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Death Toll Rises as Turkey Moves Into Syria
Turkish air and ground forces pummelled the region, killing Kurdish fighters and wounding civilians.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief Plus. What’s on tap: The death toll climbs in northeast Syria as Turkish air and ground forces continue their assault, the impeachment inquiry roils the State Department, Trump is expected to withdraw from yet another arms control agreement, and Amazon makes inroads with the Defense Department.
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Turkish Assault Continues
At least 16 members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) along with six additional fighters of unknown identity were confirmed killed and another 33 wounded as Turkey and its proxy forces continued a massive air and ground assault on northeast Syria. Turkish jets and artillery shells struck 181 targets across the region, after U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to give the green light for the operation.
Civilians wounded and displaced. The Turkish Defense Ministry said it was only attacking what it called terrorist targets, including members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia that makes up the backbone of the SDF. But videos and images of injured civilians, damaged homes and places of worship, and women and children piling into vehicles to flee the fighting continued to circulate on social media throughout the day. At least 13 civilians have been injured in the conflict.
ISIS fight stalls. As Kurdish fighters moved north to meet Turkey’s advance, all operations against the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria have ceased, Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer report. The militants seized the opportunity to conduct multiple suicide attacks in the city of Raqqa on Wednesday, and officials fear terrorist fighters held in prisons across the country will try to escape.
Can Turkey hold the prisoners? The White House has said that Turkey will take control of the prisons, which contain thousands of Islamic State fighters from all over the world who traveled to Syria to join the militant group. But experts express doubt that Turkey is up to the job. Meanwhile, the SDF claimed overnight that one of the prisons was struck by Turkish bombs.
The U.S. military is taking around 40 prisoners, including two men implicated in the beheadings of captured Americans, into custody in order to prevent their escape, the Washington Post reports.
Assad moves in. The Kurds are being squeezed on multiple fronts, as Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army simultaneously advanced on the northern Syrian city of Manbij in Aleppo province with the goal of taking the area by the end of the week. Reports emerged that Assad could try to make a deal with the Kurds to help fend of Turkish attacks, but experts say any such agreement is unlikely.
Congressional backlash. Trump’s move to withdraw U.S. forces from the border, paving the way for Ankara to move in, provoked outrage from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Democratic Sen. Chris van Hollen and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham announced a sweeping sanctions bill late Wednesday that would target the U.S. assets of top Turkish leaders, including Erdogan, the Turkish energy sector, prohibit U.S. military assistance to Turkey, and impose additional penalties.
State Department at Center of Impeachment Inquiry
Do me a favor. Trump pushed then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to push the Justice Department to drop a sanctions-busting investigation of a Turkish gold trader being represented by Rudy Giuliani, Bloomberg reports.
The allegations adds an explosive new front to the investigation of Trump’s use of American foreign policy to advance his own interests. The case in question centered on the gold trader Reza Zarrab, who was accused of evading American sanctions on Iran and had close ties to the Erdogan government.
Ukraine military aid. After months of delay as Trump attempted to extract political favors from his Ukrainian counterpart, State Department officials were advised to downplay the eventual release of American military aid to Kiev, the New York Times reports.
Sondland in the crosshairs. The American EU ambassador, Gordon Sondland, has emerged as a central figure in Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. His text messages with other State Department officials provide some of the most revealing material about the Trump administration’s approach toward Ukraine, but the White House has so far refused to let Sondland testify on Capitol Hill.
The ambassador. Trump and his allies have identified Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, as a rogue figure within the State Department working against the president’s interests in Kiev, but former colleagues dispute that characterization and describe her as a diligent diplomat who has competently served in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Meanwhile in Foggy Bottom. With Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continuing to stand by Trump Ukraine policy, morale at the State Department is plummeting. Staffers there see Pompeo as abandoning the department’s mission for the sake of Trump’s political interests, the Washington Post reports.
What We’re Watching
Section 702. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ruled last year that the FBI violated Americans’ constitutional rights by conducting a series of overly broad searches on databases containing Americans’ information that had been collected under foreign intelligence gathering statutes.
Open skies. The Trump administration is expected to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which allows the United States and Russia to conduct unarmed surveillance flights over one another’s territory as part of efforts to verify arms control agreements.
Leak wars. A Defense Intelligence Agency analyst was arrested on charges that he provided classified information on foreign weapons systems to reporters at NBC and CNBC.
GRU. The New York Times reveals the existence of a secretive unit of Russian military intelligence unit that was behind a failed coup in Montenegro and the attempted assasination of a Russian spy in Britain.
UN budget blues. Facing a massive cash crunch, the United Nations secretariat has informed Security Council delegates that it can no longer afford to supply interpreters and other support staff outside the hours of 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said the world organization is running a $230 million deficit and may run out of money by the end of the month.
Cold case. A fresh U.N. report adds credence to theories that the plane crash that claimed the life of U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold in 1961 may have been the result of an attack on the aircraft, and that key countries continue to withhold evidence about the Swedish diplomat’s death.
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Technology & Cyber
Livestreaming terror. A man who allegedly killed two people outside a German synagogue on Wednesday livestreamed the attack on Twitch, a popular service for gamers to broadcast gameplay. The attack is at least the second right-wing terror attack to have been livestreamed on a mass platform, following the Christchurch attack earlier this year.
The influence game. The second volume of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Russian meddling in 2016 describes an operation to spread politically divisive messages that went far beyond Facebook and Twitter, with particular emphasis on Instagram, reports Elias Groll.
GitHub. The development platform GitHub will renew its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement as the technology industry grapples with whether to continue doing business with government agencies who carry out policies opposed by the industry’s workforce, Vice reports.
Cellebrite. New York City is a customer of a controversial Israeli hacking company and its service that claims to allow law enforcement to decrypt and extract data stored on iPhones and high-end Android devices, OneZero reports.
Quote of the Week
“In 10 days, I lost three people: my best friend, my uncle and my cousin. I am only 15.”
—Hamdullah Hemat, a high school student in the Afghan province of Ghazni speaks to the New York Times Magazine as part of the publication’s oral history of the war in Afghanistan.
The everything store. Yahoo! News Washington bureau chief examines how Amazon is making inroads with the U.S. Defense Department. “The company has spent the past decade carefully working its way toward the heart of Washington, and today—not content with being the world’s biggest online retailer—it is on the brink of becoming one of America’s largest defense contractors,” Sharon Weinberger reports for the MIT Technology Review.
That’s it for today.
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll