US Govt. Authorizes 17-Year Contract For Huge Super-Secret Drone Project Near Death Valley

U.S. Air Force Is Planning Something Big in the Nevada Desert

Unusually worded, multi-billion dollar drone services contract possibly points to a new, shadowy unmanned aircraft—and a lot of them.

By Joseph Trevithick

Google Earth

In June 2016, The War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway wrote an extensive and thought-provoking analysis of why the U.S. Air Force either had yet to show off a fleet of advanced, combat-capable unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV), or didn’t have any at all. It’s a long but worthwhile read, especially since the service has just announced a massive and shadowy drone-related contract for work out in the Nevada desert.

On April 6, 2017, as part of the Pentagon’s daily announcement of any contract awards worth over $7 million, the Air Force revealed a deal with URS Federal Services, Inc. for nearly two decades of work regarding unmanned aircraft. The official details are unusual, so feel free to read them yourself:

URS Federal Services, Inc., Germantown, Maryland, has been awarded an estimated $3,600,000,000 indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract with award fee and award term portions for remotely piloted aircraft services. Contractor will provide testing, tactics development, advanced training, Joint and Air Force urgent operational need missions. Work will be performed at Nevada Test and Training Range, Nevada; Creech Air Force Base, Nevada; and Tonopah Test Range Airfield, Nevada, and is expected to be complete by March 31, 2034. This award is the result of a competitive acquisition with four offers received. Fiscal 2017 operations and maintenance funds in the amount of $2,875,894 are being obligated at the time of award. Air Force Test Center, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, is the contracting activity. (FA8240-17-D-4651).

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s start right at the top. This contract with URS Federal Services is worth $3.6 billion, but the program, whatever it is, isn’t expected to end until the spring of 2034. That’s 17 years for those keeping score. The math works out to more than $210 million per year, on average, over that period or $17.5 million every month.

That’s a big price tag for services. In 2013, the RAND Corporation estimated that it cost $435 million a year for the Air Force’s 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina to operate three squadrons of F-16C/D Vipers. This calculation included everything associated with flying the fighter jets, such as pay checks for military personnel and supporting contractors, fuel, depot-level repairs, as well as indirect support from the Wing’s other elements, including security forces guarding the flight line, civil engineers maintaining facilities, and basic utilities and supplies, such as electricity in the barracks and food in the chow halls. A similar analysis of the 187th Fighter Wing, a unit in the Alabama Air National Guard with just one squadron of Vipers, produced a final price tag of just $63.6 million.

Boeing

In short, the URS Federal Services’ contract could potentially cover the full costs of running multiple squadrons of pilotless planes for nearly two decades. And remember that this deal likely only pays for just a portion of the total cost of this project. So, while we don’t know what unmanned aircraft—singular or plural—the Maryland-based company will be helping test, the money involved here suggests there are quite a few of them. Of course, none of this is surprising. The Air Force and defense contractors both repeated hint at the existence of multiple top secret “black” military air and space projects.

“We’re modernizing the Air Force, so you’ll see in the future new aircraft here on the ramps,” then Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said during a visit to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada in September 2016. “Then there are other things you also won’t see, because we like to have some surprises, also, for potential adversaries.”

These comments were squarely in line with the Pentagon’s much-touted Third Offset Strategy, a high-technology master plan to push development of revolutionary weapons and associated systems to counter rapidly modernizing near peers. On top of that, the idea has been to produce solutions to future threats that don’t necessarily require a lot of manpower or developmental funding.

Finlay McWalter/Wikimedia

A map of Nellis Air Force Base and its associated ranges, with Tonopah marked near the northwest corner.

But that 2016 trip to Nellis that seems especially relevant to this new arrangement with URS Federal Services. See, all of the sites mentioned in the contract announcement fall within or along the border of the base’s extended boundaries. The first of these, the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), is a massive 4,500 square mile practice space with 5,000 square miles of restricted airspace for military exercise. The area hosts the Air Force’s biggest annual mock combat events, including Red Flag. Inside the zone, fighters and attack aircraft can fire missiles, drop bombs, fly mock dogfights, and tackle surface-to-air missile threats among various other scenarios. Creech Air Force Base, the Air Force’s central hub for Predator, Reaper, and Sentinel operations, sits along the southern reaches of the NTTR, which is collocated with the National Test Site.

And then there’s the matter of Tonopah Test Range and its associated airport. Regular readers of The War Zone are surely familiar with the Nevada test site’s history. Air Combat Command, the Air Force’s top warfighting command, owns the complex, but Sandia National Laboratory—which has the primary job of designing parts for nuclear weapons—technically administers the site. This obtuse arrangement and remote location make it a perfect place to test whole squadrons of shadowy aircraft and it has done so marvelously in the past.

From 1984 until 1992, the base hosted the Air Force’s first operational stealth jets, Lockheed’s F-117.  Officially, the 4450th Tactical Group was situated at Nellis. The cover story was that the unit was flying A-7D Corsair II attack planes to test new tactics and equipment – sound familiar?

USAF

An F-117 stealth jet.

In 2008, the Air Force officially retired the F-117s for good. However, the service kept a number of aircraft in so-called “Type 1000” storage at Tonopah, meaning crews had to keep them just serviceable enough to return to action in a relatively short period of time. For years afterward, there were numerous reports, along with photos and videos, indicating that at least a few of the jets were still actively flying, possibly for experimental purposes.

As the stealth jets moved into storage, Tonopah became home to Lockheed’s secretive RQ-170 Sentinel. The 30th Reconnaissance Squadron had at approximately 20 of the bat-wing unmanned spy planes sitting at the desert airport until 2011. Then it moved to the Air Force’s main drone hub at Creech Air Force Base and set up a separate detachment at Vandenberg Air Force Base in neighboring California.

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432d Operations Group, 432nd Wing organization as of 2011.

It is very possible that some sort of Sentinel operations still occur at Tonopah as well, but clearly it is the USAF’s chosen home for secretive aircraft that have moved from the developmental stages to an early operational one. Eventually, once the programs are declassified, the programs move to a more convenient home. In the F-117’s case, that was Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. For the RQ-170, it’s Creech and Vandenberg.

Who’s running the program URS Federal Services will be supporting isn’t entirely clear, either. The Pentagon press release points to a confusing collection of units and bases. It says the Air Force Test Center (AFTC) awarded the contract, but adds that the specific contracting office was at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. AFTC’s headquarters is at Edwards Air Force Base in California and its website doesn’t mention a detachment at Hill, but it does has a strong connection to secretive aircraft projects and a long-standing relationship with Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works design group.

USAF

A picture of an RQ-170, another previously “black” aircraft, on Guam, which the author first obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

Since the April 2017 contract announcement specifically cites “joint” requirements, other services or the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) could be involved in the project. In its budget request for the 2016 fiscal year, SOCOM asked for approximately $20 million for a hangar at a classified location somewhere in the contiguous United States, which would be large enough to conceal multiple drones. Based on the type of facilities the line items described, the Air Force Special Operations Command seemed to want the structure for an unspecified test project.

John Pike, director of the defense and security information website GlobalSecurity.org, agreed at the time that Tonopah was one possible location for the new, 36,000 square feet building. In addition, this budget proposal for the classified hangar came after work had already started on another massive hangar at the secretive Groom Lake test site, better known as Area 51, suggesting the two buildings were separate projects.

It may turn out that the Air Force moved the bulk of the RQ-170s out of Tonopah to make room for another top secret, joint drone program. We have seen official details and other hints about various secretive Air Force aircraft projects since the Sentinels came into the light.

In December 2013, veteran Aviation Week reporters Bill Sweetman and Amy Butler reported the existence of another flying-wing stealth drone, dubbed the RQ-180. Six months later, Air Force Lieutenant General Robert Otto, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, made the unprecedented move to acknowledge the program publicly during a speech sponsored by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. It took the service three years to cop to the existence of the Sentinel on the record.

USAF

In 2014, mysterious triangular planes appeared over Texas and Kansas. The next year, an Air Force report War Is Boring first obtained via the Freedom of Information Act suggested a still-unknown spy plane had already flown missions over the Pacific region two years earlier. You can read the relevant except above.

Still, the details we know of URS Federal Services’ contract point to work on an entire operational concept based around something more like a more numerous UCAV fleet than a handful of “silver bullet” pilotless spy aircraft and suggests that these aircraft already exist. There’s no indication of weapon system research and development or procurement money involved in this “services” contract. The Air Force pulled almost $3 million out of a so-called “operations and maintenance” account (funds services generally set aside for things like payroll) to get URS Federal Services quickly off to work.

Publicly, the Air Force has stutter-started and then canceled a number of such projects since the late 1990s as Rogoway’s piece details. Before dropping out in 2006, the Air Force had tested experimental armed unmanned aerial vehicles in partnership with the U.S. Navy under the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) program. Six years later, the Air Force curiously shuttered another next-generation unmanned aircraft project, which it referred to as MQ-X, ostensibly aimed at producing a pilotless attacker. In the meantime, in response to Navy requirements, Northrop Grumman has built the revolutionary X-47B and proposed an improved X-47C variant, Boeing has flown a derivative of the X-45C—the last of the J-UCAS aircraft—called Phantom Ray, and Lockheed has shown artwork of an enlarged RQ-170 it calls Sea Ghost.

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An X-45A shows opens its bomb bay door during the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems program of the mid 2000s. The UCAV concept was proven to be extremely promising, then it just mysteriously disappeared. Today the USAF operates as if the technology does not exist.

All of this would seem to offer more hints of a “pocket UCAV force” like the one Rogoway posited in his earlier analysis.

“You have to imagine that if there has been such an amazing outburst of programmatic creativity in the unclassified world, that there would have been at least as much friskiness on the classified side of the house,” Pike told me back in 2015, referring to years with a nearly endless stream of public drone prototypes and concepts.

While there are just too many unknowns to be sure, given the history of the locations, the money involved, the time frame, and what we already know about separate developments, this contract suggests the Air Force is up to something big out in Nevada. We’ve already put in a Freedom of Information Act Request for documents related to the contract and we’ll be sure to follow up with any new details as we become aware of them.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com

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Syrian Nun, Honored By Trump, Defends Assad–“I like our president. He’s very close to us.”

Syrian nun honored by US says Assad is ‘not a dictator’

 

Syrian nun honored by US says Assad is ‘not a dictator’

First Lady Melania Trump poses for a photo with 2017 International Women of Courage Awardee Sister Carolin Tahhan Fachakh of Syria during a ceremony at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on March 29, 2017. (Credit: State Department photo/ Public Domain.)

Salesian Sister Carolin Tahhan Fachakh, from Syria, told reporters she doubts Syrian president ordered a chemical attack against civilians, and called the decision from the Trump administration to bomb an air base a “step back from peace.” On March 29 she received the International Woman of Courage Award from first lady Melania Trump.

Sister Carolin Tahhan Fachakh of the Salesian Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, who runs a nursery school in Damascus, Syria, told reporters Tuesday that she “likes” the Syrian strongman, and that he’s been very helpful and protective of Christians in the country.

Tahhan received the “International Woman of Courage Award” from the first lady Melania Trump on March 29 in Washington. She was nominated to receive it by the U.S. embassy to the Vatican, and spoke at an event sponsored by the embassy on Tuesday.

Tahhan also said he believes there’s no truth to the reports that it was al-Assad who used Sarin gas to target a civilian population last week, an allegation which prompted the Trump administration to bomb a military base in Syria.

The 13 winners of the award had been decided under the Obama administration, but held up until Rex Tillerson, current Secretary of State, approved them.

Tahhan described Trump’s decision to bomb the Shayrat Air Base, the alleged source of the chemical attack, as “a step back from peace.”

“Every time we say there is hope for peace, let’s move forward, something happens to set us back. The situation is ugly now,” Tahhan said, referring to Trump’s decision to bomb government military installations.

Yet she still harbors hope for peace, because at one point or the other, “everything ends.”

RELATED: Syrian bishops, other Catholic leaders protest U.S. missile strike

Tahhan also said that she doubts al-Assad launched the chemical weapon attack in April because he knew the eyes of the world were on him and Syria, and that the threat of the U.S. or another country bombing as a response was real.

The sister regretted the fact that Syrian children are being raised in a “culture of war,” capable of distinguishing from their sound the difference between a cannon shot or a missile.

She told the following story: “One morning [at school], I felt a buff. And I asked a teacher, ‘What is that?’ A four-year-old boy told me it was a cannon. I asked him, ‘how do you know it’s a cannon and not a missile?’ And he said: ‘Because, sister, when the missile is fired, it does ssss buff, while the cannon does buff.’”

Tahhan felt bad that morning, because this, she said, is the culture in which children in Syria are coming of age.

“What do we do in the future? How do we take this violence out of the heart of our children?”

The religious woman also said that children in Syria have all been “damaged by the war, they are afraid,” with some of them no longer speaking.

For this matter, together with other Franciscan sisters who run the school, they try to offer them a climate of peace and serenity, “where every child who is in need can play in the big courtyard and study.”

Asked about the international perception of al-Assad being a “monster” or a dictator, she responded: “I like our president. He’s very close to us, as is the first lady. They’re very close to the Church. Speak easily, call him a dictator, but to me, he’s not. We’re at ease.”

Regarding a possibility of Syria achieving peace without the president, as the G7 seems committed to doing, Tahhan said she didn’t know what that “would look like.”

The group, which includes the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan and Canada, met on Tuesday with its allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to try to isolate al-Assad, and agree on sanctions to his biggest supporter, Russia.

Tahhan’s position is in line with that of other Christian leaders in the region. None of them would say he’s an angel, but most prefer al-Assad to the alternatives, one of which would be ISIS.

“If we have to choose between ISIS and Assad, we choose Assad,” said Greek Catholic Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo. “It seems sometimes all the countries of the world are against Assad, but we feel we don’t have any other alternative. Honest to God, this is the situation.

“I’ve met Assad a couple of times and all my colleagues, my fellow bishops and the priests and nuns, appreciate him,” Jeanbart said, talking to Crux in 2015. “But that doesn’t mean he’s an angel.”

RELATED: Are Francis and Trump now at odds over Syria too?

Tahhan is not only defiant of the portrait of al-Assad given in the West. She also challenges the perception that Muslims and Christians cannot coexist peacefully in Syria, saying that to this day, six years into the war, most still get along.

The problem, she said, is terrorism, not Islam.

Beyond the school for children, the Salesians in Baghdad also run a school to train women in sewing and tailoring. In the past 7 years, more than 500 woman have attended class.

“The majority are Muslims. If I said we would only choose Christians, then I would become a fanatic myself,” Tahhan said.

“When a missile falls or there’s an explosion,” she continued, “many Muslims knock on our door and ask, ‘Sister, are you OK? Do you need anything?’”

Furthermore, Tahhan said at different point in the conversation, children see no difference between the two communities: “But they do feel the war, without a doubt.”

In recent years, many Christian leaders have raised their voices in warning, saying that if the war in Syria and Iraq continues, with extremist organizations such as ISIS continuously threatening the minority populations committing genocide, the presence of Christians in the Middle East is at risk.

Yet Tahhan is more hopeful: “The Church is working to preserve Christians. While the Church continues to exist, Christians will continue to have a presence.”

Trump’s Syria Attack Trampled Many Laws

Trump’s Syria Attack Trampled Many Laws

 

 

Exclusive: As the U.S. mainstream media hails President Trump’s missile strike on Syria, there has been almost no attention to either the truth about its justification or the myriad of laws violated in its execution, writes Marjorie Cohn.

By Marjorie Cohn

With 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, each armed with over 1,000 pounds of explosives, Donald Trump went from scoundrel-in-chief to national hero, virtually overnight. The corporate media, the neoconservatives and most of Congress hailed Trump as strong and presidential for lobbing bombs into Syria, reportedly killing seven civilians and wounding nine.

Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meets with members of the coalition at a forward operating base near Qayyarah West, Iraq, April 4, 2017. (DoD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

“The instant elevation of Trump into a serious and respected war leader was palpable,” wrote Glenn Greenwald. This sends Trump a frightening message: bombing makes you popular.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. The use of chemical weapons is illegal, immoral and intolerable. If it was an intentional attack, it constitutes a war crime. Anyone responsible for the horrific April 4 events in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, which killed over 80 people, including at least 20 women and 30 children, should be brought to justice. But Trump’s bombing of Syria, a sovereign nation, was illegal, under both U.S. and international law.

Trump and the prevailing U.S. national discourse rushed to judgment about who was responsible for the chemical attack – the Syrian government. An investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention, was ongoing when Trump launched his missiles into Syria two days after the incident. The OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission was already “in the process of gathering and analysing information from all available sources.”

As former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter pointed out, “chemical attacks had been occurring inside Syria on a regular basis . . . with some being attributed to the Syrian government (something the Syrian government vehemently denies), and the majority being attributed to the anti-regime fighters, in particular those affiliated with Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.”

The Assad government has denied responsibility for the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, and some U.S. experts are also skeptical of the Trump administration’s supposed certainty that the Syrian military was responsible.

Philip Giraldi, former CIA officer and director of the Council for the National Interest, stated on the Scott Horton show that “military and intelligence personnel” in the Middle East, who are “intimately familiar” with the intelligence, call the allegation that Assad or Russia carried out the attack a “sham.”

Giraldi said the intelligence confirms the Russian account, “which is that they [attacking aircraft] hit a warehouse where al-Qaeda rebels were storing chemicals of their own and it basically caused an explosion that resulted in the casualties.” Moreover, Giraldi noted, “Assad had no motive for doing this.”

Journalist Robert Parry concurs: “Assad’s military had gained a decisive advantage over the rebels and he had just scored a major diplomatic victory with the Trump administration’s announcement that the U.S. was no longer seeking ‘regime change’ in Syria. The savvy Assad would know that a chemical weapon attack now would likely result in U.S. retaliation and jeopardize the gains that his military had achieved with Russian and Iranian help.”

Regardless of who is responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun chemical deaths, however, Trump’s response violated both U.S. and international law.

Trump’s Missile Attack Was Illegal

Two days after Trump’s bombing occurred, the President sent a letter to congressional leaders informing them of his attack on Syria. The War Powers Resolution, passed in the wake of the Vietnam War, requires that the President report to Congress within 60 days of initiating the use of military force.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea, April 7, 2017. (Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ford Williams)

The resolution, however, allows the President to introduce U.S. Armed Forces into hostilities or imminent hostilities in only three situations: First, after Congress has declared war, which has not happened in this case; second, in “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces,” which has not occurred; third, when there is “specific statutory authorization,” which there is not.

The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) authorized the President to use force only against those groups and countries that had supported the 9/11 attacks. The bombing in Syria was not authorized by any other act of Congress. Thus, Trump’s missile attack violated the War Powers Resolution. 

Regarding international law, the United Nations Charter prohibits the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” There are only two exceptions: when conducted in self-defense after an armed attack, or with the approval of the Security Council.

Syria had not attacked the United States or any other country before Trump ordered the missile strike. “The use of chemical weapons within Syria is not an armed attack on the United States,” said Notre Dame law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell. And the Security Council had not approved Trump’s attack. It therefore violated the Charter. In fact, under the U.N. Charter, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would have a valid self-defense claim since the U.S. initiated an armed attack on Syria.

So, Trump committed an illegal act of aggression against Syria when he lobbed his missiles. According to U.N. General Assembly Resolution 3314, an “act of aggression” is the use of armed force by a state against the sovereignty, territorial integrity, or political independence of another state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter. As stated above, Trump’s attack constituted an unlawful use of force under the Charter.

Moreover, treaties the United States has ratified, including the Charter, are part of domestic U.S. law under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. That means a violation of the Charter also violates U.S. law.

Marines fast-rope out of an SH-60 Seahawk during an exercise on the USS Bataan at sea, March 29, 2017. The Bataan is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the 5th Fleet area of operation. (Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Brianna Gaudi)

In his report to Congress, Trump wrote that he directed the attack to avert “a worsening of the region’s current humanitarian crisis.” So-called “humanitarian intervention” is not a settled norm of international law. As stated above, to be lawful, military force can only be conducted in self-defense or with the blessing of the Security Council. Neither was present in this case.

Trump’s humanitarian claim also does not pass the straight face test, in light of his Muslim Ban excluding all Syrian refugees from entry into the United States (halted by the courts, for now). Since the conflict in Syria began in 2011, more than 400,000 Syrians have been killed. Five million people are refugees. If Trump were indeed motivated by humanitarian concerns, Trump would embrace those seeking to escape the carnage in Syria, which he has emphatically not done.

The 1980 Refugee Act grants the President authority to determine how many refugees may be admitted to the United States. The President must consider whether “the admission of certain refugees in response to the emergency refugee situation is justified by grave humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest.”

When, during the presidential campaign, Trump said he wanted to ban all Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., he was asked if he could then “look children aged five, eight, ten, in the face and tell them they can’t go to school here.” Without skipping a beat, Trump replied, “I can look in their faces and say, ‘You can’t come’. I’ll look them in the face.” Spoken like a true humanitarian.

Trump’s new-found humanitarian concerns, including his lament about the terrible fate of Khan Sheikhoun’s “small children and even beautiful little babies,” also stand in contrast to the horrific death toll from other U.S.-allied bombings in recent weeks. The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria killed nearly 1,000 non-combatants in March alone, “a record claim,” according to Airwars.org, a non-profit organization that monitors civilian casualties from airstrikes in the Middle East. “These reported casualty levels are comparable with some of the worst periods of Russian activity in Syria,” the group said.

The coalition forces’ use of white phosphorous, a chemical weapon that burns to the bone, has been documented in Mosul, Iraq. And the U.S. Central Command confirmed that it has used depleted uranium, arguably a war crime, against ISIS in Syria.

Encouraging Trump to Use Military Force

Trump is obsessed with being liked. So, smarting from the healthcare loss and attacked by the media, the GOP’s right-wing and Democrats, Trump turned the tables. Now that he’s become Bomber-in-Chief, Trump is liked by nearly everybody – or so it seems. And what lesson will he learn from his missile attack? That being a strong, forceful leader makes people like you. And blowing things up makes you a “strong, forceful leader.”

Marine Corps Cpl. Justin Morrall prepares for night stalking during Korea Marine Exercise Program 17-6 near Camp Mujuk, Pohang, South Korea, March 30, 2017. (Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Ally Beiswanger)

Members of the Trump administration are sending mixed signals about whether they seek to forcibly change the Assad regime in Syria. That would violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the United States has also ratified.

During the U.N. Security Council meeting following Trump’s missile attack, the ambassador from Bolivia declared, “The United States has not only unilaterally attacked . . . [it] has become that investigator, has become the prosecutor, has become the judge, has become the jury. Whereas the investigation would have allowed us to establish in an objective manner who is responsible for the attacks, this is an extreme violation of international law.”

Trump’s missile attack also has put a dangerous strain on U.S. relations with nuclear-armed Russia, which supports the Assad regime in the conflict with various opposition groups, including Al Qaeda’s affiliate and its spinoff, Islamic State or ISIS.

Following the April 6 missile strike, Russia suspended a memorandum of understanding designed to minimize collisions between U.S. and Russian aircraft over Syrian airspace. A statement issued by Russia, Iran and Assad’s forces said, “What America waged in an aggression on Syria is a crossing of red lines. From now on we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is and America knows our ability to respond well.”

With his missile attack, Trump has made the world a much more dangerous place. “Make no mistake,” Norman Solomon wrote. “With 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons at the ready in the United States and Russia, pushing to heighten tensions between the two countries is playing with thermonuclear fire.”

Where Will Trump Bomb Next?

Meanwhile, Trump is taking provocative measures against nuclear-armed North Korea, deploying an aircraft carrier and several warships to the Korean Peninsula. Trump’s show of force is a response to North Korea’s recent ballistic missile test.

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson travels in the South China Sea, April 8, 2017. (Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Matt Brown)

The Trump administration has indicated it may use pre-emptive strikes to prevent North Korea from developing a missile that could carry a nuclear warhead to the United States. Pre-emptive strikes violate the U.N. Charter, which specifies several non-forceful measures, including diplomacy, to maintain or restore international peace and security. But diplomacy doesn’t seem to be in Trump’s toolkit.

North Korea warned of “catastrophic consequences of [the United States’] outrageous actions.” Pyongyang said, “We will take the toughest counteraction against the provocateurs in order to defend ourselves by powerful force of arms.” A foreign ministry spokesman said North Korea “is ready to react to any mode of war desired by the US.”

When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared on ABC’s “This Week,” he cited the U.S. strike on Syria as a not-so-veiled warning to North Korea: “The message that any nation can take is if you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point, a response is likely to be undertaken.”

By logical extension, Trump’s missile attack on Syria makes the United States vulnerable to retaliation from other countries that see the U.S. violating international law and committing acts of aggression.

What can be done to stop the Trump administration’s illegal use of military force in Syria and its dangerous provocation of Russia and North Korea?

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink, suggests doing things that will be “positive for the Syrian people.” She advocates immediately lifting the ban on Syrian refugees, providing the U.N. with its requested $5 billion to deal with the humanitarian crisis, and demanding that the Trump administration work with Russia toward a ceasefire and a political solution.

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and a member of the advisory board of Veterans for Peace. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. Visit her website at http://marjoriecohn.com/ and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/marjoriecohn.

U.S. SecDef Claims Trump doesn’t intend to get drawn into Syrian war

U.S. doesn’t intend to get drawn into Syrian war, defense chief says

 

WASHINGTON — After attacking a Syrian air base in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged battlefield use of chemical weapons, the Pentagon intends to refocus on defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, without getting more deeply involved in the country’s civil war, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday.

“The military campaign is focused on … breaking ISIS, defeating ISIS in Syria,” Mattis told reporters in his first Pentagon news conference as President Trump’s defense chief. Last week’s cruise missile assault on a Syrian air base “was a separate issue” meant to demonstrate that the Trump administration will not tolerate what it believes are violations of international conventions against the use of chemical weapons, Mattis said.

The Syrian government has denied that it used chemical arms in an attack on a Syrian town last week.

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who spoke alongside Mattis, said the cruise missiles targeted 59 locations on the airfield and struck 57 of them. Votel is commander of U.S. Central Command, whose forces executed the cruise missile attack, which Votel said “severely degraded” Syria’s ability to use the airfield.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, and Gen. Joseph Votel, listen to questions during a news conference at the Pentagon, Tuesday, April 11, 2017. Mattis said the campaign against the Islamic State group is still the main focus of the U.S. in Syria and remains on track. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Mattis said that if Syria were to use chemical weapons again it would “pay a very, very stiff price.” He declined to say exactly what sort of Syrian violation would prompt a U.S. military response, but he stressed that the administration has no intention of getting drawn into Syria’s civil war.

Mattis said the cruise missiles were aimed at the perpetrators of the chemical attack.

“The reason for the strike was that alone,” he said. “It was not a harbinger of some change in our military campaign.”

When asked why military force is justified in response to the killing of Syrian civilians with chemical weapons, but not when they are attacked with conventional arms, Mattis said “there is a limit … to what we can do” to stop the civil war, whereas the chemical attack could not go unanswered.

“We knew that we could not stand passive on this,” he said. “But it was not a statement that we could enter full-fledged, full-bore into the most complex civil war probably raging on the planet at this time.”

The U.S. has been conducting airstrikes in Syria since September 2014 and more recently has enabled a makeshift Syrian Arab and Kurdish force to isolate the city of Raqqa, which is ISIS’ self-declared capital. Mattis said the administration’s new plan for defeating ISIS is “being fleshed out,” suggesting that it will not be ready for implementation anytime soon.