FPI Overnight Brief: June 16, 2017

The Must-Reads

Middle East/North Africa

Moving to reassert congressional power over U.S.-Iran relations, the Senate voted Thursday to impose new sanctions on the Tehran regime, expanding penalties for terrorism and piling on more punishment for the government’s apparent ongoing push for ballistic missiles. – Washington Times
Congress is seeking new authorities that would enable it to expose and crack down on an Iranian state-controlled commercial airline known for transporting weapons and terrorist fighters to hotspots such as Syria, where Iranian-backed forces have begun launching direct attacks on U.S. forces in the country, according to new legislation obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. – Washington Free Beacon
Interview: The Cipher Brief sat down with network expert General Jack Keane to discuss the likelihood that the deal holds, what could transpire if Iran is caught cheating, and the Trump Administration’s overall approach towards Iran. – The Cipher Brief
Iraqi forces said they were about to complete the encirclement of Islamic State's stronghold in the Old City of Mosul, after taking control of a neighboring district on Thursday. - Reuters
Interview: Earlier this month, Foreign Policy sat down with the leader of Iraqi Kurdistan, President Masoud Barzani. A transcript of the conversation follows – Foreign Policy
U.S. and coalition forces carried out 187 airstrikes June 6-13, targeting ISIS fighters desperately attempting to fend off an assault by America’s Kurdish allies, who launched an operation on June 6 to liberate the terror group’s de facto capital. – Military Times
As Islamic State militants take a pounding in their eroding Iraqi and Syrian strongholds, its leaders have set up a new headquarters in Syria away from the front lines, where they are digging in and likely planning more attacks against the West. The militants' relocation could extend Islamic State's ability to wreak havoc in the region and beyond for months to come. – Associated Press
Frederic Hof writes: The fight in Syria is far from easy and far from over. Yet if there is any inclination at all by coalition forces to do no harm (or as little as possible) in the pursuit of ISIS criminals, the protection of civilians must figure prominently in the anti-ISIS military campaign. Historians can debate whether the indifference of the Obama administration to Syrian civilians was depraved or merely opportunistic. For an administration wishing, however, to be seen as genuinely interested in defeating extremism, indifference or ineffectiveness of any kind toward civilian protection is the surest possible gateway to defeat. – Atlantic Council
Russia’s military said on Friday that it was looking into whether a Russian airstrike in the Syrian desert killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State, in what would be a major military achievement. – New York Times
The State Department blacklisted three senior leaders of the Islamic State extremist group, including a key planner of the March 2016 Brussels terror attack and the November 2015 Paris attack. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
The Treasury Department on Thursday targeted an Iraqi national and money transfer company for its ties to ISIS's financing network. – The Hill
Jennifer Cafarella and Melissa Pavlik write: ISIS has conducted successful attacks in three new countries this year – the United Kingdom, the Philippines, and Iran – and will likely pull off more before the Muslim holy month is over. The jihadist group has sustained a global insurgency despite the considerable military pressure it faces in Iraq and Syria. – Institute for the Study of War
Arabian Peninsula
Diplomats from feuding Arab nations are squaring off in Washington in a bid to bend President Donald Trump to their positions on the future of Qatar, an issue that could broadly impact U.S. interests across the Middle East. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
The U.N. Security Council urged the warring parties in Yemen on Thursday to immediately agree on a cease-fire and keep all ports open for humanitarian aid to confront the threat of famine and the rapid spread of cholera. – Associated Press
David Ignatius writes: The Qatar flap has also opened a fascinating window on the inner workings of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. It’s a rare instance in which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the quiet man on the Trump team, appears to have persuaded the president to back off his initial course and, as a White House official put it, “let Rex handle it,” at least for now. – Washington Post
Matthew Levitt and Katherine Bauer write: To be sure, Qatar is overdue in aggressively targeting its financing of terrorist groups, in particular al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. But belatedly addressing this problem would be far better than not at all. – Foreign Policy
Eli Lake writes: In other words, it's the worst possible moment to give the Qataris any reassurances. The kingdom will soon be asked to take dramatic steps to realign its foreign policy and no longer play both sides in the Arab's hot war on radical Islam and cold war against Iran. The F-15 deal could give Qatar the sense that it can defy its Gulf neighbors and still enjoy a good relationship with the U.S., despite Trump's own statements that he backs the Saudi position. – Bloomberg View
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) called on the Trump administration Thursday to resume plans to relocate the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. – Washington Free Beacon
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s determination to stand by Qatar, a tiny Gulf emirate under a barrage of sanctions by Saudi-led Arab nations, has taken many in the Middle East by surprise. But for Mr. Erdogan, this conflict is deeply personal. If Turkey allows Qatar’s autonomy to be crushed, officials in Ankara fear Mr. Erdogan’s administration could be next to face international pressure. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey lashed out at the United States on Thursday in brief but fiery remarks condemning criminal charges filed here against a dozen of his security personnel accused of attacking American protesters. – New York Times
Editorial: Diplomatic immunity often protects offenses committed in the U.S. by foreign officials. The U.S. also has important security interests with Turkey and the hyper-sensitive Mr. Erdogan. But the D.C. police are right to use this incident to draw a bright line. The U.S. welcome mat for foreign leaders doesn’t include turning assaults on protesters by security agents into another of the city’s tourist attractions. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)


A suicide attack outside a mosque filled with worshipers in the Afghan capital Thursday killed at least two people, officials reported, in the latest attack of its kind against Shiite Muslims. – Washington Post
The Trump administration’s yet-to-be released war plan for Afghanistan will likely take a wider view of the ongoing conflict, focusing on the regional implications of any U.S. escalation in the country, Defense Secretary James Mattis told lawmakers Thursday. – Washington Times
The strategy, according to military officials, will likely involve giving commanders on the ground more authority to deploy troops as they see fit, allowing them to embed with Afghan army units in the field to assist in calling in air support, and offer tactical advice. – Foreign Policy’s The Cable
While recent security measures have resulted in a sharp decrease of so-called green-on-blue attacks — when Afghan security members turn on international troops — Saturday’s incident shows that militants are still eager to use the tactic to sow mistrust and fear among foreign forces. – Stars and Stripes
The Pentagon will send almost 4,000 additional American forces to Afghanistan, a Trump administration official said Thursday, hoping to break a stalemate in a war that has now passed to a third U.S. commander in chief. The deployment will be the largest of American manpower under Donald Trump's young presidency. – Associated Press
South Asia
Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Thursday lashed out at what he called the "slandering" of his family in connection with an investigation of their wealth, and said unidentified people with agendas against him posed a danger to the country. - Reuters
Sadanand Dhume writes: It may still be easier to practice journalism in Mr. Modi’s India than in Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. But for a country that prides itself as the world’s largest democracy, that isn’t saying much. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Chinese scientists have succeeded in sending specially linked pairs of light particles from space to Earth, an achievement experts in the field say gives China a leg up in using quantum technology to build an “unhackable” global communications network. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Explosive materials and violent writings were found in the home of a 22-year-old man suspected of setting off an explosion outside a kindergarten in eastern China, the state news media reported on Friday, citing government officials. – New York Times
Editorial: Chinese officials continue to respond to every outbreak of violence in Xinjiang with greater repression. By restricting even the peaceful practice of Islam by historically moderate Uighurs, Beijing is traveling a dangerous path that threatens domestic stability. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Korean Peninsula
South Korea’s new president said Thursday his government is open to holding direct talks with North Korea if the Kim Jong-un regime in Pyongyang puts a halt on its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests. – Washington Times
Mr. Trump’s gamble was based on his calculation that Mr. Xi, the Chinese president, could put heavy pressure on North Korea to curb its nuclear weapons and missile programs. To secure Mr. Xi’s cooperation, the president soft-pedaled his harsh stance on China’s trade practices, and has said little about its adventurism in the South China Sea. But a growing number of Mr. Trump’s aides fear that the bet is not paying off. – New York Times
United States prosecutors accused a Chinese company on Thursday of laundering money for North Korea and said they would seek $1.9 million in civil penalties, as American efforts to put pressure on the isolated country continue to affect Pyongyang’s neighbor and biggest benefactor. – New York Times
A major question hangs over the fate of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. student who suffered a serious brain injury while imprisoned in North Korea: What happened to him? As doctors and relatives seek an answer, the experience of family members of Japanese citizens held captive in North Korea shows how difficult it can be to obtain reliable explanations from Pyongyang. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Southeast Asia
A senior U.S. naval commander insisted Thursday that American policy on the South China Sea has not shifted, despite uncertainty about President Trump’s response to Chinese militarization of the disputed waters. – Los Angeles Times
A lawyer for one of two women accused of killing the estranged half-brother of North Korea's leader said on Friday he was seeking the help of foreign experts to assess the evidence related to the alleged murder weapon - VX nerve agent. - Reuters
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said there are "deeply troubling circumstances" over how the will of his father and the founding leader of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, was drawn up, in the latest salvo in a family feud that has shaken the island state this week. - Reuters
Thailand's military government will propose a law to force its tens of thousands of Buddhist temples to declare their finances, the head of the National Office of Buddhism told Reuters. - Reuters
The Philippines military said on Friday that some of the Islamist militants who stormed Marawi City in the south of the country last month may have mingled with evacuees to slip away during the battle that has raged for nearly four weeks. - Reuters
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) writes: If we turn our back on those who need our support in the region, Russia and China appear eager to take our place, or ISIS can continue to grow in its new safe haven. Neither is an acceptable option. – DOD Buzz
The United States will tell dozens of refugees held in an Australian-run offshore detention center whether they will be offered resettlement in America within six weeks, two detainees told Reuters on Friday. - Reuters


Defense Budget
The chairwoman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee said Thursday she expects to give the Pentagon more money than requested by the Trump administration. – The Hill
Pro-Pentagon Republicans warned Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that the increase in defense spending proposed by President Donald Trump can’t come at the wholesale expense of domestic spending or the State Department. - Bloomberg
U.S. military forces, strained by combat since 2001, are no longer capable of protecting vital American interests, Pentagon officials have told government auditors. – USA Today
The total of 80 Super Hornets the Navy is set to buy over the next five years could grow based on the findings of the Pentagon’s ongoing and overarching national defense strategy review, acting Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told USNI News on Thursday following a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. – USNI News
If 2017 was the year that bow wave of deferred maintenance caught the attention of lawmakers, it was also the year the Navy made great strides in addressing the problem – despite having a ten percent higher than average workload this year, the yards will end the year with about a quarter of the maintenance backlog they began the year with, the Naval Sea Systems Command commander Vice Adm. Tom Moore told USNI News. – USNI News
An upcoming Critical Design Review of the Air Force’s new B-21 Raider stealth bomber will examine design specs, assess technical maturity and seek to prepare the aircraft to fly against fast-evolving, future air defenses. – Scout Warrior
The U.S. Navy's littoral combat ship Coronado has successfully conducted an expeditionary preventive maintenance availability while on a scheduled port visit to Vietnam, in a demonstration of its ability to conduct maintenance while deployed. – Defense News
Requirements for the Army’s Light Reconnaissance Vehicle are expected soon, according to Col. Shane Fullmer, the program manager for the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle joint program office. – Defense News
The Army and the Marine Corps recently showed off its long-awaited Joint Light Tactical Vehicle which the services plan to start replacing Humvees with in early 2019. – DOD Buzz
Interview: Breaking Defense contributor James Kitfield spoke with Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during Dunford’s swing through Japan, Singapore, Australia, Wake Island, and Hawaii. – Breaking Defense
The War
A resurgent al Qaeda is attempting to take advantage of a weakening Islamic State to challenge its rival for pre-eminence in the global jihadist movement, the European Union’s police agency warned Thursday. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Jonathan Foreman writes: The failure to understand the role of ideology is one of imagination as well as education. Very few of those who make government policy or write about home-grown terrorism seem able to escape the limitations of what used to be called “bourgeois” experience. They assume that anyone willing to become an Islamist terrorist must perforce be materially deprived, or traumatized by the experience of prejudice, or provoked to murderous fury by oppression abroad…Their understanding is an understanding only of themselves, not of the people who want to kill them. - Commentary
Missile Defense
Arthur Herman writes: Kim Jong-Un’s missile program is getting increasingly dangerous, with ever-greater accuracy and longer range. Kim already has nuclear-capable missiles that could hit Japan, and experts agree that it’s only a matter of time before he develops the technology to hit the U.S. mainland. A BPI system could be deployed in two years (or less, in a pinch) and would protect both Japan and the United States from a rogue attack. – National Review Online
Henry Bonilla writes: I believe our elected leaders in Congress should consider taking steps to improve our air and missile defense capabilities as quickly as possible – which may require making some tough decisions and changing course. Congress must do what is in the best interest of protecting our nation, because the longer it takes to get it right, the longer we remain vulnerable. – The Hill
The leaders of a key Senate panel are pressing the federal government for information about the security clearance of a government contractor recently accused of passing classified material to a news outlet. – The Hill
Almost simultaneously as patches are released, adversaries are probing Department of Defense networks, according to Col. Paul Craft, commander of Global Operations Command at the Defense Information Systems Agency, which is responsible for global DoD network boundary defense. – Defense News


Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized new sanctions approved by the U.S. Senate on Thursday, blaming them on domestic political battles in the U.S. and calling for improved ties between the countries. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Germany and Austria on Thursday sharply criticized the U.S. Senate’s plan to add sanctions on Russia, describing it as an illegal attempt to boost U.S. gas exports and interfere in Europe’s energy market. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
In the 15th episode of his annual call-in show on Thursday, President Vladimir V. Putin was part Oprah, part King Solomon, part Avenger against an incompetent bureaucracy, and very much a modern czar, fielding questions mostly from aggrieved Russians and promising to personally solve their problems. – New York Times
Editorial: The better choice would be to sign the bill, enforce the sanctions vigorously, and work with Congress to forge a bipartisan approach to Russia. That would help the President rebut fears that he can’t be trusted on Russia, while telling Mr. Putin that rogue behavior won’t be rewarded. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Editorial: FIFA World Cups have a long history of eliciting human rights concerns, and the next one — in Russia in 2018 — is no different. Despite efforts by the soccer governing body to establish a stronger policy on human rights, a new report from Human Rights Watch paints a troubling picture of intolerable labor conditions at seven stadium sites. – Washington Post
John McLaughlin writes: Vladimir Putin has been such a dominant figure in international relations since coming to power in 1999 that it’s hard to imagine a world without him. Moreover, Russia is so large — spanning 11 time zones — and so diverse in ethnic and socioeconomic terms, that’s it’s equally difficult to foresee Russian reaction to the absence of someone who has really functioned much like the czars of old. But nothing is eternal, not even in Mother Russia, so sooner or later, things will change. - Ozy
Benjamin Parker writes: This might make Navalny seem like a Soviet-era dissident, standing athwart the regime, proud but powerless. But there are key differences. Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, and Sharansky couldn't organize a movement the way Navalny has. As Galeotti also points out: "The dissident movement was born out of hopelessness. This movement is born of long-term hope." – The Weekly Standard
United Kingdom
More than a year before Zaghba and two other terrorists killed eight people in a rampage at London Bridge and nearby Borough Market earlier this month, the Italian-Moroccan man’s steady radicalization had alarmed his family and raised the suspicions of Italian authorities. But despite the warning signs, Italian security personnel with an aggressive approach to extremists and years of experience combating the mafia were largely helpless to do much, and he slipped through their grasp. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
European leaders have a message for Britons reeling from a shock election result: All is forgiven if London wants to abandon its divorce from the European Union…May has already rejected the idea of an “exit from Brexit,” and there is little chance London will actually reverse course. But many British politicians see the results of the June 8 election as a signal that voters do not want the full split that May once proposed, but rather a gentler breakup that could leave strong trade ties in place. – Washington Post
Editorial: The new Tory coalition is precarious but its success won’t be measured in larger public benefits. It will depend on emerging from Brexit with policies that promote faster growth and persuade voters to rethink the role of the state in the economy. Tories like Ruth Davidson and perhaps now even Chancellor Philip Hammond are right that the focus must be on jobs and the economy. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
U.S. congressional investigators want to know what an ex-CIA operative was doing in Montenegro last fall at the time of an alleged Russian-backed coup plot against NATO’s newest member. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
A House Republican lawmaker said Thursday that some members of the NATO alliance are still dependent on Russia for military equipment for their air and ground forces, which is makes it harder for the U.S. to count on them as allies. – Washington Examiner
A court in Kyiv has resumed hearings in the in-absentia treason trial of former President Viktor Yanukovych. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Analysis: As the process of adopting amendments to the Georgian Constitution enters what is intended to be the final phase, the level of recriminations between parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, the constitutional lawyer who chaired the commission that drafted the changes, and Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili has reached a new level of intensity after confidential interim comments on the draft amendments by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission were leaked last week to the Georgian media. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty


United States of America
U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle laid bare their suspicions about U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Lebanon over the countries’ supposed links to terror on Thursday, perhaps signaling choppy waters in the alliances. – Defense News
Carlos Pascual writes: The current Mexican administration has little to lose from a good deal that mitigates economic risk. Canada has everything to gain. For the U.S., an interim outcome eliminates uncertainty about a future Mexican negotiating counterpart. Playing the short game is worth it. Too bad a gloomier outcome appears more likely. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old student who was released from North Korea this week after 17 months of captivity, is stable but unresponsive and has suffered “extensive loss of brain tissue in all regions of his brain,” his doctors said on Thursday. – New York Times
The family of newly freed North Korea detainee Otto Warmbier criticized the Obama administration's handling of their son's January 2016 detention and credited the Trump administration at least in part for his release this week. – Washington Free Beacon
It took months of “quiet diplomacy,” a change in U.S. presidents and an American diplomat’s extraordinary, secret visit to Pyongyang to bring Otto Warmbier home. – Associated Press
Josh Rogin reports: Until now, Gratton has not spoken publicly about the case. He was never contacted by the U.S. government or the tour company that arranged the visit. His recollections form a part of the story that speaks to Warmbier’s innocence and further undermines the North Korean government’s version of events. His message is that Warmbier was an innocent victim of a cruel and evil regime and did nothing to warrant his sad fate. – Washington Post
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is investigating the finances and business dealings of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, as part of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, according to officials familiar with the matter. – Washington Post
Kenneth Starr writes: The official processes now under way should continue unimpeded. Let the legislative and executive branches fulfill their respective roles, ordained at the founding and matured by the wisdom of sobering experience gained over the course of seven generations. – Washington Post
Russian Election Interference
Members of President Trump’s transition team were ordered on Thursday to preserve documents and other materials related to the investigation of Russian interference in the presidential election, according to a memo obtained by The New York Times. – New York Times
The greatest threat to Trump and his presidency, say administration officials and outside advisers, comes from his own conduct and obsessive behavior after he took office. While congressional and FBI investigations may prove Trump or his team broke laws before he took office, his advisers say they’re more worried that the things he’s done since the inauguration may have left him exposed to obstruction of justice or other charges. - Politico
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., wants the House Intelligence Committee's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election to look at whether President Trump obstructed justice. – Washington Examiner
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Democrats on the Judiciary Committee will support subpoenaing James Comey to testify if needed, arguing it is crucial for the former FBI director come before the panel. – The Hill
Latin America
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday that it serves the security interests of the United States to help foster economic development in Central America, a region vexed by problems that have propelled illegal immigration northward. – Washington Post
Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Central and South America next month, the White House said Thursday. – Washington Examiner
Facing deep cuts to foreign aid by the Trump administration, Central American leaders pledged on Thursday to take more responsibility to battle organized crime and curb illegal immigration from the region. - Reuters
Venezuelan legislators and opposition leaders on Thursday staged protests against President Nicolas Maduro aboard buses and trains in Caracas in an effort to bypass blockades of street demonstrations by security forces. - Reuters
The leader of Colombia's Marxist FARC rebel group said on Thursday all the group's weapons will be handed over to the United Nations by June 20 as planned, part of a peace deal to end more than 52 years of war. - Reuters
President Trump on Friday will move to halt the historic rapprochement between the United States and Cuba set in motion by former President Barack Obama, delivering a speech in Miami in which he plans to announce he is clamping down on travel and commercial ties with the island nation to force the government of Raúl Castro to change its repressive ways. – New York Times
That one piece of advice from Rubio probably marks the moment that Trump’s Cuba policy achieved escape velocity, according to interviews with eight officials who helped craft or had knowledge of the drafting of Trump’s Cuba policy as well as correspondence and documents shared with POLITICO. - Politico
In a final effort to stall a new U.S. trade and travel crackdown, Cuba pressured its ally Colombia to suggest it might boycott a Latin American security summit called by U.S. officials if President Donald Trump went forward Friday with announcing his new policy targeting the Raul Castro government. - Politico
The architect of President Barack Obama’s Cuba policy says President Donald Trump’s proposed changes are likely largely toothless and “a waste of time.” - Politico
Eric Lorber writes: Providing sanctions relief to empower the Cuban people does not mean we should give up our ability to pressure the Castro regime. Hopefully the administration’s new Cuba policy is a step in this direction. – Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government
Ronald and Allis Radosh write: The right of U.S. citizens to travel where they want is a consideration certainly deserving of weight. And against the fact that it would deny money to a repressive regime, one has to weigh the fact that restricting tourism would also deprive Cubans of a chance to make Americans hear their cries for change. It would also deprive many Cubans of the opportunity to use their own initiative to gain a better living than the meager wage paid them by the state. With Cuba, there are never easy answers. – The Weekly Standard


From 2013 to 2015, violence gripped the Central African Republic as mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized the government, triggering bloody reprisals by Christian “anti-Balaka” militias. As many as 6,000 people died in one of the world’s bloodiest sectarian conflicts….Today, however, traders trek to and from the capital carrying goods. A new water system is up and running. Refugee camps that once housed more than 415,000 people, according to the United Nations, are closing as their inhabitants return home. – Washington Times

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