President Trump, who enabled Turkey’s invasion of Syria, now says it’s a “bad idea.” As Turkish forces rolled into northern Syria and after days of denunciations from U.S. lawmakers about abandoning America’s Kurdish allies, Trump told reporters on Wednesday that the incursion is a “bad idea” that he doesn’t endorse. That’s quite a change from the White House’s Sunday-evening announcement that U.S. troops would be shifted as Turkey was “moving ahead” with an operation that the U.S. would not “support or be involved” with.
Trump’s Wednesday message: “Turkey, a NATO member, invaded Syria. The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea,” the president said in a statement emailed to reporters. The statement continued, “From the first day I entered the political arena, I made it clear that I did not want to fight these endless, senseless wars — especially those that don’t benefit the United States. Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place — and we will hold them to this commitment.”
“Endless wars.” Trump took the phrase to Twitter again on Wednesday, writing, “Fighting between various groups that has been going on for hundreds of years. USA should never have been in [the] Middle East. Moved our 50 soldiers out. Turkey MUST take over captured ISIS fighters that Europe refused to have returned. The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!”
Emphasizing his proclivity for isolationism, Trump told reporters at the White House later in the day, “The worst mistake the United States has ever made, in my opinion, is going in to the Middle East. It’s a quagmire,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “We’re now acting as police,” he added, “doing jobs that other countries should be doing.”
Turkish forces have made “small advances,” seizing one village so far in the second day of the offensive, the Associated Press reports. That village is Yabisa, near “one of the main initial targets of the assault, the town of Tal Abyad.” Other progress reportedly includes “allied Syrian fighters” who “cleared and entered a second village, Tel Fander,” according to Turkish state-run media, which AP notes, “did not provide details.” As well, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims that Turkish commandos have entered the village of Beir Asheq as airstrikes fell on the city of Tel Abyad.
Turkey’s soldiers have killed more than 100 “terrorists,” its President Recep Erdogan said this morning, claiming warplanes and artillery have hit “weapons and ammunition depots, gun and sniper positions, tunnels and military bases,” Reuters reports.
- Egypt: The foreign ministry “condemned in the strongest terms the Turkish aggression on Syrian territory,” calling the operation “a blatant and unacceptable attack on the sovereignty of a brotherly Arab state.”
- Arab League: Hossam Zaki, assistant secretary-general for the 22-member, Cairo-based organization, called Turkey’s actions on Wednesday “an unacceptable assault on the sovereignty of an Arab member state exploiting its situation…and violating international law.” He also said it “could help Daesh regain some of its force.”
- Israel: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the offensive today, saying “Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people.”
- Australia: Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Wednesday he’s worried about a resurgence of ISIS.
- Britain: Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab calls for restraint, since the offensive seems to be “undermin[ing] the focus on countering Daesh,” or ISIS, in the area.
- France: The foreign ministry has summoned Turkey’s envoy.
Weaponizing refugees: Erdogan threatened to release the 3.6 million Syrian refugees inside Turkey into Europe if European leaders call his military’s operation an “occupation,” Reuters writes.
“They are not honest, they just make up words,” Erdogan said, even calling out Saudi Arabia and Egypt. “We, however, take action and that is the difference between us.”
And about all those imprisoned ISIS fighters in northern Syria… ABC News’s Luiz Martinez reported Wednesday that a U.S. official told him “There has been some reduction in manning” at those posts in northern Syria. Elaborating some, Martinez added, “There are some ISIS prisons inside the zone where Turkey is currently undertaking its offensive. No confirmation of President Trump’s claim that most dangerous ISIS fighters had been moved from the area ahead of Turkish offensive.”
Two ISIS fighters from the UK — aka the “Beatles” — are now in U.S. custody, the Washington Post reported Wednesday evening. “The action is designed to prevent their escape or release,” U.S. officials said. The two men are now in Iraq. (AP reminds us that the so-called Beatles “beheaded seven American, British and Japanese journalists and aid workers and a group of Syrian soldiers, boasting of the butchery in videos released to the world.”)
There are 38 others the U.S. now has, too, “all considered important Islamic State figures, [who had] previously had been held in a constellation of small prisons in northeast Syria run by Syrian Kurdish forces,” the Post writes. It’s not clear where these 38 are being held. Read on, here.
Happening today in New York: The United Nations Security Council will talk about Syria “at the request of the five European members, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Poland,” Reuters reports.
Happening Saturday in Cairo: the Arab League holds a ministerial meeting to discuss Syria.
About that pressure on President Trump from U.S. lawmakers… Sens. Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C., and Chris Van Hollen, D.-Md., announced “a framework for sanctions against Turkey to respond to their military operation in northeastern Syria,” Van Hollen tweeted Wednesday, with two pages outlining that plan. The Wall Street Journal reports the two lawmakers “plan to present it to colleagues next week.”
One of their colleagues, Republican Marco Rubio of Florida, spoke out against Trump’s acquiescence to Turkey on Twitter Wednesday: “At request of this administration the Kurds served as the primary ground fighters against ISIS in Syria so U.S. troops wouldn’t have to. Then cut deal with Erdogan allowing him to wipe them out. Damage to our reputation & national interest will be extraordinary & long lasting.”
On the other hand, there’s Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, who tweeted support for Trump Wednesday — along with two references to former Vice President Dick Cheney. Here’s Paul’s reax: “The Cheney/Graham neocon War Caucus wants to come back to DC and declare a war. My question for them is — who will you declare it on? Will it be out NATO allies the Turks? Will it be Assad? Will it be Islamic rebels? Which ones? They want to keep starting endless wars in conflicts that go back hundreds of years, but what they want makes no sense. I know this @realDonaldTrump is the first President in my lifetime to understand what is our national interest and what is not. He is stopping the endless wars and we will be stronger as a result. The Cheney/Graham Neocon War Caucus has cost us too much fighting endless wars.”
And all of that should make Capitol Hill a very interesting place next week, if Graham and Van Hollen stay on schedule — and Erdogan’s troops continue their advance.
From Defense One
As Assault Begins, Trump Vows to Make Turkey Keep Its Word While Lawmakers Vow Punishment // Katie Bo Williams: The president said ‘far more than sanctions’ await Turkey if their assault taking over northern Syria is not ‘as humane as possible.’
Why Open Skies Is An Old Fashioned Treaty Worth Keeping // Patrick Tucker: Since 2002, the agreement has helped 34 countries to keep tabs on each others’ militaries, without divulging key secrets.
Trump Is Killing a Fatally Flawed Syria Policy // Kathy Gilsinan, The Atlantic: Did the president betray the Kurds or help dismantle a contradictory strategy in Syria? Both.
New Tech Promises to Stop Drones from Overflying Stadiums — and Find the People Flying Them // Marcus Weisgerber: Raytheon says its products helped police nab four flying drones over an outdoor concert.
Does America Need a Space Force? // William D. Hartung and Mandy Smithberger: A new service branch would put more bureaucracy between critical capabilities and the troops who need them.
Senate Intel Committee: Russia Is Already Trying to Influence the 2020 Election // Patrick Tucker: In its report, the Republican-led committee pushes back against Trump’s efforts to point fingers elsewhere.
Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1967, the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space (aka, the “Outer Space Treaty”) went into effect.
After the demise of the INF, the White House may kill another treaty, according to U.S. officials. Since 2002, the Open Skies Treaty has allowed the U.S., Russia, and 32 other countries to fly sensor-laden aircraft over each others’ territory. The main idea of the treaty, originally advanced by President Eisenhower and brought to fruition by President H.W. Bush, is to help everyone feel confident that no one else is secretly massing forces for diplomatic leverage or a surprise attack.
Bolton’s last gasp? But now the White House is said to be considering pulling out of the treaty. This was brought to the public eye Tuesday when Rep. Eliot Engel, D-New York, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, released a Monday letter to the White House condemning the notion. Several news outlets speculated that the withdrawal was pushed by former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who pushed Trump to scuttle the INF Treaty in August.
One unnamed White House official confirmed to CNN that withdrawal is under consideration, though neither the White House nor State Department has yet commented officially.
U.S. military likes Open Skies. Remarkably, U.S. Strategic Command on Tuesday morning retweeted a message of support for the treaty. Patrick Tucker enumerates reasons for keeping it, here.
North Korea says it may resume testing ICBMs. Pyongyang’s statement came after European members of the United Nations condemned its latest test of an underwater-launched missile, and after U.S.-North Korean talks collapsed over the weekend. AP, here.
Under Chinese pressure, Apple, Google pull Hong Kong-related apps. HKmap.live is a website and iPhone app used by pro-democracy protesters to track the increasingly violent police — and by ordinary Hong Kongers who just want to avoid clouds of tear gas. On Thursday morning, Apple removed it from the iPhone app store, saying that it had been used to “endanger law enforcement.”
AP: “Apple acted under pressure from various channels, including the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily. ‘Is Apple guiding Hong Kong thugs?’ it asked.” To the California-based company, China is an important parts supplier, a current revenue stream, and a source of future growth.
Also, the Quartz app: Apple also blocked Chinese iPhone users from downloading the news app of Quartz (an erstwhile sister publication of Defense One) because of its Hong Kong coverage.
Google, meanwhile, pulled a game from its Google Play app store: “The Revolution of Our Times,” that allows users to roleplay as a Hong Kong protestor. Wall Street Journal has more.
President Trump says the U.S. killed a key al-Qaeda fighter two years ago in Yemen, but provides no details in the way of proof. The opening line of Trump’s statement: “This will confirm for the first time that Ibrahim al-Asiri, a senior al-Qa’ida bomb maker and terrorist coordinator, was killed two years ago in a United States counterterrorism operation in Yemen.” According to the WH, al-Asiri “built explosive devices that were used in the failed Christmas Day 2009 underwear bomb attack and the disrupted printer cartridge bomb plot in 2010. He also built an explosive device intended to be used against a passenger aircraft in 2012, and the device used in the attempted assassination of the former Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.”
The rest of today’s WH statement: “Al-Asiri’s death significantly handicapped al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula. The United States will continue to hunt down terrorists like al-Asiri until they no longer pose a threat to our great Nation.”