The Cable

Security Brief: Chemical Attacks in Syria; Bolton’s First Day

Will Trump once again strike Assad?

A picture taken on April 8, 2018, shows Syrian Army soldiers advancing in an area on the eastern outskirts of Douma, as they continue their fierce offensive to retake the last opposition holdout in Eastern Ghouta.
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images
A picture taken on April 8, 2018, shows Syrian Army soldiers advancing in an area on the eastern outskirts of Douma, as they continue their fierce offensive to retake the last opposition holdout in Eastern Ghouta. STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Chemical warfare returns. A chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb left at least 42 people dead over the weekend, prompting President Donald Trump to immediately lash out on Twitter and promise that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will pay a “big price” for a “mindless chemical attack.”

Whether Trump will respond militarily — as he did last year in response to chemical weapons use by Syrian regime forces. — remains unclear, and confusion reigned late Sunday after missiles were reported striking a Syrian air base. Syrian state media accused the United States of attacking the base east of Homs, but Russia on Monday claimed the attack was carried out by Israeli jets. The United States has denied hitting the base.  

The mustache is in the building. National Security Advisor John Bolton officially assumes his duties at the White House Monday, and will immediately face a host of challenges in Syria, North Korea, and Iran — nevermind an irascible, mercurial boss prone to undermining his deputies on Twitter.

The hawkish foreign-policy advisor may align closely with President Trump in style, but whether the two will mesh on policy is another matter entirely. The two men share a predilection for the use of American military power, but whereas Bolton has rarely found an American adversary whose relationship with the United States wouldn’t be improved by a bombing campaign, Trump has advocated a withdrawal of some American military power.

Anton out. The National Security Council’s chief spinmaster Michael Anton is the first casualty of the Bolton era. Anton will step down from his role as chief spokesperson for the National Security Council, Politico reports.

Anton survived as the NSC’s chief spokesman through two national security advisers and for more than a year. That’s no small feat in the Trump era.

But Anton never won sufficient breathing room to unleash his polemical instincts or to shape media coverage like his predecessor in the Obama administration, Ben Rhodes. Under McMaster, Anton stuck to safer talking points and tried to dismiss reports of a chaotic White House as breathless hype from a biased press corps.

Anton found himself caught in the crossfire of a bitter power struggle between Steve Bannon and McMaster. He chose not to join in with Bannon to undermine McMaster, even though it was Bannon who helped recruit Anton to the Trump cause before the election.

In his new job lecturing and writing, he will be free to weigh in without constraints. Anton will leave the White House to become a writer and lecturer at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center, the conservative school’s Washington arm.

As Foreign Policy has previously reported, Bolton enters the White House with a plan to purge staff at the NSC.

Parting shot. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster came out swinging against Russia in his last public address before stepping down as national security advisor. “For too long, some nations have looked the other way in the face of these threats. Russia brazenly and implausibly denies its actions, and we have failed to impose sufficient costs,” McMaster said Tuesday.

Welcome to this Monday morning edition of Security Brief, in which we pay tribute to the bare-chested U.S. trooper captured on film putting the final touches on his post in Syria with a pink lawnchair. As always, send your tips, comments, questions, and complaints, to elias.groll@foreingpolicy.com.

A crisis in military aviation. A six-month investigation by Military Times finds “ that accidents involving all of the military’s manned fighter, bomber, helicopter and cargo warplanes rose nearly 40 percent from fiscal years 2013 to 2017. It’s doubled for some aircraft, like the Navy and Marine Corps’ F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets. At least 133 service members were killed in those fiscal year 2013-2017 mishaps, according to data obtained by Military Times.”

F-16 pilot death. The U.S. Air Force identified the member of the Thunderbirds demonstration team who died last week in a training accident near Nellis Air Force Base as Major Stephen Del Bagno.

Air Putin. A Reuters investigation finds that a Syrian airline is being used to ferry Russian military contractors to Syria. “The flights in and out of Rostov, which no organization has previously documented, are operated by Cham Wings, a Syrian airline hit with U.S. sanctions in 2016 for allegedly transporting pro-Assad fighters to Syria and helping Syrian military intelligence transport weapons and equipment. The flights, which almost always land late at night, don’t appear in any airport or airline timetables, and fly in from either Damascus or Latakia, a Syrian city where Russia has a military base,” Reuters reports.

Coming attractions. All eyes will be on Mark Zuckerberg this week as he makes his long-demanded appearance before lawmakers to discuss the collection of user data by Cambridge Analytica. The Facebook founder will appear before a joint sessions of the House and Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees on Tuesday. He’ll be before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday.

This week in Congress. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, in a hearing that will focus on the Pentagon’s budget request but will likely touch on a number of hot-button topics, from Syria to border security. Defense News has the full rundown on what to look forward to on Capitol Hill this week.  

Should we stay or should we go? President Trump is scheduled to have dinner with his military advisers this evening after receiving a briefing, and while the White House hasn’t announced the topic of the day, it would be surprising if the president and his advisers aren’t hashing out options on Syria. After Trump said he would like to bring home U.S. troops, defense officials have been making a very public case that they would like to see American soldiers remain after the tactical defeat of Islamic State troops.

MDR in May. The Pentagon’s long-awaited deep dive into American missile defense strategy is expected to be released next month, Defense News reports.  

Patriots and THAAD can talk. Patriot and THAAD missile defense systems successfully demonstrated their ability to communicate in a test at White Sands Missile Range last week. The two systems tracked a missile launch and demonstrated their ability to exchange data, Stars and Stripes reports. The two systems will likely be deployed in tandem as part of a so-called “layered” approach to missile defense.  

National Guard to the border. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis authorized the deployment of 4,000 National Guard troops to the Mexican border. The order allows National Guard troops to be armed only in self-defense and leaves law enforcement responsibilities up to the Border Patrol.

Soviet H-bomb docs. Newly declassified CIA documents describe agency interviews with Soviet agents describing Soviet Union hydrogen bomb tests. The fascinating new material, published by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, sheds new light on the CIA’s efforts to understand the Soviet nuclear weapons program.

Russian ASAT test. Russia successfully tested a new anti-satellite missile late last month, according to the Diplomat. The test was “the first to see the direct ascent anti-satellite weapon launched from the transporter-erector-launcher system designed for its eventual deployment,” the Diplomat reports.  

NASA gets a new x-plane. NASA awarded a nearly $250 million contract to Lockheed Martin to build a supersonic x-plane that will test whether it’s possible to fly a supersonic aircraft that doesn’t generate massive sonic booms, the Drive reports. Such a plane could represent a revolution in air travel and may make high-speed air travel widely available.  

MBS in Paris. With Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Paris for a three-day visit, French authorities announced that they have signed a new agreement with Riyadh governing defense contracts, according to Reuters.

‘Meaningful human control.’ More than 50 artificial intelligence and robotics researchers are boycotting South Korea’s KAIST University over its plans to participate in research to develop autonomous weapons systems that do not require human control, the Verge reports. The researchers threatening the boycott are urging KAIST to implement “meaningful human control” on any weapons systems they develop.

Google’s humans revolt. The Defense Department’s spending on computer science over the past five decades may underpin much of the technology in Silicon Valley, but employees at Google are shocked the company could be working on technology that may be used in war.  Thousands of Google’s employees signed a letter to the chief executive protesting the company’s involvement in a Pentagon artificial intelligence initiative, called Project Maven.

“We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” says the letter.

A match made in heaven. In newly obtained WikiLeaks Twitter direct messages, Julian Assange appears to have sought hacked documents from Guccifer 2.0, an online persona thought to have been created by Russian intelligence as part of its operation to sow discord ahead of the 2016 election. According to BuzzFeed, the messages “are the starkest proof yet that Assange knew a likely Russian government hacker had the Democrat leaks he wanted.”

Bezos isn’t getting this meeting. Oracle CEO Safra Katz used a dinner last week with President Donald Trump and PayPal founder Peter Thiel to criticize the bidding process for a huge Pentagon computing contract for which Amazon is believed to the leading contender. According to Bloomberg, Katz argued the bidding process had set Amazon up to win.  

More Russian sanctions. The Trump administration rolled out a major new sanctions package on Friday targeting oligarchs close to President Vladimir Putin. The sanctions represent the most significant measures since 2014 and target a number of prominent oligarchs, including Oleg Deripaska and Putin’s son-in-law, Kirill Shamalov.

Baltic action. Russia carried out live missile tests in the Baltic Sea last week, alarming its NATO neighbors after the tests prompted air traffic controllers to divert civilian aircraft around the naval exercise, Reuters reports.

Russian AI. Russian artificial intelligence development may be lagging behind its peers, but Moscow is beginning to invest in serious initiatives that may begin to narrow the gap, Samuel Bendett writes for Defense One.

Chinese financial espionage. Chinese state-backed hackers are stepping up their attacks against U.S. companies to obtain sensitive financial data, such as pricing strategies and merger data, according to a new report from security firm FireEye.  

China aviation stealth. The Chinese air force appears to be testing new stealth technology on its J-10 fighters, prototyping a thrust-vectoring nozzle that may reduce the plane’s radar signature, Defense News reports.

‘Denuclearization.’ North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is willing to discuss “denuclearization” at an upcoming summit meeting with President Donald Trump, according to a U.S. official cited by Reuters. The commitment was delivered to U.S. officials during recent, secret contacts with North Korean officials.

Not so fast. The term “denuclearization” may not mean the same thing to North Korea as it does to the White House. “Many people, including President Trump, seem to hear “denuclearization” and imagine a promise by Mr. Kim to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, recently acquired at great cost. But the term means more than the North’s disarmament. It imposes obligations on the United States, too — even if Americans don’t want to hear that part,” Jeffrey Lewis wrote last week.  

Beijing-Moscow.  China’s new defense minister said he had chosen to visit Moscow as his first foreign trip in a deliberate signal to the United States about growing ties between China and Russia, according to the AP. Gen. Wei Fenghe said he would attend a conference Wednesday to “let the Americans know about the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia.”  

High-tech transfers. As the global market for arms heats up, China is starting to offer technology transfers to up its competitiveness. The United States has long used such an approach. In a deal with Thailand reached in March, China will give its southeast Asian neighbor access to some of its intellectual property for submarine building. Last year, Thailand purchased almost $400 million in Chinese submarines. Chinese state-owned companies are also increasing their capacity to provide after-sales services for their products.

Location, location, location. With American and North Korean officials trying to hammer out the details of the upcoming Trump-Kim summit, one question that remains is where the meeting will be held. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia remains one leading option, as the Diplomat reports.  

Stingrays in DC. The Associated Press has confirmed what many long believed: The U.S. government has discovered evidence that foreign intelligence services are running so-called cellphone-site simulators — better known as stingrays — in Washington D.C. The devices are popular among American law enforcement and can be used as powerful tools of espionage by gathering phone records.  

SIGAR strikes again. The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction criticized in a new report a $60 million Army Corps of Engineering project that sought to build up Afghanistan’s power distribution network, Stars and Stripes reports. According to SIGAR, electrical transmission towers exhibited poor workmanship, and when the project was turned over to Afghans the electrical distribution network couldn’t be turned on for fear that it might cause deaths of local Afghans.  

Erdogan wants his missiles. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week his country’s controversial purchase of Russian S-400 air defense missiles is a “done deal.”  Amid strengthening ties between Moscow and Ankara, the missile purchase has raised objections among Turkey’s NATO allies.

V-22s to Japan. The Air Force is deploying tilt-rotor V-22 Ospreys to Japan two years ahead of schedule, according to Stars and Stripes. The aircraft are aimed at addressing “regional security concerns in line with the recently released 2018 National Defense Strategy and also provides a platform that can rapidly react to natural disasters or crises,” the Air Force said.

A second life for the F-18. After nearly shutting down production for lack of orders, Boeing says it may have enough orders to continue production until 2025, Flight Global reports. Recent sales to Kuwait and the United States has revitalized production, and orders from Finland and India could extend production.  

KC-46 refueling milestone. Boeing hit another milestone in its long-delayed production and testing of the KC-46 tanker, with the company announcing that one KC-46 tanker successfully refueled another.

Journalist killed in Gaza. The Israeli military shot and killed a journalist covering ongoing protests in Gaza. His colleagues say the reporter had clearly identified himself as a reporter and human rights groups argue his killings raise questions about whether Israeli forces are deliberately targeting journalists, the Washington Post reports. Protests in Gaza have continued for several weeks, with Palestinians objecting to the blockade and the miserable economic conditions it has created. Israel has said it will not tolerate continued weeks of protest.

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

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