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Washington’s World: August 29th – September 4th, 2016

As Washington heads into the quiet holiday period before the September 5th Labor Day, officials are watching a number of “hot spots” which potentially spell trouble in the manner of the “guns of August” which marked the outbreak of World War I. Pre-eminent among these is the situation in Libya. Here, despite the recapture of Sirte, the last stronghold of the Islamic State (carried out with significant input of Western Special Forces on the ground), US commanders in the region fear that IS will now transform itself into an insurgent force and will remain a potent threat both in Libya and in the wider region where it is also losing territory. Another flashpoint is Crimea where Moscow and Kiev are trading insults. For the moment, Intelligence Community analysts tell us that they see the allegations being raised by Russian President Putin as opportunistic rather than an attempt to provoke serious destabilization. However, with the Ukrainian military on high alert and tempers rising in the UN Security Council, US officials are scrambling to keep passions under control. In terms of relations with Moscow, Washington’s immediate focus is on maintaining a positive relationship in order to further contentious attempts to cobble together a cooperative approach to facilitating a ceasefire in Syria. With the White House under increasing pressure to abandon this approach in favor of more assertive action against the Damascus regime – something we believe the President Obama will firmly resist – officials in Washington are anxious to keep the Crimea and Syria issues separate.  US officials concede that, having reached a rapprochement with Turkish President Erdogan, Putin has gained further leverage in the Middle East. They are sufficiently concerned that the blooming Ankara-Moscow axis might tempt Erdogan to put difficulties in the way of anti-IS air operations conducted from the airbase at Incirlik that they are pushing  NATO into making very public statements of support for Turkey. On top of all these complications, the Administration is now confronting renewed fighting in Yemen which they have no alternative other than to support their ally Saudi Arabia. Turning to Asia, new evidence of military construction by China in the Spratly Islands and new moves by Vietnam to reinforce its holdings in the same archipelago put the two countries on a collision course. There is real concern in the Pentagon that small-scale clashes could take place this month.

Key Judgments

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