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Daily Brief: Questions Mount Over U.S.-Russia Diplomacy on Syria

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September 8, 2016

Daily News Brief

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Questions Mount Over U.S.-Russia Diplomacy on Syria

The U.S. State Department denies firm plans to meet with Russian officials as Moscow says it is preparing for talks to negotiate a cease-fire (Bloomberg) to end the conflict in Syria. A Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman said talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are slated for September 8-9 in Geneva. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that Turkey and the United States were prepared to take joint military action (BBC) to drive the self-proclaimed Islamic State from its stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa. Meanwhile, international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), announced it will open an investigation (Al Jazeera) into the latest allegations against the Syrian government's use of chlorine gas. 


"While international attention is focused on fighting Islamic State in its heartland in Raqqa and Mosul, a much smaller but strategically important pocket of territory has fallen under the extremist group's sway in southern Syria, right along the borders of Jordan and the Israeli-held Golan Heights. What makes this particularly alarming is that militants in the mountainous area, known as the Yarmouk Basin, aren't foreign jihadists from Europe or North Africa. They're mostly local villagers, many of them former fighters of the Western-backed Syrian rebel alliance, the Free Syrian Army," writes Yaroslav Trofimov in the Wall Street Journal.

"Violent revolutions can reach peaceful resolutions, but such an outcome is less likely where deep, unresolved sectarian grievances are in play, as they are in the Middle East. The renewed salience of old, intractable cleavages—reflected in the grievances of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq, of Shias in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, and of Kurds and Palestinians everywhere—makes the current situation especially precarious. These problems were simmering beneath the surface of autocratic repression for decades. Now, Pandora's box has been opened, revealing an incredibly complex geopolitical puzzle," writes Ishac Diwan for Project Syndicate.

"The withering caliphate is becoming the latest casus belli—a divine mission to replace the 'falsehood' of the nation state with Islamic rule being stripped away by yet more western aggression. How that aggression takes shape in the coming months will be pivotal to the direction of the war against the jihadists—and the overall course of the Syrian war. The campaign against Isis had been fought mostly as a subset of the broader war, but has been increasingly drawn into the main conflict," writes Martin Chulov in the Guardian.


Obama Concludes Asia Visit

U.S. President Barack Obama wrapped up his final day in Laos, attending a regional summit where tensions (Al Jazeera) over the South China Sea topped the agenda. Obama also met with a number of leaders on the sidelines, including a brief exchange with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (NYT) and a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (PTI).

This CFR Backgrounder tracks the evolution of the Association of Southeast Asian States.

ASIA: The members of the East Asia Summit adopted a statement on nonproliferation (Yonhap) on Thursday, calling on North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programs. This was the first time the grouping released a statement on nonproliferation. The regional forum consists of ASEAN's ten members, as well as Australia, China, Japan, India, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.


Taliban Mount Offensive on Afghan Provincial Capital

Authorities said security forces had repelled Taliban fighters from Tirin Kot, the capital of the southern Uruzgan province. Officials had earlier said that militants had overrun checkpoints near the city Tuesday (AP), sending government workers fleeing. Earlier this week, the U.S. military announced that it would deploy (U.S. Army) 1,400 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division to support counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

This CFR InfoGuide explores the reemergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

UZBEKISTAN: Uzbek lawmakers are expected to announce an interim president (RFE/RL) during a joint session of both houses of parliament. Longtime leader Islam Karimov, who had been in power since 1989, died last week.


U.S. Defense Secretary: Libyan Forces Close to Pushing ISIS Out of Sirte

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said on Wednesday that U.S.-backed Libyan forces were close to defeating (Reuters) fighters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the northern coastal city of Sirte.


Zimbabwe Court Overturns Protest Ban

Zimbabwe's high court ruled on Wednesday that a two-week ban (Herald) on demonstrations issued by police in the capital of Harare was illegal and suspended it for a week. The ban on public protest was imposed after anti-government protests turned violent (Al Jazeera) last month. 

SOUTH SUDAN: Hundreds of South Sudanese fighters loyal to Riek Machar, opposition leader and sacked vice president of South Sudan's national unity government, were transferred (Reuters) to the UN peacekeeping mission in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo to receive medical treatment. Separately, Donald Booth, U.S. envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, said it would be "not wise" (Sudan Tribune) for Machar to return to his post after the latest spate of clashes.


European Council President Meets With UK PM on Brexit

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, told UK Prime Minister Theresa May that the "ball was in the UK's court" as the two met in London to discuss the next steps (BBC) for negotiating Brexit. Leaders of the European Union's twenty-seven other members will meet for a summit next week in Bratislava, Slovakia.

This CFR Backgrounder looks at the implications of the UK's exit from the European Union.

ARMENIA: Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan resigned (Independent) on Thursday after months of protests and violence in the capital. A standoff in July between anti-government protesters and police left two officers dead. 


Mexico's Finance Minister Resigns

Luis Videgaray quit his post (LAHT) as Mexico's finance minister on Wednesday amid backlash over last week's visit by U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump with President Enrique Pena Nieto.

UNITED STATES: Military commanders closed (Miami Herald) operations at a 100-cell prison block known as Camp 5 at the Guantanamo detention center. The U.S. Southern Command has also planned to shrink its nearly two thousand civilian and military personnel by four hundred by the end of 2016.


Clinton Says Defeating ISIS is Top Counterterrorism Goal

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said at a forum (NBC) hosted by NBC News that defeating the Islamic State would be her top foreign policy priority. She said her administration would support Kurdish and Arab ground forces with U.S. air power. At the same event, Republican nominee Donald Trump said he would call on a different group of U.S. military officers from those currently involved in drawing up a plan to defeat ISIS.  

Track and compare the foreign policy positions of both candidates with CFR’s interactive, The Candidates and the World.

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