Calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s removal are back after Tuesday’s alleged chemical weapons attack in northwestern Idlib province that killed dozens and wounded many more. Leading the calls this morning are Britain and France.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called the attack a test for the Trump administration, Reuters reports: “That’s why France repeats the messages, notably to the Americans, to clarify their position,” he told RTL radio. “I told them that we need clarity. What’s your position?”
Last week, the Trump administration signaled that it had no intention of forcing Assad’s removal. (After the attack, White House spox Sean Spicer tried to pin culpability on former President Obama: “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.”)
But State Secretary Rex Tillerson, along with most of the world, blamed Assad: “It is clear that this is how Bashar al-Assad operates: with brutal, unabashed barbarism. Anyone who uses chemical weapons to attack his own people shows a fundamental disregard for human decency and must be held accountable. Those who defend and support him, including Russia and Iran, should have no illusions about Assad or his intentions,” he said in a statement.
Added British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson: “This is a barbaric regime that has made it impossible for us to imagine them continuing to be an authority over the people of Syria after this conflict is over.”
Condemning “any” chemical weapons use in Syria—without naming names: Iran.
Coming to Assad’s support: Russia, of course, which took some time before touting late in the day Moscow’s position that the chemical weapons reported in the attack belonged to rebels and exploded only after the airstrike landed near a rebel weapons depot. That picture sets “the stage for a diplomatic collision at the Security Council,” Reuters reports.
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Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. #OTD2009: North Korea launched a rocket over Japan, leading to protests that scuttled the Six Party Talks. Got a message for us? Let us know by clicking this link to email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
China’s president arrives in the U.S. tomorrow for two days of meetings at President Trump’s Florida resort. The U.S. leader will aim to tilt the U.S.-China trade relationship America’s way and to secure his counterpart’s help with North Korea, the New York Times reports.
But will the White House have its diplomatic ducks in a row? Trump’s own bellicosity notwithstanding, there are other warning signs in this NYT profile of Marine-turned-journalist-turned-China-policy advisor Matthew Pottinger: “During [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson’s maiden visit to Beijing, Mr. Pottinger sat with three other staff members in the front row at a news conference and listened as the secretary of state extolled the need for “mutual respect” and ‘win-win solutions’ — phrases drawn straight from China’s diplomatic playbook — to describe Chinese-American relations. In a memo Mr. Pottinger had written just weeks before, he warned against that language, which is viewed as code for a Chinese sphere of influence in its region.” Read on, here.
The meeting itself was reportedly engineered by Jared Kushner, the Trump family member who has emerged as a pivotal figure in the new administration. Wrote the Financial Times last week: “Though he has almost no China background, Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law, is leading the US preparation for next week’s meeting. His counterpart is Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador in Washington. That, alone, gives China an edge. Mr Cui is a professional diplomat who knows America well — he did his postgraduate studies in the US capital and worked as an interpreter at the UN.
“Mr Kushner’s chief qualification is that he is married to the president’s daughter. Mr Cui has just one job — US-China relations. Among other things, Mr Kushner is the White House point person for Middle East peace, criminal justice reform and US business innovation.”
This as well: Kushner had been deep in negotiations with Chinese investors, seeking money to prop up his investment in a 41-story Manhattan skyscraper, until he withdrew last week under the glare of public scrutiny.
It’s been a busy week for Kushner, who traveled with the Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford to Iraq, where he told Iraqi officials that the U.S.-Iraqi alliance should endure for “many generations,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
About that Kushner-Pentagon relationship: apparently, it’s going to be a key conduit for defense policy discussions between the military and its commander-in-chief, reports Buzzfeed’s Nancy Youssef: “You have to understand where the levers are. You don’t have to like it, but that is where they are,” a defense official told her. “It’s in our interest.” Read on, here.
Searching for what’s different about North Korea’s newest rocket launch. Pyongyang fired off what appears to have been a KN-15 medium-range missile early this morning. (Map here.) The rocket reached a fairly high altitude (117 miles), Reuters reports, and flew for about 40 miles from the North’s east coast port city of Sinpo.
“There’s absolutely no reason for North Korea to fire the KN-15 again this way; the launch measurements show something similar to when developing missiles are flight-tested for the first time for data-gathering purposes,” Kim Dong-yub, an analyst at Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, told the Associated Press.
“The KN-15 is believed to be an upgraded version of the submarine-launched ‘Pukguksong’ launched last summer,” AP writes. “Many experts say a ‘Pukguksong-2’ missile would be a greater security threat, because it can be launched anywhere from a mobile vehicle.”
The North tested another KN-15 back in February, and that rocket traveled about 310 miles before crashing into the water, leaving analysts racing to figure out if the latest launch was a failure of some kind.
Here’s one from left field: Did North Korea hack the South’s war plans, reportedly known as “OPLAN 5027”? The Korean news site, Chosun, posits the answer is yes, saying it happened last September in a cyber attack on South Korea’s “Defense Integrated Data Center, which serves as the cyber nerve center of South Korea’s defense system.” Intrigue, here.
And back stateside, House lawmakers approved legislation on Monday “that would order the State Department to determine whether North Korea is a state sponsor of terrorism,” The Hill reported Tuesday.
Counterpoint: Why North Korea doesn’t belong on the state sponsors of terrorism list, according to The National Interest just one month ago. “In practice, such a designation would allow the Trump administration to target financial transactions, mandate Washington’s opposition to loans and aid from international financial institutions, and eliminate North Korean sovereign immunity from civil lawsuit. The only problem with the idea is that the North’s behavior, while odious, is not terrorism by any normal definition.”
One solution: “One could simply expand the definition of terrorism to any act intended to influence the conduct of any government or people.” Read on, here.
For your eyes only: Have six minutes to go through just some of the byzantine steps required to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile? Here’s your thing, via a Northrop Grumman video posted last May on YouTube.
Your Hump Day #LongRead: How the next world war starts, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Wood, writing in the Huffington Post. His focus: “By now, it is widely recognized that Russia is waging a campaign of covert political manipulation across the United States, Europe and the Middle East, fueling fears of a second Cold War. But it’s less understood that in international airspace and waters, Russia and the U.S. are brushing up against each other in perilous ways with alarming frequency.”
To illustrate, Wood writes, “In 2015, according to its air command headquarters, NATO scrambled jets more than 400 times to intercept Russian military aircraft that were flying without having broadcast their required identification code or having filed a flight plan. In 2016, that number had leapt to 780—an average of more than two intercepts a day.”
On top of all this, “Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who commands U.S. Army forces in Europe, told me last year that he knew his Russian counterpart—at the time, Colonel-General Andrei Kartapolov—but had no direct contact with him,” Wood writes. “If a problem arose—say, a U.S. Special Forces sergeant serving as a trainer in Ukraine suddenly encountered a Russian commando and gunfire broke out—Hodges couldn’t have called Kartapolov to cool things off. There are no other direct lines of communication.”
How icey are U.S.-Russian relations? “Once, Hodges told me, he sat next to the general at a conference. He filled Kartapolov’s water glass and gave him a business card, but the gestures were not reciprocated and they never spoke.” Much more where that came from, here.
Happening now in Washington: “Corruption, Jobs, and the Trump Military Buildup,” a panel discussion built around a joint book and web project from the World Peace Foundation called “Indefensible: Seven Myths that Sustain the Global Arms Trade.”
On the docket: Discussion of “the risks and tradeoffs of President Trump’s proposed military buildup and budget rebalancing away from international assistance and foreign aid, not just for American democracy but also for the U.S. economy and national security.”
On the panel: Bridget Conley, research director of World Peace Foundation; Defense One contributor Sarah Chayes, senior fellow in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; William Hartung of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy; and former Time Pentagon journalist Mark Thompson, now a national security analyst at the Project on Government Oversight. Details here.