Iraq/Syria Crises

On the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, President Barack Obama addressed the nation and outlined his Administration’s four-part strategy (fact sheet available here) to combat the Islamic State (ISIL/ISIS). First, the President said U.S. airstrikes have shifted from protecting U.S. nationals and humanitarian missions to attacking ISIL targets “as Iraqi forces go on the offense.” He added the United States “will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.” Second, the United States will increase support for forces on the ground in Iraq (Iraqi and Kurdish militaries) and in Syria (vetted, moderate Syrian opposition forces). Third, counterterrorism efforts will continue.  Fourth, U.S. humanitarian assistance will continue. The President’s strategy includes forming a broad coalition, including Arab countries, to help “degrade” and “ultimately destroy” ISIL.

President Obama also called His Majesty King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia last Wednesday. Both agreed on the need for increased training and equipping of the moderate Syrian opposition, consistent with the proposal that President Obama has made to the U.S. Congress. President Obama welcomed Saudi Arabia’s support for this program. The President also made a late counterterrorism-funding request Tuesday, after the House had already introduced a clean short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) to sustain funding for the U.S. Government beyond the fiscal year.

On Saturday, President Obama strongly condemned “the barbaric murder of UK citizen David Haines by the terrorist group ISIL.” The Senate and House Armed Services Committees will hold separate hearings to examine the President’s strategy on ISIL on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is scheduled to testify before both committees and will be joined by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. The Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees will also hold similar hearings on Wednesday and Thursday, resepectively.  Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to speak before both panels.  On Friday, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats will hold a hearing to examine Islamist foreign fighters returning home and the threat to Europe.

Russia/Ukraine Crisis

The tenuous ceasefire continues to hold despite ongoing reports of sporadic shooting from both sides. While Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko indicated last Wednesday that approximately 70 percent of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine had withdrawn, NATO said the next day that its intelligence still shows about 1,000 Russian troops with sophisticated weaponry like heavy artillery on Ukrainian soil. An estimated 20,000 other Russian troops are massed just east of the border, the Alliance added.

Following the EU’s imposition of restrictive measures against Russia last Friday, the United States similarly acted and imposed sanctions against Russia’s defense, energy and financial sectors. Like the EU, President Obama said last Thursday that the sanctions could be “rolled back,” if Russia fully implements its commitments within the context of the 5 September Minsk ceasefire agreement. This Thursday (18 September), President Obama will welcome President Poroshenko to the White House. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) confirmed last week that President Poroshenko will address a joint session of Congress that same day.

Representatives of the United States and Russia met last Thursday in Moscow to discuss compliance issues with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, as raised by the United States. Although the State Department reports U.S. concerns were not assuaged in this meeting, both sides have agreed to continue a dialogue. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced sweeping Russian military exercises last Thursday that will last through this Thursday in the country’s east, a day after announcing a push to develop new offensive weapons.

Estonia/Russia

On the last day (5 September) of the NATO Summit in Wales, Estonia accused Russia of kidnapping one of its officers and taking him to Russian territory. Last Tuesday, the State Department called on Russia to release the detained Estonian officer, Eston Kohver, saying he should be “safely” and “immediately” returned to Estonia.

Africa

After deploying U.S. forces to West Africa to help contain the Ebola outbreak, President Obama said in an interview that the virus could mutate, making it more difficult to contain. In response to the Ebola crisis in West and Central Africa, the House CR contains a provision that would provide some anomaly funding to accelerate the Department of Health and Human Services’ research on Ebola therapies and for the Centers for Disease Control’s response to the growing outbreak.  This Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health will hold a hearing on the global response to the Ebola crisis.

After nearly two years of being shuttered, the United States is reopening its Embassy in the Central African Republic (CAR). Last Wednesday, President Obama deployed 20 military service members to assist the State Department’s Diplomatic Security division with securing the U.S. Embassy in Bangui. The decision comes as the United Nations begins a new peacekeeping mission in the country, with approximately 1,500 international peacekeepers joining 4,800 African troops already on the ground to restore law and order in the country torn apart by civil war.

Iran

Amid the U.S. foreign policy shift toward addressing the threat of ISIL, the next round of P5+1 Talks with Iran, led by the EU, will resume this Thursday (18 September) in New York City. One likely topic to be addressed are Iran’s missed deadlines with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Meanwhile, the IAEA Board of Governors will convene this week in Vienna, Austria.

Trade

After meeting with U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Ambassador Michael Froman last Monday, outgoing EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are likely to enter a process of making tradeoffs across all sectors sometime next year.

Ten days of informal Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations concluded last week in Vietnam. USTR issued a press release at the conclusion of the informal Hanoi round, saying negotiators had made progress in a number of areas including state owned enterprises and intellectual property rights, without providing further details. The media reports TPP countries are now planning to hold another chief negotiators’ meeting in mid- or late October. It remains unclear whether the next round of discussions will involve only chief negotiators or also include technical working groups.

House lawmakers included a provision to extend the operating authority for the U.S. Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank through 30 June 2015 in the House CR introduced last week. Advancing the short-term CR will be a focus of Congress this week.

Nominations

Last week, President Obama announced his intention to nominate Michele Thoren Bond to be Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs. The President also nominated Senators Benjamin Cardin (D-Maryland) and Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) – both senior Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – to serve as U.S. representatives at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly.