The Soufan Group Morning Brief

The Soufan Group Morning Brief, May 5, 2017
FRIDAY, MAY 05, 2017

President Trump will make his first trip abroad at the end of this month, traveling to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican. In remarks in the Rose Garden on Thursday, Trump said his visit to Saudi Arabia will be “a truly historic gathering in Saudi Arabia with leaders from all across the Muslim world.” He said the visit would aim to “construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism, and violence.” The announcement of the visit to Israel comes a day after Trump hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which followed a series of meetings with Middle Eastern leaders at the White House.

Trump’s aides said it was important for Trump to visit Israel right after Saudi Arabia in order to support the U.S. ally and begin to negotiate a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Yet in a possible reference to his willingness to engage with authoritarian governments and downplay human rights, Trump said “our task is not to dictate to others how to live but to build a coalition of friends and partners who share the goal of fighting terrorism and bringing safety, opportunity and stability to the Middle East.”

Later in the month, Trump will attend a NATO meeting in Brussels and the Group of Seven summit in Sicily on May 26. Washington Post, Reuters, New York Times
Newsweek: Donald Trump says Peace in the Middle East is “Not as Difficult as People Have Thought”
FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers testified on Thursday before the leaders of a House Intelligence Committee probe into Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election. Republican chairman Representative Mike Conaway and Democratic representative Adam Schiff told reporters they had a “very successful hearing.”

Conaway and Schiff issued a joint statement saying they remain committed to working with the FBI as it continues its investigation into Russia’s involvement in the election. They said they are currently sending out invitations for witnesses to testify and requesting “pertinent documents.” They said next steps would also include an open hearing with former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and former CIA Director John Brennan. Conaway replaced Rep. Devin Nunes, who recused himself from the investigation last month amid complaints over his handling of classified intelligence related to claims that Trump campaign associates had been under surveillance by U.S. intelligence during the campaign. Reuters, Washington Times, The Hill
CNN: Comey Reveals Few Details About State of Russia Inquiry
Foreign Policy: Intelligence Panel Takes Another Shot at Creating Committee to Counter Russian Influence

In an overwhelming 419-1 vote on Thursday, the House of Representatives approved legislation to tighten sanctions on North Korea by targeting its shipping industry and companies that do business with Pyongyang. Supporters said the legislation was intended to send a strong message to North Korea as international concern over the country’s nuclear weapons program grows only days after Pyongyang test-fired a ballistic missile. The legislation would also require the Trump administration to report to Congress within 90 days on whether North Korea should be reinstated onto the government’s state sponsors of terror list. Earlier this week, Trump indicated he would be willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Reuters, The Hill
Reuters: Tillerson urges ASEAN to cut North Korea funding, minimize ties

Cindy McCain being considered for State Department role: Cindy McCain, the wife of Republican Arizona Senator John McCain, is expected to be offered a prominent role in the Trump administration’s State Department, sources said Thursday. It was not immediately clear what position she might fill. One possibility under discussion is for her to serve as an ambassador-at-large in Washington focusing on a specific issue, such as human trafficking. Associated Press

ISIS magazine steers jihadists to U.S. gun shows for “easy” access to weapons: In the most recent issue of Rumiyah, ISIS’ multilingual propaganda magazine, the terror group encourages recruits in the United States to take advantage of laws that allow easy access to firearms and to seek out gun shows and online sales. It said firearms were an ideal weapon and told fighters to target people in crowded, public, and enclosed areas to maximize the number of fatalities, citing the attack last summer in a nightclub in Orlando that killed 49 people. Washington Post

The Trump administration is in talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to keep U.S. troops in Iraq after the fight against ISIS is concluded. The talks point to a consensus by both governments that a longer-term presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is needed to ensure that an insurgency does not re-emerge, even as Iraqi troops continue to progress in driving ISIS militants out of Mosul. “There is a general understanding on both sides that it would be in the long-term interests of each to have that continued presence. So as for agreement, yes, we both understand it would be mutually beneficial,” a U.S. official said. U.S. forces in Iraq would be stationed inside existing Iraqi bases in at least five locations in the Mosul area and along Iraq’s border with Syria, an Iraqi government official said. Associated Press, The Hill

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is considering sending additional troops to Afghanistan, U.S. military officials told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. A plan for more troops would be part of a broader set of recommendations on how to adjust the U.S. military approach in Afghanistan that the Pentagon plans to send to President Trump next week. The troops would be part of the NATO-led mission to train, advise, and assist the Afghan army and police force in its fight against the Taliban. They would also assist the U.S. counterterrorism effort in the country. CNN, Washington Post, The Hill

Russia, Iran, and Turkey signed a memorandum on Thursday to create four “de-escalation zones” in Syria during talks in Kazakhstan. However, neither the Syrian government nor the opposition signed the memorandum. The armed opposition said the Russian proposal left too many loopholes for the Syrian military to continue indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas. It also called the deal a threat to Syria’s territorial integrity and said it would not recognize Iran as a guarantor of any ceasefire. UN Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura said the memorandum, which calls for a pause in fighting and for unhindered aid deliveries in and around the four zones,  is an “important, promising, positive step in the right direction.” New York Times, Reuters

The trilateral deal also seeks to ban U.S. aircraft from flying through the designated de-escalation zones, Russia’s representative at the talks Alexander Lavrentyev said on Friday. The United States was represented at the talks in Astana but was not a party to the agreement. It was unclear whether U.S. officials were aware of the stipulation banning U.S. coalition flights in the de-escalation zones. Al Jazeera, CBS News
BBC News: Syria Government “Producing Chemical Weapons at Research Facilities'”

Civilians killed on Pakistan-Afghanistan border: Pakistani and Afghan officials accused each other of killing civilians on Friday after gunfire erupted near a major border crossing where Pakistani census officials were carrying out a population count. Afghan security forces fired on Pakistani census workers and soldiers escorting them near the Afghan border, killing at least seven and wounding dozens. In Afghanistan, police said Pakistani fire wounded two of its security personnel. Pakistani authorities responded to the incident by shutting the border crossing with Afghanistan. Voice of America, Agence France Presse, Al Jazeera  

Investigation finds U.S. strike hit mosque complex in Syria: A U.S. Central Command investigation found that a U.S. airstrike in northern Syria in March struck a building that was part of a “mosque complex,” defense officials said Thursday. For days following the strike on March 16, the Pentagon adamantly rejected the claim that a mosque was hit and that there were civilian casualties. At the time of the strike, the United States believed the building was being used by al Qaeda, according to the officials. CNN

Former Afghan warlord calls for peace with Taliban: Former Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar returned to Kabul on Thursday after two decades in hiding, calling for peace with Taliban insurgents and criticizing the Western-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani. Last year, Ghani signed a peace deal with Hekmatyar that brought his Hizb-i-Islami party into the government fold. Hekmatyar’s arrival in Kabul appeared aimed at reinforcing his status as a major new force on the political scene. Reuters

Russian senators consider ramping up intelligence on U.S. diplomats: Russia will respond to American attempts to curtail Russian intelligence activities by ramping up surveillance of  U.S. diplomats’ travel in Russia, a leading Russian senator warned. U.S. representatives approved a spending bill on Wednesday that authorized the creation of an interagency committee that will address and confront Russian interference in domestic politics. The body will be able to monitor the movements of Russian diplomats within the United States. “If such a practice is adopted in the U.S., in the interest of reciprocity, Russia will track no less carefully all travels and movements of American diplomats in our country,” Russian Senator Vladimir Dzhabarov said. Newsweek

ISIS leader in Egypt tells Muslims to avoid Christian gatherings: The unnamed leader of ISIS in Egypt warned Muslims to stay away from Christian gatherings as well as government, military, and police facilities, suggesting that the militant group will keep up attacks on what he referred to as “legitimate targets.” The warning comes after ISIS suicide bombs killed at least 45 people in attacks on churches in the cities of Alexandria and Tanta. Reuters

Votes counted in Algeria parliamentary elections: Votes are being counted in parliamentary elections in Algeria in which the ruling National Liberation Front (FNL) is expected to retain its majority. More than 23 million people were eligible to vote for 11,334 candidates from 50 different political parties, however turnout was widely expected to be low. Ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in a rare public appearance, voted from a wheelchair on Algiers on Thursday. BBC News

Iran reformists to back Rouhani re-election: Iran’s main pro-reform opposition leaders plan to speak out from under house arrest this month to publicly back President Hassan Rouhani for re-election on May 19. Rouhani, who was elected in a landslide in 2013 on promises to ease Iran’s international isolation, is standing against five other candidates, most of whom are prominent hardliners. But even his supporters acknowledge he has made comparatively little progress on his domestic agenda. Reuters

UK upgrades armed police response to terror threat: Britain is upgrading its armed police response to terror attacks, with funding aimed at creating an additional 1,000 armed police over five years. This week, the National Police Chiefs Council said that in the last two months the police had received more than 3,000 tip-offs by the public about possible terrorist attacks in the country. BBC News
Why Congress should not add “successor organizations” in authorizing war against ISIS: “Years from now, what organizations will be the successor entities to al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS? Of course nobody knows the answer, not even the groups themselves. With that high level of uncertainty, it would be most inadvisable—and contradict the design of our Constitution—for Congress to authorize the President to commit our nation to war against those future unknown groups, let alone the associated forces’ of those unknown entities,” writes Ryan Goodman in Just Security. “Especially compared to the static nature of nation-states, the future metamorphosis of armed groups and their alliances is impossible to predict.”

Pakistan’s triangle of hate: “Pakistani society is still deeply divided over what the Taliban represent. Some see them as barbarians at our door who want to destroy the last vestiges of our faltering democratic and civil order. Others think of them as our misguided brothers...In Afghanistan, these fallen brothers, our creation, are still managing to keep America at bay. But when they wage the same brave fight in Pakistan, we recoil,” writes Mohammed Hanif in the New York Times. “Today, while the nation is still trying to decide if yesterday’s monster can be today’s patriot, the Pakistani Army has already made it clear that it wants to have the last word on the subject.”

Iran: The miracle that wasn’t: “The economic miracle that was promised by the Rouhani government hasn’t happened, and the sense of anti-climax is palpable—a disillusionment that has broadened into a general contempt for politics, politicians, and promises that aren’t kept. Whether in Tehran or far-flung areas such as Khuzestan...there is widespread skepticism of the state’s determination to improve the lot of the ordinary Iranian,” writes Christopher de Bellaigue in The New York Review of Books. “Overshadowing the election to decide the country’s number two position—the president is head of the executive, but in practice all major decisions must be cleared by Khamenei—is the knowledge that the Islamic Republic will at some stage in the next few years face a struggle over who becomes number one—a struggle that will be resolved not at the ballot box but in assemblies inaccessible to ordinary people.”

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University
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Friday, May 5, 2017
9:35 PM
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