The Early Edition: June 27, 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 United States has identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement yesterday, Felicia Schwartz reporting at the Wall Street Journal.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would “pay a heavy price” if he carried out another chemical weapons strike, the White House warned in the unusual statement, which caught several military officials off guard, Michael D. Shear, Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

The activities identified by the U.S. are “similar to the preparations the regime made” before its Apr. 2 attack, the statement added, reiterating that the U.S. mission in Syria is to combat the Islamic State group but that a chemical attack from the Assad regime would not be without consequences, Abby Phillip and Dan Lamothe report at the Washington Post.

The assessment of the potential for a chemical weapons attack was based in part on the location of suspected sites and the security surrounding them, as well as other information, according to an anonymous official, adding that the intelligence was not conclusive but the Trump administration hoped that a warning would deter Assad, Jeff Mason and John Walcott report at Reuters.

“Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also Russia & Iran who support him killing his own people,” U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley tweeted yesterday, adding her voice to the White House’s surprising and risky public warning against Assad and his backers. Bryan Bender and Annie Karni write at POLITICO.

The Kremlin dismissed the White House’s warning to Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson saying that “such threats to Syria’s legitimate leaders are unacceptable,” the AP reports.

“The U.S. is readying a new attack on Syrian forces, that’s obvious,” the deputy head of the defense and security committee in Russia’s upper house of Parliament Frants Klintsevich said today in response to the White House statement, Alex Johnson reporting at NBC News.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discussed the need to secure a cease-fire in Syria in a phone call yesterday, the AP reports.

The possibility of the U.S. supplying the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia with weapons after the capture of Raqqa from the Islamic State group was left open by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in his first public appearance on the issue today, which may further complicate U.S.-Turkey relations as Turkey consider the Y.P.G. to be a national security threat, Phil Stewart reports at Reuters.

Iran’s expansionism and meddling in Syria must not be left unchecked, and the lack of a U.S. strategy to counter Iran’s growing influence has the potential to further destabilize the Middle East, David Horowitz writes at The Daily Beast.

The MUSLIM BAN

The U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration to implement part of the revised travel ban on travelers from six Muslim-majority countries but said that the ban could not be imposed on anyone who had “a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States” in an opinion released yesterday which sets up a historic legal fight in which the president’s power to set national security priorities will be weighed against the need to protect individuals from discrimination based on their nationality or religious belief. Michael D. Shear and Adam Liptak write at the New York Times.

President Trump welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision as a “clear victory for our national security” in a statement released yesterday.

The court’s action represents a significant reversal of fortune for President Trump and means that a limited version of his travel ban can take effect in as soon as three days, but also raises the immediate question about which travelers would qualify for the court’s “bona fide” exception, writes Brent Kendall at the Wall Street Journal.

What is a “bona fide” relationship? This question will be litigated aggressively over the summer – as was anticipated in the partially dissenting opinions of Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch – the Supreme Court providing general guidelines: for example, a family member of someone living in the U.S., a student admitted to a university or a worker with an employment offer, whereas relationships that exist only to get around the ban are not acceptable. The New York Times editorial board anticipates what will follow yesterday’s decision by the Supreme Court.

The decision may not be a total loss. Even though it implies that the court is skeptical of the arguments against parts of the executive order, its decision to allow the ban to go into effect only against applicants who have few ties to the U.S. may mean it will decide to protect immigrants with close ties to the country, David J. Bier writes at the Washington Post.

The Supreme Court’s decision is likely to affect refugees from some of the world’s most dangerous places while allowing for a flow of visitors from the six countries identified in Trump’s revised ban – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – albeit in smaller numbers, writes the Washington Post editorial board.

The revised ban remains largely enjoined since travelers without a real connection to the U.S. wouldn’t be able to get visas anyway, legal experts taking a closer look at the Supreme Court’s decision suggest. Sabrina Siddiqui writes at the Guardian.

Any victory for Trump in the Supreme Court’s decision is only partial and only temporary: the Court did agree to hear the case, but it also guaranteed that it will never tender a decision on the merits because the hearing will not happen until much of the order has expired anyway – that is, apart from the separate opinion partly dissenting from the per curiam of the court, in which three justices gave their view that the ban should go into effect now in its totality based partly on the opinion that it is probably valid, signaling that they are less than invested in the attempt at statesmanlike compromise the per curiam decision represents. Richard Primus writes at POLITICO MAGAZINE.

Whatever happens, it’s important to remember that the travel ban makes little sense on its face. Ishaan Tharoor at the Washington Post reminds us that the two federal appeals courts that ruled against the ban said it was neither discriminatory toward Muslims nor necessary for national security, and the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case in the fall when, given that the ban was framed as “temporary” while the Trump administration looked at its vetting procedures, it may rule there is no longer a need for such a blanket ban.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

Former campaign adviser Carter Page has been repeatedly questioned about his Russia contacts and his interactions with the Trump campaign by F.B.I. agents as part of the agency’s probe into Trump-Russia collusion, the most extensive known questioning of a possible suspect in the investigation so far, reports Devlin Barrett at the Washington Post.

The Trump administration is refusing to release a redacted version of a report on alleged Russian interference in the presidential election received by former president Barack Obama, according to a court declaration filed by a top official in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, whose predecessor James Clapper made public an unclassified version of the report at the time that, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, bringing an F.O.I.A. lawsuit demanding the classified report, omitted “critical technical evidence” that could assist the public in assessing intelligence agencies’ claims that Russia did attempt to affect the outcome of the election. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

President Trump continued to berate his predecessor Barack Obama for his response to allegations of Russian interference in the election via Twitter yesterday, concluding his four-tweet comment by demanding an apology – although, as CNN’s Zachary Cohen observes, it was unclear who he was demanding an apology from or who he was accusing Obama of colluding with.

President Trump has been “remarkably indifferent” to what he should have recognized as a major nonpartisan security concern from his first day in office, instead spending the last six months of unfettered access to intelligence on Russian interference tweeting from the sidelines, writes the New York Times editorial board.

The Obama administration’s response to reports of Russian meddling was “ineffective and oddly torpid,” writes Richard Cohen at the Washington Post, agreeing with President Trump, but pointing out that it was also “secretive” with only a few members of the intelligence community and the Obama White House knowing what the Kremlin was doing for a long time.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdulrahman Al Thani is set to meet with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson todayin Washington D.C. to discuss Qatar’s isolation by four Arab countries and their list of 13 demands before diplomatic relations can be restored, Al Jazeera reports.

A vow to withhold consent to U.S. arms sales to Gulf Arab States was contained in a letter from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yesterday, Corker arguing that there needed to be a path toward resolving the conflict before further clearances on military equipment could be provided, the BBC reports.

What are the real motivations behind the blockade of Qatar and what is the role of the U.S. in the crisis? Marwan Bishara provides an analysis at Al Jazeera.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korean media compared President Trump to Adolf Hitler and said his America First policy was “the American version of Nazism far surpassing the fascism in the last century in its ferocious, brutal and chauvinistic nature,” Jonathan Cheng at the Wall Street Journal suggesting that the language reflects Pyongyang’s hardening line on Trump, whom it is targeting with more vehemence than it usually reserves for new leaders in Washington while it feels out their likely policies.

A review of the U.S.-built T.H.A.A.D. missile defense system in South Korea ordered by President Moon Jae-in “does not mean we’ll cancel or reverse our decision to host it,” South Korea’s foreign minister said yesterday ahead of Mr. Moon’s visit to the White House this week. Jonathan Cheng reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The meeting between President Trump and President Moon Jae-in at the White House this week will be challenging as the two leaders bring their vastly different approaches to the problem of North Korea to the discussions, Moon in favour of a “sunshine policy” of engagement with North Korea, while the Trump administration has advocated a policy of “maximum pressure” on the regime of Kim Jong-un to force it to give up its nuclear weapons program. Anna Fifield assesses the two nations’ positions ahead of the meeting at the Washington Post.

The idea that the U.S. should offer to scale back military exercises with South Korea in return for more nuclear commitments from Pyongyang is a “failed strategy” that the U.S. “can’t afford to waste more time on,” writes the Wall Street Journal editorial board, tracing back North Korea’s present-day nuclear advances to a failure on the part of former State Department grandee Christopher Hill to realise that Pyongyang will never give up its nuclear program a decade ago when he offered North Korea a host of concessions to freeze it.

IRAQ

The Iraqi military will recapture the city of Mosul from the Islamic State group within the next few days, according to the Iraqi military, although 50,000 civilians remain trapped in Islamic State-controlled areas. Al Jazeera reports.

Counter-attacks by Islamic State group militants in Mosul’s Old City have stalled the Iraqi Army’s advance, according to an anonymous Iraqi officer, the AP reports.

Iran’s strategy in Iraq is similar to the strategy it has pursued in Lebanon by supporting Shi’ite militia and entrenching them within the political and military system, and the Iraqi leadership must understand that accommodating Iran’s proxy forces is incompatible with long-term U.S. assistance, Daniella Pletka writes at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 18 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on June 25. Separately, partner forces conducted three strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

ISRAEL and PALESTINE

A new bilateral working group between the U.S. and Israel on cybersecurity was announced by the Trump administration, White House homeland security and counterterrorism adviser Tom Bossert telling a cybersecurity conference in Tel Aviv that these “high-level meetings represent the first step in strengthening bilateral ties on cyber issues following President Trump’s visit to Israel.” Steven Scheer reports at Reuters.

A projectile fired from the Gaza Strip fell in an open area in southern Israel, with no casualties, the Israeli military said yesterday, the AP reports.

TRUMP-MODI MEETING

President Trump called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “true friend” and noted that India had helped the U.S. to enforce sanctions on North Korea when the two leaders met at the White House yesterday, a display of warmth that was at least partly pointed at Chinese President Xi Jinping who has disappointed Trump with his failure to impose increased pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear programs in recent weeks, Mark Landler and Gardiner Harris write at the New York Times.

Trump and Modi made several references to Pakistan in a joint statement released following the meeting, including that Pakistan should “ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries,” though a senior administration official clarified that they are “interested in continuing our cooperation with Pakistan” even while deepening its relationship with India. CNN’s Steve George reports.

The Trump administration has been considering taking a harder stance toward Pakistan for supporting terrorist groups in Afghanistan including by expanding drone strikes, withholding aid and revoking Pakistan’s status as a major non-N.A.T.O. ally, according to a report from Reuters last week, Sune Engel Rasmussen and Julian Borger at the Guardian explaining that Pakistan could be driven further toward China as a result, while Russia could use a U.S.-Pakistani rift to oppose American power as it does via its proxies in Syria, part of the reason why, according to experts, Russia has increased its weapons support for the Taliban.

ANNUAL DEFENSE POLICY BILL

President Trump would be required to provide Congress with his strategies for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Syria by the House Armed Services Committee’s version of the annual defense policy bill, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Several provisions aimed at kerbing Russian aggression including the potential suspension of a long-time nuclear treaty between the U.S. and Russia are included in the defense policy bill, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump is breaking taboos by suggesting bringing back torture, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said yesterday, also attacking U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May for threatening to change her nation’s human rights laws if they impeded security operations, Reuters reports.

The U.A.E. denied allegations that its forces were running secret prisons inside Yemen where detainees were tortured revealed in an AP investigation last week, but the expansion of the Gulf federation’s military footprint in Yemen and elsewhere is starting to draw scrutiny, reports the AP.

The Trump administration is charging Guantánamo Bay detainee Riduan Isamuddin – Hambali –  even while officials concede that it is likely to become the latest procedural disaster facing U.S. military commissions, writes Spencer Ackerman at The Daily Beast.

A senior Ukrainian military intelligence officer was killed in a car bomb this morning, the Ukrainian police said in a statement, adding that they are treating the explosion as a terrorist attack. The AP reports.

F.A.R.C. rebels in Colombia have handed over nearly all of their individual weapons as part of the historic peace agreement reached with the government last year, the U.N. said yesterday. The AP reports.

Australia should launch more decisive military action in the Philippines to counter the threat of militants loyal to the Islamic State group, retired U.S. General David Petraeus suggested at a Liberal Party gala in Sydney last week, opening a debate on Australian military intervention, Adam Baidawi and Damien Cave write at the New York Times. 

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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

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK