The Early Edition: June 20, 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

Russia threatened to attack U.S.-led coalition warplanes over Syria yesterday in response to a U.S. attack on a Syrian plane for the first time in the six-year conflict on Sunday, the U.S. reacting by rerouting some flights of planes carrying out missions in Syria in an effort to minimize the risks to pilots, Dion Nissenbaum and Thomas Grove report at the Wall Street Journal.

Condemning the U.S.’ “flagrant violation of international law,” Russia warned that its forces will treat U.S.-led coalition aircraft and drones as targets if they are operating in airspace west of Syria’s Euphrates River while Russian plans are on combat missions, Louisa Loveluck and David Filipov report at the Washington Post.

The Russians also said they had suspended the use of the hotline that the U.S. and Russian militaries used to ensure their aircraft did not collide in Syrian airspace yesterday in an escalation of the long-running tensions between America and Russia at a time when competing forces in Syria are converging, Michael R. Gordon and Ivan Nechepurenko report at the New York Times.

Australia suspended its airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria today as a precaution following the U.S.-Russia altercations, the AP reports.

Heavy airstrikes in the Syrian city of Deraa on the Jordanian border commenced today as a government-declared ceasefire expired, a witness and the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. Reuters reports.

Russia cannot confirm that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in an air strike in Syria last month, Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov is quoted as saying by Russia media, after Moscow said last week that it may have killed Baghdadi. Reuters reports.

New conflicts are emerging among the assortment of parties fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq as the extremists begin to retreat, Philip Issa taking a look at some of the main players at the AP.

The Trump administration still has no strategy on how to deal with fresh conflicts certain to break out in parts of Syria once the Islamic State is ousted, with lawmakers and former U.S. officials warning that its apparently haphazard approach in the interim could lead to a dangerous escalation and the broadening of U.S. aims in Syria, writes Nahal Toosi at POLITICO.

Russia’s loud protests in response to the U.S.’ downing of a Syrian fighter jet show it is more than ready to support a gamble by Syria and Iran that the U.S. can be induced to abandon southeastern Syria rather than risk being dragged into a war unrelated to the Islamic State, the Washington Post editorial board explaining how countering Iran and Russia in Syria requires tactical defense but also a broader strategy to create an acceptable security order in the region, which may require increasing military or economic pressure on Iran, Russia and the Assad regime, and in the meantime a clear message to Moscow that continuing to align itself with Iran in the region will forfeit any chance it has of resetting relations with Washington.

The U.S. is finding out that it cannot defeat the Islamic State by ducking the larger conflict in Syria, and while the risk of escalation is real, America cannot easily avoid it: Assad and his allies know that the Islamic State’s days in Syria’s Raqqa are numbered and they want to assert control over as much territory as possible in the meantime, which means destroying the U.S.-backed S.D.F., writes the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out 15 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on June 18. Separately, partner forces conducted seven strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

American student Otto Warmbier died yesterday after returning to the U.S. from detention in North Korea last week with severe brain injury, Felicia Schwartz and Jon Kamp report at the Wall Street Journal.

North Korea is a “brutal regime,” President Trump said, commenting on Warmbier’s death, adding that he will “handle” Pyongyang, the BBC reports.

High-level talks between the U.S. and China tomorrow will see the U.S. pressing China to increase pressure on North Korea to curtail its nuclear and missile programs, Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

Former Department of Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson will testify in an open hearing before the House Intelligence Committee tomorrow as part of the committee’s probe into possible Trump-Russia collusion, Johnson having already met with Senate investigators in connection with their investigation, the Hill’s Morgan Chalfant reports.

Special counsel on the Russia probe Robert Mueller will meet with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee this week to safeguard against conflicts between the committee’s investigation and his own, according to two congressional aides, Jonathan Landay reporting at Reuters.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn didn’t record any of his interactions with foreign government officials on his application to renew his security clearance last year despite saying in a speech in the days after submitting the application that he had had extensive contacts in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, according to a letter obtained by POLITICO’s Austin Wright and addressed to multiple parties from Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) requesting documents related to Flynn’s work with Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Flynn’s former business partner Bijan Kian is now a focus of federal investigators looking at the lobbying work of the former national security adviser, Nathan Layne and Julia Edwards Ainsley report at Reuters.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

Qatar refuses to negotiate with the Arab states that have severed diplomatic and economic ties with it until they lift the blockade against it, Qatar’s foreign minister said yesterday, Al Jazeera reporting.

Three members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard who were planning to carry out an attack on a major offshore oilfield in the Persian Gulf were arrested by Saudi Arabian forces, the Saudis said yesterday, an announcement which followed claims on Iranian state television that Saudi Arabia’s coast guard killed an Iranian fisherman on Friday, Abdullah Al-Shihri and Aya Batrawy report at the AP.

Three Iranian detained by Saudi Arabia are fishermen, not Revolutionary Guard Corps members, the head of border affairs at Iran’s interior ministry insisted yesterday. Al Jazeera reports.

The wall between the violent Arab world and the Arab world of “glitz and globalization” is breaking down in the wake of the diplomatic crisis engulfing Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Bahrain and Egypt on the other, and if the “safe” Arab world collapses, the implications will be global, writes Gideon Rachman at the Financial Times.

 “Arab N.A.T.O.” A military coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia to fight terrorism, such as the one the Trump administration says it wants, is guaranteed to be a mirage by a series of contradictions at its very heart including that, where trump sees an alliance united against extremism, the Saudis see a Sunni coalition that will push back on Iran, and in any case N.A.T.O. itself is much more than a coalition of common interests: it’s an alliance of shared values, writes former deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration Antony J. Blinken at the New York Times.

AFGHANISTAN

Afghan security guards came under Taliban attack in Afghanistan’s northern Parwan province last night leaving at least eight of them dead as they were on their way to work at the main U.S. military base in the country, Bagram airfield, Rahim Faiez reports at the AP.

The Afghan government has quietly provided a breakaway faction of the Taliban with weapons, intelligence and other support in its fight against the mainstream Taliban in recent months resulting in a series of successes in parts of the country where the government has otherwise been repeatedly beaten by the Taliban, particularly Helmand, where the insurgents still control 90 percent of the territory, report Taimoor Shah, Rod Nordland and Jawad Sukhanyar at the New York Times.

Potential Trump administration responses to Pakistan-based militants launching cross-border attacks in neighboring Afghanistan include expanding U.S. drone strikes, redirecting or withholding aid to Pakistan and possibly downgrading Pakistan’s status as a major non-N.A.T.O. ally, U.S. officials told Reuters’ Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

President Trump will meet briefly with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the White House today, Poroshenko due to be hosted by Vice President Mike Pence who will then escort him to “drop-in” on Trump, allowing the president to avoid standing alongside his Ukrainian counterpart to make statements about bilateral relations as per the norm for visiting foreign leaders, the visit likely to leave questions about the administration’s commitment to Ukraine, Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

President Trump’s new policy toward Cuba is a “grotesque spectacle” and his country will “never negotiate under pressure or under threat,” Cuba’s foreign minister said yesterday, in Cuba’s first response to Trump’s decision to scale back Obama-era initiatives to improve U.S.-Cuba relations announced last week, Azam Ahmed reports at the New York Times.

White House adviser Jared Kushner will travel to Israel tomorrow to join the Trump administration’s chief negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Jason Greenblatt for meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after which he will meet with the president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, as he makes a “foray into Middle East diplomacy” that White House officials have said is unlikely to produce any breakthrough but which Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman at the New York Times point to as a potent remind of the importance attached to achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace by President Trump.

THE PHILIPPINES

The push to remove Islamic State-linked militants from the Philippine city of Marawi has been renewed by Philippine forces, the aim being to wrap up the fighting before the end of Ramadan, a military spokesperson said. Al Jazeera reports.

Joint maritime patrols aimed at preventing the Marawi conflict from spreading to other parts of the region were launched by the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia in the Sulu and Celebes Seas, the patrols agreed to over a year ago but delayed due to disputes including overlapping territorial claims, Ben Otto reports at the Wall Street Journal.

PARIS ATTACK

A car loaded with gas canisters rammed into a police vehicle on French Capital Paris’ Champs-Élysées avenue yesterday, leaving the driver of the car dead, France 24 reports.

A cache of weapons at the home of the attacker – who was also carrying several weapons with him in the car – was discovered by police today, Reuters reports.

UK TERROR ATTACKS

Sunday’s terrorist attack in English capital London in which a van struck pedestrians outside a mosque was condemned by the State Department yesterday via a statement which also offered assistance to U.K. officials, Diamond Naga Siu reports at POLITICO.

The U.K. government is once again touting some of the widest-ranging plans to regulate the internet in the wake of Sunday’s terrorist attack, Mark Scott looking at this and similar debates popping up around the world at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

An injunction on President Trump’s revised travel ban was reined in by the federal judge who issued it three months ago, U.S. District Court Judge Derrick Watson nullifying the injunction’s impact on studies and policy reviews ordered under Trump’s March directive on the basis that the relevant portions of the block were too broad. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Top U.S. government officials cannot be held liable for the alleged unconstitutional treatment of noncitizens detained in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday in a 4-to-2- decision that brought to an end a long-running lawsuit filed against George W. Bush administration officials. Robert Barnes reports at the Washington Post.

A review of whether a possible Russian takeover of Venezuelan government-owned petroleum company Citgo could constitute a threat to national security and a violation of economic sanctions was called for by six senators in a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Sylvan Lane reports at the Hill.

An investigation into allegations that somebody was illegally recording attorney-client meetings at Guantánamo Bay detention center from Sept. 2015 to April this year, prompting a warning from a general to war court defense attorneys that their privileged communications were at risk, has been ordered by the commander of the U.S. Southern Command. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald. 

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About the Author(s)

Zoë Chapman

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