Russia Gains Ground in Syria
Russian personnel are inching into territory where U.S. troops are patrolling, setting the stage for showdowns between the two powers.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Russian forces are extending their reach in Syria, the Pentagon is set to release its budget proposal, and more tensions emerge between career diplomats and Trump appointees in the U.S. State Department.
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Russia Gets Bolder in Syria
Russia is ramping up its military role in Syria as it backs the government’s assault on Idlib, the last pocket of rebel resistance in the country’s northwest. “We’re seeing much more aggressive Russian action in Idlib,” James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy on Syria, told reporters on Wednesday. Jeffrey added that Russian contractors in Syria are engaged in tense standoffs with U.S. troops operating in the northeast.
The trend heightens the risk of a showdown between the United States and Russia as the Syrian conflict drags into its ninth year. On “a limited number of occasions,” Jeffrey said, Russian forces “have tried to come deep into the area where we and the [Syrian Democratic Forces] are patrolling.” He added: “These are not daily occurrences but they have been increasing in number, and thus is troubling.”
Assault on Idlib. Russia’s extended reach adds a new layer of complexity to the crisis in northwest Syria, where some 150,000 civilians have fled in the past two weeks amid the new government offensive. Jeffrey warned that the renewed fighting could stoke another “major refugee crisis.” Iranian and Hezbollah forces are also “actively involved in supporting” the Syrian offensive, according to Jeffrey. “This is a dangerous conflict. It needs to be brought to an end. Russia needs to change its policies,” he said.
What We’re Watching
Pentagon budget preview. The Pentagon is poised to release its budget proposal for fiscal year 2021 next Monday, and officials promise that it will include billions of dollars of internal savings. As part of Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s review of the so-called “fourth estate” offices—roughly 50 defense agencies outside of the military departments—the Pentagon has found $5.7 billion in efficiencies that it plans to reallocate toward new priorities such as hypersonics, artificial intelligence, and 5G communications technology, Defense News reports.
News is starting to trickle out ahead of the official budget rollout, including Lara Seligman’s exclusive report on the Air Force’s plan to cut hundreds of legacy fighters and bombers over the next five years. Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that the Navy is requesting more ships in order to support Trump’s campaign promise to get to a fleet of 355. The total budget request is expected to be $740 billion—essentially unchanged from 2020’s $738 billion and part of the two-year budget deal U.S. lawmakers reached last summer.
Ukraine developments. U.S. President Donald Trump has been acquitted of two charges brought against him in his impeachment trial, but the controversy that sparked the attempt to remove him from office keeps following him. CNN reported that days before the phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, U.S. officials were still trying to approve the delivery of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, and were shocked at the Office of Management and Budget’s repeated refusal to do so.
Meanwhile, Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was ousted from her job by associates of Trump, speaks out for the first time in a Washington Post op-ed. “We must not allow the United States to become a country where standing up to our government is a dangerous act. It has been shocking to experience the storm of criticism, lies and malicious conspiracies that have preceded and followed my public testimony, but I have no regrets,” she writes.
NATO’s future in Afghanistan. The recent U.S. decision to withdraw roughly one-third of its troops from Afghanistan as peace talks with the Taliban continue has caused European NATO allies to consider withdrawing their own forces. NATO allies deployed troops to Afghanistan along with the United States in 2001, and the organization has frequently said that its own presence was dependent on the United States. Some European officials believe the troop presence has helped reduce the flow of migrants and refugees to the continent, but the appetite for remaining in the country—especially if the United States withdraws—is waning.
More tensions at the State Department. The Trump administration’s ambassador to South Africa, a successful fashion designer, pushed out the top career diplomat at the embassy as she tried to elevate her son to a job there, FP’s Robbie Gramer reports. The story is part of a growing trend of Trump campaign donors-turned-ambassadors quietly forcing out veteran diplomats at their embassies, highlighting mistrust between Trump appointees and career civil servants.
White nationalism in the ranks. A recent survey of active-duty Military Times readers found that 36 percent of active duty service members had seen evidence of white supremacist or racist ideologies in the military. That figure is much higher than the 22 percent found by the same poll in 2018, suggesting that white nationalism in the military is becoming a bigger problem.
Movers and Shakers
Pentagon withdrawal. J. David Patterson has withdrawn from consideration for a position as the second highest personnel official in the Pentagon. Patterson was nominated on Jan. 9, but he withdrew after he lost support in Congress over revelations that he co-authored an op-ed for the conservative website the Federalist in 2017, blaming U.S. mass killings on immigrants who failed to assimilate into American society.
Foreign Policy Recommends
Revisiting Yalta. Seventy-five years ago this week, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin met in Yalta, a town on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, to discuss Europe’s future after the defeat of Nazi Germany. What they decided shaped the map of post-war Europe and defined the battle lines of the coming Cold War. At Literary Hub, Diana Preston writes a blow-by-blow account of the Yalta conference that’s well worth a read.
Odds and Ends
Coronavirus tour. Six individuals visiting from China’s Hubei province, ground zero of the coronavirus outbreak, were scheduled to tour the Pentagon before officials canceled it over fears that the virus could potentially affect the some 26,000 employees who work in the Pentagon.
Dan Haverty contributed to this report.
Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman