The Soufan Group Morning Brief

The Soufan Group Morning Brief, April 12, 2017

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov accused the United States on Wednesday of conducting an unlawful attack against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, as he offered Secretary of State Rex Tillerson a chilly reception at Moscow talks. “We have seen very alarming actions recently with an unlawful attack against Syria,” Lavrov said, referring to the cruise missiles President Trump ordered to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. “We consider it of utmost importance to prevent the risks of replay of similar action in the future.”

The White House on Tuesday accused Russia and Syria of carrying out a confusion campaign over who was responsible for the chemical attack. A four-page report by the National Security Council contains declassified U.S. intelligence on the attack and a rebuttal of Moscow’s claim that insurgents unleashed the gas to frame the Syrian government. Instead, the White House asserted that Damascus and Moscow had released “false narratives” to mislead the world.

In an interview that aired on Fox Business Network early Wednesday morning, Trump said Russian President Vladimir Putin is backing a person who is “truly an evil person”—a reference to Bashar al-Assad. Trump also called Assad “an animal.” In an interview with state-run TV, Putin said that U.S.-Russia relations have worsened under President Trump. Politico, New York Times, CNN, Reuters, Washington Post

The Wall Street Journal reports on how last week’s sarin gas attack in Syria exposed “one of the worst-kept secrets in international diplomacy”: That a 2013 deal brokered by Russia and the U.S. failed to cripple the Assad regime’s ability to make or use chemical weapons. Wall Street Journal
Washington Post: Trump Promised an ‘Unpredictable’ Foreign Policy. To Allies, It Looks Incoherent.
New York Times: Syria Conspiracy Theories Flourish, at Both Ends of the Spectrum
New York Times: Spicer Raises Outcry with Talk of Hitler, Assad, and Poison Gas
After a review of the same intelligence reports brought to light by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides have so far found no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything unusual or illegal, CNN reports. A congressional intelligence official told CNN that former national security adviser Susan Rice’s requests, particularly for her high-level advising role, appeared “normal and appropriate.” And another official reportedly said there is “absolutely” no blatant proof of wrongdoing by Rice in the reports and urged the Trump administration to declassify the documents to show the public there is no reason for alarm. CNN, The Hill

The FBI obtained a secret FISA order last summer to monitor the communications of Carter Page, an adviser to then presidential candidate Donald Trump, as part of an investigation into possible links between Russia and the campaign, the Washington Post reports. The FBI and Justice Department were able to obtain the warrant after convincing a FISA court judge that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia. Washington Post

Page said Tuesday that "there had been prior reports, but I was so happy to hear that further confirmation is now being revealed,” according to NBC News. “It shows how low the Clinton/Obama regime went to destroy our democracy and suppress dissidents who did not fully support their failed foreign policy," Page said. NBC News

No. 2 at State: The White House announced Tuesday that Trump will nominate lawyer and former Bush administration official John Sullivan to serve as Rex Tillerson's No. 2 at the State Department. Sullivan, a partner at Washington’s Mayer Brown LLP served as deputy secretary of commerce under former President George W. Bush until 2009. Politico

Terror case may unmask NYPD mole: The identity of an NYPD officer who worked undercover among New York Muslims may be unmasked in the upcoming trial of two women accused of plotting a homemade bomb attack. Attorneys for the two defendants, Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddiqui, say they have obtained the agent’s photograph and learned her real name, and they have received permission from the judge for a plan to circulate her picture at area mosques in order to build a case that their clients were entrapped by someone fishing for harmless people to lure into a phony plot. CBS New York

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson left European diplomats befuddled this week when he made an offhand comment at the G7 meeting in Italy. “Why should U.S. taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?” Tillerson asked foreign ministers discussing Russia’s intervention there. Asked what Tillerson was driving at with his question about Ukraine, State Department spokesman R.C. Hammond responded with two words: “Rhetorical device.” Bloomberg

Nigerian security officials say they have thwarted plans by ISIS-linked Boko Haram members to attack the embassies of the United States and Britain in Abuja. Associated Press

Xi calls Trump: Chinese President Xi Jinping urged President Trump to find a peaceful solution to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula during a telephone call between the two leaders early Wednesday. Washington Post

Iran elections: In a surprise, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has registered to run in Iran’s presidential election, despite being told not to by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. BBC News

German trial reveals Iranian spy operation: A trial in Germany’s highest court has revealed details about a spying operation that Iran set in motion in 2015, with the aim of targeting a prominent pro-Israeli politician and a Jewish newspaper in Berlin. Wall Street Journal
Why the Russians aren’t likely to break with Assad: “The chemical attack and the retaliatory U.S. strike may have embarrassed and angered Russia—even if it was given heads up, as reporting suggests—but they’ve given Putin no reason to turn on Assad,” writes Vali Nasr in The Atlantic. “Putin will see no need to change his long-term strategy: His prestige and, indeed, very conception of Russia’s great-power status are tied to the outcome of Syria’s war.”

Sweden’s wisdom on terrorism: “It will never be possible to stop every random madman from getting his hands on a truck and turning it into a weapon,” writes the New York Times in an editorial. “More attacks are bound to happen. And, with each one, the temptation will grow to yield fundamental values in the name of security as stifling as it is illusory. The day we yield to that temptation, as Sweden’s prime minister reminds us, the enemies of freedom will have won.”

To defeat ISIS, cooperation is key: “In a recent report, we used game theory and related methods to assess the likelihood of ISIS’ defeat,” write Ryan B. Greer and Amir Bagherpour in Foreign Affairs. “We found that if the international trend toward isolationism continues, ISIS’ destruction will become less likely—and as terrorism continues from al Qaeda and other groups, international cooperation will be just as relevant to ISIS’ successor. However, if countries and firms band together and share resources, they can succeed.”
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief: Evaluating Trump's Strategy in Syria

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