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The Early Edition: April 19, 2017

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Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

America will provide an “overwhelming and effective” response to any North Korean attack, Vice President Mike Pence reassured allies today from the deck of the USS Ronald Reagan currently docked in Yokosuka, Japan. Al Jazeera reports.

A prospective shoot-down strategy being considered by the US military would be aimed at happening after a nuclear test with the aim of signaling to North Korea that the US can impose military consequences for any “unacceptable” behavior, two sources briefed on the planning told the Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman and Justin McCurry.

Two tests of its ability to shoot down missiles launched from North Korea will be performed by the Pentagon in May, Barbara Starr reports at CNN.

The USS Carl Vinson was not sent directly to North Korea amid growing tensions with Pyongyang as President Trump and his advisers stated previously, report Ben Kesling and Felicia Schwartz at the Wall Street Journal. Rather, the aircraft carrier was thousands of miles away on exercises off the coast of Australia at the time, and is unlikely to reach the Korean Peninsula until next week.

The false narrative that a US Naval flotilla was steaming toward the waters off North Korea was perpetuated by a glitch-ridden sequence of events, from an ill-timed announcement of the deployment by Pacific Command to a somewhat erroneous explanation by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, White House officials said yesterday, Pentagon officials explaining that once the President had started playing up to the show of force portrayed by it, it was hard to roll back on the story. Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

 “You always have to be concerned” about nuclear war when dealing with North Korea, President Trump told CNN’s Wisconsin affiliate WTMY yesterday, adding that he is “going to have to do something about” the “very, very tricky situation,” which would “hopefully” resolve according to a mutual desire for peace. Andrew Kaczynski reports.

North Korea was “recklessly” attempting to “provoke something” with its ballistic missile test Sunday, Defense Secretary James Mattis said yesterday, the AP’s Robert Burns reporting.

The binary and sometimes conflicting hard-line comments delivered by top Trump officials in the past week on North Korea reflect both the administration’s hope that such rhetoric will have a deterrent effect and – more crucially – the lack of attractive options on the belligerent state, write Missy Ryan, Simon Denyer and Emily Rauhala at the Washington Post.

The existence of the US Cyber Command program to sabotage North Korea’s missile tests has shaken Pyongyang and led to an internal spyhunt and attempts to develop innovative ways to deter a wide range of enemy cyberstrikes, report David E. Sanger and William J. Broad at the New York Times.

China’s “suspension for a suspension” proposal under which Pyongyang suspends its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for Washington and Seoul ceasing joint military exercises is still the best option, according to Chinese officials, who believe that imposing tougher sanctions on North Korea will only have the undesirable effect of widening its development gap with China, Tom Mitchell writes at the Financial Times.

A speech urging China to rethink its longstanding support for North Korea delivered recently by Chinese historian Shen Zhihua has prompted widespread discussion in China, Chris Buckley providing some excerpts from the speech at the New York Times.

Why has China stuck by Pyongyang even as it terrorizes its neighbors by developing a nuclear arsenal likely only a few years off being capable of striking US territory? James Kynge examines this question at the Financial Times.

AFGHANISTAN

The US military has been silent on the damage caused by the “mother of all bombs” since it was dropped on an Islamic State cave complex in eastern Afghanistan Tuesday, leaving Afghan officials to speculate and the Islamic State to fill the information vacuum, observe Mujib Mashal and Fahim Abed at the New York Times.

Heavy clashes between the Taliban and Afghan forces in Afghanistan’s northern Baghlan province have left 14 Taliban fighters including the shadow governor of the province dead, officials said. [AP]

SYRIA

Weakening Assad regime forces could inadvertently benefit the Islamic State, according to a report by UK-based military analysis group the IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, Susannah George reports at the AP.

The evacuation of Syrians from four besieged areas resumed today after a bombing killed more than 120 evacuees and delayed the much-criticized transfer of citizens that could see some 30,000 people moved across the battle lines of Syria over the next couple months, the AP reports.

The attack on civilians being evacuated in Syria over the weekend “likely amounts to a war crime,” a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said yesterday. [UN News Centre]

Sarin or a similar banned toxin was used in the attack in Idlib province on April 4, the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said, a finding supporting earlier testing by Turkish and British laboratories. Reuters reports.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

Defense Secretary James Mattis arrived in Saudi Arabia at the beginning of a five-nation tour of the Middle East and Africa yesterday, his aim to press for a political solution to the Yemen war and the strengthening of security ties between the US and regional allies, Gordon Lubold reports at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump is being pushed to approve sales of armed drones to Jordan and the U.A.E. by a bipartisan group of 22 House lawmakers, who say that the sales would assist in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

President Trump is increasingly isolated within his own administration as he clings to the theme of warming relations with Moscow, now one of the few major policy positions he has maintained since the beginning of his campaign, observes Greg Miller at the Washington Post.

Trump’s “unpredictable” foreign policy is not a strength, it’s a recipe for “instability, confusion, and self-inflicted harm to US interests abroad.”  Dani Nedal and Daniel Nexon discuss Trump’s “madman theory” at Foreign Policy.

RUSSIA

The US Air Force scrambled two F-22 stealth fighter jets and an E-3 airborne early-warning plane to intercept two Russian long-range bombers that flew about 100 miles off the Alaskan coast Monday night, Eric Schmitt reports at the New York Times.

“A direct challenge aimed at US President Donald Trump.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s plan to attend an official opening ceremony at the Russian embassy in Georgia’s breakaway region Abkhazia is Moscow’s demonstration that it is not about to back off from its imperial ambitions, even if its measures contravene international law or the laws of its pro-Western neighbors, Anna Nemtsova wondering if Trump noticed this little jab at Washington’s credibility at The Daily Beast.

IRAN

A review of whether lifting sanctions on Iran was in the US’ national security interests was announced by the Trump administration yesterday, which acknowledged that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal while there were concerns about its role as state sponsor of terrorism. Lesley Wroughton reports at Reuters.

The Sudanese government of President Omar al-Bashir may have violated UN sanctions on arms sales with Iran and avoided an EU embargo, according to a report by the weapons-monitoring group Conflict Armament Research. Justin Lynch reports at the AP.

TURKEY

President Trump will meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in May ahead of a NATO meeting, Turkey’s foreign minister said today, Reuters reporting.

President Trump does not regret placing a call to Erdoğan following the referendum result that greatly expanded his powers despite widespread concern about the fairness of the voting process, which was done in order to develop the relationship with Erdoğan and to discuss shared interests with the US’ longstanding NATO ally, the White House insisted yesterday, John Wagner reporting at the Washington Post.

“Creeping authoritarianism.” Turkey’s referendum vote should be an international cause for concern, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said yesterday, Ellen Mitchell reporting at the Hill.

Turkey’s main opposition party appealed to the central election authority to annul the government’s narrow win yesterday, Margaret Coker and Ned Levin report at the Wall Street Journal.

Civil authorities in Turkey should conduct a transparent investigation into the referendum result, the EU said yesterday, Daniel Boffey reporting at the Guardian.

Erdoğan’s “ugly” win could cause problems for the Turkish president himself as well as for the country’s secular democratic forces and for Turkey’s Western allies, writes the Washington Post editorial board.

Was Trump wrong to congratulate Erdoğan on his referendum victory? Yes, writes Daniel W. Drezner at the Washington Post.

UN SECURITY COUNCIL

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley presided over the first “thematic debate” on human rights at the UN Security Council yesterday, reports Somini Sengupta at the New York Times.

Human rights violations are the main trigger of conflicts like Syria, Haley said yesterday, a contention disputed by Russia and China, while Human Rights Watch questioned the US government’s decision to focus on human rights at the UN Security Council given its own actions. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

The FBI used a dossier of allegations of Russian ties to President Trump as part of its justification to gain approval to covertly monitor Trump associate Carter Page, US officials briefed on the investigation told CNN’s Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz and Manu Raju.

TRUMP’S WIRETAP CLAIM

“We are going to mobilize to find something to justify the President’s tweet that he was being surveilled.” The White House sought information to back up President Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that his predecessor Barack Obama tapped his phone, Ryan Lizza reports at The New Yorker.

US HOMELAND SECURITY

“Make no mistake – we are a nation under attack.” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly described a dire security situation that the agency responsible for defending the United States must face “every single day,” including transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) – including “international gangs like MS-13” – cyberattacks, and homegrown terrorism, dinging lawmakers who criticize the agency personnel responsible for enforce the law: “shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.” Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

The MS-13 crime cartel “could qualify” for designation as a terrorist organization, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said separately yesterday, President Trump meanwhile tweeting that former president Obama’s “weak illegal immigration policies” were responsible for the gang’s growth in the US. Cristiano Lima reports at POLITICO.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Trump’s reversal on central campaign pledge to label China a currency manipulator is the plainest example of trusted adviser billionaire Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman’s influence on the President’s policymaking, write Isaac Arnsdorf and Josh Dawsey at POLITICO.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has yet to appoint heads for his top units, including the national security division, as he attempts to reshape the Justice Department, writes Sari Horwitz at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A coalition of 41 countries led by Saudi Arabia is expected to have its first meeting over the next few months in Riyadh when defense ministers from member states will agree on the group’s structure and mission, its focus to be on protecting member nations against the threat from the Islamic State as its strongholds in Iraq and Syria disintegrate, Saeed Shah and Margherita Stancati report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack on a checkpoint near St Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai last night, which left one police officer dead. Declan Walsh reports at the New York Times.

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About the Author

is the Assistant News Editor at Just Security. She is also Legal Researcher at UK-based human rights organization, JUSTICE.