The Cable

SitRep: Next Steps for McMaster’s NSC; U.S. Troops in Yemen; Taliban Finds New Allies

  With Adam Rawnsley What’s on tap for the National Security Council this week? After a series of high-level firings last week during which National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster pushed out several officials favored by Trump advisor Stephen Bannon, things are pretty tense at the white House. Two of the now-former staffers,  NSC intelligence director ...

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 16:  National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster answers questions during a press briefing at the White House May 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. McMaster defended the President Donald TrumpÕs decision to share intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during an Oval Office meeting last week.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 16: National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster answers questions during a press briefing at the White House May 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. McMaster defended the President Donald TrumpÕs decision to share intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during an Oval Office meeting last week. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

 

With Adam Rawnsley

What’s on tap for the National Security Council this week? After a series of high-level firings last week during which National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster pushed out several officials favored by Trump advisor Stephen Bannon, things are pretty tense at the white House.

Two of the now-former staffers,  NSC intelligence director Ezra Cohen-Watnick and ret. Col. Derek Harvey, the NSC Mideast director, reportedly met regularly with Bannon without first informing McMaster, the Daily Beast reports, which hastened their exit. McMaster reassured some aides their jobs were safe late last week, after reports of the existence of a “purge list” began to make the rounds.

Missiles, sanctions, and threats. North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile tests earned a harsh rebuke over the weekend from the U.N. Security Council, which voted 15-0 to sanction Pyongyang in a significant diplomatic win for the Trump administration. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley claimed that the move represents “the strongest sanctions ever imposed in response to a ballistic missile test” and would cut North Korean exports by a billion dollars. FP has more here.

On Monday, North Korea promised retaliation for the vote, which includes a ban on coal and other exports. Pyongyang-run media said the sanctions were a “violent infringement of its sovereignty.”

Rex in effect. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in the Philippines meeting with U.S. allies in the region, and North Korea has rightfully been dominating discussions. But until Pyongyang comes to the bargaining table, only so much can get done. “The best signal that North Korea could give us that they are prepared to talk would be to stop these missile launches,” Tillerson said. But how long such a pause would have to last before talks could go forward is unclear, he added. “We’ll know it when we see it,” he said. “We are not going to give someone a specific number of days or weeks.”

Americans back in Yemen. U.S. Special Operations Forces are on the ground in Yemen, advising some 2,000 troops from the U.A.E. who are moving against an al Qaeda stronghold in the southern part of the country. In addition to the ground troops, who the Pentagon says are providing intelligence support, the U.S. is also refueling aircraft involved in the op. It’s the largest ground offensive in the country since 2016. Meanwhile, the United Nations has offered another stinging rebuke of the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen that has taken thousands of civilian lives.

Training day. While U.S. military leaders say they see little actual threat of a war with Russia, U.S. and NATO troops are fanning out across eastern Europe for a series of the largest military maneuvers since the end of the Cold War.

Nothing is not enough, U.N. Syria investigator says. The the past half dozen years, an independent U.N.-appointed panel has documented instances of torture, attacks on hospitals, and sexual slavery in Syria. But the head of that panel, Carla del Ponte, a Swiss prosecutor, has resigned. del Ponte told the NYT over the weekend that she had hoped the Security Council would either refer the case in Syria to the International Criminal Court or set up a special tribunal. “I was expecting to persuade the Security Council to do something for justice,” she said. “Nothing happened for seven years. Now I resigned.”

Taliban finds new allies. Iranian commandos are dying in Afghanistan, signaling a stepped-up effort by Tehran to influence the action on the ground there, including partnering with the Taliban. Elsewhere, the Taliban and the Islamic State’s Afghanistan affiliate have fought bitterly in parts of the country, but low level commanders from both sides may have teamed up for an attack in at least one instance. The two groups launched an attack in Sar-e-Pul province on Sunday that killed 32 civilians and 18 militiamen.

Welcome to SitRep. Thanks for all of the early mornings and hard work from colleagues Elias Groll and Jenna McLaughlin who ran the ship with Adam. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary and @arawnsley.

Delayed reaction. After a prolonged silence from the Trump administration, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has finally responded to Russia’s expulsion of diplomatic staff from the U.S. mission in Moscow, pledging a response of his own by September 1. Tillerson met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the ASEAN forum and told reporters he brought up Russia’s electoral interference to Lavov, saying “how seriously it had damaged the relationship between the US and the American people and the Russian people.”

Empty chairs at empty tables. Tillerson has failed to even nominate officials for 38 of the State Department’s top jobs, according to an analysis by the New York Times. In the absence of political appointments, the department has filled the slots with career appointees who are hesitant to make decisions on behalf of an administration which didn’t choose them. In the interim, diplomats say Tillerson has centralized operations and micromanaged, leading to delays in routine activities like sending congratulations to foreign countries on their national days.

Meat grinder. Australian authorities busted what they say was an Islamic State plot to blow up an airliner and release poison gas in a public area. Police arrested four men, charging two of them with trying to bomb an Etihad Airways flight with explosive components designed to look like a meat grinder, which was mailed to them from ISIS operatives based in Turkey.

Expulsion. Israel is making good on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s threat to expel Al Jazeera news network reporters. Communications Minister Ayoub Kara said his ministry will move to revoke the credentials of journalists from the network following Netanyahu’s claims that the channel is engaged in incitement over access to an Islamic holy site in Jerusalem.

Saudi Arabia. The tide may be turning decisively in favor of the Assad regime in Syria’s Civil War but Saudi Arabia is still not budging from its demand that Bashar al-Assad step down from power.

Australia. U.S. officials say they have located the wreckage of a MV-22 Osprey that crashed off the coast of Australia while trying to land on an amphibious transport dock. Three Marines on board the aircraft are still missing.

Venezuela. An uprising at a military base in Venezuela is adding to fears of further instability as the country is rocked by protests over a declining economy and centralized power. Reuters reports that a handful of Venezuelan troops launched an attack at a base in Valencia, raiding the weapons storage there. Separately, a handful of Venezuelan troops released a video on social media demanding that the government of President Nicolas Maduro step down.

 

Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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