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The Early Edition: June 19, 2017

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.

SYRIA

The U.S. shot down a Syrian government jet yesterday after it attacked members of U.S.-backed Syrian fighters leading the assault on Raqqa, the first time an American pilot has struck an Assad regime plane in Syria’s civil war, the Pentagon said, Dion Nissenbaum and Raja Abdulrahim reporting at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. should respect Syria’s territorial integrity and avoid unilateral actions there, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said today, according to Russian media. Reuters reports.

Iran launched missiles at Islamic State targets in eastern Syria in response to the attacks on Iran’s parliament and shrine in Tehran two weeks ago, it said today, warning that it would retaliate in the same way to any further attacks. The AP reports.

The Syrian government has bombed U.S.-backed Syria rebel positions southwest of Raqqa in recent days, the rebels said today, threatening to retaliate in the event of further attacks, Reuters reports.

Syrian troops and their allies linked up with Iraqi forces at a crossing point on their shared border for the first time in years yesterday, a development described as a major achievement by Assad forces in their battle against the Islamic State. Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

Israel has been secretly supplying Syrian rebels near its border with cash, fuel and medical supplies for years with the aim of establishing a buffer zone of friendly forces, Rory Jones, Noam Raydan and Suha Ma’ayeh report at the Wall Street Journal.

The eastern Syrian desert is becoming an arena for confrontation between the U.S. and Iran as demonstrated by three recent incidents in the remote desert outpost of al-Tanf where a force of American soldiers training local fighters has been repeatedly approached by convoys of Iranian-backed pro-Assad fighters, the Americans responding with air strikes, with observers and former officials increasingly worried that an unplanned, spiralling conflict could result. Julian Borger writes at the Guardian.

The U.S. is accelerating its bombing of urban areas of Syria and Iraq while relaxing oversight, investigation and accountability on civilian casualties, writes Mica Zenko, examining the question of why America is killing so many Syrian and Iraqi civilians at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

President Trump “is not under investigation” by special counsel Robert Mueller tasked with looking into Russia’s interference in last year’s presidential election, one of the president’s personal lawyers Jay Sekulow insisted yesterday, contradicting a Friday tweet from Trump himself in which he stated that he was under investigation by Mueller for firing former F.B.I. director James Comey, the New York Times’ Michael D. Shear and Noah Weiland report.

The investigations into possible Trump-Russia collusion are only 20 percent through, Sen. Angus King, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an interview broadcast yesterday, Hanna Trudo reporting at POLITICO.

There was “never any collusion between Donald Trump and the Russians,” a fact the media attacked him for expressing, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes – who stepped aside from the Russian investigation in April after the House Ethics Committee announced it was investigating his handling of classified information – told G.O.P. donors in Orange County Saturday. David Siders reports at POLITICO.

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had dinner with a Ukrainian business associate who once served in the Russian army and who is of interest to investigators on the Senate Intelligence Committee examining potential links between the Trump campaign and Russia just as tensions over Russia’s role in the presidential election were mounting and two weeks before Manafort resigned amid reports that he had received improper payments for his political work in Ukraine, Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger and Rachel Weiner report at the Washington Post.

President Trump has no plans to wait until Mueller’s investigation either condemns or clears him, instead taking the much more aggressive approach of trying to defame, discredit and delegitimize those tasked with the Russia probe, which may in the end do him more harm than good, writes Charles M. Blow at the New York Times.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Bahrain and Egypt are engaged in a “publicity stunt” aimed solely at attacking Qatar’s image and reputation, Qatar said today as the diplomatic crisis over Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism continues into a third week. Reuters reports.

A first group of Turkish troops arrived in Qatar’s capital Doha yesterday to take part in long-planned joint military exercises, Al Jazeera reports.

Tensions along the Djibouti-Eritrea border are mounting after Qatar removed its troops, who have been maintaining a buffer zone between the two sides, last week amid the ongoing diplomatic dispute with other Arab nations, France 24 reports.

While the dispute between Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. against Qatar is longstanding and remains much the same today despite the current shrill rhetoric what has changed is the opportunity presented to the Saudis and the Emiratis by their new friend in the White House to remove an obstacle in their way to dealing with two more serious adversaries: Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, writes Joost Hiltermann at the New York Times.

There needs to be clarity and honesty about the sources of terrorism among Gulf states or the biggest loser may turn out to be the fight against the Islamic State, writes the New York Times editorial board, taking a look at some of the main regional players.

AFGHANISTAN

Taliban militants attacked a major police base in the eastern Afghan town of Gardez yesterday, killing at least five police officers, Sayed Salahuddin reports at the Washington Post.

A flurry of setbacks in the Afghanistan war demonstrate both the imperative of action and the pitfalls of various approaches as the U.S. plans to likely send an additional several thousand troops to the country are finalized and the President’s strategy in Afghanistan remains unannounced, reportedly because of disagreements within the Trump administration, Pamela Constable and Sayed Salahuddin write at the Washington Post.

Putting the cart before the horse. President Trump’s Afghanistan strategy is still unknown yet the decision to send additional U.S. troops to the country has been made – by the Pentagon, in a break from the tradition of civilian control over the military, and without any announcement by the president, in an abdication of his duty to announce and defend troop deployments, write Mark Landler and Michael R. Gordon at the New York Times.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

U.S. diplomats have held secret talks in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang and European cities with North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator for over a year in an effort to free U.S. prisoners and potentially establish a diplomatic tunnel to curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, Jay Solomon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

American officials “mugged” North Korea’s diplomats at Kennedy International Airport as they were returning home from a U.N. conference in New York Friday, North Korea said yesterday, adding that the incident demonstrated that the U.S. is “a felonious and lawless gangster state” and should be aware of the “grave consequences” to follow. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

The use of “preventative diplomacy” to deal with the situation in the Korean Peninsula was called for by foreign ministers from B.R.I.C.S. nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – according to a communique following a two-day conference in Beijing that ended today, Reuters reports.

North Korea is the biggest worry in the short term for the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) because of its nuclear advances, while Russia concerns him most in the long term, he told the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald F. Seib.

ISRAEL and PALESTINE

Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner intends to go to the Middle East to try to progress U.S. efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, a White House official said yesterday, Carol E. Lee reporting at the Wall Street Journal.

Two almost simultaneous attacks by Palestinians on Israeli police officers in Jerusalem prompted Israel to revoke the permits of 200,000 Palestinians to enter Israel for the month of Ramadan yesterday, Ian Deitch reports at the AP.

The competing claims of responsibility for an attack in Jerusalem Friday by Hamas and the Islamic State demonstrate a major challenge in the “era of global terrorism:” how do countries figure out who was really responsible for a terrorist attack, when militant groups claim attacks as a key tactic for spreading fear and spurring on followers? Amanda Erickson writes at the Washington Post.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces began an assault on Mosul’s Old City yesterday where remaining Islamic State fighters are expected to make a bloody last stand, Loveday Morris and Mustafa Salim report at the Washington Post.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi traveled to Saudi Arabia today for the first leg of a three-day tour that will also encompass Kuwait and Iran, a visit that aims to boost bilateral relations and seek closer cooperation in fighting terrorism, the AP reports.

 UK TERROR ATTACKS

One person died and ten others were injured when a man drove a van into worshippers leaving a mosque in England’s capital London last night, where police are treating it as a terrorist incident and have arrested one man whom eyewitnesses reported said he wanted to “kill all Muslims.” The BBC reports.

This latest attack could ultimately play into the Islamic State’s hands and is a scenario the militant group hoped for – particularly if the attacker turns out to adhere to right-wing ideology – as a means of provoking further attacks in response, writes Rick Noack at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Saudi-led coalition air strikes on a market town in Yemen’s Saada province killed at least 25 civilians Saturday, according to a local health official, Al Jazeera reporting.

Russia takes an extremely negative view of “illegitimate” extended E.U. sanctions against it for its annexation of Crimea, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said today. Reuters reports.

The first large-scale N.A.T.O. defensive drill on the Polish-Lithuanian border was carried out by U.S. and British troops in rehearsal for a potential scenario in which Russia attempts to sever the Baltic states from the rest of the alliance, Andrius Sytas reports at Reuters.

Four new measures to address the spread of terrorist material online have been introduced by Google, which has pledged better detection of extremist content and faster review, more experts, tougher standards and increased counter-radicalization work, the Press Association reports.

A collision between a U.S. Navy destroyer and a fully-loaded Philippine-flagged container ship four times its size that left seven dead over the weekend is being investigated by a U.S. Coast Guard team in Japan today, Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

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About the Author

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security, Legal Researcher at UK-based human rights organization, JUSTICE