The Early Edition: August 3, 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.

NORTH KOREA

The “grave threat” posed by North Korea was stressed by White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster in an interview with MSNBC’s “Hugh Hewitt” yesterday, though he refused to confirm a report that stated that U.S. officials now believe that Pyongyang is capable of targeting the majority of the United States following its latest ballistic missile launch.

The right U.S. strategy on North Korea doesn’t involve “engaging North Korea directly,” Vice President Mike Pence said yesterday, rejecting the idea of direct talks with Pyongyang in favor of economic and diplomatic pressure combined with pressing China to use its clout with the Kim Jong-un regime. Peter Nicholas writes at the Wall Street Journal.

Talks on how North Korea can be removed from Asia’s biggest security forum the A.S.E.A.N. Regional Forum are being sought by Washington as part of a wider drive to isolate Pyongyang diplomatically, Jim Gomez reports at the AP.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments that the U.S. does not seem regime change in North Korea and would like dialogue with Pyongyang were welcomed by China today, which said it had always supported talks. Michael Martina reports at Reuters.

China called on “all parties” not to take any actions that “will lead to an escalation in tensions,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi saying that China had already “clearly expressed our opposition” to the latest ballistic missile launch by North Korea “once again in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions” at a news conference in Beijing yesterday. Reuters reports.

Travel to North Korea on a U.S. passport will be banned from Sept. 1 this year, with some exceptions, the State Department announced yesterday, Chris Benderev reporting at NPR.

The internal Trump administration debate over what course to take on North Korea is laid bare by the combination of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s offer of open negotiations and “the security they seek” to Pyongyang and the ensuing test by the U.S. of an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile which, though the Pentagon said it was not intended as a response to North Korea’s earlier test, military officials cited as a demonstration that the U.S. was ready “to deter, detect and defend against attacks on the United States and its allies,” writes David E. Sanger at the New York Times.

Why is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson trying to take options on North Korea off the table? The Wall Street Journal editorial board suggests that there are two interpretations of Tillerson’s “no regime change” promise Tuesday, one being that he believes that Kim Jong-un will negotiate away his nuclear weapons if the U.S. gives him enough assurances and incentive, the second being that Tillerson hopes to convince China to help with solving the North Korea problem, and he is playing the good cop in the dialogue with Beijing.

We need more contact between the people of North Korea, South Korea and the U.S., not less. Christine Ahn explains why the North Korea travel ban will do more harm than good at the New York Times.

RUSSIA SANCTIONS BILL

President Trump called a bill imposing heavy sanctions on Russia for interfering in the presidential election “significantly flawed” and unconstitutional in parts even as he signed it into law “for the sake of national unity” yesterday, behind closed doors. Natalie Andrews and Rebecca Ballhaus write at the Wall Street Journal.

An explanation of Trump’s signing statement is provided by Charlie Savage at the New York Times.

The new Russia sanctions legislation sends a message to Russia that the U.S. will not tolerate its interference and “destabilizing behaviors,” Vice President Mike Pence said yesterday, Brooke Seipel reporting at the Hill.

Russia is determined to defend its economic interests in the face of the new U.S. sanctions package, the Kremlin said today, Reuters reporting.

President Trump is “showing weakness” by signing the Russia sanctions bill into law, among the consequences for doing so an end to “hopes for improving our relations with the new U.S. administration,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote in a Facebook post yesterday, Mallory Shelbourne reports at the Hill.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was satisfied that the U.S. Russia sanctions bill calls for close coordination with allies but Brussels remains ready to “defend our economic interests vis-à-vis the United States,” he said yesterday, Florian Eder reporting at POLITICO.

Round two on Russia. Congress is now moving to force the Pentagon to violate a 1987 nuclear arms treaty with Russia via language in key defense bills that would require the U.S. military to begin developing medium-range missiles banned under the treaty, those in favor of the move saying that it is necessary because Russian President Putin has already violated part of the treaty. Bryan Bender explains at POLITICO.

Simultaneous policies of accommodation and confrontation toward Russia combined with a fight for influence between Congress and President Trump are exacerbating perilous U.S.-Russia relations, Moscow’s reactions to Trump signing the sanctions bill yesterday revealing the fury at the new constraints on the Russian economy but also containing a note of personal contempt for President Trump himself for the first time, writes Stephen Collinson at CNN.

SYRIA

A new “de-escalation” zone has been agreed north of the Syrian city of Homs, Russia defense ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov told Russia state media today, Reuters reports.

“Many members of civil society are troubled by some international actors’ attempts to dictate who sits around the negotiation table,” a coalition of 160 Syrian civil society groups said an open letter to the U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura, expressing frustration with the U.N.-brokered peace process and adding that “precious time” was being wasted on discussions about “process and representation,” Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

Militants and refugees are being transported to a largely jihadist-controlled area of Syria following a cease-fire deal between Lebanese Shi’ite militia group Hezbollah and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in the Arsal area on the Syrian-Lebanese border, Ben Hubbard explains at the New York Times.

The C.I.A. covert program aiding the rebels in Syria came to a swift end due to the inefficiency and the restrictions of the program, Mark Mazetti, Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt explain at the New York Times.

Syria is divided between the various parties to the war and there are significant differences in attitude throughout the country, the presumed victory of President Bashar al-Assad raising questions about how Syria will reunite once the war is over. Erika Solomon writes at the Financial Times.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out nine airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Aug. 1. Separately, partner forces conducted three strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

IRAN

The U.S.’ main purpose in imposing additional sanctions against Iran is “to destroy the J.C.P.O.A.,” an Iranian official said today, referring to the Iran nuclear deal, Euan McKirdy and Nick Paton Walsh report at CNN.

President Trump is intent on wrecking the Iran nuclear deal. Since signing off on Iran’s compliance with the deal – with great reluctance – earlier this month, he means to declare that it is noncompliant regardless of any evidence to the contrary, a move that may sit well with American allies in the Middle East who desperately want a tougher line with Iran, while what the U.S. has to gain from antagonizing Iran and the other parties to the agreement remains unclear, Ishaan Tharoor writes at the Washington Post.

President Trump’s previous rhetoric around the nuclear deal – the “worst deal ever” – is starting to get real, the president seemingly determined to renege on the deal even if it means ignoring evidence and sidelining his administration, while Iran and the other signatories of the deal continue to uphold it, writes Marc Martinez at The Daily Beast.

AFGHANISTAN

Two U.S. service members were killed in a suicide bomb attack in southern Afghanistan yesterday, the Defense Department confirmed, Gordon Lubold and Dion Nissenbaum writing that the incident underscores the danger to U.S. troops in Afghanistan at a time when the Trump administration is struggling with a decision on the way forward there at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump repeatedly suggested that the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan Gen. John Nicholson should be replaced because he is losing the war there during a July 19 meeting with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, according to two senior administration officials. Carol E. Lee and Courtney Kube report at NBC News.

Afghanistan is a war America cannot win, writes Sun Engel Rasmussen at the Guardian, describing the situation in Helmand, where this fact is most evident.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

Qatar agreed to purchase seven Italian warships yesterday in what Declan Walsh at the New York Times calls the nation’s “latest example of checkbook defiance” in its ongoing feud with four neighboring Arab countries and the latest sign that the diplomatic crisis – which began two months back – is unlikely to abate soon.

A tweet by President Trump accusing Qatar of “funding terrorism” while his aides were in talks about how to diffuse tensions between Qatar and the four Arab nations with which it has been feuding since July 5 left them with no choice but the rework their policy to reflect his assertions, two people involved in the conference call told the AP.

CHINA

 “China will take all necessary measures to safeguard its legitimate and lawful rights and interests,” China’s foreign ministry said yesterday, taking an increasingly tougher line against India in a border dispute, India’s foreign ministry responding that “peace and tranquillity” at the border is required for bilateral relations. Ben Blanchard reports at Reuters.

A Chinese warship is assisting the U.S. Navy in its search for a missing sailor who may have gone overboard during operations in the South China Sea “in the spirit of humanitarianism,” China’s Defense Ministry said in a statement today, the AP reports.

TURKEY

Closer security cooperation with China was pledged by Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu during a trip to Beijing today, vowing that Turkey would root out militants plotting against China in its Xinjiang region and treat threats to China’s security as threats to itself, Gerry Shih reports at the AP.

New leaders for Turkey’s army, navy and air force were approved by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan yesterday amid an ongoing purge of suspected supporters of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen blamed for a failed coup last year, but also part of a longterm effort to impose civilian control over the once-dominant Turkish military, reports Carlotta Gall at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

There is a “high interest” among congressional investigators probing Trump-Russia collusion in Donald Trump Jr.’s phone records related to his meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya during last year’s presidential election, CBS News reports.

New White House chief of staff John Kelly called Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the weekend to reassuring him that his job was safe despite the recent onslaught of criticism from President Trump, a source familiar with the call told Peter Alexander at NBC News.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council Ezra Cohen-Watnick left the agency, the White House confirmed yesterday, the latest of a series of exits from the N.S.A. under H.R. McMaster, who has reportedly tried to purge appointees of his predecessor Michael Flynn, Mallory Shelbourne reports at the Hill.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis served as an unpaid military adviser to the U.A.E. before joining the trump administration, CNN’s Jeremy Herb reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

There is no need for a new war authorization bill but the administration would not oppose the creation of one. The Trump administration gave lawmakers mixed signals yesterday on a more tailored war authorization bill they are pushing for to replace the 2001 A.U.M.F. which provides legal justification for fighting al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

An agreement that allows two former Guantánamo Bay detainees to remain in Ghana created by the country’s former president was ratified by lawmakers there yesterday, after Ghana’s Supreme Court ruled in June that the decision to grant the men a place to start new lives in January last year had been unconstitutional. The AP reports.

Libyan naval bases have been commanded to confront any vessel entering Libyan waters without military permission by the commander of the self-styled national army Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, the AP reports.

A suicide bombing in southern Yemen yesterday killed five soldiers and injured several others, officials telling Reuters that they suspected that local al-Qaeda affiliates were behind the attack.

Weeks of ongoing clashes between security forces and armed fighters are forcing hundreds of people to flee the town of Awamiya in Saudi Arabia, the latest intensification of intermittent unrest in the mainly Shi’a Eastern Province, the BBC reports. 

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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