6 March 2018

Security Brief: McMaster on Thin Ice; Fighting Rages in Syria


By Elias Groll, with Jenna McLaughlin and Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian McMassacre? With a CNN report Thursday that President Donald Trump may be on the verge of firing National Security Adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster, the three-star Army general might be heading for a new position back in the military. McMaster has been the target of attacks. H.R. McMaster, national security advisor, listens as U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean defectors in the Oval Office of the White House on February 2, 2018 in Washington, D.C. 

McMaster has been the target of attacks for months, making any new reports that he’s on the chopping block worthy of a healthy dose of skepticism. However, multiple sources with ties to the White House told FP it could be different this time and that McMaster is living on borrowed time. He was out last week on planned leave.

Two sources said that the White House press office was told to stand down on questions about McMaster’s tenure, issuing milquetoast responses to reporters posing questions. The rumor mill was churning by Thursday afternoon over who might replace McMaster, including former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.

Bolton, however, isn’t talking. Even in private conversations late in the week, he offered non-answers when asked about the position. Bolton would have seemed an unlikely choice a few months ago; in August, he wrote the equivalent of an open letter to President Trump on scrapping the Iran plan, after being frozen out of the Oval Office. Yet, as usual, in the Trump White House, anything could happen.

If Bolton takes over, it would likely usher in a more hawkish approach at the White House, including toward North Korea. Bolton “supports preventive war through a massive strike, if sanctions fail,” the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reports. “During an appearance last week at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security, he said the United States would have to simultaneously destroy all known North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile sites, submarine bases, and artillery, mortar and missile installments along the North’s border with South Korea.”

So much for that ceasefire. Fighting continued to rage in Syria over the weekend, despite a newly minted plea from the United Nations Security Council that all parties abide by a ceasefire and allow much needed humanitarian aid to reach the country’s besieged civilian population.

Syrian government forces continued to attack rebel-held territory in the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus from the air and with artillery and launched a fresh ground offensive. Activists in the besieged enclave reported at least 22 dead on Sunday and said that a child died after breathing in the toxic fumes of a chlorine bomb, according to the Washington Post.

The United States and its allies claimed a rare diplomatic victory on Saturday with the unanimous passage of the Security Council ceasefire demand, but it has delivered few results on the ground. To win Russian support, the measure included language to allow continued military action against “terrorists,” a blanket term the Assad regime labels all its opponents.

On Monday morning, at least 72 airstrikes hit Eastern Ghouta, killing 97 and wounding more than 500, according to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations. The targets included five hospitals, and none are now in operation in Eastern Ghouta.

Meanwhile Turkish officials said the ceasefire agreement would have no impact on their military offensive near Afrin, Syria.

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