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The Early Edition: June 29, 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

“They took the warning seriously.” The White House’s warning that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his forces would face consequences for launching a chemical weapons attack seems to have worked for now, Defense Secretary James Mattis claimed yesterday, Julian E. Barnes reports at the Wall Street Journal.

A U.S. warning not to carry out further chemical weapons attacks was “devoid of any truth and not based on any facts” and was in fact a ploy to justify further direct attacks by the U.S., a Syrian Foreign Ministry source said today, according to Syrian state media. Reuters reports.

Moscow would respond to a U.S. “provocation” in Syria “proportionally and with dignity,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said yesterday, warning the U.S. against launching a pre-emptive strike and casting doubt on the White House’s accusations that the Assad regime used chemical weapons in April, Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

The counter-Islamic State strategy currently being finalized by the Pentagon looks very similar to Obama’s approach, according to senior defense officials, the aim being defeating the militants, staying out of the Syrian Civil War and avoiding a confrontation with Iran, Karen De Young writes at the Washington Post.

Israel’s military targeted a Syrian military post after it fired a mortar that landed in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights during a visit to the region by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday, the AP reports.

U.S. journalist and former marine Austin Tice who is held hostage in Syria is believed to be alive, his parents said in an interview, having received information from the U.S. government, Maya Salam reports at the New York Times.

The chances for confrontation between the U.S. and Iran via their proxies in Syria and elsewhere could jeopardize the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (J.C.P.O.A.), the deal which puts verifiable curbs on Iran’s nuclear program for over a decade, and more, the director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council Barbara Slavin writes at Just Security.

The U.S. military is silent on civilian deaths in Syria, keeping reporters in the dark and making it difficult to hold the military to account, Roy Gutman writes at The Daily Beast.

Islamic State’s ideology shows no signs of disappearing despite the fact that it is on the brink of military defeat, with regional issues and societal instability providing the conditions for the ideology to persist and the opportunity for the Islamic State to re-establish itself, Farah Najjar writes at Al Jazeera.

IRAQ

“Their fictitious state has fallen.” Iraqi forces have retaken the landmark Grand al-Nuri mosque in the battle to recapture Mosul today, the Iraqi military said, an Iraqi military spokesperson telling Iraqi state T.V. that the insurgent’s caliphate was over. Reuters reports.

Iraqi forces are fighting block by block in Mosul and Iraqi commanders hope that the offensive will be completed in the next few days, Maya Alleruzzo reports at the AP.

The Islamic State is facing its “end game” in Mosul and there is “irreversible momentum and progress,” U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said yesterday, the BBC reporting.

As the battle for Mosul reaches its final days the sectarian divisions still pose a problem for the besieged city, Salma Abdelaziz and Nick Paton Walsh report at CNN.

The Trump administration needs a wider strategy in the Middle East after the Islamic State has been defeated, reducing military support for the Iraqi government, understanding Turkey’s fears about the creation of a greater Kurdistan, pressuring countries to step up the fight against Islamic State, and pushing back against Russia and Iran’s gains. John Bolton writes at the Wall Street Journal.

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

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea will continue to build up its nuclear arsenal despite U.N. sanctions, international pressure or military intervention, North Korea’s ambassador to the U.N. Kim In Ryong told the Security Council yesterday. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will discuss the problem of North Korea when they meet for the first time at the White House today, a White House official insisting that the U.S. and South Korea “share precisely the same goal – the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs” in a call with reporters ahead of the meeting. Jonathan Easley reports at the Hill.

Revised military options for North Korea including a military response will be presented to President Trump if Kim Jong-un’s regime conducts an underground nuclear or ballistic missile test that suggests it has made major progress toward developing a weapon capable of reaching America, two U.S. military officials told CNN’s Barbara Starr and Zachary Cohen.

Standing orders for the execution of South Korea’s currently imprisoned former president Park Geun-hye and the director of her National Intelligence Service Lee Byung-ho were issued by North Korea yesterday, which said that the orders could be carried out anytime, anywhere and by any means, amounting to an assassination decree, reports Choe Sang-Hun at the New York Times.

RUSSIA

National Security Council staff have been tasked with coming up with “deliverables” ahead of President Trump’s planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week, former officials told Julian Borger at the Guardian.

Russia is preparing unspecified “retaliatory measures” in response to former president Barack Obama’s decision to seize two Russian diplomatic compounds in December, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said yesterday, Reuters reporting.

A Senate sanctions bill targeting Russia and Iran hit a new hitch yesterday after the G.O.P. failed to commit to new and significant changes to the bill in the House proposed by Democrats, Elana Schor explains at POLITICO.

The Senate is being called on to re-send the Russian sanctions bill, which ran into an unexpected roadblock in the House, before the July 4 recess this week by the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Ed. Royce (R-Calif.) after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced Tuesday that a vote on the G.O.P.’s legislation to partially repeal and replace the healthcare law would be postponed until after the recess, the Hill’s Cristina Marcos reports.

Britain’s new aircraft carrier the H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth presents “a large convenient target,” the Russian military said today, warning Britain that it would be wise to keep its distance from Russia’s warships. Andrew Osborn and Dmitry Solovyov report at Reuters.

What threat does Russia pose and to whom? Jonathan Marcus explores the issues at the BBC following news that Russia will deploy troops in response to N.A.T.O.’s deployment of troops eastwards. 

AFGHANISTAN

N.A.T.O. agreed to send more troops to Afghanistan in response to a request from N.A.T.O. commanders to send around 3,000 additional troops, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg saying that 15 nations had already promised “additional contributions” and that more were expected later in the day ahead of a N.A.T.O. defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels today, Lorne Cook reports at the AP.

Two Taliban groups that recently switched allegiance to the Islamic State have taken over the Darzab district in northern Afghanistan, a new front for the Islamic State, which is opposed to the Taliban as well as the Afghan government, Jawad Sukhanyar and Rod Nordland report at the New York Times.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

President Trump accepted French President Emmanuel Macron’s invitation to attend the Bastille Day military parade on July 14 yesterday, in which American soldiers will take part, France 24 reports.

Macron wants to work with Trump on counter-terrorism and said France would be “perfectly aligned with the U.S.” on responding to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, he said in his first interview since becoming president last week, Angelique Chrisafis examining the two leaders’ interactions so far at the Guardian.

A plan to merge all or parts of the U.S. Agency for International Development into the State Department and close 40 percent of U.S.A.I.D. missions abroad has been set in motion by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Andrew Natsios at the Washington Post explaining why that’s a bad idea.

“Just 5 months into our time here, we’ve cut over half a billion from the U.N. peacekeeping budget and we’re only getting started.” U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley tweeted a bemusing message last night, the Hill’s Jacqueline Thomsen reports.

“For me, it’s been helpful.” Keeping foreign governments guessing about President Trump’s next foreign policy move is a good thing, U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley told Congress yesterday, saying that it served as a powerful negotiating lever helping to secure cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars in peacekeeping costs. Colum Lynch writes at Foreign Policy.

The head of presidential personnel office Johnny DeStefano was attacked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week for dismissing his appointments to senior State Department positions and questioning his judgment, Tillerson complaining that President Trump promised him space to make the decisions and hires he considered best, a senior White House aide told POLITICO’s Josh Dawsey, Eliana Johnson and Alex Isenstadt.

The MUSLIM BAN

President Trump’s revised travel ban targeting travelers from six Muslim-majority countries will go into effect today, likely in the evening, a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson telling NBC News last night that “detailed guidance will be provided to D.H.S. professionals.”

State Department guidelines outlining new criteria for visa applicants from the countries affected by the ban compiled following Monday’s Supreme Court decision partially reinstating the ban state that new applicants must prove a relationship to a “close” relative already resident in the U.S. to be eligible for a visa, “close” relative defined as a parent, spouse, child, adult son or daughter, son or daughter-in-law or sibling – excluding categories that were laid out in the Supreme Court opinion – Al Jazeera reports.

Grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, brothers- and sisters-in law, fiances or other extended family members are not included in the definition of “close” family relationships in the new guidelines sent to all U.S. embassies and consulates late last night, the AP reports.

The new rules are unlikely to impact immediately at airports in the U.S. or elsewhere, instead being most apparent in the decision-making by embassy and other government officials around the world as to who is granted a visa under the travel ban, Laura Meckler and Brent Kendall explain at the Wall Street Journal.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

A plan to file a complaint against fired F.B.I. director James Comey with the Justice Department centering on his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in which he admitted to arranging for his memos recording his conversations with President Trump to be passed to the media is being postponed by Trump’s personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz, the Hill’s Jordan Fabian reports.

Election officials in 21 states were asked to make public information about Russian attempts to hack their election systems during last year’s presidential election by the Senate Intelligence Committee in a letter sent last week, the Hill’s Katie Bo Williams reports.

Former chief of staff to special counsel Robert Mueller Daniel Levin was approached by President Trump’s lawyers to join his personal legal team to deal with the growing probe into possible collusion with Russia, as someone familiar with Mueller and his approach to investigations, reports Josh Dawsey at POLITICO.

There’s a convincing argument that the U.S. Republican Party is already similar to Putin-supported parties in Europe given its increasingly favorable views of Moscow and the House G.O.P. leadership’s disinterest in investigating possible Russian interference in last year’s presidential election, yet it is ultimately up to Republican leaders to stop future Russian attacks on American democracy because they control both the executive and legislative branches, leaving them with a choice: liberty in an independent America or to serve a distant, self-serving master, writes former C.I.A. operations officer and independent candidate in last year’s presidential election Evan McMullin at the Washington Post.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

Airlines worldwide are being requested to increase security measures for flights headed for the U.S. or face the possibility of a total electronics ban for planes by the Homeland Security Department, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly announced yesterday, France 24. reporting.

Passengers on U.S.-bound planes will be subjected to more “extensive screening measures” from this summer under enhanced procedures that will affect 105 countries, 180 airlines and an average of 2,000 daily flights implemented in lieu of imposing a laptop ban, the Hill’s Melanie Zanona reports.

A provision that would block the use of products from Russian-based global cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab over concerns that it “might be vulnerable to Russian government influence” is included in the Senate’s draft of the Department of Defense’s budget rules, Reuters’ Dustin Volz tweeted yesterday.

The National Security Agency was requested to release everything it knows about the huge ransomware attack that spread globally this week by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) in a letter to the agency’s director, in which Lieu also urged the deployment of a “kill switch” to shut down the ransomware, if one exists. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

Paralysis may have been the motive behind Tuesday’s “ransomware” attack which began in Kiev, Ukraine and spread around Europe and beyond, a far more sinister motive than blackmail, cybersecurity experts said yesterday, with many Ukrainians suspecting that Russia was behind the attack. Andrew E. Kramer writes at the New York Times.

There is growing concern that U.S. intelligence agencies have rushed to create cyberweapons that they cannot keep safe or disable once they fall into the wrong hands after National Security Agency cyberweapons were used in two attacks against two very different U.S. partners in the past month, the N.S.A. itself keeping quiet while the White House has deflected many questions and insisted that the focus should be on the attackers themselves, not the originators of the weapons they used. Nicole Perlroth and David E. Sanger write at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The House Armed Services Committee easily passed its $696.5 billion defense policy last night, which now moves to the full House for a vote after the July 4 recess, the Hill’s Rebecca Kheel explaining that the bill would require the Pentagon to craft a comprehensive strategy on Russia, among various other provisions.

The U.S. and Australia began their biggest ever joint military exercises today, a show of force aimed at allies and potential foes, including China, alike, reports Colin Packham at Reuters.

Israeli forces shot and killed a Palestinian who opened fire on them today in the West Bank, according to Israel’s military, the AP reports.

The bodies of 17 mutilated civilians were recovered in the Philippine city of Marawi yesterday, according to the Philippine military, bringing the death toll in more than a month of fighting with Islamic State-inspired militants to 44 civilians, 71 soldiers and police officers and 299 militants. Felipe Villamour reports at the New York Times.

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About the Authors

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

is an assistant news editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK.