The Early Edition: June 28, 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 Pentagon stepped up preparations for a possible strike against the Syrian regime yesterday in light of intelligence that Washington said signaled that President Assad was preparing another chemical weapons attack, Dion Nissenbaum and Thomas Grove report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. has observed chemical weapons activity at known production facilities and the activity is at least partly centered on an aircraft hangar at the Syrian government’s Shayrat air base, Pentagon spokesperson Marine Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway said yesterday, Louisa Loveluck, Dan Lamothe and Ellen Nakashima reporting at the Washington Post.

“We just refuse to get drawn into a fight there in the Syria civil war, we try to end that one through diplomatic engagement,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday, avoiding addressing the White House warning to the Assad regime on Monday or the nature of the intelligence on which the warning was based, Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

Concerns that the Trump administration is escalating U.S. involvement in the Syrian War without a clear strategy and objectives were expressed by U.S. lawmakers yesterday, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

A U.S.-led coalition airstrike on an Islamic State prison near al-Mayadeen in eastern Syria Monday resulted in high numbers of civilian deaths, according to Syrian activists and monitoring groups, a U.S. military spokesperson responding that the civilian deaths would be investigated and that the coalition targets command-and-control facilities and other Islamic State infrastructure, Ben Hubbard reports at the New York Times.

A second strike near to the Islamic State-held town of al-Mayadeen killed at least 30 civilians this morning, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said today, adding that the identity of the jets that carried out the strike was unknown. Reuters reports.

Turkey returned fire after a cross-border attack by the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. forces, the Turkish military said today. The AP reports.

“We are at a time of testing whether the political will exists for real de-escalation and more meaningful political talks and movement beyond preparatory talks,” U.N. special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura said yesterday, expressing hope that Syria peace talks scheduled for July 10 will result in significant progress, the AP reports.

While President Trump has drawn a new “red line” for Assad with U.S. officials describing preparations at the Shayrat airbase in an attempt to bolster his threat to deter an attack, the administration has not elaborated on what exactly the president meant when he said that Assad would pay a “heavy price” if he conducted another chemical attack on his own people, causing uncertainty in both the U.S. and the Middle East, Michael D. Shear, Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt write at the New York Times.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 27 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on June 26. Separately, partner forces conducted four strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s consulting firm received over $17 million over two years from a Ukrainian political party linked to the Kremlin, he disclosed yesterday in a filing that serves as a retroactive admission that he performed work in the U.S. on behalf of a foreign power without disclosing it, which is required by law, Nicholas Confessore, Mike McIntire and Barry Meier report at the New York Times.

Former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta was interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee yesterday as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election, Podesta, whose personal email account was hacked and the contents passed to WikiLeaks in the lead-up to the election, indicating afterward that the panel had been interested in what he knew about Russian hacking. Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

The list of 13 demands issued to Qatar by four Arab nations is non-negotiable, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said yesterday, stating that it’s up to the Qataris to amend their behaviour.” Al Jazeera reports.

Further economic measures against Qatar are being considered by the Gulf nations involved in the ongoing diplomatic dispute with Qatar, the U.A.E. ambassador to Russia Omar Ghobash said today, Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should take advantage of Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-Tenn.) plan to block future arms sales throughout the region as a diplomatic tool to resolve the Gulf-Arab dispute, although the impact of such measures may not be immediate, the New York Times editorial board writes.

CHINA

President Trump is considering trade action against Beijing, frustrated by China’s inaction on North Korea, three senior administration officials told Reuters’ Steve Holland.

“Farm boy” and former six-term governor of Iowa Terry Branstad made his debut as U.S. ambassador to Beijing today, the long-term friend of China’s president tasked with smoothing relations between the world’s two biggest economies in an environment of unpredictable U.S. foreign diplomacy under President Trump, writes Matthew Brown at the AP.

Donald Trump is “a sucker who’s shrinking influence in this region and help make China great again.” Thomas L. Friedman distills the views of some of the Asia-Pacific’s business and political leaders on the president who considers himself a savvy negotiator and whom China knows exactly how to control at the New York Times.

TRUMP-MODI MEETING

A “Trump-Modi nexus” could mean disaster for regional peace, Azad Jammu and Kashmir President Sardar Mohammad Masood Khan warned in a statement yesterday following Trump and Modi’s meeting in Washington in which both leaders called on Pakistan to do more to ensure that its territory is not used by terrorists to launch attacks on other nations, Tariq Naqash reports at DAWN.

China and India “jostled” on their shared border as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the United States earlier this week, Indian analysts interpreting China’s anger as an expression of its dissatisfaction with President Trump’s plan to continue with the U.S.-India strategic maritime partnership begun under his predecessor Barack Obama, and some Chinese analysts interpreting the current spat – one of many examples of border spats interrupting diplomatic visits – as India’s attempt to impress upon President Trump that India could play a central role in controlling Chinese ambitions. Ellen Barry and Yufan Huang write at the New York Times.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

Iran accused Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of concocting “a brazen interventionist plan” in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres circulated yesterday responding to Tillerson’s earlier comments that the U.S. shouldwork toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government,” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

A measure reaffirming U.S. commitment to N.A.T.O.’s mutual defense clause was overwhelmingly passed by the House yesterday after President Trump declined to uphold the clause – known as Article 5 – during a speech last month, since which Vice President Mike Pence and the U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have both said that America still supports Article 5, followed by Trump himself eventually confirming that this was the case during a press conference with Romanian President Klause Iohannis on June 9, Cristina Marcos reports at the Hill.

French President Emmanuel Macron invited President Trump to France for Bastille Day – July 14 – during a phone call yesterday in which the two leaders discussed the threat of a new chemical weapons attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, though it was not immediately clear whether Trump would accept the invitation, Aurelien Breeden reports at the New York Times.

Plan B. The U.N. is giving up on building a decent working relationship with President Trump and instead turning to a new message: Trump is handing the world to China, writes Richard Gowan at POLITICO MAGAZINE.

President Trump’s approach to volatile international situations in the Middle East and elsewhere is making the world a more dangerous place, his warning of renewed U.S. military action in Syria the latest example of an approach that favors violence or threats of violence over diplomacy and private coercion, writes Simon Tisdall at the Guardian.

The present “me” moment for global leaders was inspired by President Trump’s vision of “America First,” a stance which the Washington Post’s David Ignatius argues is actually weakening America by destroying the network of global alliances and institutions on which its power rests.

The MUSLIM BAN

Iran will take “reciprocal action” in response to the Trump administration’s revised temporary ban on entry to the U.S. for travelers from six Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, it said today, Reuters reporting.

“A bigoted ban on Muslims will not keep [the] U.S. safer.” The U.S.’ travel ban was blasted by Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif yesterday, Aresu Eqbali and Asa Fitch report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Supreme Court’s logic expressed in its opinion on the travel ban suggests that it is strongly leaning toward striking down much of the ban when it hears oral arguments in the fall, suggests Corey Brettschneider writing at the New York Times: by keeping some of the injunctions against the order in place, the court was indicating that it agreed with the lower courts that there was a “substantial likelihood” that the ban, at least in part, would be found illegal.

Any decision by the Supreme Court this fall other than that the administration’s case prevails on the merits would be both inconsistent with the court’s precedent and injurious to the Constitution’s separation of powers, and would also compromise the president’s ability to defendant the nation at home and abroad, argue David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey at the Wall Street Journal.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

A wave of cyberattacks hit Europe and beyond as far as the U.S. and India yesterday, the second massive attack in the past two months to use U.S. exploits against the I.T. infrastructure that supports national governments and corporations worldwide, a situation that the chief executive of cybersecurity company Tellagraff warned might become the “new normal,” Andrew Roth and Ellen Nakashima report at the Washington Post.

The ransomware virus includes “Eternal Blue” code believed to have been stolen from the U.S. National Security Agency and which was also used in last month’s “WannaCry” ransomware attack, Jack Stubbs, Pavel Polityuk and Dustin Volz explain at Reuters.

A “vaccine” for the virus has been discovered by security researchers, though it is only capable of making a machine immune from the virus, not preventing it from being a “carrier,” the BBC reports.

The need for determined international action to fight cybercrime is underlined by the latest international cyberattack, Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said today, Reuters reporting.

N.S.A. contractor Reality Winner accused of leaking a top-secret report to the press made her second appearance in federal court yesterday where the judge set her trial date for the fall, Terry Pickard and Daniella Silva report at NBC News.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Six suspected members of an Islamic State cell were arrested in Europe today, four in Spain and one each in Britain and Germany, according to Spain’s Interior Ministry, the man arrested in Britain believed to be the leader of the group who is wanted in several countries, Ciaran Giles reports at the AP.

European N.A.T.O. members and Canada will increase defense spending by 4.3% in 2017, N.A.T.O. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said today, Robin Emmott reports at Reuters.

“Goodbye, weapons! Goodbye, war!” F.A.R.C. leader Rodrigo Londoño declared that the rebels had laid down their arms after 52 years of guerrilla war in Colombia yesterday in a ceremony that signaled to the rest of the nation that the F.A.R.C. would no longer pose a threat to them, even though it may be some time yet before every weapon is accounted for, report Nicholas Casey and Joe Parkin Daniels at the New York Times.

Companies vying to build President Trump’s Mexican border wall will build prototypes by September, a bidding process for contractors to design and construct prototypes currently underway, David Smith reports at the Guardian.

Why is the North Korean economy growing despite economic sanctions and promises of action by China? The Economist explains. 

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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