FPI Overnight Brief: June 15, 2017

The Must-Reads

Middle East/North Africa

Iranian forces pointed a laser at an airborne Marine Corps helicopter on Tuesday in an encounter that involved three U.S. ships and was deemed “unsafe and unprofessional” by the Navy, U.S. military officials said. – Washington Post’s Checkpoint
Former Secretary of State John Kerry lobbied for the Iran nuclear deal on Wednesday by saying it helped the U.S. avoid armed conflict, and that leaders of some Middle East countries wanted the U.S. to attack Iran. – Washington Examiner
Iranian forces killed two members of a Sunni Muslim jihadist group in the city of Chabahar on Wednesday and arrested five others, the intelligence minister said, as security forces stepped up measures to prevent militant attacks. - Reuters
Olli Heinonen writes: With the current terms of the JCPOA that ultimately allows Iran to develop and deploy a more sophisticated nuclear program down the road, a premature broader conclusion drawn along with an unsatisfactory PMD outcome is both dangerous and irresponsible in creating unwarranted complacency on the nature of Tehran’s nuclear program. – Foundation for Defense of Democracies
American-led coalition forces have severely degraded the Islamic State's weapons capabilities in West Mosul, leaving the terrorist group reliant on small arms and human shields to conduct counterattacks, a senior U.S. general operating in Mosul said Wednesday. – Washington Free Beacon
Southern Syria, once the quietest corner of the country’s multisided conflict, has unexpectedly become the most volatile flashpoint between America and Iran as the two countries vie for control. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition have caused a “staggering” loss of civilian life in recent months around the Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, a United Nations investigative body said Wednesday. – Washington Post
Islamic State drones are attacking U.S. Special Operations forces located around the group’s de-facto capital of Raqqa in Syria, U.S. officials and Syrian fighters said, sometimes disrupting the ability of American troops to call in airstrikes. – Washington Post’s Checkpoint
U.S. troops based in Syria's southeastern desert have expanded their footprint, rebels there say, increasing the risk of direct ground confrontation between the Americans and Iran-backed pro-government forces. - Reuters
The U.S. has deployed a truck-mounted missile system into Syria, an official said Wednesday, to a forward operating group of rebels and U.S. military advisers that have repeatedly clashed with government forces. – Associated Press
Islamic State militants in Raqqa are passing themselves off as civilians to try to avoid intensifying air strikes and shooting anyone caught trying to escape their Syrian bastion as U.S.-backed coalition forces close in, witnesses said. - Reuters
Some 25,000 Christians have returned to eastern Aleppo, Russia’s ambassador in Geneva told a conference organized by his country to highlight the devastated Syrian city’s steps toward returning to normal six months after rebel fighters were ousted by Russian-backed troops. The international Red Cross went even further, estimating that some 80,000 people total have returned. – Associated Press
The U.S.-led coalition waging the air war against the Islamic State released 4,374 weapons in Iraq and Syria in May — by far the most of any month since the war began. – Military Times
North Africa
On Wednesday, after three days of rowdy and emotional debate, Egypt’s Parliament voted to allow the contentious transfer of the islands to proceed. The decision did not come as a surprise — Mr. Sisi’s supporters dominate the largely pliant chamber, which is openly manipulated by his security agencies….But it offers a new sign of how Mr. Sisi can impose his will, even in the face of stiff public disapproval, at a time when the political opposition has been crushed and the free press is under renewed assault — all as Egypt heads into a presidential election next year. – New York Times
Oussama Romdhani writes: Tunisians have done the hard work already. They have established a democratic system that is quickly taking root. They are introducing necessary socioeconomic reforms to spur growth and progress. At the same time, they are doing their part in the global fight against extremism. In this long fight, they know the battle is theirs. But they need help and support from the West. Tunisia needs to be treated by the United States, in particular, like the strategic partner that it is. – World Affairs Journal
Arabian Peninsula
Saudi Arabia is engaging in a $750 million, multiyear training program through the American military to help prevent the accidental killing of civilians in the Saudi-led air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. – New York Times
Tiny Qatar, cut off by its Arab neighbors, is trying to break out of its sudden isolation in ways that could reshape trade and transport in the region. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
A deal between the United States and Qatar for F-15 fighter jets and a visit to Doha by two American warships on Thursday showed the vital military links Washington maintains with a country now in a dispute with several other Arab nations. – Associated Press
Lawyers for a leading Bahraini human rights activist walked out of court after their demand to postpone the trial was rejected by the judge, a rights group reported on Wednesday. - Reuters
The Trump administration remains committed to increasing U.S. taxpayer aid to the Palestinian government despite its ongoing policy of using a portion of these funds to provide monetary aid to terrorists who have carried out attacks on Israel, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, contradicting his earlier statements this week that the Palestinians had reversed its policy of paying terrorists. – Washington Free Beacon
Law enforcement officials plan to announce charges Thursday against a dozen members of the Turkish president’s security detail for their involvement in a brutal attack on protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence here last month, two American officials said on Wednesday. – New York Times
A Turkish court sentenced an opposition lawmaker to 25 years in prison for espionage on Wednesday in a sensational case that has vexed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for two years. – Financial Times
Several thousand people took to the streets of Turkey's two biggest cities on Thursday to protest against a 25-year prison sentence handed down to an opposition lawmaker on spying charges. - Reuters


In late March, students at the American University of Afghanistan returned to a new main campus — fortified by 19-foot-high concrete walls — after a devastating terrorist attack last year that left 15 dead, including seven students. But the reality of life in the country’s increasingly violent capital soon intruded: One of the school’s adjunct professors and a graduate were killed May 31 when a truck bomb detonated in central Kabul, killing more than 150 people. – Washington Post
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis assured lawmakers Wednesday that a large increase in deployed forced will not happen, but some experts and former battlefield commanders warned the White House and Congress should be careful not to give the Pentagon a blank check. – Washington Post’s Checkpoint
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis placed the blame for the current mess in Afghanistan squarely on the Obama administration, telling Congress Wednesday that by cutting support for the Afghan forces prematurely, President Obama allowed the Taliban to regroup and recover. – Washington Examiner
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is voicing optimism about the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan after a meeting at the White House on Wednesday. – The Hill
Pressed by Afghan and U.S. forces, Islamic State militants have seized a new stronghold in Tora Bora, a mountainous area dotted with caves along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, officials said on Thursday. - Reuters
Eli Lake writes: Usually when a president agrees to send more troops to a war zone, it's part of a broader strategy….For Donald Trump it's different. On Tuesday, he agreed in principle to send more troops to Afghanistan, but he has yet to agree to the broader strategy for winning America's longest war. – Bloomberg View
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has appeared before a panel investigating his family's offshore companies and allegations of money laundering. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told lawmakers Wednesday that he has warned Chinese counterparts that their current foreign policy will "bring us into conflict" in the Pacific. – Washington Examiner
Congress is preparing to ask the State Department inspector general to conduct an investigation into the Voice of America and whether it was pressured by China to halt a live broadcast of an exiled Chinese businessman. – Washington Free Beacon
The chairman of acquisitive Chinese insurer Anbang is “unable to perform his duties”, the company said late on Tuesday, in a confirmation of Chinese media reports that he has been detained by authorities. - Financial Times
Olivia Enos writes: The U.S. should not grant de facto impunity to China by abandoning the Tibetan people in their time of need. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a recent speech to the State Department said that human rights would factor into the Trump administration’s foreign policy paradigm. To make good on that promise, the Trump administration should consider ways to promote human rights and norms in China. The effort can begin with protecting rights and freedom in Tibet. - Forbes
Korean Peninsula
North Korea has generally refrained from physically abusing the Americans it has held in recent decades. That makes the case of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old American college student who had been serving a 15-year sentence in North Korea, even more striking. – New York Times
North Korea said Thursday that it had released Otto Warmbier “on humanitarian grounds,” its first public statement about the University of Virginia student, who went to North Korea as a healthy young man and left in a coma. – Washington Post
The National Security Agency has linked the North Korean government to the creation of the WannaCry computer worm that affected more than 300,000 people in some 150 countries last month, according to U.S. intelligence officials. – Washington Post
The three U.S. citizens still being held in North Korea are in fairly healthy condition and were allowed to meet with the State Department’s top official on North Korea, Joseph Yun, when he traveled to Pyongyang this week. – Washington Post
North Korea’s release of American student Otto Warmbier after 17 months turns a spotlight on the risks taken by the roughly 5,000 Western tourists who visit the country each year, dangers amplified by heightened tensions between Washington and Pyongyang. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
The Trump administration has asked China to act against several Chinese entities suspected of doing illicit business with North Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday. – Washington Post’s Checkpoint
President Trump is considering whether to impose a ban on all American travel to North Korea, the administration's top diplomat told lawmakers. – Washington Examiner
Defense Secretary James Mattis assured lawmakers on Wednesday that he would address South Korea’s concerns over the THAAD missile defense system after the county’s president last week suspended additional deployments of the U.S. system. – The Hill
Bill Gertz reports: The FBI and Department of Homeland Security warned this week that North Korea is using malicious software to set up networks of hijacked computer devices that can be used in large-scale cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. – Washington Times' Inside the Ring
East Asia
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, has rammed a new anti-terrorism law through Japan’s parliament in a move that prompted protests from campaigners for privacy and civil liberties. – Financial Times
Japan's education ministry on Thursday it had found documents that could back up opposition parties' suspicion that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used his influence to unfairly help a friend set up a business. - Reuters
Joseph Bosco writes: Only a straightforward declaration by the U.S. president will convince China of that commitment. Donald Trump is the one best positioned to provide China, Taiwan, the region, and the world with the strategic clarity that this Asian flashpoint requires. – The Diplomat
Michael Mazza writes: Beijing has willfully abandoned the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. It has introduced new instability into what may be Asia’s most dangerous hotspot. Now, Washington faces a choice. Will America stand idly by or will it stand by its friend and defend the peace in Asia? – AEI Ideas
Southeast Asia
Indonesian General Gatot Nurmantyo said the Islamic State has sleeper cells in almost every province of the country. He also worried Monday that these terrorists “can easily join up with other radical cells.” – Washington Times
Envious of the billions of dollars of investment promised to Southeast Asian neighbours Malaysia and the Philippines, Mr Widodo hopes Chinese money can help deliver his ambitious economic growth plans before he faces re-election in 2019. But Chinese companies are worried about the difficulties of doing business in the boisterous and decentralised democracy. Problems range from acquiring land and navigating confusing policies to dealing with rising anti-Chinese sentiment. – Financial Times
Thai authorities have arrested a 62-year-old man in connection with a bomb attack at a military-owned hospital in Bangkok that wounded 24 people last month, the defense minister said on Thursday. - Reuters
On Thursday, an Australian news network released a brief recording of Mr. Turnbull poking fun at the president, at a dinner full of journalists that was supposed to be off the record. – New York Times


The newest and costliest U.S. aircraft carrier, praised by President Donald Trump and delivered to the Navy on May 31 with fanfare, has been dogged by trouble with fundamentals: launching jets from its deck and catching them when they land. - Bloomberg
The U.S. Air Force’s new civilian head wants the service to retake its claim as the military’s innovation pioneer. To do that, it will have to renew investments in basic and applied research that in the past have enabled massive gains in stealth, computing technologies and composite materials, she said Tuesday. – Defense News
One of the most controversial new weapons in the US arsenal, the Long Range Standoff cruise missile (LRSO), meant to replace the Air Launched Cruise Missile, came under direct fire by a top Senate defense and intelligence lawmaker, Sen. Dianne Feinstein. – Breaking Defense
Strategic Issues
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Congress Wednesday he has an open mind about possibly scaling back some nuclear systems, as long as deterrence is not sacrificed, as he faces a more than $1 trillion bill to rebuild America's arsenal over the next three decades – Washington Examiner
The Missile Defense Agency's first-ever successful intercept of an ICBM target using a Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, using the kinetic force of an Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) to destroy the target, is paving the way toward advanced future kill vehicles able to discern and attack multiple approaching threats, industry and Pentagon officials said. – Scout Warrior
The identification of malware tied to a cyberattack on Ukraine last year is putting a renewed focus on threats to America’s electric grid. – The Hill
While cyberspace has typically been more difficult to partner on and share information about, the U.S. seems to be opening up its files, so to speak, and looking for greater cooperation with allies. – Defense News
Michael O’Hanlon writes: The 2017 study that Miller co-chaired on cyber deterrence offers a good encapsulation of the range of the challenges that the computer and cyber revolutions pose to the United States. The study—which formed the foundation for the broader discussion—underscored several dangers to the U.S. military and society more generally. - Brookings Institution


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. would support efforts by Russia and Ukraine to resolve a yearslong conflict outside of an internationally backed agreement signed by both countries, the implementation of which has long been a U.S. condition for lifting sanctions against Moscow. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Interview: Ukraine’s Finance Minister speaks with TAI about his ambitious reform project and hopes for a self-sustaining economy. – The American Interest
Andriy Kobolyev writes: Many people see Russian President Vladimir Putin as a good tactician but bad strategist. I am not so sure. Ukraine hasn’t managed to outsmart Putin in either area. We must become better strategists in order to win the war. A truly strategic mind can introduce zero tolerance toward corruption while in power. The temptation to halt reforms and return to past models with their promise of largesse is often too strong to ignore. This makes it an extremely demanding path to follow. Nevertheless, it is the only winning strategy available to Ukraine. - Atlantic Council

The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly backed a package of additional sanctions on Russia, in part to punish Moscow for alleged interference in the 2016 elections. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
At least 16 protesters were detained in front of the Russian Parliament building on Wednesday as legislators approved a plan that could uproot up to 1.6 million Muscovites from their aging Soviet-era residences and move them into newly built apartments. – New York Times
For years now, history has served as a metaphorical battlefield in Russia, a place where political rivals work to recast the past to justify their struggles to shape Russia's future. For a few hours on Monday, however, history took the form of a literal battlefield when an enormous Moscow festival resembling a Renaissance fair became the site of clashes between police and anti-corruption protesters. – Washington Post
Russia's top election official says Aleksei Navalny is almost certain to be barred from running in a March 2018 presidential election, citing a criminal conviction the opposition leader contends was engineered by the Kremlin to make him less of a political threat. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Russia has climbed out of recession despite the continuing Western sanctions, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday, adding that the restrictions have forced the country to “switch on our brains” to reduce its dependence on energy exports – Associated Press
Editorial: If Mr. Putin is really so sure about his popularity, he should release Mr. Navalny from prison and permit a free and open presidential campaign leading up to the scheduled vote in 2018 in which Mr. Navalny is allowed to run. Russians shouldn’t have to risk arrest and worse in the streets in order to support a political change. – Washington Post
Masha Gessen writes: The Kremlin will likely institute even tougher laws against protests, and law enforcement will sweep up dozens or hundreds more ordinary people to send a message to millions. Nor is protest a potential instrument of change in a country that has no politicians or political parties, judiciary, or media that act independently of the Kremlin. But as long as some Russians, including some very young ones, are willing to brave streets filled with riot police, they keep an unreasonable hope alive, and they increase the chances that Alexei Navalny will survive and stay out of prison. That’s not nothing. – New York Review of Books
Edward Fishman writes: Today, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill that would fortify existing sanctions on Russia and add new restrictions. If the bill becomes law, it would mark the most significant step taken by Congress on Russia policy in recent history. Though not perfect, the bill would substantially strengthen the West’s negotiating position vis-à-vis Russia on the conflict in Ukraine and send a strong message to Moscow that efforts to undermine US elections carry costly consequences. - Atlantic Council

The Army wants to retain a strategic base in Mannheim that was slated for closure, in order to support a growing mission in Europe, where the service also is investigating potential new operational sites should the Pentagon decide to deploy more soldiers overseas in the future. – Stars and Stripes
Kosovo charged nine men on June 15 with plotting terror attacks in Kosovo and at a World Cup soccer match between Israel and Albania last year. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
The United States on Wednesday said it was "troubled" by the Hungarian parliament's passage of legislation that it said unfairly burdened a targeted group of Hungarian civil society organizations. - Reuters


United States of America
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wants the panel to investigate any attempts to influence FBI investigations under the Trump and Obama administrations. – The Hill
Paul Manafort is at the center of an FBI investigation into ties between President Donald Trump’s team and the Russians, but that hasn’t stopped him from doing business with international figures and companies, partly by claiming continued access to Trump, according to people familiar with his dealings. - Politico
Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) write: Unwise budget cuts to effective, desperately needed assistance programs are a penny-wise and pound-foolish error that will shift even more of the burden for stabilizing the world to our overburdened armed services. Such cuts will make it harder to make America safer. They will deprive the world of the full array of American political and moral leadership when it has never been more needed. We urge the administration and our colleagues in Congress not to make that mistake. - Politico
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross expressed confidence that the Trump administration can achieve better trade terms through negotiations with trading partners, rather than immediately turning to tariffs or other punitive measures that could generate retaliation or other economic repercussions. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Robert Samuelson writes: The Trump administration is determined to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — which created a single market from Mexico’s southern border to the Yukon — but the main political appeal of this policy rests on a popular myth: that “fair” trade requires the United States to have a surplus or balanced trade with both Mexico and Canada. – Washington Post
Russian Election Interference
The special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election is interviewing senior intelligence officials as part of a widening probe that now includes an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice, officials said. – Washington Post
Heads of the Senate Intelligence committee and special counsel Robert Mueller gathered for the first time Wednesday on Capitol Hill to discuss their respective investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. – Washington Times
Congressional investigators are moving to a new phase in the multiple probes now exploring alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, with White House aide Jared Kushner and fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn among those facing new scrutiny. – Washington Times
Latin America
Vice President Mike Pence and three members of President Trump’s Cabinet will meet leaders from Mexico and several Central American countries Thursday at a conference in Miami to press them to prevent their citizens from migrating to the United States. – Los Angeles Times
Venezuelan opposition lawmakers on Wednesday said security forces used excessive violence during a raid to capture protesters in a sprawling middle-class apartment complex carried out after officers came under fire. - Reuters
Former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez on Wednesday announced a new political party as she eyes a bid for a Senate seat in October's mid-term election. - Reuters
The administration’s changes are likely to leave in place the basic components of the Obama opening — diplomatic relations, along with conditioned trade and travel — while tightening each in ways that will complicate but not undo them, according to senior administration officials and several people who have lobbied them from Capitol Hill and the U.S. business community, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity about the emerging policy. – Washington Post
Marriott International is the company with the most to lose if President Trump cracks down on the ability of U.S. businesses to work with the Cuban military. – Washington Free Beacon
Jose Cardenas writes: As stated, a defensible U.S. Cuba policy is one that supports the Cuban people with as little support to the regime as possible. President Obama professed to want to help average Cubans have a better day; a more fitting U.S. policy is to stand with those Cubans who want a better future. – Foreign Policy’s Elephants in the Room


An assault by militants in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, began Wednesday evening with a car bombing at the gates of a hotel popular with foreigners and continued with gunfire at a nearby restaurant. – New York Times
International donors are warning that the number of Ethiopians surviving on food assistance could double to 16m next month as some aid agencies criticise the government for downplaying the severity of the crisis. – Financial Times
The United Nations and the African Union are recommending a 44 percent cut in the number of peacekeeping troops in their joint force in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region and a 30 percent reduction in the international police force, a move certain to be welcomed by the United States which is seeking major cuts to the U.N. peacekeeping budget. – Associated Press
Burundian security forces and allied militia are still abducting, torturing and killing people with almost total impunity, U.N. investigators said on Thursday, an accusation fiercely denied by Burundi. - Reuters
The CJTF, most of whom are unemployed men, has asked the government to provide payment for its operations, a demand seen by political observers as ominous given the blurred lines in Nigeria between local politics and orchestrated violence. With national elections in 2019 and the long-term illness of President Muhammadu Buhari pointing to a power vacuum, fears about organized armed groups are on the rise. - Reuters

Trump Administration

Spearheaded by Chairman Sen. John McCain, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee pressed the Pentagon’s top leadership why it had yet to produce a new national security strategy to inform the budget six months into the Trump administration. – USNI News

Peter Feaver writes: Perhaps the awkwardness of drafting language on this problem in the NSS will help spur the administration to confront the challenge and actually do something about it. If so, that will prove again the utility of these documents — and will show that the Trump administration is serious about addressing the threat from Russia. If not, it will be painfully evident for all to read when the NSS is published. - Foreign Policy's Elephants in the Room

Democracy and Human Rights

Christopher Walker writes: The forces working against democracy are not limited to any single country or region but instead have multiple sources. First among these is a group of influential and ambitious authoritarian states that have organized themselves to directly contest democratic development and ideals. Regimes in Russia, China, Iran, and elsewhere are devoting vast resources – in the media sphere and elsewhere –  to making the world more agreeable to their interests, which favor governance systems based on monopolization of politics and state control. – Globsec 2017

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.
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