Turkey’s military is set to renew its offensive against Kurds in northern Syria beginning at 3 p.m. EDT today. Turkish state-run television even had a running clock to let viewers know exactly when the operational pause will end — until it was flagged on social media Monday and apparently taken down.
Turkish President Erdogan is meeting with his Russian counterpart today in Sochi as the Wall Street Journal writes “both Ankara and Moscow [are] seeking to capitalize on a rebalancing of power in the region.”
One significant detail still to be worked out: “Ankara wants control over territories in northeastern Syria to relocate half of the nearly four million Syrian refugees living in Turkey,” the Journal reports. “But the agreement with Washington covers only about a quarter of Mr. Erdogan’s proposed 300-mile-long safe zone.” And that’s why “Moscow’s commitment to securing the remaining three quarters will be essential because the Russian-backed army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last week struck an agreement to work with the Kurdish militia.”
Where the parties stand, via the Associated Press: “Turkey has suggested it wants Russia to persuade the Syrian government to cede it control over a major chunk of territory in the northeast. The Kurds are hoping Russia can keep Turkey out and help preserve some of the autonomy they carved out for themselves during Syria’s civil war.” Meantime, “Syrian President Bashar Assad has vowed to reunite all the territory under Damascus’ rule.”
To that end, Bashar al-Assad today called Erdogan “a thief,” and said he was ready to support any “popular resistance” against Turkey’s invasion, AP reports.
Said Assad to his troops in northwestern Idlib province: “We are in the middle of a battle and the right thing to do is to rally efforts to lessen the damages from the invasion and to expel the invader sooner or later.”
He also said he’s offered clemency to Kurds who want to fight against Turkey, even as regime troops moved into “new areas in Hassakeh province at the far eastern end of the border, under the arrangement with the Kurds,” AP reports from across the border in Turkey.
ICYMI: The U.S. military may keep a small number of forces in northeastern Syria, despite President Trump’s apparent order to remove all of them from that region, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters in Afghanistan (AP) on Monday. “There has been a discussion about possibly doing it,” Esper said. “There has been no decision with regard to numbers or anything like that.”
Reminder why this is a concern: “The United States, through the Syrian Democratic Forces, were sitting on one-third of Syrian territory, which happens to be the most resource-rich part of Syria,” Dana Stroul of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told us in our latest Defense One Radio podcast episode. “And via leverage of that land we could influence the political outcome for the broader underlying causes of the Syrian conflict.”
But that would all seem to be all but lost now with the Trump-directed reduction in U.S. troops in NE Syria.
Said Trump during his cabinet meeting about pulling the U.S. out of wars: “It would be much easier for me to let our soldiers be there, let them continue to die,” the Washington Post reports. Then Trump added, “I go out to Dover and meet parents and it’s the most unpleasant thing I do.”
More on developments linked to Syria below…
From Defense One
US Marines Try Using Drones to Bring Blood to Battle // Patrick Tucker: The light unmanned aircraft made hundreds of supply drops during recent Australian live-fire wargames.
10 Ways America’s Situation in the Middle East Will Get Worse // Ketti Davison: The Syrian pullout and the Iraqi instability are undermining U.S. national-security interests.
How to Protect America After the Syria Withdrawal // Joseph Votel and Elizabeth Dent, The Atlantic: Fighting ISIS just got harder—but it’s still possible, and it’s necessary.
Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1954, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower authorized “a crash program to improve the loyalty and effectiveness of the Vietnamese armed forces.”
Not looking good: President Trump’s plan to “keep the oil” in Syria and “maybe we’ll get one of our big oil companies to go in and do it properly,” as he explained in a cabinet meeting on Monday. That plan faces what the Wall Street Journal calls “formidable legal, technical and diplomatic barriers.” What’s more, as it stands the president’s plan is “unlikely to draw any interest from the oil companies it would need to succeed,” which would seem to be a fatal flaw.
This idea already came up at least once before inside the Trump White House, during the State Department tenure of former oil executive Rex Tillerson. That’s what former ISIS war czar Brett McGurk told a crowd Monday at the D.C.-based think tank, the Federation for the Defense of Democracies. “Oil, like it or not, is owned by the Syrian state,” McGurk said. “Maybe there are new lawyers, but it was just illegal for an American company to go and seize and exploit these assets.”
The Journal reports this plan was already pitched for Afghanistan, with the conclusion there being “conflict, poor infrastructure and ineffective governance” prohibit moving forward. In addition, “The [U.S.] government would have to rely on enticing a private U.S. business to enter a conflict zone, a task even more challenging when global oil prices are relatively low and security in the region is in doubt.”
Still, for Syria, some U.S. officials seem to think they can theoretically ferry Syria’s oil across the border and into Iraq, a plan analysts tell the Journal sounds both unlikely and unprofitable. Meantime, WH officials believe the 300 or so troops near NE Syria will do the trick just fine. But that position seems to take support from the Kurd-dominated SDF for granted. Read on, here.
By the way, Esper told reporters this about the Kurds on Monday in Kabul: “We had no obligation, if you will, to defend the Kurds against a longstanding NATO ally.”
Said President Trump on the same day, during that cabinet meeting: “We never gave a commitment to the Kurds.”
And if we go back to October 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this about White House support for the Kurds: “Syrian Kurds have been great partners. We’re now driving to make sure they have a seat at the table.” (h/t Brett McGurk)
Update: Iraq says those 1,000 or 700 or whatever U.S. forces from Syria can’t just move to Iraq and continue with the counter-ISIS war as though they were still in Syria, Reuters reports. That message from the Defense Ministry: “All U.S. forces that withdrew from Syria received approval to enter the Kurdistan Region so that they may be transported outside Iraq. There is no permission granted for these forces to stay inside Iraq.”
Said Defense Secretary Mark Esper today during a stop in Saudi Arabia: “The aim isn’t to stay in Iraq interminably, the aim is to pull our soldiers out and eventually get them back home.” The U.S. defense secretary also said he hopes to work something out with Baghdad during a chat scheduled for Wednesday with his Iraqi counterpart.
Speaking of Iraq: “149 civilians were killed because security forces used excessive force and live fire to quell protests,” Reuters reports today from Baghdad, adding that some 70% of the wounded have died from shots to the head and chest.
The violence of these protests are reportedly scaring Iran’s leaders. It’s a new phenomenon: the “Shi’a street” turning on its ruling political elite, writes Ketti Davison, a retired U.S. Army colonel who is now director of Innovation and Tradecraft at the Institute for the Study of War. “This terrifies the leaders of Iran, who fear that the millions of Iranian pilgrims that entered Iraq to commemorate the religious observance of Arba’een may bring this idea back with them. So Tehran is sending Iranian forces to reinforce its militia groups in Iraq.” That’s just one of the “10 ways things are getting worse for the U.S. as the situations in Syria and Iraq deteriorate. Read on, here.
Pentagon war planners are adding retreat-planning to their plate, NBC News reports after Trump’s abrupt Syria withdrawal decision. The lede: “The Pentagon recently began drawing up plans for an abrupt withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan in case President Donald Trump surprises military leaders by ordering an immediate drawdown as he did in Syria, three current and former defense officials said.”
For the record: “the planning is a precaution and there is currently no directive from the White House to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.”
BTW: You may have heard the U.S. quietly pulled 2,000 troops from Afghanistan over the past several months.
But the math for this reduction is a bit deceptive, ABC News’s Luiz Martinez tweeted Monday afternoon: “For most of the year Pentagon officials have said there were 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan. But it turns out there were actually 15,000 a year ago. So when the troop #’s get reduced by 2,000 it’s actually to 13,000.”
South Korean jets scramble to meet Russian warplanes. A half-dozen bombers and “other Russian warplanes” repeated entered South Korea’s air space identification zone over the course of siex hours on Tuesday, the latest in a series of such incidents, according to a statement from Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff quoted by Reuters. “Russia’s defense ministry denied its bombers, which were accompanied by other Russian warplanes, had violated any countries’ airspace and said that they had flown over neutral waters in the Sea of Japan, Yellow Sea and East China Sea.” Read, here.
Facebook takes down foreign-influence operations ahead of the 2020 elections. In a Monday blog post, the social-media giant said it had removed Facebook and Instagram accounts belonging to three Russian campaigns and one Iranian one. The Hill has a bit more, here.
A curious look inside POTUS45’s first Pentagon meeting, through the eyes of a speechwriter for SecDef James Mattis who was present when the U.S. president arrived on July 20, 2017, to get the “laydown”: a briefing on the locations and missions of U.S. military and diplomatic personnel around the world.
The look comes from Politico excerpting an upcoming book by retired Navy Cmdr. Guy Snodgrass, who describes Mattis as nervous about his best chance to guide a new commander-in-chief dismissive of allies and U.S. intelligence alike — and then shell-shocked by Trump’s demands that the Pentagon stage a Victory Parade and that Japan and South Korea pay for protection. Read on, here.
Lastly today: Two Japanese carriers sunk at Midway have been found on the ocean floor. A team of deep-sea explorers and historians, sailing on a ship outfitted by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, have found the Kaga and the Akagi, the latter resting in 17,000 feet of water. UPI, here.