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SitRep: North Korea Wrangling; Hill Wrestles With Russia Sanctions; Debate Over Syria Strategy Continues

SitRep: North Korea Wrangling; Hill Wrestles With Russia Sanctions; Debate Over Syria Strategy Continues

 

With Adam Rawnsley and Elias Groll

China’s proposal. Officials in Beijing are pushing the Trump administration to begin negotiations on a temporary freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests “in return for reducing the American military footprint in the Korean Peninsula,” the New York Times’ David Sanger and Gardiner Harris report.

The proposal came up again on Wednesday in Washington, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met with their Chinese counterparts.

“But White House officials say they are not interested in any proposal that would require the United States to lift military or economic pressure on the North, even in return for a moratorium on tests. Instead, Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Mattis publicly pressed the Chinese to exert more diplomatic and economic pressure on Pyongyang, though President Trump indicated on Twitter on Tuesday that he had just about given up on obtaining help from the Chinese.”

South Korea’s stance. In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said it is China that needs to do more. Moon called for “strong” sanctions to be slapped on North Korea if it tests an intercontinental ballistic missile or conducts a sixth nuclear test. “China is North Korea’s only ally and China is the country that provides the most economic assistance to North Korea,” Moon said. “Without the assistance of China, sanctions won’t be effective at all.”

FP’s Robbie Gramer and Paul McLeary point out that Beijing is “increasingly caught in the middle of the Trump administration’s showdown with Pyongyang,” since China is North Korea’s economic lifeline, accounting for 90 percent of trade with the Hermit Kingdom, much of it funneled through a shadowy network of front companies and businesses. During a press conference with Mattis on Wednesday, Tillerson said that “we reiterated to China that they have a diplomatic responsibility to exert much greater economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime if they want to prevent further escalation in the region.”

After Raqqa, what? A Trump administration official, speaking with the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe, dismissed concerns that the U.S. and Iran are lurching toward a deeper conflict in Syria. “If you’re worried that any incident anywhere could cause Iran to take advantage of vulnerable U.S. forces . . . if you don’t think America has real interests that are worth fighting for, then fine,” the official said, adding that with U.S. air power, a small number of forces could act in Syria much like the 1960s TV show, “The Rat Patrol,” about WWII.

The article jumps off from a story in Foreign Policy last week that outlined a debate between the White House and Pentagon about U.S. strategy in Syria, and how strongly U.S. forces should confront Iran there.

ISIS blows up mosque. In Mosul, Islamic State militants bombed the historic Nouri Grand Mosque in Mosul late Wednesday, levelling the structure that has stood for hundreds of years when government forces approached. ISIS is down to a pocket of control in western Mosul, and government forces have them surrounded. The group blamed a U.S. airstrike, but footage clearly shows that the mosque — which had been used to build car bombs — being blown up from the ground.\

Hack back. Russian hackers targeting the 2016 election didn’t just go after email accounts and Democratic Party computers. They also hit American voting systems, and on Wednesday a Department of Homeland Security official offered the government’s first concrete assessment of how many such systems came under attack. Jeanette Manfra, the department’s acting deputy undersecretary of cyber security, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russian targeted the “election-related” systems of 21 states. She would not identify which states were targeted and emphasized the department has no evidence Russian hackers were successful in altering votes or vote counts.

Russia sanctions. Senate Democrats are scratching their heads over a move by House Republicans to stall a Senate-passed bill to increase sanctions on Russia. On Tuesday, House lawmakers said they could not move forward on a sanctions bill passed by a 97-2 margin in the Senate because of the constitutional requirement that laws raising revenue originate in the House.

But Senate Democrats don’t know what portion of the bill House lawmakers are objecting to, senior Senate aides said on Thursday. The sanctions bill, which writes Russia sanctions into law and ratchets up other punitive measures on Moscow, is opposed by the White House, which wants the measure watered down and appears to be trying to use Speaker Paul Ryan and his lieutenants to execute an end-run around the Senate.

Afghanistan sinks lower. At least 20 people have been killed and dozens wounded in a car bomb attack on a bank in Lashkar Gah in Helmand province. “This cowardly attack targeted innocent people as they lined up to get their salaries in preparation for the Eid al-Fitr celebrations,” said U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Roger Turner, commander of Task Force Southwest in a statement. The attack comes as the Taliban surges throughout the country, and the White House and Pentagon continue to hash out details of a strategy for continued U.S. involvement in the country.

Navy blues. Two key Republican lawmakers are set to unveil legislation Thursday that will make it national policy to maintain a 355-ship Navy, according to a draft of the legislation obtained by Defense News.

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

The U.N. has authorized a new multinational counterterrorism force to talk Islamist militants in West Africa after the U.S. and France resolved their differences over authorization for the troops. The New York Times reports that the U.N.’s new unit will pull 5,000 troops from West African countries but its budget will likely be a source of tension between Washington and Paris and America’s U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has been looking to cut funding for U.N. peacekeeping operations.

A Russian diplomat will take the helm as the top official at the U.N.’s new Counterterrorism Office, according to Reuters. Vladimir Voronkov, who served as Russia’s Permanent Representative to International Organizations, accepted the position on Wednesday. Western diplomats tell the wire service that while Western countries often disagree with Russia on counterterrorism issues, it’s an area where cooperation is still possible. Russia’s former Ambassador to the U.S. Sergei Kislyak was reportedly in the running for the U.N. job as well.

Conflicts in the Middle East are making preventable diseases disturbingly common, according to the Washington Post, with tens of thousands infected cholera in Yemen and new cases of Polio, a disease that had been nearly eradicated. In Yemen, 1,146 people have died from cholera in recent weeks, after Saudi airstrikes have left the country’s infrastructure severely damaged and led to the closure of medical facilities. The World Health Organization has documented 15 cases of Polio in Syria, including one in the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa.

The Israeli Air Force’s (IAF) top officer is warning that his service is capable of inflicting much more damage than it was during Israel’s 2006 conflict with Lebanon. The Times of Israel reports that IAF commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel told a conference in Israel that his air fleet now has “potential power unimaginable in its scope” and could achieve “in 48-60 hours” what it had previously taken the IAF 34 days to do during the 2006 war. Tensions between Israel and Hezbollah have risen over the past few months with both sides exchanging warnings about a new round of fighting.

The Taliban released a new propaganda video featuring hostages Kevin King and Timothy Weekes, former teachers at the American University of Afghanistan, pleading with their governments to do more to secure their release. King, an American, and Weekes, an Australian, were kidnapped from nearby the university campus in August 2016. The AP reports that both hostages appear healthier than in a previous hostage video release from the Taliban from January 2017.

The U.S. wasted $28 million on uniforms for the Afghan military according to a new report from the Pentagon’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). SIGAR investigators argue that the woodland camo pattern was a poor fit for large swaths of Afghanistan, which is mostly desert terrain. SIGAR also reported that the U.S. opted not to use camouflage patterns it already owned the rights to, opting instead for a new pattern which it had to license from a private company.

 

Photo Credit: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images