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March 20, 2017

Daily News Brief

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Damascus Clashes Intensify Amid Surprise Attack

Clashes continued into Monday in Damascus after rebels carried out a surprise attack by infiltrating government-controlled parts (AP) of the city through tunnels on Sunday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, reported violent clashes in northeastern districts of the city (Reuters) following the attack. Last Wednesday, a suicide bombing outside the city's main courthouse killed at least thirty-one (BBC) as a separate bombing at a restaurant injured more than twenty people. The two attacks came on the six-year anniversary of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.


"With the recapture of the city of Aleppo last December, President Bashar al-Assad's army reinforced its dominant position across most of the country. Since then it has been trying to break down rebel resistance in Damascus and reassert full control of the capital after six years of war. The army and its militias have for months been targeting Eastern Ghouta, the biggest remaining rebel bastion near Damascus, while making only incremental gains," Ellen Francis and Suleiman al-Khalidi write for Reuters.

"Ineffective Western support for 'pragmatic' armed groups, such as battalions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), over the past two years has contributed to the strengthening of extremist groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which have presented themselves to local populations as more efficient and better-resourced alternatives in the fight against the regime. The situation on the ground is evolving towards the division of armed groups in rebel areas into two camps—one 'extremist' and the other 'pragmatic'—with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham seeking to overwhelm or assimilate other groups," writes a group of researchers for Chatham House.

"The final phase of the Syrian conflict may be protracted, but options for the opposition are narrowing at an accelerating pace. One opposition think tank has bravely insisted that 'nobody [meaning Turkey] can impose on the opposition an unfair settlement it does not want,' but another concluded more realistically that the opposition is 'all but strategically defeated.' The only possible consolation is that a genuinely broad political opposition, grassroots social activism, and new cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic coalitions cannot revive without an end to the armed conflict," Yezid Sayigh writes for Al Hayat.


China’s Xi, Tillerson Urge Cooperation During Visit

President Xi Jinping said the United States and China expect "a new era for constructive development" during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Reuters) on Sunday. Tillerson said U.S. President Donald J. Trump (WaPo) looks forward to "the opportunity for a visit in the future."

EAST TIMOR: Voters went to the polls to choose a president (AFP) for the first time since UN peacekeepers left the country in 2012. Candidate Francisco Guterres, a former guerilla fighter, is expected to lead the vote.


Afghan ‘Insider Attack’ Wounds Three U.S. Soldiers

Three U.S. soldiers were injured after an Afghan soldier allegedly fired on them (Al Jazeera) at a base in Helmand province. The shooting follows three other U.S. soldiers being wounded in Nangarhar province last week after their vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device (Stars and Stripes).

CFR's Max Boot discusses calls to raise U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan.

INDIA: Prime Minister Narendra Modi selected Hindu nationalist Yogi Adityanath (WSJ), who has been accused of inciting violence against Muslims, to serve as chief minister of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, which is home to 204 million people. Modi's Bharatiya Janata party won 325 of 403 assembly seats (FT) in the state in a recent election.

CFR's Alyssa Ayres discusses the BJP's big electoral win in India. 


Pope Francis to Visit Egypt

The Vatican announced that Pope Francis accepted an invitation from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Roman Catholic bishops, the leader of the Alexandria Coptic Orthodox Church, and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb of al-Azhar Mosque to visit in late April (NYT). Francis met last year with the sheikh of al-Azhar, which had cut off relations with the Vatican following tensions with Pope Benedict XVI.


DRC Warns U.S. Against Change to Conflict Mineral Law

A Congolese delegation with meet U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission this week to warn against a proposed rollback of a section of the Dodd-Frank Act (Bloomberg) that requires companies to disclose purchases of conflict minerals. The Democratic Republic of Congo's mines minister said the rollback could encourage "escalation in the activities of non-state armed groups."

SOUTH SUDAN: South Sudan's information minister protested a UN report (Sudan Tribune) that states the Juba government continues to spend its oil revenues on weapons even after a famine was declared in the country. The report alleges that at least half of the government’s budget (Al Jazeera) is spent on weapons procurements.

Katherine Almquist Knopf argues that an international transitional administration is needed to end conflict in South Sudan in this CFR Special Report. 


Germany, UK to Announce Co-Defense Plan

The UK Defense Ministry said it is working with Germany on a "joint vision statement on future cooperation" (FT) while its German counterpart said that "independent of the effects of Brexit, Great Britain remains a strong partner." UK Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to trigger the country's exit from the European Union in late March.


Brazil’s President Moves to Mitigate Beef Crisis

President Michel Temer dined with foreign ambassadors at a steakhouse (Bloomberg) in a bid to reassure them over the quality of Brazilian meat after federal authorities raided meat plants on charges they had bribed inspectors to approve spoiled meat for export. Brazil is the largest red meat exporter (BBC) in the world.

PERU: Some seventy-five people have died and nearly one hundred thousand made homeless since January due to mudslides and flash flooding (VOA); Peru has received ten times its average rainfall this season.