The Cable

SitRep: Defense Budget Fight Teed Up; South Korean President Meets Trump; U.S. and Iran in Syria

Turkey and Kurds Trade Fire; ISIS Moves Into Northern Afghanistan; Nikki Haley Adopts Trump’s Chaos Theory of Global Leadership

Defense Secretary James Mattis(R) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee on defense readiness and budget update in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on March 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Defense Secretary James Mattis(R) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee on defense readiness and budget update in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on March 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Budget battle! The Senate uncorked a $700 billion defense authorization bill on Wednesday, a proposal that is tens of billions of dollars higher than both the White House had requested, and a previous House version sketched out.

The Military Times’ Leo Shane wraps it up succinctly, pointing out that the Senate draft “calls for more base defense spending than either of the other plans, fewer troops and a smaller military pay raise than the House proposal, but 54 more aircraft and five more naval ships than the president had planned.” The bill, made up of a $640 billion for the base defense budget and $60 billion for a supplemental war fund, tracks the funding levels Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) has advocated for months.

Not looking for a fight. U.S. defense officials over the past week have made it pretty clear that they’re not spoiling for a fight with Iran in Syria. National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, despite some tough rhetoric, stuck to that script during an appearance at a Washington think tank Wednesday.

McMaster was unsparing about Tehran’s role in Iraq and Syria, saying, “Iran is feeding this cycle of sectarian conflict to keep the Arab world perpetually weak,” adding that 80 percent of the troops fighting for Damascus in Syria were Iranian proxies. But he pulled up well short of calling for American military action. “We could do a lot better to pull back the curtain on Iranian actions,” than to engage in a shooting war.

Tough crowd. McMaster also got some laughs from the crowd when he insisted that President Trump wasn’t hostile to NATO but was showing “love, tough love” for the alliance.

Meanwhile, in northern Syria…Things appear to be heating up between the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG fighters and Turkey. The two sides skirmished near Aleppo earlier this week, and Turkey hit YPG targets with artillery in response. The YPG is part of the larger Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that is taking the lead in battling the Islamic State, but a spokesman for the group told Reuters Thursday that they see a “big possibility of open, fierce confrontation” with the Turkish army in northwestern Syria looming. Naser Haj Mansour, an adviser to the SDF, added that the SDF has decided to confront Turkish forces “if they try to go beyond the known lines” in the areas near Aleppo where the sides scrapped on Wednesday.

South Korean President in town. The liberal new president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, will meet with president Trump at the White House in several meetings spread over Thursday and Friday, a first meeting between the two that is expected to be dominated by talk of North Korea.

“Mr. Moon, South Korea’s first left-leaning president in nearly a decade, has called for closer ties with North Korea, primarily through economic cooperation, while the Trump administration has called for tougher sanctions, military pressure and diplomatic isolation,” the Wall Street Journal notes. “White House officials said North Korea is likely to dominate the talks between Messrs. Trump and Moon. They played down differences in the two leaders’ approaches and said Mr. Trump will stress to Mr. Moon the need to coordinate their policies.”

Brussels to Kabul. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is in Brussels to meet with NATO allies, who appear willing to contribute more troops to the advising mission in Afghanistan — but are also looking for a strategy to rally behind.

The Pentagon is weighing adding between 3,000 – 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and NATO members might send another 1,200. British Secretary of Defense Michael Fallon said the Brits “are in it for the long haul,” and NATO collectively appears ready to commit another 1,200 troops. There are about 13,450 NATO forces in Afghanistan currently, 8,400 of which are American. “Fifteen members and partners of the military alliance have said they will contribute more troops and equipment to the training mission for 2018, following a closed-door meeting of military planners this month, according to Reuters.

ISIS makes gains in north. “Two Taliban groups that recently switched allegiance to the Islamic State have overrun an embattled district in northern Afghanistan, killing at least 10 government fighters and a large number of civilians,” the New York Times reports. “In addition, government officials accuse the Islamic State fighters of being responsible for the deaths of 15 medical patients, but it was not immediately clear if they had died from their wounds or if they had been executed by the Islamic State.”

Who’s to say? Nkki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told Congress on Wednesday that foreign diplomats at the U.N. frequently cite their concerns about the unpredictability of U.S. foreign policy. That, she said, is a good thing. FP’s Colum Lynch writes:

“Keeping foreign governments guessing about U.S. intentions has served as a powerful negotiating lever, she said, helping her to secure cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars in peacekeeping costs. ‘For me, it’s been helpful,’ she said during a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”

Take that, peace. “Just 5 months into our time here, we’ve cut over half a billion $$$ from the UN peacekeeping budget & we’re only getting started,” Haley tweeted Wednesday in a post accompanied by a huge picture of her smiling face.

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

Despite all my rage. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson blew up at Johnny DeStefano, head of the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, during a meeting of senior White House aides, shocking those in attendance, according to a scoop from Politico. Tillerson’s rage stemmed from what he says is DeStefano’s interference in State Department personnel decisions, nixing his choices for senior posts and reportedly leaking unflattering stories about him to the press.  

Succession politics. Saudi Arabia Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is now under house arrest a week after being cut out of the line of succession to the throne, the New York Times reports. The move is believed to be an effort to ensure a smooth transition of power for Mohammed bin Salman and prevent any potential interference from disgruntled political allies of Mohammed bin Nayef cut off from a path to power with the change in crown princes.

Immigration. Congress is pushing back against a Defense Department proposal to cancel the enlistment contracts of 1,000 immigrant troops with critical needs language and medical skills, promised citizenship in exchange for military service. The Washington Post reports that lawmakers are planning to propose an amendment that would protect recruits who enlisted through the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program from deportation.

War crimes. Sweden’s Expressen newspaper has obtained video footage [warning: graphic] of the Iraqi Federal Police’s Falah Aziz beheading prisoners and strangling them as part of Iraq’s war on the Islamic State. Aziz brags of having beheaded over 50 people, recording the grisly summary executions in full view of other Iraqi Federal Police.

Business or personal? The designers of the Petya ransomware attack that locked down computers around the world spent a lot of time making sure that their malware would spread far and fast and suspiciously less time building the infrastructure to make sure they could get paid. The disparity between the two design goals has experts wondering whether the Petya attacks were for financial gain, as most ransomware infections are, or aimed more at causing as much damage as possible.

Kaspersky. A dozen employees from one of Russia’s most notable cybersecurity firms got a visit from the FBI on Tuesday as part of an unspecified counterintelligence investigation, according to NBC News. Agents reportedly told the employees that they’re not accused of any wrongdoing but the inquiry comes amid increasing federal skepticism of the company, with new legislation proposed that would prohibit the Pentagon from handing out contracts to Kaspersky.

Nuclear deal. The Trump administration appears to have made its begrudging peace with the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, but keeping it in place might be difficult to do as the two countries head down a collision course in Syria, as Barbara Slavin reports over at Just Security.

Resume gaps. As it turns out, taking a sabbatical to fight with the Islamic State is surprisingly hard on your employment prospects when you return home.

Reports. The Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2017 Russia Military Power report assessing Moscow’s defense capabilities is out.

Espionage history. Trading whiskey for secrets in Cold War India.

Video of the day. Kurdish woman sniper narrowly misses being shot by Islamic State bullet.

 

 

Photo Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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