The Cable

Situation Report: Mattis Goes to Gitmo, Congress Struggles to Keep Government Open

B-1 bombers back to Middle East, pressure on Saudi Arabia over Yemen

A sign welcomes military personnel to the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, on Oct. 23, 2016 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (John Moore/Getty Images)
A sign welcomes military personnel to the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, on Oct. 23, 2016 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (John Moore/Getty Images)

 

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

BREAKING: U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis became the first Pentagon chief to visit the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in 16 years on Thursday. Defense officials said that the visit was to meet with troops, and not tour the detention facilities or discuss detainee policy.

His stay comes amid uncertainty over the Trump administration’s policy on the use of the military prison. The facility there still houses 41 detainees, ten of which have been charged by a military commission, five have been cleared to leave, and the remaining 26 in indefinite confinement. Some of those could eventually could be cleared for release, or prosecuted.

A spending bill for Christmas. Lawmakers will try to pass a short-term spending bill Thursday that would keep the government up and running through Jan. 19, though Republicans appear split over defense spending.

On Wednesday night, Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, (R-Tx.) told reporters “there’s no specific direction right now” about the path forward. One plan pushed by defense hawks would have combined the stopgap funding bill with a $658 billion Pentagon funding measure. But the idea is DOA in the Senate.

Another North Korean soldier runs. More drama on the border between North and South Korea, as South Korean soldiers fired 20 warning shots rounds Thursday to force back North Korean soldiers chasing one of their own who had run across the border.

South Korean officials report hearing gunfire from the North afterwards, but its not clear who was doing the shooting, and why. It is the fourth time this year a North Korean soldier has made a run for it over the border.

B1 Bombers headed back to Middle East. After a year stateside to be refit with modernization upgrades, U.S. Air Force B1 bombers, known as the “Bone,” are on their way back to the Middle East, according to Military.com. After they left in 2016, the bombers were replaced by B-52s, which played a role in the fights for Mosul and Raqqa.

New transgender policy. The Pentagon has published new guidance for how recruiters should evaluate transgender recruits if current court rulings hold and allow enlistment on Jan. 1. The seven-page guidance provides everything from rules for evaluators to follow, to what kind of underwear recruits would need to wear.

Done with this thing. Dr. Dean Winslow — a retired military doctor who served six combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan — has withdrawn his nomination to be Pentagon’s top health official after the Senate Armed Services Committee blocked him for opposing “unrestricted ownership of semiautomatic assault weapons by civilians.” Winslow wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post announcing his decision.

U.N. vote, Trump threat. President Trump has threatened to cut off aid to any country that votes for a resolution at the United Nations condemning his recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

“We’re watching those votes,” he said before a cabinet meeting at the White House. “Let them vote against us; we’ll save a lot. We don’t care.”  Trump’s comments came a day after the American ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley warned that the United States would take note of countries that voted in favor of the measure. The General Assembly is scheduled to vote Thursday on a resolution that would express “deep regret at recent decisions concerning the status of Jerusalem.”

American ISIS to Saudi? The U.S. citizen who handed himself over to a U.S.-back Syrian militia in September may be headed to Saudi Arabia, the NYT reports. The dual U.S./Saudi citizen, who was born in America but raised in Saudi, has been held by U.S. forces for three months, and has been interrogated by the FBI. Legal pressure to resolve his fate has been building since the American Civil Liberties Union filed a habeas corpus lawsuit in October challenging his detention on his behalf.

Yemen strikes. The U.S. Central Command on Wednesday gave a year-end roundup of operations in Yemen — at least the airstrike bit. The U.S. military conducted more than 120 airstrikes and “multiple” ground operations in Yemen against al Qaeda and ISIS targets in 2017, the command said.

American Special Operations Forces have worked closely with forces from the U.A.E. and local Yemenis over the past year. In late January, on the recommendation of Pentagon leadership, president Trump authorized a disastrous special operations raid in Yemen that left one Navy SEAL dead, three more injured, and resulted in the loss of a $75 million aircraft that crash-landed. At least 10 Yemeni civilians were also killed in the raid, according to multiple reports.

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

Troll data. Twitter trolls acted at key moments in the 2016 election, spiking in activity during key events in order to seize on the news cycle and drive home pro-Trump themes, according to an analysis by NBC News. NBC looked at 202,973 tweets from 454 Twitter accounts identified by the social media company as being controlled by Russian operatives. The data shows sharp increases in tweet volume around terrorist incidents like the March suicide bombing in Brussels and a September attempted bombing in New York as trolls linked the incidents to refugees, peaking with the highest volume for a New Hampshire town hall event held by then-candidate Trump in October.

Magnitsky designations. The Trump administration added five news names to its list of Russian nationals sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act, which allows the executive branch to target the assets of officials engaged in corruption. The latest designation includes Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked strongman who’s been accused of human rights violations in the suppression of Chechen extremism.

Arms sales to Ukraine. The Trump administration is lifting some restrictions on the sale of lethal arms to Ukraine, breaking with the Obama White House’s policy against lethal aid and teeing up more irritation from Russia. The approval of a $41.5 million worth of anti materiel sniper rifles is a far cry from the anti-tank missiles and other arms Kiev has been asking for but it opens the door to potential future sales. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) hailed the decision as “years overdue” in a statement, writing that the rifles “must only be a first step” in approving future transfers.

NATO readiness. It’s not a good look for NATO readiness when Britain can barely field a working ship and all none of Germany’s submarines can come out to play but that’s where we are right now. The Drive reports that there’s just one major surface combatant among the 13 ships the British have deployed right now while all of Germany’s Type 212A diesel-electric submarines are currently in the shop for repairs.

Not it. After U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s ballistic show and tell highlighting missile components made in Iran and fired at Saudi Arabia, Iran is denying accusations that it transfers lethal aid to the Houthi movement, with a foreign ministry spokesman claiming it has “no arms links with Yemen.”

Yemen blockade. Congressional leaders are imploring the Saudi government to end the blockade on humanitarian aid in Yemen, writing a letter to the Saudi and United Arab Emirates’ ambassadors to the U.S. asking the two countries to “immediately develop and implement a humanitarian plan of action that will end the blockade of Yemen.” The letter, spearheaded by Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Steve Chabot (R-OH) and joined by Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission chairs Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Randy Hultgren (R-IL), warns that in the face of further inaction “millions of Yemeni civilians could die from famine.”

Whistleblower mystery. No one is saying why the Trump administration escorted the intelligence community whistleblower chief Dan Meyer out of his office and put him on administrative leave a month ago but Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has written a letter to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats informing him that congressional officials are keenly interested in whether the move is “part of that alleged effort” to cripple whistleblower protections in the intelligence community.

Aging conflicts. There may be fewer conflicts today but the ones that do emerge are getting more protracted  with the average conflict now lasting about 20 years, according to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Myanmar. The Myanmar government has blocked the U.N. special rapporteur for Myanmar Yanghee Lee from visiting the country to assess the state of human rights there since January and now, in the face of growing reports about abuses during a recent crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in the country, Lee is urging the world to turn up the heat on the government, saying “I’m not sure if there is the right kind of pressure placed on the military commanders and the generals.”

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