THE TURKISH THICKET: President Trump will wade into the latest point of tension between the U.S. and NATO ally Turkey, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to press ahead with his attacks against Kurdish fighters in the north of Syria, who are among America’s chief allies in the fight against the Islamic State. Trump is scheduled to speak by phone with Erdogan today in an effort to persuade one U.S. ally to stop attacking another. “We want them to de-escalate. I think you can expect that to be part of the conversation,” said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who promised a readout of the call later today.
Turkey says its offensive, which began Saturday, has killed 260 Kurdish and ISIS fighters in the Afrin region, and says the military operation is necessary to create a buffer zone to secure its southern border with Syria. Erdogan has been infuriated over the U.S. support of the Kurdish militia, in particular the YPG, which Turkey considers a wing of a terrorist group. Turkey also accuses the U.S. of breaking several promises, including to stop supporting the Kurdish forces, once ISIS was defeated. He also said the U.S. is failing to take back weapons that are now being used against Turkey
WORDS MATTER: The already frayed relationship with Ankara was made worse when the U.S. initially described its assistance to Kurds in the north as aimed at creating a border security force, sending Turkish officials into a rage. Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson admitted the U.S. gaffe worsened the situation. “Some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” Tillerson told reporters traveling with him. “I think it’s unfortunate that comments were made by some that left that impression. That is not what we’re doing.”
The U.S. has tried to convince Turkey that its assistance to the Kurds in the northern border region is limited to improving local policing and security. “We have shared with the Turks what we are doing is we are trying to ensure that local elements are providing security to liberated areas,” he said. “So this is just more training and trying to block ISIS from their escape routes.”
ISIS FIGHT ‘FAR FROM OVER’: The U.S. is concerned that the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is about half-Kurd and half-Arab, will turn away from the fight against ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley area in order to protect their families in Afrin and Manbij. As if to underscore the point, the U.S. announced a series of precision airstrikes four days ago targeting an ISIS headquarters where it appeared a heavy concentration of fighters were massing for movement. The U.S.-led coalition said it estimates between 145-150 fighters were killed in the strikes near As Shafah, Syria, an area where it says the SDF is "engaged in heavy fighting against hard-core ISIS remnants.” The SDF was credited with spotting the target, and then keeping “eyes on” to ensure against civilian casualties.
“We cannot take our focus off our mission, and we must not lose our momentum in taking these terrorists off the battlefield and preventing them from resurfacing somewhere else," said Maj. Gen. James Jarrard, a U.S. commander. “The strikes underscore our assertion that the fight to liberate Syria is far from over.”
CHEMICAL WEAPONS CHARGE: Tillerson accused the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad of using chlorine gas Monday in a suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus, and blamed Russia for abdicating its responsibility as “guarantor” for ensuring that its Syrian allies cease all use of chemical weapons. “Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in East Ghouta and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons since Russia became involved in Syria,” Tillerson said in Paris.
Russia called the charge a “blatant” and outrageous manipulation” of the facts, but Tillerson said Russia’s responsibility is clear under a 2013 chemical weapons disarmament agreement with the United States. “There is simply no denying that Russia, by shielding its Syrian ally, has breached its commitments to the United States as a framework guarantor,” Tillerson said. “Russia's failure to resolve the chemical weapons issue in Syria calls into question its relevance to the resolution to the overall crisis. At a bare minimum, Russia must stop vetoing and at least abstain from future Security Council votes on this issue.”
RUSSIA’S NEXT MOVE: Meanwhile Russia is reportedly preparing to beef up its air defenses with S-400 missiles in a move some see as an effort to deny the U.S. airspace over Syria. More here.
NORTH KOREA JUST ‘MONTHS AWAY’: CIA Director Mike Pompeo says North Korea is as close as several months away from having the capability of striking the U.S. with a nuclear-tipped ICBM, and he hopes it stays that way, at least for a while. “North Korea's ever closer to being able to hold America at risk,” Pompeo said at an event at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday. “I said that was a handful of months. I want everyone to understand that we are working diligently to make sure that, a year from now, I can still tell you they are several months away from having that capacity.”
While U.S. policy is total and complete denuclearization of North Korea, first there has to be a freeze in any further progress, he said. “But it's the case, in the event we haven't gotten there -- it is still a secondary mission to ensure that we keep them from having that capability,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo said the U.S. sees North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a “rational actor” who is intent on holding onto power and using nuclear weapons to threaten the U.S. and the rest of the world. “It is more than just regime preservation,” Pompeo said. “Coercive is perhaps the best way to think about how Kim Jong Un is prepared to potentially use these weapons.
“That's what Kim Jong Un is driving for. He is trying to put in our mind the reality that he can deliver that pain to the United States of America. And our mission is to make the day that he can do that as far off as possible,” Pompeo said.
FIRST STRIKE? “I'll leave to others to address the capacity or the wisdom of preemptive strike,” Pompeo said. “From an intelligence perspective, we're trying to ensure that all various options that the president might want to consider are fully informed, that we understand what's really going on and the risks associated with each of those decisions as best we can identify them for him.”
THE BEST DEFENSE: The U.S. military says America’s current missile defenses can defend the homeland against a limited attack from North Korea, despite critics who believe the ground-based system has yet to prove its reliability in tests. Bloomberg reports that the missile shield got a qualified vote of confidence in the latest review from Pentagon’s testing office. “The $36 billion system ‘demonstrated the capability to defend the U.S. homeland from a small number’ of intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missiles launched ‘with simple countermeasures,’” Bloomberg quoted Robert Behler, the Pentagon’s new director of operational testing, as writing in his annual report that was submitted Tuesday.
FRAGILE OLYMPIC PEACE: Don’t expect the peaceful interlude of the Winter Olympics to lead to any real breakthrough between North and South Korea, says Mike Green, head of Asia programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In a session with reporters yesterday, Green gave a bit of a reality check, based on recent history.
“The Olympics cannot really solve the fractures in international politics,” Green said. “When you look specifically at the history of North Korean participation in the Olympics and North-South reconciliation, it doesn’t last.
“North Korea will march in the Olympics. They’ll participate in some events. They’ll have a joint North-South hockey team, to the enormous frustration and disappointment of the South Korean hockey players and to a lot of controversy in South Korea,” Green said. “It seems unlikely that this will represent a turning point in North Korea’s very dangerous pursuit of a nuclear weapons arsenal.”
Good Wednesday morning and welcome to Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense, compiled by Washington Examiner National Security Senior Writer Jamie McIntyre (@jamiejmcintyre), National Security Writer Travis J. Tritten (@travis_tritten) and Senior Editor David Brown (@dave_brown24). Email us here for tips, suggestions, calendar items and anything else. If a friend sent this to you and you’d like to sign up, click here. If signing up doesn’t work, shoot us an email and we’ll add you to our list. And be sure to follow us on Twitter @dailyondefense.
CORRECTION: Due to an error in today's Defense Department announcements, the email version of this newsletter said the Senate Armed Services Committee was hosting the military's vice chiefs today. The hearing is next month.
RYAN AND THORNBERRY CODEL: A week after giving an address about boosting defense spending, House Speaker Paul Ryan is headed to the Middle East on a congressional delegation trip with House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry and other chamber lawmakers. The group touched down yesterday for a refueling at Moron Air Base in Spain and met with a rotational Marine Corps Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force, which can provide rapid response troops to Africa in the event of a conflict or humanitarian disaster. The task force was called up to assist during the Benghazi attack in 2012.
Ryan said last week during his address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that he would be visiting troops in Iraq and his office said more stops will be announced. Also on the CODEL trip are Reps. Liz Cheney and Stephanie Murphy, who are both House Armed Services members; Rep. Devin Nunes, the Intelligence Committee chairman; and Rep. Vern Buchanan.
AS PROMISED, AIR WAR ESCALATES: The new more muscular strategy to demoralize the Taliban in Afghanistan and essentially bomb them to the peace table got more firepower this week with the arrival of a squadron of legendary A-10 “Warthogs.” The A-10s, along with more MQ-9 Reapers, HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters, join the formidable air armada the U.S. has assembled to target Taliban drug labs over the winter to deny them their primary sources of funds.
Along with the additional air assets, the U.S. unleashed some more aggressive rhetoric in a statement from Operation Resolute Support. “The Taliban still has not felt the full brunt of American and Afghan air power,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. James Hecker, a U.S. commander in Afghanistan. “In the coming weeks, the A-10’s operations will be integrated into our combined U.S. and Afghan air campaign to deliver destructive precision firepower that sends a strong impactful message to the Taliban,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch.
BOMBS AWAY: The addition of the A-10 to the Afghanistan theater comes as the number of airstrikes has increased dramatically under the Trump strategy. In the last four months of 2017, the U.S. dropped 1,874 bombs or missiles on Afghanistan, compared to only 524 for the same period in 2016, a more than three-fold increase in the pace of operations.
OFF THE ENDANGERED AIRCRAFT LIST: The A-10 nearly faced extinction under the Obama administration, but resistance in Congress, notably from Arizona Rep. Martha McSally, a former A-10 squadron commander, saved the venerated aircraft to fight another day.
“I understand, my predecessor’s situation, that the budget was declining, they had to make choices that they probably would not have tried to make if they weren’t under both the sequester and the budget pressure that they faced,” said Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in an interview with the Washington Examiner. “Our intention is to keep the A-10 in the inventory. I think we need more squadrons not less.”
AMERICANS AMONG DEAD IN KABUL ATTACK: The State Department has confirmed that several Americans were among those killed or injured in this weekend’s attack on a hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Twenty-two people were killed in the Taliban attack, including 14 non-Afghans. Among the fatalities were six Ukrainians, two Venezuelan pilots, a Kazakhstan citizen, and a German, according to the Associated Press. The wire service also reports this morning that a group of gunmen stormed a non-governmental children’s organization in eastern Nangarhar province, killing two people.
AFGHANS GOT PASSES ON RIGHTS ABUSES: The Pentagon continued financing some Afghan security force units accused of gross human rights violations despite federal law that is supposed to bar such support, according to a newly declassified report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The report found that in 2015 the Pentagon interpreted a clause in the so-called Leahy law, named after Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, in a way that allowed it to back a dozen Afghan units that had been implicated in 14 human rights violations two years earlier. The findings are “inexcusable,” Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, told the Washington Examiner.
The Pentagon challenged the criticism, saying it needs flexibility to balance the law with national security and protection of deployed U.S. forces. The SIGAR “report does not fully convey the unique and difficult challenges of implementing the Leahy law in Afghanistan consistent with both the U.S. commitment to human rights and U.S. national security objectives in Afghanistan,” Jedidiah Royal, the acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, wrote in a response to the special inspector general’s draft report in May.
CLOSING THE LOOPHOLE: Leahy and the Senate Appropriations Committee are now aiming to close the legal loophole used by the Pentagon, called the “notwithstanding clause” of the Leahy law. The committee has proposed eliminating it as part of its proposed 2018 defense funding bill. The committee also said it expects the military to notify Congress and seek a special waiver before funding any groups accused of abuses in the future. The fate of the defense budget legislation remains uncertain and tied up in the political wrangling that shut down the government over the weekend.
NFL REBUFFS AMVETS ON SUPER BOWL STAND: The NFL says its printed Super Bowl game program is no place for politics and has rejected a proposed advertisement by a national veteran’s group asking fans to stand for the national anthem. The group AMVETS proposed the full-page ad showing an American flag with the hashtag #PleaseStand for the printed program. But the league wanted changes to the image, which is a reference to the controversy over players taking a knee during the anthem to protest civil injustice. “We said, no, we don’t want to rewrite this thing, this is the important message that we have,” said Joe Chenelly, national executive director of AMVETS. “We’re not looking for the mundane, we are looking for an important message that we thought was pertinent to this audience.”
A third-party agency producing the Super Bowl programs had offered AMVETS the nonprofit rate of $30,000 to purchase the ad space. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league asked the veterans group to consider using the slogan “Please Honor Our Veterans” or “Please Stand for Our Veterans.” But AMVETS felt those alternatives were too generic. “The Super Bowl game program is designed for fans to commemorate and celebrate the game, players, teams and the Super Bowl,” McCarthy said. “It’s never been a place for advertising that could be considered by some as a political statement.”
TRUMP: GOOD LISTENER, HARD QUESTIONER: Trump asks "sophisticated questions" during his daily intelligence briefings and often remembers details he learned weeks or months prior, Pompeo said at the AEI event yesterday. "I have seen 25-year intelligence professionals receive briefings," Pompeo said. "I would tell you that President Trump is the kind of recipient of our information at the same level that they are."
Pompeo, who said he delivers Trump an intelligence briefing nearly every day, pushed back on reports that Trump struggles to absorb information provided to him by the intelligence community. "The president asks hard questions. He's deeply engaged. We'll have [a] rambunctious back and forth," Pompeo said.
QUITE THE WELCOME: “U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis saw Indonesian troops drink snake blood, roll in glass, break bricks with their heads, walk on fire, and more, in a rare military demonstration on Wednesday meant to show the unique skills of Indonesia’s military,” Reuters reports.
“Perhaps the highlight was a demonstration involving live snakes, which Indonesian forces brought out in bags and scattered on the ground, just feet from where Mattis was standing. That included a King Cobra, which widened its neck as it if were going to attack.
“The soldiers then cut off the snake heads and fed the snake blood to each other, as the crowd looked on. At least one Indonesian soldier bit a snake in half.”
Defense News: As Trump seeks new nuke options, weapons agency head warns of capacity overload
AP: US pulled multiple ways in Syria as Islamic State recedes
Washington Post: Secretary Mattis seeks ties with once-brutal Indonesia special forces unit, with an eye on China
Bloomberg: Why the Pentagon Isn’t Happy With the F-35
Defense News: Calm down everyone, there’s no plan to put an F-35 production line in India
Stars and Stripes: Japan PM Abe reveals country's first mission to defend US military aircraft
USA Today: China would back a unified Korea if attained through peace, ambassador says
Marine Corps Times: Minimal military effects of recent shutdown don't diminish its threat, lawmakers say
Wall Street Journal: As Turkey Invades, Kurds See Betrayal Once Again
Military Times: Pentagon gives senators peek at Trump’s nuclear strategy in classified brief
Hartford Courant: Electric Boat President Boasts Of Rising Tide For Submarines
USNI News: U.S. Navy Denies Iranian Drones Chased Away Destroyer Near Gulf of Oman
Navy Times: Head of Navy's physiological episodes team to vacate role this summer
Foreign Policy: Can Mattis Succeed Where His Predecessors Have Failed?
Defense One: The Most Dangerous Word in the Draft Nuclear Posture Review
WEDNESDAY | JAN. 24
8 a.m. 2401 M St. NW. Defense Writers Group breakfast with Lt. Gen. Charles Luckey, chief of Army Reserve and commanding general.
10 a.m. Dirksen 342. ROUNDTABLE - Reauthorizing DHS: Positioning DHS to Address New and Emerging Threats to the Homeland. Hsgac.senate.gov
2:30 p.m. 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. U.S. Responses to the North Korean Threat: A Conversation with Sen. Ted Cruz. hudson.org
3 p.m. Russell 222. Officer Personnel Management and the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980 with Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands; Vice Adm. Robert Burke; Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso; and Lt. Gen. Michael Rocco. armed-services.senate.gov
5:30 p.m. 1667 K St. NW. Book talk, American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump with author Hal Brands. csbaonline.org
THURSDAY | JAN. 25
8 a.m. 11100 Johns Hopkins Rd. Undersea Warfare Threat Industry Day. ndia.org
9 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Discussion with Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps. csis.org
9:30 a.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Women and War: Securing a More Peaceful Future with Sherri Goodman, former deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security. wilsoncenter.org
10 a.m. Dirksen G-50. Global Challenges and U.S. National Security Strategy with former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, and Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of state. armed-services.senate.gov
10 a.m. 1775 Massachusetts Ave. Multi-domain battle: Converging concepts toward a joint solution with Gen. James Holmes, commander of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command. brookings.edu
2 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. Distributed Defense: New Operational Concepts for Integrated Air and Missile Defense with Will Roper, director of the Strategic Capabilities Office; Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, commander of Army Space and Missile Defense Command; and Brig. Gen. Clement Coward, director of the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Organization. csis.org
FRIDAY | JAN. 26
10 a.m. 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Sustaining U.S. Leadership Against Nuclear Terrorism and Proliferation: Monitoring and Verification in the Digital Age. hudson.org
3:30 p.m. 1030 15th St. NW. President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Visit to the US and the UN - Assessment and Outlook. atlanticcouncil.org
MONDAY | JAN. 29
10 a.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. U.S.-Qatari Military-to-Military Relations. heritage.org
11:30 a.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. A Conversation with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. wilsoncenter.org
12 p.m. 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Maritime Strategy in a New Era of Great Power Competition. hudson.org
1 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Russia’s Electronic Warfare Capabilities to 2025. csis.org
1 p.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Korean Unity at Pyeongchang: Prospects for Dealing with North Korea. wilsoncenter.org
TUESDAY | JAN. 30
8 a.m. 2401 M St. NW. Defense Writers Group breakfast with Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
10 a.m. Hart 216. Situation on the Korean Peninsula and U.S. Strategy in the Indo-Pacific Region. armed-services.senate.gov
3:30 p.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Book launch of Vietnam's American War: A History. wilsoncenter.org
WEDNESDAY | JAN. 31
1 p.m. 529 14th St. NW. Regional Stability: U.S.-Turkey Strategic Alliance and Cooperation under NATO with retired Gen. James Conway, former commandant of the Marine Corps. press.org
2 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. The Tet Offensive: Lessons from the Campaign After 50 Years. csis.org