Security Brief

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer. Delivered Thursday. Available only to FP subscribers.

Security Brief: Pentagon Draws Up ‘Options’ for Striking Assad; Trump Expands CIA’s Drone Mission in Africa

Catch up on everything you need to know about a possible military strike against Assad, the expansion of the CIA’s shadowy drone mission against militants in Africa under Trump, and all the latest from North Korea.

This picture shows the destruction after government forces bombed the town of Al Habit on the southern edges of the rebel-held Idlib province on September 9, 2018. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images
This picture shows the destruction after government forces bombed the town of Al Habit on the southern edges of the rebel-held Idlib province on September 9, 2018. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

The possibility of another U.S. military strike on Syria, where Assad has used chemical weapons against rebels, is looking more and more likely, as the military draws up options for the president. Meanwhile, Jared and Ivanka take the lead on the investigation into who wrote that anonymous New York Times op-ed, and use the crisis to go after an old foe, Chief of Staff John Kelly. Also, the CIA is expanding its drone war in Africa, Trump hails North Korea’s decision to pull missiles from this weekend’s parade, Russian spy intrigue, and more.

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Another strike on Syria? The U.S. military is drawing up a list of options for the president should Assad ignore U.S. warnings against using chemical weapons in a looming assault against Idlib, the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria, according to the top U.S. general. If it happens, this would be the third time the U.S. has carried out airstrikes against the Syrian regime: first in April 2017, then in April 2018.

A military strike is far from certain, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned.

“We are in a dialogue, a routine dialogue, with the president to make sure he knows where we are with regard to planning in the event that chemical weapons are used,” Dunford said. “He expects us to have military options and we have provided updates to him on the development of those military options.”

But some kind of decisive U.S. action, whether a military strike or targeted economic sanctions, is looking more and more likely. As of Sunday night, Assad had approved the use of chlorine gas in Idlib, according to a Washington Post report. It’s not clear from the latest intelligence if Assad had also given the military permission to use sarin gas, the deadly nerve agent he has previously used on rebel-held areas. It is banned under international law.

Even if Assad does not use chemical weapons, the United Nations is predicting a humanitarian disaster in Idlib, home to some 3 million people. The New York Times editorial board condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “powerful enabler” of Assad’s regime, and called on the United States to work to end the violence and ensure Syria has a stable future.

It’s not just the U.S. Germany’s conservative-led defense ministry is in talks with its allies about a possible military deployment in Syria if the Assad government uses chemical weapons in Idlib, Reuters reports early Monday.  But a German deployment is very hypothetical, according to a government spokesman.

Drone wars. The CIA is broadening its drone operations in Africa, moving aircraft to a small commercial airport in northeastern Niger to hunt Islamic militants in southern Libya, the New York Times reports. The move marks an expansion of the powers that were scaled back during the Obama administration and later restored by President Trump.

Kremlinology. An anonymous Trump administration writer set Washington ablaze last week with an anonymous op-ed describing an anti-Trump resistance within the government. The president is apoplectic and is pushing the Justice Department to launch an investigation to find the writer. Now Jared and Ivanka Trump are on the case. They are reportedly taking the lead in extinguishing this particular dumpster fire and are using the crisis to go after an old enemy: Chief of Staff John Kelly.  

Mattis to Kabul. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Afghanistan Friday for a surprise trip during which he is expected to huddle with Afghan officials, and with the new American commander there, and discuss efforts to reach a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.

Afghanistan. A deadly day of violence in Afghanistan Sunday saw Taliban insurgents overrun an army base in Baghlan Province as the capital of Kabul was rocked by a series of bombings, the New York Times reports.

Taliban attacks. The Taliban has launched separate attacks on Afghan security forces in the country’s north, with a death toll of at least 37, provincial officials said Monday.  “There was intense fighting and we didn’t want civilian houses destroyed, or any civilian casualties,” said Provincial Police Chief Gen. Faqir Mohammad Jawzjani, according to Time.

Pakistan. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Pakistani officials to crack down on militant groups operating within the country’s borders and to encourage peace efforts in Afghanistan.

Fresh intelligence. North Korea continues to make nuclear weapons and has stepped up its efforts to conceal its warheads from the United States, according to three senior U.S. officials speaking to NBC. North Korea is reportedly moving warheads out of a storage facility and has taken steps to conceal the facility’s entrance.

Parade politics. President Trump hailed North Korea’s decision to pull missiles from this weekend’s parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding as evidence of its commitment to denuclearization.

“Thank you To Chairman Kim. We will both prove everyone wrong! There is nothing like good dialogue from two people that like each other! Much better than before I took office,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Past North Korean military parades have showcased the country’s advancements in military technology—particularly long-range missiles—but this year’s event focused on conventional weapons and economic development.

Mixed messages. American prosecutors unveiled charges last week against a North Korean hacker alleged to have been responsible for the attack on Sony Pictures’ computer systems in 2014 and a range of heists.

A fascinating, 179-page indictment presents a wealth of technical evidence that Park Jin Hyok broke into Sony’s computer systems in retaliation for a film satirizing the assassination of Kim Jong Un and also participated in the heist of some $81 million from Bangladesh’s central bank in 2016. Park is also alleged to have participated in the creation of the WannaCry ransomware, which struck millions of computers in 2017.

The Treasury Department levied financial sanctions against Park and the company for which he allegedly worked.  

The indictment comes at a sensitive time for U.S.-North Korean relations, as Washington attempts to maintain momentum for its diplomatic opening with Pyongyang.

More from Woodward. Journalist Bob Woodward revealed the United States may have come much closer to war with North Korea in 2017 than previously understood.

Appearing on CBS’s “Sunday Morning,” Woodward said that a proposed tweet by Trump could have dramatically escalated tensions with North Korea. “He drafts a tweet saying ‘We are going to pull out dependents from South Korea  … Family members of the 28,000 people there.'”

The White House learned through a back-channel that the move would be interpreted by Pyongyang as a preparation for attack. “At that moment there was a sense of profound alarm in the Pentagon leadership that, ‘My God, one tweet and we have reliable information that the North Koreans are going to read this as an attack is imminent,'” Woodward said.

Maximum pressure? Chinese President Xi Jinping sent Kim Jong Un a congratulatory note on the occasion of North Korea’s 70th anniversary that is sure to raise questions about Beijing’s commitment to enforce sanctions against the isolated country.

“Xi said his three meetings with Kim this year further clarified the direction of developing China-DPRK ties, and he is willing to join hands with Kim to promote sound and stable development of ties over the long run, thus benefiting both countries and their people, as well as regional peace and stability,” China Daily wrote.

Pentagon shuffle. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is set to remove John Gibson as the Pentagon’s chief management officer, the Wall Street Journal reports. Gibson was appointed to find efficiencies and eliminate waste, but Mattis is apparently unhappy with the former aerospace official’s work. Gibson’s defenders argue he was never empowered to succeed.

SASC. Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican, will formally take over the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee following the death of Sen. John McCain. The Arizona Republican’s replacement in the Senate, Jon Kyl, will also join the committee.  

India. The United States and India signed a defense cooperation agreement last week that that will improve network access between the two countries, but defense officials could not reach agreement on defusing a conflict over India’s planned purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system, Defense News reports. The purchase could trigger American sanctions, but U.S. officials are now signalling they may provide India with a waiver.

Declassified. President Trump is moving to declassify documents related to the U.S. government’s surveillance of one-time Trump aide Carter Page and work done by Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, an organized crime specialist who was reportedly involved in efforts by the U.S. government to recruit Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin.

Axios reports that the documents could be declassified as early as this week and will likely be deployed by Trump’s Republican allies in a bid to discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

This will go over well. Trump administration officials engaged in talks with renegade Venezuelan army officers plotting a coup against President Nicolas Maduro, the New York Times reports. The effort apparently did not go far, as the CIA declined to provide the plotters with the encrypted radios they sought to obtain.

Maduro and his allies immediately denounced Washington for plotting to remove him from power.

Walk it back. American prosecutors admitted that they had misinterpreted text messages and wrongly claimed that Maria Butina, a young political operative accused of working as an unregistered Russian agent, traded sex for influence, the Washington Post reports.

Telepathy. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced a breakthrough in so-called brain-computer interfaces, revealing new technology that allows a person to control a swarm of drones with the help of an implanted computer chip.

Reversal. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed national security waivers to release $1.2 billion in military aid to Egypt. The release had previously been blocked by human rights concerns.

Snooping in space. French Defence Minister Florence Parly said a Russian satellite had neared a French-Italian satellite and apparently tried to intercept its secure communications. Parly’s statement comes on the heels of similar American accusations that Russian satellites are behaving in unusual ways.

Chinese influence comes to Greenland. A proposal by a Chinese company to build three new airports on Greenland is raising fears that Beijing may be seeking influence in a possible bid to eventually undermine a key American military base, Defense News reports.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

 Twitter: @EliasGroll