Trump ends CIA program in Syria; Turkey Exposes U.S. Special Operations in Syria

SitRep: Trump ends CIA program in Syria; Turkey Exposes U.S. Special Operations in Syria

With Adam Rawnsley

“Putin won in Syria.” In a move with huge implications for the war in Syria, President Trump has decided to shut down the CIA’s covert program to arm and train groups of Syrian rebels fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad, U.S. officials tell the Washington Post.

The move — long sought by Russia — is a major concession to Moscow’s interests, and gives up some American influence in the country after the Islamic State is defeated. “Putin won in Syria,” one current U.S. official told the paper. After the report dropped, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham Tweeted, “If true, I fear this policy will lead to giving yet another Arab capital – Damascus – to the Iranians.”

Turkey sucker punches U.S. Special Ops. The Pentagon is calling out Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news agency for publishing the locations of several U.S. bases in Syria used as staging areas for supporting the anti-Islamic State coalition and “expos[ing] Coalition forces to unnecessary risk.” Reuters reports that Defense Department spokesman Eric Pahon said the Pentagon “would be very concerned if officials from a NATO ally would purposefully endanger our forces by releasing sensitive information.” Given this Ankara-sanctioned leak that put American lives at risk, might be time for concern.

Afghanistan. Still and always Afghanistan. President Trump called a rare meeting of his entire national security team on Wednesday to talk through options on Afghanistan policy. While the policy is still in the works, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has been given the authority to send as many as 3,900 more troops to Afghanistan, but has yet to act on it. The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe spoke to a former U.S. official who told him Mattis is “clearly being cautious about cashing that check…Mattis is either not persuaded that there’s a strategic rationale for the troops or he’s not persuaded that the decision will ultimately fly with the president — or both.”

Pentagon to the Hill. Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joe Dunford briefed the Senate on the ISIS fight on Wednesday in a closed door session, and reactions from lawmakers were mixed. The Hill reports that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters afterward that “there’s just a lot more clarity, a lot more focus on annihilation. A lot of partnering with other countries is building tremendously. You can just tell there’s a renewed energy, renewed focus and they are not playing around.”

But Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said she didn’t hear anything new. “It was a more comprehensive look at what the situation was on the ground in the region, which was very nice to have, but there wasn’t anything new in terms of what they’re proposing to do next.”

Trump, NSC not on same page with Russia. Top U.S. officials are uneasy with president Trump’s public and private embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the AP provides more evidence of the growing tensions:

“The three foreign officials who have spoken with top Trump advisers described a disconnect, or ‘mixed signals,’ between Trump and his team over Russia, highlighting a lack of a clear policy. U.S. officials echoed that sentiment, with one saying diplomats and intelligence officials were ‘dumbfounded’ by the president’s approach, particularly given the evidence of Russia’s election meddling.”

National Security Advisor Lt. Gen H.R. McMaster “expressed his disapproval of Trump’s course to foreign officials during the lead-up to his trip to Germany. The general specifically said he’d disagreed with Trump’s decision to hold an Oval Office meeting in May with top Russian diplomats and with the president’s general reluctance to speak out against Russian aggression in Europe, according to the three foreign officials.”

Weeks ago, FP reported on tensions in the West Wing surrounding McMaster, and the unhappiness among some in Trump’s inner circle with the national security advisor.

Revolving door is wide open. The day that Boeing vice president Patrick Shanahan took over as the No. 2 civilian official at the Pentagon, the White House announced its intention to nominate Raytheon executive Mark Esper for Army secretary. Esper, who is now Raytheon’s vice president of government relations is the Trump administration’s third choice for the position, after nominees Vincent Viola dropped out upon deciding not to walk away from his business interests, and the second, Tennessee Republican state Sen. Mark Green, withdrew over controversial statements he’d made about LGBT rights and Muslims.

The White House also named A. Wess Mitchell to be an Assistant Secretary of State, European and Eurasian Affairs. Mitchell co-founded the Center for European Policy Analysis and has served as its President and CEO since 2009.

Macron vs. French military. Well, that  escalated quickly. New French President Emmanuel Macron says he’s the boss, and the French military leadership better fall in line. One general who refused was the country’s top military officer, who resigned Wednesday rather than agree to budget cuts.

Gen. Pierre De Villiers was replaced by Gen. Francois Lecointre as the new chief of staff of the armed forces. Here’s a remarkable video of De Villiers exiting his headquarters to a standing ovation by dozens of fellow officers and civilian staff. And a solid analysis of the situation from the German Marshall Fund.

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Our man in Washington. NPR reports that Anatoly Antonov, Moscow’s newly-appointed ambassador the U.S., has a reputation for being tough to get along with — a reflection of the fact that Russia had originally expected him to be its ambassador under a Hillary Clinton presidency. Former U.S. officials who’ve dealt with Antonov describe him as intelligent and a hard-nosed negotiator with plenty of experience sparring against American counterparts in arms control negotiations.

Out. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has fired Paul Behrends, an aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), after The Atlantic reported on concerns in the State Department that a Rohrabacher-led 2016 congressional delegation to Russia was taking meetings with members of Russia’s domestic intelligence agency. Behrends traveled on the delegation with Rohrabacher on the delegation and reportedly shares his pro-Russian views.

Country Reports. The State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism study is out. This year’s report says that the total number of terrorist attacks declined in 2016, singling out Iran as the largest state sponsor of terrorism and the Islamic State as the largest perpetrator of terrorist attacks.

Hot mic. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was caught on an open mic telling prime minister from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia that Israeli aircraft had struck Syria “dozens of times” in order to prevent the transfer of weapons to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. Israel is widely known to have conducted airstrikes on weapons depots over the course of the Syrian civil war but officials generally refrain from confirming or commenting on the strikes. “I told Putin, when we see them transferring weapons to Hezbollah, we will hurt them,” Netanyahu told the Eastern European leaders.

Neighbors. Israel’s military took reporters to its border with Syria for its first public discussion of its aid program for displaced Syrians living in the area, the Washington Post reports. The Israeli Defense Forces call the program “Good Neighbors” and say it has provided tons of food, fuel, and medicine to an estimated 200,000 civilians living on the Syrian side of the border near the Golan Heights.

Threats. The head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has reacted angrily to the Trump administration’s new sanctions against Guard Corps-related entities, threatening U.S. bases in the Middle East. RFERL reports that Guard Corps chief Mohamed Ali Jafari warned that, “If the United States wants to pursue sanctions against Iran’s defenses and the Guards, then it has to move its regional bases to a distance of about 1,000 kilometers around Iran and be aware that it would pay a high price for any miscalculations.”

Blast from the past. The Islamic State is using motion detectors to trigger improvised explosive devices, using a tactic employed during the occupation of Iraq in the 2000s against Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting around the wall surrounding Raqqa’s Old City section. SDF fighters say the motion sensing bombs have slowed their advance in trying to retake the terrorist group’s capital in Syria.

Gulf feud. The 13 demands have now become the six principles as Qatar’s Middle Eastern adversaries shift their ultimatum to the Gulf kingdom, the BBC reports. The shift from very specific requests like shutting down Al Jazeera to vaguer “principles” like fighting terrorism and ending incitement could be a hint that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt are looking for a face-saving way to end the standoff as Doha holds out against its neighbors.

Unmanned future. China is embracing robots for its ground vehicles, showing off an unmanned military truck under development in a People’s Liberation Army video.

G.I. Jane. Two female sailors have applied for a spot on the Navy SEALs for the first time since the Defense Department opened up special operations combat roles to women.

Photo Credit: BPA via Getty Images

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