Pence seeks Syrian ceasefire; SOF troops speak out; DOD rebuffs House subpoena; Robotanks meet bandwidth limits; And a bit more.
VP Pence leads a high-level delegation to Turkey today to “voice the United States’ commitment to reach an immediate ceasefire and the conditions for a negotiated settlement,” the White House announced Tuesday afternoon, shortly after the second close encounter between U.S. and Turkish-backed forces in northern Syria, and amid signs Turkey is having trouble in at least one town (Ras al-Ayn) it claimed to have captured two days ago.
To repeat: President Trump is sending Pence to Ankara to obtain a ceasefire for Turkey’s eight-day-old offensive in northern Syria — an offensive that has almost completely pushed the U.S. out of northern Syria and allowed the Russian military to move in (check out this video illustrating that) as Turkey still has a long way to go to reach its original objectives, as Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams reported Tuesday.
Turkey: “We will never declare a ceasefire,” Turkish President Recep Erdogan said (Reuters) on Tuesday, shortly after the Pence’s travel announcement. “They are pressuring us to stop the operation. They are announcing sanctions. Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions.”
Tagging along with Pence: State Secretary Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, and the White House’s Syrian envoy, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey.
The big meeting is slated for Thursday when the U.S. delegation is set to meet with Erdogan. Actually, make that just Pence and Pompeo, the Turkish prez said today to reporters.
New today: Erdogan seeks a way out, and is officially calling on the Kurds “to lay down their arms, leave their equipment, destroy the traps they have created and leave the safe zone we as designated, as of tonight,” the Associated Press reports. “If this is done, our Operation Peace Spring will end by itself.”
A second close encounter between U.S. and Turkish-backed forces happened Tuesday “near Ayn Issa, a town 18 miles from the Turkish border, where U.S. troops withdrew from their positions earlier this week,” ABC News reported.
What happened: The U.S. military called up F-15s and Apache helicopter gunships after Turkish-backed militiamen “came very close to a base used by U.S. and Kurdish forces, putting the U.S. forces at risk" and "violat[ing] a standing agreement with the U.S. not to get close enough to threaten U.S. troops,” a U.S. official told Fox.
"U.S. forces responded with a show of force using aircraft to demonstrate the forces were prepared to defend themselves, as well as communication with the Turkish military through formal channels to protest the risk to U.S. forces," another U.S. official told NPR. Said another to the Wall Street Journal: “It’s a volatile, dangerous situation and we are focused on doing an orderly and deliberate withdrawal…with the number one priority being the protection of our forces.”
Another perhaps unforeseen consequence of the U.S. retreat from northern Syria: It’s driven France closer to Russia, given their “common interests” in defeating ISIS, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in an interview on French television channel BFM today. AP reports le Drian also "called on European and other members of the coalition fighting the IS in Syria to regroup as the U.S. appeared to abdicate its leadership role in the region." More here.
Next up for le Drian: A trip to Baghdad to talk about, among other things, how “to find a judicial system that could try all these [captured ISIS] fighters, including the French ones,” Reuters reports. Background there: “European states are trying to fast-track a plan to shift thousands of foreign Islamic State militants out of Syrian prison camps and into Iraq, after the outbreak of fresh conflict in Syria raised the risk of jihadists escaping or returning home.” Read on, here.
From Defense One
The US Exported Arms Worth $55B in the Past Year // Marcus Weisgerber: That’s almost exactly the same as in fiscal 2018.
Weapons Makers Unveil A Herd of Robotanks— As the Army Worries about Battlefield Bandwidth // Patrick Tucker: The U.S. Army is determined to field a mid-sized combat robot vehicle, but the prototypes are outstripping the datalinks that would connect them.
‘Silent Warriors’ Speak Out Against Trump’s Syria Turnaround // Kevin Baron: America’s elite special operators are breaking their wall of silence like never before, 'betrayed' by Trump’s decision to pull back in Syria and erase years of hard work. But are they too late?
Boeing’s 737 Woes Aren’t Hurting Its Pursuit of Military Contracts, Exec Says // Marcus Weisgerber: The company is still sinking its own cash into prototypes that can help it win long-term work.
Welcome to this Wednesday 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 1962, the first day of what we now call the “Cuban missile crisis” began when at 8:45 a.m. President Kennedy was informed that the Soviets erected a base in Cuba believed to house medium-range ballistic missiles. Read over a chronology of the episode’s fateful 13 days via George Washington University’s National Security Archive, here.
Rudy Giuliani can’t stay out of the news. Amid all the recent Turkey uproar, the president’s attorney reportedly pressed Trump to eject a Muslim cleric from the U.S. and to Turkey, which just so happened to be a top priority for Erdogan — and for former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, the Washington Post reported Tuesday evening.
Why this could be a problem: These “earlier attempts to persuade the president to turn over the Turkish cleric represent another instance in which he appears to have been pushing a shadow foreign policy from his perch outside government.” According to the Post’s Josh Dawsey, “Others in [the] White House were appalled & thought Rudy was doing Turkey’s bidding and told him it violated legal process & could hurt him politically.” Meantime, “Federal investigators are examining Giuliani’s business dealings with two former associates who were arrested last week on campaign finance charges… Giuliani has denied any wrongdoing.” When asked to elaborate, the president’s attorney replied via text message, “I will not participate in an illegitimate, unconstitutional, and baseless ‘impeachment inquiry.’” More from the Post, here.
Related: The Pentagon is refusing to comply with House investigators’ request for documents relating to why U.S. military aid to Ukraine was delayed ahead of the now-famous July 25 phone call between President Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart, Politico’s Jake Sherman reported Tuesday afternoon. In case you’ve lost track, we’re in now week four of impeachment hearings, Fox reminded readers Tuesday in its impeachment status report folding in developments with Giuliani and the Defense Department's Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs, Robert Hood (more on him below).
And news of the Pentagon’s non-compliance broke shortly after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters (CNN) on Tuesday that the Constitution does not require a full House vote to authorize an impeachment inquiry; rather it grants the House “sole power of impeachment,” and that the House “may determine the rules of its proceedings.” Lawfare’s Susan Hennessey, Molly Reynolds and Margaret L. Taylor explain the formalities with both of these strategies — the first from the Constitution’s text, and the second from the White House and Republican lawmakers’ apparently legally untenable but growing insistence that the Constitution is to be upheld differently — here.
At stake: the “perception of legitimacy.” The quick read from Lawfare: “The House has the authority to organize an impeachment matter in any way it chooses. Beyond that, a full House vote would be largely symbolic.”
And to be clear, they remind readers, “It is up to the House of Representatives, and not the White House, to decide what procedures will be used in the case of impeachment. There is nothing in the Constitution nor in the House rules that requires a vote to begin an impeachment inquiry.” (Here’s another useful Lawfare analysis on the House’s powers during impeachment inquiries. FWIW: USA Today’s editorial board breaks down Pelosi’s dilemma with a formal House vote, which — like Lawfare’s Hennessey, Reynolds and Taylor write — is something the House speaker doesn’t have to do, but they write, she should.)
The Pentagon appears to be sticking with the WH and GOP’s interpretation of the Constitution in the Ukraine document request, with Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs Robert Hood writing to House investigators, “the House has not authorized your committees to conduct any such [impeachment] inquiry.” Hood also invoked likely executive privilege in considering the House’s request for documents; he also said the Defense Department couldn’t possibly obtain all the documents House investigators requested in the eight-day timeline given. Read the rest of that two-page response, here.
One perceptual gain from all this debate over a formal House vote: It shifts attention away from the Oval Office, diverting public discussion to debates over process (like this argument from the White House Tuesday, since no GOP lawmakers are eager to talk about foreign interference in U.S. elections) rather than discussion of increasingly substantiated allegations of unpresidential behavior.
Parting thought from Lawfare’s Hennessey, Reynolds, and Taylor (emphasis added): “At the end of the day, it is for the House and not the president to determine the appropriate procedures for this impeachment inquiry. But Congress has reason to care about procedural fairness and perceptions of legitimacy, unrelated to capitulating to the president’s specious assertions. It is the duty of Congress to shepherd the nation through this grave moment in a manner that eliminates as much noise surrounding the proceedings as possible and that focuses on the core, uncontested conduct at issue—Trump’s efforts to pressure Zelensky and others into investigating the Bidens—and whether it represents an impeachable abuse of office.” Read their full analysis, here.
U.S. cyberattacks Iran after Saudi oil strikes, Reuters is reporting, citing two unnamed U.S. officials. Details are sparse; the officials said the late-September operation aimed to reduce “Tehran’s ability to spread ‘propaganda’” by affecting physical hardware.
The quiet operation reflects the Trump administration’s struggle to punish the country it blames for the Sept. 14 strike, reimpose deterrence, and yet not escalate into wider war, Reuters writes.
And finally today: Mo’ robots, mo’ bandwidth problems. Robot vehicles — including one that resembles a tank — are among the stars of the show at the big AUSA conference in Washington this week, thanks to the Army’s declaration that its top procurement priorities include a medium-sized unmanned combat vehicle. But Army officials are having trouble figuring out how to maintain the fat wireless data pipes that would connect robotic vehicles and their commanders in austere locations. Defense One Tech Editor Patrick Tucker reports from AUSA, here.