The Cable

SitRep: Trump Pulls CIA From Syria, Russia Cheers; Trump Downplays Afghan Strategy

With Adam Rawnsley CIA pulling up stakes in Syria. President Trump has reportedly decided to scrap a long-running CIA program that armed and trained Syrian rebels, the Washington Post reports: “Officials said the phasing out of the secret program reflects Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia, which saw the anti-Assad program as ...

An opposition fighter looks for government forces' positions in Syria's southwestern Quneitra province on June 28, 2017 during ongoing clashes for control of the city of al-Baath.
  / AFP PHOTO / Mohamad ABAZEED        (Photo credit should read MOHAMAD ABAZEED/AFP/Getty Images)
An opposition fighter looks for government forces' positions in Syria's southwestern Quneitra province on June 28, 2017 during ongoing clashes for control of the city of al-Baath. / AFP PHOTO / Mohamad ABAZEED (Photo credit should read MOHAMAD ABAZEED/AFP/Getty Images)

With Adam Rawnsley

CIA pulling up stakes in Syria. President Trump has reportedly decided to scrap a long-running CIA program that armed and trained Syrian rebels, the Washington Post reports:

“Officials said the phasing out of the secret program reflects Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia, which saw the anti-Assad program as an assault on its interests. The shuttering of the program is also an acknowledgment of Washington’s limited leverage and desire to remove Assad from power.” Russian political leaders praised the move on Thursday.

Rebels last to find out. While the president made the decision a month ago, it was up to Reuters to break the news to some rebel leaders, who hadn’t been told. “We heard nothing about this,” one Syrian leader said.

“We definitely feel betrayed,” said Gen. Tlass al-Salameh of Osoud al-Sharqiya, a group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, told other Post reporters. Salameh and his deputies say that they have received CIA support to fight the Islamic State in eastern Syria but that they have also fought battles against pro-government ­forces. “It feels like we are being abandoned at a very difficult moment,” Salameh said. “It feels like they only wanted to help when we were fighting [the Islamic State]. Now that we are also fighting the regime, the Americans want to withdraw.”

Turkish-backed rebels head into Idlib. While Washington looks to pull some support — though the training, advising and equipping effort for the Syrian Democratic Forces continues around Raqqa — Turkey is sending more fighters into Northwest Syria to battle Islamist groups there. Hezbollah and Syrian government forces are also moving against rebels near the Lebanese border.

Assad doesn’t have to go. While Washington continues to seek a political resolution to the various wars tearing through Syria, it won’t insist on Syrian President Bashar al- Assad’s ouster, Trump’s homeland and counterterrorism adviser Tom Bossert said Thursday.  “I don’t think it’s important for us to say Assad must go first,” Bossert said at a security conference. “The U.S. would still like to see Assad go at some point. That would be our desired outcome.”

Surprise! Another Trump cabinet official breaks with president. Bossert also said that it was clear the Russian government clearly tried to manipulate the U.S. presidential election, something the president has repeatedly denied. “There’s a pretty clear and easy answer to this and it’s ‘yes,’” Bossert said. The hacking and subsequent release of stolen Democratic National Committee emails last year were “unacceptable efforts and behaviors by a foreign nation state,” he added, while stressing that there had been no manipulation of ballot counts.

Bossert made his comments at the annual at the National Security Forum in Aspen. He was a lonely administration voice, however. Other Trump administration officials, like Peter Clement, Deputy Assistant Director for Europe/Eurasia at the CIA and Brett McGurk, the administration anti-ISIS czar, pulled out of their panel discussions at the last minute.

 

No Afghan strategy decision, but an Ambassador.  President Trump huddled at the Pentagon Thursday with this national security team, but still no word about the plan for Afghanistan, which Defense Secretary Jim Mattis previously said was coming “mid-July.” It’s July 21st.

“We’ll see,” the president said when asked if he was sending more troops to Afghanistan. The president arrived at the Pentagon with Vice President Mike Pence, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Presidential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner also attended.

The White House on Thursday did nominate a new ambassador to Kabul, however. Trump tapped America’s ambassador to Turkey, John Bass, to be the next ambassador to Afghanistan. Bass, who has served as America’s ambassador to Turkey since 2014, and previously served as ambassador to Georgia.

Pentagon has a pretty good deal in Qatar. Despite president Trump’s recent boast that ten other countries in the Middle East would offer the U.S. an air base to replace the two-decade old facility at Al Udeid in Qatar, it’s unlikely the Pentagon would pull out of a base it has suk tens of millions in improving in recent years.

FP’s Paul McLeary takes a look at the U.S. and coalition presence at Al Udeid, writing that “there are a number of options in the region, including the Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates…but Washington and its allies have already sunk two decades worth of investments into the facility, with tens of millions in new American construction slated for next year.”

Overall, the U.S. Air Force will spend $140 million to sustain 9,000 U.S. troops at the base this year, according to U.S. Central Command. To put that in perspective, when it comes to U.S. military spending, the Pentagon will lay out $437 million to keep dozens of military bands active in 2017.

Russian properties in Washington. With the diplomatic row over Russian properties in and around Washington seized by the U.S. government grinding on, FP’s Emily Tamkin and C.K. Hickey map out all of Moscow’s properties in the capital region.

Leahy calling. Amnesty International says that security forces in cameroon are torturing detainees — at the same base where U.S. and French troops are operating out in the open.

ISIS world tour. As it loses ground in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State is rapidly becoming a global franchise, with regional “provinces” springing up from West Africa to the Philippines, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Watch the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier perform high speed turns in the Atlantic Ocean.

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

Deadlines. South Korean President Moon Jae-in tried to reach out to North Korea to restart bilateral talks for the first time in years but North Korea just isn’t returning his calls. South Korea phoned the North on Monday with a proposal for talks on Friday but Pyongyang let that deadline pass without a word.

Ranges. Russia is trying to block U.N. sanctions against North Korea for its recent missile test, arguing that the North’s most recent test wasn’t actually intercontinental range missile but only a medium range missile.

Cancel that summer vacation. The AP reports that the Trump administration is trying to ban Americans from visiting North Korea.  

Investment. An interagency panel designed to review the security implications of foreign investment is cracking down on attempts by foreign entities to buy American companies, blocking a record nine acquisitions in 2017, according to Reuters. The hard-line stance against acquisitions of companies with possible national security implications is a sign that the Trump administration is likely to take a particularly skeptical approach to Chinese investment in sensitive sectors like technology..

Microsoft vs. Russian intelligence. Microsoft has taken control of several domains used as command and control infrastructure for the Russian intelligence hacking group allegedly responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election, according to The Daily Beast. The company seized the domains by filing a lawsuit, using a technique it pioneered against criminal hackers against the infrastructure of a nation-state.

The Sony effect. Hollywood is getting cold feet about depicting Vladimir Putin in new films, citing fears that studios could be targeted by Russian hackers in retaliation for less than flattering portrayals. Hollywood Reporter writes that studios have cut Putin as a character from two upcoming films, Red Sparrow and Kursk, worried that they could suffer the same fate as Sony after North Korean hackers reportedly dumped executives’ emails for

Insult to injury. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has taken away the Saudi interior ministry’s counterterrorism responsibilities, forming a separate homeland security organization to take on the ministry’s former role, according to Bloomberg. Mohammed bin Nayef, recently ousted from the Saudi line of succession, had been the kingdom’s interior minister and top counterterrorism official.

Gulf. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has struck a deal with Qatar to post officials from the U.S. Department of Justice in Qatar’s top prosecutor’s office, Reuters reports. The move is designed to ease tensions between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors, which have accused Doha of funding terrorist groups as part of a wide-ranging dispute over its foreign policy.

Opinions. David Cohen, former deputy director of the CIA during the Obama administration, has written an op-ed for the New York Times criticizing President Trump for his warm relationships with autocrats and hard line against refugees, arguing that “tarnishing the idea that America stands for something uniquely good makes it harder for the C.I.A. to recruit spies.”

Mr. Moonlight. The F-35B’s $400,000 night vision helmet doesn’t work on moonless nights, Marine Corps Times reports. Officials first discovered the problem on a test flight and it’s expected to take months in order to resolve.

 

Photo Credit: MOHAMAD ABAZEED/AFP/Getty Images

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