The Soufan Group Morning Brief

FRIDAY, JULY 28, 2017

Russia on Friday seized two American diplomatic properties and ordered the United States Embassy in Moscow to reduce its staff by September -- a sign of Moscow’s anger over new sanctions passed by the U.S. Congress. American lawmakers sent a package of new sanctions yesterday to President Trump for his signature. The measure includes a provision that prevents the president from lifting Russia sanctions without congressional approval.

“The passage of the new law on sanctions shows with all obviousness that relations with Russia have become hostage to the domestic political battle within the U.S.,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement announcing the moves Friday. “The latest events show that in well-known circles in the United States, Russophobia and a course toward open confrontation with our country have taken hold.”

The Foreign Ministry said that the U.S. had until Sept. 1 to bring the total number of diplomatic and technical personnel in Russia to 455, the same number as it said Russia has in the U.S. The ministry also ousted the U.S. from a recreation retreat and warehouse in Moscow, effective Aug. 1.

The White House has not yet indicated whether the president will sign the measure, which also includes new sanctions against North Korea and Iran. Administration officials have argued that the bill goes too far in curtailing the president’s authority to lift sanctions against Moscow on his own. New York Times, Bloomberg
New York Times: With New Russia Sanctions, Senate Forces Trump’s Hand
The National Security Council’s top official for the Middle East has been removed from his job following internal complaints about his management style, according to senior Trump administration officials. The departure Thursday of retired Army colonel Derek Harvey, an influential voice on Iran, Syria and counterterrorism policy, came at the initiative of national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who has repeatedly clashed with him.

Harvey and McMaster “had different visions for what the position requires,” an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity told The Atlantic. Harvey was among the most hawkish members of the council on Iran, and is seen as an ally of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who has also clashed with McMaster.

Michael Bell, NSC director for Persian Gulf affairs, has been named to take Harvey’s place temporarily until a permanent replacement is determined, officials said. Washington Post, The Atlantic, NBC News

The military’s highest-ranking officer said in a letter to senior leaders Thursday that there would be “no modifications” to the current policy on transgender troops until further direction was received from the president. “In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect,” said Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The lack of clear direction from officials left the status of thousands of active transgender service members in limbo, one day after President Trump’s sudden announcement on Twitter. Dunford’s message to his troops suggested that those in leadership roles were caught off guard, despite Trump’s insistence that he was implementing the ban at the behest of the military. Washington Post, Politico

House passes $827 billion defense bill: The House of Representatives approved a $827 billion national security-themed spending package on Thursday that includes $1.6 billion to start building President Trump’s proposed border wall. The Hill

Nunes accuses Obama officials of ‘hundreds’ of unmasking requests: House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), in a letter to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, has accused top political aides of President Obama of making hundreds of requests during the 2016 presidential race to unmask the names of Americans in intelligence reports. He also says the requests were made without justification. The Hill

Feds hope to shield terror informant: Federal prosecutors want to protect the identity of an FBI informant who is prepared to testify in an upcoming Boston terrorism trial, arguing that the defendant in the case — accused of supporting ISIS — has made threats against the source. The informant is expected to testify against David Daoud Wright, formerly of Everett, who is accused of conspiring to provide material support to ISIS, conspiring to commit acts of terrorism and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors this week said Wright has made “threats against this confidential source” in the past and argued that they want to do everything they can to keep his name out of the public eye. Boston Herald

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted from power Friday by the country’s Supreme Court after months of hearings on corruption charges against Sharif and his family, throwing Pakistan’s political future into turmoil.

In an historic ruling, all five members of a high court bench voted to disqualify Sharif from office, reinforcing its previous findings that the prime minister had lied to the nation about his family’s wealth and financial dealings. It referred the case to a special “accountability” court for prosecution. Sharif, 67, has said he would accept the court’s verdict in the “Panama Papers” case, in which opposition leaders charged that the Sharif family had hidden its wealth overseas through a complex trail of real estate transactions. Before the ruling, one of the justices described these dealings as “mafia” behavior.

It was not clear whether Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N party would call a snap election or nominate a substitute leader until elections scheduled for next year. Washington Post, New York Times, BBC News

Iran successfully launched a missile into space on Thursday, state media reported -- a move that the State Department called a “provocative action” that violates a U.N. resolution on ballistic missiles as well as the spirit of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers.

Such tests of what are essentially carrier rockets are not prohibited under the agreement. But President Trump, frustrated that his national security aides have not given him any options on how the United States can leave the Iran nuclear deal, has instructed them to find a rationale for declaring that the country is violating the terms of the accord.

American officials have already told allies they should be prepared to join in reopening negotiations with Iran or expect that the United States may abandon the agreement, as it did the Paris climate accord. And according to several foreign officials, the United States has begun raising with international inspectors in Vienna the possibility of demanding access to military sites in Iran where there is reasonable suspicion of nuclear research or development. Washington Post, New York Times

Ineffective monitoring in the UK? A UK government review has found that authorities in that country failed to stop the radicalization of two teenage boys who were killed while fighting for al-Qaeda in Syria despite monitoring them for years. Abdullah Deghayes, 18, and his 17-year-old brother Jaffar were killed within months of each other in 2014 after joining Jabhat al-Nusra. The Deghayes brothers are the nephews of Omar Deghayes, who was imprisoned without charge at Guantanamo Bay between 2002 and 2007 after being arrested in Pakistan. Telegraph, Independent

Teen girl faces ISIS charges: A teenage girl in the United Kingdom is alleged to have married an ISIS fighter in Syria via Skype and became so indoctrinated that she tried to get a gun and grenade to stage a terrorist attack against Britain. The 17-year-old appeared at a London magistrates court this week and was charged with the alleged plot. Guardian
10 signs of creeping authoritarianism, revisited: “Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, I wrote a column listing possible ‘warning signs’ of democratic breakdown under his leadership,” writes Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy. “After six months, although some of the warning signs are flashing red, others are glowing yellow (at worst), and one or two don’t seem that worrisome at all.”

It’s time to start thinking about the unthinkable: “In Trump’s Washington, it’s a fact of life that officials must now weigh whether they would follow presidential orders that might be improper or illegal,” writes David Ignatius in the Washington Post. “Officials mull (and occasionally, discuss quietly) what to do if a presidential request for loyalty conflicts with their sense of right and wrong….In dealing with this administration, lawmakers and other officials can’t wait until the bomb detonates; they should begin to take precautions now.”

ISIS’s shock-and-bore terrorism: “Over the past few years, terrorism in the West — often committed at the hands of those claiming affiliation with the Islamic State — has tended toward the banal and the commonplace,” writes Simon Cottee in Foreign Policy.

I am a transgender female captain in the U.S. Army: “My name is Jennifer Sims. I am a United States Army captain and a transgender woman who has served my country with distinction for more than six years,” writes Jennifer Sims in the New York Times. “From what I have experienced, open transgender service strengthens our military. Enabling soldiers to pursue their gender identity allows them to feel a part of the Army’s team and empowers them to be all they can be.”

The desperation of our diplomats: “An exodus at the State Department is underway,” writes Roger Cohen in the New York Times. “Trump’s worldview - that soft power is for the birds - has been expressed in a proposed cut of about 30 percent in the State Department budget as military spending soars; a push to eliminate some 2,300 jobs; the vacancy of many senior posts, including 20 of the 22 assistant secretary positions requiring Senate confirmation; unfilled ambassadorships — roughly 30 percent of the total — from Paris to New Delhi; and the brushoff of the department’s input in interagency debate and in pivotal decisions, like withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Days are now marked by resignations, unanswered messages and idled capacity.”
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.

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