The Geneva process lives. The White House’s Syrian envoy, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, today to revive talks about U.S. military and diplomatic efforts in Syria after the territorial defeat of ISIS, the U.S. State Department announced in a statement Tuesday.
Amb. Jeffrey’s tasks: “reinvigorate the political process, [reinvigorate] the need for constitutional reform and free and fair elections, and reinforce Geneva’s place as the venue for creating a permanent political solution to the Syrian conflict” in accordance with the 2015 document, UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
The Geneva process, you may recall, is one of two main diplomatic tracks ostensibly seeking an end to the conflict in Syria. The other, generated and maintained predominantly by Russia, is referred to as the Astana process, or the Astana talks — taking its name from the Kazakh city where those negotiations have taken place. The ninth and apparently most recent Astana meeting took place more than a year ago. The Geneva process, by contrast, has had at least eight iterations of its own — the last one in mid-September 2018 — and still no resolution to the remaining conflict in Syria appears to be close.
Complicating things: Reluctant allies. “The Trump administration has asked at least 21 of its allies to provide troops and other logistical support in Syria to prevent an Islamic State resurgence, but nearly half so far have declined and others have agreed to provide only nominal support,” the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday. “Among U.S. officials involved in the outreach is acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, who has approached counterparts visiting the Pentagon and has also made phone calls, as has Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” defense officials told the Journal.
About the remaining conflict in Syria: At least 17 people were killed today in an explosion in the rebel-held northwestern city of Jisr al Shughour in Idlib province, Reuters reports from neighboring Amman, Jordan.
What’s going on in the northwest: “The province [of Idlib] and areas around it in northern Syria, the last remaining rebel bastion, have seen an escalation in attacks by Russian warplanes and the Syrian army even though they are protected by a ‘de-escalation zone’ agreement brokered last year between Russia, Iran and Turkey,” Reuters writes. And “Turkey, which has supported the rebels and has troops to monitor the truce, has been negotiating with Moscow to halt the Russian strikes with little success.”
Here’s a take from Brett McGurk, the former presidential envoy to the counter-ISIS coalition. He writes in Foreign Affairs: “Washington must now lower its sights. It should focus on protecting only two interests in Syria: preventing ISIS from coming back and stopping Iran from establishing a fortified military presence there that might threaten Israel.”
And set aside four and a half minutes to listen to a new video called “Voices of Syria,” a product of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., “in partnership with Syrian civil society, to better inform the general public and to guide policymakers toward a more holistic view of the situation in Syria by leveraging the voices of the unheard and their hopes and aspirations.”
The point of the short film: “to raise the voices of civil society to better inform (a) Syria policy, and (b) public awareness,” MEI’s Charles Lister tweeted. “This is just a snapshot of some of their hopes and aspirations,” he wrote.
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Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson. Thanks for reading! And if you’re not subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1990, the U.S. launched the Hubble Telescope aboard the shuttle Discovery. NASA calls the Hubble’s deployment “the most significant advance in astronomy since Galileo’s telescope.”
Sri Lankan officials are pointing fingers at each other, alleging that intelligence on Sunday’s deadly attacks was “hidden purposely,” though no purpose was given, Reuters reports from the island nation.
The official behind that accusation: Lakshman Kiriella, Sri Lanka’s parliamentary leader and minister of public enterprise. “Somebody is controlling these top intelligence officials,” Kiriella said. “The Security Council is doing politics. We need to investigate into this.”
Authorities have learned that most of the bombers on Sunday were “highly educated and came from well-off families,” the Associated Press reports today off remarks from a junior defense minister in the capital city of Colombo. And at least one of nine bombers was a woman — apparently the wife of another bomber. “The woman, two children and three policemen died in an explosion as authorities closed in on her late Sunday, hours after attacks were launched against three churches and three hotels. The ninth suicide bomber has not been identified.”
Sixty people have been arrested since Sunday, Reuters reports separately from Sri Lanka. And more than 100 more could face arrest soon, according to Minister Kiriella.
The U.S. position amid all this ongoing investigative work: “We believe there are ongoing terrorist plots,” said the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina Teplitz. “Terrorists can strike without warning. Typical venues are large gatherings, public spaces.”
Worth noting: Junior Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene “edged away from Tuesday comments that the bombings were retaliation for the March 15 mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed 50 people,” AP writes. “He told reporters Wednesday that the mosque attack may have been a motivation for the bombings, but that there was no direct evidence of that.”
Related #LongRead: “How white supremacy and Islamist terrorism strengthen each other online,” from Sulome Anderson, writing in the Washington Post in late March.
The UN says Afghan and coalition troops killed more civilians during the first three months of 2019 than the Taliban, AP reports. According to the report, “581 civilians were killed between Jan. 1 and March 31, with Afghan forces and their allies responsible for 305 of those deaths,” nearly half of those deaths from airstrikes alone. On the other hand, “insurgents were responsible for wounding more civilians than the coalition forces,” according to the report.
Said U.S. military spokesman Col. Dave Butler: “The best way to end the suffering of non-combatants is to end the fighting through an agreed-upon reduction in violence on all sides.”
A new trend? “Last year’s U.N. report was the first to show a dramatic hike in civilian deaths by pro-government forces,” AP writes, “including more than 1,000 civilian casualties from airstrikes, the highest since the U.N. began keeping track 10 years ago.”
Find a chart of the UN’s data, via Agence France-Presse, here.
A Navy SEAL is under fire for discouraging others from reporting “shocking acts” during SEAL Team 7’s deployment to Iraq in February 2017 to help retake Mosul from Islamic State fighters, the New York Times reported Tuesday — extending initial reporting by Navy Times back in February. Among the allegations facing the SEAL chief: That he stabbed a defenseless teenage captive and picked off an elderly man and a school girl from the chief’s sniper’s nest.
What’s more, according to one senior SEAL, the chief "routinely parked an armoured truck on a Tigris River bridge and emptied the truck’s heavy machine gun into neighbourhoods on the other side with no discernible targets.”
Bigger picture: “myriad other details in the 439-page report paint a disturbing picture of a subculture within the SEALs that prized aggression, even when it crossed the line, and that protected wrongdoers.” Read on at the Times, here.
ICYMI: President Trump is warming to a renegade Libyan general, which may “signal a shift in U.S. policy,” WaPo reported late last week.
The background to this story: “In a sharply worded statement last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States was ‘deeply concerned’ and that ‘we have made clear that we oppose the military offensive’ by [Libyan general Khalifa] Hifter’s forces,” which are advancing on Tripoli.
The twist: “The White House statement [about Trump’s phone call with Hifter], released four days after Trump’s previously unreported call on Monday, made no mention of Hifter’s offensive, a cease-fire or the U.N. effort. Referring to Hifter as ‘Field Marshal,’ it said he and Trump discussed ‘a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.’”
Said Acting SecDef Pat Shanahan: the Pentagon “and the executive branch are well aligned on Libya.” Asked if the United States supports Hifter’s offensive, he said that “the military solution is not what Libya needs.”
Meanwhile, the UN-backed National Accord government has issued an arrest warrant for Hifter and other military officials in his entourage. Read on, here.
The latest in U.S.-Mexico border security concerns about $8 billion the Pentagon is preparing to spend on border projects including a “mix of border fence, border wall, border patrol roads, border access roads, border lights, border gates (for access to border monuments, for maintenance, and for Border Patrol operational use), border drainage improvements, levee walls, and other miscellaneous improvements, repairs, and alterations,” according to a Army Corps of Engineers pre-solicitation notice from April 19, flagged by Quartz on Tuesday.
Where the $8 billion figure comes from: It “likely refers to the $6.5 in emergency declaration funding Trump demanded in February, most of it from military construction and anti-drug programs, plus $1.4 billion that Congress allocated Trump for ‘pedestrian fencing’ in the Rio Grande Valley after the record-long government shutdown,” Quartz writes. More here.
Related: “Mexico Begins Detaining Central American Migrants in Caravans,” WSJ reports this morning.
The U.S. and Japan are racing to recover that crashed F-35 before China does, “even though there are no indications that country is actively searching for the downed plane,” the Ottawa Citizen reported Tuesday.
Reminder: "The F-35 crashed in an area in the Pacific Ocean which is estimated to be around 5,000 feet deep. Japan is using a submarine and other vessels to search for the wreckage," OC writes. "The aircraft went missing on April 9 about 30 minutes after taking off from Misawa air base in northern Japan. The aircraft was flying with three other F-35As in a night training mission. The next day the Japanese military confirmed that the aircraft had crashed and some debris had been recovered." Tiny bit more here.
By the way: The cost of F-35s is rising, Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio reported Monday. The quick read: “The estimated total price for research and procurement has increased by $22 billion” while “The estimate for operating and supporting the fleet of fighters over more than six decades grew by almost $73 billion to $1.196 trillion.” A bit more, here.
And finally today: The U.S. Coast Guard’s first heavy icebreaker in more than 40 years will cost about $750 million, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday evening. The contract winner is “a shipbuilding unit of Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd.” known as VT Halter Marine Inc., in Mississippi. Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. and General Dynamics Corp. also bid for the icebreaker, but apparently lost to VT Halter Marine.
The contract “could reach nearly $2 billion if all options are exercised,” the Journal writes, and it “comes a day after the Coast Guard updated its Arctic strategic outlook.” (Find that document here.)
Inside that outlook, "the Coast Guard said Russia has built 14 icebreakers and six Arctic bases since 2013 and that China has conducted six Arctic expeditions.”
On the U.S. side, “the Coast Guard’s polar fleet includes a 399-foot heavy icebreaker that was commissioned in 1976 and a 420-foot medium icebreaker that was commissioned in 2000," the Journal writes. "The Coast Guard ultimately aims to have as many as six icebreakers—three heavy and three medium—to patrol the Arctic… The new icebreaker is expected to be completed by June 2024."
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