Security Brief

Chaos in Syria as Kurds Ally With Assad

U.S. withdrawal leaves Syrian Kurds turning toward Damascus for support against Turkey.

A Syrian fighter with Turkish-backed forces watches an armored personnel carrier maneuvering on the outskirts of the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad on Oct. 13, 2019.
A Syrian fighter with Turkish-backed forces watches an armored personnel carrier maneuvering on the outskirts of the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad on Oct. 13, 2019. BAKR ALKASEM/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief.

What’s on tap today: The U.S. withdrawal from Syria leaves opening for Assad regime in northern Syria, the White House prepares sanctions against Turkish leadership, the impeachment inquiry has American diplomats lawyering up, and major questions remain about a U.S. trade pact with China.

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Fragile Peace Shatters

Syrian government forces began entering northeast Syria in large numbers for the first time in years on Monday, after the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) cut a hasty deal—brokered by Russia—with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Still, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to continue his assault, setting up a bloody clash with Assad’s army.

Assad’s return adds to the turmoil in the region, where Turkish-backed Syrian militias are wreaking havoc. Turkish-backed forces killed a female Kurdish politician and at least two Kurdish prisoners as they moved into northeast Syria over the weekend. Video of one of the executions shows militia members executing a man with his hands bound behind his back.

U.S. troops evacuate. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced over the weekend that the roughly 1,000 U.S. troops left in northern Syria would withdraw “as safely and quickly as possible.” A senior U.S. official told Lara Seligman U.S. forces will depart within 30 days, though a handful will remain at the Al Tanf garrison on the southern border with Jordan. But it’s unclear how U.S. troops will leave, as Turkish-backed forces have taken control of the main highway into Iraq.

Russia moves in? Eyeing northeast Syria’s rich oil reserves, President Vladimir Putin has long urged the Kurds to partner with Damascus. Now, the U.S. withdrawal leaves Russia the ultimate power-broker in the region. But Moscow’s increased involvement likely spells more violence for the region.

ISIS prepares to regroup. The U.S. military had planned to transfer dozens of high-value Islamic State prisoners out of northern Syria, but it failed to move them before Turkish forces moved in, the New York Times reports. Among those the U.S. military was able to transfer were two infamous detainees accused of participating in the beheadings of American prisoners.

Separately, nearly 800 women and children affiliated with the Islamic State took advantage of the chaos to escape a camp in the northeast Syria town of Ain Issa on Sunday after storming its gates

Sanctions beat. With bipartisan legislation to levy major sanctions against the Turkish government gaining momentum on Capitol Hill, the White House announced on Friday that President Donald Trump plans to sign an executive order granting him the authority to place financial penalties on Turkey in response to its incursion into northern Syria. Reuters reports the sanctions could come as early as this week.

Elias Groll and Robbie Gramer have the latest on the effort on Capitol Hill to place harsh sanctions on Turkey’s top leadership in retaliation for its invasion of Syria.


Trump Ukraine Policy Focus of Impeachment Inquiry

With each week that passes, President Trump’s State Department gets dragged deeper into the congressional impeachment inquiry examining whether he attempted to use American military aid as a lever to generate political dirt on his domestic political enemies.

EU envoy. The U.S. EU ambassador, Gordon Sondland, heads to Capitol Hill this week to testify on his role in pressuring the Zelensky administration to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s son’s business activities.

Sondland is expected to tell investigators that he was told personally by Trump to deny the existence of a quid pro quo with the Ukrainian government that entailed trading an investigation of Biden’s son for disbursement of military aid, the Washington Post reports. But Sondland also plans to say that he doesn’t know whether the president was telling the truth when he denied the existence of the quid pro quo.

Rudy. The investigation of the Trump administration’s wheeling and dealing in Ukraine may also ensnare Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer. Prosecutors in Manhattan are reportedly investigating whether the former New York mayor violated lobbying laws with his work in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, in Foggy Bottom. The impeachment inquiry’s focus on the State Department has resulted in plummeting morale at the agency, where the main union representing foreign service officers is now soliciting donations for a legal defense fund in anticipation of more American diplomats having to lawyer up as part of getting dragged into the investigation, Robbie Gramer and Amy MacKinnon report.


What We’re Watching 

Trade pact falls short. Trump announced that he had reached a trade agreement with China to prevent the imposition of additional tariffs, but the agreement fails to deliver the kinds of fundamental reforms to China’s economic model that hawks in the administration had hoped for, Keith Johnson and James Palmer write. Moreover, Bloomberg reported Monday that Chiense officials want more talks before they’ll sign the pact.

Putin in Saudi. Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in Saudi Arabia Monday for his first summit meeting in Riyadh in more than a decade. His visit comes amid growing Russian influence in the region.

Green Beret murder case. Trump is reviewing the murder charges against the Green Beret Matthew Golsteyn, who has been accused of killing a man he believed to be a Taliban bomb maker. “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Visa wars. Authorities in Beijing denied visas to an American congressional delegation over their plans to also visit Taiwan.

Hunter Biden steps down. Michael Pillsbury, an informal White House adviser on China, said authorities in Beijing provided him information about Hunter Biden’s business activities in the country. Realizing that his foreign business activities have become a huge liability to his father’s presidential bid, Hunter said he would step down from his role at a Chinese private equity firm.

For more news and analysis from Foreign Policy and around the world, subscribe to Morning Brief, delivered weekday mornings.


Technology & Cyber 

China’s long arm. It’s been a capital week for the long arm of Chinese censorship. A statement of support for protesters in Hong Kong by an NBA executive has the league in full crisis mode as it seeks to limit damage to its business in China as a result. Videogaming giant Blizzard, meanwhile, is standing by its decision to ban a player who voiced support for the Hong Kong protest movement. Meanwhile, Apple CEO Tim Cook is defending his company’s decision to remove from its online store an app that was being used by Hong Kong protesters to avoid police.

Backdoors. A propaganda app heavily promoted by the Chinese government grants backdoor access to user data and can serve as a surveillance device, according to a source-code review of the application. The app has been downloaded by some 100 million people.

Safari. Apple’s Safari web browser by default sends some user IP addresses to the Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent, which has close ties to the Chinese government and plays a key role in its censorship regime.

NSO. A pair of human rights activists in Morocco were targeted for surveillance using technology developed by the Israeli company NSO Group, in what is the latest example of states going to private firms to acquire powerful spy gear.

Cybersecurity. The National Security Agency wants to help the technology industry make more secure products but faces persistent questions about whether it can be trusted to improve security, Defense One reports.


Quote of the Week 

“I wish they knew I was funnier.”

Former FBI Director Jim Comey reflects on life out of office and his efforts to drive President Donald Trump from office. 


FP Recommends 

The informant. The FBI recruited 28-year-old Billy Reilly to work as an informant for the bureau, using his considerable computer skills to penetrate extremist online networks. The Wall Street Journal reports on the remarkable story of his disappearance.


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.

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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