February 17, 2017

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IRAN

  • Senior Iranian regime officials are urging the US not to disclose secret deals related to the nuclear deal that the Obama administration had kept hidden.  The head of Iran’s foreign policy committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, cautioned: “If Trump wants to publish confidential documents exchanged between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, it will in fact constitute a violation of the agency’s obligations, because the agency has been committed not to make Iran’s confidential nuclear information and documents available to any country, including the US.”
    Trump is said to be working on making the details public, despite Iran’s warnings.  Earlier this week, the Washington Free Beacon published a report disclosing that former national security adviser Michael Flynn had been pushed out of office partly due to his intention to release these sensitive documents to the public.

ISIS

  • Officials have confirmed that the US military, despite pledging not to use depleted uranium weapons on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, fired thousands of rounds of the munitions during two high-profile raids on oil trucks in ISIL-controlled Syria in late 2015.  The air assaults mark the first verified use of this armament since the 2003 Iraq invasion, when it was used hundreds of thousands of times, sparking outrage in local communities, which alleged that its toxic material caused cancer and birth defects.  US CENTCOM spokesman Major Josh Jacques told Airwars and Foreign Policy that 5,265 armor-piercing 30 mm rounds containing depleted uranium were shot from Air Force A-10 fixed-wing aircraft on Nov. 16 and Nov. 22, 2015, destroying approximately 350 vehicles in Syria’s eastern desert.  It remains unclear if the November 2015 strikes occurred near populated areas.

TURKEY

  • ●Turkey’s defense minister Fikri Isik says US General Joseph Dunford will arrive in Turkey on Friday for talks on a possible joint operation to recapture ISIL’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.  Isik told reporters in Brussels that Dunford’s visit to Ankara would help Washington assess whether Turkey and the US could act jointly.  On Thursday, Minister Isik said the new administration has a more flexible approach to Syria and is not insisting on the Kurdish YPG militia being involved in the operation to drive ISIL from Raqqa.  US support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance dominated by the YPG, has caused tensions with Turkey, which views the Kurdish militia as insurgents.  “If we want the Raqqa operation to be successful, then it should be carried out with Arab forces in the region and not the YPG,” Isik asserted.

ISRAEL

  • A day after President Trump told press conference reporters, “I’m looking at two states and one state,” backing away from the two-state solution policy that has underpinned America’s role in Middle East peacemaking since the Clinton administration, his United Nations envoy sought to assure the world that his administration supports Palestinian statehood but wants a “thinking out of the box” approach.  “We absolutely support a two-state solution,” the American ambassador, Nikki R. Haley, said in answer to a question after a United Nations Security Council meeting devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  “But we are thinking out of the box as well, which is — what does it take to bring these two sides to the table, what do we need to have them agree on?” she added.  Haley did not address what that approach would be, nor did she describe a coherent picture of US policy on the conflict.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showered praise on President Trump Thursday, saying the two men share “a great sense of kinship.”  In an interview with MSNBC, Netanyahu said, “There’s a very strong alliance, and I’m not going to start rating presidents,” but “I will tell you though that I had a very, very warm meeting with President Trump.” The prime minister went on to say, “There was a great sense of kinship and friendship, and I think that is something that the people of America feel towards us, the people of Israel,” and “I assure you the people of Israel feel deeply about America.”
  • CIA Director Mike Pompeo met with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas on Feb. 14 to discuss “political and security issues in addition to the future of the peace process.”  A Palestinian security source told The Jerusalem Post that the two sides met at the Mukata, Abbas’s headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.  The meeting, the first between Abbas and a member of the Trump administration since the inauguration, came one day prior to Netanyahu’s White House meeting with Trump in which the president indicated the two-state solution is not necessarily the only path to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  The CIA director was also in Saudi Arabia over the weekend for his first overseas tour since being confirmed.

RUSSIA

  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. will meet with the top Russian military officer this week, in the first encounter between the two countries’ leading generals since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea in 2014.  Dunford will hold talks with Valeriy Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces, in Baku, Azerbaijian.  There has only been a handful of phone calls between Pentagon leaders and their Russian counterparts since the Ukraine crisis erupted, and no face-to-face meetings, defense officials said.  According to Dunford’s office, the meeting will address “the importance of consistent and clear military-to-military communication to prevent miscalculation and potential crises.”  In practice, the leaders will probably focus on Syria, where the US continues to battle ISIL militants and where Russia has been conducting bombing raids for more than a year against opponents of Bashar al Assad’s regime.  Dunford, who has fostered close relations with the Turkish chief of defense, will likely be a central player in navigating a US response to improved Turkish and Russian ties in Syria, which has the potential to bring US and Russian aircraft into closer proximity.
  • The meeting comes at an uncertain time in US-Russian relations.  In recent days, Russian jets have buzzed an American destroyer in the Black Sea, and Moscow reportedly deployed a new land-based cruise missile in violation of a longstanding arms treaty.  This week, a Russian ship was also spotted off the coast of Connecticut, a periodic deployment in international waters that nonetheless stoked anxieties about Russia’s military posture.

SYRIA

  •  On Friday, the foreign ministers of France and Germany voiced cautious optimism about the willingness of the Trump administration to engage on Syria, after newly-confirmed US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took part in a discussion about the issue on the sidelines of a diplomatic summit in Bonn, Germany.  French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the meeting was “particularly useful,” noting that the meeting came a week before UN-backed peace talks in Geneva are due to resume.  “It is important and absolutely instrumental for us to have a close dialogue with the United States on the Syrian issue and on many other issues,” Ayrault said.  His German counterpart, Sigmar Gabriel, said Tillerson had “participated vigorously” in the discussion, which also included top envoys from Italy, Britain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan and the European Union.  Gabriel said those who participated agreed that only a political solution could bring lasting peace to Syria.  Tillerson told nations opposed to President al Assad that the US would not cooperate militarily with Russia until it stopped labelling all the regime’s opponents as terrorists, according to a Western diplomat who spoke to Reuters on Friday.
  •  Putting a number of conventional US military forces into Syria is one of the options expected to be presented to President Donald Trump later this month as part of the effort to accelerate the defeat of ISIL, two senior US defense officials told NBC News on Thursday.  The troops would be sent in to serve as enablers, force protection and engineering advisers — similar to the way the US has worked alongside the Iraqi Security Forces in Iraq.  The numbers of additional troops would likely be hundreds, the officials reported.  The US already has conventional forces operating in Syria, but under the Obama administration, the rules for how many troops were allowed in the country were highly specific and determined by the White House.
  • Relatedly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday he wants to consult with allies before considering putting US ground combat troops into Syria and Iraq to speed up the campaign against ISIL.  Mattis did not rule out the possibility but said, “I first want to talk to the other allies and we’ll decide where we’re going.”  Without input from the allies, Mattis said he is not “comfortable answering on my own at this point” on the issue of recommending to President Trump that the US commit conventional forces to Syria and Iraq.  The consultations with Middle Eastern allies are likely to begin this weekend following the security conference in Germany on Friday