The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Monday, March 12, 2018

White House Officials: No Preconditions on North Korea Talks

After President Trump made a spontaneous and surprise decision last week to talk directly with North Korea, White House officials have been scrambling to organize a high-level diplomatic encounter considered so risky and seemingly far-fetched that some of Trump’s top aides believe it will never happen.

There has been some confusion in the days since the announcement about whether the U.S. will place additional preconditions on Pyongyang before the meeting. In an appearance on Fox News Sunday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said the U.S. will make no concessions to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in discussions leading to potential talks and during any subsequent negotiations. Kim, on the other hand, must stand by the concessions he’s offered, including ceasing nuclear and missile testing, continuing to allow U.S.-South Korean military exercises, and leaving denuclearization “on the table,” Pompeo said on “Fox News Sunday.” Bloomberg, New York Times

White House spokesman Raj Shah also said Sunday that there will not be additional preconditions. “The potential meeting has been agreed to; there are no additional conditions being stipulated,” Shah, a deputy press secretary, told ABC's Jonathan Karl on “This Week.” “But again, they cannot engage in missile testing, they cannot engage in nuclear testing and they cannot object to U.S.- South Korean joint military exercises.” Politico

South Korea says it has not received a response from Pyongyang on the possible summit. BBC News
New York Times: How Trump’s Disdain for the Iran Deal Makes a Pact with North Korea Even Harder
The Atlantic: What’s There to Talk About with North Korea?



An unprecedented peace offering to the Taliban: “On Feb. 28, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan made the most comprehensive offer inviting the Taliban to join direct, formal peace talks with the Afghan government,” said Hekmat Khalil Karzai, Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister, in the New York Times. “The ball is now in the Taliban’s court: They must match our will, determination and courage to step forward for peace.”

10 takeaways from the fight against ISIS: “ISIS is hurting without a safe haven, and is adapting its battlefield tactics and shifting its narrative” said Michael Dempsey in War on the Rocks. These are just some of “the lessons that the United States and its allies can discern from the terrorist group’s meteoric rise to control large parts of Iraq and Syria to the loss of its physical caliphate late last year.”

When the leader of the free world is an ugly American: “The foreign policy establishment exaggerate Trump’s abnormality, allowing him to outperform prognostications of doom,” said Thomas Meaney and Stephen Wertheim in the New York Times. “This line of thinking offers nothing better than the status quo ante that voters found uninspiring at best and repellent at worst. In effect, our finest minds are using this president to avoid addressing the problems of American foreign policy.”

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President Trump’s lawyers are seeking to negotiate a deal with special counsel Robert Mueller that uses an interview with the president as leverage to spur a conclusion to the Russia investigation, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The president’s legal team is considering telling Mueller that Trump would agree to a sit-down interview based on multiple considerations, including that the special counsel commit to a date for concluding at least the Trump-related portion of the investigation. One idea is to suggest a deadline of 60 days from the date of the interview.
Another consideration for the legal team is reaching an agreement with Mueller on the scope of his questioning of the president, which they expect to focus largely on his decision to fire former national security adviser Mike Flynn and former FBI director James Comey. Wall Street Journal

Bloomberg reports that Mueller’s investigation into whether President Trump obstructed justice is said to be close to completion, but he may set it aside while he finishes other key parts of his probe, such as possible collusion and the hacking of Democrats. Bloomberg

Finally, the New York Times reports that President Trump is in discussions with a veteran Washington lawyer who represented Bill Clinton during the impeachment process about joining the White House to help deal with the special counsel inquiry. New York Times


Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called out the Syrian government and its key ally, Russia, over the issue of chemical-weapons use, saying it would be “very unwise” for the regime to deploy such weapons.

United Nations experts are investigating numerous reports of chlorine gas being used against civilians and rebel fighters, prompting concern at the White House and discussions about possible military options.

“We have made it very clear that it would be very unwise to use gas against people, civilians, on any battlefield,” Mattis said on a military jet heading for Oman on Sunday. Wall Street Journal, CNN
Wall Street Journal: Syrian Regime Gains Ground in Eastern Ghouta

The Taliban captured a district in western Afghanistan on Monday, officials said, as security continues to deteriorate in the besieged province of Farah.

The fall of the district, Anardarah, came days after the Afghan security forces suffered heavy casualties in another district of Farah, which borders Iran and is situated on one of the country’s most lucrative drug routes. At least 24 members of the Afghan security forces were killed after militants staged an assault on soldiers who had assembled in preparation for an attack in Bala Buluk district. New York Times, BBC News

In November, the Saudi government locked up hundreds of influential businessmen — many of them members of the royal family — in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton in what it called an anti-corruption campaign, the New York Times reports.

Most have since been released but they are hardly free. Businessmen once considered giants of the Saudi economy now wear ankle bracelets that track their movements. Princes who led military forces and appeared in glossy magazines are monitored by guards they do not command. Families who flew on private jets cannot gain access to their bank accounts. Instead, this large sector of Saudi Arabia’s movers and shakers are living in fear and uncertainty.

During months of captivity, many were subject to coercion and physical abuse, witnesses said. In the early days of the crackdown, at least 17 detainees were hospitalized for physical abuse and one later died in custody with a neck that appeared twisted, a badly swollen body and other signs of abuse, according to a person who saw the body.

To leave the Ritz, many of the detainees not only surrendered huge sums of money, but also signed over to the government control of precious real estate and shares of their companies — all outside any clear legal process. New York Times

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is facing calls to crack down on Russian influence in Britain amid reports that investigators have linked Vladimir Putin’s regime to last week’s poisoning of a former spy in a city southwest of London. May could blame Russia publicly as early as Monday for the attempted nerve-gas murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. They remained in a hospital on Sunday, while May is reportedly drawing up plans to cancel the visas of Russians linked to Putin and impose sanctions. Bloomberg, CNN
Associated Press: In Russia, Suspicions Over Spy’s Poisoning Point to Britain

Amid a strained relationship with Ankara, the U.S. military has sharply reduced combat operations at Turkey’s Incirlik air base and is considering permanent cutbacks there. The base was the centerpiece of the U.S.-led fight against ISIS for several years, but conflicting aims in Syria have driven a wedge between the U.S. and Turkey. The drawdown is among the strongest consequences yet of those fraying ties. Wall Street Journal

Jewish groups and U.S. lawmakers condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s suggestion that the 2016 U.S. presidential election may have been manipulated by Russian Jews.

Putin’s remarks came during a long and occasionally surreal interview with NBC News on Saturday, in which he speculated that nearly anyone other than the Russian government could have been behind a program to disrupt the election. U.S. intelligence agencies believe Putin ordered the effort to undermine faith in the U.S. election and help elect Donald Trump as president.

“Maybe they’re not even Russians,” Putin told Megyn Kelly, referring to who might have been behind the election interference. “Maybe they’re Ukrainian, Tatars, Jews — just with Russian citizenship.” Washington Post

In aborted mission, Putin ordered plane to be downed in 2014: Russia's President Putin ordered the shooting down of a passenger plane that was reportedly carrying a bomb and targeting the opening of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, he says in a new film. In the two-hour film, posted online, Putin says he was told a plane from Ukraine to Turkey had been hijacked as the Games were about to start. It was found to be a false alarm, he says. The plane was not shot down. BBC News, CNBC

Dozens of militants killed in Philippines: At least 44 pro-ISIS militants were killed and 26 more were wounded when Philippine soldiers shelled positions held by the rebels in southern Maguindanao province, the Philippine army said on Sunday. Reuters

‘Punish a Muslim Day’ letters rattle UK communities: People in Birmingham, Cardiff, Leicester, London and Sheffield in the United Kingdom have reported receiving notes that say April 3 would be “Punish a Muslim Day,” and that points would be awarded for acts of violence: 25 points for pulling off a woman’s head scarf, 500 points for murdering a Muslim and 1,000 for bombing a mosque. New York Times


For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.
Editor-in-Chief, Karen J. Greenberg, Center on National Security, Fordham Law School

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