The Soufan Group Morning Brief



U.S. troops have started to draw down in Iraq following Baghdad’s declaration of victory over ISIS in December according to Western contractors at a U.S.-led coalition base in Iraq. Dozens of American soldiers have been transported from Iraq to Afghanistan on daily flights over the past week, along with weapons and equipment, the contractors said. “Continued coalition presence in Iraq will be conditions-based, proportional to the need and in coordination with the government of Iraq,” coalition spokesman Army Col. Ryan Dillon said.

An Iraqi government spokesman on Monday confirmed that the drawdown has begun, though he stressed it was still in its early stages and does not mark the beginning of a complete pullout of U.S. forces. One senior Iraqi official close to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said 60 percent of all U.S. troops currently in the country  will be withdrawn. The plan would leave a force of about 4,000 U.S. troops to continue training the Iraqi military. A Pentagon report released in November said there were 8,892 U.S. troops in Iraq as of late September. Associated Press, Reuters

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on Sunday pressed President Donald Trump to approve the release of a House Democratic memo designed as a counterweight to the Republican memo released on Friday accusing the FBI of misconduct. The White House said in a statement that it would consider the Democrats’ request to release the memo written by the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat Adam Schiff (D-CA). “I believe it is a matter of fundamental fairness that the American people be allowed to see both sides of the argument and make their own judgments,” Schumer said in a letter to Trump.

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee initially voted against releasing the Democratic rebuttal memo last Monday. But several of those Republicans, including House speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), have indicated that they now favor releasing the Democratic memo, as long as it does not contain sensitive national security information. Another vote is expected on Monday. Democrats say their 10-page memo corrects mischaracterizations in the Republican document and adds context to actions by the FBI and the Justice Department in obtaining a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order to wiretap the former Trump aide Carter Page. New York Times, ABC News, Politico

Meanwhile, on Sunday, former CIA Director Leon Panetta warned that tension between President Trump and the FBI over the memo risks harming the rule of law in the U.S.. “For our democracy to function, you have to have a relationship of trust between the president and those who are responsible for enforcing the law, the Justice Department and the FBI. And if that trust breaks down, then I think it does undermine the rule of law in this country, and that in effect creates a crisis,” Panetta said. Also on Sunday, former CIA Director John Brennan accused House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) of abusing his office by the way in which he orchestrated the Republican memo, cherry-picking the facts and acting in an entirely partisan manner. Washington Post, Bloomberg

Audit finds Pentagon agency lost track of hundreds of millions of dollars: One of the Pentagon’s largest agencies cannot account for hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of spending, a leading accounting firm says in an internal audit obtained by Politico. Ernst & Young found that the Defense Logistics Agency failed to properly document more than $800 million in construction projects.  Across the board, its financial management is so weak that its leaders and oversight bodies have no reliable way to track the sums it is responsible for, the firm warned in its initial audit of the Pentagon purchasing agent. “The initial audit has provided us with a valuable independent view of our current financial operations,” DLA Director Lt. Gen. Darrell Williams said. “We are committed to resolving the material weaknesses and strengthening internal controls around DLA's operations.” Politico

Pentagon seeks to add new nuclear capabilities to deter threats: The Pentagon has released its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, adding nuclear capabilities and updating current U.S. arsenal in order to deter nuclear attacks. “What we’re trying to do is ensure that our diplomats and our negotiators are in a position to be listened to when we say we want to go forward on nonproliferation and arms control,” Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters on Friday. The review says the U.S. military will use “tailored deterrence” to prevent aggression and attacks from various adversaries, such as Russia, which is seeking to modernize its low-yield, or less powerful, nuclear weapons systems. The Pentagon will add low-yield nuclear weapons to its submarine-launched cruise missile arsenal, and it will also bring back the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile. Voice of America, ABC News

Trump meets with North Korean defectors at White House: President Trump met with North Korean defectors in the Oval Office on Friday, days after after he punctuated his State of the Union address by praising Ji Seong-ho, a defector from North Korea who had been invited to watch the address from the first lady’s box. He was among the eight defectors at the White House on Friday. At the meeting, Trump criticized past administrations for not acting more forcefully on North Korea saying, “many administrations should have acted on this a long time ago when we weren't in this kind of position.” Washington Post

A Russian fighter jet was shot down in a rebel-controlled area of Idlib Province in northern Syria on Saturday, Russia’s Defense Ministry said, adding that the pilot survived the initial attack by parachuting from the plane but was killed by members of a militia on the ground. The downing of the jet occurred in one of the de-escalation zones in Syria established last year by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. The group Tahrir al-Sham released a statement on social media quoting that one of its fighters had hit the jet during an air raid over the city of Saraqeb. Tahrir al-Sham includes the group formerly known as the Nusra Front, which was al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch before a split in 2016. New York Times, Reuters

Saraqeb has come under heavy bombardment from Russian and Syrian warplanes in recent days as pro-government forces try to recapture a strategic highway linking Damascus to Aleppo.  A suspected chlorine gas attack hit Saraqeb the day after the downing of the jet. Rescue workers known as the White Helmets said six civilians and three of their volunteers had been wounded, suffering suffocation and choking, but there were no reported deaths. Another 20 people were reportedly killed in conventional government and Russian air strikes elsewhere in Idlib. Financial Times, BBC News

Unmarked Israeli warplanes and helicopters have carried out dozens of covert attacks against ISIS and other terrorist groups inside Egypt’s Sinai in recent years, two former senior U.S. officials said. For more than two years, unmarked Israeli drones, helicopters, and jets have carried out a covert air campaign, conducting more than 100 airstrikes inside Egypt, with approval from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. For Cairo, the Israeli intervention has helped the Egyptian military regain its footing in its nearly five-year battle against the militants. For Israel, the strikes have bolstered the security of its borders and the stability of its neighbor. New York Times, Washington Post

Thousands of ISIS foreign fighters and family members have escaped the American-led military campaign in eastern Syria, according to new classified American and other Western military and intelligence assessments, a flow that threatens to tarnish American declarations that the militant group has been largely defeated. “ISIS fighters are fleeing Syria and Iraq,” the Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said in remarks last week. “Jihadists are going underground, dispersing to other safe havens, including on the internet, and returning to their home countries.” But some ISIS fighters have gone into hiding near Damascus and in Syria’s country’s northwest to await orders sent by insurgent leaders on encrypted communications channels. Other militants, some with training in chemical weapons, are defecting to al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. New York Times

Yemen rebels say Saudi attack on police building kills 8: Yemeni rebels said an air raid by Saudi Arabia’s coalition struck a police building in the rebel-controlled capital of Sanaa, killing eight people. In a statement, the Houthis said a child was killed in the Sunday attack that badly damaged a department of records building and wounded some 58 people. Security officials and witnesses said many of the dead were civilians. Associated Press

Suicide bomber kills at least 11 at Pakistani army base: At least 11 soldiers, including an army captain, were killed and 13 others were injured on Saturday by a suicide bombing at a highly guarded army base in northern Pakistan, officials said. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which occurred in the Kabal region of Swat and was one of the deadliest against the military in recent years. This was the first major terrorist attack in Swat, once a Taliban stronghold, in the past five years, local residents said. The Pakistani military took control of the region from the Taliban in 2009 and has maintained a heavy presence there. New York Times

After nearly two years in solitary confinement at a maximum security jail, the trial for the top surviving suspect of the November 2015 Paris terror attack began on Monday in Brussels. Salah Abdeslam is on trial for the attempted murder of police officers after a shootout in Brussels shortly before his arrest in March 2016. He has declined to to speak to investigators since his arrest, prompting his French and Belgian lawyers to resign in frustration. On Monday, he refused to stand when asked by the judge or answer questions, saying, “my silence does not make me a criminal, it's my defence.” French prosecutors believe Abdeslam played a key role in the Paris attacks, in which gunmen and suicide bombers targeted a concert hall, stadium, restaurants and bars, killing 130 people and injuring hundreds more. He is due to stand trial at a later date in France. Voice of America, BBC News, CBS News

Top official from North Korea to visit south during Olympics: North Korea plans to send a high-level government delegation to South Korea to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics this week, South Korean officials said on Sunday. The 22-member delegation will be led by Kim Yong-nam, Pyongyang’s ceremonial head of state. The group’s three-day visit will start on Friday, as the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics is held in Pyeongchang. Kim Yong-nam is expected to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in. It was not immediately clear whether he would carry a letter or message from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. New York Times, BBC News
Why I am leaving the FBI: “After more than a decade of service, which included investigating terrorism, working to rescue kidnapping victims overseas and being special assistant to the director, I am reluctantly turning in my badge and leaving an organization I love. Why? So I can join the growing chorus of people who believe that the relentless attacks on the bureau undermine not just America’s premier law enforcement agency but also the nation’s security,” Josh Campbell writes in the New York Times. “My resignation is painful, but the alternative of remaining quiet while the bureau is tarnished for political gain is impossible.”

Is President Trump enabling the Islamic State’s power of persuasion? “That the Islamic State has continued encouraging its supporters to help the group by proliferating incitement-focused propaganda on social media and file-sharing platforms highlights the fact that American companies’ efforts to disrupt these activities have not deterred terrorists and their supporters from harnessing these companies’ powerful technologies,’” Michael S. Smith II writes in Lawfare. “The surest way to prevent the proliferation of the Islamic State’s online strategy to other terrorist groups is for the federal government to provide stronger oversight of the social media industry.”

It’s time to audit America’s secrets: “The battle over the disclosure of the memo on the Russia investigation prepared by Republican Rep. Devin Nunes has been analyzed mostly in narrow partisan terms, but it has much larger significance for the health of American democracy,” Eric Posner writes in Foreign Policy.“A key weakness of the U.S. democratic system, and indeed all democracies, is the paradox of secrecy: voters need to know what the government does in order to evaluate it but the government needs secrecy to effectively serve the public. As parties have polarized, the tensions inherent to that paradox have become increasingly impossible to ignore.”

Trump’s request for even more nuclear weapons is flawed overkill: “Maintaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent is essential to U.S. national security and will be for the foreseeable future,” the Washington Post writes in an editorial. “But this recommendation for additional low-yield nuclear weapons is flawed overkill.”

For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.

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