Exposing Frays in GOP, McCain Rips Trump-Putin Talks

Russian airstrikes resumed in Syria on Tuesday hours after President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Donald Trump discussed possible joint action against terrorism and the Islamic State. (Military.com photo)Russian airstrikes resumed in Syria on Tuesday hours after President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Donald Trump discussed possible joint action against terrorism and the Islamic State. (Military.com photo)

A key Republican lawmaker rippedĀ President-elect Donald Trump for talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin about possible joint action against terrorism and the Islamic State.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who had refused to vote for Trump, condemned the talks and the resumption of Russian airstrikes in Syria on Tuesday.

The U.S. should put no credence in statements about improving relations coming from “a former KGB agent (Putin) who has plunged his country into tyranny,” McCain said.

The flare-up between the SASC chairman and Trump came amid turbulence among individuals looking to fill national security ranks in the new administration. Former Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan in the running to lead the CIA was among those pushed out by Trump loyalists, including retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, The Washington Post reported.

Meanwhile in Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Right, the British-based monitoring group, reported “Russian warplanes and the regime’s warplanes and helicopters renewed the bombing with their missiles and barrel bombs, targeting the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo city, to start killing the Syrian citizens of Aleppo city after stopping for about three weeks.”

“The bombardment is intense,” Syrian activist Baraa al-Halaby told the Associated Press from Aleppo, Syria’s largest city which is split between rebel forces and those of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In Russia, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said, “Today we started a large-scale operation to deliver massive fire on the positions of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in the provinces of Idlib and Homs.” Shoigu spoke Tuesday at a meeting with Putin and Russian defense industry representatives.

The Russian attacks, now bolstered by aircraft from the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov off the Syrian coast, came only hours after Trump spoke with Putin. The airstrikes also resumed a day after Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, urging him to renew a cessation of hostilities in Syria and work for a political solution to the civil war.

Trump’s office indicated that Putin initiated the call, saying he called to “offer his congratulations” on defeating Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton as did other world leaders.

“During the call, the two leaders discussed a range of issues including the threats and challenges facing the United States and Russia, strategic economic issues and the historical U.S.-Russia relationship that dates back over 200 years,” the Trump transition team said in a statement.

The statement said Trump told Putin “that he is very much looking forward to having a strong and enduring relationship with Russia and the people of Russia.”

A statement from the Kremlin said that Putin and Trump agreed on “uniting efforts in the fight with the common enemy number one — international terrorism and extremism.” Putin also agreed to build “dialogue with the new administration on the principles of equality, mutual respect and non-interference in the internal affairs of each other,” the statement said.

The Trump statements made no mention of Syria but Shoigu, the defense minister, said that Putin and Trump discussed the war in Syria.

During the campaign, Trump spoke favorably of Putin, calling him a strong leader as opposed to President Barack Obama, and saying that the U.S. and Russia could work together to combat terrorism worldwide and particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

Trump’s views put him at odds with many Republican defense hawks, including McCain, whose chairmanship of SASC will put him in charge of hearings on Trump’s nominations for defense secretary and other top posts. Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, is reportedly the top candidate for secretary of defense,

In a statement, McCain called on Trump to stand “on the side of those fighting tyranny” and not with Putin.

“Vladimir Putin has rejoined Bashar Assad in his barbaric war against the Syrian people with the resumption of large-scale Russian air and missile strikes in Idlib and Homs,” McCain said. “With the U.S. presidential transition underway, Vladimir Putin has said in recent days that he wants to improve relations with the United States.”

The senator added, “We should place as much faith in such statements as any other made by a former KGB agent who has plunged his country into tyranny, murdered his political opponents, invaded his neighbors, threatened America’s allies and attempted to undermine America’s elections.”

In the campaign, Trump mocked McCain’s heroism as a Vietnam prisoner of war, saying he preferred heroes who weren’t captured. McCain endorsed Trump but did not attend the Republican National Convention and later withdrew his endorsement over Trump’s vulgar comments about women.

Trump also said he would quickly rebuild the military, increase defense spending and form a plan within 30 days to destroy ISIS, but as of Tuesday there had been no contact with Defense Department officials waiting to speed the transition.

“As of this moment, there’s not been any contact from the President-elect’s transition team,” said Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. “We stand ready to assist the president-elect’s transition team with a smooth and orderly transition in the interest of national security and for our country.”

Once the Trump team makes contact, “We’ll try to help them to get all the information and the perspective that will help them to hit the ground running. That’s our objective,” Davis said.

Russian news outlets reporting on the resumption of Syrian airstrikes focused on the contributions of the seven-ship flotilla led by the aging Admiral Kuznetsov, which has a history of breakdowns and has a sloped main deck, rather than steam catapults, for the launch of aircraft.

On Monday, a Russian MIG-29 crashed off the Syrian coast while trying to land on the Kuznetsov. The Russian Defense Ministry blamed a technical failure for the crash and said the pilot ejected safely and was picked up by a rescue team.

According to Shoigu, the defense minister, the renewed strikes in Syria including the firing of Kalibr missiles by the frigate Admiral Grigorovich and “for the first time in the Navy’s history, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov has started to take part in combat operations.” Shoigu said Sukhoi Su-33 attack aircraft were launching from the Kuznetsov to join the airstrikes and then returning to the ship.

Reports from the region said that MiG-29s from the Kuznetsov had launched but then had gone to airfields controlled by Russia in northwestern Syria to continue operations. “The strikes are targeting depots with ammunition and training centers, and also plants for the production of various mass destruction weapons,” Shoigu said.

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Richard Sisk
Richard Sisk is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.