Today's Headlines and Commentary

Rachel Bercovitz
Thursday, May 4, 2017, 1:41 PM

President Donald Trump will visit Saudi Arabia and Israel later this month in his first trip abroad, the New York Times writes. While in Riyadh, he will meet with leaders of Muslim nations to discuss efforts to combat terrorism in the region and shore up support for coalition efforts against both the Islamic State and Iran.

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President Donald Trump will visit Saudi Arabia and Israel later this month in his first trip abroad, the New York Times writes. While in Riyadh, he will meet with leaders of Muslim nations to discuss efforts to combat terrorism in the region and shore up support for coalition efforts against both the Islamic State and Iran.

Following his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House yesterday, President Trump expressed the United States’ commitment to brokering peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, pledging to “do whatever is necessary to facilitate the agreement—to mediate, to arbitrate, anything they’d like to do.” Haaretz has full transcripts of Abbas’ and Trump’s remarks. In the lead-up to Trump’s meeting with Abbas, U.S. Senators Tom Cotton (R–AR), Lindsey Graham (R–SC), and Marco Rubio (R–FL) lobbied Trump to put pressure on Abbas to halt the Palestinian Authority’s issuance of monthly payments to families of Palestinian suicide bombers or those jailed for committing violence against Israelis, the New York Times reports. The payments are codified in P.A. legislation and are estimated at $315 million annually.

On day one of the two-day Syria cease-fire negotiations taking place in Astana, Kazakhstan, Russia put forth a proposal to establish “de-escalation zones” in Idlib province; eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus; the region north of the city of Homs; and southern Syria along the border with Jordan, the Financial Times reports. The proposal calls for a stay in the use of weaponry by all sides and in operations carried out by the Russian and Syrian air forces within these zones.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan endorsed the proposal yesterday. Erdoğan and Putin had met earlier in the day at the Russian presidential complex in Sochi, a sign of warming of relations between the two powers that have backed opposing forces in the Syrian civil war. The Turkish government considers the establishment of safe zones in Northern Syria a means of stemming the proliferation of Syrian Kurdish fighters allied with the United States, the Washington Post reports.

Meanwhile, a top aide to Erdoğan suggested that Turkey may be willing to bomb U.S. forces traveling alongside Kurdish troops in Syria if necessary, Foreign Policy writes. In the wake of Turkish airstrikes against U.S.-allied Kurdish forces last week, U.S. troops have been positioned prominently with Kurdish fighters in order to preclude further strikes. Erdogan has indicated his willingness to continue attacks against the Syrian Kurdish YPG along the Turkish border, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization.

Putin suggested President Trump had expressed support for the proposal during their May 2 call, though Pentagon officials clarified they have not been instructed by the administration to develop strategies for the creation of de-escalation zones. Following Trump’s call with the Russian leader, the U.S. administration dispatched Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Stuart Jones, to observe the talks in Astana. The directive was intended as a demonstration of the administration’s seriousness about advancing the talks.

David Ignatius of the Post comments that the absence of a White House Syria strategy paves the way for Russian leadership in brokering any deal.

Iraqi forces have launched a major offensive on Mosul from the city’s north, seeking to regain momentum in the battle to push ISIS fighters out of the city. The Times reports that Iraqi troops will aim to push toward ISIS’s remaining strongholds within the city from multiple directions and weaken the organization’s defenses. The Iraqi army’s chief of staff recently announced in state-run media that the battle would be over within three weeks.

The Guardian reports that leaders of the two largest factions in Libya reached a preliminary agreement during negotiations in the United Arab Emirates to hold elections within six months. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar of the government based in the city of Tobruk and Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord are scheduled to meet again in one week with Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who has been the principal figure guiding negotiations.

In his second address to State Department employees on May 3, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated the U.S. was engaged in just the initial phases of a robust strategy to address the North Korean nuclear threat. This strategy involves imposing new sanctions on North Korean government officials, encouraging other powers to enforce existing UN sanctions, and compelling China to use its leverage with the North to induce cooperation.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe outlined his intention to amend the country’s pacifist constitution by 2020 in a video address commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the promulgation of the country’s constitution. Abe has long called for amending Article 9, the so-called “peace clause” that stipulates Japan’s renunciation of the use of force and provides that military forces will “never be maintained.” While successive interpretations of the clause have afforded Japan sufficient latitude to develop its Self Defense Forces, Abe has pressed for an amendment to “establish [the Forces’] constitutional standing.” Passage of a constitutional amendment requires securing a two-thirds majority in Japan’s bicameral parliament and majority endorsement in a public referendum. The most recent public opinion poll suggests essentially an even split between those supportive of versus those in opposition to the amendment.

John M. Carey of the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog argues the French legislative elections in June may be of greater significance in determining how the country will be governed than will the second-round presidential election taking place on May 7.

Paul Zukunft, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, cautions that U.S. military and industrial presence in the Arctic lagged behind that of Russia, particularly with regard to its fleet of icebreakers. Zukunft noted that this deficiency weakened the U.S.’s capacity to compete with China and Russia over natural resources in the Arctic and rendered the U.S. vulnerable in the event of an attack.

Former Obama administration national security advisor Susan Rice has declined to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism next week on matters related to the investigation into Russian election interference, CNN reports. Rice rejected the invitation of Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to testify on the grounds that the senior Democratic member of the subcommittee, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) had not signed on to the invitation. Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper will testify before the subcommittee on Monday.

ICYMI: Yesterday, On Lawfare

Paul Rosenzweig posted a revised version of the Trump administration’s working Cybersecurity Executive Order.

Quinta Jurecic highlighted Lawfare’s liveblogging of FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Beverley Milton-Edwards commented that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or his likely successor, Marwan Barghouti, would do well to incorporate discussions of the release of Palestinian political detainees into any forthcoming peace negotiations.

Paul profiled the service BotOrNot, an initiative of the Truthy project at the University of Indiana that uses algorithms to assess the likelihood that a unique Twitter account is operated by an individual or a bot.

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Rachel Bercovitz holds a J.D. from Columbia Law School. She previously served as an editor for the quarterly Journal of Democracy. She holds a B.A. in History from Columbia College.

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