Security Brief

Inside the Iran Hawks’ Doomed Campaign to Stay in Syria

Senior U.S. officials fought to reverse Trump’s withdrawal, with disastrous consequences for the Kurds.

A member of the Kurdish internal security services known as Asayish stands guard during a demonstration by Syrian Kurds against the Turkish assault on northeastern Syria and in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces, in Syria's northeastern city of Qamishli on Oct. 28, 2019.
A member of the Kurdish internal security services known as Asayish stands guard during a demonstration by Syrian Kurds against the Turkish assault on northeastern Syria and in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces, in Syria's northeastern city of Qamishli on Oct. 28, 2019. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

What’s on tap today: How the Iran hawks botched Trump’s Syria withdrawal, bombshell testimony in the U.S. House impeachment inquiry, and U.S. North Korea envoy Steve Biegun is expected to be tapped as the State Department’s next No. 2.

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How the U.S. Went Wrong in Syria

The United States’ partnership with the Syrian Kurds began in the fall of 2014, when the two fought side-by-side in a bloody battle to wrest the town of Kobani from the Islamic State. Five years later, President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the Kurds’ border with Turkey is widely viewed as a betrayal of those very allies, paving the way for a Turkish attack that has devastated the Kurdish population of northeastern Syria and destabilized the region.

The Iran hawks. But the blame does not rest solely with Trump. In conversations with more than a dozen former and current U.S. and Kurdish officials as well as experts, a detailed account emerged of how a group of Iran hawks in the upper echelon of the administration repeatedly misread signals from Trump and his Turkish counterpart, as they sought to retain a U.S. military presence in Syria as a buffer against the Islamic State and Iranian influence. In doing so, they signaled to the Kurds that the United States would protect them against the possibility of a Turkish attack—something it turned out they had little power to prevent.

What’s next? Today, many converging interests hang in the balance: Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s return to power, Turkey’s campaign against the Syrian Kurdish militia, the resurgence of the Islamic State, Kurdish autonomy in northeastern Syria, and the United States’ efforts to counter Iran. Early Thursday, Bradley fighting vehicles and infantry troops reportedly arrived in the Deir Ezzor province, where they will guard the region’s rich oil fields from Assad and the Islamic State. But it’s far from clear how long they will stay as a myriad of local players jockey for power and U.S. influence fades.

Violence continues. Just hours after a Russia-brokered cease-fire expired on Wednesday morning, clashes broke out across northern Syria. With the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from the border now complete, Turkey is signaling it will move further into Kurdish-held territory. Meanwhile, the Assad regime called on the Kurdish fighters to join the ranks of the Syrian army in a joint effort to expel the Turkish attack. The Syrian Democratic Forces rejected the offer.


Vindman Drops a Bombshell 

Week by week, evidence documenting Trump’s attempt to subvert American foreign policy for his own political ends continues to accumulate. This week’s bombshell testimony came from Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the director of European affairs at the National Security Council, who testified that the “transcript” of Trump’s now-infamous July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president was edited to leave out key details. Trump points to the partial transcript of the call as evidence he did nothing wrong.

According to the New York Times, that document excluded an explicit mention by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Burisma Holdings, the company for which Vice President Joe Biden’s son worked. The transcript also did not include a claim by Trump that there exist recordings of Biden discussing corruption in Ukraine.

Game changer. Vindman testimony isn’t just important on the substance of his claims, but also by virtue of the identity of the messenger. Vindman, who was awarded a Purple Heart after being wounded in Iraq, arrived on Capitol Hill Tuesday dressed in his Army dress uniform; with 20 years of experience in the Army, Vindman represents a difficult target for Trump and his supporters to tear down, Elias Groll and Amy Mackinnon write. Remarkably, key Republican lawmakers immediately came to his defense after Trump’s allies attempted to tear Vindman down.

Stranger than fiction. Vindman also told investigators that he had hoped to brief Trump after attending Zelensky’s inauguration, but that he was pulled from the briefing “because Trump’s advisers worried it might confuse the president.” Trump was under the impression that an acolyte of Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican ideologue in the House, was in fact his top Ukraine advisor, Politico reports.

The public phase. The House of Representatives will vote later today on a plan for the public phase of the impeachment inquiry. Bill Taylor, the acting American ambassador to Ukraine, is indicating he would be willing to testify in public once the investigation moves out from behind closed doors.

Next up. Scott Morrison, another senior official on the National Security Council, arrived on Capitol Hill this morning for his turn to brief investigators.


What We’re Watching 

Biegun rising. Steve Biegun, the American envoy to North Korea, is expected to be tapped as the number two official at the State Department, the AP reports. The move will elevate a close confidante of the current secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who is currently flirting with a 2020 run for the U.S. Senate in his home state of Kansas. If Pompeo runs, Biegun will be the presumptive front-runner to take over as secretary of state.

Bolton-watch. House investigators invited former National Security Advisor John Bolton to testify before their impeachment inquiry on Nov. 7, setting up a battle over whether lawmakers will get to hear from the highest profile witness yet to provide his account.

Russian subs. As many as 10 Russian submarines have put to sea in the northern Atlantic in an exercise that appears geared toward getting as far out to sea without getting detected by NATO, the Barents Observer reports. The original source of that report is a story by Norwegian public broadcaster NRK, and it’s a pretty clear dig at Moscow from Oslo that their submarine operations aren’t going unnoticed.

Missile test. North Korea conducted its first missile test since talks over its nuclear program broke down at a summit meeting in Sweden, firing what appeared to be short-range projectiles off its east coast.

Detention wars. Canada’s new ambassador to China was able to meet with two Canadian men, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who have been accused by Chinese authorities of espionage, the South China Morning Post reports. Ottawa claims the men are being arbitrarily detained and may be held as bargaining chips in an attempt to compel Canadian authorities to release a detained Huawei executive.

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Technology & Cyber 

Africa info ops. Facebook said it took down a network of pages linked to the Russian financier Yevgeny Prighozin, who was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for his role in the Kremlin’s 2016 campaign against the U.S. election, that were attempting to interfere in the politics of African countries. The pages mark an expansion of Russian influence operations into Africa, where Moscow has in recent years worked to grow its sway. The Stanford Internet Observatory has a deep-dive into campaign.  

WhatsApp suit. Messaging giant WhatsApp is suing the Israeli spyware company NSO for a campaign in which the firm allegedly targeted more than 1,000 activists and journalists using the platform’s encrypted messaging service. The lawsuit marks a turning point for the company’s effort to strike back against the private intelligence industry, but could face difficult legal questions, Wired reports.

2020-watch. U.S. security officials are sounding the alarm about foreign meddling ahead of the 2020 election in the United States and warn that such interference could go beyond efforts by Russia and include other countries, such as China and Iran, the AP reports.

Info wars. Amid a roiling debate over the degree to which tech companies should police false political ads, Twitter said it would no longer allow political advertisements on its platform.

North Korean hacking. An Indian nuclear power company said that it had found malware on one of its power plants administrative systems that has been attributed to North Korea, Ars Technica reports.


Quote of the Week 

“I am not here with bubble wrap, and I would be offended if I was treated with kid gloves.”

Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States and the first woman to serve as Saudi’s ambassador to any country, in an interview with Politico. Reema steps into the job at a time of deep distrust between the United States and Saudi Arabia.


Foreign Policy Recommends

Baghdadi. The scholar of extremist Islamist movements Aaron Zelin writes the obituary of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: “Whatever the future holds for the Islamic State and its next leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s legacy is clear. He has joined the Mount Rushmore of jihadism, alongside Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.”


That’s it for today. For more from FP, 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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