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Overnight Defense: Trump said to extend Syria strategy | Mattis pushes Taliban talks during Afghanistan visit | Trump says he 'most likely' won't shut down government
Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, 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: Just a few months ago, President Trump was telegraphing an imminent withdrawal from Syria.
Now it looks like U.S. forces are there to stay indefinitely.
The Washington Post, citing senior State Department officials, reported that Trump signed off on a new strategy that indefinitely extends the U.S. military presence there.
The strategy also includes diplomatic and economic efforts, according to the Post.
The change comes, according to the Post, because of growing doubts over whether Russia is willing and able to expel Iranian forces from the war-torn nation.
Trump has said Russia could be a partner in Syria, but regional experts have long doubted Moscow's ability or desire to remove Iranian forces from the country. Both Iran and Russia are allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad and have been propping up his forces in Syria's civil war.
Then: In late March and early April, Trump caused a stir by suggesting an imminent withdrawal from Syria.
In a speech about infrastructure, he made a seemingly off-the-cuff remark that the United States will "be coming out of Syria, like, very soon." Days later, he reiterated, "I want to get out. I want to bring those troops home."
For months before that, Defense and State officials had talked about the need for an enduring presence in Syria even after the defeat of ISIS to ensure the terrorist group doesn't re-emerge, to act as a check on Iran's regional ambitions and to help keep the country stable while the diplomatic process to end the civil war plays out.
After talking about withdrawal, Trump agreed in April to leave U.S. troops there until ISIS is defeated. But he was said to have given the military a six-month timeline to do so.
Now: "The new policy is we're no longer pulling out by the end of the year," James Jeffrey, recently appointed special envoy for Syria engagement, told a small group of reporters Thursday, according to multiple reports.
The U.S. presence in Syria is both meant to ensure the "enduring" defeat of ISIS and the eventual complete withdrawal of Iranian forces from the country, Jeffrey said.
"That means we are not in a hurry to pull out," Jeffrey added.
Jeffrey also said he was "confident the president is on board" with a "more active approach" in the country.
IN THE MEANTIME IN SYRIA: Tensions are running particularly hot in Syria right now.
The Syrian regime is preparing an offensive on the last rebel stronghold of Idlib, with the international community fearing a bloodbath.
And Russia reportedly recently warned the United States it is prepared to attack militants near a U.S. outpost in southeastern Syria.
So, it caught people's attention when the U.S. military announced Friday it started an exercise at that very same outpost.
The exercise: U.S. and anti-ISIS coalition forces kicked off a military exercise Friday near the garrison in al Tanf, U.S. Central Command announced.
"Our forces will demonstrate the capability to deploy rapidly, assault a target with integrated air and ground forces, and conduct a rapid exfiltration anywhere in the [Operation Inherent Resolve] combined joint operations area," Navy Capt. Bill Urban, spokesman for Central Command, said in a statement.
"Exercises like this bolster our defeat-ISIS capabilities and ensure we are ready to respond to any threat to our forces," he added.
The exercise involved an aerial assault by a company-sized dismounted element, according to a news release. The forces will also conduct a live-fire rehearsal before leaving the deconfliction zone around the base in al Tanf, the release added.
The coalition is "deconflicting" the exercise with Russia using the established communications line "intended to prevent miscommunications or escalations in tension," the release said.
Sending a message: The exercise comes after Russia reportedly warned the United States that it and Syrian government forces are prepared to launch an attack near the base.
Citing several unnamed U.S. defense officials, CNN reported Thursday that Russia warned the U.S. military twice in the last week that its forces and Syrian government units are prepared to attack militants near al Tanf.
Al Tanf is home to a U.S military outpost where U.S. forces train local partners to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The base is located near Syria's border with Iraq and Jordan and is seen as a key strategic post to curb Iran's regional influence.
The United States enforces a so-called deconfliction zone of 55 kilometers around the base and has conducted airstrikes on Iran-backed pro-government forces when they got near the garrison in the past.
FUNDING WATCH: Congress has been making decent progress on getting the Pentagon funded before the start of the fiscal year before the first time in years, with the Senate officially moving last night to go to conference with the House.
There aren't expected to be any issues hashing out differences in the defense spending bill. The main issue is that the Senate wants to keep it paired with a domestic spending bill, where there could be some fights.
But the bigger issue is that still seems to be somewhat of an open question whether Trump is going to refuse to sign spending bills and shut down the government over his proposed border wall.
What Trump says now: In an interview that aired Friday, Trump said he "most likely" won't shut down the government.
"Most likely I will not do that," he said on the topic in an interview with "Fox & Friends" that taped ahead of his Thursday night rally in Montana.
Still, Trump said if it were "up to him," he would do it.
"If it was up to me, I'd shut down government over border security in a second ... But I don't want to do anything that's going to hurt us or potentially hurt us because I have a feeling that the Republicans are going to do very well ... in the midterms," Trump said.
GOP leaders in Congress have said they want to pass nine spending bills before the start of the fiscal year and do a stopgap spending measure for the rest, including for the Department of Homeland Security. That punts a fight over the border wall until after the midterm elections.
"But we're going to do it immediately after the election," Trump said in the interview. "I have the commitment from [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell [R-Ky.] from [Speaker] Paul Ryan [R-Wis.], from everybody. We do it right after the election where hopefully, frankly, it'll be easy because we'll have more Republicans, not less."
MATTIS TRAVELS: After Defense Secretary James Mattis' trip to India and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford's trip to Pakistan, the pair made a stop in the country they're trying to get New Delhi and Islamabad to help out with -- Afghanistan.
Mattis and Dunford met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the presidential palace.
The group discussed the "peace process, positive impact of the South Asia strategy, reforms in [the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces], upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, counter-terrorism and dialogue with Pakistan," Ghani's official spokesman said on Twitter following the meeting.
Mattis and Dunford also met with Army Gen. Scott Miller, the new head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan who took command on Sunday.
Security situation: The trip -- which as usual for a warzone was not announced ahead of time -- comes a time of worsening security in the country ahead of October's parliamentary election and a presidential election scheduled for April.
It's been a year since President Trump announced a new strategy to help end the 17-year war, injecting more than 3,000 troops into the fight and increasing air strikes.
But the security situation has seen little improvement since, with territorial control largely unchanged and insurgents still conducting high-profile attacks.
Still sounding optimistic: Speaking with reporters on Wednesday, Mattis said he was hopeful about peace talks with the Taliban.
"Right now, we have more indications that reconciliation is no longer just a shimmer out there, no longer just a mirage," he said. "It now has some framework, there's some open lines of communication."
Dunford similarly said, "The most important work that has to be done is beginning the political process and reconciliation."
"What we are trying to do in the military dimension is convince the Taliban that they cannot win on the battlefield and that they must engage in a peace process," he added.
ON TAP FOR MONDAY
The Center for Strategic and International Studies will host a panel on Space Force, featuring former Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, at 9 a.m. https://bit.ly/2x0tGUr
National security advisor John Bolton will address the Federalist Society at noon at the Mayflower Hotel. https://bit.ly/2M2VFIt
-- The Hill: Trump says he is expecting new letter from Kim Jong Un
-- The Washington Post: US, North Korea return to negotiating table over recovery of Korean War remains
-- Military Times: Secretary promises VA will be more 'welcoming' to women
-- Associated Press: US to release $1.2 billion in military aid to Egypt
-- Associated Press: High-stakes diplomacy as battle for Syria's Idlib looms
-- Reuters: Yemen's Houthis want U.N. guarantees for delegation as peace talks in Geneva stall