For Syria, aid is ‘too little, too late’

With help from Lara Seligman and Daniel Lippman

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One week ago, two massive earthquakes devastated Turkey and Syria. Only one of those countries has received much help at all.

For five days, “no meaningful aid arrived” in Syria, the Middle East Institute's CHARLES LISTER tweeted. Some 6,000 Syrians are dead, more than 11,000 injured, and well over 30,000 displaced. As the United Nations calls for an end to the rescue phase, thousands remain trapped, lifeless, under crumbled buildings.

That’s not because damaged roads prevented rescuers from crossing the border into Syria. It’s due to U.N. leadership pandering to Turkey, who fear angering Damascus and complicating the organization’s aid mission in the Syrian capital, Lister told NatSec Daily.

“With the enormous resources at its disposal,” he said, the U.N. “is more than capable of surging assistance into the northwest, but it’s more concerned about keeping Damascus happy than rescuing the lives of Syrians in Idlib.”

On Sunday, humanitarian workers and aid finally arrived in Syria. Fifty-two trucks from the U.N. stocked with supplies drove across the sole border crossing open for the U.S., which isn’t nearly enough to help all those in need, tweeted SAMANTHA POWER, administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

At more than 31,000 victims, the death toll in Turkey is much higher. But hundreds of thousands of rescuers from around the world have descended into that country to help, while aid to rebel-held areas in Syria has been delayed by negotiations with Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls much of the region, a U.N. spokesperson told Reuters.

The U.N. bungled its response in Syria, and has said so.

Yesterday, U.N. aid chief MARTIN GRIFFITHS made a rare acknowledgement that his team had, indeed, messed up. In a visit to the Turkey-Syria border, he admitted that “we have so far failed the people in north-west Syria” and that citizens “rightly feel abandoned.”

Experts say the blundering is hardly surprising.

“At the end of the day, this was a failure of U.N. leadership,” Lister said, blaming U.N. Secretary General ANTÓNIO GUTERRES specifically for his “appalling” track record with helping Syria.

While Griffith’s admission was “an honorable step,” Lister said, “enough is enough. There needs to be accountability for such errors of judgment, particularly when thousands of lives were likely lost as a result.”

When asked by CBS News if she agrees with the characterization of the aid being a “failure,” Power — who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — sidestepped the question, saying Russia is to blame for blocking more border crossings from opening in northern Syria.

Regardless, Griffiths’ brief trip to the region was “too little, too late,” RAED AL-SALEH, head of the White Helmets, a civil defense group operating in the rebel-held northwest, said in a statement.

The Inbox

THEY KEEP POPPING UP: The U.S. military shot down an unidentified object flying above Michigan on Sunday, making it the fourth airborne object downed by American forces in just over a week, Alex along with PAUL McLEARY, OLIVIA OLANDER and LARA SELIGMAN reported.

Defense officials declined to identify what the three objects shot down over the weekend might be, leaving the national security world with many unanswered questions:

What’s the threat, if any, to civilians? What was the purpose of the objects? Why has there been a rash of detections and decisive responses? Were aliens involved? Officials wouldn’t even publicly rule that out until this afternoon.

The increase in sightings is at least partially due to “the adjusting of the radar sensitivities, which means we’re seeing more things than we would normally see. But we don’t fully appreciate and understand what we’re seeing,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. BROWN at a Brookings Institution event Monday morning.

While there wasn’t indication that the objects were from China, Beijing has received heat over the past week for the initial balloon. But on Monday, Chinese leaders called the U.S. response hypocritical, alleging that the U.S. had flown high-altitude balloons through its airspace more than 10 times since the beginning of last year, The Wall Street Journal’s BRIAN SPEGELE reports.

“Any claim that the U.S. government operates surveillance balloons over the PRC is false,” said ADRIENNE WATSON, a National Security Council spokesperson. “This is the latest example of China scrambling to do damage control.”

Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN is considering meeting with Chinese senior diplomat WANG YI this week at the Munich Security Conference, Bloomberg News’ JENNIFER JACOBS and PETER MARTIN report. If it happens, it would be the first face-to-face meeting between the nations’ officials since Blinken canceled his trip to China following the balloon incident.

MOSCOW PUSHES FORWARD: Russian troops intensified efforts to take the key eastern city of Bakhmut, as Ukrainian officials report heavy shelling and infantry attacks that killed five civilians in the past day.

In parts of the city, the situation is “difficult,” Ukraine’s presidential office said. The nearby town of Vuhledar is also being heavily bombarded, the Associated Press’ SAMYA KULLAB and YURAS KARMANAU report. In recent weeks, Russia has narrowed its focus on towns outside Bakhmut as part of its months-long offensive in the area aimed at taking Bakhmut.

“The reality is that we have seen the start already,” U.N. Secretary-General JENS STOLTENBERG told reporters, speaking about Russia’s much-speculated spring offensive. As the attacks ramp up, Ukrainian soldiers are beginning to train on the German-made Leopard 2 battle tanks, Germany’s defense ministry said.

GET OUT OF RUSSIA: If you’re an American reading from Russia right now, the U.S. wants you to leave. Immediately.

The U.S. embassy in Moscow urged all its citizens to leave the country as soon as possible, citing concerns that they could be wrongfully detained or harassed by Russian authorities. And if it weren’t obvious, "do not travel to Russia," the embassy said in a statement.

That comes a couple months after WNBA star BRITTNEY GRINER was released following months of detention in Russia on drug charges. Citizens were also told to leave in September, when Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN announced his mobilization of troops.

RUSSIA IN SYRIA: Speaking of the Kremlin’s influence in Syria, Russian aircraft have been more aggressive in the skies over the Middle East in recent months, particularly in Syria, Lara writes in.

Russian aircraft fly “episodically” over the Al-Tanf garrison in southern Syria, and sometimes even the eastern Syrian security area where U.S. troops operate, said Lt. Gen. ALEXUS GRYNKEWICH, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, during an event at the Center for the New American Security.

The U.S. saw an “uptick” in Russian activity during a recent January exercise with the Israelis in the eastern Mediterranean, including the George H. W. Bush carrier strike group, bomber task forces and F-35s, he said.

“The Russians were fairly assertive in establishing their presence, setting up combat air patrols, and flying out in the area where we were trying to operate,” he said.

Russia has also continued to draw down equipment from Syria, including S-300 air defense batteries, likely for use in Ukraine, Grynkewich said. “In general, we’ve seen a decrease in the Russian presence,” he said.

RAISI TO MEET XI: Iranian president EBRAHIM RAISI will head to China for three days to meet with President XI JINPING on Tuesday, the Associated Press reports. China’s foreign ministry said that Xi had invited his Iranian counterpart to come.

IT’S MONDAY: Thanks for tuning in to NatSec Daily. This space is reserved for the top U.S. and foreign officials, the lawmakers, the lobbyists, the experts and the people like you who care about how the natsec sausage gets made. Aim your tips and comments at [email protected] and [email protected], and follow us on Twitter at @alexbward and @mattberg33.

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CAMPAIGN THEME? CHINA: As GOP presidential campaigns gear up for 2024, there’s likely to be a special theme among the hopefuls: Who would have the chops to take on China?

With talks of Taiwanese invasion on the horizon and a Chinese spy balloon literally on the horizon, Republicans are likely to devote much time and energy to laying out their strategy combating Beijing, The Washington Post’s JIM GERAGHTY writes.

For some prospective candidates, that’s a given. Former Secretary of State MIKE POMPEO recently published a book called “Never Give an Inch,” in which he details actions he took in his previous post to take on China. Another Trump alum, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations NIKKI HALEY, is likely to point to her work to oppose China’s global influence, though it didn’t always work out in her favor. JOHN BOLTON was Trump’s national security adviser.

But even potential hopefuls like Florida Gov. RON DeSANTIS have some skin in the game. He could talk about state-level initiatives to curb Beijing’s influence, such as barring land purchases by Chinese entities, prohibiting state contracts with Chinese tech firms and stopping colleges and universities in his state from accepting gifts from foreign entities.


RUNNING UP THE HILL: Rep. RO KHANNA (D-Calif.) wants to bring Silicon Valley’s top tech leaders to Washington to help improve the Defense Department’s adoption of new and emerging cyber and tech products, he told our own MAGGIE MILLER (for Pros!).

As the new ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Cyber, Information Technologies and Innovation, Khanna pointed to figures like ELON MUSK — head of Twitter, Tesla and SpaceX — and Apple CEO TIM COOK as potentially being key to helping DoD address cyber vulnerabilities in critical systems.

“We ought to be convening people like Musk and other technology leaders to understand the vulnerabilities in cyber and to understand what more the DoD needs to do to prepare and to be able to assess,” Khanna said.

The Complex

REVOLVING DOOR: Raytheon Technologies recently hired The Roosevelt Group as its 14th lobbying firm, our friends over at Morning Defense (for Pros!) report.

The Roosevelt Group’s team includes the firm’s co-founders, JOHN SIMMONS and CHRIS GOODE, and retired Navy Capt. LARRY MEEHAN, who worked as the Middle East division director in the Navy international program office, according to a new disclosure.

On the Hill

CLEANING HOUSE: A bipartisan cadre in the House and Senate is reupping an effort to repeal a pair of decades-old war authorizations, Morning Defense also reports.

Sens. TIM KAINE (D-Va.) and TODD YOUNG (R-Ind.) and Reps. BARBARA LEE (D-Calif.), CHIP ROY (R-Texas), ABIGAIL SPANBERGER (D-Va.) and TOM COLE (R-Okla.) will reintroduce legislation to repeal the 2002 Iraq War and 1991 Gulf War authorizations. The bipartisan coalition in the House combines progressive and moderate Democrats with establishment and Freedom Caucus Republicans.

The advocates are hoping that the coalition enhances their chances after a push came up short last year. The authorizations “are no longer necessary, serve no operational purpose, and run the risk of potential misuse," Kaine said in a statement.


ISRAEL’S JUDICIAL DRAMA: Israeli President ISAAC HERZOG proposed a compromise plan to save the nation from "constitutional collapse" as Prime Minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU’s far-right coalition tries to overhaul the judicial system.

In a rare televised speech on Sunday, Herzog appealed to lawmakers to postpone steps to change the legal system, warning of violence as widespread protests roil the country. TOM NIDES, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, appeared to support the idea, saying that it was a “great speech from a great leader.”

On Saturday, President JOE BIDEN expressed his support for maintaining Israel’s judiciary, too, albeit in his own way: in a TOM FRIEDMAN NYT column.

When asked for comment on the matter, Biden told Friedman that “the genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary. Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”

DUMB, DUMB AND DUMBER: The chair of the House Intelligence Committee and other members who work with classified information are “stumped” that presidents and vice presidents could be so careless with classified information, our own OLIVIA OLANDER reported late Sunday.

“We don’t understand how this could be happening. We don’t understand how all three could have been so lackadaisical about this,” Rep. MIKE TURNER (R-Ohio) said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” talking about classified documents found in private spaces associated with former President DONALD TRUMP, former Vice President MIKE PENCE and Biden.


— FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY: ALEX PARETS has left the Treasury Department where he was the chief of staff to the under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, DANIEL LIPPMAN has learned. He is now senior director and head of sanctions risk management at Capital One.

KURT SANGER, former deputy general counsel of U.S. Cyber Command, has founded Integrated Cybersecurity Partners, a new cyber and national security consultancy.

CHRIS BIGELOW will replace ROBIN JULIANO in early March as the House Appropriations Committee’s Democratic staff director. Bigelow was most recently the clerk of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee.

JENNIFER CHARTRAND will succeed Bigelow as the Democratic clerk on the Defense panel.

What to Read

— MAX BOOT, The Washington Post: The all-volunteer force turns 50 — and faces its worst crisis yet

— JEAN DE RUYT, POLITICO: The golden era of EU-Japan relations dawns

Ret. Lt. Gen. ROBERT ASHLEY JR., The Cipher Brief: Russia’s Military Still Has A Lot to Worry About

Tomorrow Today

Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTINdelivers opening remarks at a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group in Brussels. It starts at 4 a.m., so set your alarms now.

— The Association of the United States Army, 7:10 a.m.:Discussion with Army Sgt. Maj. MICHAEL GRINSTON, personal adviser to the Army chief of staff, on issues affecting the enlisted force

— The Hudson Institute, 9 a.m.:Preparing for the Dissolution of the Russian Federation

— The Intelligence and National Security Alliance, 9 a.m.:Coffee and Conversation with BILL LIETZAU

— The Atlantic Council, 10 a.m.: What does Ukraine need to win in 2023?

— The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 11:30 a.m.:Innovating for Great Power Competition: An Examination of Service and Joint Innovation Efforts

DefSec Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. MARK MILLEYwill hold a news conference following the Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting. This one’s at 11:45 a.m., so hopefully you took a nap in between.

— New America, 12 p.m.:Without Borders: The Haqqani Network and the Road to Kabul

— The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, 12 p.m.:Ukrainian Public Opinion and the War

Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot me an email at [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.

Thanks to our editor, Heidi Vogt, who says we contribute “too little” to this newsroom and it’s “too late.”

We also thank our producer, Jeffrey Horst, who does the most and is remarkably punctual.