No Cease-Fire in Syria as Joint Russian-Turkish Patrols Begin
Clashes continued over the weekend despite the withdrawal of Syrian Kurdish fighters from the border.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Russia and Turkey launch joint patrols in northeastern Syria, key White House officials won’t show up for testimony in the impeachment inquiry, Trump suspends aid to Lebanon, and WhatsApp is compromised.
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Violence Continues in Syria Despite Agreement
Russian and Turkish troops, drones, and armored vehicles began joint patrols in northeastern Syria on Friday, as part of an agreement designed to halt a violent Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters that has so far killed almost a thousand civilians and soldiers and wounded hundreds more.
Turkey looks to expand its gains. Under the agreement, brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, Moscow and Ankara will jointly patrol two sections of the Syrian border to the west and the east of the Turkish incursion. But though Syrian Kurdish fighters completed their withdrawal to 20 miles from the border last week, clashes continued throughout the region as Turkey sought to expand the planned “safe zone” deeper into Kurdish territory.
Deadly attack in border town. At least 13 civilians were killed over the weekend when a car bomb exploded at a market in the border town of Tal Abyad, which Turkey seized control of last month. So far no one has claimed responsibility for the attack; the Kurds blamed Turkish-backed forces, while Turkey blamed the Kurdish militia.
Aid worker killed. The Free Burma Rangers is one of the few humanitarian aid groups left on the ground in the region and has been on the front lines helping treat and evacuate the wounded since the fighting began. Over the weekend, a medic with the group, Zau Seng, was killed by a mortar strike from Turkish forces near the town of Tel Tamir. A spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces tweeted out the loss: “They have been bravely putting their lives on the line to help wounded here I’m so sorry. RIP hero.”
Kurds call on U.S. to block Syrian air space. Ilham Ahmed, president of the Syrian Democratic Council, last week called on the Pentagon to block Turkey from the air space over northeastern Syria, in an attempt to prevent the Turkish drone strikes that she says have been ravaging the region. She said the Kurds would hold the Pentagon responsible for Turkish war crimes if they do nothing to protect the air space.
U.S. troops under fire. Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry reported on Sunday that a U.S. patrol came under fire near Tel Tamir on the M4 highway. A U.S. military spokesperson confirmed that the American units “witnessed multiple artillery strikes” that landed less than a mile from the road, but were unharmed.
National-Security Aides in Focus of Impeachment Probe
President Donald Trump faces yet another week of key testimony in the impeachment inquiry examining his decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine on the heels of a party-line vote last week to formalize the investigation against him.
Bolton-watch. House investigators are seeking to interview former National Security Advisor John Bolton this week. It’s unclear whether his testimony will take place, but don’t rule it out. Multiple witnesses have told investigators Bolton was dismayed at the effort to use military aid as a way to generate politically beneficially investigations for the president. Bolton’s lawyer has said his client won’t testify without a subpoena.
Non-cooperation. A series of key White House national-security officials are not expected to show up for their depositions set for today. They include John Eisenberg, a National Security Council lawyer at the center of the inquiry; Robert Blair, a national-security aide to acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney who listened in on the July 25 call; and Brian McCormack, an Office of Management and Budget staffer.
Quid pro quo. Another White House official, this time National Security Council aide Tim Morrison, told congressional investigators that Trump sought to withhold military aid to Ukraine in exchange for the opening of investigations against his political rivals.
The Mueller memos. Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort raised the conspiracy theory that it was in fact Ukraine that was responsible for breaking into the servers of the Democratic Party, according to documents from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling that were obtained by BuzzFeed. The documents shed additional light on how President Donald Trump came to believe in the discredited theory that he pushed his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate during the now-infamous July 25 phone call
The whistleblower. Amid an effort by Republicans to uncover the identity of an American intelligence official whose whistleblower complaint kicked off the impeachment inquiry, a lawyer for the official said he was willing to communicate with House Intelligence Committee Republicans. In recent days, Trump has stepped up his campaign to reveal the whistleblower’s identity.
What We’re Watching
Aramco IPO. Saudi Aramco said it planned to list itself on Saudi Arabia’s domestic stock exchange in what is expected to be the largest initial public offering of all time. The Aramco IPO represents a key part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform efforts and to end his country’s economic dependence on oil, but analysts are still in the dark about the company’s valuation, with estimates of its value falling in a mind-boggling range of $1.2 to 2.3 trillion.
Nerves in Tel Aviv. Israeli officials are concerned that the United States is failing to respond to what it views as Tehran’s growing influence in the Middle East. Israel has worries about Trump’s “attitude toward Iran that have intensified in recent months, following what Israeli officials viewed as muted responses to alleged Iranian attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, the downing of an American drone, and a September attack, attributed to Iran, that knocked out about half of Saudi Arabia’s oil output,” the Wall Street Journal reports.
Lebanon aid. The Trump administration is suspending military aid to Lebanon amid widespread street protests that led to Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s resignation last week. The $105 million in American military aid was used to bolster Lebanon’s armed forces, perceived as a counterweight to the growing influence of the Hezbollah militant group.
Protest movements. With popular protests raging across the Middle East—from Iraq to Lebanon to Egypt—the Trump administration is taking an increasingly hands-off approach that leaves observers asking if the United States is abandoning its role of promoting democracy, Colum Lynch reports.
Iran and Iraq. Protesters in Iraq attacked the Iranian consulate in Karbala in what appears to be a response to Iranian-backed militias involved in acts of violence against Iraqi protesters who have in recent weeks taken to the streets against the country’s government.
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Technology & Cyber
Biomedical research. The FBI and National Institutes of Health are carrying out a wide-ranging investigation of what they believe to be an expansive campaign by foreign actors, mostly China, to steal biomedical research, the New York Times reports.
TikTok. The U.S. government is carrying out a national-security review of Chinese social media giant TikTok, and is examining its parent company’s acquisition of the music app Musical.ly, Reuters reports.
Hacking wars. Technology developed by the Israeli surveillance firm NSO targeted senior government officials of multiple American allies by targeting their WhatsApp accounts, Reuters reports.
NSO. The fight between Facebook and Israeli surveillance company NSO has claimed one of NSO’s board members. Zamir Dahbash is stepping down from the board of the Israeli firm because Facebook is a client of his PR firm, and the optics of repping Facebook while its subsidiary WhatsApp is suing NSO was apparently too much for him.
AI. The Defense Innovation Board, an advisory group to the Department of Defense, released a report outlining principles for how to ethically apply artificial intelligence technology to weapons systems.
Quote of the Week
“It’s a father thing … You can see from these letters that Kim wants to be friends with Trump, but his father told him never to give up the weapons. That’s his only security. Trump is like a new father figure. So, it is not an easy transition.”
—White House advisor Jared Kushner offers his theory on why President Donald Trump’s diplomatic opening toward North Korea hasn’t borne fruit.
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Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll