Security Brief

Russian Military Police Deploy in Northern Syria

In Washington, a Kurdish leader accused the Trump administration of misleading her people.

Mourners attend the funeral of three Syrian Democratic Forces fighters killed in battles against Turkey-led forces in the Syrian Kurdish town of Qamishli on Oct. 24.
Mourners attend the funeral of three Syrian Democratic Forces fighters killed in battles against Turkey-led forces in the Syrian Kurdish town of Qamishli on Oct. 24. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief Plus. What’s on tap today: Russian military police move in to northern Syria as Kurdish fighters retreat, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine testifies there was a quid pro quo, a new stealthy U.S. spy drone appears to be operational, and the Islamic State is using Tik-Tok.

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What’s Next for Syria?

Under a pact brokered in the Black Sea resort of Sochi by the Russian and Turkish leaders, Russian military police arrived on Wednesday in the border town of Kobani in northern Syria to begin driving out Kurdish fighters, who now have just under a week to retreat roughly 20 miles from the border.

Who wins? Turkey and Russia are the clear winners of the agreement, write Lara Seligman, Elias Groll, and Robbie Gramer. After the withdrawal is complete, joint Russian-Turkish military patrols will begin along a 6-mile-deep stretch of border to the west and east of the Turkish incursion. Meanwhile, the pact cements Turkish gains, ceding a rectangular piece of formerly Kurdish-held land about 75 miles wide and 20 miles deep to Ankara and its Syrian proxies.

Who loses? Analysts say the agreement is death knell for Kurdish autonomy in northeastern Syria. It also means violence will continue throughout the region, as Turkish-backed proxies, who have links to extremist groups, continue to terrorize the Kurdish population. Kurdish forces have already accused Turkey and its allies of violating the cease-fire agreement, and hundreds of thousands have already fled their ancestral land. More will likely be displaced if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes good on his plan to resettle millions of Syrian refugees in the safe zone.

Trump takes credit. U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday celebrated Turkey’s halt to the operation and insisted that his approach had defused a dangerous situation—even as he seemed to wash his hands of not just Syria, but the entire Middle East. The truth is, by abruptly withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region, Trump effectively surrendered Washington’s influence there, writes the New York Times.

Kurdish delegation on Capitol Hill. While Gen. Mazloum Abdi, commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), thanked Trump—and separately Russian President Vladimir Putin—for his efforts to stop the violence, Ilham Ahmed, the head of the SDF’s political arm, took a more confrontational tone. Appearing before lawmakers on Wednesday, Ahmed accused the United States of misleading her people, saying “we were sure they would not allow” a Turkish invasion.

About those oil fields. Trump said Wednesday that he will leave an undisclosed number of U.S. troops in northern Syria to keep the regime and its Iranian backers away from the country’s oil fields. But U.S. officials remain unclear about what a residual American force would look like, writes Al-Monitor. One plan appears to be sending a large number of tanks to guard the oil fields, according to an unconfirmed Newsweek report.

Evidence of a Quid Pro Quo on Ukraine 

The House impeachment inquiry examining President Donald Trump’s attempt to dig up dirt on his political enemies continues to unearth devastating evidence for the president’s impeachment defense. On Tuesday, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, one of the key figures in the scandal, testified to the existence of a quid pro quo in which Trump sought to exchange American military aid for an investigation of a company that employed Vice President Joe Biden’s son.

Trump v. Taylor. After Taylor delivered his explosive testimony, Trump unloaded on the veteran diplomat, denouncing him as a “never Trumper.” The attack on Taylor sets up an unusual conflict between Trump and Pompeo, who hand-picked Taylor for the Kiev job. And as the Los Angeles Times reports, the parade of State Department witnesses hail from an agency Trump has spent enormous energy attacking.

Tempest in the SCIF. By Wednesday, the House impeachment inquiry descended into farce when a group of Republican lawmakers stormed the secure facility—known as a SCIF—where the hearings are being held and refused to leave. They then ordered pizza. Trump reportedly sanctioned the operation. Several of the Republicans brought their cell-phones into the facility, a major security no-no.

Pentagon official testifies. Despite the chaos on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Laura Cooper, a Pentagon official who sought the release of the infamous withheld U.S. military aid to Ukraine, testified about her knowledge of the episode, Politico reports. Cooper’s testimony comes despite the Pentagon indicating it would not comply with a subpoena for documents and that the department will instead send documents to White House to be screened.

Talking point. Trump has argued a quid pro quo could not have existed because Ukrainian officials did not know military aid had been suspended, but Kiev learned of that fact in early August.

The new back-channel. White House staffers grew alarmed earlier this year when they learned that Kashyap Patel, a former investigator for Republican ideologue Rep. Devin Nunes, was delivering documents to Trump related to Ukraine, the New York Times reports.

The Orban angle. In recent months, Trump has dismissed Ukraine as a hopelessly corrupt country and that view appears to have been shaped in key ways by Hungarian leader Viktor Orban and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the Washington Post reports. Amy Mackinnon explains why Hungary and Russia would have wanted to shape Trump’s views on Ukraine.

What We’re Watching 

Decline watch. A Trump administration campaign to check China’s influence at the U.N. ended in a humbling defeat this summer, as a Chinese national thrashed the U.S.-backed candidate in the election to lead the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer have reconstructed a deeply flawed U.S. campaign that was marked more by U.S. “ineptitude and miscalculation” than Chinese diplomatic prowess, according to a U.S. official. The episode, according to another official, provides a painful example of “how far American influence at the U.N. has fallen.”

Pence on China. Vice President Mike Pence delivers a long-awaited speech on China later today, and Reuters reports that he is expected to take a more dovish line than last year as the administration looks to secure a trade deal with Beijing.

Tech exports. The Trump administration is intensely divided over how sharply to restrict the exports of emerging and critical technology to China, the New York Times reports. Hawks within the administration want wide-ranging restrictions, but American industry and academics fear that such restrictions could undermine scientific inquiry.

RQ-180. Aviation Week reports that the RQ-180, a stealthy American spy drone, appears to be fully operational.

Missileers smoking pot? The Air Force is investigating after marijuana was allegedly found in a nuclear missile alert facility at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota Oct. 9, multiple outlets reported Wednesday. News of the investigation first became public through a social media post on the popular Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page that claimed an airman was “caught smoking marijuana” by 791st Missile Security Forces Squadron personnel.

Mattis blasts aid’s tell-all. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ office slammed a memoir by his former speechwriter on Wednesday–but didn’t deny any of the book’s claims. The book, which offers an inside look into Mattis’ relationship with the president, cracks the former general’s carefully crafted facade and charts his gradual slide into irrelevance, writes Lara Seligman in the Washington Post.

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

Technology & Cyber 

Quantum supremacy. Last month we reported on an intriguing and accidentally released research paper from Google that claimed the company had achieved a major milestone in quantum computing. Now that paper has been officially released, and Google confirms it has achieved “quantum supremacy,” the point at which a quantum computer is able to carry out calculations that are impossible on a traditional computer.

Zuckerberg on the Hill. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg got a grilling from lawmakers, who pressed him on his company’s role in everything from cryptocurrency markets to disinformation. New York Times columnist Farhad Majoo thinks Zuckerberg should just resign.

Cybersecurity at the White House. An internal memo claims that mismanagement at a White House IT office is setting up computer systems within the American executive branch to be hacked.

ISIS on TikTok. Islamic State operatives have taken a liking to the massively popular application TikTok, which serves up viral videos to its young audience, and are posting beheading videos to the app, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Satellite hacking. Iranian hackers attempted to break into the computer systems of American satellite tracking companies, the Daily Beast reports.

Her Power—Women’s employment in U.S. foreign-policy agencies has decreased steadily since 2008. Original research by FP Analytics tracks the lack of progress toward gender equality through extensive data analysis, one-on-one interviews, and focus groups with current and former female U.S. government employees in foreign policy. 

Read the Her Power Index to see what we uncovered about the barriers women face entering the field and rising to leadership positions.

Foreign Policy Recommends 

ISIS prisons. The New York Times’s Ben Hubbard reports from a Kurdish-run prison in northern Syria and files a devastating dispatch featuring almost unbelievable photography by Ivor Pickett. He finds crowded prisons filled with men, teenagers, and children facing an entirely unpredictable future. “What is going to happen to us?” a boy from Suriname asked. “Are the kids going to come out?”

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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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