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Washington’s World: August 25th – August 31st, 2014

As we reported last week, White House officials had begun to believe that they were emerging from a beleaguered foreign policy position. They were able to tout the final destruction of Syrian chemical weapons. US airstrikes had halted the advances of ISIS and facilitated the recapture of the Mosul dam by Iraqi and Kurdish forces. However, the murder of the American journalist Jim Foley has once again confronted President Obama with, as one NSC official commented to us, “the same intractable problem of what to do about Iraq that has faced every US president from George H W Bush on.” Amid a flurry of calls for Obama to launch a concerted campaign to root out ISIS, a more somber atmosphere is now observable in the White House. Secretary of Defense Hagel is speaking in bleak terms about the new threat environment in the Middle East and officials are huddling over whether to take wider action and, if so, how. Obama’s advisers, notably Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, have outlined some of the parameters in the Administration’s thinking, including concern for the number of US and other Western hostages now held by ISIS. An intriguing question under discussion is whether a fight against ISIS implies some form of cooperation with President Al-Assad in Syria. For the moment, the official answer is negative, but officials have hinted to us that, at the very least, pressure on him will become less intense. This is also true of Iran where, on the nuclear track, State Department officials see what they describe to us as “encouraging progress.” All these questions will be under discussion at the September 4th-5th NATO summit in UK. More centrally on the agenda will be Western policy toward Russia. The US has demanded that Russia pull out its convoy of trucks from Ukrainian territory, but is also counseling moderation on Kiev. Amid mounting reports of a flow of lethal equipment to the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine, US officials are bracing for a renewed crisis, but are looking for ways to welcome signs of Russian second thoughts, so as to be able to postpone decisions on matters like further sanctions until a common front can be forged at the NATO event.


Key Judgments

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