The Cable

Security Brief: McMaster on Thin Ice; Fighting Rages in Syria

By Elias Groll, with Jenna McLaughlin and Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian McMassacre? With a CNN report Thursday that President Donald Trump may be on the verge of firing National Security Adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster, the three-star Army general might be heading for a new position back in the military. McMaster has been the target of attacks ...

H.R. McMaster, national security advisor, listens as U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean defectors in the Oval Office of the White House on February 2, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Zach Gibson-Pool/Getty Images)
H.R. McMaster, national security advisor, listens as U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean defectors in the Oval Office of the White House on February 2, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Zach Gibson-Pool/Getty Images)

By Elias Groll, with Jenna McLaughlin and Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

McMassacre? With a CNN report Thursday that President Donald Trump may be on the verge of firing National Security Adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster, the three-star Army general might be heading for a new position back in the military.

McMaster has been the target of attacks for months, making any new reports that he’s on the chopping block worthy of a healthy dose of skepticism. However, multiple sources with ties to the White House told FP it could be different this time and that McMaster is living on borrowed time. He was out last week on planned leave.

Two sources said that the White House press office was told to stand down on questions about McMaster’s tenure, issuing milquetoast responses to reporters posing questions. The rumor mill was churning by Thursday afternoon over who might replace McMaster, including former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.

Bolton, however, isn’t talking. Even in private conversations late in the week, he offered non-answers when asked about the position. Bolton would have seemed an unlikely choice a few months ago; in August, he wrote the equivalent of an open letter to President Trump on scrapping the Iran plan, after being frozen out of the Oval Office. Yet, as usual, in the Trump White House, anything could happen.

If Bolton takes over, it would likely usher in a more hawkish approach at the White House, including toward North Korea. Bolton “supports preventive war through a massive strike, if sanctions fail,” the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reports. “During an appearance last week at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security, he said the United States would have to simultaneously destroy all known North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile sites, submarine bases, and artillery, mortar and missile installments along the North’s border with South Korea.”

So much for that ceasefire. Fighting continued to rage in Syria over the weekend, despite a newly minted plea from the United Nations Security Council that all parties abide by a ceasefire and allow much needed humanitarian aid to reach the country’s besieged civilian population.

Syrian government forces continued to attack rebel-held territory in the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus from the air and with artillery and launched a fresh ground offensive. Activists in the besieged enclave reported at least 22 dead on Sunday and said that a child died after breathing in the toxic fumes of a chlorine bomb, according to the Washington Post.

The United States and its allies claimed a rare diplomatic victory on Saturday with the unanimous passage of the Security Council ceasefire demand, but it has delivered few results on the ground. To win Russian support, the measure included language to allow continued military action against “terrorists,” a blanket term the Assad regime labels all its opponents.

On Monday morning, at least 72 airstrikes hit Eastern Ghouta, killing 97 and wounding more than 500, according to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations. The targets included five hospitals, and none are now in operation in Eastern Ghouta.

Meanwhile Turkish officials said the ceasefire agreement would have no impact on their military offensive near Afrin, Syria.  

Welcome to Security Brief on this Monday morning, which finds me marveling over these panoramic photos taken at the edge of space from a U-2. As always, send your tips, questions, and comments to elias.groll@foreignpolicy.com.

Uncle Sam is listening. American intelligence officials made an incredible reveal to the Washington Post on Saturday: The Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin was in close touch with the Kremlin and Syrian government ministers before mercenaries believed to be loyal to him attacked U.S. troops in Syria this month. Citing intercepted communications between Prigozhin — perhaps best known as “Putin’s chef” — and a Syrian government minister, the report claims that the oligarch said he obtained permission for the attack from an unidentified Russian minister.

Su-57 to Syria. Russia has deployed its advanced stealth fighter, the Su-57, to Syria, American military officials confirmed to CNN. News of the deployment first surfaced on social media last week, and the move signals the latest effort by Russia to deploy its most advanced military hardware to Syria, where it has tested new weapons systems part of a wide-ranging military modernization effort.

‘Peace Games’ With the closure of the 2018 Winter Olympics on Sunday, Pyongyang signaled that North Korea would be willing to directly speak with the United States. “The North agrees that ­inter-Korean relations and North Korea- U.S. relations should ­improve together,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration said in a statement Sunday after meeting with North Korean representatives.

By Monday, Moon urged the United States to reconsider the preconditions it has played on dialogue with the North. “There is a need for the United States to lower the threshold for talks with North Korea and North Korea should show it is willing to denuclearize. It’s important the United States and North Korea sit down together quickly,” Moon said in a statement.

Moon Jae-in had hoped that the Olympics could help bring the United States and North Korea into dialogue after months of escalating rhetoric over Pyongyang’s missile program, but a meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and the North Korean delegation was scotched at the last minute.

Yet more sanctions. Amid the diplomatic flurry on the Korean peninsula, the Trump administration continued to ratchet up the pressure on North Korea last week, issuing new sanctions on ships thought to engage in illicit trade with North Korea. The new measures target 28 ships registered in China and seven other countries and air aimed at tamping down on the oil and coal trade.

False flags. Cyberattacks on South Korean computer systems at the start of the Olympic Games were the work of Russian government hackers, according to American intelligence officials speaking to the Washington Post. The hackers attempted to pose as North Korean hackers, but American officials claim to have unmasked them in what appears to be an act of retaliation for doping bans against Russian athletes.

Of note: The attribution of the attack is unusually quick by the standards of the U.S. government and comes on the heels of the Trump administration’s statements in December that it would be more aggressive about outing the perpetrators of cyber attacks.

Trade wars. With trade hawks in the Trump White House pushing for aggressive tariffs on Chinese imports, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is making the case that levies on steel and aluminum imports could hurt U.S. national security. “DoD continues to be concerned about the negative impact on our key allies regarding the recommended options in the report,” Mattis wrote in a memo to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and obtained by CNBC.

Pipeline diplomacy. Afghan officials broke ground on a pipeline intended to ferry gas from Tajikistan through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and into India, an economic initiative fraught with security concerns that if successful would bring a huge economic windfall to the Afghan state. The pipeline would connect the gas fields of Central Asia with the booming economies of South Asia but in doing so passes through some of Afghanistan’s most restive provinces. The Taliban have pledged to support the initiative, but huge questions remain about the project’s viability.

Stratcom gets and audit. A mere 20 months behind schedule, the new headquarters building project for U.S. Strategic Command is getting a congressionally ordered audit. The $1.3 billion construction effort has been hobbled by design and mold problems.

Where did the UAE get its armed drones? The answer is most likely China. The United States has barred the United Arab Emirates from purchasing weaponized drones, only allowing it purchase Predators drones for surveillance only. But analysts say that the UAE now has Wing Long II, an armed Chinese-made drone.

Marines to Australia. Trump is planning to boost the U.S. deployment of Marines to an Australian base, as both the United States and Australia become increasingly concerned with Chinese expansionism in the Asia-Pacific.

India’s new foreign military base. It’s no secret that China’s military expansion is making India nervous. China just opened its first military base abroad last year, in Djibouti. Now India is looking to get in on the action — it just signed a deal with the Seychelles giving New Delhi permission to build military facilities there. The Seychelles is an archipelago about 1,000 miles east of the African continent.

Arms race in Asia. India has boosted its defense spending by 54 percent in the past 10 years, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. India has attempted, in fits and starts, to keep up with China’s rapid military modernization. But China still outpaces India in terms of military spending; in the same time period, Beijing increased its defense budget by 118 percent, the largest increase of any major world power.

The deal of the century. Trump administration aides are continuing to work on a peace plan to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and plan to release a proposal soon, according to U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt — the Trump lieutenants tasked with crafting the deal — are “finishing it up” but are “still going back and forth,” Haley said in remarks in Chicago. “They’re coming up with a plan. It won’t be loved by either side, and it won’t be hated by either side,” she added.

Serious cash for end to end encryption. WhatsApp founder Brian Acton poured a serious amount of cash last week into efforts to make end-to-end encryption more widely available. Acton pledged $50 million toward the creation of the Signal Foundation, an effort led by the hacker Moxie Marlinspike, whose encryption protocols are some of the most widely used on the internet. Marlinspike created the popular encrypted messaging application Signal.

For those following along at home. Congressional Democrats released their rebuttal to a Republican document alleging an inappropriate use of private research documents by the FBI in their decision to target Trump adviser Carter Page for surveillance. The latest memo reveals new details about Page’s contacts with Russian intelligence.

Port of call. The USS Carl Vinson will make a stop in Vietnam early next month as part of a disaster preparedness mission. It will be the first visit by an American aircraft carrier to the country since the Vietnam War.

Robotic tanks. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that his country will develop robotic tanks, the Associated Press reports.  “We need to be able to manufacture unmanned tanks and we will do this,” Erdogan said during remarks on Turkey’s five-year development plan. “We are becoming a country that is catching this technology.”

Canadian fighter. Canadian authorities approved five suppliers to vie for a contract to provide a new fighter jet to the country’s armed forces. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Saab, Dassault and Airbus were given the go ahead to compete for what is estimated to be a $15 billion contract.  

A young Marine. The Washington Post obtained the military records of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who served as an officer in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War before leaving the service in 1970. He saw action as a platoon leader in Vietnam, received multiple awards for valor, and was wounded when he was shot in the thigh.

New Hellfire moves forward. Pentagon officials tell Defense News that they have fixed problems identified by weapons tester in the Army’s new Joint Air-to-Ground Missile. The weapons is slated to replace the Hellfire missile, but weapons testers have found cyber vulnerabilities in the weapon, which has also had accuracy problems.

JSTARS. With the Pentagon abandoning its legacy JSTARS surveillance system, Defense News runs down what we know about the replacement system-of-systems approach now being touted by the Air Force. Northrop Grumman could still profit from its investments in a JSTARS upgrade plan, and a new radar system is likely in the pipeline.

Navy fatality. The Marines identified a sailor killed when he was struck by the tail rotor of a UH-1Y Venom helicopter last week. He was Lt. James A. Mazzuchelli, a Navy flight surgeon. He was 32.

Patriots to Sweden. The State Department gave its go ahead to the possible sale of Patriot missiles to Sweden. If completed, the deal would be valued at around $3.2 billion dollars and would mark the latest move by countries on Russia’s periphery to increase their defense capabilities in response to Moscow’s military moves.

French reapers. American and French officials are in talks to supply the French version of the Reaper drone with an intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance pod, according to Defense News.

Space war. Air Force brass is pushing the service to be prepared to fight a war in space, Breaking Defense reports. In comments at the Air Force Association’s winter meeting, Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein urged those under him “to embrace space superiority with the same passion and sense of ownership as we apply to air superiority today.”

This isn’t supposed to happen. The Navy is investigating a spate of troubling incidents in which the environmental control systems on EA-18 Growlers have failed, leaving airmen dangerously exposed to the elements.

Bremseskjerm. The Norwegian air force has successfully tested landing a variant of the F-35 using a braking parachute. Video of the test is here, courtesy of Flight Global.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola