Iraq to US: troops can’t stay; Russia, Turkey plan Syrian patrols; Damning testimony on Ukraine; New Monuments Men; And a bit more.
Iraq gives the U.S. four weeks to remove forces withdrawn from Syria, Iraqi Defense Minister Najah al-Shammari told the Associated Press today in Baghdad.
Don’t get too comfortable, was al-Shammari’s message to his U.S. counterpart, Defense Secretary Mark Esper. The several hundred Americans who have left (or will soon leave) Syria are just “transiting” through neighboring Iraq, and must proceed on to Kuwait, Qatar, or the United States “within a time frame not exceeding four weeks,” al-Shammari told AP.
Seriously, don’t get comfortable. In fact, AP writes, “The Iraqi minister said the planes that would transport the American troops out of Iraq have already arrived.”
Back in Syria: Russia’s military will soon patrol alongside Turkish troops in northern Syria, which is a tidy switch from the U.S. and Turkey conducting joint patrols along the Turkey-Syria border just 20 days ago. That change in procedure for what could be a “buffer” or “safe zone” was announced by the presidents of Turkey and Russia after meeting Tuesday in Sochi.
But before those joint patrols: Turkish-Russian forces will “remove” Kurdish YPG forces from the Syria-Turkey border, the Washington Post reported Tuesday off a document circulated after the Sochi summit. And that YPG clearance operation will span “hundreds of miles from the Euphrates River to Iraq and more than 20 miles deep, beginning at noon Wednesday,” according to the agreement’s fifth point.
Russia's warning to the Syrian Kurds today: Turkey will crush you if you don't "withdraw from Syria’s entire northeastern border," Reuters reports this morning from Moscow. And in what would seem like an effort to rub salt in America's wounds in this whole withdrawal deal, Kremlin spox Dmitry Peskov quipped, “Now they (the Americans) prefer to leave the Kurds at the border and almost force them to fight the Turks.”
One change of plans for Turkey: Officials had been talking about building 12 new observations posts along the Turkey-Syria border; but with the Russian and Syrian militaries moving up, that appears to be off, Reuters reports. A bit more, here.
The White House’s Syrian envoy, Amb. Jim Jeffrey, tried to explain the current situation to skeptical lawmakers Tuesday on Capitol Hill — lawmakers who the Post writes “battered” Jeffrey with pointed questions about the administration’s lack of planning for the Syrian withdrawal. For example, during the hearing, “Both Republicans and Democrats dismissed Jeffrey’s insistence that U.S. goals in Syria — to prevent an Islamic State resurgence, to remove Assad’s Iranian allies from the country, and to establish a working democracy in Syria — remained intact.”
And is there a plan for the U.S. military in northern Syria? Kind of, Jeffrey said; but not really because it’s not completed yet, Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams reported from the hearing. “We’re reviewing how we are going to continue to maintain a relationship with the [Syrian Democratic Forces], maintain the fight against ISIS along the Euphrates, and how we’re going to contribute in some way to the stability of that region that’s just been torn asunder by the Turks going in, with the tools available to us,” Jeffrey said, adding, “We haven’t completed that review yet, but it’s ongoing.”
Said Jeffrey of the Turkey-Russia deal: “All I know is, it will stop the Turks from moving forward. Whether the Russians will ever live up to their commitment, which is very vague, to enable… methods to get the [Kurdish] YPG out of their areas, I don’t know.”
Lest there be any ambiguity, AP summarizes Tuesday’s developments in Syria:
- “The biggest winners are Turkey and Russia. Turkey would get sole control over areas of the Syrian border captured in its invasion, while Turkish, Russian and Syrian government forces would oversee the rest of the border region. America’s former U.S. allies, the Kurdish fighters, are left hoping Moscow and Damascus will preserve some pieces of the Syrian Kurdish autonomy in the region.”
Tweeted President Donald Trump early Tuesday evening: “Good news seems to be happening with respect to Turkey, Syria and the Middle East. Further reports to come later!”
Tweeted President Donald Trump this morning: “Big success on the Turkey/Syria Border. Safe Zone created! Ceasefire has held and combat missions have ended. Kurds are safe and have worked very nicely with us. Captured ISIS prisoners secured. I will be making a statement at 11:00 A.M. from the White House. Thank you!”
And in case you missed that last point: Trump will be delivering remarks on Syria today at 11 a.m. EDT. Catch it streamed live on the White House’s YouTube page, here.
Scheduled for the same time: CENTCOM's Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. keynotes the 28th Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington.
More on ISIS prisoners now on the loose after the jump.
From Defense One
We're Still In the Fight, Trump’s Syria Envoy Tells Skeptical Lawmakers // Katie Bo Williams, Defense One: Amb. Jim Jeffrey denied the U.S. withdrawal has ceded influence to Russia, and declined to reveal his personal opinion of it.
Esper Recuses Himself from JEDI Cloud-Contract Review // Frank R. Konkel, Nextgov: Nearly three months after he put the program on hold, the defense secretary has concluded that his son's job prevents him from overseeing it.
Facebook, Czech Republic Shut Down More Russian Influence, Espionage Efforts // Patrick Tucker: Facebook announced a takedown of Russian-government connected accounts. But experts say that the U.S. isn’t doing enough.
Russian Hackers Used Stolen Iranian Malware to Attack 35 Countries, NSA Says // Jack Corrigan, Nextgov: U.S. and British authorities said the Turla group is piggy-backing off the work of Iranian rivals to advance its own agenda.
Will America's Next Long-Range Air-to-Air Missile Match Up to China's? // Douglas Barrie: The Air Force says the AIM-260 won't be powered by a ramjet. Does it have another trick up its sleeve?
The US Has Supported Lebanon’s Corrupt Ruling Class Long Enough // Antoun Issa: As protestors rage against oligarchs, the United States should end its stability-minded approach and foster political and economic reform.
Welcome to this Wednesday 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 1983, two suicide truck bombers struck U.S. and French military barracks just moments apart in Beirut, killing almost 300 people, including 241 Americans. Four months later, the U.S. military withdrew from Lebanon. The New Yorker’s Robin Wright just published a short essay today about the commonalities between that day 36 years ago and America’s present military withdrawal from Syria, here.
About 100 or so ISIS fighters have broken free from prison thanks to Turkey’s offensive, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday.
The good news is it’s only 100 and not 11,000, Esper said. "We've only had reports of a little bit more than 100 that have escaped,” he told Amanpour. “So right now we have not seen this big prison break that we all expected, so that's the good news piece." More from that interview, here.
Wanna go inside an ISIS prison? The New York Times’ photographer Ivor Prickett visited two of them in northeastern Syria and came back with remarkable photos and video.
Some of what you’ll see: “prisoners cover[ing] the floor like a carpet of human despair,” writes the Times’ Ben Hubbard. “Many are missing eyes or limbs, some are bone-thin from sickness, and most wear orange jumpsuits.” There were a couple self-proclaimed cooks in the group. And as you might imagine, “In dozens of interviews in two prisons, no one admitted to being a fighter.”
What’s more, “jammed into two cells with little sunlight, are more than 150 children — aged roughly 9 to 14 — from a range of countries. Their parents brought them to Syria and ended up dead or detained. The children have been here for months and have no idea where their relatives are or what the future holds.”
Worth noting: “Little about the minors’ conditions in the Kurdish-run prison appeared to meet international standards… One crowded cell held 86 minors — from Syria, Iraq, Mauritius, Russia and elsewhere. Another held 67 adolescents and a boy who said he was 9 and from Russia.” Read on, here.
You may be wondering: What’s going on with all those Turkey sanctions bills U.S. lawmakers circulated last Thursday? Vox today reports one from the House could “come to the floor next week.” Meantime, “In the Senate, a subset of Republicans are also working on sanctions against Turkey, though its prospects seem a little less promising.” More from Vox, here.
A diplomat’s damning Ukraine testimony. The Trump administration withheld military aid intended to help fight Russian invaders in a bid to dig up dirt on a political rival of President Trump’s, the head of the U.S. diplomatic mission to Kyiv told Congress on Tuesday.
Reluctant return: Amb. William Taylor had accepted a second posting to Ukraine only after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised him that the Trump administration was committed to helping Kyiv fight off Russia and bulwark Europe against authoritarianism. But soon after Taylor arrived in June, the West Pointer-turned-tenured diplomat learned that “there was an irregular, informal channel of U.S. policy-making with respect to Ukraine, one which included then-Special Envoy Kurt Volker, Ambassador [Gordon] Sondland, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, and as I subsequently learned, Mr. [Rudy] Giuliani,” Taylor wrote in a 15-page opening statement to House investigators.
The aim of that channel: to persuade Ukraine’s new president to pursue investigations that might reveal information of use to Trump in his 2020 reelection campaign, Taylor wrote.
Nine hours behind closed doors. Taylor spoke to House lawmakers investigating Trump for possible impeachment on Tuesday, the Washington Post reported.
Even Taylor’s written statement is a pretty gripping read, and not just by the standards of congressional testimony. Read the 15-page pdf (via the Washington Post), here.
Coming today: Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant defense secretary for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, is expected to testify to House investigators, Reuters reports.
Afghan peace talks move to China. A Taliban spokesman said his group will meet with “prominent Afghans from Kabul” in China on Oct. 28 and 29, AP reports today. It’s the first such meeting since July talks in Doha, Qatar. And for the record, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's staff isn't speaking about those China talks other than to say a “sustainable peace” is only possible if the Afghan government leads the negotiations... which is both consistent, and not a terribly encouraging sign at the moment.
Meantime, the U.S. State Department says America’s Afghan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, has launched new talks with “European, NATO and U.N. allies” and will later meet with Russian and Chinese representatives “to discuss shared interests in seeing the war in Afghanistan come to an end,” AP reports.
Reminder: Trump scuttled Khalilzad’s nearly-signed peace deal in September after a wave of Taliban attacks.
More delays for America’s newest aircraft carrier. Navy officials said various problems may keep the USS Ford from deploying until 2024, six years late.
Ford is currently a “$13-billion nuclear-powered floating berthing barge,” Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., said at the Tuesday hearing where the new date was revealed. USNI News, here.
Esper recuses himself from JEDI decisions. On Aug. 1, weeks after Trump said he was troubled by the selection process for the Pentagon’s $10-billion cloud-computing contract, the brand-new defense secretary put the program on hold for a review.
Nearly three months later, that review has borne its first fruits: Esper says he won’t be taking part in it, because his son works for Microsoft, one of the bidders. The review will be carried on by Deputy Secretary David Norquist, a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday. Read on, here.
Related reading: Why Trump Cares About the Pentagon’s Mega-Cloud — and Why That Terrifies Those Who Want It
More reading: Esper’s Foot-Dragging on Mega-Cloud Doesn’t Pass the Smell Test
Heads up: India is about to launch something into the sky, possibly a two-stage medium range ballistic missile, Ankit Panda guesses after glimpsing the cleared air sectors. The dates of expected launch span today through Friday.
And lastly today: latter-day Monuments Men. The U.S. Army Reserves has established a new unit “to protect antiquities and important cultural sites in war zones," the New York Times reported this week. The effort was inspired by the World War II-era Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, which found and returned thousands of artworks looted by the Nazis.
Looking for a few good museum experts: “The Army is training a new group with a similar mandate to be composed of commissioned officers of the Army Reserves who are museum directors or curators, archivists, conservators and archaeologists in addition to new recruits with those qualifications. They will be based at the Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C.” Read on, here.