The Cable

SitRep: State Dept. Reacts to Jerusalem Decision; U.S. Bombers Anger Pyongyang

Pentagon admits 2,000 troops in Syria; Tillerson rips Russia

Palestinian protesters step on US and Israeli flags and on a portrait of President Donald Trump in Gaza City, on December 7.  (Mohammed Abed)
Palestinian protesters step on US and Israeli flags and on a portrait of President Donald Trump in Gaza City, on December 7. (Mohammed Abed)

 

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Jerusalem. The State Department issued a worldwide travel alert for American citizens Wednesday night in the wake of President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem decision, and American diplomats in Jordan were told not to send their children to school.

Allies in Europe and the Middle East condemned the decision. In Saudi Arabia, normally a staunch U.S. ally, the government issued a statement, saying it “continues to express its deep regret at the U.S. administration’s decision,” describing it “unjustified and irresponsible.”

Yemen plea. The statement came hours after the White House called on Saudi to lift its blockade of Yemen, and allow food and humanitarian supplies to begin flowing into the country where millions are on the verge of starvation.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis opposed the idea of declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel, multiple reports said, and State set up a 24-hour task force to collect information and coordinate response, according to an internal memo obtained by the Washington Post.

Meanwhile in Brussels…. Tillerson also has his hands full elsewhere. On Thursday, he ripped into Russia, saying U.S. sanctions won’t be lifted until Moscow ends its war in Ukraine. “We should be clear about the source of this violence,” Tillerson said. “Russia is arming, leading, training and fighting alongside anti-government forces. We call on Russia and its proxies to end its harassment, intimidation and its attacks on the OSCE special monitoring mission.”

And in Seoul…Two U.S. B1B bombers flew from Guam to streak across the South Korean skies on Thursday, taking part in a massive aerial drill between South Korean and U.S. forces. The annual “Vigilant Ace” exercises feature 230 aircraft, and led a spokesman for the North’s foreign ministry to complain of “confrontational warmongering,” and ask, “the remaining question now is: when will the war break out?”

But in Syria…The Pentagon for the first time in over a year has given what it says is a roughly accurate count of the number of American troops on the ground in Syria. There are about 2,000 American forces deployed there a spokesman said, and not the 500 previously reported, FP’s Paul McLeary writes from the Pentagon.

The future of the U.S. mission in Syria is unclear, though it will likely be a mix of counterterrorism operations and stabilization activities to train local security forces and boost local governance, defense officials told FP.

Putin says ISIS done. One thing that concerns American leaders is the continuing Russian insistence that the Islamic State has been wiped out in Syria, and the war is all but over. While weakened, U.S. military officials say there are still about 3,000 ISIS fighters active in Iraq and Syria.

And on Capitol Hill…. Lawmakers continue to scramble (we think) to avoid the shutdown of the entire federal government on Friday. With no deal announced just yet, Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday that any short-term stopgap measure would “immediately disrupt training, impede readiness recovery, delay maintenance, impose uncertainty on the workforce and induce inefficient and constrained contracting practices.”

Equality, if the courts allow it. Late Wednesday, the federal government asked a judge to put halt a requirement that it begin allowing transgender people to enlist in the military on Jan. 1. The move came just hours after a spokesman for the Pentagon said the military is preparing to accept transgender enlistees at the start of the year. So far, two federal judges have blocked enforcement of key provisions of President Donald Trump’s prohibition on transgender individuals serving in the military, which was announced in August.

Who’s where when. At 10:00 a.m. the Senate Armed Services Committee will ask the newly-minted Trump Pentagon acquisition team what they’re buying, and why. Appearing on the panel are Ellen Lord, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, Logistics; Mark Esper, Secretary of the Army; James Geurts, who was just sworn in as Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research and Acquisition this week; and Heather Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force. Livestream here.

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

Drone incident. China says an Indian drone “violated China’s territorial sovereignty” after it strayed into Chinese territory and crashed. Chinese officials didn’t say where the drone crossed over or offer much of any specifics about the incident but Indian and Chinese troops have been at loggerheads in recent months over a border dispute between China and Indian ally Bhutan in the area surrounding the Doklam plateau in the Himalayan mountains.

He’s running. Surprising approximately no one, Russian President Vladimir Putin says he will, in fact, run for president of Russia again in 2018, placing him atop Russia’s executive branch for nearly a quarter century if he wins and serves his entire term. So far, Putin’s only opponent in the race is TV news anchor Ksenia Sobchak with anti-corruption acitivst Andrei Navalny banned from standing for election following his conviction on what many say were politically motivated criminal charges.

Saudi blockade of Yemen. President Trump is showing some rare daylight between his administration and the Saudi government, publicly urging the kingdom to end the blockade in Yemen and allow humanitarian supplies into the country. Trump’s unusually sharp statement said Yemenis now “desperately need” aid and that an end to the blockade “must be done for humanitarian reasons immediately.”

Assad regime shows up for Geneva. Syria’s negotiating team is ending its walkout of the U.N. peace talks aimed at ending the Syrian civil war. U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura says the Assad regime’s delegation will arrive on Sunday to begin talks anew.

Global violence stats. Around 560,000 people died as the result of lethal violence in 2016, according to a new study from Small Arms Survey. “Global Violent Deaths 2017: Time to Decide,” assesses that Syria, El Salvador, Venezuela, Honduras, and Afghanistan were the five most violent countries last year, despite that only two of them had active conflicts.

Missile defense plus up. The North Korean missile threat has the U.S. Congress signaling it would like to spend big on missile defense, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Authorization legislation passed by the House and Senate would push the Missile Defense Agency up to its highest funding in a decade but actual appropriated dollars to match that authorization may still come up short because of budget caps.

Sticker shock for Poland’s missile defense. It turns out that Patriot missile batteries are pretty expensive, much to Poland’s dismay. Secretary of State Bartosz Kownacki from the Polish Ministry of National Defense said the price tag “came as a surprise for us” as  $10.5 billion price tag for two batties came in at nearly $2 billion more than Polish officials had expected.

 

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

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