Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She was on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across President Donald Trump’s desk.
Modeled on the President’s Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, my presidential weekly briefing focuses on the topics and issues the President needs to know to make informed decisions.
Here’s this week’s briefing:
NAFTA next steps: King of the North
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau probably doesn’t want to be the odd man out in any revised North American Free Trade Agreement. We assess he is likely motivated to make a deal with you, even if it means making some sensitive concessions because he wants to avoid the costs of you reimposing pre-NAFTA era tariffs on Canada in addition to new tariffs you are threatening on Canadian cars. He probably believes getting shut out of a deal would thereby outweigh costs associated with showing some flexibility in NAFTA negotiations.
Trudeau probably thinks that you are open to negotiating with Canada despite your leaked comments to the contrary and tweet this weekend saying, “There is no political necessity to keep Canada in the new NAFTA deal.” He knows that you have historically espoused maximalist positions as part of your negotiating strategy – including in negotiations with Mexico when you initially insisted that Mexico pay for a border wall and with the European Commission over their trade barriers – which eventually gave way to trade war truces and agreements.
Trudeau may continue to discount your statements as political posturing for your base, but we assess there is an inflection point. He has previously called your steel and aluminum tariff unacceptable and said that he’ll stand up for Canadian workers, a sentiment echoed by Canadian Chrystia Foreign Minister Freeland on Friday. Ongoing vitriol against Canada will eventually lead to a reaction by Trudeau that would, in turn, feed a war of words alongside the current trade war. Lowering the public volume on negotiations will increase the probability that the Canadians will feel like they have more space to show flexibility.
Even though US and Canadian negotiators didn’t reach an agreement by your original August 31 deadline, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s willingness to extend talks into next week was likely seen as a signal you are more flexible than you originally stated. Because of this, the Canadians probably think you are willing to soften your red lines and deadlines in other areas. They likely took note of Lighthizer’s statement that the United States will sign an agreement with Mexico “and Canada if it is willing,” and may have interpreted this as a US preference to maintain a three-way arrangement.
We think that Trudeau is motivated to avoid getting essentially kicked out of a new US-Mexico NAFTA agreement. Exclusion would likely mean, the reimposition of any tariffs NAFTA originally lifted (trade between the United States and Canada is up 169% since NAFTA was signed and then any new tariffs you chose to impose as punishment for Canada’s failure to meet your negotiating requirements successfully. Trudeau already knows you’re not worried about using tariffs as punishment when you feel like it, so he probably believes your threat about putting tariffs on Canadian cars (Canadian vehicle exports to the United States totaled $56 billion in 2017, the second-largest Canadian export to the US) if you don’t reach a revised NAFTA agreement. He doesn’t think you’re bluffing.
The Canadians probably think your primary focus is on greater access for US companies to the Canadian dairy market based on your public comments. Expect the Canadian team to up your negotiators eventually by giving you a victory in this sector in exchange for some kind of win for Trudeau on protecting Canadian publishing and broadcasting industries and maintaining some kind of NAFTA dispute resolution mechanism.
Syria: Assad ‘liquidation’ announcement
We expect a massive operation from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime – backed by Russia – any day in the Syrian province of Idlib, one of the supposed Syrian de-escalation zones where Assad agreed not to fight. We do not assess that Assad is deterred from instigating this attack or from using chemical weapons as part of his offensive. Assad and his Russian backers are forecasting their plans because they do not think that you will actively try to stop them and instead think you will rely on diplomatic entreaties. We have advance warning of an impending atrocity.
Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke publicly about the need to move against terrorists in Idlib (the Syrian regime and the Russian government share a penchant for labeling anyone they don’t like a terrorist) and said that the situation is a “festering abscess that needs to be liquidated.” Assad is motivated to assault Idlib – not just because there are terrorist groups active there, but because it is the last stronghold held by rebels. Assad wants all Syrian territory under his control.
It is highly likely that Assad will move against Idlib because he does not fear the consequences of doing so. Assad and his Russian backers know that US troops are currently authorized to fight ISIS, not to fight the regime, which further diminishes the chances that Western soldiers will ward off any Assad offensive.
The Russians also probably assess that you do not want to engage directly with forces backed by Russia because that could risk a serious escalation between US and Russian assets on the ground at a time when you are weighing a withdrawal from Syria and trying to repair relations with President Vladimir Putin.
They are playing off the growing rift between the United States and Turkey and have said that when it comes to Idlib there was a “full political understanding” between Moscow and Ankara. The Russians are probably intentionally implying that Turkey has acquiesced to whatever Moscow has proposed. This would be a departure from Turkey’s previous position, which included working with us to support elements of the opposition and the administration of the supposedly nonviolent de-escalation zone of Idlib.
We are seeing Russia make military moves that we think are a prelude to another Assad chemical weapons attack. Russia has deployed significant military assets to the eastern Mediterranean, including 26 warships (some armed with cruise missiles) and combat aircraft. The Russians are saying these assets will be part of military exercises in the area, but we assess they are being pre-positioned to counter US missile strikes against Assad if he uses chemical weapons.
Their air defense systems weren’t very successful against the last US missile attack in April (after an Assad chemical weapons attack). These additional assets could help counter what the Russians and Syrians likely consider anticipated US strikes because they know the regime is planning to use chemical weapons and that you will likely respond.
Another worrying signal is the Russian misinformation campaign already underway on the yet-to-be initiated chemical weapons attack. After previous Assad attacks, the regime and the Russians have spread misinformation, blaming opposition forces and even humanitarian groups such as the White Helmets.
This time, they’re spreading misinformation in advance; Lavrov has already stated that the White Helmets are preparing to stage another chemical weapons attack that the group could blame on the Syrian government as a pretext for more US military action.
We interpret this as Russia trying to shape the narrative about impending Syrian chemical weapons use before it happens. They know that you have struck Syrian targets after previous chemical weapons use and probably think that if they even somewhat convincingly cast blame on others you may think twice about hitting the regime.
Indian summer: 2+2 dialogue this week
As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis prepare to travel to India for the maiden 2+2 dialogue with their Indian counterparts, we assess that the government of India views this dialogue as an important signal that you prioritize our relationship with India. This trip could help offset the news that you aren’t traveling to a series of summits in Asia this fall, which some of your peers may interpret as you placing less emphasis on your relationships there.
The secretaries’ trip comes at a time when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is under pressure after a defeat in the last round of by-elections for Parliament and state assemblies. Modi is up for re-election in 2019. His campaign will be buttressed by some economic head winds – Indian economic growth is accelerating, but inflation is a concern and the currency is falling. More economic reforms are expected, and the Modi administration will likely want to capitalize on the 2+2 dialogue goodwill to preclude any US sanctions, pressure from tariffs or other downside economic risks emanating from Washington.
Indian officials may thereby be focused on some near-term issues with economic implications, including whether they will get waivers for any ongoing purchases of Iranian crude oil after you reimpose these sanctions in November. Tariff relief may also be high on their dialogue agenda. India postponed its implementation of retaliatory tariffs against your steel and aluminum tariffs but is due to impose them later this month and may want to discuss a deal.
You should expect Indian officials to emphasize the growth of our bilateral trading relationship because they believe this is a priority for you. They will likely point to our bilateral trade increasing by $12 billion in 2017 alongside increased Indian purchases of crude oil from the United States with a value of about $580 million.
Middle East peace: Chain reaction
We assess that your decision to cut funding for the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees will set off, as German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, an “uncontrollable chain reaction” that will adversely affect security in the region, the ability to negotiate a settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the well-being of the Palestinians currently receiving support from the UN agency and more.
You said last year that if countries voted against you at the United Nations “we’ll save a lot,” by cutting our foreign assistance to them, and you urged Congress to “pass legislation to help ensure American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to America’s friends.” Ambassador Nikki Haley has publicly echoed your sentiments. Now, with your latest cut to the Palestinian refugee agency, we think it is likely that foreign aid recipients think they need to align with you on all fronts if they want to continue receiving your aid.
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This could set off a chain reaction. Countries may view your actions as a new precedent – one that essentially will be a bribe for good behavior, however that is defined by your administration, or future ones, at a particular moment in time. Countries may think that the easiest way to get money from you is to say yes when asked. This could turn foreign assistance into dirty money – used to buy votes and more. Other countries could then justify directing their own assistance funds to those who agree with them, rather than those who are in need.