January 21, 2017

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Iran

● Even if US President Donald Trump wants to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, Hassan Rouhani — Iran’s president — said on Tuesday this would be impossible. “Mr. Trump says things like that he is not happy with the nuclear deal, or he calls it the worst agreement,” Mr.Rouhani said. “These are more like slogans. I consider it unlikely that anything will happen in practice,” Mr. Rouhani added. On numerous occasions, Trump has called the nuclear agreement a “really, really bad deal,” and has said that he may want to renegotiate its terms. His pick for defense secretary, James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, has been critical of Iran and the deal, but he contradicted Mr. Trump during his confirmation hearing last Thursday in Washington, saying the new administration should respect the agreement.

Iraq

● On Wednesday, US-backed Iraqi government troops announced they were in “full control” of eastern Mosul after routing ISIL militants from part of the northern city, three months since the major operation started. The achievement was a “big victory,” said Iraqi Army Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati, who commands the counterterrorism forces, describing the success of the Iraqi forces as “unprecedented.” Shaghatai said plans were now being drawn up to retake the western part of the city, but did not elaborate on when that part of the operation would begin. Wednesday’s advance came after Iraqi troops over the past days intensified their push into the last ISIL-held neighborhoods in Mosul’s east, closing in on the Tigris River.

Israel

● In his final press conference as US president on Wednesday, Barack Obama said the prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are diminishing because of increasing Israeli settlement of the West Bank. Obama maintained his administration did not block a UN resolution on Israeli settlement activity last month because it felt a two-state solution was the only option for peace, saying “The goal of the resolution was to simply say that the … growth of the settlements is creating a reality on the ground that increasingly will make a two-state solution impossible.” He added that “it was important for us to send a signal, a wake-up call that this moment may be passing.”

Libya

● Before relinquishing power, the Obama administration removed a former extremist stronghold in Libya from a list of combat zones where US counterterrorism drone strikes are authorized without obeying special rules intended to prevent civilian deaths. The change means that as Donald Trump’s presidency begins, the US is targeting Islamist militants in three “areas of active hostilities,” where strict guidelines to protect civilians do not apply: Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. For much of 2016, the region around Sirte, Libya was also on the list. It is unclear whether Trump will keep those civilian-protection rules, called the “Presidential Policy Guidance,” for airstrikes outside of active war zones. Issued by Obama in 2013, they require “near certainty” that a bombing won’t kill civilians, and that the target must pose a threat to Americans, not just to American interests.

Russia

● Russian lawmakers aren’t sold on President Trump’s proposal to end sanctions on the country in exchange for cuts to its nuclear arsenal. Trump pr oposed this idea in an interview with The†Times†of†London, but according to Russian media reports, Russian lawmakers would decline the offer. A report from state-run news outlet RIA on Monday was titled: “Will not sell. Russia does not see the relationship between disarmament and the lifting of sanctions.” In the article, Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs, said that lifting sanctions should be a part of a separate dialogue about normalizing US-Russia relations. “We do not expect a quick and simple restoration of Russian-US relations, but we do expect that Donald Trump’s team will be pragmatic and ready to build constructive dialogue with Russia, moving away from the outdated clichés of the Cold War,” he wrote.

Syria

● According to Pentagon officials on Friday, an Air Force B-52 bomber carried out a devastating airstrike against a training camp of Al Qaeda in Syria. The attack, which took place west of Aleppo, killed more than 100 fighters. Armed drones were also involved in the operation, which occurred Thursday evening local time. It was the second major strike carried out by American warplanes in Mr. Obama’s waning hours in the White House. On Thursday, the Pentagon reported that B-2 stealth bombers had flown their first combat mission in nearly six years to attack two training camps in Libya that were being used by ISIL. The flurry of airstrikes against militant groups in North Africa and the Middle East illustrates the challenges that President Trump faces in carrying out the vow in his inaugural address to combat “radical Islamic terrorism,” which he promised to “eradicate completely from the face of the earth” during his Inauguration Day speech. The extremists have proved to be resilient and are now operating in far-flung countries where there is little or no American military presence.

● On Tuesday, then-President Barack Obama convened a meeting of the National Security Council, which discussed the question of whether the US should forge a closer military alliance with the Syrian Kurds to maintain the momentum in the fight against ISIL in Syria, even though Turkey has denounced the Kurdish fighters as terrorists. The White House declined to disclose what decision Mr. Obama had reached, but it has now become clear that the former president did not resolve the contentious issue in the waning moments of his time in office. That such a pivotal decision was left to Mr. Obama’s final weeks in office reflects the complexity of the debate about working with the YPG, as well as the caution the president has displayed about sending American forces to fight in the region.

● In his final interview with “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday night, President Obama was pushed by host Steve Kroft on foreign policy in Syria and Israel. Kroft flashed back to 2012, when the president used the words “red line” when he pledged to retaliate against Bashar Assad’s regime if it used chemical weapons. Kroft noted that there were reports the phrase, which has come back up often as the Syrian conflict worsens, was not in Obama’s planned speech. Obama confirmed it indeed was not, adding “Look, if you’re putting all the weight on that particular phrase, then in terms of how it was interpreted in Washington, I think you– you make a legitimate point. I’ve got to tell you, though, I don’t regret at all saying that if I saw Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons on his people that that would change my assessments in terms of what we were or were not willing to do in Syria.”

● Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) secretly visited Syria’s capital on a “fact finding” mission to find an end to the six-year civil war there, according to Foreign Policy. Gabbard’s spokeswoman Emily Latimer told F†oreign†Policy†that the congresswoman “felt it was important to meet with a number of individuals and groups including religious leaders, humanitarian workers, refugees and government and community leaders.” Latimer declined to say whether Gabbard met with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Gabbard is an Army National Guard major and Iraq War veteran who has called for the US to stop arming Syrian opposition rebels and fueling the civil war. She has also advocated for the US to abandon its goal of removing Assad, telling CNN in November 2015 “I don’t think Assad should be removed.” She said, “If Assad is removed and overthrown, ISIS, al Qaeda, Al Nusra, these Islamic extremist groups will walk straight in and take over all of Syria … they will be even stronger.” Although she was a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in his 2016 presidential primary bid, Gabbard met with Mr. Trump after his win, sparking speculation about a possible appointment.

● The US has conducted four airstrikes near Al-Bab, Syria, in support of a Turkish offensive against ISIL, a military official said Tuesday. “These strikes eliminated Daesh’s capabilities around the forward line of enemy troops near the city,” Air Force Col. John Dorrian told reporters Tuesday. The airstrikes highlight growing US cooperation with Turkey in the war against ISIL, under pressure from Turkey. It also highlights the balancing act that the US is playing in Syria. US forces are partnered against ISIL with the SDF, which is mostly comprised of Syrian Kurdish fighters who Turkey considers terrorists but are the US’s most effective fighting partner. But the US is also increasingly partnered in Syria with Turkey, who intervened in part to limit the advance of the US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces there. The recent US airstrikes in support of Turkey’s fight in Al-Bab against ISIL marks a significant increase in support.