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Washington’s World: October 5th, 2015 – October 11th, 2015

For foreign policy purposes, the Administration finds itself in more difficult circumstances than for many months. The Russian intervention in Syria has caught the White House facing in two diametrically opposed directions. Following meetings between both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry and their Russian counterparts – in the latter’s case a series of at least three meetings at the UN General Assembly – the starting point of reaction in the White House to the Russian intervention on Syria was one of cautious acceptance that this might assist the anti-ISIS operations being conducted by the US-led coalition. Russian actions were seen as complementary to the continuing US airstrikes in Syria, once deconfliction talks were arranged and a professional tone was introduced into the military-to-military exchanges. This approach immediately became highly controversial, with attacks on Obama’s policy deriving, among others, from sources normally sympathetic to the Administration. Our contacts in the Pentagon tell us that opposition to this policy among the uniformed leadership is unanimous and robust. In the face of this united front, Obama and Kerry have been forced into much more personal and explicit criticism and statements of concern about Russian actions than they originally envisaged. The end result is that the Russian intervention has done absolutely nothing to bolster the fight against ISIS but instead revealed deep fissures in the Washington foreign policy community about US objectives in Syria. General John Allen, the special envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, is on his way to the region to coordinate future policy, but, as one senior official actor explained to us, “until we sort out ends and means in Washington, chaos will be the order of the day.” Further, the Administration’s hopes that their policy toward China following the visit of President Xi Jinping would receive support were undercut by the public questioning of the cyber agreement by Director of National Intelligence Clapper. Additionally, the harsh rhetoric at the UNGA by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu dashed any hopes of an early reconciliation with him. One consolation for Obama arose from his meeting with Cuban President Castro in advancing the tortuous negotiations for full normalization between the US and Cuba by the end of this Administration, including a possible visit to Cuba by Obama. This too will unleash a backlash on both side of the Congressional divide.

Key Judgments

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