FPI Overnight Brief: April 13, 2017

The Must-Reads

Middle East/North Africa

President Trump and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson sought on Wednesday to isolate President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for backing the Syrian government in the wake of its lethal chemical weapons attack on civilians, and worked to build international pressure on Moscow to change course. – New York Times
President Trump said on Wednesday that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is partly to blame for the crisis in Syria and bears responsibility to help bring peace to the war-torn country, comments meant to increase pressure on the Kremlin as his secretary of state was in Moscow for a tense round of talks. – New York Times
President Trump said on Wednesday that Russia likely knew of the Syrian government’s plan to gas its own people in advance of a chemical weapons attack last week in northwestern Syria, asserting that United States relations with Moscow were at an “all-time low.” – New York Times
The United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, signaled on Wednesday morning that the Trump administration wanted to work with Russia to end the war in Syria. A few hours later, Ms. Haley drew a line in the diplomatic sand, forcing Russia to use its veto for an eighth time on a Syria resolution in the United Nations Security Council. – New York Times
The US military and intelligence community has intercepted communications featuring Syrian military and chemical experts talking about preparations for the sarin attack in Idlib last week, a senior US official tells CNN. - CNN
A majority of Americans support additional U.S. military action in Syria and trust President Trump most of all to find a solution to the civil war that's left hundreds of thousands dead in the last six years. – Washington Examiner
If peace comes to the war-torn Syria in may come in the form of partition, according to Elliott Abrams, a former assistant secretary of state. – Washington Examiner
President Donald Trump is appearing to rule out deeper American military intervention in Syria beyond retaliatory strikes if Syrian President Bashar Assad continues his assault on civilians with chemical weapons. – Associated Press
U.S.-backed forces fighting Islamic State in Syria launched a new phase of their offensive on Thursday, a statement said, but they have not yet begun to attack the militant group's stronghold of Raqqa city in an apparent delay in the operation. - Reuters
The Syrian army said that an air strike late on Wednesday by the U.S.-led coalition hit poison gas supplies belonging to Islamic State, releasing a toxic substance that killed "hundreds including many civilians." - Reuters
A team of experts from the global chemical weapons watchdog has been sent to Turkey to collect samples as part of an investigation into an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria last week that killed 87 people. - Reuters
Editorial: Arms-control agreements work when they are verifiable, with intrusive inspections. But they can be subverted. Mr. Assad showed his true colors by cheating and killing. Anyone thinking about an arms-control deal with Kim Jong Un over North Korea’s expanding missile and nuclear programs should keep this lesson in mind. – Washington Post
Joseph Bosco writes: The U.S. response to Bashar al-Assad’s chemical attack on a village in northwest Syria offered a small measure of solace to the families of the children brutally tortured, maimed, and murdered. Future chemical weapons atrocities will hopefully now be a thing of the past. – Real Clear Defense
Barak Barfi writes: With the United States largely sitting on the sidelines for the past six years as Syria has slowly drifted to Armageddon-like destruction, intervening now will not expunge America’s guilt. Syria is a failed state and there is nothing American power can do to put it back together. - Politico
Conventional wisdom holds that Iraq is a nation starkly divided among its three main components: Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Yet, another dynamic is gaining importance. Each of these three groups—as well as the smaller communities such as the Yazidis and Christians—is also beset by deepening internal rivalries. These political cleavages could further destabilize the country. They also could bring it closer together, creating a new environment where political agendas trump the hard allegiances of sect and ethnicity. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Iraqi forces are making progress in their offensive to expel Islamic State from Mosul but face a "very complicated" urban battle as the militants hide in mosques, homes and hospitals, a U.S. general told Reuters on Wednesday. - Reuters
James Kitfield writes: With roughly three-quarters of Mosul recaptured and Daesh finally on the verge of losing its grip on Iraqi territory, the campaign against them is poised at an important inflection point. Counter-insurgency experts have long understood that the actions of the Iraqi government and the various factions involved in the fighting the day after Mosul is recaptured will largely determine whether the group is defeated, or, once again, rises from the ashes of sectarian conflict. – Breaking Defense
As ISIS seized swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, it began destroying historic sites and artifacts, some thousands of years old. Museums, monuments, cultural sites getting caught in the crossfire of war is nothing new. But what ISIS is doing is different, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova told Foreign Policy. – Foreign Policy’s The Cable
Egypt on Wednesday named the suicide bomber who attacked a cathedral in Alexandria as 31-year-old Mahmoud Hassan Mubarak Abdullah, describing him as a fugitive with links to militant cells that carried out previous strikes in the country. - Reuters
Michele Dunne writes: Sisi’s visit to Washington delivered him a public relations boost, but it was no cakewalk. And Egyptian assessments of the visit, and the relationship with Trump, might well change if it becomes clear that Sisi is unlikely to get any more assistance—and might even get less—from the new administration than he got from Obama. If Sisi is seen at home as not being able to deliver increased assistance from the United States, this could potentially affect the degree of support he enjoys from his most important constituency—the military—in the coming year as he prepares for another presidential bid in 2018. – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Mr. Erdogan’s government has sought to root out any remaining dissent by targeting nearly every segment of society. It has also used the purge as cover for a crackdown on dissidents of all stripes…The numbers are extraordinary. The government has fired or suspended about 130,000 people suspected of being dissidents from the public and private sectors. Most are accused of affiliations with the Gulen movement, the Islamic followers of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric accused of orchestrating the putsch. – New York Times
[S]ince a failed coup attempt last summer sent the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan into a frenzied hunt for its enemies, members of the news media have faced exceptional peril, according to press advocates. – Washington Post
Editorial: The danger for the Middle East, and for Turkey’s NATO allies, is that the country could evolve into an Islamist state in the mold of Iran—albeit Sunni, not Shiite. Mr. Erdogan beguiled many in his early years as an Islamist leader who claimed to respect democratic norms, but the sad irony is that his drive for to authoritarian power will lead many in the West to the unfortunate conclusion that Islam and democracy are incompatible. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Soner Cagaptay writes: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an archetype of the antielitist, far-right politician, has spent almost two decades building up to this moment. He has demonized and cracked down on constituencies unlikely to vote for him, weakening his opposition and polarizing the country. Now he hopes he has enough supporters to vote on a constitutional amendment that would put him in charge of all three branches of government. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Howard Eissenstat writes: One of the core arguments that President Erdoğan has offered for expanding his power through constitutional reforms is that further centralization of authority will increase stability.  Yet the experience of the past ten years has demonstrated that the opposite is true.  Without reestablishing rule of law and the independence of state institutions, without creating opportunities for those out of power to participate in their own political futures, the instability that has rocked the country over the past five years likely will intensify.  The tragedy of Turkey’s failure is immense. – Project on Middle East Democracy


South Asia
Iran and Russia have stepped up challenges to U.S. power in Afghanistan, American and Afghan officials say, seizing on the uncertainty of future U.S. policy to expand ties with the Taliban and weaken the country’s Western-backed government. – Washington Post
Afghanistan’s military should be able to carry on the fight against Taliban insurgents mostly without the help of U.S. and other foreign troops by 2020, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States said Tuesday. – USA Today
India is the world’s largest importer of weapons, but when Britain’s defence minister meets his counterparts in New Delhi this week he will not be lobbying for new military hardware deals. – Financial Times
The White House will dispatch National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster to Afghanistan where he will assess whether more military personnel are needed to break the stalemate there. – Associated Press
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
President Donald Trump said Wednesday he has offered President Xi Jinping more favorable trade terms for Beijing in exchange for help on confronting the threat of North Korea, raising the prospect of a new pact that does less than Mr. Trump would otherwise like to address the U.S. trade deficit with China. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision not to label China a currency manipulator may break a core campaign promise, but it buys the president political capital to press Beijing on other, more immediate issues across a host of trade and geopolitical concerns. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Korean Peninsula
New satellite images suggest that North Korea might soon conduct another underground detonation in its effort to learn how to make nuclear arms — its sixth explosive test in a decade and perhaps its most powerful yet. – New York Times
Entire sections of booster rocket were snagged by South Korea’s navy and then scrutinized by international weapons experts for clues about the state of North Korea’s missile program. Along with motor parts and wiring, investigators discerned a pattern. Many key components were foreign-made, acquired from businesses based in China. – Washington Post
Japan could be at risk from North Korean missiles carrying sarin nerve gas, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, raising the prospect of a similar scenario to the recent attack in Syria that prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to respond with a military strike. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Despite sending a naval force to the Korean peninsula, the Trump administration is focusing its North Korea strategy on tougher economic sanctions, possibly including an oil embargo, banning its airline, intercepting cargo ships and punishing Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang, U.S. officials say. - Reuters
East Asia
The Asia-Pacific region has started racking up some of its best export gains in recent years, a development largely obscured by policy makers’ fretting over the future direction of global trade. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Southeast Asia
The two women charged with killing the estranged half-brother of North Korea's leader appeared in a Malaysian court in bullet-proof vests on Thursday, as one of their lawyers warned they feared "trial by ambush" with police not sharing evidence. - Reuters
Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte has canceled a planned visit to an island the Philippines claims in the disputed South China Sea, after Beijing warned him against the visit. - Reuters


The Navy is considering increasing its future frigate’s anti-air firepower and may open up the frigate design competition to hulls beyond the current two small surface combatant , the service told USNI News on Wednesday. – USNI News
The Navy is exploring the possibility of adding Local Air Defenses, new weapons and enhanced protection technology to its requirements for a new Frigate slated to emerge in the early 2020s. – Scout Warrior
Despite pressure from Florida’s congressional delegation, the Navy’s top admiral said Wednesday it would be “very difficult” to find money to upgrade a base there so it could serve as a homeport for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. – Virginian Pilot
LTG David Deptula, USAF (Ret.) writes: The looming deadline for the Congress to act on the budget is April 28.  It must pass a military budget before that date or the Congress of the United States will again reduce America’s security — without any help from foreign enemies. This is the message the leaders of the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines have been trying to get across to Congress. For the good of the nation it is one Congress should heed, or admit that it poses a larger threat to our nation’s security than our most capable adversaries. – Breaking Defense
Jerry Hendrix and Robert O’Brien write: We expect President Trump to announce his secretary of the Navy pick soon. We urge the Senate to quickly confirm him and his team so that they can get to work. And we encourage the new SECNAV and Defense Secretary Mattis to act boldly execute a shipbuilding plan that will make good on the president’s promises today, not tomorrow. The Navy requires the ships, our sailors deserve them and the American people need the jobs and improved defense industrial base this program will bring. - Politico
Air Force
The U.S. Air Force's top officer said Wednesday that a regular budget is more important to rebuilding the service than specific funding levels, stressing the importance of Congress meeting its deadline to fully fund the military by the end of the month. – Washington Free Beacon
The Air Force’s top general isn’t sold on the potential retirement of the F-15C/D Eagle, he said Wednesday. – Defense News
The Air Force has authorized Lockheed Martin Corp. to extend the life of the F-16 multi-role fighter for decades longer, officials announced Wednesday. – DOD Buzz
The Air Force on Tuesday shot down a four-star general's suggestion that the service could use a controversial program called stop-loss to force crucial pilots to stay in the service and not depart for lucrative commercial airline jobs. – Military Times
Missile Defense
Richard Weitz writes: For the next few years, achieving revolutionary technological breakthroughs is unlikely. Our best bet is to rapidly deploy the RKV to keep ahead of emerging North Korean and other missile threats in balance with other deterrence and defense enhancements. – The Hill


Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson met with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for nearly two hours Wednesday, but the two men appeared unable to agree on the facts involving the deadly chemical weapons assault on Syrian civilians or Russian interference in the American election — much less move toward an improvement in basic relations. – New York Times
The Russian government grants immunity to cybercriminals in exchange for information acquired by otherwise illegal computer intrusions, a former federal hacker-hunter accused of treason claimed Wednesday. – Washington Times
In 2014, when thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets to protest the Kremlin-backed government of Viktor Yanukovych, they relied on Zello, an app that allows users to talk one-on-one, like a walkie-talkie, or in broadcast modes that can reach hundreds or thousands of people at once. Since its founding in 2007, Zello has played a key role in protest and activist movements in Turkey, Hong Kong, Venezuela, and the Arab world. On Wednesday, its roughly 400,000 users in Russia were blocked from using the service, according to Bill Moore, the Austin-based company’s CEO. – Defense One
Russian authorities breached European human rights laws when they stormed a school seized by Islamist militants in 2004, contributing to the deaths of more than 300 hostages, the continent's rights court ruled on Thursday. - Reuters
Laying bare deep and dangerous divisions on Syria and other issues, President Donald Trump declared Wednesday that U.S. relations with Russia "may be at an all-time low." His top diplomat offered a similarly grim assessment from the other side of the globe after meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. – Associated Press
Analysis: President Donald Trump and his top diplomats continued pivoting away from Russia on Wednesday amid federal and congressional investigations into possible ties between his associates and the Kremlin. – Roll Call
William Tobey writes: Russia and the United States are not natural enemies. Until Russia changes of its own accord, however, we must deal with it as it is. That means recognizing the differences between U.S. and Russian values, fiercely defending those American interests that are vital, cooperating where we can, and refusing to be baited into conflicts that are not central to U.S. security. A bipartisan consensus behind these principles would make U.S. policy toward Russia more effective, regardless of which party controls the White House. – Foreign Policy’s Elephants in the Room
Western Europe
A letter that was found after explosions damaged the team bus of one of Germany’s premier soccer teams called for the country to scale back its involvement in the Western military coalition in Syria, the authorities said on Wednesday. – New York Times
German prosecutors requested an arrest warrant Thursday for a 26-year-old Iraqi national with suspected links to the Islamic State group who is being held in connection with a bomb attack on a popular soccer team. – Washington Post
An Uzbek asylum-seeker accused of ramming a truck into a crowd of people in Stockholm last week, killing four people, had tried to travel to Syria in 2015 to join the Islamic State group, an Uzbekistan security source said on Wednesday. - Reuters
Eastern Europe
The White House is concerned about what it says was Russian interference in NATO-aspirant Montenegro's parliamentary elections last year. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
U.S. Senator John McCain congratulated Montenegro on Wednesday for its upcoming NATO membership and blasted Russia for its alleged attempts to interfere in the Balkans and more widely in Europe. – Associated Press
Poland hopes to host U.S. President Donald Trump for a short visit in July and its foreign minister will discuss the plan during a trip to Washington next week, Polish government sources told Reuters. - Reuters
Hannah Thoburn writes: Whether Lukashenka and Putin, who have ruled for a combined 40 years, can yet again find a way out of their respective domestic predicaments remains to be seen, but the shadow of the now-exiled Viktor Yanukovych certainly looms large in their minds. – World Affairs Journal
The European Commission threatened Hungary with legal action over its moves against a university and foreign-sponsored nongovernmental organizations, among other measures, and questioned whether the country is still a democracy. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Hungary, the report found, is the most vulnerable to “hostile foreign influence,” followed by Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland. Warsaw may be a thorn in the EU’s side, but one thing it hasn’t done is cozy up to Moscow — quite the contrary. Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski blames Russia for the 2010 plane crash that killed his twin brother, who was then president. – Foreign Policy’s The Cable
Dalibor Rohac writes: Hungary’s European partners are cautious in using the substantial leverage they have over Budapest. In per capita terms, Hungary is the third-largest recipient of EU funds…Unless they turn their outrage into action by threatening to turn off the spigot of EU funds and to expel Fidesz from the family of Europe’s center-right parties, both the EPP and the EU at large risk becoming complicit in Hungary’s descent into a Putin-style authoritarian kleptocracy. – Foreign Affairs
President Donald Trump voiced strong support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as tensions with Russia dominate his first months in office, declaring he no longer views the alliance as “obsolete.” – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
To hear President Donald Trump tell it, his tough talk has already persuaded NATO allies to spend more on defense. But while it’s true that many of the countries are upping their military funding, almost all of those increases were proposed in budgets created before his election. – Defense One
President Trump's sharp "focus" on the need for NATO members to contribute more to the common defense is paying off, according to the alliance's top civilian official. – Washington Examiner
Lithuania will keep increasing military spending after hitting NATO's recommended level of 2 percent of economic output in the next two years, its finance minister said, as Russia builds up capabilities on the borders of its Baltic neighbors. - Reuters


United States of America
White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said Wednesday the Trump administration is looking to avoid a partial government shutdown in two weeks but that the White House would insist on securing concessions from Congress on security funding and immigration policy. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Federal authorities wrangled a guilty plea Wednesday from a Brazilian man who ran one of the Western Hemisphere’s more flagrant alien smuggling operations, sneaking dozens of illegal immigrants from terrorism-connected countries into the U.S. from 2014 to 2016. – Washington Times
Trump-Russia Connections
Mr. Manafort’s ties to Ukraine and Russia have come under scrutiny as federal officials investigate Russian meddling in the American presidential election. Investigators are known to have examined aspects of his finances, including bank accounts he had in the secretive tax haven of Cyprus; there is no indication his recent loans are part of the inquiry. – New York Times
The Justice Department obtained a secret court-approved wiretap last summer on Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign, based on evidence that he was operating as a Russian agent, a government official said Wednesday. – New York Times
Carter Page, a former foreign-policy adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump, reportedly was targeted for surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, an extraordinary revelation that — if true — suggests Page may have been working as an agent on behalf of a foreign power. – Foreign Policy
To give credence to the Russia investigation, Warner is presenting himself as a force for fairness and bipartisanship…But the Senate probe, of course, could have huge partisan implications if it uncovers evidence of coordination between Moscow and President Donald Trump’s campaign. - Politico
Last August, a handwritten ledger surfaced in Ukraine with dollar amounts and dates next to the name of Paul Manafort, who was then Donald Trump's campaign chairman….Now, financial records newly obtained by The Associated Press confirm that at least $1.2 million in payments listed in the ledger next to Manafort's name were actually received by his consulting firm in the United States. They include payments in 2007 and 2009, providing the first evidence that Manafort's firm received at least some money listed in the so-called Black Ledger. – Associated Press
President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort will register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for lobbying work he did on behalf of political interests in Ukraine, led at the time by a pro-Russian political party, his spokesman said Wednesday. – Associated Press

The Coast Guard’s top officer said Wednesday that the number of migrants intercepted at sea by his service off the coast of Florida has plummeted since January, largely a symptom of President Barack Obama ending the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy with Cuba a week before he left office. – Washington Post’s Checkpoint

The Security Council is set to wrap up the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti by mid-October after more than 20 years, in recognition of “the major milestone” the country has achieved toward stabilization following recent elections. – Associated Press

South America
Brazil’s Supreme Court has authorized an investigation of over 100 top politicians, implicating an entire swath of the country’s governing elite in a corruption probe that has tarnished the political system and threatened to derail the nation’s economic recovery – Washington Post
Henrique Capriles, a two-time candidate for president, said the government’s recent prohibition on him running for office is central to President Nicolás Maduro’s strategy of holding on to power by sidelining adversaries who could beat his ruling party at the polls. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Venezuela has put off a reckoning on its tens of billions of dollars in debt, but its ability to avoid a disastrous default will probably require much higher oil prices than appear likely in the next year or two, financial experts say. – New York Times
President Mauricio Macri is resisting pressure to water down market-oriented economic reforms in the face of weeks of chaos on the streets of Buenos Aires as protesters demand relief from austerity measures. – Financial Times


West Africa
Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group based in northeastern Nigeria and surrounding regions, has horrified the international community with its use of children in terrorist attacks. A new report from UNICEF reveals that the number of child suicide bombers has grown alarmingly over the past three years — and continues to rise. – Foreign Policy’s The Cable
Nigeria is in talks to release the remaining captive Chibok girls, its president said on Thursday, a day before the third anniversary of the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls by Islamist insurgents Boko Haram. - Reuters
Nigeria's military said on Thursday that it had destroyed 13 illegal refineries in the restive Niger Delta oil hub, in an operation in which two soldiers died in clashes with "sea robbers". - Reuters
East Africa
Uganda’s top prosecutor sought this week to crack down even further on dissent, trying to use a colonial-era law, once employed by the British to quash African resistance, to commit a prominent critic of the president to a mental institution. – New York Times
The killings and other atrocities going on South Sudan amount to a genocide and African leaders need to "step up" and not just rely on others for a response, Britain's secretary for international development, Priti Patel, said late on Wednesday. - Reuters
Somali troops on Wednesday rescued eight Indians who had been taken hostage two days earlier by pirates near the coastal town of Hobyo, officials said. – New York Times
More than 25,000 people in famine-threatened Somalia have been struck by cholera or acute watery diarrhoea and the deadly epidemic should double by this summer, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Friday. - Reuters
Central/Southern Africa
Tens of thousands of people filled the streets of this capital city Wednesday morning, demanding that President Jacob Zuma step down or be forced from office after a string of political scandals that have rocked his administration. – Washington Post
Zimbabwe is hoping to enlist cows, goats and sheep in an attempt to revive its credit-starved economy after President Robert Mugabe’s ruling party proposed a law to make livestock eligible for backing bank loans. – Financial Times
Violence against civilians in Central African Republic (CAR), including summary executions and mutilations, is reaching levels not seen since the height of its years-long conflict, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has said. - Reuters

Trump Administration

Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s grenade-lobbing pugilist of a chief strategist, has a fitting nickname for his West Wing office: “The war room.” But more and more, war is being waged on Mr. Bannon himself. And it is unclear how much longer he can survive in his job. – New York Times
The man not long ago dubbed the “shadow president” — with singular influence over Trump’s agenda and the workings of the federal government — is struggling to keep his job with his portfolio reduced and his profile damaged, according to interviews Wednesday with 21 of Trump’s aides, confidants and allies. Some colleagues described Bannon as a stubborn recluse who had failed to build a reservoir of goodwill within the West Wing. – Washington Post
White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner is leading an unprecedented effort to meddle in the White House's National Security Council, causing mayhem for senior staff who say the president's son-in-law is interfering in key foreign policy debates, according to Trump administration officials who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon – Washington Free Beacon
Interview: The Wall Street Journal held a wide-ranging interview with President Donald Trump on Wednesday , in which he talked about tying a trade deal with China to Beijing’s North Korea policy, addressed where things stand on a health overhaul, said he supported the Export-Import Bank, and weighed in on the United Airlines controversy, among other topics. – WSJ’s Washington Wire (subscription required)

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