Security Brief

Trump Abandons the Syrian Kurds

The move to withdraw American troops from the border goes against the advice of senior defense officials.

Female fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces attend a graduation ceremony.
Female fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces attend their graduation ceremony at the female cadets academy in the northeastern Syrian town of Amuda on Sept. 22, 2019. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

What’s on tap: The abrupt decision to withdraw American troops from the Turkey-Syria border leaves the Kurds at the mercy of Ankara, the latest nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea break down, Iran and Saudi Arabia are using a diplomatic backchannel to de-escalate tensions, and a second whistleblower steps forward.


Trump Endorses Turkish Military Operation

The White House on Sunday endorsed a Turkish military operation into northern Syria and indicated U.S. troops would withdraw from the area after a phone call between President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart, an abrupt shift in policy that would leave Syrian Kurds, U.S. partners, at the mercy of Ankara.

Defying advice. The move goes against the recommendations of top defense and military officials, who have sought to keep a small U.S. presence in northeast Syria to continue the operation against the Islamic State and reassure the Kurds that Turkey will not launch an invasion. Ankara considers the Kurdish fighters to be a terrorist insurgency and has long condemned American support to the group.

“Turkey has just overturned two years of effort to defeat ISIS, an effort they did nothing to assist with,” said one senior administration official who requested anonymity. “The entire DOD leadership was opposed.”

Pentagon caught off guard. Just last week, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters the U.S. and Turkish militaries were making progress setting up a security mechanism on the border, continuing joint patrols that began last month. The Kurds have kept their side of the bargain, moving fighters and equipment out of the immediate area and refraining from launching attacks across the border, officials said.

They will go to Damascus.’ With the United States out of the picture, the Kurds fear Ankara will sweep into northern Syria as they did in Afrin last year, waging a violent campaign against the civilian population. “If they can, they will go to Damascus,” Ilham Ahmed, the Kurdish leader, told Foreign Policy through an interpreter in a recent interview in Washington. Hoping to stave off a massacre, the United Nations on Monday called on Turkey to spare civilians.


North Korea Nuclear Talks Break Down 

American negotiators traveled to Sweden for a long-awaited round of working-level talks with their North Korean counterparts, but eight and a half hours of negotiations failed to produce a breakthrough.

North Korean displeasure. The North Korean delegation left the talks accusing the United States of failing to bring any creative or new solutions to the table, and the two sides issued dueling statements disputing what had happened.

The United States claimed progress, but a scathing North Korean statement laid down an end-of-year deadline for making progress. “The fate of the future DPRK-U.S. dialogue depends on the U.S. attitude, and the end of this year is its deadline,” the North Korean foreign ministry said.

Latest missile test. Meanwhile, as talks drag on, North Korea is moving ahead with new weapons development. North Korea’s missile test last week showcased a two-stage, solid-fuel submarine-launched ballistic missile that represents yet another major step forward for North Korean missile technology, Elias Groll reports.


What We’re Watching 

Iraq. A week of anti-government protests in Iraq have left more than 100 people dead, with the government shutting down the internet and releasing a new reform plan in a bid to curb demonstrations over widespread corruption.

CBP harassment. A Customs and Border Protection officer refused to return a journalist’s passport until he agreed that he writes “propaganda,” in what appears to be part of a growing part of journalist harassment at points of entry.

Afghanistan. The U.S. envoy to Afghan peace talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, met in recent days with Taliban officials in Pakistan, the first such meeting since the collapse of an effort to bring Taliban officials to a meeting at Camp David with President Donald Trump.

Iran-Saudi. Iran and Saudi Arabia are using a diplomatic back channel initiated by Riyadh to de-escalate tensions between the two countries, the New York Times reports.

Marines disciplined. At the Marine Corps recruit training center in San Diego, more than 20 Marines have been disciplined for misconduct that includes physical attacks and racist and homophobic slurs since 2017, Dan Lamothe reports for the Washington Post. The disclosure comes in the wake of a scandal in which a 20-year-old Muslim man died after enduring physical and verbal abuse at the Marine Corps’ recruit training center on Parris Island, S.C.

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Movers & Shakers 

Bright spot for Kurt Volker. Kurt Volker has had a rough week. The career foreign service officer who served as Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine is now a central player in a scandal that has engulfed the administration. But life might be looking up–Volker on Saturday married Ia Meurmishvili, a journalist and television anchor for Voice of America’s Georgian service.


Impeachment Scandal Grows 

A second whistleblower. A second whistleblower has stepped forward to provide more direct information about President Donald Trump’s interaction with his Ukrainian counterpart in an attempt to spur an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden’s business activities in that country.

The second whistleblower is being represented by the same legal team as the first and has already spoken with the intelligence community’s inspector general about the matter, increasing political pressure on Trump.

Pay day. A group of businessmen with ties to President Donald Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, attempted to steer contracts at Ukraine’s state gas company, Naftogaz, to companies controlled by Trump allies, the AP reports. That effort was underway as Giuliani was attempting to pressure the Ukrainian government to open an investigation of Trump’s political adversaries.

Among the officials pushing for changes at Naftogaz was Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Politico reports.

Nightmare calls. A buzzy Washington Post story documents how Trump’s calls with foreign leaders have long caused massive headaches for White House staff, who have struggled to keep the president from making unwise commitments, wandering off track, or insulting American allies.

The Barr angle. Attorney General William Barr is continuing his investigation of the Maltese academic who was a central figure in the origin of the FBI’s investigation of Russia’s 2016 election meddling. Barr’s critics believe the attorney general is pursuing the inquiry as part of an effort to validate a conspiracy theory about Russia’s role in the 2016 hack and leak campaign that boosted Trump’s campaign, the Washington Post reports.


Technology & Cyber 

Iran hacking. In what is likely to become a recurring feature of the 2020 presidential campaign, Microsoft announced that it had detected a state-backed hacking group–linked to Iran in this instance–targeting a presidential campaign and other political figures.

This time, it was the Trump campaign that was targeted, but Friday’s announcement likely represents the tip of the iceberg of hacking activity aimed at breaking into presidential campaigns.

Crypto wars. The Justice Department revived its push to get the tech industry to abandon its use of end-to-encryption technology. U.S., UK, and Australian law enforcement are asking Facebook and other tech giants to hold off on such encryption technology until they find a way to provide better law enforcement access.


Quote of the Week 

“Getting China right takes more than bellicose tweets coupled with fawning summits—and more than uncoordinated and often counterproductive tariffs that burden ordinary Americans.” —Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren writes in FP about where to cooperate with and where to stand firm against China. 


That’s it for today. To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here or sign-up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

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

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

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