Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: GOP lawmaker takes unannounced trip to Syria | Taliban leader pens New York Times op-ed on peace talks | Cheney blasts paper for publishing op-ed

Happy Thursday 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: A Republican lawmaker used the congressional recess to take a rare trip to Syria, where he met with U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters and American aid workers.

The Hill's Laura Kelly reports that Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, traveled to northeastern Syria beginning last week for a multi-day tour, visiting front-line positions where Kurdish forces trade fire daily with Turkish-backed fighters despite an October ceasefire agreement.

"The purpose of my trip was to express my deep concerns for the safety of Christians and other persecuted minorities in the region as well as my support for self-governance among the Kurds," Abraham wrote in an email to The Hill.

A rarity: It is exceedingly rare for U.S. lawmakers to travel to Syria, which has been embroiled in a civil war since 2011.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a 2020 presidential candidate, famously made a trip there in January 2017 that has been highly criticized for her decision to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also made a secret trip in February that year to the Kurdish-held areas in Syria, accompanied by the U.S. military.

About Abraham: In October, Abraham was among the Republicans who voted against a House resolution condemning Turkey's invasion. He said he sided with Trump's decision to remove U.S. troops and called the vote a "deceitful ploy" by Democrats to create divisions in the Republican Party.

Abraham has served in Congress since 2015 and presents himself as an ally of the president. He is a veterinarian, a physician, a veteran of the Army National Guard, and a fixed-wing and helicopter pilot.

About the organizer: Dave Eubank, an American aid worker, helped organize the congressman's trip.

Eubank is founder of the Free Burma Rangers, an aid organization grounded in Christian faith and established in 1997 to provide medical training to ethnic-Burmese civilians caught up in Myanmar's decades-old civil war.

In 2014, the Free Burma Rangers expanded their operations toward the Middle East with the rise of ISIS, working in Iraq and Syria with the Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga and the Syrian Democratic Forces to evacuate civilians fleeing ISIS.

Abraham was introduced to Eubank on Capitol Hill.

"He was interested in the plight of the Burmese and came to our camp in December," Eubank said of Abraham. "He had to walk in, it was in the middle of the jungle."

In December, during Abraham's visit, Eubank said the congressman expressed an interest in traveling to Syria to see the areas most affected by the U.S. withdrawal of troops.

"He said, 'I want to go see it and make sure our president is getting the right information,'" Eubank said.

"He's brave," Eubank said. "He just said, 'I'll go.' He said, 'Take me to the most dangerous, nastiest place so I can learn.'"

The agenda: Eubank said Abraham traveled to the frontline position of Tal Tamr but avoided any shelling.

Abraham also traveled to Raqqa, the city ISIS claimed as its capital. There he met with commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces General Mazloum Abdi, who Trump had praised on Twitter and offered to meet.

The commander posted on Twitter that he and Abraham discussed the security situation in Raqqa, the impact of the withdrawal of forces in the coalition against ISIS, including the U.S., and ongoing Turkish attacks.

He also met with military leaders of minority groups, like the Syriac-Christian militia, the Syriac Military Council and civil society representatives like the Raqqa civil council, public works employees, representatives for women's issues and religious representatives.

 

DEBATE RECAP: Normally, the day after the Democratic debates, we'd recap the major foreign policy questions.

One problem this time: there were none. Unless you count a question on Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) not being able to recall the president of Mexico's name during a Telemundo interview last week.

China got a passing mention as part of the climate change discussion, and Russia as part of election interference comments. But that was it.

The Hill had full coverage of all the topics that did come up, though. Here are a few looking at the big picture:

-- Bloomberg savaged in first appearance on Democratic debate stage

-- 5 takeaways from Las Vegas debate

-- Winners and losers from the Democratic debate in Las Vegas

 

TALIBAN LEADER WRITES NEW YORK TIMES OP-ED: A Taliban leader spoke out about peace talks with the United States on Thursday in the opinion section of the New York Times.

The op-ed represented the highest-level statement from the Taliban on the peace talks and comes after U.S. officials said they have reached a deal with the insurgents for a seven day "reduction in violence."

The op-ed, titled "What We, the Taliban, Want," was written by deputy Taliban leader and head of the Haqqani network Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is said to be responsible for some of the most brutal attacks of the war.

But the op-ed frames the Taliban as peacemakers, with Haqqani writing that he is "convinced that the killing and the maiming must stop."

"We did not choose our war with the foreign coalition led by the United States. We were forced to defend ourselves," Haqqani wrote about the war that started after the Taliban gave safe haven to al Qaeda terrorists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

He stressed that the "withdrawal of foreign forces has been our first and foremost demand," adding "Afghans will soon celebrate this historic agreement" with the United States.

Criticism: The New York Times' decision to publish the op-ed elicited some criticism, particularly from GOP defense hawks.

"I have some questions for @nytimes since they decided to give the Taliban a forum to spew garbage, like, 'We did not choose our war...We were forced to defend ourselves,'" tweeted Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 House Republican. "1. Remember 9/11? 2. The author is a designated global terrorist. Did you pay him for this piece?"

"Appalled @nytimes has given leader of the Haqqani network and leader in Taliban room in their editorial pages to espouse his views," Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) tweeted. "Haqqani network is responsible for 1000s of Americans killed in Afghanistan and provides shelter to al Qaeda operatives... they sheltered Bin Laden."

NYT defense: The New York Times defended its decision to publish the op-ed from Haqqani.

"We know firsthand how dangerous and destructive the Taliban is," said Eileen Murphy, senior vice president of communications at the publication, in an emailed statement.

"But, our mission at Times Opinion is to tackle big ideas from a range of newsworthy viewpoints. We've actively solicited voices from all sides of the Afghanistan conflict, the government, the Taliban and from citizens," Murphy added.

"Sirajuddin Haqqani is one of the negotiators hammering out an agreement with American officials in Doha that could result in American troops leaving Afghanistan. That makes his perspective relevant at this particular moment," she said.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett and acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modley will speak at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/2T6eik6

 

ICYMI

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-- The Hill: Opinion: Americans aren't as eager to retreat from the Middle East as politicians seem to think

-- Stars and Stripes: 82nd Airborne soldiers who rapidly deployed to Middle East in January return to Fort Bragg

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