The Cable

SitRep: Mattis to the DMZ, State Shutters Sanctions Office

Ukraine expects Trump to approve lethal aid; State Dept. walking away form Africa; more details on Niger ambush.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-Moo visit the DMZ between North and South Korea on October 27. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-Moo visit the DMZ between North and South Korea on October 27. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)


By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Mattis to the DMZ. Defense Secretary James Mattis visited the DMZ between North and South Korea on Friday, where — above the sound of North Korean propaganda music being pumped across the border — he again insisted that despite heated rhetoric from president Trump, diplomacy was the answer. “As Secretary of State Tillerson has made clear,” Mattis said, “our goal is not war, but rather the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

Speaking to U.S. troops, he underlined that point again. “We’re doing everything we can to solve this diplomatically,” but “ultimately, our diplomats have to be backed up by strong soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines so they speak from a position of strength, of combined strength, of alliance strength, shoulder to shoulder.”

Mattis was accompanied by South Korea’s defense minister, Song Young-moo, who pointed out the hundreds of artillery pieces North Korea has dug into nearby hills. “Defending against this many [long range artillery pieces] is unfeasible, in my opinion,” he said, adding the United States and South Korea would have to destroy the North Korean artillery “the moment the war starts.”

Left behind in Niger? A new report in the NYT suggests that the four U.S. troops killed in an ambush in Niger on Oct. 4 had been separated from the rest of their patrol, and might have still been alive when French helicopters whisked the rest of the team away. Pentagon officials briefed Senators on Thursday on the attack, which U.S. military officials suspect was the work of a local Islamic State-affiliated group.

State Dept. walking away from Africa. While the fight highlights the growing U.S. involvement in various parts of the continent, the State Department is going in the opposite direction. The level of empty Africa posts this late into an administration is unprecedented, several career State Department officials with decades of experience told FP’s Robbie Gramer.

State shutters sanctions office. The Trump administration missed an Oct. 1 deadline to implement new penalties against Russia adopted by Congress in August. And FP’s Robbie Gramer and Dan De Luce have uncovered part of the reason why.

Turns out, the State Department shuttered an office that oversees sanctions policy, eliminating the Coordinator for Sanctions Policy office, which had been led by a veteran ambassador-rank diplomat with at least five staff. Instead, the role of coordinating U.S. sanctions “now falls to just one mid-level official — David Tessler, the deputy director of the Policy Planning Office. The Policy Planning Office, which previously operated as a small team providing strategic advice to the secretary but did not manage programs or initiatives, has grown in power under Tillerson’s ‘redesign’ of the department.”

Foggy Bottom shakeup. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is planning to further concentrate power among his inner circle, according to slides obtained by Politico. The document, outlining a new policymaking process, is causing alarm among rank and file State Department employees who see the elevation of the department’s Policy Planning Staff as a sign that Tillerson views them as unnecessary.  

Tillerson: Assad Must Go. Tillerson made it clear Thursday Washington isn’t interested in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sticking around. “The United States wants a whole and unified Syria with no role for Bashar al-Assad in the government,” he said. “The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and the only issue is how should that be brought about.” He said he’s “said this many times” but if he did, it wasn’t publicly — and it appears to contradict what he said in March.

Ukraine expects U.S. to give lethal arms. The final decision is sitting on president Donald Trump’s desk, reports FP’s Emily Tamkin, Dan De Luce and Robbie Gramer, but officials in Kiev appear to expect the weapons to start flowing.

NATO complains about Zapad. It didn’t herald the invasion of NATO’s Baltic states or the occupation of Belarus, but Russia’s massive Zapad military exercise last month is still making waves. On Thursday, NATO accused Russia of misleading the alliance over the scope of the  games in violation of longstanding rules meant to reduce East-West tensions.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters Thursday that the number of Russian troops involved “significantly exceeded the number announced before the exercise, the scenario was a different one and the geographical scope was larger than previously announced.” Moscow says 12,700 troops played in exercise, but NATO says it’s actually closer to 100,000.

Hope you like jamming, too. European countries are also complaining about what they say was Russian jamming of their cell phone networks during Zapad. Norway, Sweden, and Latvia all claimed to have experienced some cell phone outages in September, believed to originate from electronic warfare equipment aboard a Russian ship in the Baltic Sea.

You shall not pass. The Trump administration has upheld an Obama-era visa denial that banned the head of Israel’s largest government-owned defense company from stepping foot on U.S. soil. Defense News says the ban is likely due to the executive’s connection to Steward David Nozette, a U.S. physicist who was arrested in 2009 for trying to sell top secret U.S. documents to FBI agents he thought worked for the Mossad, the Israeli spy agency.

‘Nyet,’ says McAfee. McAfee, the U.S.-based cybersecurity company, announced it will no longer allow state governments to read its source code. The move comes after revelations that the company — along with IBM and other firms — allowed the Kremlin to examine their code before they could sell their software in the Russian market. Those peeks under the hood likely allowed the Kremlin to exploit flaws in the code.

Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to or via Twitter: @paulmcleary.

Sanctions parade. The Trump administration continues to ratchet up sanctions on North Korea, dropping the latest installment on Thursday against North Korean officials accused of human rights violations. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced sanctions targeting North Korean military and civilian officials as well as three entities accused of helping the Kim regime rake in cash from abroad by coercing North Korean citizens into “forced labor operations.”

Baltics. Lithuania is hedging against a newly aggressive Russia by stocking up on air defense systems, inking a $128 million deal to buy surface-to-air missile systems from the Norwegian defense contractor Kongsberg. The deal follows Moscow’s buildup of ballistic missile systems in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad bordering Lithuania to the west.

Iraq. Iraq’s central government isn’t letting up on the Kurdistan Regional Government after seizing the city of Kirkuk in the wake of the Kurdish independence referendum. Iraqi Security Forces and Iranian-backed militias pushed further north in an apparent bid to take control of border crossings between Kurdistan and rest of Iraq despite overtures from Kurdish officials to engage in talks.  

The other RT. Twitter will no longer allow advertising from Russian media companies RT and Sputnik, following the social media company’s “retrospective” regarding the 2016 election. The U.S. intel community earlier this year named RT and Sputnik as implementing state-sponsored Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 Presidential election, “which is not something we want on Twitter,” the company said Thursday.

Turkey. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn wasn’t the only member of the Trump transition team looking to do lobbying work for the Turkish government. Reuters reports that former Clinton-era CIA Director and Trump campaign advisor James Woolsey pitched Ekim Alptekin, the same Turkish businessman and acolyte of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who hired Flynn as a lobbyist, on a $10 million plan to try and discredit exiled Erdogan critic Fethullah Gulen.

Language of war. The International Committee of the Red Cross, now tending to thousands of Islamic State detainees in Iraq and Syria, is pushing back on what it says is dehumanizing rhetoric about the group that could incite war crimes against them. Red Cross Middle East director Patrick Hamilton says unspecified countries and organizations need to refrain from discussing members of the terrorist group “as if humanitarian law doesn’t apply” to them.

Assad did it. United Nations investigators have concluded they are “confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017.” Russia has yet to respond to the report but its veto against extending the mandate of U.N. investigators to research further incidents of chemical weapons use in Syria is a clear signal that Moscow is unhappy with the inquiry. And there may yet be more to investigate. On Twitter Thursday, the U.S. Mission to the U.N. followed up the report’s release by stating Today’s [Joint Investigative Mechanism] report is the 4th instance of confirmed #chemicalweapons use by the Assad regime, though actual number is much higher.”

Afghan Tucanos. The U.S. Air Force has ordered six more A-29 Super Tucano prop planes for the Afghan Air Force. The U.S. had already purchased 20 A-29s to be delivered by 2018. The planes are made by U.S.-based Sierra Nevada Corp. and Brazil-based Embraer S.A. Earlier this month, FP reported that the Air Force might soon deploy new light aircraft to Iraq and Afghanistan.

You monsters. U.S. Air Force social media tried to gin up a little friendly press by letting its various Twitter accounts engage in a friendly online rivalry, only to royally step in it when its flagship twitter account suggested that Santa Claus was not real. Told by the Whiteman Air Force Base account that it would receive nothing for Christmas, @usairforce responded that “Santa will bring you nothing this year…becuase [sic] he isn’t real!” Chastened by the online pushback, @usairforce walked back its statement, acknowledging Santa’s existence and apologizing for its doubts.

Oh come on. You can now get your Navy SEAL™ branded energy drinks in 7-Elevens throughout the Virginia Beach area. Because reasons.

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