The Cable

SitRep: The Saudi Mystery Deepens

Air Force short 2,000 pilots, war drums with Iran, Marines on Syrian border

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on October 22. (Alex Brandon/AFP/Getty Images)
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on October 22. (Alex Brandon/AFP/Getty Images)


By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Saudi vs. Iran. The sharp dispute between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon over Hezbollah’s influence has widened to include Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. All three countries have joined the kingdom in urging their citizens to leave Lebanon following the resignation of Saudi-backed President Saad al-Hariri.

Hariri has been silent since delivering his surprise resignation speech delivered from Saudi Arabia on Saturday, and his allies in Lebanon are saying he’s under house arrest there.

Over to you, diplomats. State Department spokesperson Heather nauert said Thursday that a U.S. diplomat has met with Hariri in Riyadh since his resignation, but declined to provide any details, calling them “sensitive, private, diplomatic conversations.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also spoken to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir about the situation in Saudi Arabia — where about a dozen high-ranking princes and government officials have been arrested on what are being described as corruption charges.

War drums? Saudi Arabia has long accused Iran of backing Houthi rebels in Yemen, were Saudi has been fighting a war to restore the elected government since 2015. Saudi leaders also claim that Hezbollah attacks against Saudi interests amount to a declaration of war from Lebanon on the kingdom.

One U.S. defense official told Foreign Policy that a Houthi missile attack on the Saudi capital over the weekend “was the proverbial last straw” for the kingdom. With Iranian backing, the Houthi missiles “seem to be getting better guidance systems, and there is no other provider of this type of sophisticated technology,” than Iran.

Washington struggles with policy. The Trump administration has said little about the massive upheaval in Saudi, aside from a few Tweets from the president supporting the arrests of top officials. “There is no consensus view within the U.S. government over how to actually execute a strategy against Iran,” one former Trump administration official told the Wall Street Journal. “In fact, there is significant division about how to approach things.”

Asking Moscow’s permission. American officials “are preparing to test Moscow’s willingness to end the Ukraine conflict by seeking Russia’s approval for 20,000 peacekeepers across Ukraine’s embattled east,” U.S. and Western officials told the Wall Street Journal.

No Trump/Putin meeting, until they meet. President Trump will not have a formal meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Vietnam, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters on Friday. But they’ll probably talk.

“Now, they’re going to be in the same place,” Sanders said. “Are they going to bump into each other and say hello? Certainly possible and likely. But in terms of a scheduled, formal meeting, there’s not one on the calendar and we don’t anticipate that there will be one,” Sanders said.

Grounded. As recently as a month ago, U.S. Air Force officials were telling FP that the service was facing a shortage of about 1,500 pilots. But that number has already been eclipsed by a widening crisis that threatens to “break the force,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday. The shortfall is now up to 2,000 pilots.

“We’re burning out our people,” Wilson said. “Surge has become the new normal in the United States Air Force. You can do that for a year, or two years, maybe even three or four years. But I met someone last week who has just come back from his 17th deployment. Seventeen deployments. And at some point, families make a decision that they just can’t keep doing this at this pace.”

U.S. setting up shop in Western Iraq. The Associated Press’ Susannah George stopped by one dusty U.S. Marine outpost near the Iraqi border town of Qaim for a look at how the troops are doing.

“Under a plastic tent, the Marines run an austere joint command center about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the border. A dozen monitors relay surveillance footage and troop positions in the town of Qaim nearby. Using racks of radio and satellite equipment, the coalition forces and Iraqi officers at the base pass information between forces on the ground and al-Asad air base, the coalition’s main base in Anbar province some 130 kilometers (80 miles) to the east.”

Also interesting are the comments from fighters from Iranian-backed militias who are operating near the Marines, as part of the Iraqi force battling the Islamic State. Jaafar al-Husseini, a spokesman for the Hezbollah Brigades, boasted that the forces are securing a route from “Iran to Beirut.”

“We have foiled the American project in Iraq and on the Syrian borders, and we have succeeded in securing the road that links Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon,” he said.

Finally….What it looks like when the U.S. Strategic Command war games it’s own nuclear annihilation.

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

Encryption fight. Apple and the FBI may once again be on a collision course over encryption and privacy rights as federal agents struggle to gain access to the locked iPhone of Texas shooter Devin Kelley. Kelley murdered 26 people in an attack on a Sutherland, Texas church on Sunday, but the FBI didn’t try to access his phone for at least 48 hours after the incident, a window in which law enforcement could have used the dead man’s fingerprint to unlock the device.  

Foreign agents. The Kremlin-run news agency RT is knuckling under and registering as a foreign agent with the Justice Department despite weeks of protest. RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan blasted the pressure on RT to register, calling it an “illegal” act that will make “routine journalistic work impossible.”

Action and reaction. The Russian government appears set to retaliate against American media outlets in response to the U.S. Justice Department’s demands that RT register as a foreign agent. In an interview with Tass, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova hinted at a crackdown on American media, saying “As of today, there is understanding that a practical phase of these response measures will begin next week.”

Shell game. An AP analysis of Russian-operated troll bots on Twitter finds that the Moscow-controlled accounts sought to help the Trump campaign in the hours and days following the release of an Access Hollywood tape featuring then-candidate Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women. After reviewing 382 Twitter accounts identified by the social media company to Congressional investigators as Russian-operated, the wire service found that accounts sought to deflect attention from the video by flogging the release of stolen emails from the Clinton campaign published by WikiLeaks.

Mystery woman. Federal investigators are still trying to track down the identity of a woman introduced to a Trump campaign staffer George Papadopoulos as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fictitious niece in what many suspect may have been an approach from Russian intelligence, according to Politico. Thus far, investigators have only a (possibly fake) name to go on — Olga Vinogradova — to try and identify the woman introduced to Papdopoulos under fale pretenses by Professor Joseph Mifsud.

Decline and fall of the Islamic State media empire. Islamic State expert Charlie Winters finds that the terrorist group’s propaganda output has hit a new low following the collapse of the caliphate, casting doubt on the idea that the group can easily retreat into a “virtual caliphate” in the absence of the time, space, and resources needed to pump out an empire of propaganda. Islamic State media outlet has plummeted from 200 videos a week in 2015 to just 20 now with content aimed at maintaining the morale of the faithful in comparison to the celebration of the caliphate as a state in videos past.

Mission accomplished. The Assad regime says its war against the Islamic State is won but Syrian military forces are still fighting scattered members of the group along the Syrian-Iraqi border. Most of the fighting is over now following the capture of Albu Kamal on the border between Iraq and Syria.

Repost. The CIA released a trove of files found in Osama Bin Laden’s home at the time of the special operations raid that killed him only to yank the material from the web without explanation. Now the material is back up with an explanation for its brief absence. The Agency says that it has since scrubbed the files of malware originally found in them and removed copyrighted material found on Bin Laden’s hard drives.

TSA fail. Your friendly neighborhood friskers at the Transportation Security Agency flunked somewhere around 80 percent of undercover tests performed by the Department of Homeland Security designed to gauge the effectiveness of agency personnel, equipment and procedures. The revelation prompted Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) to tell TSA Administrator David Pekoske, that the TSA “is broken badly.”

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