The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Monday, April 16, 2018

Pentagon Says Syria Strikes Hit 'Heart' of Chemical Weapons Program

Defense Department officials said on Saturday that U.S.-led strikes against Syria had taken out the “heart” of President Bashar al Assad’s chemical weapons program, but acknowledged that the Syrian government most likely retained some ability to again attack its own people with chemical agents. Warplanes and ships from the U.S., Britain, and France launched more than 100 missiles at three chemical weapons storage and research facilities near Damascus and Homs before dawn on Saturday in Syria.

The strikes — which came in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack on civilians a week ago — were the second time in just over a year that President Trump had launched missiles against Syrian military targets. Trump and Pentagon leaders have hailed the operation as a success. “A perfectly executed strike last night,” Trump wrote on Twitter this weekend. “Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!” New York Times

Syrian armed forces on Sunday, however, unleashed airstrikes against rebels and shelled what rescue workers said were civilian homes, as Assad sought to demonstrate his regime’s continued strength. Assad praised Russian weaponry used against Syrian rebels during a meeting in Damascus with Russian lawmakers, who told reporters that he was in a “good mood.” Footage of the meeting broadcast by state television showed an animated Assad smiling and laughing as he met with the Russians. Wall Street Journal, Washington Post

French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, said that Paris had convinced President Trump to stay engaged in the Syrian conflict. “Ten days ago, President Trump was saying the United States of America had a duty to disengage from Syria. I assure you, we have convinced him that it is necessary to stay for the long-term,” he said. Following the strikes, Trump saie, “we are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.” Macron also said France wants to launch a diplomatic initiative over Syria that would include Western powers, Russia, and Turkey. Associated Press, France24, New York Times
Lawfare: Bad Legal Arguments for the Syria Airstrikes
Reuters: After Syria Strikes, Britain’s May to Face Critical Parliament
New York Times: After Trump Strikes Syria, Syrians Wonder ‘What’s Next?’
Washington Post: Trump Strikes Syria — But Assad’s War Crimes Continue
Reuters: Arab Leaders Call for Probe into Syria Chemical Attacks, Condemn Iran


Now’s the time to act on Guantanamo: “Assigning federal judges full-time to Guantanamo would surely improve on the record of the military tribunals, which conducted only 30 days of on-the-record trial activity — across more than 100 defendants confined there at that time — during 2015,” Jack Riley, Michelle Marie Kezirian, Richard B. Goetz, and Jerrold D. Green write in The Hill. “Why is reinvigorating the process and modernizing the court facilities important now, especially with such a small number of defendants remaining? Because the Trump administration is considering admitting new detainees to Guantanamo.”

Congress needs to reign in the president’s use of military force: “President Trump has a big constitutional decision to make regarding the attack launched on Friday by United States, British and French forces against Syria for its use of chemical weapons. And he should make it this week,” Bruce Ackerman writes in the New York Times. “When he launched his first retaliatory strike against Syria a year ago, the president almost immediately informed Congress, explaining that he was acting in a manner ‘consistent with the War Powers Resolution’ … if Mr. Trump follows his own precedent and promptly provides Congress with formal notice of his new campaign, he himself will be recognizing that the War Powers Resolution gives him 60 days to persuade Congress to approve his initiative.”

Why the Syrian regime has been targeting civilian infrastructure: “Bolstered by its allies, especially Russia, the Assad regime has consistently targeted public infrastructures in opposition-held areas, including bakeries, hospitals, markets and schools,” Brent Eng and Jose Ciro Martinez write in the Washington Post. “Media outlets, policy experts and international aid organizations have written about the humanitarian and military dimensions of such raids at great length. Yet they overlook the key political logic underpinning these systematic attacks.”

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U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said Sunday the U.S. will place new sanctions on Russia this week related to its support for Syria’s chemical weapons program. The sanctions “will go directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons use,” Haley said on “Face the Nation” on CBS.

The new sanctions are the third round enacted by the Trump administration against Russia in the past four weeks. Last month, the administration targeted Russian companies and individuals for intervening in the 2016 election and mounting cyberattacks against Western facilities. It followed that this month with penalties against President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, singling out Russian oligarchs and top government officials.

Haley has been one of the strongest voices accusing Russia of enabling the Syrian government in its use of chemical weapons in the civil war that is now in its seventh year. On Sunday, she said the administration was determined to make Moscow pay a price for supporting Syria’s Bashar al Assad, noting that Moscow has vetoed six UN resolutions related to Syria and chemical weapons. New York Times, Washington Post
Bloomberg: Syria Strikes Lock U.S. and Russia Into New Era of Animosity
Washington Post: Trump, A Reluctant Hawk, Has Battled His Top Aides on Russia and Lost

Hundreds of former Justice Department employees are urging Congress to “swiftly and forcefully respond” should President Trump fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, or Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who is overseeing the federal probe. “It is up to the rest of us, and especially our elected representatives, to come to their defense and oppose any attempt by the President or others to improperly interfere in the Department’s work,” according to a statement signed by former officials who worked under current and previous administrations. The number of signatories has grown to more than 400 as of Sunday afternoon. Washington Post

In an interview with ABC News on Sunday, Former FBI Director James Comey said he believed President Trump is “morally unfit to be president.” He also said thought it was possible the Russians were holding compromising personal information over Trump, and that a decision by Trump to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller would be “the most serious attack yet on the rule of law.” The media appearance marks the first time Comey has sat for a televised interview since his firing by Trump last year. The interview and the publicity tour for Comey’s book, which is scheduled to hit bookstores on Tuesday, amount to a remarkable public assault on a sitting president by someone who served at the highest levels in the government. CNN, USA Today, New York Times

NYPD deploys counterterror officers after U.S. strikes Syria: The NYPD said it deployed counterterrorism officers around the city after the U.S. and its allies launched military strikes in Syria late on Friday. Department Spokesman Phillip Walzak said in a statement that there were no credible threats to New York City and that the officers were deployed “out of an abundance of caution.” Associated Press

Pence’s pick for national security adviser withdraws: A new national security aide to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence stepped down on Sunday, only two days after being officially named to the job. Pence’s office had announced on Friday that Jon Lerner, a senior aide to UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, would become Pence’s top adviser on foreign policy issues. By Sunday night, the vice president’s office had issued a second statement that Lerner had withdrawn. Axios reported that President Trump attempted to block Pence from hiring Lerner because of his past opposition to Trump’s candidacy. Axios, CNN, Reuters

Bolton not done resetting Trump national security team: Since John Bolton took office last week as President Trump’s National Security Advisor, four senior aides have stepped down or resigned under pressure. Sources say more changes are expected in the coming weeks as Bolton forms his own team. Current and former administration officials say most of the big changes on the NSC staff have already been announced and mid-level aides are expected to be the next to go. The Hill

Kansas bomb plot trial drawing to a close as testimony ends: The trial of three men accused of plotting to bomb an apartment complex housing Somali refugees in western Kansas is drawing to a close after weeks of testimony. All sides have rested in the federal case against Patrick Stein, Gavin Wright, and Curtis Allen on charges of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy against civil rights. Wright also faces a charge of lying to the FBI. The three men were indicted in October 2016 on charges they planned set off bombs the day after the presidential election. Closing arguments in the trial and the start of jury deliberations are expected on Tuesday. Associated Press, New York Times


Attacks in Afghanistan leave dozens dead: Four attacks across Afghanistan on Saturday night and Sunday killed at least 26 government security officers. The attacks struck government outposts in northern and eastern Afghanistan. At least three of the attacks appeared coordinated, with the attackers using long-range sniper rifles and night-vision equipment, according to Afghan officials. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but government officials blamed Taliban insurgents. New York Times

ISIS claims attack in Egypt’s Sinai: ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack on an Egyptian army base in the Sinai Peninsula on Saturday that killed at least eight soldiers. The attack comes two months after the launch of a massive operation against militants in Sinai as well as parts of Egypt’s Nile Delta and the Western Desert. Associated Press

UAE ends program to train Somali military: The UAE is ending a military training program in Somalia in response to the seizure of millions of dollars and the temporary holding of a UAE plane by Somali security forces last week. The UAE has trained hundreds of troops since 2014 as part of an effort boosted by an African Union military mission to defeat an Islamist insurgency. Reuters

American pastor on trial in Turkey for alleged terror ties: An American pastor imprisoned in Turkey goes on trial on Monday for alleged terror ties and spying in a case that has increased tensions between Washington and Ankara. Andrew Craig Brunson, a 50-year-old evangelical pastor from North Carolina, is facing up to 35 years in prison on charges of “committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member” and “espionage.”  Brunson was detained in October 2016 during a wave of arrests by Turkish authorities after a failed coup attempt in Turkey. U.S. officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, have repeatedly pressed Turkey to release him. Associated Press, Washington Post

Kim Jong Un meets with Chinese official in Pyongyang: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un welcomed a high-ranking Chinese diplomat in Pyongyang Saturday, roughly two weeks after Kim’s surprise visit to Beijing, state media reported. Song Tao, the head of China's ruling Communist Party’s International Department, led an art troupe to North Korea to attend an arts festival. The meeting is the latest in a flurry of diplomacy between the two countries since Kim’s historic visit to China last month. Voice of America


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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