The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaida offshoot, are moving toward Baghdad, having captured Mosul and other cities in the north. President Barack Obama called the developments in Iraq an “emergency situation” on Thursday, but on Friday announced he “will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.” President Obama has the authority to wage war in Iraq without going to Congress, because the original Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) remains in effect. Branding President Obama’s Iraq policy a “total failure,” Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) called for the resignation of the President’s entire national security team. Iran has reportedly deployed Revolutionary Guards units to Iraq to help protect Baghdad and the Shi’ite cities of Karbala and Najaf. If true, this raises the prospect of the United States and Iran fighting on the same side. Last Thursday, Kurdish military forces took the important city of Kirkuk.
Before Congress on Wednesday (11 June), Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel defended the White House’s decision to forgo Congressional notification of the deal with the Taliban for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban detainees. House Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-California) argued that there was “no compelling reason” for the Administration to have ignored the provision in the FY 2014 NDAA (P.L. 113-66) that requires officials notify Congress 30 days in advance of any plans to transfer detainees from the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.
The Government of Ukraine reported that three tanks crossed the border from Russia into east Ukraine on Thursday, June 12. Ukraine Interior Minister Arseny Avakov stopped short of directly accusing Russia of sending the tanks, but made clear he held Russian President Vladimir Putin responsible for Russian border controls. Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko spoke with President Putin by phone last Thursday, calling the situation “unacceptable.” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Thursday, 12 June, “We are concerned by reports that these groups are now in possession of heavy weapons, including tanks, which would represent a significant escalation.” State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf warned a failure by Russia to de-escalate the situation in east Ukraine “will lead to additional costs.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Friday about the “deteriorating” situation in Ukraine and urging sanctions. Acting Ukraine Foreign Minister Andriy Deschytsia said last week that Ukraine will ask the international community to apply the next wave of sanctions if Russia does not take steps to de-escalate the situation in Donbas. Heightening tension on the ground, pro-Russian separatists shot down a Ukraine military transport plane late Friday near Luhansk, killing all 49 on board.
Syria & Iran
Last week, the leaders of the powerful U.S. House and Senate intelligence committees said they could support arming a small group of specially trained Syrian rebels with a limited number of shoulder-fired antiaircraft weapons, a shift that could breathe life into a proposal long opposed by the White House. Proposals to increase U.S. military aid to the moderate Syrian opposition are likely to take on added urgency following gains by al Qaeda-linked militants in neighboring Iraq.
The P5+1 talks with Iran are scheduled to resume on Monday in Vienna, Austria. Officials on all sides are admitting it will be difficult to strike a final deal with Iran in the next five weeks.
On Thursday, 12 June, the House passed H. Res. 617 – a bill condemning terrorist group Boko Haram – by a vote of 411-2. Boko Haram was also the subject of a House Foreign Affairs Africa Subcommittee hearing last Wednesday.
Speaking before the Center for Strategic and International Studies last Tuesday (10 June), House Ways and Means Committee Member Aaron Schock (R-Illinois) warned, “If [Senate Finance Committee Chair] Ron Wyden [D-Oregon] thinks that he can reopen negotiations on TPA [Trade Promotion Authority] to grab more of the Democratic Christmas list with nothing in exchange for Republicans, he’s mistaken on how negotiations work.” Senator Wyden is reportedly considering potential changes to the bipartisan Baucus-Camp TPA bill.
Last Tuesday, U.S. and EU officials in charge of negotiating reforms to the “Safe Harbor” framework governing trans-Atlantic data transfers signaled that their talks are hung up over an EU demand for new U.S. assurances that it will invoke the arrangement’s national security exception only in limited circumstances. The ability of both sides to bridge their differences on how to update Safe Harbor will have a direct bearing on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations related to the free flow of data across the Atlantic.
TTIP Caucus Co-Chair Representative Todd Young (R-Indiana) said he is focused on expanding the two-month old Caucus but has found TTIP is not a priority topic for Members that are more focused on tax reform and changes to U.S. energy policy. Representative Young indicated there may be two events in July for staff and members to try and generate more interest in TTIP and to discuss the benefits of trade generally.
The next Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) chief negotiators’ meeting has been tentatively scheduled for 3-12 July in Vancouver, Canada. G-20 trade ministers are set to have a meeting on 19 July in Sydney, but it is unclear whether TPP participants will seek to hold a TPP ministerial in Australia on the sidelines.
Washington will likely focus on the following upcoming matters:
- Iraq, Ukraine and the P5+1 Talks with Iran.
- 16-20 June: Vice President Biden will travel to Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala.
- 19 June: President Obama will host New Zeland Prime Minister John Key, where both are expected to discuss TPP, climate change, and global security-related challenges.
- 30 June 2014: President Obama will host Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.