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FPI overnight brief (Feb 25, 2016)

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FPI Overnight Brief (February 25, 2016)

Table of Contents

The Must-Reads

Middle East/North Africa


Russian President Vladimir Putin worked Wednesday to place himself in the center of efforts to secure a Syrian cease-fire, speaking by phone to the leaders of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran and drawing promises of cooperation, according to the Kremlin. – Washington Post

Three days before a planned cease-fire in Syria, there is widespread uncertainty over how it will be implemented and monitored, and what is likely to happen if it does not hold. – Washington Post

The Islamic State has been taking advantage of Russian airstrikes in Syria, using the newfound air cover to maneuver and reposition fighters, according to a report released by IHS Janes’ Terrorism and Insurgency Center on Wednesday. – Washington Post’s Checkpoint

A decade ago, the current U.S. vice president wanted to partition Iraq as a political solution to a civil war that ended militarily. Now the current secretary of state believes that partition may be the only viable course left for Syria if and when a ceasefire he co-brokered fails. – The Daily Beast

The outcome of Syria’s long-running civil war is effectively settled, according to the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And Russia won. – The Hill

The United Nations will name a date on Friday for Syria’s warring parties to return to the negotiating table for a second round of talks, U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Thursday. – Reuters

The United Nations is ready for a huge aid effort if the warring Syria parties stop fighting, but even then aid workers will proceed carefully and assess the safety of each delivery, a U.N. spokesman said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Symposium: Can the United States do anything to keep Assad from decimating his opponents and to widen the fight against ISIS? – NYT’s Room for Debate

FPI Senior Policy Analyst Tzvi Kahn writes: The Syrian cease-fire agreement reached on Monday doubles down on a White House strategy that so far has failed to achieve results. Rather than seek Assad’s ouster and the removal of Russian and Iranian forces from the region, the Obama administration has embraced Damascus, Moscow and Tehran as partners in the hope that diplomacy and goodwill will spur them to reduce their aggression – Foreign Policy Initiative

Seth Jones writes: U.S. officials must accept this reality—and act accordingly to keep some of Mr. Assad’s opponents on their feet. A stalemate may be the best way to secure a political agreement and end the war. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)


These financiers ensure that millions of dollars in cash churn in and out of Islamic State’s territory every day, muting international efforts to isolate the terror group from the global banking system, say people involved in the business. They operate across borders and battlefields in the midst of one of the world’s most dangerous conflicts, protected by profits and their integral role in the regional economy. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

This week’s fighting in Syria has seen major changes for the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s grip there, leaving some in the Pentagon wondering if ISIS is trying to expand its territorial hold or is in its last throes. – The Daily Beast

Islamic State militants have built a fast and effective supply chain for making improvised explosive devices, one that is flowing underneath the radar of international rules designed to halt weapons sales, according to a new report. – Military Times

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr write: As this article illustrates, al-Qaeda has repeatedly rebuffed the Islamic State’s advances, consolidating its territorial control and strengthening its organizational cohesion in the process. Indeed, while the Islamic State continues to dominate international headlines, al-Qaeda is quietly building its global network and preparing itself for the eventual collapse of the “caliphate.” We should not forget this, even as we continue to degrade the Islamic State. – War on the Rocks


The Obama administration’s reliance on Kurdish militants to fight the Islamic State has prompted deep friction with Turkey, but Secretary of State John F. Kerry says U.S. weapons will continue to flow to the so-called peshmerga forces, with some 5 million rounds of ammunition expected to be delivered soon. – Washington Times

The unlikely group is part of an effort to set up a string of field hospitals in northern Iraq for Kurdish fighters known as the peshmerga, troops who have proved to be among the most effective soldiers in the field trying to turn back the jihadi group. – Washington Times

For three months, more than 500 men, women and children have been living in no-man’s land in northern Iraq, caught in the crossfire between Kurdish forces and Islamic State. Their dilemma illustrates the wider predicament in which Sunni Arabs find themselves in the new order emerging from the conflict, which has displaced millions and is redrawing internal boundaries in both Iraq and Syria. –Reuters


Secretary of State John F. Kerry defended Wednesday the Obama administration’s decision not to punish Iran for carrying out two recent ballistic missile tests, but said that if another test occurs anytime soon, the White House might respond with fresh sanctions against Tehran. – Washington Times

An elderly U.S. citizen whose son was arrested in Iran last fall has also been detained in Tehran, his family said Wednesday. – Washington Post

[T]he vote also presents an opportunity for relative moderates led by President Hassan Rouhani to cement political gains from last year’s nuclear deal with world powers. That pact brought the Islamic Republic relief from sanctions and an opportunity to reset relations with the U.S. and other countries. –Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

The Obama administration has announced that it will not enforce new counter-terrorism measures passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress because they could harm Iranian business interests, according to new instructions issued by the Department of Homeland Security. –Washington Free Beacon

Iran’s hardliners are trying to rally support ahead of elections on Friday by alleging that their reformist opponents are being supported by shadowy foreign groups — including the UK’s BBC. – Financial Times


The U.S. military believes that an air strike against the Islamic State in Libya last week did not kill two kidnapped Serbian diplomats, as Belgrade has asserted, and instead suspects the Westerners were kidnapped by a separate criminal group that killed the foreigners and tried to pass off their deaths. –Washington Post

Islamic State affiliates in Libya briefly took over the security headquarters in the western city of Sabratha, killing and beheading 12 security officers before being driven out early Wednesday morning, two city security officials said. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

[T]he popular memory of King Idris, who died in Cairo in 1983, has quietly endured in Libya. And now, after Colonel Qaddafi’s own fall and the years of violent turmoil that have followed, the country’s closet royalists have emerged with a radical suggestion: Restore a form of monarchy, at least temporarily, to let Libyans rally behind a respected father figure and begin to rebuild their splintered nation. – New York Times

Two Libyan military officials say French special forces are in the eastern city of Benghazi helping Libyan troops battle Islamic State militants. – Associated Press

There are signs of a growing Western urgency to stop Islamic State (ISIS), and Libyan commanders say Western weapons and air strikes will make a vital difference in the coming battle against their better-armed enemy. – Reuters

All sides in Libya have committed war crimes and other human rights abuses in the past two years and those responsible should face investigation and prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC), a United Nations report said on Thursday. – Reuters

North Africa

After months of cautious silence, Egypt acknowledged for the first time on Wednesday that terrorists had downed the Russian jetliner that broke up over the Sinai Peninsula in the fall. – New York Times

Mr Jaidane is one of up to 40,000 people set to testify in front of the country’s truth and dignity commission, established after the 2011 overthrow of the Ben Ali regime. Modelled on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the body is entrusted with uncovering past human rights violations over almost 60 years of authoritarian rule…But the commission, which began work last year, is already struggling with diminishing political support, and resistance from some in the ruling elite. –Financial Times

Egypt’s president said Wednesday that excessive criticism of the government is contributing to attempts to bring down the state, telling Egyptians not to listen to anyone but him. – Associated Press

Spanish police arrested a Moroccan man in Spain’s north African enclave of Ceuta on Thursday, accusing him of promoting Islamist militancy via social media, the Interior Ministry said. – Reuters

Arabian Peninsula

The Gulf states are planning to introduce sales tax by 2018, a senior official said on Tuesday, as the decline in oil prices forces the six-member group to seek new revenues to cover gaping fiscal deficits. – Financial Times


Saudi Arabia and several regional allies have warned their citizens against traveling to Lebanon, as the Gulf’s Sunni Muslim monarchies step up pressure on Beirut to side with them more forcefully in their rivalry with Iran. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

Israeli soldiers accidentally shot an army officer in the West Bank on Wednesday while they were trying to thwart an attempted stabbing, the Israeli military said. The officer, who was hit in the chest, died of his wounds. – New York Times

Iran on Wednesday stoked the current round of violence on the West Bank and Jerusalem by promising to pay the family of every Palestinian “martyr” $7,000 and to pay $30,000 for every home of a terrorist demolished by Israel. – Washington Free Beacon


South Asia

Russia on Wednesday delivered 10,000 automatic rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition to Afghanistan on Wednesday as a sign of Moscow’s deepening involvement in the war-torn region. –Washington Times

A Swedish aid group has demanded an independent investigation of a raid on a hospital in Afghanistan last week in which it said that three people, including a boy, were summarily executed by Afghan forces who were accompanied by NATO troops. – New York Times

Pakistan on Wednesday launched a push on the remaining pockets of Pakistani Taliban (TTP) fighters holed up in the remote Shawal Valley bordering Afghanistan. Though the advance had long been expected, the timing was surprising. – Defense News


For decades, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) — which sprawls across 1,000 leafy acres in Delhi frequented by roving antelope — has been an oasis of thought in the chaotic capital…But since students chanted ­anti-India slogans at an event to honor a man executed by the government as a terrorist, JNU has become a flash point over freedom of expression in India. – Washington Post

Competing companies in the Indian Navy’s surface surveillance radar (SSR) tender question whether the low bidder will be able to produce the radar at its proposed cost. – Defense News

Mr Modi, prime minister for nearly two years since the Bharatiya Janata party’s sweeping victory, was defensive and resentful this week when he spoke to farmers at a political rally in the eastern state of Odisha. – Financial Times


A former high-level Chinese energy official accused of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes said this week that he was tortured into confessing to the crime, a Chinese news outlet reported – New York Times

Strikes and other labor protests have spiked across the country as manufacturing plants lay off workers and reduce wages in the face of mounting economic headwinds. But the unrest is particularly intense in the southern province of Guangdong, the vast urban sprawl bordering Hong Kong that is the heart of China’s export industry — and its economic success story. – Washington Post

As financial and economic troubles threaten to undermine confidence in the Communist Party, Beijing is tightening the flow of economic information and even criminalizing commentary that officials believe could hurt stocks or the currency. – New York Times

Chinese shares slumped on Thursday as senior policymakers failed to dispel jitters ahead of a two-day gathering of the world’s top finance ministers and central bankers in Shanghai. – Financial Times

China commissioned a domestically produced missile frigate this week, the official People’s Liberation Army Daily reported on Thursday, as Beijing works to expand and modernize its navy. – Reuters

China on Thursday confirmed it would send warships to join a major U.S.-hosted naval drill this summer, even as tension between the world’s two largest economies mounts over the South China Sea. – Reuters

East Asia

The U.S. and China agreed to a U.N. resolution that diplomats said would impose significant new sanctions on North Korea in response to its recent nuclear and missile tests. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

[A]nother, tougher round of sanctions is far from the cure-all that some politicians imagine. China and the United States remain at odds over what the new rules are supposed to achieve. – Washington Post

The commander of American forces in the Pacific is worried that the United States doesn’t have enough submarines to meet the rapidly modernizing fleets being put to sea by China and Russia — and that things will only get worse before they get better. – Foreign Policy’s The Cable

The United States and China have agreed on a draft resolution that would expand U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea over its latest nuclear test and hope to put it to a vote in the coming days, council diplomats said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Southeast Asia

Bill Gertz reports: The U.S. military should consider offering new security guarantees to the Philippines similar to those promised to Japan in response to any military attacks by China in maritime disputes in Asia, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific said this week. – Washington Times’ Inside the Ring


Responding to the military challenge from China, the Australian government on Thursday announced a robust increase in military spending, including the biggest expansion to its navy since World War II. –New York Times



Ongoing budget cuts have forced the Army to only focus on the fights it might face today, the service’s top leaders said Wednesday on Capitol Hill. – Defense News

The Navy fared well during late-in-the-game Fiscal Year 2017 budget negotiations with the Defense Department, despite a widespread initial concern about cuts to the Littoral Combat Ship/Frigate program, Navy leadership told USNI News. – USNI News

Much of the discussion these days about the proper size of the U.S. Navy centers on numbers and types of vessels within a 300-ship fleet: Should the sea service have 38 or 50 amphibious ships? Should it have 40 or 52 littoral combat ships? – DOD Buzz

The Navy is considering alternative aircraft carrier configurations for the future as it prepares for its new high-tech, next-generation design to become operational later this year, officials said. – DOD Buzz

Army Chief Gen. Mark Milley said Wednesday he is recommending that the Army not remove troops stationed in Alaska because of the threat from Russia. – The Hill

Sen. Dick Durbin set off heart attacks across the Army when he said the service’s $13.8 billion Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle program was a whopping $2.6 billion over budget…Reporters and Army officials scrambled as the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, promised to look into the problem. Except, well, there wasn’t one. – Breaking Defense

As part of their research budget pitch to Congress on Wednesday, Defense Department officials professed confidence that long-promised “directed energy weapons” are in the reach of military experts in the near future, noting recent technological progress and the current use of defensive laser systems in some service aircraft. – Military Times

James Cunningham and Gary Schmitt write: At the height of the Reagan build-up, the defense burden exceeded 6.5% of GDP. Today, the burden stands at 3.3%, including the cost of ongoing conflicts. When the current defense budget is compared with that of the Reagan administration, it’s that figure that should be kept in mind as much or more than total dollars. – Forbes


A trio of Republican heavyweights on the Senate Armed Services Committee promised Wednesday to holding hearings on President Obama’s plan to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility but said they don’t expect the “gibberish” plan to advance beyond that. – The Hill

Defense Secretary Ash Carter admitted approving a Guantanamo detainee transfer without the full support of then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said, citing a letter from Carter. – The Hill

The Obama administration is legally prohibited from bringing detainees from Guantánamo Bay to the United States, Attorney General Loretta Lynch maintained on Wednesday, one day after the Pentagon sent to Congress a plan to do just that. – The Hill

Republicans who oppose President Obama’s plan to close Guantanamo Bay because it isn’t specific enough should ask for more details before taking a position, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday. – The Hill

House Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday Republicans are taking legal steps to stop President Barack Obama from closing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a day after the president unveiled his plan to shutter the facility and move the detainees to the United States. – Associated Press

Rachel Hoff writes: If closing Guantanamo would help protect our national security, the cost savings wouldn’t matter. In fact, it’s worth spending money to protect our national security. The president suggesting that saving taxpayer dollars is even part of the rationale for closing Guantanamo undermines his argument that it is the right thing to do for our security. – American Action Forum

The War

Rebel fighters in Syria, some linked to Al Qaeda jihadist groups, are using Facebook to buy and sell heavy artillery and ammunition, including «CIA-supplied» rocket launchers. – Washington Times

Missile Defense

Rebeccah Heinrichs writes: GAO reports can present helpful information, but remember, real government accountability does not come from unelected “immune from opinion” individuals in a bureaucratic agency. It comes from the Constitution’s entire system of checks and balances between co-equal branches of government, and Congress has the power of the purse. And if Congress really wants to ensure the U.S. homeland defense system stays ahead of the North Korean threat, it better override the President’s indefensible spending cuts to GMD. – Real Clear Defense



On Tuesday, however, a group of open-source investigative journalists released their own report that largely assigned responsibility for the [MH17] attack to a Russian military unit and its chain of command–extending all the way to Russian President Vladimir Putin. – Washington Post’s Checkpoint

Ukraine has signed a deal with U.S. agriculture giant Cargill to build a major grain-export terminal that Washington’s ambassador said could help turn the embattled country into an agricultural «superpower.» – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

John Herbst and Alina Polyakova write: It is time that European and US policy makers and Western media take Putin at his word and call a spade a spade. Euphemisms only play into the Kremlin’s version of events, undermine the international community’s unity against Moscow’s aggression, and make it harder to formulate a coherent Western policy against the Kremlin’s revisionist ambitions. –Atlantic Council

Brian Mefford writes: With Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s government surviving a no-confidence vote on February 16 and the parliamentary coalition splintering the next day, early parliamentary elections are now possible this year….Below is a prediction of how each of Ukraine’s major parties would do if elections were held now. – Atlantic Council


The U.S. government has warned some top U.S. banks not to bid on a potentially lucrative but politically risky Russian bond deal, saying it would undermine international sanctions on Moscow, people familiar with the matter said – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

Workers in this city that calls itself the “birthplace of the trains” gained fame some years back for helping birth something far different: President Vladimir V. Putin’s drive to crush and marginalize a budding democracy movement. Recently, after a year with little or no work in the city’s giant train factory, they staged a protest of their own, aimed straight at Mr. Putin and his wealthy cronies in the industrial sector. – New York Times

With improved surveillance capabilities in Russia’s aircraft, its over flights of the United States drew close congressional scrutiny and open concern from the head of U.S. Strategic Command on Wednesday. – USNI News

The Russian Justice Ministry says it will appeal a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that ordered Russia to pay some 56,000 euros ($62,000) in compensation to opposition leader Aleksei Navalny for violating his right to a fair trial. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Ludmilla Alexeeva writes: I refuse to abandon hope. So do the hundreds of activists who are putting everything on the line — their freedom, their families — to continue human rights work in Russia. They’re fighting for the values that attracted Western aid in the first place. Donors need to find ways to support them. – Washington Post


Government ministers from 10 countries along Europe’s migrant trail met in Vienna on Wednesday and pledged to work together to reduce the flow of refugees and asylum seekers across the Continent. –Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

Both sides of the Brexit referendum agree on the importance of civilized debate, but that requires more than simply steering clear of personal attacks. It also means taking care to ensure that, even if judgments differ on where the national interest lies, arguments are based as much as possible on accurate information. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said he has “no interest” in starting a new Cold War. But speaking in Brussels on Tuesday, the official said he believes that a “newly assertive” Russia had “destabilized” European security. – Defense News

Lower taxes, fewer labor rules, less state: in a country famed for its attachment to a protective social model, economic liberalism is the surprise trend among aspirants for France’s 2017 presidential election. – Reuters

Stephen Blank writes: This continental concert all but ensures that Europe will neither be whole, nor free, nor at peace, since empire—not peace or democracy—is the precondition of Russian governance under Putin. And empire, as we continue to see, often means war. – Atlantic Council

Dalibor Rohac writes: If the advocates of Brexit take pride in their global outlook, they should better realise that a global engagement has to begin in one’s immediate neighbourhood. If the UK’s departure from the bloc risks undoing the accomplishments of the past 25 years – which have extended the benefits of democratic capitalism to some hundred million Eastern Europeans – maybe it is the Eurosceptics who have a parochial mindset after all. – The Spectator


United States of America

Now, two key lawmakers are stepping forward with a classic Washington proposal to kill debate on a controversial issue: They want to form an expert commission charged with coming up a set of proposals to thread the needle between ensuring consumer privacy and law enforcement’s need to access encrypted data, such as that stored on late-model versions of Apple’s iPhone – Foreign Policy’s The Cable

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has finally begun efforts to assemble a team of foreign policy advisors following weeks of criticism from Hillary Clinton that his campaign lacks the kind of trusted experts necessary to inform a future commander-in-chief. – Foreign Policy’s The Cable

China warned the United States on Wednesday not to adopt punitive currency policies that could disrupt U.S.-China relations after Donald Trump’s win in the Nevada caucus. – Washington Free Beacon

A 30-year Navy engineer with access to government secrets has been indicted on charges of lying about his dual Iranian citizenship and creating false identities to conceal his ongoing ties and money he received from overseas. – Military Times

Josh Rogin reports: The Department of Homeland Security suffered over 100 «spills» of classified information last year, 40 percent of which came from one office, according to a leaked internal document I obtained. – Bloomberg View

Latin America

For the first time since he took office in December, center-right President Mauricio Macri faced a challenge from organized labor on Wednesday as a public-sector union with close ties to his populist predecessor staged a nationwide strike over job cuts, but the challenge proved a weak echo of previous protests. – Washington Times

Despite staunch opposition from some lawmakers, Congress could soon change course and end America’s 56-year embargo on Cuba, the Republican head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee predicted on Wednesday. – The Hill

House lawmakers on Wednesday announced the creation of a Central America caucus, aimed at focusing U.S. efforts to the region. – The Hill

The Cuban government has granted seven dissidents who are out of prison on parole a one-time permission to travel outside the country in an apparent gesture to the United States ahead of a visit by President Barack Obama – Reuters


Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan on Wednesday said South Africa risks slipping into a spiral of widening poverty and inequality if the county’s leaders can’t prove the continent’s most developed economy is in capable hands. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

Security forces and their allies in Burundi have beaten people with rocks, bricks, gun butts and iron bars; they have abducted suspects and extorted money for holding them; and they have buried victims in mass graves, a leading human rights group said on Thursday. – New York Times

The Somali Islamist group al Shabaab killed four people and injured eight others on Thursday in a mortar attack near the presidential palace in the capital Mogadishu, police and a spokesman for the group said. – Reuters

South Sudan’s government said on Thursday that a threat of U.S. sanctions if the country fails to deliver on a peace deal should be directed at rebels in the country rather than the presidency. –Reuters

While Ugandans spar over President Yoweri Museveni’s disputed re-election this month, a bigger battle is already looming: whether the country will change its constitution to allow him to stay in power for life. – Reuters

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