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Washington’s World: September 27th – October 2nd, 2016

After a week of intense negotiations at the UN General Assembly, including an address by President Obama and multiple bilateral meetings, Administration contacts to whom we have spoken point to positive developments on nuclear disarmament and climate change, but on the central challenge of current US policy, namely Syria, officials are much less confident that they are any further forward than at the beginning of the week. As explained to us, the dilemma the US diplomatic side faces is that, with the White House ruling out any open increase in US firepower in the region, State Department negotiators have no cards to play in their talks with the Russians. The result is that, having little trust in the word of their Russian counterparts – in fact, a State Department official told us that “we know we are being told barefaced lies. And they know that we know, and don’t care” – Secretary of State Kerry has no option but to seek to adhere to the idea of a ceasefire jointly sponsored by Washington and Moscow in the face of all the evidence that it is being exploited by the Russians and the regime to press to a military victory. Mistrust inside the Pentagon is an open secret in Washington, but even the State Department privately acknowledges, as another official remarked to us, that the US “has chosen to believe a fiction as fact.” There are behind-the-scenes rumblings that the US might provide additional military assistance to anti-regime forces, but there is little reason to expect that this will be on a significant scale. No one in Washington expects any deployment of additional US military force to alter the balance of power on the ground. On another front, the recent disclosure by Yahoo of a massive hacking attack in 2014 and the strong suspicion in the intelligence community that this originated from a state-sponsored actor in Russia has thrown further light on the emergence of offensive cyber capabilities, not only from Russia but also from China in a possible attempt to meddle in the US election. The US is far from lacking in these capabilities, but to date has been reticent about deploying them. Our understanding is that this policy of restraint may be about to change.

Key Judgments

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