Posts Tagged ‘Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’

General Joseph Votel, top U.S. general in the Middle East seems to support Iran Nuclear Deal, Says Assad has won War in Syria

March 16, 2018


Assad has won, Iran deal should stand and Saudis use American weapons without accountability in Yemen: head of U.S. military’s Central Command’s stunning Congressional testimony

U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command, arrives to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 13, 2018
U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command, arrives to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 13, 2018REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

The top U.S. general in the Middle East testified before Congress on Tuesday and dropped several bombshells: from signaled support for the Iran nuclear deal, admitting the U.S. does not know what Saudi Arabia does with its bombs in Yemen and that Assad has won the Syrian Civil War.

U.S. Army General Joseph Votel said the Iran agreement, which President Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw from, has played an important role in addressing Iran’s nuclear program.

“The JCPOA addresses one of the principle threats that we deal with from Iran, so if the JCPOA goes away, then we will have to have another way to deal with their nuclear weapons program,” said U.S. Army General Joseph Votel. JCPOA, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is the formal name of the accord reached with Iran in July 2015 in Vienna.

Trump has threatened to withdraw the United States from the accord between Tehran and six world powers unless Congress and European allies help “fix” it with a follow-up pact. Trump does not like the deal’s limited duration, among other things.

Votel is head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East and Central Asia, including Iran. He was speaking to a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the same day that Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after a series of public rifts over policy, including Iran.

Tillerson had joined Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in pressing a skeptical Trump to stick with the agreement with Iran.

“There would be some concern (in the region), I think, about how we intended to address that particular threat if it was not being addressed through the JCPOA. … Right now, I think it is in our interest” to stay in the deal, Votel said.

When a lawmaker asked whether he agreed with Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford’s position on the deal,Votel said: “Yes, I share their position.”

Mattis said late last year that the United States should consider staying in the Iran nuclear deal unless it was proven Tehran was not complying or that the agreement was not in the U.S. national interest.

A collapse of the Iran nuclear deal would be a “great loss,” the United Nations atomic watchdog’s chief warned Trump recently, giving a wide-ranging defense of the accord.

Iran has stayed within the deal’s restrictions since Trump took office but has fired diplomatic warning shots at Washington in recent weeks. It said on Monday that it could rapidly enrich uranium to a higher degree of purity if the deal collapsed.


Votel also discussed the situation in Syria at the hearing.

During the Syrian army’s offensive in eastern Ghouta, more than 1,100 civilians have died. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russia and Iran, say they are targeting “terrorist” groups shelling the capital.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley warned on Monday that Washington “remains prepared to act if we must,” if the U.N. Security Council failed to act on Syria.

Votel said the best way to deter Russia, which backs Assad, was through political and diplomatic channels.

“Certainly if there are other things that are considered, you know, we will do what we are told. … (But) I don’t recommend that at this particular point,” Votel said, in an apparent to reference to military options.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham asked whether it was too strong to say that with Russia and Iran’s help, Assad had “won” the civil war in Syria.

“I do not think that is too strong of a statement,” Votel said.

Graham also asked if the United States’ policy on Syria was still to seek the removal of Assad from power.

“I don’t know that that’s our particular policy at this particular point. Our focus remains on the defeat of ISIS,” Votel said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Saudi Arabia

In a stunning exchange with Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, Votel admitted that Centcom doesn’t know when U.S. fuel and munitions are used in Yemen.

“General Votel, does CENTCOM track the purpose of the missions it is refueling? In other words, where a U.S.-refueled aircraft is going, what targets it strikes, and the result of the mission?” Warren asked.

“Senator, we do not,” Votel replied.

The Senator followed up, citing reports that U.S. munitions have been used against civilians in Yemen, she asked, “General Votel, when you receive reports like this from credible media organizations or outside observers, is CENTCOM able to tell if U.S. fuel or U.S. munitions were used in that strike?”

“No, senator, I don’t believe we are,” he replied.

Showing surprise at the general’s response, Warren concluded, “We need to be clear about this: Saudi Arabia’s the one receiving American weapons and American support. And that means we bear some responsibility here. And that means we need to hold our partners and our allies accountable for how those resources are used,” she said.


Top US general in Afghanistan urges ‘tired’ Taliban to talk peace

March 14, 2018


© AFP / by Thomas WATKINS | Captured alleged Taliban fighters being presented to the media by police in Jalalabad earlier this month

BAGRAM (AFGHANISTAN) (AFP) – Now is the best time for the Taliban to negotiate for peace, the top US general in Afghanistan said Wednesday, warning that an increased air and ground campaign against the insurgents would only get worse.Afghan President Ashraf Ghani last month unveiled a plan to open talks to end the 16-year-old war, offering to negotiate with the Taliban without any preconditions.

So far the group’s response to the offer has been muted, which analysts said reflects debate among Taliban leaders over the merits of engaging with an administration it has long viewed as illegitimate.

But US officials including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said this week that some Taliban elements are open to talking with the Afghan government.

General John Nicholson, who leads US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the Taliban have taken heavy casualties since US President Donald Trump authorised ramped-up air operations last year, pointing to increasingly effective Afghan commando and regular Afghan army units.

Image result for General John Nicholson, photos

General John Nicholson

“In the Taliban’s mind, they see what is coming and these capabilities are only going to get greater,” Nicholson told reporters accompanying Mattis on a visit to Bagram Airfield, America’s largest air base in Afghanistan that is located north of Kabul.

“So this really is probably their best time to attempt a negotiation, because it’s only going to get worse for them,” he added, as both sides prepare for the start of what is expected to be an intense spring fighting season.

Nicholson’s comments come as Afghanistan deploys more troops to the western province of Farah where the Taliban have launched multiple attacks in recent weeks.

The latest assault in the province, which borders Iran, happened in the early hours of Wednesday when militants stormed a checkpoint manned by police and intelligence officers on the outskirts of the provincial capital Farah, killing seven security forces, officials said.

Ghani’s peace plan includes eventually recognising the Taliban as a political party. In return, the Taliban would need to recognise the Kabul government and constitution — a perennial sticking point in past attempts to open talks.

Despite Nicholson’s tough talk, US data shows the Taliban are far from being driven off the battlefield.

In October, insurgents controlled or influenced nearly half of Afghanistan’s districts — double the percentage in 2015, the US government’s office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in January.

Over the same period, the watchdog said, the number of districts under Afghan government control or influence fell to its lowest level since December 2015.

– Focus on Kabul –

“My perception of what is going on inside the Taliban is they are tired of this war as well, they’d like to return home, they’d like to rejoin society and, just like the people of this country, would like to see the end of this war as would all of us,” Nicholson said.

He added that there are “many Taliban who could see a way to work within this framework” but cautioned there would always be those that will never reconcile.

“It’s encouraging that these offers are on the table and we would appear to be at a point where they could start having a conversation about this,” he said.

Aside from military pressure, Nicholson said it is important that diplomatic pressure is strong on “those who externally enable the insurgency” and he credited the role that religious pressure from other Islamic countries is playing.

The four-star general also underscored the need to strengthen security in Kabul, where a string of devastating attacks in recent months has killed hundreds of civilians.

“Kabul is our main effort right now, to harden Kabul, to protect the people of Kabul and the international community that are here because of the strategic impact that has and the importance to the campaign,” he said.

by Thomas WATKINS

Russian toll in Syria battle was 300 killed and wounded — “Russia will pretend nothing happened.”

February 16, 2018


MOSCOW (Reuters) – About 300 men working for a Kremlin-linked Russian private military firm were either killed or injured in Syria last week, according to three sources familiar with the matter.

A Russian military doctor said around 100 had been killed, and a source who knows several of the fighters said the death toll was in excess of 80 men.

The timing of the casualties coincided with a battle on Feb. 7 near the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor where, according to U.S. officials and associates of the fighters involved, U.S.-led coalition forces attacked forces aligned with Moscow’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russian officials said five citizens may have been killed but they had no relation to Russia’s armed forces.

The clashes show Moscow is more deeply involved in Syria militarily than it has said, and risks being drawn into direct confrontation with the United States in Syria.

American special forces in Manbij, Syria, near the border with Turkey, this month. Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

The casualties are the highest that Russia has suffered in a single battle since fierce clashes in Ukraine in 2014 claimed more than 100 fighters’ lives. Moscow denies sending soldiers and volunteers to Ukraine and has never confirmed that figure.

The wounded, who have been medically evacuated from Syria in the past few days, have been sent to four Russian military hospitals, according to five sources familiar with the matter.

The military doctor, who works in a Moscow military hospital and was directly involved in the treatment of wounded men evacuated from Syria, said that as of Saturday evening there were more than 50 such patients in his hospital, of which around 30 percent were seriously wounded.

The doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to disclose information about casualties, said at least three planeloads of injured fighters were flown to Moscow between last Friday and Monday morning.

He said they were flown back on specially equipped military cargo planes which can each accommodate two or three intensive care cases and several dozen less severely wounded patients.

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, said initial information was that five Russian citizens in the area of the battle may have been killed, but they were not Russian troops. She said reports of tens or hundreds of Russian casualties were disinformation inspired by Russia’s opponents.

The Russian defense ministry did not respond to Reuters questions about casualties in Syria. A Kremlin spokesman, asked about Russian casualties on Thursday, said he had nothing to add to previous statements. The Kremlin said earlier this week it had no information on any casualties.

Reuters was unable to make direct contact with the contractors’ employers, the Wagner group, whose fallen fighters have in the past received medals from the Kremlin.

The military doctor said that a fellow doctor who flew to Syria on one of the recent medevac flights told him that around 100 people in the Russian force had been killed as of the end of last week, and 200 injured.

The doctor who spoke to Reuters said most of the casualties were Russian private military contractors.

Yevgeny Shabayev, leader of a local chapter of a paramilitary Cossack organization who has ties to Russian military contractors, said he had visited acquaintances injured in Syria at the defense ministry’s Central Hospital in Khimki, on the outskirts of Moscow, on Wednesday.

He said the wounded men had told him that the two units of Russian contractors involved in the battle near Deir al-Zor numbered 550 men. Of those, there are now about 200 who are not either dead or wounded, the wounded men had told him.

Shabayev said the ward he visited contained eight patients, all evacuated from Syria in the past few days, and there were more in other wards in the hospital.

“If you understand anything about military action and combat injuries then you can imagine what’s going on there. That’s to say, constant screams, shouts,” Shabayev told Reuters. “It’s a tough scene.”

A source with ties to the Wagner organization, and who has spoken to people who took part in the Feb. 7 clashes, told Reuters his contacts told him more than 80 Russian contractors were killed.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the total of about 300 killed or injured was broadly correct.

He said many of the injured had shrapnel in their bodies that was not showing up on X-rays, making treatment difficult. “The prognosis for most of the wounded is dismal,” he said.


Other military hospitals treating the contractors are the Third Vishnevskiy hospital in Krasnogorsk, near Moscow, the Burdenko hospital near Moscow city center, and the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg, according to the doctor, Shabayev, and three other people who know dead or wounded fighters.

When Reuters contacted those hospitals by phone on Thursday, staff either declined to comment or denied having any patients evacuated from Syria.

A Reuters reporter visited the Burdenko hospital on Wednesday and spoke briefly to patients who said they knew nothing about anyone evacuated from Syria. Reporters also visited the hospital in Krasnogorsk, and a fifth military hospital, at Balashikha near Moscow, but were denied entry.

Russia launched a military operation in Syria in September 2015 which has turned the tide of the conflict in favor of Assad.

Russian officials deny they deploy private military contractors in Syria, saying Moscow’s only military presence is a campaign of air strikes, a naval base, military instructors training Syrian forces, and limited numbers of special forces troops.

But according to people familiar with the deployment, Russia is using large numbers of the contractors in Syria because that allows Moscow to put more boots on the ground without risking regular soldiers whose deaths have to be accounted for.

The contractors, mostly ex-military, carry out missions assigned to them by the Russian military, the people familiar with the deployment said. Most are Russian citizens, though some have Ukrainian and Serbian passports.

The United States and Russia, while backing opposite sides in the Syria conflict, have taken pains to make sure that their forces do not accidentally collide. But the presence of the Russian contractors adds an element of unpredictability.


A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said last week that a force aligned with Assad, backed with artillery, tanks, rockets and mortars, had on Feb. 7 attacked fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces near Deir al-Zor.

U.S. special forces were accompanying the SDF forces that came under attack, officials in Washington said.

The U.S.-led coalition in Syria retaliated, killing about 100 of the pro-Assad forces, according to the official.

Since the battle, associates of Russian military contractors have said Russians were part of the pro-Assad force involved in the battle, and among the casualties.

Shabayev, the Cossack leader, said casualties were so high because the force had no air cover, and because they were attacked not by poorly equipped rebels, their usual adversaries, but by a well-armed force that could launch air strikes.

“First of all the bombers attacked, and then they cleaned up using Apaches (U.S.-made attack helicopters),” Shabayev said, citing the wounded men he visited in hospital.

The source with ties to Wagner said they told him the force struck by the U.S.-led coalition was made up mainly of Russian contractors, with a few Syrians and Iranians in support roles.

He said that on Feb. 7 the force had advanced toward the settlement of Khusham, in Deir al-Zor province, into a zone designated as neutral under a deal between the Russian military and the U.S.-led coalition.

The aim was to test if the U.S.-led coalition would react. The force advanced to within less than 5 km (3 miles) of the SDF and American positions, he said.

He said that the U.S.-led forces, in line with procedure agreed with the Russians, warned Russian regular forces that they were preparing to strike. He does not know if the warning was passed on to the contractors.

“The warning was 20 minutes beforehand, in that time it was not feasible to turn the column around,” said the source.

He said once the strikes began, the contractors did not return fire because they believed that would provoke even more strikes from the U.S.-led coalition.

Additional reporting by Anton Zverev in MOSCOW; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Giles Elgood



Russian Mercenaries in Syria

U.S. forces killed scores of Russian mercenaries in Syria last week in what may be the deadliest clash between citizens of the former foes since the Cold War, according to one U.S. official and three Russians familiar with the matter.

More than 200 contract soldiers, mostly Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, died in a failed attack on a base held by U.S. and mainly Kurdish forces in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region, two of the Russians said. The U.S. official put the death toll in the fighting at about 100, with 200 to 300 injured, but was unable to say how many were Russians.

The Russian assault may have been a rogue operation, underscoring the complexity of a conflict that started as a domestic crackdown only to morph into a proxy war involving Islamic extremists, stateless Kurds and regional powers Iran, Turkey and now Israel. Russia’s military said it had nothing to do with the attack and the U.S. accepted the claim. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the whole thing “perplexing,” but provided no further details.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment on reports of Russian casualties, saying the Kremlin only tracks data on the country’s armed forces. Putin talked with U.S. President Donald Trump by phone Monday, but the military action in Syria wasn’t discussed, he said.

“This is a big scandal and a reason for an acute international crisis,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat and lawmaker who’s now an independent political analyst. “But

U.S. Strikes Killed Scores of Russia Fighters in Syria, Sources Say

February 13, 2018


ByStepan Kravchenko, Henry Meyer, and Margaret Talev

 Updated on 
  • American, rebel forces repel attack by mercenaries in the east
  • The 200-plus deaths dwarf official Russian toll in the war


F-15E Strike Eagle fires a decoy flare after separating from an aerial refueling tanker over Iraq or Syria in June 2017. USAF photo

U.S. forces killed scores of Russian mercenaries in Syria last week in what may be the deadliest clash between citizens of the former foes since the Cold War, according to one U.S. official and three Russians familiar with the matter.

More than 200 contract soldiers, mostly Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, died in a failed attack on a base held by U.S. and mainly Kurdish forces in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region, two of the Russians said. The U.S. official put the death toll at about 100, with 200 to 300 injured.

The Russian assault may have been a rogue operation, underscoring the complexity of a conflict that started as a domestic crackdown only to morph into a proxy war involving Islamic extremists, stateless Kurds and regional powers Iran, Turkey and now Israel. Russia’s military said it had nothing to do with the attack and the U.S. accepted the claim. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the whole thing “perplexing,” but provided no further details.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment on reports of Russian casualties, saying the Kremlin only tracks data on the country’s armed forces. Putin talked with U.S. President Donald Trump by phone Monday, but the military action in Syria wasn’t discussed, he said.

“This is a big scandal and a reason for an acute international crisis,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat and lawmaker who’s now an independent political analyst. “But Russia will pretend nothing happened.”

Read more: A QuickTake on Syria’s complex civil war

Putin, with Iran’s help, turned the tide of the seven-year war by committing air- and manpower to buoy Assad’s beleaguered forces in 2015, quieting U.S. calls for the Syrian leader’s immediate removal. With Islamic State, which once controlled large swaths of Syria, now largely defeated, rival powers and militias are fighting in various combinations to fill the vacuum. Russia, Iran, Israel and Turkey have all had aircraft shot down in or near Syria this month.

Artillery, Tanks

Last week’s offensive began about 8 kilometers (5 miles) east of the Euphrates River de-confliction line late Feb. 7, when pro-Assad forces fired rounds and advanced in a “battalion-sized formation supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars,” Colonel Thomas F. Veale, a spokesman for the U.S. military, said in a statement.

The U.S., which has advisers stationed at the base alongside Syrian Democratic Forces troops, responded with aircraft and artillery fire.

“Coalition officials were in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the thwarted, unprovoked attack,” Veale said. No fatalities were reported on the coalition side and “enemy vehicles and personnel who turned around and headed back west were not targeted.”

It’s not clear who was paying the Russian contingent, whether it was Russia directly, Syria, Iran or a third party. Reports in Russian media have said Wagner — a shadowy organization known as Russia’s answer to Blackwater, now called Academi — was hired by Assad or his allies to guard Syrian energy assets in exchange for oil concessions.

“No one wants to start a world war over a volunteer or a mercenary who wasn’t sent by the state and was hit by Americans,” Vitaly Naumkin, a senior adviser to Russia’s government on Syria, said in an interview.

Yury Barmin, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank set up by the Kremlin, said Russia supports Assad’s efforts to reclaim the “crucial” eastern region of Deir Ezzor to help fund his national reconstruction and reconciliation plan, which the U.S. opposes.

Russia signed a “road map” agreement with Assad’s government last month to assist in rebuilding the nation’s electricity network. On Tuesday, Energy Minister Alexander Novak told reporters in Moscow that Russian companies are interested in contracts to help refurbish damaged oil pipelines and wells.

‘Illegal Presence’

While Russia’s Defense Ministry didn’t mention mercenaries in its statement, it did say 25 “Syrian” fighters were injured, without elaborating. It accused the U.S. of using its “illegal presence” in Syria as an excuse to “seize economic assets,” even as it kept lines of communication with the U.S. open.

Assad’s government in Damascus called the U.S. military action “barbaric” and a “war crime.”

The death toll from the skirmish, already about five times more than Russia’s official losses in Syria, is still rising, according to one mercenary commander who said by phone that dozens of his wounded men are still being treated at military hospitals in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Most of those killed and injured were Russian and Ukrainian, many of them veterans of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, according to Alexander Ionov, who runs a Kremlin-funded group that fosters ties to separatists and who’s personally fought alongside pro-government forces in Syria.

Grigory Yavlinsky, a longtime Russian opposition politician who helped steer democratic reforms after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, called on the authorities to come clean about what happened.

“If there has been mass deaths of Russian citizens in Syria, then the relevant authorities, including the general staff of the Russian armed forces, have a duty to inform the country about this and decide who bears responsibility,” Yavlinsky, who is running against Putin in next month’s election, said on Twitter.

— With assistance by Ilya Arkhipov

U.S. Considers Boosting Asia Forces With Special Marine Units — New strategy emphasizing China and Russia, cutbacks in the Mideast

February 9, 2018

Shift would promote new strategy emphasizing China and Russia, with cutbacks in the Mideast


Image may contain: one or more people, ocean, sky and outdoor

U.S. amphibious assault vehicles of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit prepare to return to a waiting ship near Pohang, South Korea during a joint military exercise in March 2016.Photo: ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images


The Pentagon is considering plans to send heavily armed, versatile Marine Corps Expeditionary Units to East Asia, curtailing some deployments in the Middle East as it repositions forces in response to growing Chinese influence, military officials said.

The move would be among the first tangible steps by the Trump administration to expand the U.S. military presence in Asia after announcing its National Defense Strategy last month.

The new strategy and a parallel national-security plan released in December set a goal of getting the U.S. military out of the Mideast and realigned to counter China and Russia as strategic competitors.



While the strategy comes amid tensions over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, it isn’t intended as a buildup for war, officials said, but as an approach to how the U.S. military positions itself over at least the next four years based on the threats it sees.

These “major muscle movements,” as the Pentagon calls hardware and personnel redeployments, are aimed at a global resetting of forces, officials said.

“We have enduring interests here, and we have an enduring commitment and we have an enduring presence here,” Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said about the American position in Asia during an eight-day trip through the region ending this week.

Regular deployments of task forces known as Marine Expeditionary Units, or MEUs, would markedly enhance U.S. military capabilities in the Pacific, officials said. The units would be mobile: They could conduct patrols, military-to-military training with allies in the region, and could respond if a conflict were to break out.

Military officials said the MEUs are under consideration with other complementary proposals to reposition forces into East Asia to counter a rising China, which the new defense strategy identifies as undermining an international world order in place for decades. Officials said they didn’t know when a final decision would be made about deployments.

There already are about 50,000 U.S. service members in Japan, including about 18,000 Marines, another 29,500 American service members in South Korea, and about 7,000 more in Guam, according to military officials.

Marine Expeditionary Units are groups of about 2,200 Marines who move about in amphibious assault ships—essentially small aircraft carriers. MEUs are capable of air, sea and ground combat, as well as rescue, logistical and support operations. An MEU typically has aircraft, helicopters, tanks, mortar and other weapons and combat-support resources.

MEUs typically deploy for up to seven months on amphibious ships; they may stay afloat the entire time or deploy ashore for small periods to conduct training or operations.

Gen. Robert Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said MEUs sent to Asia would conduct patrols and joint training exercises with allies.

“We have to be present and engaged to compete,” Gen. Neller said. The new defense strategy “will shape our future naval presence, especially in the Indo-Pacific region.”

MEUs based on the West Coast have traveled from the U.S. to the Middle East for wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently, Syria, all in the area of responsibility of U.S. Central Command.

MEUs, designed to be a quick reaction force, were among the first units to arrive near northern Iraq in 2016 to set up for a campaign to free the city of Mosul from Islamic State.

In a related step, the Marine Corps next month will expand the number of Marines who serve in rotating training assignments in Darwin, Australia, military officials said. About 1,250 Marines now deploy in Darwin for six months each year; the number will increase by an unspecified amount in March, officials said.

Other initiatives, previously announced, include a broader counterterrorism mission in the Philippines and the continuing deployment of new hardware to the region—littoral combat ships to Singapore, for example, and ultimately Joint Strike Fighters to Japan.

Beijing has cast the U.S. as a waning force in the Pacific, an assertion rejected by U.S. military officials.

“The physical evidence reflects anything other than a declining Pacific power,” Gen. Dunford said while in Asia, citing the American troops, hardware and capabilities resident to East Asia.

Over the past week, Gen. Dunford visited Australia, which faces its own strategic challenges with China, and toured the training base for U.S. Marines in Darwin. He also visited Thailand, now rebuilding ties to the U.S. after strains that followed a 2014 military coup.

The Obama administration’s so-called “pivot” to Asia was seen in the region and in the U.S. as having mixed results, in part because his administration reinvested its military resources back into the Middle East.

Pentagon officials said they hope their emphasis on East Asia now will persuade Pacific nations to stand with the U.S.

“I believe the [National Defense Strategy] and other guidance requires us to adopt a more global posture and this will shape our future naval presence, especially in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Gen. Neller.

The new military strategy, when more fully implemented, will require careful diplomacy and a strong economic approach, said Kelly Magsamen, a former Pentagon and State Department policy official.

“Follow through on strategy is essential, but so is close communication and coordination with our allies and friends,” said Ms. Magsamen, now vice president national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress.

U.S. officials said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has signaled inside the Pentagon that the days of effectively unlimited resources for Central Command to fight wars are steadily yielding to a shift of emphasis to the Pacific Rim.

Related Coverage

  • U.S. Plans New Nuclear Weapons (Jan. 15, 2018)
  • U.S. Military to Bulk Up in Afghanistan With Drones, Troops (Jan. 11, 2018)
  • China Accuses U.S. Navy of Encroachment in South China Sea (Jan. 20, 2018)

Some officials argue that withdrawing resources from the Middle East could allow Russia and China to bolster their presence there. Russia backs Syria’s ruler and is seeking to expand its influence elsewhere in the region.

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, U.S. Central Command commander, acknowledged in a recent interview that impending changes could affect resources available to the Middle East.

Gen. Votel has refused to say whether he had been asked to downgrade resources in areas where fighting continues against Islamic State, deferring to the Pentagon.

“Those are real threats, and we have to deal them,” he said of extremists in Iraq and Syria, in an interview in Amman in January. “We will do our part to support that [while] balancing risk” to operations under Central Command control, he said.

Write to Gordon Lubold at and Nancy A. Youssef at

50 years after key Vietnam battles, Mattis seeks closer ties with Vietnamese

January 22, 2018


WASHINGTON: A half-century after the Tet Offensive punctured American hopes of victory in Vietnam, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is visiting the former enemy in search of a different kind of win: incremental progress as partners in a part of the world the Pentagon has identified as vital for the United States to compete with China and Russia.
Mattis, a retired general who entered the Marine Corps during Vietnam but did not serve there, arrived in Indonesia on Monday where he’ll spend two days before visiting Hanoi for talks with senior government and military leaders.
By coincidence, Mattis will be in Vietnam just days before the 50th anniversary of the communist offensive on Jan. 30-31, 1968, when North Vietnam attacked an array of key objectives in the South, including the city of Hue, a former imperial capital and cultural icon on the Perfume River. At the time, Mattis was a senior at Columbia High School in Richland, Washington. The following year he joined the Marine Corps Reserves.
The Tet Offensive gave the North an important boost, even though it ultimately was a military failure. It collapsed an air of confidence among US leaders that they would soon win a favorable peace agreement.
Looking ahead to 1968, the top US commander in Vietnam at the time, Gen. William Westmoreland, famously declared in a speech in Washington in November 1967 that the war was about to enter a phase “when the end begins to come into view.”
The fighting dragged on for seven more years, fueling US street protests and convulsing American politics, before the North prevailed and the last Americans evacuated in 1975.
The former enemies have gradually set aside their wartime differences, in part out of shared concern about China’s growing military power and more assertive position in the South China Sea. The Trump administration sees Vietnam as a partner in opposing China’s assertion of territorial claims in the South China Sea, including the Spratlys, an island chain where Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei also have claims.
Mattis said he didn’t expect the war to come up in his talks in Vietnam.
“That largely has been made a matter of the past,” he said aboard his flight to Asia.
Despite the passage of time, the legacy of the US war is never far from the surface.
The countries didn’t normalize relations until 1995. It took another two decades before Washington fully lifted a ban on selling deadly weapons to Vietnam. The Vietnamese have largely embraced the new partnership as they’ve sought to diversify diplomatic and security relations in the region, fearing Chinese primacy. Vietnam fought a border war with China in 1979, and bitterness runs deep.
The current crop of top US generals is too young to have served in Vietnam. The last chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to have been a Vietnam veteran was Adm. Mike Mullen, who served aboard a Navy destroyer in 1969 that provided fire support for American and South Vietnamese ground forces near Da Nang. The only secretary of defense to have fought in Vietnam was Chuck Hagel, wounded in 1968. He served as Pentagon chief from 2013-2015.
But the war isn’t a relic of history at the Pentagon. An obscure office, the Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency, still directs efforts to find and identify remains of Americans killed in Vietnam. Decades of searches still haven’t accounted for more than 1,200 people. An additional 350 are missing in Laos, Cambodia and China, the Pentagon says. Mattis may visit POW-MIA accounting representatives during his visit.
Mattis has shown interest in some of the unfinished business of Vietnam, too. Last month, he approved giving a Medal of Honor to a Marine for valorous actions in a counter-offensive to retake Hue. A Marine gunnery sergeant at the time, John Canley of Oxnard, California, had been awarded the Navy Cross for heroic action, including rescuing wounded Marines from Jan. 31 to Feb. 6, 1968.
Hue and the Tet Offensive remain a powerful symbol of the war for Americans of that generation; an Associated Press photograph by Eddie Adams of a Vietnamese officer executing a Viet Cong suspect on a street in Saigon on the second day of the Tet Offensive was a rallying cry for US war protesters and is still an iconic symbol of the conflict.
Mattis is the latest in a string of Pentagon chiefs who’ve visited Vietnam to expand security ties and address China’s growing military power.
Ash Carter made the last visit in June 2015, marking two decades of relations and announcing the Pentagon would assign a peacekeeping expert to the US Embassy in Hanoi to help the Vietnamese Defense Ministry prepare for its first deployment on a UN peacekeeping mission. Leon Panetta and his Vietnamese counterpart exchanged personal items from soldiers lost in the war three years earlier.
Mattis has never been to Vietnam. During the war, he attended what was then known as Central Washington State College, graduating in 1972, and earned his commission as a second lieutenant through the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps. He rose in the ranks through 41 years on active duty, capping his career as the four-star commander of US Central Command. He had been retired three years when President Donald Trump picked him to lead the Pentagon.

As ISIS Recedes, U.S. Steps Up Focus on Iran — Trump administration is retooling its strategy in the Mideast

December 14, 2017

Trump administration is retooling its strategy in the Mideast

Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, the head of Iran’s elite expeditionary Quds Force, was sent a warning last month by CIA chief Mike Pompeo that he would be held responsible for any attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq by forces under Iranian control. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON—As the U.S. military campaign against Islamic State winds down in the Middle East, the Trump administration is turning its focus to what it sees as a bigger threat: Iran.

U.S. officials are wrestling with where and how to repel what they describe as a significant Iranian military expansion across the region, a development of increasing concern in Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh.

“Our leadership has set as an objective not to allow Iran and its proxies to be able to establish a presence in Syria that they can use to threaten our allies or us in the region,” one senior U.S. administration official said. “There are different ways to implement that, and we are still working through them.”

President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, is considering giving a policy speech on Syria early next year that would outline the new administration strategy, according to people familiar with his thinking.

Iran's army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looking through binoculars on a visit to the front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria.
Iran’s army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looking through binoculars on a visit to the front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria. PHOTO: SYRIAN CENTRAL MILITARY MEDIA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

One major issue the Trump administration has to address is whether to make confronting Iran an explicit new goal for the more than 2,000 American forces currently in Syria.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said troops will remain in the country for the foreseeable future to ensure that Islamic State doesn’t regain a foothold or its remnants don’t morph into a dangerous new threat.

But those troops could also be placed at the forefront of a new effort to prevent Iran from cementing its military presence in Syria or establishing a secure route across the country that would allow Tehran to easily ferry advanced weapons to allies on Israel’s border, according to U.S. officials and others familiar with the continuing discussions.

“The military presence in Syria increasingly should be the center of gravity for an Iranian neutralization strategy,” said Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank with close ties to the Trump administration. “There’s no political leverage without American military power on the ground.”

Iran has castigated the U.S. for its Mideast presence, saying Washington is backing terrorists fighting against the Syrian regime. Iran didn’t respond to a request for comment on the U.S. shift.

While Mr. Trump sketched out a broad plan in October for combating Iran’s influence, the U.S. military has been focused on eliminating Islamic State strongholds in Syria and Iraq. That project, U.S. officials concede, has allowed Iran to increase its influence, especially in Syria. Administration officials estimate that Tehran and its allies now provide 80% of the fighters for President Bashar al-Assad’s depleted regime there. By some estimates, there are 125,000 Iranian forces currently in Syria.

Mike Pompeo, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), said he told Gen. Soleimani that he would hold him and Iran ‘accountable for any attacks on American interests in Iraq by forces that are under their control.’
Mike Pompeo, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), said he told Gen. Soleimani that he would hold him and Iran ‘accountable for any attacks on American interests in Iraq by forces that are under their control.’ PHOTO: ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Turning the focus from Islamic State to Iran would come with a litany of challenges, including concerns about triggering a deadly backlash from Iran targeting American forces in the region.

That prospect is a paramount concern to U.S. military officials, especially those who fought in Iraq a decade ago and remember the deadly effect Iranian-supplied explosives had on U.S. forces in the country.

To hammer home that disquiet, Central Intelligence Agency chief Mike Pompeo sent a private warning last month to Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite expeditionary Quds Force. In the letter, Mr. Pompeo said recently, the U.S. warned Gen. Soleimani that the administration “will hold he and Iran accountable for any attacks on American interests in Iraq by forces that are under their control.”

Iran’s state-media revealed the existence of the letter and said a CIA operative tried to hand-deliver it to Gen. Soleimani while he was visiting the embattled Syrian town of Abu Kamal, close to the border with Iraq. Mr. Soleimani refused to open the letter, according to Mr. Pompeo and Iranian media.

The Trump administration has already shown its willingness to directly confront Iran in Syria. Over the summer, the U.S. military shot down two armed Iranian drones flying near American forces operating in southern Syria. Though tensions quickly cooled afterward, the incidents showed how serious confrontations in Syria could become.

Gen. McMaster has made it clear in recent days that the U.S. is crafting ways to contain that threat in Syria.

“What we face is the prospect of Iran having a proxy army on the borders of Israel,” he said at a public forum earlier this month.

American and Israeli officials are especially troubled about intelligence suggesting that Iran is establishing a military facility in northwestern Syria to make long-range missiles. Israel has carried out more than 100 airstrikes in Syria, most of them aimed at what it says are convoys ferrying weapons to Hezbollah fighters.

After the most recent airstrike on an Iranian military base near Damascus in early December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country would “not allow a regime hellbent on the annihilation of the Jewish state…to entrench itself militarily in Syria.”

The Trump administration is seeking ways to prevent the Syrian war from transforming into a new regional conflict between Israel and Iran. The U.S. and its allies are trying to use the expansion of de-escalation zones in Syria to halt Iran’s expansion along the borders with Israel and Jordan. But critics say the agreements have actually shored up Iran’s gains and undercut the goals.

Appeared in the December 14, 2017, print edition as ‘As ISIS Fades, a New Focus on Iran.’

Mattis Says Boeing Working to Fix Tanker Woes, Meet Commitments

December 3, 2017


By Anthony Capaccio

  • Boeing, Air Force, DoD ‘aligned’ on program, secretary says
  • Mattis ‘very, very comfortable’ program on the right track

Boeing Co. “has been excellent” working with the U.S. Air Force to fix as many as three potential deficiencies with its new $44.5 billion aerial-refueling tanker, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said.

Jim Mattis

Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg

Mattis in early October asked his staff to get background information on the three potential or demonstrated deficiencies after reading a press account about how the Air Force was addressing the issues. Bloomberg News reported Friday that in a note to his staff, Mattis said he was “unwilling, (totally)” to accept KC-46 tankers that didn’t meet all contract specifications.

 Image result for KC-46 tankers, photos
KC-46 Tanker

“I reinforced that the Air Force was not going to accept tankers that weren’t completely compliant with the contract,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him to Kuwait on Sunday during a Middle East trip. “Boeing has been excellent” and hasn’t given any “push-back” on its commitment, Mattis said.

“They are working to fix things” and Boeing, the Air Force and Pentagon acquisition officials “are all aligned on it,” he said.

The most serious of three recent flaws with the tanker is multiple instances of its retractable boom scraping aircraft receiving fuel in mid-air. The KC-46’s schedule already has slipped because of earlier technical problems, including with its wiring. Delivery of the first 18 tankers, which was supposed to be completed by August of this year, is now expected by October 2018.

Delays UnknownThe Air Force has said it doesn’t know to what extent, if any, aircraft deliveries will be further delayed by the refueling concerns.

Boeing has absorbed cost overruns exceeding the Air Force’s $4.82 billion liability cap in the tanker’s development phase, and the plane has drawn praise from Pentagon officials and the Government Accountability Office.

Responding to the note from Mattis, Undersecretary for Acquisition Ellen Lord also praised Air Force management in an Oct. 4 memo.

“Throughout the execution of the contract, the Air Force has held, and will continue to hold, Boeing accountable to all KC-46 contractual requirements,” Lord wrote. “If system performance is non-compliant and merits correction, the Air Force will hold Boeing accountable — potentially via additional monetary penalties until corrected at their cost.”

Image result for K-46 tanker, seen from aircraft being fueled, photos

KC-46 Pegasus Tanker — seen from the vantage point of the aircraft being fueled…

‘Tankers Done Right’Lord, the Defense Department’s chief weapons buyer, wrote that two of the three potential “Category 1” deficiencies “have a clear path forward” for a resolution. The problem with the boom scraping planes was “still under investigation,” as the service planned to start testing last month, according to Lord.

“We need the tankers, but I want the tankers done right,” Mattis said on Sunday. “The Air Force needs tankers done right. The American taxpayer expects tankers done right, and Boeing is committed to tankers that are done right.

“This is a team effort, and I’m very, very comfortable that we’re on the right track,” he said. “We’ll get there, and it’ll be the best tanker in the world.”

Russia, Iran, Turkey to Meet Over Syria Amid Tensions With U.S.

November 16, 2017


By Henry Meyer and  Taylan Bilgic

  • Putin, Erdogan, Rouhani to discuss Syrian conflict in Sochi
  • Russia accuses U.S. of maintaining ‘occupying force’ in Syria
U.S. forces accompany Kurdish fighters near the northern Syrian village of Darbasiyah in April.

Photographer: Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images

Russia, Turkey and Iran hold summit talks on Syria next week as Ankara threatens a possible attack on U.S.-allied Kurdish forces and tensions rise between Moscow and Washington over the future of the war-torn state.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will host his Turkish and Iranian counterparts, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani, on Nov. 22 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi to discuss Syria and regional developments, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news service said Thursday. The three powers are key players in Syria, where they’ve spearheaded a cease-fire initiative and are now cooperating on a political settlement.

As the battle to defeat Islamic State nears its end, Russia is stepping up criticism of U.S. military involvement in Syria after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said this week that American forces could stay on to ensure a political transition in the country. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Thursday branded the U.S.-led coalition as “practically occupying forces” because they’re operating in Syria without the agreement of the government in Damascus.

Putin, whose military campaign in Syria since 2015 has reversed the course of the civil war and shored up his ally, President Bashar al-Assad, is at odds with U.S. policy that calls for the Syrian leader to leave power eventually as part of any peace agreement. Iran is also a major supporter of Assad, deploying troops and sending Iranian-backed militias to fight in Syria against opposition forces.

‘Joint Steps’

Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed in a joint statement at last week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam to support a political reconciliation in Syria with the participation of Assad. The U.S. doesn’t see a future for Assad in Syria at the end of the process, a State Department official said.

Turkey, which backed rebels seeking to overthrow Assad, warned this week that it may undertake a military operation against Kurdish forces in the northwestern Syrian town of Afrin, who are allied with the U.S. against Islamic State. ‘We’ve discussed joint steps with Russia,” Erdogan said before flying to Sochi on Monday for talks with Putin.

Turkish relations with Russia plunged into crisis after its air force downed a Russian fighter plane on the Syrian border in November 2015. The two countries have since repaired ties and have grown increasingly close, with Putin and Erdogan meeting five times already this year.

— With assistance by Selcan Hacaoglu, and Ilya Arkhipov

Pentagon mulls amplified Africa role to counter IS group — “The war is morphing. We’re going to see more actions in Africa, not less.”

October 24, 2017


© Mark Wilson/Getty Images North America/AFP | General Joseph Dunford Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefs the media on the recent military operations in Niger, at the Pentagon on October 23, 2017 in Arlington, Virginia.


Latest update : 2017-10-24

The United States is considering a stepped-up military presence in Africa to pursue Islamic State group jihadists looking for new havens after the fall of their “caliphate,” American officials say.

After IS lost its de facto capital Raqa in Syria this month, and its Iraqi stronghold of Mosul earlier, the group “has aspirations to establish a larger presence” in Africa, the US military’s top officer General Joseph Dunford said on Monday.

From Libya to Egypt‘s Sinai, to East Africa and West Africa the jihadists have already posed a threat, Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a press conference.

He was discussing the October 4 clash in Niger, West Africa, that cost the lives of four American soldiers.

Chairman of @thejointstaff, Gen. Joe Dunford, briefed the media on recent military operations in Niger today at the .

Along with five Nigerien troops, the US soldiers died on the Niger-Mali border in an attack carried out by locals associated with IS, according to Dunford.

The incident shocked many Americans unaware of the hundreds-strong US military presence in that country.

Dunford said the military will make recommendations to President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis “for the allocation of forces that meet what we see as the threat, what we anticipate the threat to be.”

On Tuesday he meets military chiefs from 75 countries “to talk about the next phase of the campaign” against IS.

Speaking to reporters following a meeting with Mattis last Friday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, said bluntly: “The war is morphing. We’re going to see more actions in Africa, not less.”

After the Middle East, Africa already has the greatest presence of American special forces. Official figures show more than 1,300 of the troops are deployed there.

These elite units train local forces in counter-terrorism and “will only accompany those forces when the prospects of enemy contact is unlikely,” Dunford said.

These rules of engagement “are going to change when it comes to counterterrorism operations,” Graham said.

He hinted that American troops would be authorized to shoot first on “terrorist” targets, which is not the case now.

A growing threat

The European Union‘s presidency also warned this month that countries in that bloc must monitor “very carefully” a growing IS threat in North Africa, where fighters have relocated.

Dunford said the war is moving to multiple arenas.

“I’m not sure I’m ready to say it’s shifting just to Africa. We’re dealing with a challenge that exists from West Africa to Southeast Asia,” he said.

“I believe ISIS will attempt to establish a physical presence outside of Iraq and Syria” after losing Mosul and Raqa, the general added, using another acronym for IS.

“That’s exactly why we’re conducting the kinds of operations we’re conducting in Niger, to ensure that local forces have the capability to prevent that from happening.”

The US supports with aerial refueling and intelligence France’s Operation Barkhane against jihadists in five Sahel nations: MauritaniaMaliChad, Niger and Burkina Faso.

In all, the US military has about 6,000 personnel in 53 African countries, Dunford said.

According to a report to Congress by General Thomas Waldhauser, who heads the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), the American presence is notable in Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya.

The numbers of US special forces varies but the Niger contingent of about 800 is currently the largest in any one country on the continent.

Dunford vowed the US will remain, despite the four fatalities in Niger.

“Our intent is to continue operations there,” Dunford said.