FPI Overnight Brief: April 12, 2017

The Must-Reads

Middle East/North Africa

Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad registered for a new run at the presidency on Wednesday, in a surprise move that could upset the balance for hard-liners in an election set for next month. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
The White House accused the Russian government on Tuesday of engaging in a cover-up of the chemical weapons attack last week by Syrian forces that prompted American missile strikes, saying that United States intelligence and numerous contemporaneous reports confirmed that the Syrians used sarin gas on their own people. – New York Times
The suspected sarin gas attack in Syria last week revealed one of the worst-kept secrets in international diplomacy: A 2013 deal brokered by Russia and the U.S. failed to cripple the Assad regime’s ability to make or use chemical weapons. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
The Trump administration’s effort to underscore its certainty that Syria carried out a chemical weapons attack has demonstrated a potential new U.S. policy: The use of nerve agents like sarin will prompt a military response, even if it’s less certain that unleashing other chemical weapons, such as chlorine, will. – Washington Post’s Checkpoint
Defense Secretary James Mattis made clear Tuesday that the Trump administration has "no doubt" the Bashar al-Assad regime launched last week's chemical attack in Syria that killed more than 80 civilians, including children. – Washington Free Beacon
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday that the U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile strikes on a Syrian airfield last week were a one-off mission to deter chemical attacks and should not lead to a broader confrontation with Russia. – DOD Buzz
Russian President Vladimir Putin will reportedly press the United Nations to officially investigate last week’s chemical attack in Syria, claiming, without evidence, that there are plans to fake the use of chemical weapons. – The Hill
Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta says there is no future for Syria under President Bashar Assad, arguing the Russians should work with the United States to depose the leader. – The Hill
GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) are urging President Trump to step up U.S. military activity against Syrian President Bashar Assad in the wake of last week's airstrike. – The Hill
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Tuesday cast doubt on Russia's ability police the actions of the Syrian government, saying he believes Russia is "complicit" in the Assad regime's atrocities. – The Hill
The top Democrat in the Senate said Tuesday that his caucus is worried President Trump’s actions in Syria could lead to another open-ended major military fight for U.S. troops in the region and that “any further action should come to Congress” for approval. – Military Times
Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) on Tuesday defended his decision to back a U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base after opposing military action in Syria under former President Obama. – The Hill
Donald Trump said the US would not enter the Syrian civil war, in a bid to clarify his policy in the wake of confusion that followed his missile strike on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. – Financial Times
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces are intensifying attacks on rebel areas, days after the US fired a salvo of missiles at one of the regime’s main airbases, according to opposition activists. – Financial Times
Preparations began on Tuesday to evacuate the Shi'ite populations of two Syrian towns in exchange for moving Sunni rebels and civilians out of two others in a deal between the warring sides, a monitor and a pro-government commander said. - Reuters
The U.N. Security Council could vote as early as Wednesday on a push by the United States, Britain and France to bolster support for international inquiries into a deadly toxic gas attack in Syria, diplomats said, a move Russia had deemed unacceptable and unwarranted. - Reuters
Editorial: A more modest goal for U.S. diplomacy would be to agree with Russia on a de facto partition of Syria into zones controlled by the regime, Western-backed rebels and Kurds, with a long-term cease-fire imposed on all sides. Russia could meanwhile round up and dispose of the chemical stocks that the Assad regime still retains. That would, at least, spare Syrian civilians from further atrocities and allow for a concentration of military efforts against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. But as Mr. Kerry could tell Mr. Tillerson, even that won’t fly with Mr. Putin unless the United States is willing to show greater resolve. – Washington Post
Frederic Hof writes: Until a strategy for accomplishing those objectives is blessed by the president and implemented, one salient fact should guide American policy vis-à-vis Bashar al-Assad: with civilians on the regime bullseye, nothing good politically can happen in terms of resolving Syria’s armed conflict. If Assad is permitted to return to business as usual – mass homicide but (for a while, at least) without chemicals – children will die, extremists will prosper, and Syria will hemorrhage people. Russia, Iran, and Assad will not like it, but the free ride for mass murder must end. – Atlantic Council
Philip Gordon writes: The problem is that Russia knows exactly what it is doing, and it is highly determined to keep on doing it. As the Trump administration looks to change Moscow’s calculus, it had better understand that it will take a lot more than a single set of missile strikes to do so. – Washington Post
Vali Nasr writes: In Moscow this week, Tillerson has the opportunity to explain that the United States could strike again, and insist that Putin tightly control Assad’s actions, while also agreeing to a new U.S.-led diplomatic effort whose success alone could avert further U.S. action in Syria. Leading this process would bolster American standing in the region and across the world, and also curtail Russian ambition. Tillerson now has an opportunity to lay out a diplomatic plan for ending one of the most devastating conflicts of our time. – The Atlantic
Bassma Kodmani writes: It is only with a political transition that we can achieve a secure, democratic Syria. We do not want imposed regime change. We do not want a vacuum. We want the conditions for Syrians to be able to decide their future. To get there, we want the United States — in concert with others — to lay the foundations that will compel the regime to abandon its military strategy. This will enable us to secure a peace deal. We are ready to do our part — now we need the United States and allies to do theirs. – Washington Post
Kassem Eid writes: Please help us. Please stop Assad. Let the world know, let Syrians know, and let Assad know that there are consequences for his crimes. If you do not act, I fear that what happened on Aug. 21, 2013, and again on April 4, 2017, will repeat itself many times over. – Wall Street Journal (Subscription required)
The Islamic State group has lost more than three-fourths of the territory it seized when it swept across Iraq in the summer of 2014, the Iraqi military said Tuesday. – Associated Press
A mostly Democratic group of 55 House lawmakers has delivered a letter to President Trump telling him he should get congressional approval if wants to expand U.S. involvement in the Yemeni civil war. – The Hill
Yemeni security and military officials say forces loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognized president have launched an attack on Shiite rebels around the southeastern port city of Mocha, unleashing heavy fighting that has killed some 38 fighters from both sides. – Associated Press
North Africa
The deadly bombings of two churches have left Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi grappling with the question of how to defeat a tenacious Islamic State insurgency that three years of warfare have failed to crush. – Associated Press
Growing numbers of African migrants passing through Libya are traded in what they call slave markets before being held for ransom, forced labor or sexual exploitation, the U.N. migration agency said on Tuesday. - Reuters
From the creation of an artificial island to ambitious plans for a regional rail project, Yisrael Katz, Israel’s transport and intelligence minister, is not short on ideas that appear tailor-made for Israel’s right wing. – Financial Times
With mainstream media saturated by pro-government campaigning ahead of the vote on broadening President Tayyip Erdogan's powers, those opposed to the changes are seeking alternative channels to get their message across. - Reuters
Nate Schenkkan writes: Turkey is a large and diverse country—ethnically, religiously, and politically. Governing this complex polity demands the opposite of what the constitutional changes entail: more powers for local representatives, protection of minority rights, a lower electoral threshold for entering parliament, and room for political experimentation. Stability through force has not worked before, and it is not going to work now. – Freedom House’s Freedom at Issue


Russia’s decision to proceed with a meeting this week aimed at ending the 16-year war in Afghanistan could further strain its ties with Washington — a relationship that has been on the rocks since Moscow invaded Ukraine in 2014 and intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015. – Stars and Stripes
A group of Chinese political activists filed a lawsuit in federal court against Yahoo on Tuesday, saying the company failed to properly oversee a $17 million fund it created a decade ago to help Chinese writers, democracy advocates and human rights lawyers persecuted for standing up to the country’s government. – New York Times
Chinese officials asked the Trump administration to return scores of Chinese fugitives in the United States during last week's presidential summit in Florida. – Washington Free Beacon
Issac Stone Fish writes: In the seven years I lived in China, no Chinese person who was not a Communist Party hack could tell me with a straight face they were living in a democracy. In justifying China’s autocracy, Cui told me that to govern “such a big country, you need the experience” of serving for decades around the nation. Debatable. But a much truer statement than pretending China is a democracy. – Washington Post
Korean Peninsula
President Donald Trump has signed off on a policy approach to North Korea that involves increased economic and political pressure while military options remain under consideration longer term, a senior U.S. official said. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
President Trump, frustrated by China’s inaction on North Korea, opened the door on Tuesday to concessions on his trade agenda with Beijing Beijing in exchange for greater Chinese support in pressuring Pyongyang. In doing so, he lashed together two sharply different issues in an already-complex relationship. – New York Times
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and President Trump spoke by phone on Wednesday about the escalating tensions with North Korea as a prominent Chinese state-run newspaper warned the North that it faced a cutoff of vital oil supplies if it dared test a nuclear weapon. – New York Times
The United States and North Korea are engaging in high-tension brinkmanship, with North Korea warning Tuesday that it will “hit the U.S. first” with nuclear weapons, but the prospects that this could escalate into an actual clash of arms are slim. – Washington Post
Reacting to worries and conjecture spreading in South Korea of a possible pre-emptive American military strike on nuclear-armed North Korea, the government sought to reassure citizens on Tuesday that there would be no such attack without its consent. – New York Times
There was no specific reason U.S. Pacific Command elected to rearrange the schedule of the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group and send it toward the Korean peninsula, Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters on Tuesday. – USNI News
A U.S. aircraft that specializes in detecting radioactive debris after the detonation of a nuclear device has arrived on Okinawa amid rising tensions on the Korean peninsula. – Stars and Stripes
Peter Huessy writes: We know previous serious economic and banking sanctions worked to get the North to the negotiating table in 2007, but then the sanctions were inexplicably dropped. It is time to ramp them back up, albeit with the understanding the North’s banking capability is more diverse. – Real Clear Defense
Editorial: The U.S. sale of submarine technology would carry symbolic weight precisely because Beijing has worked so hard to deny Taiwan this capability. Politically, the prospect of the U.S. ramping up support for Taiwan’s defense would force China to reconsider its strategy of intimidating the island’s population into submission. That would help stabilize the region and reduce the risk of the U.S. having to come to Taiwan’s aid in a conflict. While Beijing would undoubtedly find ways to retaliate, the strategic benefits would outweigh the costs. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Southeast Asia
A senior Abu Sayyaf commander was among several people killed in a firefight with Philippine government forces on a popular tourist island, as the battle extended into a second day. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
A blasphemy case brought against Jakarta’s Christian governor for allegedly insulting Islam was put on hold Tuesday amid tensions surrounding a runoff election next week in which he is facing a candidate backed by hard-line Islamic groups. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Singapore has deployed its Boeing F-15s to Guam for training with the United States Air Force for the first time, according to the Southeast Asian island state’s defense ministry. – Defense News


Lockheed Martin views the multi-domain warfare concept as so important it is funding and holding a series of classified war games to explore strategies, Concepts of Operation and weapons to see how they might perform taking on an A2/AD opponent. – Breaking Defense
Were the United States to go to war with Russia, both sides could draw on deadly weapons that the world has never seen on a battlefield. On the Russian side, there are new and smaller tactical nuclear weapons. To counter them, the U.S. Army is taking another look at a “devastating” weapon it first tested in 2013: the Kinetic Energy Projectile, or KEP, a tungsten-based charge moving at three times the speed of sound that can destroy anything in its path. – Defense One
Mackenzie Eaglen writes: At the end of the day, the increasingly polarized U.S. political environment, combined with the popularity of the barbell investment strategy among the relevant policymakers, bodes ill for the sort of buying bonanza that defense contractors had hoped for with Republican control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. With enough funding, however, hopeful signs exist in certain sectors of the branches and in the legislature. – Foreign Affairs
Air Force
Faced with a growing crisis of losing more pilots to the civilian airline industry, the Air Force may have to use a stop-loss measure -- an involuntary extension of service -- to retain as many trained pilots as it can. But it would do so only as a last resort, an official told Military.com on Tuesday. – Military.com
The Pentagon and Lockheed Martin could shave at least 5 percent off the price of stealthy F-35 fighter jets in their upcoming annual purchase contract as the standard version of the plane heads toward a price of fewer than $80 million, people familiar with the talks told Reuters. - Reuters
General Larry Spencer, USAF (Ret.) writes: Sadly, it appears that some of our nation’s lawmakers might surrender to the idea that the Department of Defense can operate on a continuing resolution for defense appropriations the remainder of this fiscal year. To be clear, it won’t be an enemy that grounds the world’s best Air Force — this would be a self-inflicted wound. Without firing a shot or spending a dime, near-peer competitors will catch up faster while our readiness problems escalate. – Defense News
Missile Defense
Steven Bucci writes: This new Congress and Administration has the opportunity to take leadership and responsibility in protecting our country. We must ensure our nation is fully prepared to remove North Korea’s ability to target America.  If doing that offensively is too risky, it must be done defensively.  We must dedicate the resources necessary to improve the overall defenses of the Nation as soon as possible. – Real Clear Defense
A new report from a cybersecurity firm provides new insights into malware linked to the CIA, including an odd list of internal references to pop culture ranging from carnival foods to obscure video games. – The Hill


With one offhand remark, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson left European diplomats befuddled at a gathering in Italy. "Why should U.S. taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?" Tillerson asked foreign ministers discussing Russia's intervention there at a Group of Seven gathering Tuesday in Lucca, Italy. - Bloomberg
Tense comments and warnings from Russia set the tone Wednesday for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he attempts to persuade Moscow to abandon its support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. – Washington Post
When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Vladimir Putin’s top diplomat in Moscow on Wednesday, he’d better come prepared. Tillerson’s counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, is a wily veteran of world diplomacy who has dueled — and routinely infuriated — no less than four of Tillerson’s predecessors as secretary of state. - Politico
RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke to three gay Chechen men who gave their personal accounts of their escapes from the abuse they faced in the southern Russian republic, where homosexuality is stigmatized and so-called honor killings carried out by family members are not uncommon. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
An anticorruption protest in the Siberian city of Irkutsk on March 26 passed peacefully…The drama came later, in the early morning hours of April 6. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
More than 17 years after Mr Putin became president, the authoritarian system he built is showing signs of internal corrosion. Mr Navalny’s ambitions are not expected to undo Mr Putin’s re-election bid. But the uncertainty over what comes next is stirring ambitions and sparking jostling among power brokers in the Kremlin and across Russia. – Financial Times
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny vowed on Tuesday to continue his fight against President Vladimir Putin after spending 15 days in jail for organising the largest anti-Kremlin protests in years. – Financial Times
President Donald Trump's frequent questioning about the integrity of his spy agencies is coming back to haunt him. As his administration used U.S. intelligence to pressure Moscow over its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin parroted back Trump's doubts about the reliability of U.S. spy agencies. – Associated Press
Analysis: Even in a presidency marked by unpredictability, the head-spinning shift from coziness to confrontation has left Washington and other capitals with a case of geopolitical whiplash. The prospects of improving Russian-American relations were already slim given the atmosphere of suspicion stemming from Kremlin meddling in last year’s election, but the détente once envisioned by Mr. Trump has instead deteriorated into the latest cold war. – New York Times
Editorial: The investigations into ties between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign have a long way to go, but Mr. Trump isn’t acting like someone who is making foreign-policy judgments out of fear of Russia’s response. This is reassuring and will strengthen his leverage with the Russian strongman. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Leon Aron writes: So instead of wasting time on Foreign Minister Lavrov’s denials and counter-accusations, Tillerson should convey a message of credibility and seriousness: The US will bomb Assad again if he uses chemical weapons. If Russia escalates, so will the US. – AEI Ideas
Michael Carpenter writes: All eyes are on Moscow this week as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prepares to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday, following Friday’s U.S. airstrikes in Syria. After President Donald Trump’s sudden change of heart on the utility of striking Syrian military installations to punish and/or deter the use of chemical weapons (something he vigorously opposed during the Barack Obama presidency), the Russian side will try to use the meeting to better understand U.S. intentions in Syria and other key global hotspots. – Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government
Germany’s general prosecutor on Wednesday took over the investigation of three explosions targeting a local soccer team, suggesting a possible terrorist connection to the attack. – Washington Post
Pressure is mounting on Hungary’s right-wing government after it adopted a law that would effectively shut down Central European University, an institution founded by the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros shortly after the fall of Communism. – New York Times
On Tuesday, Finland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania signed a memorandum of understanding to establish the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, a sign of just how seriously world leaders are taking Moscow’s attempts at destabilizing Europe. – Foreign Policy’s The Cable
President Trump on Tuesday signed the treaty allowing Montenegro to join NATO, pledging that the country’s inclusion will not increase the United States’ payments toward the alliance. – The Hill
Francišak Viačorka writes: In 2016, the EU and the United States lifted sanctions on Belarus, pointing to an improved human rights record. The recent protests demonstrate that the government’s temporary “liberalization” consisted simply of well-prepared, cosmetic actions that included no real institutional changes. Lukashenka can’t change his autocratic approach, and he remains part of the post-Soviet space. The sooner the West wakes up to this reality, the better. – Atlantic Council


United States of America
Hundreds of female Marines and Marine veterans have launched a new group to press for an end to misogyny in the Marine Corps, saying the recent scandal in which nude photographs of some women in the service were distributed by their male colleagues is unacceptable. – Washington Post’s Checkpoint
Russia might be able to snap up a piece of America’s energy infrastructure — thanks to Venezuela’s economic meltdown. It all starts with PdVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. PdVSA owns CITGO, an oil refiner in the United States. And PdVSA last year put up about half of CITGO as collateral for a $1.5 billion loan from Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil giant. – Foreign Policy’s The Cable
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is urging his colleagues to vote on legislation that would require the Trump administration to get approval for "military humanitarian operations" in the wake of a missile strike in Syria last week. – The Hill
The White House on Wednesday will direct federal agencies to make deep personnel cuts over the next year, according to the White House budget chief and documents provided to POLITICO. - Politico
Want to know how much money a foreign government has spent to lobby members of Congress? How many times a lawmaker met with a lobbyist representing a foreign government? What if that person made a political donation on the same day? Good luck finding the answers from the federal office charged with tracking American citizens who get paid to represent foreign interests in the U.S. – Roll Call
The Trump administration moved Wednesday to ramp up its tougher new trade policy, adding another trade hawk to its policy team, while invoking new import penalties against South Korean steelmakers. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
President Donald Trump promised “some very pleasant surprises” to come on the North American Free Trade Agreement, in a gathering with U.S. chief executives in which he also said he wants to overhaul the federal government’s computer systems to make them more secure and up-to-date. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Global economic growth is accelerating, the head of the International Monetary Fund said Wednesday, but rising protectionism risks steering the global economy back onto rocky terrain. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Trump-Russia Connections
The FBI obtained a secret court order last summer to monitor the communications of an adviser to presidential candidate Donald Trump, part of an investigation into possible links between Russia and the campaign, law enforcement and other U.S. officials said. – Washington Post
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden says Democrats and others are wrong to describe Russia’s hacking campaign to influence the outcome of the presidential election as an “act of war.” – The Hill
Jeffrey Smith writes: The purpose of congressional investigations is neither to impeach nor protect the president. Rather, it’s to preserve our democracy. This can be done only if Congress is able to follow the intelligence and truly get to the bottom of Russian interference in our politics. Avoiding these past mistakes is a start. – Los Angeles Times
Latin America
A judge on Brazil’s Supreme Court authorized new corruption investigations on Tuesday involving dozens of the country’s most powerful politicians, dealing yet another blow to the beleaguered government of President Michel Temer. – New York Times
Venezuela’s opposition is putting up its most determined challenge to President Nicolás Maduro in years, with near-daily protests that are backed by widening international condemnation of the government’s authoritarian rule. – Washington Post
Venezuelan authorities on Tuesday were investigating the death of a university student killed by gunfire at a protest against President Nicolas Maduro, as opposition leaders mapped out their next steps to push for new elections and government officials held a gathering to drum up state support. – Associated Press

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Tuesday that U.N. peacekeeping has made “a great contribution” to Haiti and the Security Council’s expected vote to withdraw all troops from the Caribbean nation by mid-October is an example of how peacekeeping missions should change as a country’s political situation changes. – Associated Press
Roger Noriega writes: As desperate Venezuelans lose their fear and take their battle to the streets against a brutal regime, it is clear that US policymakers miscalculated tragically by favoring stability over democracy in the past 18 months. That policy must be overhauled now so the United States can help avert a bloody disaster. – The Hill


Kenya’s economy, a rare bright spot on a continent battered by plummeting commodities prices, will expand at a slower rate in 2017 at the back of a drought, the World Bank said Tuesday. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Zambia’s opposition leader was detained and accused of treason on Tuesday after police raided his home, his lawyer said, in an escalation of political tensions in Africa’s second-biggest copper producer. – Financial Times
Several thousand people gathered in South Africa's capital on Wednesday to protest against President Jacob Zuma following a much-criticized cabinet reshuffle, days after the opposition called countrywide marches to demand his resignation. - Reuters
Anthea Jeffery writes: The larger problem is that most blacks in rapidly urbanizing South Africa don’t want land for farming. They want houses and jobs in the towns and cities. The ANC is nevertheless using their supposed hunger for farmland to tear up the constitutional settlement, crafted so carefully during the country’s political transition. The real aim isn’t to provide redress for past injustices. It’s to empower the state by mandating a program of nationalization of land and other property. – Wall Street Journal (Subscription required)

Trump Administration

President Donald Trump will nominate lawyer and former Bush administration official John Sullivan to serve as Rex Tillerson's No. 2 at the State Department, the White House announced Tuesday. - Politico
Donald Trump‘s new nominee for Army Secretary has much more experience in uniform and in government than Trump’s first try, West Point-educated billionaire Vincent Viola. Even some Democrats I talked with noted his “impressive resume.” But that doesn’t mean Green’s confirmation will be easy. – Breaking Defense
David Ignatius writes: The Trump administration’s foreign policy has been a dizzying spectacle of mixed messages and policy reversals during its first three months. But in last week’s crucial tests, President Trump made good decisions about Syria, Russia and China — moving his erratic administration a bit closer toward the pillars of traditional U.S. policy. – Washington Post
Taylor Dinerman writes: Gen. McMaster’s book was a powerful indictment of the president-centric mode of decision making. Developing a staff process that works for a chief as mercurial as Mr. Trump is going to be exceptionally hard. But one sign that things have changed for the better since the Obama era is the relatively quick decision to respond to the Syrian government’s sarin attack with a cruise-missile strike. America’s allies and enemies did not expect the administration to move so fast. Washington’s foes now have to fear that their actions will be met with a swift and decisive response. Good. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

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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.
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