The Cable

Security Brief: Syria’s War Machine Up and Running; Chemical Weapons Revelations

The United States has no intention of using its firepower to halt the mass killing of civilians through conventional means, degrade Syria’s military forces, or to challenge Russia and Iran’s military positions is Syria.

A British military Typhoon aircraft lands at the Sovereign Base Area (SBA) of Akrotiri following U.S., British and French strikes on Syria on April 14, 2018. IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP/Getty Images
A British military Typhoon aircraft lands at the Sovereign Base Area (SBA) of Akrotiri following U.S., British and French strikes on Syria on April 14, 2018. IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP/Getty Images

By Elias Groll, with Robbie Gramer, Dan De Luce, and Rhys Dubin

Another day in Syria. Just two days after the United States, France, and Britain struck three sites associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program, Bashar al-Assad’s war machine was up and running again, with forces loyal to the president carrying out at least 28 strikes around Homs and Hama, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The limited strikes, in retaliation for a poison gas attack on the Syrian enclave on Douma, reflect a cold calculus: the United States has no intention of using its firepower to halt the mass killing of civilians through conventional means, degrade Syria’s military forces, or to challenge Russia and Iran’s military positions is Syria.

American military officials said the missile volley had struck the heart of the Syrian chemical weapons complex, but noted that Syria retains the ability to deliver chemical weapons. Serious questions remain about the extent of the damage inflicted on Syria’s chemical weapons program. According to a “senior official in a regional alliance that backs Damascus” quoted by Reuters, the sites that were targeted had been evacuated days ago thanks to a warning from Russia.”

Capt. Adulsalam Abdulrazek, a former officer in Syria’s chemical program, told the Associated Press that the strikes likely hit “parts of, but not the heart” of Assad’s poison gas infrastructure. Abdulrazek told the AP he doubts the strike will curb Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons or produce them in the future.

Russia reacted harshly to the strike on Syria’s chemical weapons compounds, with Russian President Vladimir Putin warning that another strike would lead to “chaos” in international relations. Russian military officials disputed the American account of the strike and claimed that Syrian air defenses had shot down 71 American missiles and that the strikes targeted a number of airfields, including the international airport in Damascus.

American military officials flatly denied both claims and released satellite and drone imagery of sites struck Friday night, in an effort to combat what Defense Secretary Jim Mattis described as the coming disinformation campaign.

For his part, Assad tried to put his best spin on the attacks. He tweeted a video of him striding into work briefcase in hand the day following the attacks. A Russian lawmaker who met with Assad on Sunday reported the Syrian leader remains in a “good mood.”

In Syria for the long-run? The American-led strikes came on the heels of statements by President Donald Trump that he hoped to quickly withdraw American forces from Syria, and over the weekend French President Emmanuel Macron said he convinced Trump to maintain U.S. troops there. “Ten days ago, President Trump was saying the United States of America had a duty to disengage from Syria,” Macron said in an interview Sunday. “I assure you, we have convinced him that it is necessary to stay for the long-term.”

CW revelations. France and the United States released detailed intelligence assessments to back up their claim that the Assad regime was responsible for the April 7 chemical weapons attack and provided new details about Syrian chemical weapons use. Notably, both countries believe Syria used sarin in a November 2017 attack on the Syrian city of Harasta. “We are convinced that there have been other instances of both sarin and chlorine use in [the Damascus] area that we have not verified,” the American assessment notes.  

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Mission accomplished? President Donald Trump faced a barrage of criticism after he took to Twitter to proclaim “Mission Accomplished!” to describe the strike on Syria’s chemical weapons program. By Sunday, Trump was apoplectic over the criticism. “The Syrian raid was so perfectly carried out, with such precision, that the only way the Fake News Media could demean was by my use of the term ‘Mission Accomplished,’” he tweeted on Sunday. “I knew they would seize on this but felt it is such a great Military term, it should be brought back. Use often!”

Bolton v. Mattis. The poison gas attack and the U.S. retaliatory strike provided a first test for newly-appointed national security advisor John Bolton and his influence in the White House. Bolton reportedly disagreed with Defense Secretary James Mattis over how to respond, with the Pentagon chief and top U.S. military officer Gen. Joseph Dunford adopting a more cautious stance. Bolton, meanwhile, is starting to clear out staff named by his predecessors, with deputy national security Nadia Schadlow and NSC chief spokesman Michael Anton resigning last week. Bolton also was reportedly behind the departure of White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, who announced he was stepping down last week.

Congressional opposition. While congressional Republicans mostly praised the strikes against Syria, a coterie of powerful Democrats criticized the decision to do so without congressional authorization, Defense News reports. In a letter, Sens. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee; Dick Durbin, the Senate minority whip, and Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, demanded President Trump provide a legal justification for the strike.

‘Curse words, a lot of curse words.’ President Donald Trump was furious to learn that he had ordered the United States to expel far more Russian spies and diplomats than his European allies, the Washington Post reports. Trump felt deceived by his advisers and unleashed an expletive-filled tirade on his underlings. The Post casts the incident as reflective of “a tension at the core of the Trump administration’s increasingly hard-nosed stance on Russia: The president instinctually opposes many of the punitive measures pushed by his Cabinet that have crippled his ability to forge a close relationship with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.”

More Russia sanctions. The Trump administration is set to unveil additional sanctions on Russia on Monday as part of its response to the April 7 chemical weapons attack, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said on Sunday. “They will go directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons use,” Haley said.

Hybrid war. An intriguing report from the Times of London claims that Moscow may retaliate against the British government by releasing compromising material.Theresa May has received intelligence risk assessments since the nerve-agent attack in Salisbury that the Putin regime could hit back with “kompromat” (compromising material) on members of her cabinet,” the paper reports.

Sales pitch. Friday’s strike on Syria’s chemical weapons program saw the combat debut of two key American weapons systems. A Virginia-class submarine fired Tomahawk cruise missiles , and American jets fired the JASSM-ER, a stealthy long-range air-fired cruise missile. The launch of the JASSM-ER is likely being closely watched in Tokyo, where military officials are considering purchasing the missile to give the country’s military a long-range strike capability against North Korean targets, Japan Times reports.  

Cautionary measures. U.S. special operations forces stationed in eastern Syria increased security at their outposts in anticipation of a potential military response to this weekend’s airstrikes, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, said Friday. The United States has over 2,000 troops stationed throughout eastern Syria. On several occasions, these units have come under attack from Syrian government forces — including at the end of February, when U.S. troops killed more than 100 government-aligned forces, including Russian mercenaries, in a firefight near Deir-Ezzour.

Will Pompeo get the job? After a heated confirmation hearing, CIA Director Mike Pompeo is facing a tight confirmation vote in coming weeks to become President Trump’s new diplomat in chief. He’s expected to eke out a win on the Senate floor, where a vote is expected by the end of the week of April 23, congressional sources tell FP. Pompeo could eke by on an even slimmer margin than his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who faced the most opposition of any secretary of state in the past 50 years with a 56 to 43 vote in the Senate.

Trump golfs with Abe. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet with President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort this week to see if he can save his once seemingly close relationship with the U.S. president, FP’s Emily Tamkin and Dan De Luce report. Japan was caught off-guard by Trump’s plans for talks with North Korea and his Twitter attacks on Japan and trade. Maybe a weekend of golf is just what the doctor ordered.

Drama in Pence world. Nikki Haley deputy Jon Lerner was all set to come on board as Vice President Mike Pence’s national security adviser — until President Trump learned of his appointment. Late Sunday, Lerner withdrew from the position.  

“Morally Unfit”. On the domestic front, former FBI director James Comey gave his first televised interview since he was fired and served up an extraordinary public condemnation of the president. Comey, whose interview aired on ABC Sunday night ahead of the release of his book, compared to the president to a mafia boss, warned that Trump was possibly vulnerable to blackmail by Russia, and called Trump “morally unfit” for office.

Remember that Iranian drone? The Iranian drone shot down by Israeli forces in early February was armed, the Israeli Defense Forces said on Friday. “The interception of the Iranian unmanned aircraft by an attack helicopter prevented an Iranian intent to carry out an attack in the territory of the State of Israel,” the army said in a statement. An armed drone violating Israeli airspace — and launched by Iranian forces operating in Syria — represents a notable escalation in what is already a volatile stand-off in the region. The violation of Israeli airspace prompted an Israeli attack on Iranian military installations inside Syria.  

How Marie Colvin was assassinated. A new lawsuit filed in U.S. federal court provides new details about the death of journalist Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria in 2012 in a rocket attack alongside another journalist. “Witness accounts, internal regime documents, and testimony from senior defectors” describe an effort by the Assad regime to assassinate Colvin and other journalists — and jubilation when she was successfully killed, the Intercept reports.

Aviation crisis.  Defense Secretary Jim Mattis addressed the rising rate of deaths in military aviation last week, telling lawmakers that “we cannot repair our way out of the situation we are in.”

Cyber turf war. As the United States grows its hacker army, a bureaucratic battle has emerged over who will take the lead role in cyberspace, CyberScoop reports. “A quiet but constant tug of war is raging between the intelligence community and the military over the future of government-backed hacking operations,” the outlet reports. If the U.S. is going to strike back at foreign targets in cyberspace, when should the soldiers or the spies lead the charge?”

Facebook’s ‘arms race.’ Mark Zuckerberg attempted to bat away congressional scrutiny over his company’s handling of Russia’s use of Facebook to meddle in the 2016 election by arguing that his company is in an “arms race” with Russia. After that less than subtle plea for sympathy, Zuckerberg argued artificial intelligence tools would eventually solve problems of disinformation and propaganda on his platform — and then promptly conceded the technology is five to ten years from maturity.

Pence goes to space. Vice President Mike Pence travels to Colorado Springs today where he will deliver a speech on space policy, Space News reports. Details remain sparse but the Trump administration has broadly pursued an agenda of regulatory reform to improve the pace and lower the cost of space launch.  

A milestone. Marine Corps Col. Lorna M. Mahlock is about to make history. If confirmed, Mahlock will be the first black woman general in the history of the Marine Corps, ABC reports. Mahlock is the current deputy director of operations, plans, policies and operations directorate.

Spotted: X-37B. It managed to stay hidden for 218 days, but amateur satellite observers have finally spotted the secretive X-37B space plane, Space Flight 101 reports.  

Submarine tech to Taiwan. The State Department approved the sale of submarine technology to Taiwan, providing a potentially powerful boost to the country’s domestic efforts to develop their underwater weapons, Defense News reports.  

New PACOM commander. Adm. Phil Davidson, the head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, has been tapped as the next top military officer in the Pacific, USNI reports. Davidson will succeed Adm. Harry Harris, who has been nominated to serve as the next U.S. ambassador to Australia.

Not quite how that’s supposed to work. An F-22 Raptor ended up on its belly on the tarmac of Naval Air Station Fallon, the Drive reports. “the jet may have retracted its gear too early during takeoff, with the aircraft slamming back down on the runway at relatively high speed and skidding its way to a stop,” the outlet reports.  

Cruiser replacement. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson is laying out an aggressive timeline for the Navy’s next major ship purchase, a new cruises. In an interview with Defense News, the naval chief said an electrical system that can power next-generation weapons such as railguns and lasers will be a major priority.

LCS hits another snag. The Navy’s troubled Littoral Combat Ship is facing yet another set-back: The Navy may not deploy any of this ships in 2018, despite previous plans to do so, USNI reports.

F-35 delivery pause. Pentagon officials are putting their best spin on a contract dispute with Lockheed Martin that has resulted in a pause of F-35 deliveries. Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer says the dispute over who will pay for maintenance costs is indicative of how the Defense Department is holding Lockheed Martin morely closely accountable to its contract, Defense News reports.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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