The Cable

SitRep: Putin Lands in Syria, Talks Defense Deals With Egypt

Another big resignation at State Dept.; Iranian missiles with American parts

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi speaks with Vladimir Putin in Cairo on December 11. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi speaks with Vladimir Putin in Cairo on December 11. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AFP/Getty Images)


By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Putin to Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to Russia’s Hmeymim air base in Syria on Monday, where he met with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and again declared victory over the Islamic State.

The Russian leader also (again) said it was time for Russian forces to begin pulling out of Syria now that the Islamic State had been defeated. The visit came as Putin was en route to Egypt, and just days after he announced his intention to run for another term as president. The Egypt trip is another sign of warming relations between the two countries, with Cario buying billions worth of Russian military equipment in recent years, and inking a deal last month to allow Russian military aircraft to use Egyptian runways.

Elsewhere in Syria. Meanwhile, the NYT details an increasing number of close calls between Russian and American warplanes in Syria, as Russian pilots buzz American aircraft at close range.

But Idlib in the crosshairs. Iranian militias and what’s left of the Syrian military are preparing to mount an assault on Idlib province, one of the last remaining rebel and al Qaeda strongholds in Syria. The push comes on the heels of recent operations by Russian airpower in northeastern Hama as the Assad regime looks to take back the Idlib enclave governed by hardline Islamist groups like Hayat Tahrir al Sham.

North Korean submarine worries. The United States, Japan and South Korea are teaming up for a series of drills to sharpen their skills tracking submarines. The drills come in the wake of reports that North Korea is making progress developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

The website 38 North recently published images of potential new sub builds at a facility on North Korea’s east coast. FP recently reported that the U.S. and NATO are also trying to step up their sub-hunting capabilities in the North Atlantic given the new generation of stealthy Russian submarines operating there.

Ambassador for South Korea? After months of stalling, it appears that the Trump administration is ready to name Victor Cha, a Georgetown University professor and Korea expert, as the next ambassador to South Korea.

Washington concerned about Iranian missiles, too. A confidential U.N. report reviewed by FP’s Colum Lynch finds that the missile launched at the Saudi capital last month by Houthi rebels in Yemen supported U.S. claims that the missile was comprised of Iranian hardware. But the report provided a new twist: The weapon also included a component that was manufactured by an American company. More here.

State Dept. star resigns in disgust. Exclusive from FP’s Dan De Luce and Robbie Gramer: “An award-winning U.S. diplomat who was seen as a rising star at the State Department has issued a scathing resignation letter, accusing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Donald Trump administration of undercutting the State Department and damaging America’s influence in the world.”

Elizabeth Shackelford, who most recently served as a political officer based in Nairobi for the U.S. mission to Somalia, wrote to Tillerson that she reluctantly had decided to quit because the administration had abandoned human rights as a priority and shown disdain for the State Department’s diplomatic work, according to her letter, obtained by Foreign Policy.

Global arms sales rise. For the first time five years, global arms sales increased in 2016 according to a new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The world’s 100 biggest arms producers increased sales by 1.9% from the previous year to reach $375 billion. ($217 billion of that came from American companies.)

“The growth in arms sales was expected and was driven by the implementation of new national major weapon programs, ongoing military operations in several countries and persistent regional tensions that are leading to an increased demand for weapons,” the group said.

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

LinkedIn gets even more annoying. China’s intelligence services would like to add you to their professional network on LinkedIn. Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s domestic security agency, says Chinese spies have engaged in a “broad-based” campaign to pose as legitimate recruiters, consultants, and researchers, targeting up to 10,000 German citizens through LinkedIn in an attempt to turn them into informants about German political institutions.

Missile command. The U.S., Japan, and South Korea are now sharpening their joint missile-tracking skills in order to deal with the rapidly growing threat of the North’s nascent submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) program. The North has been steadily testing its SLBM capabilities on the coast of Sinpo, leading the U.S. and its allies to kick off a two day exercise

Diss tracks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are once again trading very public insults as anger about the U.S. relocation of its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem spreads across the Islamic world. The spat began with Erdogan declaring Israel “a terrorist state” which “kills children.” Netanyahu responded by saying he would not accept criticism from “a leader who bombs Kurdish villagers in his native Turkey, who jails journalists, who helps Iran get around international sanctions, and who helps terrorists, including in Gaza, kill innocent people”   

Niger incident. The four American special operations soldiers killed in Niger last month died while returning from a mission to track down four high value Islamic State operatives on the Malian border, falling victim to what Nigerien and former U.S. military officials say was poor planning for their mission. The team, alongside 30 Nigerien troops, pursued their targets deep into territory controlled by militants with several likely informants and rings of security, allowing militants the time and space to set up an ambush as the U.S. troops returned.

Two more years. The Pentagon wants to spend at least another two years fighting in Somalia according to a plan presented to the Trump White House by senior defense officials. The Trump administration has given wide authority for the Defense Department to pursue terrorist groups like Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab group and carry out drone strikes, but Pentagon officials want to wait at least two years before reviewing the impact of their war in Somalia and making any changes.

El Jefe. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is simplifying Venezuelan democracy by getting rid of the pesky opposition part of it, banning major opposition parties from the next election as punishment for boycotting recent mayoral elections. The move comes as Maduro has increasingly cracked down on dissent in the country and centralized power.

Myanmar. The AP interviewed 29 Rohingya women and found that Myanmar security forces have used rape as a systematic weapon of war against members of the country’s Muslim ethnic minority group. The wire service published 21 interviews with women victimized by government forces, finding noticeable patterns in the stories they told.


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