How Trump might counter 'Animal Assad'

Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the ...

Posted: Apr 9, 2018 8:26 AM
Updated: Apr 9, 2018 8:26 AM

Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States. Modeled on the President's Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, my Presidential Weekly Briefing focuses on the topics and issues the President needs to know to make informed decisions.

Here's this week's briefing:

'Animal Assad': Unleashed and undeterred

Reports indicate the Syrian regime, yet again, launched a suspected chemical weapons attack against civilians -- this time in Douma in beleaguered Eastern Ghouta. Douma was the last rebel held foothold in the area, and talks between the rebels and the regime collapsed on Friday.

The Syrian government and its patron, Russia, denied any involvement and said that the rebels in Douma made up the chemical weapons attack to try to increase international involvement in Syria and impede Syrian regime advances.

Sadly, this is a horrifically familiar scene. The regime has repeatedly used chemical weapons against its people, denied it and continued to maintain the support of Russia and Iran.

Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader, feels uninhibited -- particularly because options to counter his strength, short of military intervention, are limited. Russia has prevented any real action against Assad at the UN Security Council, where it has used its veto power to impede efforts to hold Assad accountable for his actions, including ending an extended investigation into the regime's potential use of chemical weapons.

The State Department condemned the attack on Saturday evening, and Vice President Mike Pence condemned it on Sunday. Meanwhile, Mr. President, your tweets have garnered quite a bit of attention -- particularly this one: "Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad."

The fact is, Assad does not feel deterred from using every tool in his tool box to target civilians, so the immediate question is what kind of action will deter him going forward?

Verbal condemnations are not working. Sanctions against Russia for its support for Assad aren't working (we even sanctioned more Russians for its support for the Syrian regime last week). And almost a year after the US missile strike on a Syrian air base in response to another chemical weapons attack (which Syria also denied), the international community is wondering if another military strike is imminent and if military action is the only thing that Syria, Russia and Iran will respond to.

We now have 2,000 US troops in Syria -- you have said you would like to withdraw them soon -- but their mission is countering ISIS, not fighting the regime. Ambassador John Bolton starts as National Security Advisor on Monday and the National Security Council may propose another strike, additional ground forces or shifting the mission of the existing 2,000 US service members to address chemical weapons' use and asking other countries to devote resources to countering Assad's use of such weapons.

But bear in mind that Russia has mercenaries in Syria -- despite denials -- who have come into contact with US troops, so any military action in Syria could involve confrontation with Russia.

Mexico: We won't be treated like a pi-ata

With the deployment of National Guardsmen to the southern border and with the Mexican presidential race underway, we anticipate more Mexican backlash against a border wall and US suggestions -- including via tweet -- that Mexico is to blame for illegal immigration, cross-border drug flows, crime or the NAFTA "cash cow."

The current President of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, issued a video last week in which he said that "If your recent statements are the result of frustration due to domestic policy issues, to your laws or to your Congress, it is to them that you should turn to, not to Mexicans. We will not allow negative rhetoric to define our actions." He referenced the Mexican Senate's unanimous resolution condemning your rhetoric.

Mexican presidential candidates also made statements. The leading candidate in the polls, Andr-s Manuel L-pez Obrador, has said that "neither Mexico nor its people will be treated like a pi-ata by any foreign government." He added that Mexicans will never accept the use of force or militarization of the border and that he will go to the United Nations if you try to build the wall.

Candidate Ricardo Anaya went further, saying Mexico won't be treated like a doormat and calling for Mexico to limit anti-terrorism cooperation as long as the National Guard is on the border.

With the National Guard deploying, efforts to renegotiate NAFTA underway and increasing tensions between our two countries, it is highly likely that Mexican presidential candidates will continue to campaign against your administration's policies. It is also expected that the next Mexican president will be elected, at least in part, because of his anti-Trump agenda, which could have implications for cooperation going forward.

Russian threat matrix: Rinse and repeat

It's going to be another bumpy ride with the Russians this week. We assess that they'll continue to follow their historic pattern of misbehavior: do something wrong, vehemently deny it, accuse others of wrongdoing and try to throw the West off balance.

Just looking at their reaction to Sergei Skirpal, we have our case in point. The international community assesses that it was highly likely that Russia was behind the nerve agent attack against Skirpal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England. The international community responded by kicking out Russian diplomats and seizing diplomatic property.

And now Russia has said "with a high degree of probability" that the intelligence services of other countries are behind the attack. Russia even called for a special UN Security Council meeting into the attack (the same council it manipulates to avoid any real action against Syria) and used the meeting to tell the UK it would be sorry for accusing Moscow of the attack.

We also expect Russia to respond to the new US sanctions, issued last week against seven oligarchs, 12 oligarch owned companies, Russian government officials, and the Russian state-owned weapons company.

The Russian PR machine launched into action right after the sanctions were issued and vowed a harsh response. We anticipate that Putin will look for a tit-for-tat response to these most recent sanctions -- perhaps creating his own list of wealthy Americans to sanction. Back in 2014, after the US sanctioned Russian lawmakers for their actions in Crimea, Russia sanctioned 9 US lawmakers.

Sanctioning American businessmen this time around won't actually do much (it will be symbolic) because wealthy Americans don't have a lot of assets in Russia. But it's possible that Russia may also try to up the ante with something that really pulls at the heartstrings of the American people.

Planning for talks with North Korea

News leaked that there are secret talks underway to prepare for a meeting with Kim Jong Un. Reports had first surfaced last month that we are using intelligence channels to communicate with the North Koreans, and there are now more public reports that outgoing CIA Director Mike Pompeo, your new Secretary of State nominee, has been leading our efforts to prepare for a summit through intelligence channels and that he may meet with his North Korean counterpart before a leader-to-leader meeting.

Intelligence channels are the logical way to go because US intelligence officials have been in direct contact with the North Koreans before. In 2014, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper traveled to North Korea and brought home US hostages.

The intel-to-intel channel can be used to work out tricky logistics, like where the meeting is going to take place. The North Koreans unsurprisingly will want the meeting in Pyongyang because Kim has historically not liked to travel (though he did go to China a few weeks ago).

But we should consider saving this trump card for when the North Koreans have actually done something. They have talked about denuclearization, but we have yet to see any freeze on their nuclear program or actual steps. They need to do what it takes to deserve a presidential visit.

If our intelligence professionals think the North Koreans are serious, incoming National Security Adviser John Bolton will lead a complex interagency process to determine North Korean motivations, US goals and red lines for the summit, and our strategy to achieve them. Bolton's reputation as a hawk -- and his public statements about wanting military action against North Korea -- mean he'll have an uphill battle convincing the national security team and the North Koreans that he's running an unbiased process that will give diplomacy a real chance.

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