Trump to meet with NATO SecGen; Erdogan’s iPad; Ukraine revelations; ‘600-ish’ troops stay in Syria; And a bit more.

President Trump meets behind closed doors with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg this afternoon in the Oval Office. A little more than two hours later, the president is scheduled to fly to Louisiana’s Barksdale Air Force Base ahead of a “Keep America Great” rally this evening in Bossier City. 

Before he meets with Trump, Stoltenberg will visit a meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Small Group Ministerial this morning at the Department of State in Foggy Bottom.

Stoltenberg is in D.C. in advance of a NATO meeting in London about three weeks from now. On Wednesday, he met a wide range of U.S. officials and experts, including “members of the Senate NATO Observer Group, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the Senate Armed Services Committee,” the alliance announced. The secretary general then met “with members of the House Armed Services Committee, as well as members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly,” before stopping at an event hosted by the Department of Defense, which included “a meeting with a group of chief executives focused on the defence industry.”

Later in the evening, Stoltenberg accepted Foreign Policy magazine’s ”Diplomat of the Year” award for his “relentless transatlantic diplomacy, backed by credible transatlantic defence.” 

For your ears only: Our latest Defense One Radio podcast focuses on what “credible deterrence” from NATO means, how some alliance members are changing the way they train, and why bridging capacity is so key to military operations in the Baltic states. 

Guests this week include

  • an officer and an engineer from the Danish military; 
  • Chris Skaluba of the Atlantic Council; 
  • Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute; 
  • and the chairman of NATO’s military committee, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach of the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force. 

Subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or Google podcasts.


From Defense One

Trump’s Bullying of Ukraine Set Off Alarms Throughout the US Government // Joshua A. Geltzer, The Atlantic: The first day of impeachment hearings revealed repeated threats to resign and repeated referrals to lawyers of possible violations of U.S. law by U.S. officials.

600 US Troops to Remain in Syria, Esper Says // Katie Bo Williams: But for what mission? Pentagon chief says Trump’s focus on “keeping” oil is part of fighting ISIS.

US Vets Targeted by Foreign Actors Aiming to Sway Elections, Experts Tell Congress // Patrick Tucker: Actors from Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and elsewhere gain access to online forums by impersonating vets they find online

Defense News Radio, Ep. 59: The future of European security // Defense One Staff: Here’s a look at some of the ways Europe is changing amid various pressures from Russia, China and the NATO alliance.

Erdoğan Defies Trump. So Why Do They Get Along? // Kathy Gilsinan and Melvyn Ingleby, The Atlantic: The two have undeniable personal chemistry, but their countries are drifting apart.

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 1969, America’s second manned mission to the moon, Apollo 12, lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.


President Trump’s meeting with his Turkish counterpart Wednesday went about as expected. The Wall Street Journal reports that even before it began, U.S. officials tried to lower expectations for the “long-awaited meeting” that “ended Wednesday without a resolution of key issues on which the two sides have been divided, including Ankara’s purchase of a Russian air-defense system and the U.S. partnership with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.” 
Turkish President Erdogan even whipped out an iPad to show Trump and U.S. lawmakers what Axios calls “a clunky propaganda film…that depicted Kurds as terrorists, according to three sources familiar with the meeting.” When it finished, Sen. Lindsey Graham reportedly asked Erdoğan, “Well, do you want me to go get the Kurds to make one about what you’ve done?” 
And the response from POTUS45? He “sat back and watched, intervening occasionally to play traffic cop.” By having lawmakers join him, a White House official told Axios, Trump felt he wouldn’t “have to be the bad guy” pushing back against Erdogan on the Kurdish question and any discussions over sanctioning Turkey for its recent unilateral operation in northern Syria. More, here.
Trump claimed the U.S.-brokered “ceasefire” in northern Syria was holding, the Journal reports. “But that statement was challenged by Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the Kurdish-led SDF, a U.S. ally, who said in a Twitter post after an initial Trump-Erdogan meeting Wednesday that Turkish forces had launched attacks on the Syrian town of Tal Tamar.”  Trump later said “I think the president [Erdoğan], he may have some factions within the Kurds, but I think the president has a great relationship with the Kurds.” Vox describes the background and context around those remarks, here.
Meanwhile, Turkish officials say the U.S. has agreed to accept an American ISIS detainee “after he was refused entry to Greece, leaving him stuck in a border buffer zone for days,” Reuters reports from Ankara. “Turkey has said it will also send some detained militants to Germany, Ireland, Denmark and France in the coming days.” More here.
And in NE Syria, the Russian military is building a “helicopter base at a civilian airport in the north-eastern Syrian city of Qamishli,” Reuters reports off footage from Russian Defense Ministry’s Zvezda TV channel. “This is the first group of Russian military helicopters here in northern Syria… It’s a historic moment. From this day onwards our aviation group will operate permanently at Qamishli’s city airport,” Zvezda’s correspondent said in the video. For protection reportedly includes “Pantsir surface-to-air missile systems and three helicopters, [and] two Mi-35 gunships.” More here.

Today: 600 U.S. troops will remain in Syria, SecDef Esper says, according to Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams, who is traveling with Esper to Asia and is reporting today from South Korea. 
Why are they staying? To fight ISIS, Esper said. But that’s not what Trump said on Wednesday (“We left troops behind only for the oil”). “Esper on Thursday said those two goals are one and the same; the mission continued to be ‘the enduring defeat of ISIS,’ which was the original stated intention of the U.S. deployment there, and securing Syria’s oil helps achieve that goal.” Read on, here.
Reminder: “Maybe 600” is a number Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley shared with ABC News’ “This Week” four days ago. His full quote about that at the time: “There will be less than 1,000 [U.S. forces kept in Syria] for sure. And — and probably in the 500-ish frame. Maybe 600. But it’s in that — it’s in that area. But we’re not going to go into specific numbers because we’re still going through the analysis right now.” Find that conversation with Martha Raddatz, here.
Also under discussion in South Korea: A five-fold increase in the cost of hosting U.S. troops on the peninsula. 
What’s going on with that (now-annual drama):U.S. President Donald Trump’s insistence Seoul take on a greater share of the cost of 28,500-strong American military presence as deterrence against North Korea has rattled South Korea,” Reuters reports. “It could also set a precedent for upcoming U.S. negotiations on defense cost-sharing with other allies. A South Korean lawmaker said last week that U.S. officials demanded up to $5 billion a year, more than five times what Seoul agreed to pay this year under a one-year deal.” More here.

Impeachment TV day one, in review. In the first public hearing of the House’s impeachment inquiry, William Taylor — the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine — described a previously unrevealed phone call in which Trump asked his ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, about the status of investigations he wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to pursue against the Biden family. The call took place July 26, one day after Trump’s now-famous requests to Zelensky to produce dirt on the Bidens and to revive a long-debunked conspiracy theory.
Taylor’s revelation of this second phone call followed his written testimony describing an “irregular channel” of U.S.-Ukraine diplomacy, guided by president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani that “was running contrary to the goals of longstanding U.S. policy.” 
When Taylor pursued why U.S. military aid was being withheld from Kyiv, Sondland told him that Trump wanted Zelensky to publicly pledge an investigation. But what about helping Ukraine fight Russian-backed forces? “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for,” Taylor told lawmakers. 
Emphasizing the abnormality of the phone calls, Taylor told lawmakers, “It’s one thing to try to leverage a meeting in the White House. It’s another thing to try to leverage security assistance to a country at war.”
As for House Republicans, the Wall Street Journal reports that “in their most public defense of the president so far, [they] sought to portray portions of Mr. Taylor’s testimony as hearsay and said investigations pushed for in Ukraine were a necessary means of fighting corruption in the country. They also at times sought to build a case for further examination of unsubstantiated theories that it was Ukraine, and not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election.”
On the other hand, “I don’t think President Trump was trying to end corruption in Ukraine,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D.-Conn. “I think he was trying to aim corruption in Ukraine at Vice President Biden and at the 2020 election.”
No precedent. The Democratic committee counsel asked Taylor — who has served every president since Reagan — whether he had seen any previous example of foreign aid withheld to serve the personal or political interests of a U.S. president. “No, Mr. Goldman, I have not,” Taylor replied.
Former NSC-er Joshua Geltzer wrote in The Atlantic Wednesday that Taylor and other U.S. officials were “doing extraordinary things. Those included repeated threats to resign and repeated referrals to lawyers of possible violations of U.S. law by U.S. officials. This is not normal—not normal behavior by public servants, not normal disagreement within the policy-making process, not normal at all. To the contrary, this is a sign that inside the U.S. government, Trump’s improper bullying of Ukraine was setting off alarms—and the system was blinking red.” Read the rest of Geltzer’s analysis, here.
One more highly unusual revelation: Sondland made his July 26 call to Trump on a standard mobile phone in Kyiv. “The security ramifications are insane — using an open cellphone to communicate with the president of the United States,” Larry Pfeiffer, a former senior director of the White House Situation Room and a former chief of staff to the CIA director, told the Washington Post. “In a country that is so wired with Russian intelligence, you can almost take it to the bank that the Russians were listening in on the call.”
Read more about Wednesday’s developments from Just Security, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News and the New York Times.

Also: Acting DOD IG says he won’t investigate Pentagon’s role in the aid holdup, citing the ongoing impeachment inquiry. Fox News, here.
And ICYMI: The Javelins Trump provided were given on condition that they NOT actually be used in the war. Instead, the Ukrainians set up fake missiles to fool the Russians, using logs and empty ammunition boxes to mimic the silhouette of a Javelin. That and other details about the on-the-ground effects of the aid holdup are in this Oct. 24 report from the New York Times.

Israel, Gaza group reach ceasefire, more or less, after two days of fighting. A spokesman for Palestinian Islamic Jihad said that his group would conform to the Egypt-brokered deal which went into effect Thursday at 5:30 a.m. Washington time, while Israeli officials have said merely that they will only respond to attacks. WSJ, here.
Already, Gaza-based forces have launched a few rockets into Israel, which were apparently shot down by the Iron Dome system, Reuters reports.
The fighting: “Gaza medical officials have put the total death toll from the two days of fighting at 34 Palestinians, almost half of them civilians and including eight children and three women. Hundreds of rocket launches by militants had paralyzed much of southern Israel and reached as far north as Tel Aviv, sending thousands of people to shelters. Dozens of Israelis were hurt.” A bit more, here.

There’s still new information coming out about Russian links to the fatal MH17 flight that was shot down in July 2014, killing nearly 300 people, Reuters reports from Amsterdam. The new information includes “a series of telephone call intercepts” that show “pro-Russian rebels in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), who allegedly fired the missile, had been in closer contact with authorities in Moscow than previously assumed.” 
“In at least three intercepted calls, separatist officials and members are heard mentioning that they’re protecting Russian interests and acting on the orders of Russia’s FSB and GRU intelligence agencies,” the Moscow Times reports off the audio releases. A bit more from Reuters, here. Or sift through the recordings, here.

And lastly today, with a trigger warning for submariners: A German visualization studio has put together an animated illustration of the last moments of the Argentine Navy attack submarine San Juan, which sank two years ago tomorrow. The imploded wreckage of the sub was found a year later.

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