A Battle of Eight Armies: Syria Update

Events have begun to spin out of control in Syria. Last week the Israelis lost an IAF F-16I Fighting Falcon. Though both the pilots were able to safely eject and survived. They came down in Israeli controlled territoryThe Israelis, of course, responded to the downing of their F-16 with a large scale reprisal. This included shooting down an Iranian drone – based on the US drone the Iranians downed in 2011. So we can now confirm that actually happened.

While this Israeli Vs Iranian in support of Syria and backed by Russia engagement was happening, the Syrian/Iranian/Russian coalition stepped up their attacks on Idlib and Ghouta.

The Turks lost a rotary wing (helicopter) craft last week as well. It was shot down by the US allied Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) near Afrin. Two Turkish Soldiers were killed.

Syrian Arab Armed Forces also conducted an attack against the US allied Kurds, which prompted a response from the US led coalition – Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF OIR):

US Special Operations Forces (SOF) are currently stationed in Manbij in a train, advise, and assist mission to the YPG.

It has been reported that anywhere between 100 (the official-ish number) and 600 Russian contractors fighting in Syria were killed in the US Coalition strikes last week.

While LTG Funk, Commander 1st Corps US Army and Combined Joint Task Force Inherent Resolve talked about deconfliction and deescalation in the CNN clip above, he has a battlespace that is becoming more and more complex by the day. There are a lot of moving pieces in his operating environment (OE): Kurdish militia forces being supported by US SOF, the Syrian Arab Army and Air Force, Russian contractors, Iran’s Qud’s Force, Hezbullah’s military wing in support of Syria and Iran, the Turkish military, and Israel. And don’t forget ISIS. They may have lost almost all of the territory they seized to form their caliphate, but they are by no means finished. That is a lot of deconfliction and deescalation!

Moreover, while all of this is going on, and the US is being sucked deeper into the mess that is the Syrian Civil War, Russia continues to expand its interests in the region. In November it struck a deal with Egypt for basing Russian Air Force planes. Just last week the Russians and the Sudanese (that’s the northern, Republic of Sudan of the Sudans) came to an agreement for Russian military support to train and modernize the Sudanese Army.

Finally, it is unclear what the official US response will be. While the US led coalition is sticking with its Kurdish allies in Syria, it is unclear what decision will be made in DC by the National Command Authority. The President’s predilection for Russian President Vladimir Putin has kept the new, Congressionally mandated sanctions from being imposedAnd it appears that the decision to get rid of the Interagency produced, properly put together list of Russians to be named and shamed was made by a senior administration official, which lead to the rush job copy and paste from Forbes that was released.

A “name-and-shame” list of Russian oligarchs who made their money corruptly from their ties with Vladimir Putin was compiled by the US government agencies but then cancelled last week by a senior administration official, according to a Russia expert who was consulted on the list.

It was replaced by an all-inclusive list of rich Russians apparently copied straight from the Forbes magazine’s ranking of wealthy Russians, together with the names of some top Kremlin officials.

While the President has been very solicitous of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan even as Erdogan drags Turkey farther and farther into autocracy, he also warned the Turks against escalating against the US led coalition in Syria. The Turks have disputed the US account of this conversation.

U.S. President Donald Trump urged Turkey on Wednesday to curtail its military operation in Syria and warned it not to bring U.S. and Turkish forces into conflict, but a Turkish source said a White House readout did not accurately reflect the conversation.

“He urged Turkey to deescalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties,” a White House statement said. “He urged Turkey to exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.”

However, a Turkish source said the White House statement did not accurately reflect the content of their phone call.

“President Trump did not share any ‘concerns about escalating violence’ with regard to the ongoing military operation in Afrin,” the source said, referring to one comment in the White House summary of their conversation.

 “The two leaders’ discussion of Operation Olive Branch was limited to an exchange of views,” the source said.
Right now there are a lot of moving pieces in Syria. All of them are rubbing against each other in a confined (battle) space. And the alliances don’t really line up with how the President seems to see the world. He’s favorably inclined to Putin and Erdogan. Yet the former is allied with the Syrians, Iranians, and Hezbullah and the latter’s actions have the potential to pit NATO allies against each other. Since there is no clearly delineated US policy, or rather policy change, to what the US is trying to achieve in the Syrian part of the Levantine theater from the past administration to the current one, it is unclear what the President really wants to do. How deep he wants the US and the US led coalition involved in the Syrian Civil War. And just what end state he envisions as a result of the US’s actions in this highly complex theater of operations.

Stay frosty!

Open thread!



What The Rob Porter Mess Really Tells Us

How White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter’s employment in the Executive Office of the President (EOP) has been handled tells us two different, but important things. The first has to do with his front line supervisor, Gen (ret) Kelly, the President’s Chief of Staff. The second has to do with the degradation of national security norms under the current administration.

Because of the reporting, we now know that Chief of Staff Kelly has known for months that Porter couldn’t get a clearance because of what his ex-wives told the clearance background investigators about his physical abuse of them. As such Porter was doing his job with an interim clearance.

By early fall, it was widely known among Trump’s top aides — including chief of staff John Kelly — both that Porter was facing troubles in obtaining the clearance and that his ex-wives claimed he had abused them. No action was taken to remove him from the staff.
Instead, Kelly and others oversaw an elevation in Porter’s standing. He was one of a handful of aides who helped draft last week’s State of the Union address. He traveled instead of Kelly to the World Economic Forum in Davos last month. And he was one of a select group of aides who shook Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hand during a state visit to Beijing in November.

Subsequent reporting demonstrates that Chief of Staff Kelly’s response to these allegations, and his subordinate’s failure to qualify for a clearance, was even worse.

Porter said on Tuesday that he would resign, after the allegations were first published, people close to him say, even as he told White House officials he had never physically abused women. But he was talked out of it by Kelly and others, according to these people, with Kelly saying he believed Porter’s denials and saw him as a valuable ally in the White House. Kelly continued to press him to stay in his job Wednesday, saying he could weather the storm, but Porter decided the controversy had become too much after the photos of his ex-wife’s blackened eye appeared Wednesday morning.

If you ever wonder why or how sexual harassment, sexual assault, and/or rape is tolerated in the US military, governmental service, the private sector, education, and/or within religious denominations/congregations, Chief of Staff Kelly’s response to Porter’s reported behavior is one of the main reasons. Once presented with the actual photos showing the physical evidence of Porter having beaten one of his ex-wives, Chief of Staff Kelly still tried to keep him from resigning! Porter didn’t just have an abuse problem with his wives – it has now been reported that one of his ex-girlfriends warned White House Counsel Don McGahn. Porter didn’t just do this once. The question to be asked now is how often did Gen. (ret) Kelly also do this before – ignore reports of harassment, abuse, and/or rape when he was still in uniform and in command? It is hard to believe that he developed this course of action just to protect Porter.*

ETA at 11:05 PM EST: From the NY Times:

Mr. Kelly has previously played down accusations against someone he believed served a greater goal. He appeared as a character witness in a 2016 court-martial of a Marine colonel accused of sexually harassing two female subordinates. Mr. Kelly praised the colonel as a “superb Marine officer.

Though in this case the Marine in question was so deeply troubled his former commander issued a military protective order against him. So it is possible that the character reference was given with full cognizance of both this colonels’ transgressions and troubles.

Contrast Chief of Staff Kelly’s response with that of a different military senior leader. LTG Caslen, the Superintendent of the US Military Academy, who is now facing questions as to why reports of sexual harassment, assault, and/or rape have increased over the past year. The answer is simple, he and his staff instituted reforms to encourage cadets to make reports. As a result the reported numbers went up.

Defense Department and West Point officials said the big jump at the Military Academy resulted from a concerted effort to encourage victims to come forward. But the dramatic and consistent increases may suggest more assaults are happening.

“I’m very encouraged by the reporting,” Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, superintendent at West Point, told the AP in an interview. “I recognize that people are not going to understand” the desire for increased reporting, he said. But, he added, “I’ve got the steel stomach to take the criticism.”

How Porter’s case has been handled by his front line supervisor is also a problem for national security. Because of what his ex-wives reported, Porter has been working on an interim clearance. This is problematic as his job is to handle the paper flow to the President. Moreover, some genius decided it was a good idea to let him sit in on National Security Council meetings. The underlying problem here is that Porter, because of the domestic abuse he perpetrated on his ex-wives and that he’d gone to great lengths to obscure from his employers (Senator Hatch, come on down!), left him open to manipulation and blackmail from anyone who wanted access to the classified material that he handled every day. This problem within the Executive Office of the President and among the President’s staff is not limited to Porter. Jared Kushner, the President’s son in law and senior advisor, still only has an interim clearance, the same as Porter, because of inconsistencies on his SF-86 and financial disclosure forms, as well as reported problematic encounters with Russian and Chinese officials and nationals during the campaign and transition. Attorney General Sessions has lied to the Senate about his meetings with and connections to Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s former ambassador to the United States, as well as neglecting to include them on his SF-86. Stephen Miller has long been associated with white supremacists and neo-NAZIs. All of these individuals activities and actions leave them susceptible to exploitation in an attempt to access classified information.

That I can even point to four examples at the highest level of the executive branch off the top of my head – three senior advisors to the President and the Attorney General of the United States – should be worrying. It shows just how little the current administration actually cares about operational security and safeguarding the Nation’s most important and sensitive information. How many more of the political appointees have similar problems? How many have we not heard about? And this isn’t just among the President’s appointees and gatekeepers. Just last week we learned that what the President disclosed to Foreign Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak was far, far more sensitive than had been previously reported.

DAVIES: So if I understand it, you know of specific information that the U.S. shared with the Russians that has not been revealed publicly and that you are not revealing publicly?

BERGMAN: The nature of the information that President Trump revealed to Foreign Minister Lavrov is of the most secretive nature. And that information could jeopardize modus operandi of Israeli intelligence.

DAVIES: And this is different from what was publicly reported at the time. There were some question about, you know, plans for, I think, laptop computers on airlines. This – you’re referring to something that we don’t yet know.

BERGMAN: Most of it, we don’t yet know. And there were conflicting reports. I cannot – in order not to be part of disclosing secret information and jeopardizing Israeli and the U.S. ability to track down terrorists and proliferate, I prefer not to go into the details of that.

The failures to take action when credible allegations of domestic abuse and of security risks should worry everyone. They clearly demonstrate multiple moral failures among the senior leaders within the current administration. Tolerating domestic abuse is unacceptable. Tolerating security risks having access to the highest level of classified information is unacceptable. Senior leaders who refuse to take their responsibilities regarding either of these issues – the moral and the operational – are unacceptable. The are unacceptable from civilian leaders. They are unacceptable from military leaders.

The final word on Rob Porter is from one of his ex-wives, Jennie Willoughby:

The first time he called me a “fucking bitch” was on our honeymoon. (I found out years later he had kicked his first wife on theirs.) A month later he physically prevented me from leaving the house. Less than two months after that, I filed a protective order with the police because he punched in the glass on our front door while I was locked inside. We bought a house to make up for it. Just after our one year anniversary, he pulled me, naked and dripping, from the shower to yell at me.

Everyone loved him. People commented all the time how lucky I was. Strangers complimented him to me every time we went out. But in my home, the abuse was insidious. The threats were personal. The terror was real. And yet I stayed.

When I tried to get help, I was counseled to consider carefully how what I said might affect his career. And so I kept my mouth shut and stayed. I was told, yes, he was deeply flawed, but then again so was I. And so I worked on myself and stayed. If he was a monster all the time, perhaps it would have been easier to leave. But he could be kind and sensitive. And so I stayed. He cried and apologized. And so I stayed. He offered to get help and even went to a few counseling sessions and therapy groups. And so I stayed. He belittled my intelligence and destroyed my confidence. And so I stayed. I felt ashamed and trapped. And so I stayed. Friends and clergy didn’t believe me. And so I stayed. I was pregnant. And so I stayed. I lost the pregnancy and became depressed. And so I stayed.

Abuse is indifferent to education level, socio-economic status, race, age, or gender. And no one can ever know the dynamics of another’s relationship. My cycle continued for four more years. Afterward, I let go and welcomed the hard work of healing and forgiveness. My experience made me stronger and able to love more deeply. But my heart breaks for him. In the end, who is the real victim of his choices?

Open thread!

Update at 11:05 PM EST



North Korea Has A Parade

Another live event starts at around 7:30 Eastern time. In honor of (or to upstage) the start of the Winter Olympics in South Korea, North Korea will parade some of its military might. Wonks love this, because North Korea frequently uses their military parades to show off new missiles. Or, with screen caps and close examination, the wonks can learn details of existing missiles.

We don’t know what tonight’s (Friday’s in North Korea) parade will bring. If there’s a live feed, I’ll update this post with it.

A number of experts on North Korean missiles usually tweet their comments on the parades. Here’s a good list to start:

@nktpnd

@annafifield

@wslafoy

@mhanham

@ArmsControlWonk

@atomic_pickles

@ISNJH

@KelseyDav

@DaveSchmerler

@grace_c_liu

Don’t forget the hashtag.

I’m not a missile expert, but I occasionally add something to the discussion. I’ll post tweets with trenchant comments or interesting pictures in the comments.

Here’s a photo from an earlier parade. I’m sure the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff will be watching to help plan the next big military parade in Washington.

 

Update: I am told that the parade will be streamed on this channel or on YouTube, although there doesn’t seem to be a way to embed it. Livestream from North Korea breaks up regularly.  So don’t blame me.

If Adam shows up and can figure out how to embed the video, please feel free to edit this post.

 



The Senate Reaches A Two Year Budget Deal. Can They Jam The House?

The Senate has reached a two year budget deal. It includes:

The deal would raise the spending caps by about $300 billion over two years, according to a congressional aide. The limit on military and other defense spending would be increased by $80 billion in the current fiscal year and $85 billion in the next year, which begins Oct. 1, the aide said. The limit on nondefense spending would increase by $63 billion this year and $68 billion next year.

The deal also includes increased funding for dealing with the opioid crisis, disaster relief, extends CHIP coverage out another four years in addition to the six year funding in the last CR for a total of ten years of funding, and a debt limit increase. It is also includes two years of funding for community health centers, as well as funding for child care. If this passes the House and is signed into law, the Congressional appropriators will have six weeks to appropriate against this years increased funding caps.* The deal does not include a DACA fix. This will, provided the government actually stays open past late Thursday night/early Friday morning, be dealt with under a separate process beginning in the Senate next week.

The Senate appears to be trying to jam the House with this. As in: we passed this, now it is up to you. The Senate didn’t even consider bringing up the narrow deal that the House had passed yesterday. As a result, the House side is where this is going to be much harder to pass. Speaker Ryan will have a difficult time holding his caucus together to pass the Senate bill. The Freedom Caucus members will all vote no. A significant chunk of the Republican Study Group members are likely to vote no as well. And they’ll do so under the war cry of exploding budget deficits, seemingly unaware of the $1.5 trillion increase in the deficit that is the result of the GOP only, partisan tax cut bill passed in December 2017. This means that Speaker Ryan either has to abandon the Hastert Rule and ask Congresswoman Pelosi for the votes to pass this or he maintains obeisance to the Hastert Rule and refuses to bring this to a vote. If it is the former, this gives Congresswoman Pelosi leverage to extract a promise to bring up a clean bill to resolve the problem created when the President rescinded the DACA executive order; similar to what Senator Schumer negotiated in the Senate. If it is the latter, then the government will likely shutdown tomorrow night.

All the action, stress, and flop sweat will now be in the House of Representative. At this point the President is largely irrelevant until such time as he either has to sign or veto a budget bill. Whether we reach that point is now all on Speaker Ryan. Senators McConnell and Schumer have left him holding the hand grenade and they’ve handed Congresswoman Pelosi the pin.

Stay frosty!

Open thread.

* Just a quick note: the DOD, the Services, and their subordinate commands, offices, departments, and bureaus function under what is known as the 80/20 Rule. This means that 80% of their annual budgets must be spent before the end of the 3rd quarter of the fiscal year. Even if this passes and the appropriators work as efficiently as possible, it is going to be very hard for the DOD and the Services to comply with the 80/20 Rule. And that is going to make for a very uncomfortable spring, summer, and fall for the US military.



Interesting Read: “Bob Mueller’s Investigation Is Larger—and Further Along—Than You Think”

I sincerely hope Garrett M. Graff is correct:

Last summer, I wrote an analysis exploring the “known unknowns” of the Russia investigation—unanswered but knowable questions regarding Mueller’s probe. Today, given a week that saw immense sturm und drang over Devin Nunes’ memo—a document that seems purposefully designed to obfuscate and muddy the waters around Mueller’s investigation—it seems worth asking the opposite question: What are the known knowns of the Mueller investigation, and where might it be heading?

The first thing we know is that we know it is large.

We speak about the “Mueller probe” as a single entity, but it’s important to understand that there are no fewer than five (known) separate investigations under the broad umbrella of the special counsel’s office—some threads of these investigations may overlap or intersect, some may be completely free-standing, and some potential targets may be part of multiple threads. But it’s important to understand the different “buckets” of Mueller’s probe…

1. Preexisting Business Deals and Money Laundering. Business dealings and money laundering related to Trump campaign staff, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former campaign aide Rick Gates, are a major target of the inquiry. While this phase of the investigation has already led to the indictment of Gates and Manafort, it almost certainly will continue to bear further fruit…

2. Russian Information Operations. When we speak in shorthand about the “hacking of the election,” we are actually talking about unique and distinct efforts, with varying degrees of coordination, by different entities associated with the Russian government…
Read more



Actions Have Consequences, Plague Prevention Edition

After all, despite all those hand-wringing news stories, nobody American actually died in that potential Ebola pandemic, so why should we waste any more money that Paul Ryan assures us could better go to tax cuts for billionaires? Let Trump’s big, beautiful wall protect us from foreign viruses! Ed Yong, in the Atlantic:

In December 2014, Congress appropriated $5.4 billion to fight the historic Ebola epidemic that was raging in West Africa. Most of that money went to quashing the epidemic directly, but around $1 billion was allocated to help developing countries improve their ability to detect and respond to infectious diseases. The logic is sound: It is far more efficient to invest money in helping countries contain diseases at the source, than to risk small outbreaks flaring up into large international disasters.

But the $1 billion pot, which was mostly divided between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and USAID, runs out in 2019—a fiscal cliff with disaster at its foot. As I wrote:

That money has been used well, to train epidemiologists, buy equipment, upgrade labs, and stockpile drugs. If it disappears, progress will halt, and potentially reverse. The CDC, for example, would have to pull back 80 percent of its staff in 35 countries, breaking ties with local ministries of health.

This is now coming to pass. Two weeks ago, Betsy McKay at The Wall Street Journal reported that the CDC, with no firm promise of future funding, is indeed preparing to downsize its work in 39 countries. Those include the Democratic Republic of Congo, which recently experienced its eighth Ebola outbreak, and China, which is recently underwent its worst outbreak of H7N9 bird flu. Lena Sun of The Washington Post confirmed this report on Thursday, writing that “notice is being given now to CDC country directors” as the first part of a transition.

The CDC is not the only affected agency. USAID also received $300 million from the same dwindling pot of money, which it used to expand its work in the Middle East and Asia. Those programs may also have to shut down in 2019.

These changes would make the world—and the United States—more vulnerable to a pandemic. “We’ll leave the field open to microbes,” says Tom Frieden, a former CDC director who now heads an initiative called Resolve to Save Lives. “The surveillance systems will die, so we won’t know if something happens. The lab networks won’t be built, so if something happens, we won’t know what it is. We can’t be safe if the world isn’t safe. You can’t pull up the drawbridge and expect viruses not to travel.”…

But we know, from their statements during the 2014, that certain high-ranking Republicans are damned well determined to try.



Russiagate Open Thread: A Dish Served Cold

Ooo, look, so many Very Serious People using words like “treason”, this time against Republicans, most especially the Repubs who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign! Could not be happening to a more deserving gang of revanchists and revenants…


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There’s TALK…


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Anybody heard from Rudy lately?


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And what of James Comey, (newly) Brave Truth-Tweeter?…