Week of April 6th, 2018

Think Tanks Activity Summary

(For further details, scroll down to the PUBLICATIONS section)

The Washington Institute argues that agreements between powers like Russia, Iran and Turkey are fraught with historical tension. They note, “During six centuries of Ottoman rule, the Turks defeated and ruled over all of their neighbors except Russia and Iran, a fact that elevates the two countries in the Turkish Weltanschauung. Accordingly, Ankara tends to tread carefully with the Russians and Iranians, neither confronting nor ignoring them.”

The Heritage Foundation looks at what the Saudi crown prince hoped to achieve during his visit. They note, “Many of his reform efforts have appealed to young Saudis, particularly the 70 percent of the population that is under age 30. Mohammed seeks to lead a revolution from the top down that would radically transform Saudi society and modernize its economy. He seeks help not only from the U.S. government, but also American business, technology, and educational institutions.”

The Carnegie Endowment asks experts if Turkey will annex the land it takes in Syria. One expert says, “The Turkish military has a reputation of remaining in the territories in which it intervenes outside its borders, but it might find it tougher this time. The Turkish military incursion into northern Syria was made possible thanks to a Russian green light. However, in the long term, not Russia, the Assad regime, or Iran are likely to tolerate Turkey’s military presence there. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is certainly seeking to enhance Turkey’s sphere of influence in northern Syria, but calling it “neo-Ottoman” is misleading. The original use of the term “neo-Ottomanism” implies a post-nationalist vision at peace with Turkey’s multiethnic identity. It seeks to coopt rather than confront the Kurds. Turkey’s military operation in Syria, however, was driven chiefly by Ankara’s fear of Kurdish separatism. Turkey launched the operation to block the advances of Syrian Kurdish groups that Ankara deemed to be a national security threat. What Erdoğan is pursuing in Syria is an anti-Kurdish, Turkish nationalist agenda rather than a neo-Ottoman project.”

The CSIS looks at Trump’s moves in Syria and warn about premature withdrawal. They note, “In this case, premature withdrawal means ceding Syria to Assad, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Hezbollah and all the popular anger and terrorism that will follow. It means further undermining our credibility with every Arab security partner, making massive gift to Iran in expanding its influence, and critically undermining our efforts to unite Iraq and make it a strong counterweight to extremism and Iran. As for costs, the U.S. military has vastly reduced the cost of our presence in Syrian and Iraq by relying on airpower and limited numbers of train and assist forces to support host country ground forces. This eliminates the need to deploy U.S. ground combat units, and massively reduces our costs as well as casualties. It is also fundamentally wrong to talk about costs of $7 trillion dollars. Anything like these costs must include the total cost of the Afghan and Iraq conflicts, massive guesstimates about additional opportunity costs, and including large amounts of regular defense spending that were concealed in the wartime overseas contingency accounts.”

The CSIS looks at al Qaeda’s struggle in Syria. A growing body of evidence suggests that al Qaeda has largely failed to take advantage of the Syrian war. Confusion and finger-pointing have been rampant as individuals have clashed over ideology, territorial control, personalities, loyalty to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and command-and-control relationships. Al Qaeda’s struggles in Syria have also highlighted some weaknesses of al-Zawahiri. The al Qaeda leader has had difficulty communicating with local groups in Syria, been slow to respond to debates in the field, and discovered that some Salafi-jihadist fighters have brazenly disobeyed his guidance. As one Salafi-jihadist leader remarked, “The situation in Syria for the jihad is extremely dire.”

The Washington Institute looks at the potential for financial sanctions against Iran. They note, “The Trump administration has so far been unclear about the eventual aim of its sanctions policy regarding Iran, particularly if the president pulls out of the nuclear deal in May. In theory, he could seek to reimpose all the crippling economic sanctions that were formally repealed in 2016. These included sanctions on Iran’s central bank and an embargo on its oil exports. The Treasury Department could also resume the naming-and-shaming campaign it used so effectively to deter investments in Iran. Senior Trump administration officials have suggested they could head in that direction. “In our engagements both here in the United States and abroad, we have made clear that companies doing business in Iran face substantial risks,” the Trump administration’s point person on Iran sanctions, Treasury undersecretary Sigal Mandelker, told Congress in January.”

The Heritage Foundation looks at Iranian hacking of US systems. They conclude, “The government and private sector need to agree on what our shared interests are, how they can work together to secure those interests, and what, if any, formal organizations or processes are needed to jointly improve our cybersecurity. The simple fact is there is no scenario where the United States secures its cyber interests apart from integrating the private and civil society sectors at the root level of policy and security. All of this may sound simple and obvious. That is because it is, which is why further inaction is inexcusable. It will not be long before the next critical data breach is discovered and, while indictments are useful, they are not sufficient to roll back the tide of cyber threats that could swamp our nation.”

The Carnegie Endowment says Egypt’s President Sisi manufactured a high voter interest in the elections in March. They note, “It seems the regime was busy creating at least the appearance of citizen enthusiasm, even if it could not rally impressive numbers. Small-scale rallies outside nearly empty polling stations—intended to create a sense of commotion or activity, whether or not voters actually showed up—were also reportedly widespread and garnered the hoped-for admiration of at least some foreigners.”




Trump Reviews Troop Levels in Syria

There seems to be a differing opinion about the future course for America in Syria. On Tuesday, President Trump announced he wanted to remove American troops from Syria.

“I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation,” Trump said at a White House press conference on Tuesday. “It’s time. We were very successful against ISIS.”

Trump has frequently said America has gained “nothing out of $7 trillion [spent] in the Middle East over the last 17 years.”

However, he quickly backtracked on his statement. Trump reluctantly agreed in a meeting with his national security team on Tuesday to keep U.S. troops in Syria for an undetermined period of time with the goal of defeating ISIS, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

“He wasn’t thrilled about it, to say the least,” the official said.

Defense Secretary James Mattis and other top officials made the case to Trump that the fight against ISIS was almost finished but a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces at this time would risk losing gains the U.S. has made in the fight, the official said.

Mattis told the president the Pentagon was already reducing the number of U.S. forces and would continue to do so, though he did not give the president a set time frame for the end of the U.S. mission in Syria, the official said. The official said Trump “wasn’t thrilled about that either,” but agreed to give the effort more time.

“The president made his displeasure clear about any kind of long-term presence in Syria,” the official said, adding that Trump said he wants other countries in the region to help fund the country’s reconstruction.

The U.S. has around 2,000 forces on the ground.

Although the Pentagon is leery about giving a definite timeframe for withdrawing from Syria, it is clear that most Trump Administration officials want to reduce US force numbers. One reason is that the forces in Syria are US Special Forces and the pace of operations there and in Iraq and Afghanistan has overextended Special Forces teams. The result is that many experienced SF soldiers are “burning out” and quitting the military. This is creating a Special Forces shortage.

However, there is more to it than that. We are seeing a change in the way the US conducts diplomacy. Under Trump the US is moving away from the neo-con styles of diplomacy and international relations to more traditional style that looks at long term goals.

This is very well a result of Henry Kissinger’s role as informal advisor to Trump. Kissinger built his reputation on the use of classical diplomacy to open China as a counterbalance to Russia. Kissinger would be unlikely to advise Trump to resort to traditional neo-con tactics in Syria.

The neo-con philosophy was to oppose Iran and Russia at every turn. No matter the risk or outcome, neo-cons wanted to push back at every Iranian and Russian move in Syria. The result was to solidify the Syria/Russia/Iran alliance

Consequently, according to some Trump supporters Russia and Iran, who have widely differing goals in Syria, were allied against America. The more neo-cons pushed, the harder the pushback by Iran and Russia.

Traditional Diplomacy

Traditional diplomacy focuses on long term goals and maintains that foreign policy goals are long term and don’t change with governments.   This is undoubtedly what Kissinger tells Trump at their meetings.

Consequently, the Russian goal of acquiring a warm water port has been constant through the tsars, the communists, and Putin. And, by recognizing Russia’s presence in Tartus, the US gains leverage with Putin. Yet, since the NATO naval facilities across the Mediterranean like Naples are considerably better, Tartus poses no threat to NATO control of the Mediterranean.

The Trump decision to hint about potential start of withdrawing forces from Syria has serious and positive foreign policy implications. First, Trump has made it clear that he has no problems with Assad remaining in power. He has also made it clear that the US will not challenge the warm water naval facilities that Russia has acquired in Syria.

By recognizing these Syrian and Russian goals, Trump is hoping to eliminate Russia and Syria’s need to ally with Iran, the biggest threat in the region in America’s eyes.

Without a major US presence in Syria or policy objectives that places the US at odds with Russia or Syria, their need for an alliance with Iran dramatically decreases.

However, Trump has made it clear that he prefers getting out Syria sooner rather than later. And, it appears that the American voter agrees with him.

Many observers in Washington concluded after the controversy created by Trump and his aides on the decision to withdraw troops from Syria that he is intentionally using

Such tactics to extract more money from the Saudis and Emiratis who are very concern about the growing influence of Iran in the region and would prefer US to maintain military presence in Syria.

It seems the motivation of Trump on decision to withdraw some troops from Syria – beside being popular among his voters domestically, fulfilling his campaign promises not to get involved in a costly foreign wars- is a diplomatic move aimed to isolate Iran in Syria. Trump if without the support of Putin and Assad, Iran’s influence in the Levant declines dramatically.




Iranian Hackers Attacked U.S. Systems. Here Are 3 Steps for Countering Them.
By Klon Kitchen
Heritage Foundation
March 28th, 2018

The Justice Department’s indictment of nine Iranian hackers shows that the educational sector is becoming ground-zero for foreign intelligence and influence operations. It also demonstrates that we need to do more than just “name and shame” if we are going to stop these attacks. Here are the basics of what happened last Friday. The Justice Department charged nine Iranians with conducting a coordinated hacking campaign targeting the U.S. government and private sector, including more than 144 universities. This effort reportedly netted the hackers more than 31 terabytes of stolen intellectual property and other valuable information. To put that into context, that’s equivalent to 31,000 hours of video, 527,000 hours of music, or 9.6 million photos. By any standard, this was a successful and damaging attack.

Read more at: https://www.heritage.org/cybersecurity/commentary/iranian-hackers-attacked-us-systems-here-are-3-steps-countering-them


What Saudi Arabia’s Reformer Prince Hopes to Achieve in U.S. Visit
By James Phillips
Heritage Foundation
March 23, 2018

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is an ambitious young man in a hurry who is trying to reform his own country and secure the leading role of his wing of the ruling family. He came to Washington this week seeking American help in modernizing the Saudi economy, defending its interests in Yemen, and cooperating to push back Iranian threats. The 32-year-old prince, known in Washington by his initials, MBS, leapfrogged over more senior princes when his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, designated him as the heir apparent in June 2017. The energetic crown prince has positioned himself as a reformer, unveiling “Vision 2030,” a blueprint for restructuring the Saudi economy by privatizing some of the kingdom’s oil assets, diversifying the economy to reduce dependence on oil revenues, and opening up Saudi Arabia to foreign investment and trade. Mohammed’s youth, his relatively moderate interpretation of Islam, and his push to ease restrictions on women’s rights have made him a highly controversial leader in the eyes of many Saudis.

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Al Qaeda’s Struggling Campaign in Syria, Past, Present, and Future
By Seth Jones
Center for Strategic and International Studies
April 4, 2018

With President Donald Trump threatening to pull out of Syria, the Bashar al-Assad regime ramping up its military campaign against rebels, and the Islamic State in decline, al Qaeda has attempted to resurge and reposition itself at the center of global Salafi-jihadist activity. Syria has been perhaps its most important prize. For some, al Qaeda’s cunning and concerted efforts in Syria and other countries highlight the group’s resilience and indicate its potential to resurge and rejuvenate. Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that al Qaeda has largely failed to take advantage of the Syrian war. Confusion and finger-pointing have been rampant as individuals have clashed over ideology, territorial control, personalities, loyalty to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and command-and-control relationships. Al Qaeda’s struggles in Syria have also highlighted some weaknesses of al-Zawahiri. The al Qaeda leader has had difficulty communicating with local groups in Syria, been slow to respond to debates in the field, and discovered that some Salafi-jihadist fighters have brazenly disobeyed his guidance. As one Salafi-jihadist leader remarked, “The situation in Syria for the jihad is extremely dire.”

Read more at:



Taking All the Wrong Steps in Syria, Iraq, and the Fight Against Terrorism
By Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
April 4, 2018

The President has made the right decision in delaying withdrawal from Syria, but he needs to go further. There is a case for limiting the U.S. role in Syria. The U.S. has no reason to provide aid to Assad in rebuilding his power in Syria, and no reason not to place the full burden on funding the Assad regime on Iran and Russia. That kind of pressure could be a key part of actually forming some kind of U.S. strategy for dealing with the large portions of Syria that now are back under the control of a failed dictator. Leaving Syria too soon is a very different story – as General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. forces in the Central Region has made clear. A withdrawal deprives the U.S. of diplomatic leverage, abandons the last vestiges of moderate Arab forces in Syria, and exposes the Kurdish forces that did much to defeat ISIS to defeat by Assad and Turkey. It will fundamentally undermine the already fading trust of our other Arab strategic partners, be seen as a major defeat of the U.S. by Russia and Iran, and as a further opening to intervention by an increasingly authoritarian Turkey in the Arab world.

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Manufacturing Consent
Carnegie Endowment
March 29, 2018

Having eliminated all serious opponents for his reelection bid, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi was effectively running against his own declared popularity. A first round of Egypt’s presidential election was held on March 26–28, in which Sisi won a landslide victory with 97 percent of all valid ballots and an alleged turnout of 41 percent. How can observers assess the number of Egyptians who supported Sisi during the virtually uncontested election? How does it measure up against previous elections? And does anyone in Egypt care? Voters, oddly rational beings, generally only go to the polls when they either believe that their votes make a difference or someone has mobilized them to turn out. Clearly, only the second rationale applied in this case. So, if love of Sisi alone was not enough to mobilize Egyptians, the regime had to create other inducements. Through handouts in the form of cash payments, food, and even Umrah pilgrimage trips, Egyptian voters received direct incentives to go to the polls, in addition to urging from state-run media and employers.

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Is Turkey Likely to Annex the Territory it Now Controls in Syria?
Carnegie Endowment
April 5, 2018

Kemal Kirişci | Senior fellow and director of the Center on the United States and Europe’s Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

I strongly doubt it. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, before his death, is reputed to have instructed his chief diplomat Numan Menemencioğlu not to get involved in the internal affairs of neighboring countries and to stay away from irredentist military adventures. These instructions kept Turkey away from the calamity of World War II and also constituted the reason why, in 1990, the then-military chief of staff, General Necip Torumtay, resigned in protest against prime minister Turgut Özal’s ambition to join the U.S. intervention against Saddam Hussein’s forces, which had invaded Kuwait. In Turkey, it is generally recognized that similar instincts are what pushed the Turkish military to resist their political masters’ pressures to intervene in Syria, until their traditional influence was decimated by the failed July 2016 coup attempt.

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Turkish-Russian-Iranian Summit: Limits to a Tripartite Entente
By Soner Cagaptay, Anna Borshchevskaya, and Nader Uskowi
Washington Institute
April 3, 2018

On April 4, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan will host his Russian and Iranian counterparts, Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani, for their first trilateral meeting since a November 22 summit in Sochi. Putin has already commenced his visit, co-chairing the seventh Turkish-Russian High-Level Cooperation Council meeting and attending the groundbreaking ceremony for the Akkuyu nuclear power station in southern Turkey, to be built by Russian nuclear firm Rosatom. Erdogan, Putin, and Rouhani have been meeting more frequently of late, suggesting the emergence of a tripartite relationship. In reality, however, ties between Ankara and Tehran are wrought with tensions, and Moscow remains Turkey’s historic adversary despite their common cause on certain regional issues.

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Tehran’s Financial Woes Will Test U.S. Policy Resolve
By Jay Solomon
Washington Institute
April 3, 2018

As the Trump administration welcomes a new secretary of state and national security advisor this spring, the fate of Iran’s currency, the rial, will loom large in White House strategy on how to confront Tehran. President Trump has threatened to reimpose punishing oil and financial sanctions on Tehran if U.S. and European diplomats don’t strengthen the terms of the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal by a May 12 deadline. The sharp drop in the value of the rial in recent months provides the United States and its allies with significant leverage over Iran if President Trump decides to pull his support for the nuclear agreement, according to current and former U.S. officials. The currency fell to an all-time low against the U.S. dollar in March and has lost more than a third of its value since Trump took office last year. New international sanctions and other steps to target Iran’s economy could cause the currency to fall even further. But the Trump administration needs to clearly identify its objectives for any new financial war on Iran, say these officials, even as some of the president’s aides lobby him to remain in the nuclear pact. Trump has suggested the United States could seek to use heightened financial pressure on Tehran to coax it back to the negotiating table in search of an agreement more attractive to Washington, something Iran has already ruled out. Other U.S. officials see the targeting of Iran’s finances as a tool to drain the country of its ability to pay for its overseas military operations, particularly in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.

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