The Early Edition: July 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.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

Lawmakers expressed alarm that Russia and other countries are interfering in the U.S. political process and voiced serious concerns about the Justice Department and the F.B.I.’s failure to properly enforce the Foreign Agent Registration Act after the long-awaited Senate hearing on foreign influence on U.S. politics yesterday, at which Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort were set to speak until they cut deals with the Senate Judiciary Committee to give their testimony behind the scenes, with the remaining testimonies set to be heard today after yesterday’s hearing was cut short after 90 minutes. Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

The former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under Obama is due to meet with the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed session tomorrow in connection with its ongoing investigation into possible Trump-Russia collusion, one of a slew of interviews with former Obama administration officials by the committee in recent weeks, reports Max Greenwood at the Hill.

Claims by the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) that Rep. Trey Gowdy’s (R-S.C.) acted as a “second attorney” for White House senior adviser Jared Kushner during his interview with the committee Tuesday were untrue, according to one of the three Republicans leading its investigation into Russian interference Rep. Tom Rooney (Fla.), Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

The possible option of installing a new attorney general through a recess appointment if current Attorney General Jeff Sessions quits has been discussed by President Trump with his confidants, according to people briefed on the conversations, Carol D. Leonnig, Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker report at the Washington Post.

Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Trump-Russia investigation was rooted in Law and Justice Department policy and was not due to a failure of political nerve after news broke of his meetings with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during the presidential election, as President Trump seems to think, writes the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

While it’s “heartening” to see that President Trump’s weeklong assault on Sessions has crossed a line even for many of the president’s most dedicated supporters, the New York Times editorial board is puzzled by the sense of surprise they have expressed, Trump’s degradation of Sessions being in line with everything he has said and done since he fired former F.B.I. director James Comey in May.

Any Trump Russia pardons would constitute an obstruction of justice, and are outside of the scope of the president’s power to pardon, which is not intended to be absolute because it was never meant to stop a criminal investigation into him or his family or associates, Bennett Gershman argues at The Daily Beast.

RUSSIA, IRAN and NORTH KOREA SANCTIONS PACKAGE

House and Senate Republicans reached an agreement on the legislation for new sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea yesterday evening, Senate foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker’s office announced, resolving a feud between Corker and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy over the North Korea portion of the bill that the House added when it passed the sanctions package Tuesday – and which will now remain part of the legislation – and paving the way for the bill to reach the desk of President Trump, Jeremy Herb and Deirdre Walsh report at CNN.

House leaders must “expeditiously consider and pass enhancements to the North Korea language,” Corker said last night, while a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell advised that it was not yet clear if the Senate would approve and send the bill to the president’s desk before lawmakers leave for the August recess, Matt Flegenheimer reports at the New York Times.

The proposed sanctions are an extremely unfriendly act and sad news, the Kremlin said yesterday, while the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker insisted that “America first cannot mean that Europe’s interests come last,” expressing his frustration that Washington had failed to work with the E.U. on the issue, Daniel Boffey reports at the Guardian.

Europe must be ready to respond in kind if the U.S. proposed sanctions against Russia hurt its companies, the influential German industry association the German Committee on East European Economic Relations said today, Reuters reports.

Russia could be saddled with the sanctions for decades, restricting economic growth and stopping it from regaining its status as a leading world economic power, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin Alexei Kudrin told Reuters’ Darya Korsunskaya, Alexander Winning and Andrew Osborn.

ISRAEL & PALESTINE

Israel removed the remaining security devices at al-Aqsa mosque this morning, having installed various security measures after two Israeli policemen were killed by Arab Israelis who emerged from the mosque on July 14, Israeli authorities stating that it would introduce less obtrusive security measures over the next six months. The BBC  reports.

Jordan welcomed the removal of Israeli security measures at al-Aqsa mosque, a government spokesperson stating that the dismantling of the security devices was necessary to ease tensions. The AP reports in rolling coverage.

Muslim leaders called on Palestinian worshipers to return to pray inside al-Aqsa mosque following the removal of security devices by Israeli authorities, the head of the Islamic Waqf authority announcing that the first prayers would be held this afternoon, Ian Deitch and Mohammed Daraghmeh report at the AP.

“Now, you are living in the new era of victory,” an elder official of the Islamic Waqf authority Abdel-Azeem Salhad announced today, celebrating the removal of Israeli security measures as a win for the Palestinian people. Al Jazeera reports.

An Israeli legislator said that he would “execute” Palestinian attacker Omar al-Abed and his family at the weekend – referring to the assailant’s killing of three Israelis at a Jewish settlement last week – drawing criticism from Palestinians. Al Jazeera reports.

SYRIA

“The coalition supports only those forces committed to fighting ISIS.” The U.S.-led coalition in Syria has told its local allies that they must focus exclusively on fighting the Islamic State and not the Assad regime, spokesperson Col. Ryan Dillon confirmed yesterday, the decision causing consternation among U.S.-backed groups and leading the Shohada Al Quartyan group to leave the At Tanf garrison. Ryan Browne reports at CNN.

U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) have captured almost half of the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, according to a spokesperson for the Y.P.J. Kurdish Women’s Protection Units and the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the AP reports.

Syrian government forces are advancing on Deir al-Zor province, the forces carrying out a multi-pronged operation against the Islamic State in the east of the country with the aid of Russia and Iran, Reuters reports.

A ceasefire took effect today at the Lebanese-Syrian border after an agreement between the Shi’ite Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fateh al-Sham – formerly known as al-Nusra Front and the dominant force within the Tahrir al-Sham Islamist alliance – in areas near the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Hezbollah claiming that the jihadists have almost been defeated. Tom Perry reports at Reuters.

The next phase of the Hezbollah operation is expected to focus on the Islamic State, as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham face impending defeat in the Arsal area, Al Jazeera reports.

“It will be impossible to establish the truth without a visit to Khan Sheikhoun,” Russia said in a letter to the U.N. stating that accusations by the U.S. and its allies that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in a town in Idlib province on April 14 this year were hastily reached and “very biased,” adding that the evidence from two witnesses suggests that the sarin attack was “an act of provocation by the militants and their foreign sponsors,” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The U.S.-Russia brokered ceasefire empowers al-Qaeda by focusing only on eradicating the Islamic State and not the Assad regime, and the Trump administration’s Syria policy alienates U.S. allies by working with the Kurdish Y.P.G. forces and does nothing to contain Russian and Iranian expansionism. Marc Thiessen points out the flaws in the strategy at the Washington Post and suggests ways forward.

Will the U.S.-Russia brokered ceasefire in southern Syria last? The Economist provides an analysis.

IRAQ

Soldiers from a U.S.-trained Iraqi army division have committed war crimes in the city of Mosul, Human Rights Watch said today, the rights group calling on the U.S. government to suspend support for the division pending investigations, Reuters reports.

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

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE 

U.A.E. asked all its banks and financial institutions to freeze the accounts of 18 individuals and organizations blacklisted by Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Egypt and Bahrain due to their direct or indirect links to Qatar, which the four Arab countries accuse of financing terrorism. Reuters reports.

“It was noticed that the blockade states did not react to the suggestions made by the U.S. Secretary of State,” Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said today ahead of discussions with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, stating that the four Arab nations have ignored the memorandum of understanding between the U.S. and Qatar to combat terrorism and the financing of terrorism. Al Jazeera reports in rolling coverage.

“I believe that maybe the United States also could help in solving this issue in the Gulf,” Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said yesterday at a joint press conference with President Trump, urging parties to the dispute to engage in dialogue. Al Jazeera reports.

North Korea has played a role in the ongoing Gulf Crisis, and there is some truth to the allegations – part of a propaganda campaign by the parties to the dispute – of arms sales between U.A.E. and North Korea and of connections between Qatar and the Pyongyang regime, Adam Taylor writes at the Washington Post.

AFGHANISTAN

At least 26 Afghan soldiers were killed by the Taliban at an army base in Kandahar yesterday, according to the Afghan defense ministry, the attack coming amid an uptick of violence in the country as the Taliban makes advances. Al Jazeera reports.

Fears that the Taliban will conduct a concerted insurgent offensive to take back the province have been raised by the attack on an army base in Kandahar yesterday, Kandahar having been the original seat of the Taliban government until it was ousted by the U.S.-led coalition after years of fighting, Taimoor Shah and Mujib Mashal report at the New York Times.

Negotiating with the Taliban requires the U.S. to commit militarily and politically, and the Trump administration must recognize the perceptions of who is fighting whom and Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, Javid Ahmad writes at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s unsophisticated view of Afghanistan will not end America’ longest running war and the Trump administration’s forthcoming strategy is unlikely to make the war “winnable,” Ishaan Tharoor writes at the Washington Post.

IRAN

A bipartisan resolution calling on Iran to release U.S. citizens being held in detention was passed by the House of Representatives yesterday, a week after the White House released a statement condemning Iran for its practice of taking hostages and detaining U.S. citizens “without just cause or due process,” Cristina Marcos reports at the Hill.

The arbitrary detention of U.S. citizens in Iran warrants a “strong diplomatic response” and early signs suggest that the administration has taken the issue seriously, the Washington Post editorial board writes. 

CHINA

China’s first overseas military base, situated in Djibouti, may be bigger and more secure than previously thought, new satellite imagery revealing it to be heavily fortified with three layers of security and thousands of square meters of underground space, CNN’s Joshua Berlinger reports.

“One of the first things” that the U.K.’s two new aircraft carriers will do is conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in Australia’s Sydney today, in what Ben Doherty cites as pointed remarks aimed squarely at China at the Guardian.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

Senators are expected to unveil a bill requiring the government to obtain warrants to obtain U.S. citizens’ email correspondence today, the bill also expected to cover protections for metadata and improvements to the gag rules, Ali Breland reports at the Hill.

A House panel advanced legislation requiring the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) to provide details on how it discloses cyber vulnerabilities to the private sector yesterday, the current vulnerabilities equities process (V.E.P.) proving to be controversial due to a lack of transparency, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Russian intelligence tried to spy on the election campaign of now-French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this year via fake Facebook accounts, according to people briefed on the effort including a U.S. congressperson, Joseph Menn reporting at Reuters.

Facebook announced yesterday that it is funding a Harvard-based nonprofit fighting cyberattacks aimed at political groups and election systems, Facebook’s efforts coming after C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg tried to downplay the allegations that the social media platform was used to influence the 2016 presidential election. Ali Breland reports at the Hill.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

Sanctions against 13 senior Venezuelan officials were imposed by the U.S. yesterday, a week after President Trump vowed “strong and swift economic sanctions” if his Venezuelan counterpart went ahead of a controversial vote for a new constituent assembly, the BBC reports.

“Did we take Trump too seriously?” The New York Times’ Max Strasser talks to Stephen Wertheim, author of a recent article in which he argued that President Trump has put forward the outlines of a foreign policy doctrine focused on the “defense” of “Western civilization” in his first six months in office, addressing criticism from readers that this argument misguidedly assumes some cogent foreign policy on the part of the president.

The gap between Trump’s lavish foreign policy promises and what he’s actually achieved is enormous. Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky at POLITICO MAGAZINE advocate forgetting the myth of Trump as the “deal-maker par excellence” and focusing in the reality: he’s making bad deals for America.

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

“I’m not going anywhere.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denied rumors that he is leaving the Trump administration yesterday, adding that he would stay “as long as the president lets me.” John Bowden reports at the Hill.

A “remarkable amount” of other administration scandals remain even if you strip away Trump-Russia collusion and the firing of former F.B.I. director James Comey, including the fact that foreign governments are paying Trump, Sarah Holder reminds us at POLITICO MAGAZINE.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump announced without warning a ban on transgender people serving in the military via Twitter yesterday, unbeknown to his defense secretary and Republican congressional leaders, leaving the White House unable to provide basic details about how the it would be carried out and reversing a year-old policy, the president’s justification for doing so being that American forces could not “be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption” that he claimed was caused by transgender service members, Julie Hirshfeld Davis and Helene Cooper report at the New York Times.

The U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott Swift would launch a nuclear strike against China next week if President Trump ordered it, he said today in response to a hypothetical question posed at an Australian National University security conference, warning against the U.S. military ever shifting its allegiance from its commander in chief. Rod McGuirk reports at the AP.

The Islamic State is regrouping in the Libyan countryside and could launch attacks on the port city of Misrata, forces allied to the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli have warned, Al Jazeera reporting.

The Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen was most likely responsible for an attack in the Red Sea on a boat filled with refugees attempting to flee the war zone in March that left over 40 people dead and violated numerous international humanitarian laws, and after which the attackers made no attempt to rescue survivors, a U.N. panel has concluded, its report stating that the fatal shots were probably fired from weaponry that only Saudi Arabia could have possessed, Somini Sengupta reporting at the New York Times that it is not yet clear if the U.N. Security Council will take any action, particularly as the U.S. and Britain – both permanent members of the Council – actively support the Saudi-led coalition.

Congressional proposals to construct new barriers to information-sharing within the intelligence community could make it even harder for officials to identify future terrorists before they attack, warns Adam Klein at the Wall Street Journal, explaining how better information-sharing between the intelligence agencies and the F.B.I. might have prevented the 9/11 attacks.

The ongoing border dispute between China and India on a remote pass through the Himalayan peaks is one of the worst between the regional rival in over 30 years and reflects the rising ambition and nationalism of both countries. Steven Lee Myers, Ellen Barry and Max Fisher explain how China and India have come to the brink 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