Happy Tuesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
THE TOPLINE: President Trump‘s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeast Syria, paving the way for a Turkish offensive against Kurdish forces, damaged the U.S. relationship with its main local partner and hindered the fight against ISIS, a government watchdog said Tuesday.
With Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and U.S.-led coalition “operations against ISIS in Syria diminished, U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic agencies warned that ISIS was likely to exploit the reduction in counterterrorism pressure to reconstitute its operations in Syria,” the lead inspector general for Operation Inherent Resolve wrote in a report released Tuesday.
The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) “said that a reduction in counterterrorism pressure ‘will provide the group with time and space to expand its ability to conduct transnational attacks targeting the West,'” the report added.
The background: Trump kicked off a bipartisan firestorm in Washington when he announced in early October he would withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria following a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The withdrawal made room for Turkey to proceed with a long-threatened offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces.
Ankara considers the Kurds terrorists connected with a Turkish Kurdish insurgency. But the United States considered Syrian Kurdish forces the most effective local force combating ISIS and relied on them to do the most dangerous ground fighting.
Trump later decided to leave about 500 to 600 troops in Syria after Turkey invaded. Trump has said the mission is to secure oil fields, while the Pentagon insists it remains focused on fighting ISIS.
A ‘betrayal’ and a stronger ISIS: In Tuesday’s report, the inspector general cited public statements from the SDF, the Kurdish-led force partnered with the United States, that they considered the U.S. withdrawal a “betrayal.”
The DIA also told the inspector general ISIS exploited the Turkish incursion to regroup within Syria and strengthen its ability to plan attacks abroad, according to the report.
“Citing open-source reporting, the DIA said that ISIS has activated sleeper cells to increase attacks against the SDF,” the report said. “In the short term, absent counterterrorism pressure, ISIS will probably operate more freely across areas of northeastern Syria to build clandestine networks and will attempt to free members detained in SDF-run prisons,” the DIA said.
U.S. forces carried out a raid against ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late October that ended in his death. But the DIA told the inspector general ISIS is “postured to withstand” the loss and will likely maintain “continuity of operations, global cohesion, and at least its current trajectory.”
A longer war: The Turkish offensive also allowed Russian and Syrian government forces to move into northeast Syria, a development the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said in the report “would likely impact” U.S. goals for a peaceful end to the Syrian civil war.
The report also said pro-Syrian government forces are unlikely to focus on fighting ISIS.
“The DIA said that although pro-regime forces regularly clash with ISIS in parts of southeastern Syria, they likely lack the will to carry out meaningful operations to ensure an enduring defeat of ISIS in northeastern Syria,” the report said.
A more destabilized region: Further, the inspector general said, the Turkish offensive posed a risk to stabilization and humanitarian operations. The incursion displaced 215,000 people, according to the report. Some have returned home, but the United Nations estimates about 99,200 remain displaced and U.S. agencies estimate about 14,000 fled to Iraq, the report added.
U.S. stabilization personnel were withdrawn from Syria in wake of Turkish incursion after having returned in July following a previous withdrawal.
Still, USAID and the State Department “reported that the United States continued providing humanitarian assistance in northern Syria during the quarter and into October, although the unstable security situation complicated aid delivery,” the report said.
IMPEACHMENT LATEST: The public impeachment hearings continued Tuesday, kicking off in the morning with testimony from Jennifer Williams, a foreign service officer assigned to Vice President Pence’s office, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the director of European Affairs at the National Security Council. Both were on the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky. In the afternoon, lawmakers heard from former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Tim Morrison, an outgoing top Russia expert on the NSC. The two also heard the call between Trump and Ukraine’s leader.
In measured opening remarks, Vindman said that he believed President Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine’s president to be “improper” and that he reported concerns about it to a National Security Council (NSC) lawyer out of a “sense of duty.”
“I never thought I would be sitting here testifying in front of this committee and the American public about my actions,” Vindman, who wore his uniform during Tuesday’s hearing, said.
He also described attacks on him and other witnesses as “reprehensible” and “cowardly,” recognizing career officials for their courage in coming forward to raise concerns about the administration’s policies toward Ukraine.
Pushback on critics: Vindman and other career officials who have testified privately or publicly have withstood criticisms from the president’s Republican allies and even Trump himself, who last month called Vindman, a career official working on the White House National Security Council, a “Never Trumper.”
“I want to state that the vile character attacks on these distinguished and honorable public servants is reprehensible. It is natural to disagree and engage in spirited debate, this has been our custom since the time of our Founding Fathers, but we are better than callow and cowardly attacks,” Vindman said during his opening statement on Tuesday, without mentioning Trump or any specific attacks.
“The uniform I wear today is that of the United States Army. The members of our all-volunteer force are made up of a patchwork of people from all ethnicities, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds who come together under a common oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America,” Vindman continued. “We do not serve any particular political party, we serve the nation.”
What Vindman knew: Vindman, the director for European affairs on the NSC, listened in on the July phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during which Trump asked Kyiv for investigations into 2016 election interference and former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, and his son’s business relationship with Ukrainian gas company Burisma Holdings.
Vindman, who testified in a private deposition last month, said that he believed Trump’s actions were inappropriate and could hamper U.S. national security. Vindman reported the call to NSC lawyer John Eisenberg.
“I was concerned by the call. What I heard was improper, and I reported my concerns to Mr. Eisenberg,” Vindman said. “It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent.”
“It was also clear that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma, it would be interpreted as a partisan play. This would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing bipartisan support, undermine U.S. national security and advance Russia’s strategic objectives in the region,” he continued.
Read more from The Hill on the impeachment hearings here:
— Vindman calls it ‘preposterous’ that he would leak information
— Trump on Vindman: ‘I understand now he wears his uniform when he goes in’
— White House tweet questions Vindman’s judgment
— Impeachment witnesses push back against being called ‘Never Trumpers’
— Whistleblower lawyer lashes out at Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio): ‘I AM TIRED OF YOU LYING IN A HOUSE COMMITTEE ROOM’
— Volker says he rejected Biden ‘conspiracy theory’ pushed by Giuliani
— READ: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s opening statement in impeachment hearing
— READ: Jennifer Williams’s opening statement in impeachment hearing
— READ: Kurt Volker’s opening statement in impeachment hearing
— READ: Tim Morrison’s opening statement in impeachment hearing
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LAWMAKERS EXPECT TO FINISH NDAA NEGOTIATIONS THIS WEEK: Lawmakers are expecting to finish negotiations on the annual defense bill this week, the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services committees said Tuesday.
“That is our plan, and I believe we will meet that expectation,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told reporters when asked if negotiators will finish this week. “Overall, I am cautiously optimistic we will be able to finish this week.”
Smith added that “we won’t have a signed conference report” this week because “it takes a while to print this stuff up,” but that he expects a deal in principle.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) separately told reporters that “we want to get the bill this week.”
“We’re finally to the point where it’s going to be over this week,” Inhofe said during a break in a meeting with Smith, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas.)
In addition to Smith and Inhofe, Reed told reporters earlier Tuesday that they are working to “close down” the bill “this week.”
A better outlook: The upbeat predictions for an end to House-Senate negotiations on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) come after weeks of partisan bickering over the bill.
Lawmakers have struggled to reach a compromise over issues related to President Trump’s border wall.
Trump pulled about $6.1 billion from Pentagon funding to build the wall. Furious House Democrats responded by including provisions in their NDAA to ban the use of Pentagon funds on the wall and limit the Pentagon’s ability to transfer money between accounts.
The Senate’s version does not include those restrictions and would backfill $3.6 billion in military construction funding that was taken for the wall.
Recent weeks have also seen finger-pointing over whether the impeachment inquiry is crowding out the bill.
And there have been difficulties reaching agreements on issues related to Trump’s “Space Force,” reversing Trump’s ban on transgender troops in the military and restricting Trump’s ability to take military action against Iran.
Tight-lipped on compromises: Neither Inhofe nor Smith would discuss details of how they are resolving differences in their versions of the bill.
Inhofe said only that “there are some varieties that we’re looking at.”
On the wall, Smith said “a big chunk of it has moved to the leadership.”
“I believe all of us negotiating understand now what our leadership wants,” Smith said, “and if we resolve the issue, leadership will support how we resolved it at this point.”
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ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist will speak before a Senate Armed Services subcommittee on the Defense Department audit at 9:30 a.m. in Russell Senate Office Building, room 222.
State Department Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko, will speak at a Woodrow Wilson Center discussion on “Eighteen years and $132 Billion: Taking Stock of U.S. Reconstruction Efforts in Afghanistan,” at 10:30 a.m. in Washington, D.C.
Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Ali Siddiqui will speak at 1:30 p.m. at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
A House Armed Services subcommittee will hold a hearing on “Climate Change in the Era of Strategic Competition,” with John Rood, under secretary of defense for policy; Michael Griffin, under secretary of defense for research and engineering; Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Kruse, the Pentagon director for defense intelligence warfighter support; and Maria Langan-Riekhof, Office of the Director of National Intelligence 2 p.m. at the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2118.
The House Armed Services cybersecurity subcommittee will hold a closed hearing on the implementation of the 2018 Defense Department cyber strategy at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Visitor’s Center, room SVC-217.
A Senate Armed Services subcommittee will hear from defense experts on “Biological Threats to U.S. National Security,” at 3 p.m. in Russell 222.
— The Hill: Pentagon warns Iran will seek advanced weapons as embargo expires
— The Hill: Lawmakers spar over surveillance flight treaty with Russia
— The Hill: US Army prepared to move Vindman to secure location: report
— The Hill: Senators voice support for Iran protesters but stop short of taking action
— The Hill: Talks stall on defense costs with South Korea
— The Hill: Taliban frees American, Australian in prisoner swap
— The Hill: McConnell urges Trump to voice support for Hong Kong protesters
— The Hill: Amnesty International: More than 100 killed in Iran protests
— The Hill: Bipartisan senators urge national security adviser to appoint 5G coordinator
— The Hill: Lawyer for accused US spy proposes prisoner swap with Russia
— The Hill: Opinion: Ukraine had two ‘special envoys’ too many
— The Hill: Opinion: Staring into Hong Kong’s future today