FPI Overnight Brief: February 17, 2017

The Must-Reads

Middle East/North Africa

A burgeoning crisis between Iran and the United States has threatened to undermine the pragmatic Rouhani, who was elected four years ago on promises to end the country’s isolation from the West. But now, amid new tensions with the Trump administration, Rouhani’s pro-dialogue approach is under attack. – Washington Post
FPI Senior Policy Analyst Tzvi Kahn writes: For the past 18 months, Tehran has set the terms of U.S.-Iranian diplomacy by exploiting the Obama administration’s determination to preserve the JCPOA at all costs. At this juncture, an unwavering defense of U.S. national interests and prerogatives stands the best chance of fulfilling the core goals of regional stability and nonproliferation that the nuclear talks had set out to achieve. – Foreign Affairs’ Snapshots
Reuel Marc Gerecht writes: If Trump decides to accept the nuclear deal and basically ignore the clerical regime's search for dominion in the Middle East, he will take the United States to where Obama was headed—just more quickly. American resist­ance to Iran's revolution, which has become essentially a Republican project, will probably be over. If Trump chooses to reject his predecessor's policy, however, he will reintroduce American hard power into foreign leaders' calculations. Authoritarians everywhere will take notice. So will our European and Asian allies. The United States will be back in the Middle East in a way Trump surely didn't envision when he was castigating Washington's foreign-policy establishment for its costly wars in Islamic lands. – The Weekly Standard
Islamic State-linked militants in western Syria have executed scores of rebel fighters as part of an intensifying battle with what remains of the country’s armed opposition, a monitoring group said. – Washington Post
A former Syrian rebel who took part in the mass killing of seven captured Syrian soldiers in 2012 was sentenced to life in prison in Sweden, where he had traveled and applied for asylum, officials announced on Thursday. – New York Times
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was urged by Turkey Wednesday to cut off U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG, which is closing on the ISIS stronghold of Raqaa. – Military.com
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday he doesn't expect the administration to order a major push of ground troops into Syria, or a new buildup of combat forces in Afghanistan, even though both possibilities have been publicly discussed in recent weeks. – Military.com
A round of Syria peace talks sponsored by Russia ended on Thursday with no joint communique, usually the minimum outcome of any diplomatic negotiation, and saw opposing Syrian groups exchanging angry tirades at each other and the brokers. - Reuters
A new body is being set up at the United Nations in Geneva to prepare prosecutions of war crimes committed in Syria, U.N. officials and diplomats said on Thursday. - Reuters
Frederick Kagan writes: The Russo-Iranian coalition will no doubt eventually fracture, as most interest-based coalitions ultimately do. Conditions in the Middle East and the world, however, offer no prospect of such a development any time soon. – Fox News
Frederic Hof testified: ISIS and JFS can and should be defeated militarily. Terror, however, will be killed in Syria only when legitimate governance, reflecting inclusivity and rule of law, replaces family rule based on collective punishment and mass homicide. So long as the latter prevails responses to it will inevitably include appeals to sectarianism, extremism, and terror. Moscow and Tehran know this quite well. Regrettably they are in charge and they seem not to care. – Atlantic Council
A car bomb exploded in a crowded Shiite Muslim neighborhood in Baghdad late Thursday afternoon, the latest terror attack in the capital claimed by the Islamic State, security officials reported. At least 54 people were killed and at least 63 more wounded in the bombing, making it the deadliest in Baghdad in at least a month. – New York Times
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday he wants to consult with allies before considering putting U.S. ground combat troops into Syria and Iraq to speed up the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. – Military.com
The Islamic State’s built schools, created textbooks, and even developed phone apps, to “educate” children, shedding light on a surreal aspect of the terrorist organization’s reach and strategy. – Foreign Policy’s The Cable
When the boys first arrived at the Islamic State training facility in eastern Mosul they would cry and ask about their parents, who went missing when the militants rampaged through northern Iraq in 2014. But as the weeks passed they appeared to absorb the group's ultra-hardline ideology, according to a worker at the former orphanage where they were housed. - Reuters
The main figure killed in last month's U.S. raid in Yemen targeting al-Qaida was a tribal leader who was allied to the country's U.S.- and Saudi-backed president and had been enlisted to fight Yemen's Shiite rebels, according to military officials, tribal figures and relatives. – Associated Press
Warplanes of the Saudi-led coalition struck a house north of Yemen's capital where a crowd of mourners was gathered, residents said on Thursday, killing nine women and a child and injuring dozens. - Reuters
North Africa
Foreign investors are heading back to Egypt after the government implemented a string of politically sensitive reforms, helping drive the weak Egyptian pound up more than 10 per cent against the dollar and easing a foreign currency crisis. – Financial Times
NATO said on Thursday it had received a new and detailed request from Libya's U.N.-backed government to train and develop its military, depleted by years of conflict and facing an Islamist militant threat as well as division among Libyan militias. - Reuters
Twenty-four hours after President Trump swatted away at a broad international consensus on how to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians, his United Nations envoy sought to assure the world on Thursday that his administration supports Palestinian statehood but wants a “thinking out of the box” approach. – New York Times
President Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer with no diplomatic experience, apologized on Thursday for his language during the “highly charged presidential campaign,” an apparent reference to his comments comparing liberal American Jews to the Jews who aided the Nazis in the Holocaust. – New York Times
Just minutes after President Trump made his first detailed remarks on the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, ­Israelis began debating exactly what the new American leader meant. – Washington Post
When President Trump said Wednesday that he would not insist on the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, was he breaking with decades of American policy? Or was he just thinking out loud? – New York Times
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showered praise on President Trump Thursday, saying two men share “a great sense of kinship.” – The Hill
Elliott Abrams writes: Will the administration soon right itself? Will Trump be a strong leader, surrounded by strong and reliable advisers who understand the Middle East? Is the current drama a passing phase or is it just Act One in a longer play? The answers to those questions will largely determine whether Trump can succeed with his ambitious goals for peace in the Middle East. – The Weekly Standard
Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz write: Mr. Netanyahu and other senior Israeli government officials argue that Syria is destined for partition along sectarian, ethnic and regional lines. And while the retaking of Aleppo shifted the tide of war in favor of the Assad government, some Israelis believe it might be time to acknowledge Israel’s hold on the Golan as permanent. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)


South Asia
A suicide bomber turned a spiritual dance celebration at a revered religious shrine into a slaughterhouse on Thursday, killing at least 70 people and wounding more than 250 in the worst act of terrorism to hit Pakistan in months. – New York Times
Pakistani security forces killed dozens of suspected militants on Friday, a day after Islamic State claimed a suicide bombing that killed more than 70 worshippers at a Sufi shrine in the latest of a series of bloody attacks across the country. - Reuters
Afghan representatives at a meeting of regional powers in Moscow welcomed their involvement in negotiating an end to the 16-year war but underscored America’s “essential role” in Afghanistan’s future. – Associated Press
Sadanand Dhume writes: Pakistan is running out of friends in Washington. Recent publications by influential U.S. experts, Congressional testimony by officials and signs out of the Trump administration all point in the same direction: The U.S. will step up pressure on Islamabad to crack down on terrorist groups that target U.S. troops in Afghanistan and destabilize Afghanistan and India. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
[B]ehind the scenes there is a sense of shock and dismay in Beijing, officials and experts say: if indeed Kim Jong Nam was assassinated on the orders of the North Korean leader, it would be seen as an affront to the country that has afforded him protection for many years. – Washington Post
Mr. Kwon’s fate showed that even crude online posts about China’s rulers can lead to a prison term these days, Liang Xiaojun, one of the dismissed lawyers, said in a telephone interview on Thursday. The Communist Party authorities are especially sensitive about protecting the image of Mr. Xi, and comparisons with the Nazi dictator seem sure to anger them. – New York Times
A Hong Kong court jailed seven policemen for two years each on Friday for beating a handcuffed activist during democracy protests in 2014, a rare case of police brutality in the financial hub that triggered public outrage. - Reuters
Tyler Roylance writes: Even if the Trump administration coolly and firmly adheres to the framework of international law in its security and trade policies, the absence of democracy and human rights as animating principles would allow Beijing to accuse the United States of “containing” China’s rise for its own selfish reasons. Chinese citizens would have no cause to sympathize with Washington, its motives, or its partners in the region. As past U.S. administrations have generally understood, America is at its most powerful when it acts as a credible champion of universal norms and values, not as a solitary, self-serving, or menacing nation-state. – The Diplomat
East Asia
The Air Force’s first operational squadron of F-35s will head to the Pacific, in addition to the European deployment recently departed Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James discussed in December. – Breaking Defense
Japan plans to accelerate a warship building program to make two frigates a year to patrol the fringes of the East China Sea, where it disputes island ownership with China, three people with knowledge of the plan said. - Reuters
Editorial: Many inside and outside of China spun Mr. Trump’s policy statement last week as a sign he blinked to get a phone call from Chinese President Xi Jinping. The way to prove that’s not true is to deepen ties systematically, even if quietly, with America’s longtime friends in Taiwan. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Interview: In his new book, “The End of the Asian Century,” Dr. Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute describes these risk factors related to economic, political, and security issues and how they could affect Asia’s promising future. – The Cipher Brief
Korean Peninsula
[S]o many questions remain. Why would Kim Jong Un want to kill a half brother who, apart from one statement in 2010 questioning North Korea’s hereditary succession system, had shown no political ambitions? – Washington Post
The de facto leader of Samsung, Lee Jae-yong, was arrested Friday on bribery charges, a dramatic turn in South Korea’s decades-old struggle to end collusive ties between the government and powerful family-controlled conglomerates. – New York Times
The unprecedented arrest on Friday of the de facto leader of Samsung, the largest company in the country, highlighted once again the outsize political influence of the largest family-run companies there. Critics of their power cheered the arrest of Lee Jae-yong, Samsung’s vice chairman, as a major step toward curbing that authority. – New York Times
The assassination of the brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this week followed publication of a plan to use the relative in an information warfare operation for regime change in Pyongyang. – Washington Free Beacon
The United States, South Korea and Japan issued a joint statement on Thursday condemning North Korea's test firing of a ballistic missile and saying Pyongyang should face an "even stronger" international response for violating U.N. resolutions. - Reuters
Southeast Asia
Malaysian authorities won’t release the body of assassinated North Korean princeling Kim Jong Nam without a DNA sample from a family member, police said Friday. – Washington Post
This week’s bitterly contested election for governor of Jakarta — pitting a Christian incumbent charged with blaspheming Islam against two rivals who emphasized their Muslim faith — was widely seen as a test of whether Indonesia’s young democracy could resist the pull of sectarian politics. Whether it passed that test is still an open question. – New York Times
China is considering maritime law changes that could clash with U.S. Navy views on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and other international waters. – Stars and Stripes


Defense Budget
The House Armed Services Committee heard bracing testimony last week from the vice chiefs of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps on how training, equipment, personnel strength and overall readiness have reached crisis levels. But what most struck committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornbery (R-Texas), he said in an interview Monday, were the grim details service leaders are ready to share. – Military.com
“I do not think a year-long CR will pass the House,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry told reporters this afternoon. Full-year CRs aren’t that common, but the last few years have usually seen Congress, incapable of passing timely appropriation bills — which is one of their most basic and important jobs — instead passing a CR or two or three each year for the past eight years. – Breaking Defense
Congress is hoping to get its first look at the fiscal 2017 supplemental defense spending request shortly after returning from a President's Day break, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee told reporters on Thursday. – Washington Examiner
Air Force
U.S. adversaries are rapidly catching up to America's fifth generation fighter aircraft capabilities—a risk that has exacerbated given ongoing cyber vulnerabilities in the F-35 fighter jet program, according to an Air Force major general. – Washington Free Beacon
Two phone calls then President-elect Donald J. Trump made to the military head of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program officeled to a Pentagon review to compare capabilities of the JSF to an advanced variants of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the head of the JSF Joint Program Office told a House panel on Thursday. – USNI News
The Pentagon’s F-35 program director confirmed on Thursday that he was aware that the Boeing CEO was on the line during a Jan. 17 call from then President-elect Donald Trump. – Defense News
The Air Force’s UH-1N Huey helicopter replacement program has hit a snag: None of the potential offerors meet the threshold requirements with off-the-shelf rotorcraft, necessitating that companies make changes to their aircraft before bidding. – Defense News
Stationing more U.S. forces forward is key to reshaping the American military to deter future Russian and Chinese ambitions in Europe and the Pacific and it can be done now, four defense experts told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. – USNI News
The Navy is starting tests next week for a fix to a critical safety issue found on the F-35C Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter, the head of F-35 Joint Program Office told reporters on Thursday. – USNI News
If the Marine Corps gets its requested 12,000-troop boost to reach an end strength of 194,000, its elite special operations command will be growing too, the commander of MARSOC said Tuesday. – Military.com
After a decade of debate, the US Army is finally creating permanent units dedicated to advising foreign forces. The six new Security Force Assistance Brigades will be a marked departure from the ad hoc training teams used throughout the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They would also be well suited to build up local allies to take down the Islamic State, which the Trump Administration has made its top priority. – Breaking Defense
The Army is now expanding a new, high-speed, vehicle-mounted force tracking technology to include a wider range of combat platforms such as Stryker vehicles, Bradleys and Abrams tanks, service officials said. – Scout Warrior


Ukraine this spring will renew its search for human remains at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, Dutch Security and Justice Minister Stef Blok has said. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Denis Voronenkov, the former Russian lawmaker who fled in October and has since taken Ukrainian citizenship, has come ready to chastise President Vladimir Putin, who he once supported, and his native Russia. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Alexander Vershbow writes: A sovereign, democratic Ukraine finds itself undermined at every turn by a provocative Russian neighbor desperate to see it fail, yet Ukraine is moving forward against all odds. The Ukrainian people know firsthand how hard it is to build a democracy. They deserve our reassurance they are not in this alone. – The Hill
Recent Russian military provocations are probably motivated by President Vladi­mir Putin’s belief that President Trump has been politically weakened by controversies surrounding his administration, Trump said Thursday. – Washington Post
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis appeared to close the door Thursday on increased military ties between the United States and Russia, dimming, for the moment, prospects that President Trump’s election would soon usher in warmer relations. – New York Times
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made his debut on the world stage Thursday, meeting the Russian foreign minister and urging Moscow to pull back in eastern Ukraine, then signing a joint statement condemning North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test. – Washington Post
For days, news reports have noted the presence of a Russian naval ship lurking in international waters off the East Coast of the United States. For some critics of President Trump, the vessel has become a symbol of the administration’s ties with Russia. – New York Times
The first meeting between the top military officers in the United States and Russia since 2014 resulted in an agreement on enhancing communication to avoid “unintended incidents," the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Thursday. – The Hill
Moscow is instructing Russian state media to reduce their favorable coverage of President Trump, Bloomberg reported on Thursday. – The Hill
Defense Secretary James Mattis on Thursday said that there was "very little doubt" Russia has attempted to interfere in democratic elections in the past. – The Hill
The last major Russian spy arrested on U.S. soil was busted for seeking the kind of information retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn has been accused of dishing out. – The Daily Beast
Russian officials had been cautiously optimistic that the US under Mr Trump could rebuild relations with Moscow but they have turned guarded and in some cases suspicious and frustrated, mirroring sentiment in European capitals. – Financial Times
Ahead of a major security conference in Munich this week, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her defense minister both acknowledged the need for Germany to ramp up military spending as the Trump administration increases pressure on European allies to pull more of their weight. – Washington Post
Chancellor Angela Merkel told lawmakers she stands by her 2013 complaint that “spying among friends” is unacceptable as she testified Thursday to a committee examining alleged U.S. surveillance in Germany, as well as questionable activities by German intelligence — which she said she heard about only much later. – Associated Press
Top world leaders, diplomats and defense officials are getting their first opportunity to meet with members of the Trump administration amid concerns over the new president’s commitment to NATO and posture toward Russia. – Associated Press
Making his debut on the world stage, Vice President Mike Pence will seek to reassure skeptical allies in Europe about U.S. foreign policy under President Donald Trump, who has made his "America First" mantra a centerpiece of his new administration. – Associated Press
European NATO allies agreed on Thursday to jointly buy planes and submarines and possibly open a new command headquarters for elite troops as Europe seeks to show the United States it is serious about its own security. - Reuters
Editorial: No one can accuse Mr. Mattis of harboring crypto-Putinist views or illusions about the nature of the threats facing the West from Islamist terrorism or authoritarian states like Russia, China and Iran. The U.S. defense chief steered clear of his boss’s more bombastic rhetoric about NATO being “obsolete” and underscored the alliance’s centrality to American strategy. Here’s hoping the general’s tough love will spur action in NATO capitals. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Kori Schake writes: Secretary Mattis is not wrong when he says that Europeans should not expect Americans to care more about their children’s security than Europeans themselves do. In fact, the Secretary of Defense pirated that line from President Obama, for whom worked most of the people currently complaining about this devastation of history’s greatest alliance. There are many things to be deeply worried about in a Trump administration. This is not one of them. – Foreign Policy’s Elephants in the Room
Montenegro's state prosecutor has overruled attempts by a special prosecutor to issue an arrest warrant against two opposition leaders suspected of being involved in what authorities say was a failed coup aimed at undermining the country's NATO membership bid. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Former British prime minister Tony Blair issued a battle cry against a so-called 'hard Brexit' on Friday, calling on voters, businesses and campaigners to "rise up" and back a coordinated effort to temper the terms of, or even halt, Britain's EU exit. - Reuters
Report: Ultimately, maintaining forward presence and readiness to wage sustained joint and combined operations may be the greatest challenge for NATO’s forces. In this report, authors Eric S. Edelman and Whitney Morgan McNamara outline a number of options the United States has for countering and limiting Russian political-military moves. – Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments


United States of America
Lawmakers from both parties are showing early resistance to President Donald Trump’s trade policy, a key pillar of his 2016 “America first” campaign. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
The U.S. State Department has ordered embassies to slow resettlement of refugees for the next few weeks and temporarily suspend it completely after March 3 as the numbers approach the annual cap of 50,000 set recently by President Donald Trump, according to American officials. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
The United States does not have a way to measure how well fencing works to deter illegal crossings from Mexico, according to a report released Thursday by Congress’ main watchdog as President Donald Trump renewed his pledge to build “a great wall” on the border. – Associated Press
Gary Schmitt writes: Being watchful of the new president's wielding of executive power is a no-brainer. His executive style, his abusive language towards elected and duly appointed officials, and his apparent lack of knowledge of the Constitution itself all point to such a need. But it would be a lot easier if the federal courts were not fueling the fire and giving the president easy targets because of their overreach. Playing "Chicken Little" with the Constitution is a recipe for even more constitutional dysfunction and populist disgust with America's most important institutions. – The Weekly Standard
Latin America
More accusations against Mr. El Aissami, 42, came to light this week, but this time it was not a criminal making them, but the United States Treasury Department, which said that Mr. El Aissami was involved in narcotics rackets from Colombia to Mexico. – New York Times
Venezuela's government is pushing forward with measures that could exclude some opposition political parties from future elections, potentially paving the way for the ruling Socialists to remain in power despite widespread anger over the country's collapsing economy. - Reuters
An ally of Ecuador's leftist President Rafael Correa and a conservative ex-banker are battling to become the next president in Sunday's election in the face of corruption scandals and a lackluster economy. - Reuters


A local organization supported by UNICEF, case workers painstakingly trace separated families [in South Sudan]. They enter the names of lost children into a UNICEF supported database that holds nearly 15,000 names. - Reuters
Rebels in Central African Republic killed at least 32 civilians after clashes with a rival armed group, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday, a sign of the fighters' growing boldness amid limited state authority. - Reuters

Trump Administration

Personnel and Policy
Robert S. Harward, the retired vice admiral and former Navy SEAL who was President Trump’s top choice to replace his ousted national security adviser, on Thursday turned down the post in the latest setback for a White House already in turmoil. – New York Times
President Trump said Thursday that he will issue a new executive order on immigration by next week, and Justice Department lawyers asked a federal appeals court to hold off on taking action in the legal battle over his initial travel ban until that new order is in place. – Washington Post
A fight between the White House and State Department has broken out over ambassadorships after chief of staff Reince Priebus tried to circumvent Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to hand out the coveted posts to GOP loyalists, sources told The Post. – New York Post
Fox News anchor Heather Nauert is in talks to be named the next spokesperson for the State Department, multiple sources with knowledge of the talks tell POLITICO. - Politico
The White House dismissed six aides on Thursday after the staffers failed FBI background checks. Some of the aides were physically "walked out of the building by security" a day earlier. – Washington Examiner
Kathleen Hicks writes: So it is that even if Secretary Mattis deftly navigates the choppy civil-military waters in which he finds himself, the broader administration approach of filling senior-level positions with retired military is creating incentives within the uniformed ranks that will not be easily or quickly reversed. The nature of the work at these highest policy levels is inherently political. It is not unusual to have some current and former military person serving in such positions—having defense expertise in the mix is vital—but the Trump administration’s strong bias away from civilians in these positions is unprecedented in the modern era. – The Cipher Brief
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn denied to FBI agents in an interview last month that he had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States before President Trump took office, contradicting the contents of intercepted communications collected by intelligence agencies, current and former U.S. officials said. – Washington Post
The Pentagon hasn’t found any documents indicating that Mike Flynn received authorization to accept money from a foreign government before traveling to Moscow in 2015 for a paid Russian state TV event, according to a letter from the acting Secretary of the Army. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Stephen Hayes and Thomas Joscelyn write: If the so-called "deep state" is seeking to undermine the Trump administration by selective leaking, we ought to know it. If Trump's reflexive defenses of Putin are driven by anything other than misjudgment, we ought to know that, too. – The Weekly Standard
Charles Krauthammer writes: It’s a Watergate-era cliche that the coverup is always worse than the crime. In the Mike Flynn affair, we have the first recorded instance of a coverup in the absence of a crime. – Washington Post
Eli Lake writes: The issue with the ouster of Flynn as national security adviser is not the mishandling of classified information, despite some of President Donald Trump's tweets about it. It's about Flynn's detractors selectively disclosing to the public the communications of U.S. officials, and how this represents a chilling abuse of power. – Bloomberg View
David Ignatius writes: The FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee are investigating the scope of Russia’s pro-Trump activities. Inevitably, there will be leaks, but that issue is a red herring. For all Trump’s talk about “fake news,” the country needs answers. – Washington Post
Rep. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, said most of the recent intel leaks are likely originating from people who worked in the Obama administration. – Washington Times
CIA director Mike Pompeo said Thursday that the agency is providing President Donald Trump with the best intelligence it can, disputing reports that the spy community is withholding information from the commander in chief. – Associated Press

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More