US reportedly ends air assistance to Turkey; ISIS prison breaks expected; Trump blocks ambassador’s testimony; Navy, Air Force bought lots of Chinese drones; And a bit more.
The U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria has reportedly pulled air support to Turkey, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman reported Monday. And officials in Turkey insist today (AP) “we determine our own path” when it comes to Turkish security. Now Syria’s Assad regime is courting the Kurdish population, which for years has been aligned with the U.S.-led coalition to push ISIS out of its stronghold of Raqqa and the surrounding region. But let’s review the highlights from Monday, which was a very busy day for Syrian developments.
“Letting Turkey attack the Kurds and walking away from the fight against Islamic State would cause irreparable damage to U.S. interests,” the Wall Street Journal reports Congressional leaders — including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R.-Ky. — warned President Donald Trump on Monday after a statement from the White House Sunday evening raised more questions than answers.
“American interests are best served by American leadership, not by retreat or withdrawal,” McConnell said in his own statement Monday, which did not mention the president by name.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper tweeted Monday that the Pentagon does not endorse Turkey’s plan to enter Syria (again)…then Esper deleted the tweet, Politico’s Dave Brown noticed. Fox News’s Lucas Tomlinson reported Monday that the Pentagon was “blindsided” by the Syria announcement Sunday evening. But a senior administration official told reporters Monday afternoon those in the Pentagon who may have been blindsided didn’t have a need-to-know about the developments. (h/t Hayes Brown of Buzzfeed) Here’s a bit more about who’s reportedly blindsided and who’s not inside the Pentagon, also via Dave Brown, who this time compared NPR and CNN coverage of the same topic Monday.
By the way: Turkey’s new Syria incursion is called Operation Peace Spring. It doesn’t yet have its own Twitter handle, unlike the last major Turkish operation into Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield (since deleted). And in that op, Turkey gave the U.S. just 48 hours to prepare, Syria-watcher Aaron Stein recounted recently. This time around, “Ankara has been more cautious b/c of the risks of killing an American. Think smaller, in terms of initial action, & how they would then demand concessions from the US or swallow up vacated territory.”
Trump held a meeting with top U.S. generals about Syria Monday evening — or about 24 hours after the policy change had been announced. That meeting yielded quite a few photos, captured by CBS News’s Mark Knoller, here and here.
“We may be in the process of leaving Syria, but in no way have we Abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters. Likewise our relationship with Turkey, a NATO and Trading partner, has been very good. Turkey already has a large Kurdish population and fully understands that while we only had 50 soldiers remaining in that section of Syria, and they have been removed, any unforced or unnecessary fighting by Turkey will be devastating to their economy and to their very fragile currency. We are helping the Kurds financially/weapons!”
Worth repeating: A threat to Turkey in today’s tweet from the president. “[A]ny unforced or unnecessary fighting by Turkey will be devastating to their economy and to their very fragile currency.”
Related reading: The Turkish “Lira’s in for a Rough Ride If Turkey Moves Troops Into Syria,” Bloomberg reports today.
Also possibly in for a rough ride: the White House National Security Council. “There’s a real sense that nobody is going to stop Trump from being Trump at this stage, so everybody should buckle up,” one nameless U.S. national security official told Reuters today.
And about that withdrawn air support to Turkey, FP’s Seligman points to Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Carla Gleason who “said Monday that the Combined Air Operations Center, the command-and-control center for Middle East air operations, has pulled Turkey off the air tasking order and halted Ankara’s access to surveillance information.”
Translation: “Turkey is effectively cut out of the air space along the border with Syria, making a coordinated attack difficult.” Read on, here.
Next considerations include when exactly Turkey will begin this operation since, as the Washington Post reported Monday evening, “By nightfall, despite [Turkish President Recep] Erdogan’s pledge to begin an air and ground assault on Kurdish areas, Turkish troops did not appear to have advanced.”
Update: Some Turkish airstrikes have reportedly “target[ed] the Syrian-Iraqi border overnight to prevent Kurdish forces using the route to reinforce northeast Syria,” Reuters reports this morning citing two Turkish officials. But no ground offensive has begun just yet. More here.
And, oh yeah: What’s Syria think of all this invasion talk? The Syrian government “will defend all Syrian territory and will not accept any occupation of any land or iota of the Syrian soil,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said today (AP) in Damascus, adding, “The homeland welcomes all its sons and Damascus will solve all Syrian problems in a positive way, away from violence.” Which you have to admit is a bit rich coming from a regime that’s believed by the U.S. to have used chemical weapons in Idlib province as recently as May.
Reminder: The Danish military announced in September it will be sending a contingent of medical troops to northeastern Syria in 2019. No word yet on if that plan will change given recent developments on the U.S. side.
And the Brits? They have to plan on pulling all their troops should the U.S. abruptly go that route, The Times reported Monday.
We want to know what you think about Syria. We’ll be talking to four scholars this week about the way ahead there for our next episode of the Defense One Radio podcast. What are your questions on the future of the international effort in the Levant? Feel free to email us here or leave a voicemail at (731) 617-9124.
From Defense One
Syrian Decision Rekindles Fear of ISIS Prison Breaks // Katie Bo Williams: Pentagon and State Department officials have raised alarm bells for months that the makeshift prisons posed a serious threat.
ISIS Will Benefit from US Withdrawal, Says Retired 3-Star Who Helped Train Syrian Rebels // Patrick Tucker: Michael Nagata says the move will embolden ISIS, Russia, and Iran — and could end the extraction of intelligence from thousands of ISIS fighters held by Syrian rebels.
Exclusive: The Syrian Democratic Forces Chief Just Called Me. Here’s What He Said. // Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: “This is going to jeopardize all the achievements we have made with the coalition against ISIS,” said the top SDF commander Mazlum Abdi. It’s up to Americans, now.
Meet the US Air Force's 1st Chief Experience Officer // Aaron Boyd, Nextgov: The service hired digital consultant Colt Whittall to improve the digital tools that airmen use to fix things and fight.
Welcome to this Tuesday 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, Che Guevara was captured by the Bolivian army, which was partnered with U.S. Army Special Forces at the time. One of those Bolivians unceremoniously executed Che the following day. Authors Mitch Weiss and Kevin Maurer recount the tale in their 2014 book, “Hunting Che.”
Trump blocks ambassador from talking to Congress. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, was to speak today to House committees about his involvement with the president’s efforts to persuade Ukraine to investigate his political opponents. But early this morning, Sondland’s lawyer told lawmakers that the ambassador had been instructed not to appear by the State Department, the Washington Post reports.
Trump tweeted at 9:23 a.m.: “I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify, but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court…”
Democrats: that’s illegal obstruction. Tweeted Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va.: “The President admits that he personally ordered the obstruction of a lawful Congressional inquiry by blocking the testimony of key witnesses under subpoena. Big mistake.”
Read: "Obstruction of Congress" is an overview of federal law on the subject produced in 2010 by the Congressional Research Service. It points to 18 U.S. Code §, which outlaws efforts to “influence, obstruct, or impede...the due and proper exercise of the power of inquiry under which any inquiry or investigation is being had by either House, or any committee of either House or any joint committee of the Congress.”
House subpoenas DOD, OMB for “documents that explain why President Trump withheld military aid from the Ukraine.” Here’s the Monday letter from three oversight committees to the Office of Management and the Budget, and a list of requested Pentagon documents. (Daily Beast)
The U.S. Commerce Department added eight Chinese tech companies to an export blacklist on Monday, along with 20 other Communist government-linked firms, for their alleged role in “China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance… targeting Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.”
The companies affected include Hikvision Digital Technology, Megvii Technology Inc. and SenseTime Group Ltd, Dahua Technology Co., IFLYTEK, Xiamen Meiya Pico Information Co. , Yitu Technologies and Yixin Science & Technology Co.
Worth noting: “The US took the same action earlier this year [in May] against Huawei, the Chinese telecoms equipment maker, which has been accused of breaking US sanctions against Iran and of stealing American technology,” Financial Times reports.
Bigger picture: “While highly symbolic, the Commerce Department’s action is unlikely to have a major practical impact on the Chinese firms, which rely on plenty of non-U.S. suppliers and have had months of advance warning to diversify their supply chains away from U.S. companies,” according to the Wall Street Journal. “The export controls also won’t prevent American companies from selling certain goods made outside the U.S. to these firms, as they have been doing with Huawei.”
And China is trying to keep America’s farmers from going broke this harvest season, as the Journal writes “Chinese buyers bought more than 1.5 million metric tons of U.S. soybeans in the last week of September alone, according to U.S. data, some of the biggest purchases in more than a year.” However, “these purchases will need to be sustained well after this week’s talks to lead to a sustained recovery for U.S. farmers, a key constituency for Mr. Trump that has been battered hard by the trade war.” A bit more behind the paywall, here.
ICYMI: The U.S. Navy and Air Force spent at least $240,000 on Chinese-made DJI drones in 2018, despite a DoD-wide ban on their use because of cyber vulnerabilities, Voice of America’s Carla Babb and Hong Xie reported in September.
Curious note: “One document acknowledged the security concerns raised over the Chinese-made technology and claimed the military had developed a fix.” Read on, here.
This week in misinformation, Real Clear Media is “secretly running a Facebook page filled with far-right memes and Islamophobic smears,” The Daily Beast reported Monday evening.
The title of the page: “Conservative Country.” It was founded five years ago and now has almost 800,000 followers.
What makes this notable: “It’s a far cry from the usual fare on RealClearPolitics. Founded in 2000, the site was an early online aggregator of political news, curating links to widely read politics stories and opinion articles in other major outlets. The site has become synonymous with its polling aggregator, which is regularly cited by news organizations on both sides of the aisle as an objective metric of major political races.”
And surprise, surprise: “Conservative Country isn’t the first ultra-partisan title that’s been connected to RealClear.” That would be FDRLST Media, which is “the parent company of The Federalist, the conservative news site behind last month’s false story claiming the deep state secretly revised official whistleblower regulations to allow the Trump-Ukraine whistleblower to provide secondhand information.”
Said RealClear’s CTO Anand Ramanujan, to TDB: “The Conservative Country website was created as part of an effort to understand the flow of traffic from social media—particularly Facebook—to political websites. There are no other non-RealClear titles out there.”
Reminder: Facebook remains the #1 platform for political disinformation, according to a recent Oxford study. One important question the authors ask: “Are social media platforms really creating a space for...democracy? Or are they amplifying content that keeps citizens addicted, disinformed, and angry?” Dive into that analysis, here.