Army officer testifies against the president; Esper talks Syrian oil; Iraqi police shoot more protesters; Syrian women fighters worry; And a bit more.
An active duty U.S. Army officer will testify against his commander-in-chief today on Capitol Hill. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who directs European affairs on the National Security Council, plans to tell lawmakers in the House’s impeachment inquiry, “I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend OUR country, irrespective of party or politics,” according to prepared opening remarks, which were obtained by multiple news agencies, including NPR and the New York Times, Monday evening.
Why this matters: “Vindman says he listened in on the July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic political rival, and his son Hunter Biden, who had served on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma,” Reuters reports in a preview of Vindman’s testimony.
Of particular note: Vindman’s official response after his instincts told him something was deeply amiss in that July 25 conversation. Writes the O-5 in his opening statement, “I was concerned by the call. I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government's support of Ukraine. I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained. This would all undermine U.S. national security. Following the call, I again reported my concerns to NSC's lead counsel.”
Tweeted RAND's Courtney Weinbaum this morning: "Freedom is a member of the military speaking out against a President to the Legislative Branch without fear of beheading or torture. I don't know how the next two years will unfold, but in 50 years from now, history will remember this."
The expected GOP response: Ignore the substance of Vindman’s remarks and attack the process by which we’re learning about them. Sen. Lindsey Graham is returning to this approach today, tweeting “Clearly Democrats continue to leak behind closed door testimony to damage President @realDonaldTrump. The NY Times story is Exhibit A in their ongoing efforts to use a sham process for the purpose of driving down Trump’s approval rating. It should come to an immediate end.”
Protests over process may be dampened temporarily by a federal judge’s ruling Friday that the House’s impeachment inquiry is indeed harmonious with requirements laid out in the Constitution. As expected, the Justice Department appealed that ruling on Monday, Politico reports. And that all could come to a new head as early as noon today, when the judge required Democrats respond to the Justice Department’s Monday appeal over process. Read on, here.
Meanwhile, the full House could vote as early as this week “on procedures for moving into the public phase of the impeachment inquiry,” Reuters writes.
Next up after Vindman: Kathryn Wheelbarger, acting assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, and “two State Department officials who are experts on Ukraine, Catherine Croft and Christopher Anderson," with those discussions scheduled for Wednesday. Then "On Thursday, Timothy Morrison, another NSC staff member, is due to appear." More from Reuters, here.
From Defense One
Pentagon Vows to Guard the Syrian Oil That Trump Wants to Seize // Katie Bo Williams: That includes warding off Syrian and Russian forces, SecDef Esper says, with murky justification under domestic and international law.
Syrian Women Helped Find Baghdadi, Beat ISIS, Will Face ‘Tough Time’ Ahead, Leader Says // Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: 'We will continue our resistance and our struggle,' says the head of the all-women’s YPJ, in a rare interview.
Killing Terrorist Leaders Gets Attention, But It Doesn’t Stop Terrorism // Kathy Gilsinan, The Atlantic: Baghdadi’s death is indeed a turning point in the War on Terror, just as Osama bin Laden’s was in 2011. It’s just not clear what the war is turning to.
ISIS Lost Its Land. Then It Began to Lose Its Ability to Inspire. // Graeme Wood: As with Osama bin Laden, the most intriguing fact about Baghdadi’s assassination was its location, deep in what was considered enemy territory.
Welcome to this Tuesday 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 1901, anarchist Leon Czolgosz was electrocuted in New York’s Auburn Prison at about seven in the morning. Fifty-three days earlier, Czolgosz shot U.S. President William McKinley at point blank range in Buffalo, N.Y. McKinley died eight days later. As historian Barbara Tuchman wrote in 1962, “So enchanting was the vision of a stateless society, without government, without law, without ownership of property, in which, corrupt institutions having been swept away, man would be free to be as God intended him, that six heads of state were assassinated for its sake in the twenty years before 1914. They were President Carnot of France in 1894, Premier Canovas of Spain in 1897, Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898, King Humbert of Italy in 1900, President McKinley of the United States in 1901, and another Premier of Spain, Canalejas, in 1912. Not one could qualify as a tyrant. Their deaths were the gestures of desperate or deluded men to call attention to the Anarchist idea.”
We learned a bit more about the weekend raid that killed former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. For example, the operation was named after Kayla Mueller, an American aid worker who was kidnapped from Syria in August 2013 and held by ISIS before she was killed in 2015, the Washington Post reports.
The operation also involved a Kurdish intelligence source who led the U.S. to Baghdadi’s compound, Fox’s Jennifer Griffin reported Monday. Reuters’ Phil Stewart wondered if this means the Syrian Democratic Forces are claiming the $25 million reward offered by the U.S. to find Baghdadi… more to follow there perhaps later.
There was also quite a bit of chatter about the dog used for the raid, with speculation over what his name ought to be, and reporting over what his name actually is.
But there wasn’t nearly as much chatter about the legality of the U.S. military seizing control of Syrian oil fields, a mandate by the president that does not appear to have any solid legal footing, as Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams reported Monday.
The Pentagon’s top leadership spoke to reporters for 16 minutes Monday, Defense News’s Aaron Mehta noted. When asked if that U.S. military mission in Syria now includes denying access to the Syrian regime and its Russian backers, Defense Secretary Mark Esper replied, “So the short answer is yes, it presently does, because in that case we want to make sure that [the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces] does have access to the resources in order to guard the prisons [of ISIS fighters], in order to arm their own troops, in order to assist us with the Defeat-ISIS mission. So that's our mission, is to secure the oil fields.”
However, “Legally—under both international law and domestic law—the United States is in Syria only to fight ISIS,” Williams writes. As for going beyond that to, as Trump said Sunday, seize Syria’s oil and “make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly,” Williams reports that “Former defense officials and legal analysts say [that] would be patently illegal under both domestic and international law.”
Another big problem with this: “Statements such as these [seizing another nation’s resources] give these other powers vying for greater influence in Syria more justification for launching attacks against Americans or their local partners on the ground, by claiming they are protecting a sovereign nation's natural resources from outside invaders,” U.S. News’s Paul Shinkman reported after speaking to Nicholas Heras of the Center for a New American Security's Middle East Program.
Said Trump Monday during remarks in Chicago (AP): “We’re keeping the oil… Remember that, I’ve always said that. Keep the oil. We want to keep the oil — $45 million a month — keep the oil. We’ve secured the oil.”
Here’s a bit more about the oil trade in eastern Syria, via AP: Since removing ISIS from the vicinity in 2018, “A quiet arrangement has existed between the Kurds and the Syrian government, whereby Damascus buys the surplus through middlemen in a profitable smuggling operation that has continued despite political differences. The Kurdish-led administration sells crude oil to private refiners, who use home-made primitive refineries to process fuel and diesel and sell it back to the Kurdish-led administration.” More here.
Meantime, defense officials "are trying to better control the messaging to lessen the possibility of an international backlash against the new U.S. strategy," Will Todman, an associate fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Middle East Program, told U.S. News.
What’s more, “There is no congressional authorization for direct or sustained military action against Iran,” which is also one of the justifications given by the U.S. military for moving into eastern Syria’s oil fields, Defense One’s Williams writes. Even seen through a strictly counter-ISIS lens, using U.S. military assets to safeguard the oil fields on behalf of the SDF is on a “wafer-thin legal basis,” said one former defense official, because the SDF is itself not a sovereign nation. Read on, here.
Iraqi security forces kill at least 18 protesters. Wearing masks and black plainclothes, government officers “opened fire at protesters in the Shiite holy city of Karbala on Tuesday, killing 18 people and wounding hundreds, security officials said, in one of the deadliest single attacks since the country was engulfed by protests this month,” NBC News reports.
In all, 221 protesters have been killed by police and security forces this month, by NBC’s count, while protesting government corruption and lack of services.
ICYMI: All this creates “military and political opportunities” for Iran and its proxies, Ketti Davison, the retired U.S. Army colonel who directs innovation and tradecraft at the Institute for the Study of War, wrote last week. Tehran fears that the largely Shi’a protests will infect its own population, and so is sending its own militia and security forces to help quell them. Yet: “The more Iran enables a heavy-handed approach to the Iraq protests, the more it will erode support for the government it is trying to stabilize and accelerate the spillover it is trying to prevent.” Read on, here.