Security Brief

U.S. Troops in Syria Beat a Hasty Exit

American forces are abandoning outposts across the region as Russia and Syria moves in.

This picture taken on October 17, 2019 from the Turkish side of the border with Syria in the Ceylanpinar district city of Sanliurfa shows smoke and fire rising from the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain during the Turkish offensive against Kurdish groups in northeastern Syria.
This picture taken on October 17, 2019 from the Turkish side of the border with Syria in the Ceylanpinar district city of Sanliurfa shows smoke and fire rising from the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain during the Turkish offensive against Kurdish groups in northeastern Syria. OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images

What’s on tap today: The U.S. military destroyed the headquarters of the campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Syria as Turkish-backed forces closed in, the American envoy to the EU testifies as part of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, Trump confirms America keeps nuclear weapons at Turkey’s Incirlik air base, and the Senate finally confirms Barbara Barrett as the next Air Force Secretary.

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U.S. Troops Out, Russia In

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As Syrian and Russian troops entered the Kurdish-held town of Kobani on Wednesday to defend it from advancing Turkish-backed forces, the remaining Americans on the ground are abandoning outposts across the region and preparing to conduct a hasty exit.

On Oct. 16, U.S. forces rapidly withdrew from the LaFarge Cement Factory, a facility about 35 miles southeast of Kobani that served as the Syrian headquarters of the U.S. campaign to defeat the Islamic State, as Turkish-backed forces closed in. Two U.S. fighter jets then conducted an airstrike on the facility before the Turkish-backed forces could seize it.

Turkey’s broken promises. The Americans were not expected to leave the facility for several days, but accelerated their evacuation due to the unexpected advance of Turkish-led forces, a senior U.S. official told Foreign Policy. Turkey had vowed not to attack Kobani, but appeared to backtrack on Wednesday.

How will U.S. troops leave? Now U.S. troops are likely consolidating at two outposts, one in the west and one in the east, writes the New York Times. In the west, US forces will leave through the Kobani Landing Zone, an airfield about 20 miles south of Kobani, the only base that can support large C-17 transport aircraft. In the east, they will likely exit overland and into Iraq in convoys and possibly helicopters.

A little surprise for the Russians. Before American forces evacuated from Manbij, a strategic city southwest of Kobani, they stripped the outpost of any sensitive vehicles or equipment. But they also left behind piquant drawings to be discovered by the Russian forces who seized the base.

Erdogan calls on Kurds to surrender. As U.S. Vice President Mike Pence prepared to travel to Ankara to meet Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president called on Kurdish fighters to “drop their weapons” and withdraw from designated border areas. But Kurdish officials tell Foreign Policy they will never surrender–and they are successfully repelling the Turkish attack in key border towns.

Meanwhile in Washington. House lawmakers voted by an overwhelming 354-60 margin to rebuke Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria. With Republicans joining Democrats in significant numbers, the vote marked a rare moment of bipartisan unity on Capitol Hill.

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Impeachment Inquiry Reveals National Security Concerns

The congressional impeachment inquiry continues to provide revelations about the Trump administration’s approach to Ukraine and the degree to which President Donald Trump’s domestic political concerns may have compromised American interests.

Sondland on deck. Gordon Sondland, the American envoy to the European Union, goes before House lawmakers today and his account is expected to be damaging to Trump. A wealthy Oregon businessman and donor, Sondland muscled his way into a key role on Ukraine policy and is expected to tell lawmakers that Trump’s demands toward Kiev were clear: deliver an investigation against former Vice President Joe Biden’s son in exchange for a White House meeting and the release of military aid, the New York Times reports.

National security risk. Sondland has emerged as a key figure in the impeachment inquiry thanks to his surprising role stewarding policy toward Ukraine, a country that wasn’t part of his portfolio as EU ambassador. Fiona Hill, a top Russia adviser on the National Security Council, told lawmakers earlier this week that she viewed Sondland as a national-security risk because of his inexperience. 

The three amigos. George Kent, a top State Department official responsible for Ukraine, told lawmakers on Tuesday that acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney assigned the lead role for Ukraine policy to group known as the “three amigos” — Sondland, special envoy Kurt Volker, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. The move effectively sidelined the traditional channels of U.S. foreign policy.

McKinley testifies. Michael McKinley, a veteran Foreign Service officer, told lawmakers leading the impeachment inquiry on Wednesday, that he had resigned from the State Department over what he viewed as the politicization of American ambassadors and the way they had been enlisted to serve domestic political ends.


What We’re Watching 

Halkbank. President Donald Trump assigned Attorney General William Barr and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to respond to pleas from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to avoid charges against Turkey’s Halkbank for its role in an Iran sanctions evasion scheme, Bloomberg reports. Federal prosecutors in New York unveiled those charges this week, significantly escalating tensions with Ankara.

DoD will not comply with impeachment inquiry. In a letter sent to House Democrats Tuesday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he will not comply with a subpoena from House Democrats related to their impeachment inquiry, citing “a number of legal and practical concerns.” This is a shift from just days ago, when Esper indicated that he was willing to comply with the investigation.

Incirlik’s nukes. The presence of American nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base, specifically B-61 gravity bombs, has long been public knowledge. But it wasn’t until Wednesday that an American president publicly confirmed their presence there. Asked whether he was confident about the safety of the weapons there, Trump told reporters he isn’t worried.

Amid a deepening split between Washington and Ankara, American officials are reportedly reviewing plans to evacuate the weapons from the base.

Ride in on a white horse. North Korean media released remarkable new photos of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, astride a white horse.

Chinese carrier. Satellite photos show Chinese shipbuilders steadily progressing in the construction of the country’s new aircraft carrier, Reuters reports. The ship is expected to be slightly smaller than America’s flagships but larger than other navies’ carriers.

The influence game. The U.S. State Department wants greater insight into Chinese diplomats’ meetings with state, local, and educational officials and will require Chinese envoys to report such meetings, per a new policy.

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Her Power—Women hold only 33 percent of leadership positions on average in the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus—leaving a key talent pool untapped. In the first-of-its-kind Her Power Index, FP Analytics evaluates the status and progress of women’s representation across 15 U.S. government agencies focused on foreign policy.


Movers & Shakers 

Confirmed. The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Barbara Barrett, a former ambassador to Finland and chairwoman of the nonprofit Aerospace Corporation, as the next secretary of the Air Force after an 85 to 7 vote. Barrett’s confirmation follows a weeks-long hold on her nomination by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., writes Defense News. Blumenthal sought Barrett’s commitment to ending U.S. Air Force personnel stays at properties owned by President Donald Trump such as the Turnberry resort in Scotland, where C-17 crew stayed in March while en route to Kuwait.


Technology & Cyber 

Cyberattack. The United States carried out a cyberattack against Iranian propaganda infrastructure in retaliation for an attack on Saudi oil infrastructure that was blamed on Tehran, Reuters reports. The attack is at least the second time the United States has carried out a cyberattack against Iran in recent months.  

Troll army. A tweet by the NBA executive Daryl Morey that expressed support for protesters in Hong Kong prompted a furious online response that appears to have been an orchestrated response by a Chinese troll army, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Non-viral terror. When a right-wing gunman attacked a German synagogue earlier this month, he streamed the attack on Twitch, the streaming platform popular among gamers. Vice looks at why the video didn’t go viral and the technology being built to prevent mass shooters from gaining viral notoriety.

Takedown. Journalist Zack Whittaker recounts how he was contacted by hackers offering information about a massive child pornography site that two years later was shut down by the feds in what is being described as a landmark child porn investigation.

Zuck. Later today, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will deliver what he’s describing as a major speech on “voice and free expression” that comes amid persistent questions about the company’s fact-checking policies and Western tech companies bowing to Chinese censorship demands.


Quote of the Week 

“The world’s most overrated general.”

President Donald Trump describes former Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis, who Trump said in a meeting with congressional leaders on Wednesday “wasn’t tough enough.” 


Foreign Policy Recommends 

Origin stories. Reporter Mike Giglio describes his first encounter with Kurdish rebels in northern Syria, when they emerged as the region’s most capable fighting force at a time when the Islamic State was gaining ground.


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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