The Soufan Group Morning Brief



The UN Security Council is due to vote Thursday on rival U.S. and Russian bids to renew an international inquiry into chemical weapons attacks in Syria, diplomats said. The mandate for the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons expires at midnight on Thursday. Because of disagreements between the U.S. and Russia, its renewal appears unlikely.

Russia has been highly critical of the JIM’s findings that the Syrian government used chlorine gas in at least two attacks in 2014 and 2015 and sarin in an aerial attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April of this year. Syria has denied any use of chemical weapons, and Russia has accused the JIM of using faulty methods to determine that President Bashar Assad’s government was to blame for the attacks. A spokesman for the U.S. mission to the UN said on Monday that Russia has refused to engage in negotiations on the U.S. draft resolution. Diplomats said U.S. had amended its draft in a bid to win Russian support.

“The United States hopes the Security Council will stand united in the face of chemical weapons use against civilians and extend the work of this critical group,” the U.S. mission said Wednesday. “Not doing so would only give consent to such atrocities while tragically failing the Syrian people who have suffered from these despicable acts.” British Ambassador to the UN Matthew Rycroft warned on Wednesday that if the inquiry ended, “the only victors would be people who want to use chemical weapons in Syria...Everyone in the Security Council would be shooting ourselves in the foot if we allowed that to happen.” Reuters, New York Times

The White House on Wednesday made public for the first time the rules by which the government decides to disclose or keep secret software flaws that can be turned into cyber weapons. The move marks an attempt to address criticism against the U.S. government that it too often jeopardizes internet security by stockpiling detected cyber vulnerabilities in order to preserve its ability to launch its own attacks on computer systems.

The rules are part of the “Vulnerabilities Equities Process,” which the Obama administration revamped in 2014 as a multi-agency forum to debate whether and when to inform companies that the government discovered or bought a software flaw that, if weaponized, could affect the security of their product. Under the process, an “equities review board” of at least a dozen national security and civilian agencies will meet monthly — or more often, if a need arises — to discuss newly discovered vulnerabilities. In addition to the NSA, the CIA and the FBI, the list of agencies involved includes the Treasury, Commerce and State departments, and the Office of Management and Budget. Washington Post, Reuters

Gen. Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff, said Wednesday his service has failed in a “significant amount” of cases to alert the FBI to soldiers’ criminal history. The statement was the most concrete indication that the problem is not confined to the Air Force, which acknowledged last week that it failed to tell the FBI about the assault conviction of Devin P. Kelley, a former airman who killed 26 people in a Texas church on November 5. That failure made it possible for Kelley to acquire weapons that federal law prohibited him from buying or possessing after a 2012 conviction.

“There are gaps and failures on our part to report in to the FBI,”  Milley said. “We have a significant amount of omissions. It clearly tells us that we need to tighten up.” Milley was not specific about the kinds or number of cases that have not been reported to the FBI as required, although he said the number was “probably in the 10 to 20 percent” range. Associated Press, ABC News

Head of U.S. National Counterterrorism Center to step down: The director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Nicholas Rasmussen, will retire next month, the Trump administration said on Wednesday. Rasmussen is one of the few individuals in the U.S. government who has served continuously in counterterrorism jobs since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. “Nick is deeply committed to the counterterrorism mission and has skillfully guided the nation through an evolving and complex terrorism threat environment,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said. Russell Travers, the deputy director of the center, will serve as acting director upon Rasmussen’s departure in late December and until President Trump nominates a successor. Reuters, New York Times, The Hill

Guantanamo detainee says the U.S. changed force-feeding policy: Lawyers for a hunger-striking detainee at Guantanamo Bay told a federal court that their client says his weight dropped to under 90lbs after the prison changed its policy on force feeding a month and a half ago. The lawyers for Ahmed Rabbani, who has been held at the facility without charge for the last 13 years, submitted a response late last week to a previously filed motion that called for an independent medical evaluation of their client. They said Rabbani told them in September that the prison appeared to have changed its policy toward force-feeding hunger-striking prisoners, as medical staff “stopped tube-feeding the strikers, and ended the standard practice of closely monitoring their declining health.” According to detainees, for the past 10 years the U.S. has followed a policy of force-feeding hunger strikers when they have lost one-fifth of their body weight. Al Jazeera

Senators call on Tillerson to end State Department hiring freeze: Senators John McCain (R-AZ) urged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday to end his hiring freeze in the State Department, citing concerns that a depletion of foreign service officers could harm U.S. diplomatic efforts. McCain and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)  wrote a joint letter to Tillerson taking issue with the department's “failure to replace losses” in its ranks “due to attrition and resignations,” which they said appeared as if intentionally aimed at reducing the department’s staff size. They called on the State Department to lift the freeze, refrain from imposing any further measures aimed at reducing staffing levels, and promote high-performing officers to retain talent in the department. The Hill

Russian long-range bombers strike Islamic State targets in Syria: Six Russian long-range bombers struck ISIS targets near the town of Albu Kamal in Syria’s Deir Ezzor Province on Wednesday, the Russian Defence Ministry said in a statement. The ministry said the planes had bombed ISIS supply depots, militants, and armored vehicles and that satellite and drone surveillance had confirmed that all of the designated targets had been destroyed. Russia on Tuesday accused the U.S. of providing de-facto cover for ISIS units in Syria and of only pretending to fight terrorism in the Middle East. Reuters

French defense minister warns of new strategy for ISIS: In an interview on the sidelines of the International Forum on Peace and Security in Senegal, French Defense Minister Florence Parly warned that ISIS is morphing into “an underground terrorist organisation” even as it is pushed out of its strongholds. Parly hailed the recent capture of ISIS territory of Iraq and Syria, but warned that the group is changing its strategy. “The fight against ISIS is not over because ISIS is already beginning to redeploy its activities and to change into an underground terrorist organisation,” she said. France24

Libyan forces hit ISIS with air strikes: East Libyan forces said they launched air strikes against suspected ISIS militants on Wednesday south of the jihadist group’s former stronghold of Sirte. The site contained a large camp with military vehicles and stocks of petrol and water and had been used as a base for mounting attacks, an air force commander for the eastern-based Libyan National Army said. ISIS was driven from Sirte last year and has been trying to regroup in the desert to the south, launching occasional forays into inhabited areas and attacks against local forces. Reuters

Following his trip to Asia, President Trump on Wednesday said he and Asian leaders have a new resolve to confront North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. While Trump warned that “time is running out” on dealing with North Korea, he said he “laid out a pathway toward peace and security” during his trip that “resonated” throughout the Asia-Pacific. He also said that he reaffirmed with China, an important ally for Pyongyang, that all options are on the table in countering North Korea’s nuclear program. Washington Post, USA Today

Meanwhile, China said Thursday it will stick by its “freeze-for-freeze” plan to de-escalate tensions in the Korean Peninsula, contradicting a suggestion by President Trump that Beijing had turned against the plan. The proposal calls for North Korea to freeze its missile and nuclear tests in return for the U.S. and South Korea suspending their annual joint military exercises. On Wednesday, Trump suggested Chinese President Xi Jinping had acknowledged to him that the plan was a non-starter. But a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said Beijing insisted that dialogue was the only solution, and that its proposal was still on the table. Washington Post
CNN: Chinese envoy heads to North Korea for rare talks
Reuters: U.S. Pacific Commander: Military-backed diplomacy needed to deal with North Korea

Criticism of U.S. sanctions returns in Iran after earthquake: Criticism of U.S. sanctions on Iran rekindled Thursday over Iranian-Americans abroad being unable to send money directly to aid those affected by a powerful earthquake that killed over 530 people. While the 2015 nuclear deal lifted some sanctions on Iran, others still stand, including those that prohibit the some 1 million Iranian-Americans from directly sending cash to Iran. The Washington-based National Iranian American Council has urged the U.S. Treasury “to closely examine whether additional steps are needed to ensure that Americans can effectively contribute to relief efforts, and to issue any additional licenses necessary to ensure that U.S. sanctions do not stand in the way of urgent relief.” Associated Press

Zimbabwe in limbo in aftermath of coup against Mugabe: The decades-long grip on power of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe appeared to be over on Thursday as his main opposition rival returned to the country amid efforts to form a transitional government. Morgan Tsvangirai, who had been receiving cancer treatment abroad, returned to Harare after Wednesday’s military takeover. A senior member of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change party said talks were underway with military leaders about an administration that includes the opposition, with the tacit backing of key regional allies. The source described the arrangement as a “a done deal,” but there was no indication on Thursday that Mugabe plans to go quietly. CNN
The F.B.I.’s dangerous crackdown on ‘black identity extremists:’ “The Black Identity Extremist designation erroneously presumes a broad and disparate group of organizations with concerns about the criminal justice system represent a movement with a unifying ideology,” Khaled A. Beydoun and Justin Hansford write in the New York Times.“In fact, the fabrication of a ‘B.I.E.’ movement that could justify the F.B.I.’s marshaling of its counterterrorism capabilities against anyone who it decides fits the vague, baseless designation potentially threatens the civil liberties of all Americans.”

The Islamic State is more like a street gang than like other terrorist groups: “Scholars have noted that the Islamic State has shown an ability to adapt to a variety of circumstances that seem unique among terrorist organizations. But terrorism experts can learn from the flexibility, resilience and group evolution studied in another type of criminal group: street gangs,” Matthew Phillips and Matthew Valasik write in the Washington Post. “Those trying to counter the Islamic State’s radicalization and recruitment might wish to borrow more from successful gang intervention programs. From Brussels to Minneapolis, societal conditions like concentrated disadvantage, ethnic segregation, and social marginalization can foster either (or both) gang or terror recruitment. Successful intervention would need to foster both community engagement and healthy social bonding.”

Al Nashiri proceedings spotlight legal ‘no man’s land’ at Guantanamo: “The Nashiri defense counsel saga is the quintessential example of Guantanamo as a legal no-man’s-land. In this ad hoc system, with its mobile trailer courtroom, even a question as seemingly simple as who decides whether an attorney may resign sends the commission into a tailspin,” Patricia Stottlemyer writes for Human Rights First. “With every passing week, the military commissions proceedings become more absurd. This level of disorganization and confusion is tragic when justice for the families of U.S. troops killed in the USS Cole bombing is on the line. If Nashiri’s case had been tried in a federal court, it could have been wrapped up years ago.”

The status quo won't work with North Korea. Try something new, while we can: “While it is worth considering making negotiations with North Korea more inclusive, it is important to note that no discussions will occur until there is a reduction in the level of heightened tensions,” Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins writes in The Nation. “At a minimum, the United States can start by working with other countries to articulate a vision for the future. New perspectives can lead to innovative strategies. However, it may prove challenging to get North Korea to the negotiating table, so figuring out how to bring in North Korea is paramount.”

Moderated by Peter Bergen

Tricia Bacon
Ambassador Gerald Feierstein
Assaf Moghadam
Monday, Nov. 20, 7PM
Fordham Law School

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