A.E. over their diplomatic and economic isolation of Qatar, signaling a break from president Trump’s very public support for the move.
Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the department was “mystified” that the two countries have still not publicly detailed their complaints about Qatar’s ties to Iran and several terrorist organizations. “The more that time goes by, the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” Nauert said. “Were the actions really about their concerns about Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?”
Remarkably, while Trump had ordered Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to mediate the dispute among Washington’s allies, Nauert said Tillerson has concluded the two sides can work it out on their own.
Almost, China! President Trump offered Twitter’s version of a shrug Tuesday in bemoaning the failure of Chinese efforts to get North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program, writing, “while I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!” Does this signal a change in U.S. policy? Is the president considering military action against the North? Twitter didn’t tell us. One thing we do know, China’s trade with North Korea expanded over 37 percent during the first quarter of 2017.
U.S., China hold big meeting. Chinese and American defense officials will meet at the State Department on Wednesday for what is being dubbed the “U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue,” hosted by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Rex Tillerson. The two will host Chinese foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi and Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of the People’s Liberation Army’s joint staff. Once things wrap up, Mattis and Tillerson will hold their first joint news conference at 3:00 p.m. Livestream of that presser here.
U.S. sanctions more Russians. The Trump administration slapped additional sanctions on dozens of individuals and companies tied to Russia’s slow-burning proxy war in Ukraine on Tuesday. The move could be a relief to many who worried Trump would walk back U.S. commitments to Europe to repair ties with Russia.
“This is not a softball list. Nobody tried to water it down. There’s too much good stuff in here,” said Daniel Fried, State Department coordinator for sanctions policy until recently. “It looks like a list that would have come out under the last administration,” said Sean Kane, an international trade and sanctions expert at Hughes Hubbard & Reed law firm. More from FP’s Robbie Gramer on the sanctions here.
Russia bill stalls. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has stalled the movement of another sanctions bill aimed at Russia, after it passed the Senate by a 97-2 vote. There are problems, however. “It’s a bill that any administration would hate,” one congressional source told FP’s Elias Groll. “It’s a serious insult to the president.” More here.
Drone day. If you’re a lover of Iranian drones, Tuesday was a rough day. Both U.S. and Pakistani jets claimed kills of Tehran’s unmanned assets in the skies over southern Syria and western Pakistan, respectively. The Syria incident marked the second time in a week an American plane shot down an armed Iranian Shahed 129 drone as it approached U.S. forces and their Syrian allies close to their base near al Tanf in southeastern Syria.
From Ukraine with… Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and then, briefly, enjoyed a “drop-in” visit with President Donald Trump on Tuesday, write FP’s Emily Tamkin and Reid Standish. Standard stuff, and Trump made vague remarks to the press during the quick photo-op of a meeting.
Poroshenko was greeted much more effusively over at the Pentagon, where he met with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who without mentioning Russia by name, put Moscow on full blast for its invasion of eastern Ukraine. “Even in the face of dangers from aggression, cyber attacks and more, a neighbor shredding trust, your country has shown a strong commitment to defend itself, and, frankly, against all odds,” Mattis said. “The United States stands with you. We support you in the face of the threats to sovereignty, to international law, or to the international order.”
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Philippines. Islamist militants in the southern Philippines have taken advantage of an Islamic State affiliate’s siege in the nearby city of Marawi to launch an attack of their own, seizing an elementary school and taking a dozen hostages. The New York Times reports that the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters seized the school after 200 of its fighters launched an attack on a Philippine government outpost in Pigcawayan. The group is not related to the Islamic State affiliate fighting in Marawi and likely did not coordinate its attack with the Abu Sayyaf Islamic State affiliate fighting in Marawi.
Brussels. Brussels saw another apparent terrorist attack on Tuesday after a Moroccan man detonated a bomb in his suitcase at the Brussels Central Station railway hub. Belgian troops shot and killed the man as he charged them afterwards, leaving the attacker as the only casualty in the incident. CNN reports that Belgian authorities identified the man as a 30 year old Moroccan national from the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, which has been home to a number of Islamist terrorists.
Rocky start. The Trump administration’s pick for the number two spot at the Defense Department ran into trouble during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, earning the ire of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who threatened to block his nomination. Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for a nomination hearing and quickly ran afoul of McCain because his written statement punted on the issue of whether to supply weaponry to Ukraine, saying he’d like to study the issue further. McCain, a strong proponent of arms transfers to Ukraine, pounced on the response, calling it “very disturbing” and “not a good beginning.” Under pressure, Shanahan said he did support arming Ukraine, but McCain came away from the hearing unmoved, refusing to rule out holding up his nomination when asked by reporters.
Close encounters. The U.S. and Russian militaries are at odds once again over a tense incident in the skies, this time involving a Russian Su-27 fighter jet flying within just five feet of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane over the Baltic Sea. The Pentagon called the intercept, one of a number of such incidents between the two countries over the Baltic Sea recently, “unsafe” but the Russians claim accuse the spy plane of “performing a provocative turnaround toward the Su-27.” In a separate incident, Russian media outlets are reporting claims that a U.S. F-16 buzzed a plane carrying Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Kaliningrad.
Iraq. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi not to curb the power of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq, Reuters reports. The Popular Mobilization Forces, as the militias are called, rose up following the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State to augment Iraqi security forces fight against the group. But in the years since, the groups have proven controversial among Iraq’s Sunnis, who accuse the mostly Shia militias of carrying out sectarian attacks and human rights violations. Khamenei credited the militias with the Islamic State’s decline in Iraq, adding that “The Americans are against Popular Forces because they want Iraq to lose its main source of strength.”
Oops. Director Oliver Stone has been promoting his recent documentary featuring interviews with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but Putin appears to have made one very big faux pas in the film. Meduza reports that Putin showed Stone footage of an aircraft strafing militants on the ground in the documentary, claiming that it was “our aviation at work” in Syria. The footage in question, however, is not Russian but rather an American AH-64 Apache engaging Taliban fighters posted online in 2013 and dubbed with Russian voices.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Ernst – Pool/Getty Images
Paul McLeary was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2015-2018.
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