SitRep: CIA’s Secret Syria Contacts; Tillerson Bashed by Anonymous WH Officials; State Shuttering Afghan Office
Pentagon Push in Africa; Israel and Syria Spar; U.S. Arming Jets in South Korea
With Adam Rawnsley
Warship ignored warnings. The USS Fitzgerald, which was rammed along its right side by a container ship off the coast of Japan on June 17, apparently ignored warnings it had swerved into the oncoming ship’s path, the vessel’s owner claims. Reuters has obtained a copy of the container ship captain’s report, which said the ACX Crystal had signaled with flashing lights after the Fitzgerald “suddenly” crossed its path. The U.S. Navy continues to investigate the incident, which killed seven U.S. sailors.
Syria contacts. For the first several months of the Trump administration, CIA director Mike Pompeo held a series secret talks with Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau intelligence service, who has been accused of human rights abuses during the country’s civil war and hit with sanctions by Washington.
The calls, according to a new report from the New York Times, revolved around the fate of Austin Tice, the former Marine officer and law student who disappeared in Syria in 2012 and is thought to have last been held by the Syrian government. The talks broke off after the Syrian government attacked civilians with chemical weapons in April, and the U.S. responded with 59 cruise missiles.
People are policy. Does the State Dept. have either? White House officials are growing increasingly frustrated with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, several senior officials told the Washington Post, charging that his slow, deliberate approach to reforming the institution and hiring top officials means that that no Republicans are getting top jobs in the department.
More from the story: At the center of this growing rift are “a core group of about a half-dozen top aides who are responsible for a vast menu of decisions about policy, priorities, staffing and more. At the center of that small group is State Department chief of staff Margaret Peterlin, a little-known political aide. Although Tillerson’s CEO leadership style dictates much of how his front office works, Peterlin’s growing number of critics complain that she has built a fortress around her boss that ensures information and decisions flow through her.”
More Rex bashing. The former Exxon CEO has been staking out policy ground very different from that of president Trump on a number of issues, the latest being the president’s support for the Saudi-led attempt to pressure Qatar into cutting off ties with Iran and extremist groups.
More from the Times: “Some in the White House say that the discord in the Qatar dispute is part of a broader struggle over who is in charge of Middle East policy — Mr. Tillerson or Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a senior adviser — and that the secretary of state has a tin ear about the political realities of the Trump administration. Others say it is merely symptomatic of a dysfunctional State Department that, under Mr. Tillerson’s uncertain leadership, does not yet have in place the senior political appointees who make the wheels of diplomacy turn.”
State all but shutters Afghanistan office. One of those policies appears to be the slow death of the post of special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the WSJ tells us, leaving the Trump administration without a diplomatic point person as the Pentagon and White House debate whether to deploy thousands of new troops to Afghanistan.
More: “The move, current and former officials said, downgrades the importance of the issue at a time when the Trump administration is poised to ramp up American involvement in the region. Elimination of the office minimizes the input of civilians with regional expertise, fueling perceptions that the strategy would tilt toward the military.”
Making the call. Questions have been raised over how much responsibility the White House is willing to take for the increasing number of military operations across the Middle East, as the Pentagon has been given more freedom to operate without consulting the White House. “The President believes the best thing to do is to let the warfighters fight the war,” White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told CNN. But “He hasn’t given up any of the strategic decisions,” Bannon said.
Pentagon taking lead in Africa makes some allies uneasy. At a recent summit meeting in Malawi attended by several U.S. generals and their African counterparts, some allies on the continent, while welcoming American attention, aren’t so sure they want it all from the Pentagon while the State Dept. is diminished.
“We have statements out of Washington about significant reductions in foreign aid,” Gen. Griffin Phiri, the commander of the Malawi Defense Forces, told the New York Times during the African Land Forces Summit, a conference between American Army officers and representatives from 40 African nations. “What I can tell you is that experience has shown us that diplomacy and security must come together.” He was unsure over the “mixed messages” coming out of Washington.
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South Korea. The U.S. has reportedly armed its F-16 fighters with long-range missiles that can reach out and touch Pyongyang from within South Korean territory, according to Yonhap News Agency. The paper reports that the U.S. Forces Korea is equipping its jets at Kunsan Air Base with the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile or JASSM.
Personnel. The Trump administration is reportedly looking at a former George W. Bush administration Asia hand to be its next ambassador to South Korea. Chosun Ilbo reports that the White House will pick Victor Cha, the Bush national security council’s director for Asian affairs and a current fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is the lead candidate for the position, citing sources in the State Department.
Intel. American special operations troops have been targeting mid-level Islamic State operatives based in Syria, hoping they can capture them alive for an intelligence windfall on the location of senior leaders and other important issues. The New York Times reports that American commandos have carried out at least two operations aimed at snatching middle management Islamic State members since the May 2015 operation to capture Abu Sayyaf, the group’s oil baron. In April, Joint Special Operations Command troops descended on Abdurakhmon Uzbeki as he dropped off a senior Islamic State leader in Syria’s eastern desert, killing him in a gunfight but picking up valuable intelligence from the devices he carried with him. Special operators carried out a similar operation in January against an unnamed member of the group, killing him as well.
Israel. Israel and Syria are in their third day of tit-for-tat exchanges of fire across the tense border between the two countries. The flare-up started on Saturday, when Syrian troops fired mortars into the Golan Heights, prompting Israel to follow up with airstrikes against Syrian tanks and a machine gun nest. On Sunday, Syria fired mortars once again, leading to another Israeli strike, this time against artillery positions and a vehicle carrying ammunition. Early Monday, Israeli residents of the Golan reported that a United Nations Disengagement Observer Force vehicle had been hit with small arms fire from the Syrian side of the border.
Gulf drama. Iran is moving to capitalize on the rift between Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbors, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sidling up to Doha with a statement declaring its isolation as “unacceptable.” Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain have all shunned Qatar following a break over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, warm relations with Iran, and alleged support of militant groups. But Rouhani offered an olive branch to Doha, saying “The airspace, land and sea of our country will always be open to Qatar as a brotherly and neighboring country.”
Crude and lonely. Coordinated mass attacks like the November 2015 active shooter siege in Paris are no longer the future of Islamic State terrorism abroad. Instead, the Wall Street Journal writes, small groups of self-starters carrying out botched attempts at homegrown terror are what the West can expect. Experts tell the paper that bungled bombings like the recent attempts in Paris, Brussels, and Turkey will be the new norm now that would-be attackers often lack first-hand experience fighting and training in Syria or a personal connection to the Islamic State itself.
Straight Outta Kabul. The Afghan National Army drops mad rhymes.
Photo Credit: Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images