- The New York Times reported that Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan proposed a plan to send up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacked U.S. forces or advanced their nuclear weapons development.
- Many U.S. and European officials are worried that expanding military influence could lead to a conflict between the U.S. and Iran, arguing that Washington is promoting the confrontation, which has been escalating in recent months.
- The State Department ordered all non-essential embassy and consular employees to leave their posts in Iraq Wednesday, also issuing a separate travel advisory warning U.S. citizens not to travel to Iraq “due to terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict.”
Ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Iran escalated Monday when it was reported that Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan proposed a plan that would send up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacked U.S. forces or sped up their nuclear weapons development.
The story was first reported by The New York Times, which spoke to Administration officials who were present at a meeting of top security aides on Thursday. Officials told the Times that the plan does not explicitly call for invading Iran, a move that would require a lot more troops.
However, many officials were still reportedly shocked by the number of troops called for in the proposal. The Times noted that the 120,000 troops would almost approach the number of U.S. forces that invaded Iraq in 2003.
Many are skeptical that President Trump would want to send so many U.S. forces to the Middle East in the first place. While people high up in his administration like National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have pushed for hardline policies against Iran, Trump has been more reluctant.
On May 5, Bolton announced that the U.S. was deploying an aircraft carrier strike group and Air Force bombers to the Middle East in an effort to counter Iran.
In a statement, Bolton said that the move was “in response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings,” but did not elaborate. The Trump administration has since said that U.S. intelligence showed Iran’s proxy groups mobilizing in Iraq and Syria to attack U.S. forces.
Trump, however, has made it clear that he does not want to get involved in another conflict in the Middle East and has actively pushed to remove U.S. presence in Syria.
Trump, outright denied the Time’s report on Tuesday but did not rule out military intervention.“It’s fake news, OK?” Trump told reporters.
“Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”
Divisions in the Administration
The divisions between Trump and his advisors are representative of broader divisions in the Trump administration.
While some in the administration fall in the same camp as Bolton and Pompeo, others do not agree with their approach, arguing that hard-lines instead of diplomacy will only encourage more aggression.
Some officials have said that deploying troops to the Middle East would just give Iran and its proxies more targets to strike, which could risk drawing the U.S. into a conflict. Others still point out that more troops would reverse efforts of both the Trump and Obama administration to remove U.S. troops from the Middle East.
That said, some officials and experts believe that Pompeo and Bolton actually want a confrontation with Iran. One U.S. official who spoke to the Times said the intelligence Bolton and others have cited as showing an increased Iranian threat was actually just “small stuff.” Even going as far as to say that it did not merit the military plan that has been proposed.
The official also said that the goal of the sanctions on Iran is to draw Iran into an armed conflict with the U.S.
Those divisions regarding the situation with Iran also extend beyond the U.S. and to its allies.
According to the Times, military and intelligence officials in both the U.S. and Europe have said the most aggressive actions have actually come from the U.S., and not Iran. Those same officials also expressed concern that Bolton has pushed Trump into backing Iran into a corner.
During his tour in Europe, Pompeo tried to rally European leaders against Iran, but they did not take the bait. Following a meeting in Brussels on Monday, European officials told reporters they had urged the U.S. to restrain from escalating the situation, out of fear that it could lead to conflict with Iran.
Privately, several European officials said Bolton and Pompeo are pushing Trump to take a series of steps that could put the U.S. on a course for war.
On Tuesday, senior British military official Major Gen. Chris Ghika, who is also the deputy commander of the U.S.-led military coalition against ISIS, pushed back against the U.S.’s claim of an Iranian threat presented in their intelligence.
“There has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria,” Ghika told reporters at the Pentagon.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, gave a rare statement in response. “Recent comments from [Operation Inherent Resolve’s] deputy commander run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from US and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region,” the lead spokesman for U.S. Central Command said in a statement.
Iraqi officials have also been skeptical of the intelligence the U.S. said it has on Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria. On Wednesday morning, the State Department ordered that all non-essential diplomatic personnel at the U.S. embassy and consulate in Iraq leave the country.
The State Department also issued a separate travel advisory, warning U.S. citizens not to travel to Iraq “due to terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict.” Again, Iraqi officials have expressed skepticism over this claim.
The alleged proposal from Shanahan comes as both the U.S. and Iran have been escalating geopolitical tensions in the region in recent weeks.
On April 8, the Trump administration announced that they were designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization in an unprecedented moved that marked the first time the U.S. labeled part of another country’s government a foreign terrorist organization.
Iran’s parliament responded to the U.S designation of the IRGC by passing legislation labeling the entire U.S. military as a terrorist organization a few weeks later, a move that came just days after the U.S. announced they would no longer allow countries that buy Iranian oil to be exempt from U.S. sanctions.
Then things really started to ramp up when Bolton announced that the U.S. was deploying military forces to the region to counter Iran on May 5.
Iran reacted the news a few days later, announcing that they would stop complying with some of their commitments under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, like restrictions on building stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water, which are used in nuclear reactors.
Iran also said that if the other countries that signed the deal do not work to ease the restrictions imposed by the U.S. in 60 days they would slowly stop their compliance with the restrictions outlined in the deal piece by piece.
Shanahan’s proposed plan appears to be a direct rebuke of Iran’s announcement last week. Shanahan’s posturing seems to explicitly imply that if Iran moves forward with its nuclear development as stated in their ultimatum to the other signatories of the deal, the U.S. could deploy troops to the Middle East, possibly risking an all-out confrontation.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (Fox News)
Biden Vows to Defend Taiwan if Attacked by China
Some praised the remarks for clarifying U.S. foreign policy, while others feared they could escalate tensions with China.
Biden’s Remarks Create Confusion
During a Monday press conference in Tokyo, U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would intervene to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.
The remark caught many off guard because it contradicted decades of traditional U.S. foreign policy toward China.
A reporter said, “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”
“Yes,” Biden answered. “That’s a commitment we made. We are not — look, here’s the situation. We agree with a One China policy. We signed onto it and all the attendant agreements made from there.”
“But the idea that it can be taken by force — just taken by force — is just not appropriate,” he continued. “It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine.”
Beijing considers the Taiwanese island to be a breakaway province, but Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, has claimed to represent the real historical lineage of China.
Since 1972, the U.S. has officially recognized only one China, with its capital in Beijing. However, Washington maintains extensive informal diplomatic ties with Taipei and provides military assistance through weapons and training.
Successive U.S. presidents have also committed to a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” refusing to promise or rule out a direct military intervention in case China attacks Taiwan.
The strategy is meant to deter China while avoiding a hard commitment to any action.
Biden Sparks Controversy
The White House quickly sent a statement to reporters appearing to walk back Biden’s remark.
“As the president said, our policy has not changed,” the statement said. “He reiterated our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”
Monday was not the first time Biden made similar remarks regarding China and Taiwan.
Last August, he promised that “we would respond” if there was an attack against a fellow member of NATO and then added, “same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.”
In October, he again told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the U.S. would defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, prompting the White House to hurriedly walk back his statement.
Monday’s remark was received with support as well as criticism.
“Strategic ambiguity is over. Strategic clarity is here,” Tweeted Matthew Kroenig, professor of government at Georgetown University. “This is the third time Biden has said this. Good. China should welcome this. Washington is helping Beijing to not miscalculate.”
“It is truly dangerous for the president to keep misstating U.S. policy toward Taiwan,” historian Stephen Wertheim wrote in a tweet. “How many more times will this happen?”
“The West’s robust response to Russian aggression in Ukraine could serve to deter China from invading Taiwan, but Biden’s statement risks undoing the potential benefit and instead helping to bring about a Taiwan conflict,” he added. “Self-injurious and entirely unforced.”
Biden also unveiled the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), a trade agreement signed by the U.S. and 12 Asian nations.
The agreement appeared to many like another move to cut off China from regional trade pacts and supply chains in Washington’s strategic competition with Beijing.
See what others are saying: (CNN) (The New York Times) (The South China Morning Post)
Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders
Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.
Azovstal Waves the White Flag
Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.
A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.
The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.
It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.
Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.
Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.
Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.
Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands
After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.
The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.
Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.
The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.
The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.
It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.
See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (BBC)
Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls
Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.
Hundreds Make It Out Alive
A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.
People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.
The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.
Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.
“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”
63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.
“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.
Putin’s Plans Go Poorly
In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.
On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.
The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”
Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.
After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.
“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.
On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.
Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.
The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”
“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.
Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.