The Early Edition: August 7, 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

North Korea’s top diplomat held talks with his counterparts from China, South Korea and Russia at the A.S.E.A.N. security summit today in what Gardiner Harris at the New York Times observes was the first real multiparty bargaining session since 2009 to address North Korea’s nuclear program, the only members of the original six-party dialogue that ended in 2009 who did not speak to him being the U.S. and Japan, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson telling reporters that the U.S. had no specific preconditions for negotiating with North Korea but that demonstrating that it was prepared to stop its missile launches would be the “best signal.”

North Korea rejected an offer of talks from South Korea during an exchange between the two nations’ foreign ministers on the sidelines of the A.S.E.A.N. forum yesterday, Julia Kim reports at France 24.

The U.S. will “pay a price” for drafting new U.N. sanctions against it that were unanimously passed by the U.N. Security Council Saturday, North Korea’s official news agency warned, the BBC reporting.

The sanctions block other countries from buying North Korean coal, its coal trade accounting for as much as one third of its exports and explaining how it was able to continue to develop missiles despite being impoverished and under trade sanctions, plugging a loophole that allowed countries to purchase coal from North Korea for “humanitarian trade,” Peter Whoriskey explains at the Washington Post.

President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in committed to fully implementing the new U.N. sanctions against North Korea, agreeing that North Korea posed “a grave and growing direct threat to the United States, South Korea, and Japan” in a phone call last night, the White House confirmed, Katrina Manson, Barney Jopson and Yuan Yang report at the Financial Times.

Trump is “very happy and impressed with the 15-0 United Nations vote on North Korea sanctions,” according to a tweet he issued this morning.

“It was a good outcome.” Tillerson praised the U.N. decision to impose additional sanctions on North Korea at a midday conclave with South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha yesterday, Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

The international community is “not playing anymore” and it’s time North Korea realized it, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said in the wake of the Security Council’s decision to impose new sanctions against it, the Hill’s Olivia Beavers reports.

All sides should exercise restraint and make positive moves to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, China’s Foreign Ministry said today, adding that it had always supported resolution through talks. Reuters reports.

North Korea should avoid provoking the international community at this “very critical phase” for the situation on the Korean Peninsula, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said yesterday, telling reporters that he had advised North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho not to violate the U.N. sanctions when they met on the sidelines of the A.S.E.A.N. forum yesterday. The Guardian’s Tom Phillips reports.

The unanimous decision to impose further U.N. sanctions on North Korea is a demonstration of how the international system should work, yet rarely has, with even China and Russia supporting the resolution, and offers a rare glimmer of hope, writes Mary Dejevsky at the Guardian.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

Trump has “not directed us to investigate particular people,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said yesterday when asked whether he took the president’s comments last week that prosecutors should look at former campaign rival Hillary Clinton’s “33,000 deleted emails” as an order, Zachary Warmbrodt reports at POLITICO.

Special counsel Robert Mueller can investigate any crimes he may discover within the scope of his probe, Rosenstein clarified yesterday, but refused to discuss who is the subject of the investigation in an interview with “Fox News Sunday,” Kelsey Snell and John Wagner observing at the Washington Post that the comments come days after President Trump said he believes it would inappropriate for Mueller to look into the Trump family finances.

Firing special counsel Robert Mueller tasked with investigating Trump-Russia collusion would cross a line and prompt bipartisan pushback in the Senate, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) warned yesterday after he and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) introduced legislation that would allow any special counsel to challenge their firing in court last week, Julia Manchester reports at the Hill.

President Trump has not even discussed firing special counsel Robert Mueller, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway insisted yesterday on ABC’s This Week.

Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein’s comment yesterday that if Mueller finds “something outside” the current scope of his Trump-Russia investigation he would need to come to Rosenstein for “permission to expand” the investigation means that Rosenstein could green light an investigation into a potential crime that had nothing to do with Trump-Russia collusion, Matt Lewis at The Daily Beast calling it a major development that is potentially even more explosive when considered alongside two related issues: the leaked conversations between  Trump and other world leaders, and Trump’s speech in Huntingdon, West Virginia, last week when he said that Democrats were trying to cheat Americans out of the leadership they want with fake news.

It’s high time Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – clearly a witness in the Trump-Russia investigations – recused himself, writes Jonathan Turkey at the Hill, recalling that the decision to fire former F.B.I. director James Comey was attributed to Rosenstein, who then reportedly clashed with the White House over its public account of that decision.

TILLERSON-LAVROV MEETING

Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election has seriously damaged the relationship between the two nations, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at the A.S.E.A.N. Regional Forum in the Philippines today, following a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov yesterday, calling the interference a “serious incident” that the U.S. and Russia would “simply have to find some way to deal with.” Ivan Watson and James Griffiths reports at CNN.

Tillerson tried to help Lavrov understand “just how serious” the issue of Russia’s meddling in the presidential election had been, he told reporters yesterday, Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. plans to deliver a response to Russia’s expulsion of hundreds of U.S. diplomats by September 1, Tillerson said today, while Lavrov claimed that there was readiness for engagement with the U.S. on North Korea, Syria and Ukraine, among other issues, despite tensions between the two countries. Josh Lederman reports at the AP.

“[Tillerson] was primarily interested … in details of those decisions that we grudgingly made in response to the law on anti-Russian sanctions,” Lavrov said of his meeting with the Secretary of State on Sunday, adding that Russia “provided an explanation” for taking over compound in Moscow leased by the U.S. embassy and for cutting U.S. diplomatic presence. Reuters reports.

Russia is showing “some willingness” to begin discussions about a resolution to the Ukraine crisis, Tillerson said today after the meeting with Lavrov, Lavrov announcing that the Trump administration was sending its special representative for Ukraine negotiations to Moscow for talks. The AP provides this and other updates in rolling coverage of Tillerson’s meeting with Lavrov today.

“We should find places we can work together [with Russia]… In places we have differences we’re going to have to continue to find ways to address those,” Tillerson told reporters today, Karen Lema reports at Reuters.

AFGHANISTAN

A combination of Taliban and Islamic State fighters killed at least 50 civilians in Afghanistan’s northern Sar-e Pul province yesterday, according to a spokesperson for the provincial governor, the victims mainly Shi’ite Muslims, the BBC reports.

The Taliban denied cooperating with the Islamic State, denied killing civilians and claimed they had killed government-supported militia, according to Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid. Mujib Mashal, Fahim Abed and Najim Rahim report at the New York Times.

“The president’s already made some important decisions on Afghanistan,” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said in an interview Saturday, responding to questions on the yet-to-be-announced comprehensive strategy on Afghanistan, stating that the White House wants to see a “change in behavior” from interested parties, such as Pakistan. John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s pact with Vice President Abdurrashid Dostum has failed to unite the country, further exposing ethnic divisions and causing consternation among former warlords. Max Bearak explains at the Washington Post.

SYRIA

“Nothing happened for seven years. Now I resigned,” Carla del Ponte, a Swiss prosecutor at the U.N. Panel investigating war crimes in Syria, said yesterday, expressing hope that her resignation would motivate the U.N. to take action, Somini Sengupta reports at the New York Times.

Del Ponte’s frustration stemmed from a lack of “political will” and the absence of a signal to establish a war crimes trial or an intention to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court, Reuters reports.

Saudi Arabia reiterated its belief that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has no role in the future of Syria in a statement by the foreign ministry yesterday, stating its support for a transitional body to run the country once the war comes to an end and countering reports that Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir supports a political transition with a first phase in which Assad would remain in power. Reuters reports.

The revenue from looted antiquities from Syria and Iraq are becoming more important as the Islamic State loses territory and access to other revenue streams, such as oil, the smugglers operating in a “gray market” which targets U.S. and European buyers. Benoit Faucon, Georgi Kantchev and Alistair MacDonald explain at the Wall Street Journal.

IRAN

“Those who want to tear apart the J.C.P.O.A. [nuclear deal] should know that they would also be tearing apart their political life,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused the U.S. of being an “unreliable partner” and urged European countries to refrain from following the Trump administration’s approach, according to a translation of his comments at his inauguration on Saturday by the BBC.

The Trump administration may be able to avoid a diplomatic crisis if it de-certifies Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, however it would need to approach the situation carefully and it is unclear how Iran would react, Josh Rogin writes at the Washington Post.

The Trump administration’s approach to Iran risks changing the country’s internal dynamics, granting hardliners the opportunity to obstruct the Iranian government’s agenda and undermining U.S. efforts to curb Iranian expansionism, Ali Vaez writes at the New York Times.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

Qatar and Turkey held joint military exercises today, carried out to defend “vital economic, strategic and infrastructure facilities,” according to Qatar’s state-owned newspaper Al-Sharq. Reuters reports.

Israel plans to ban Qatar’s Al Jazeera network, Israel’s Communications Minister Ayoob Kara said yesterday, citing Al Jazeera’s support for “terrorism” and “religious radicalization” and that the network “is a tool of the Islamic State (group), Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran,” the AP reports.

“We have based our decision on the move by Sunni Arab states to close the Al Jazeera offices and prohibiting their work,” Kara said yesterday, setting out his request to close Al Jazeera’s offices in Jerusalem and revoke its journalists’ credentials, Al Jazeera reports.

Al Jazeera “will take the necessary legal measures” against Israel’s decision, the network said in a statement today, adding that it would watch developments from the decision “closely,” the AP reports.

The burgeoning U.A.E.-Saudi relationship has seen a shift in regional politics, aided by a close personal relationship between Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.A.E.’ Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, leading to a more aggressive foreign policy including the isolation of Qatar. Margharita Stancati explains at the Wall Street Journal.

YEMEN

Thousands of Yemeni troops are involved in an offensive in Shabwa Province aimed at driving al-Qaeda militants from one of their last major strongholds in the south of the country, Saeed al-Batati and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

The “disregard” for civilians’ safety demonstrated by all sides in Yemen’s war was typified by Friday’s Saudi-led coalition air raids on a house in Saada province which left twelve people dead, the U.N.’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen Jamie McGoldrick said over the weekend, Al Jazeera reports.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

The Trump administration’s mixed messages have hindered India’s interests, the U.S. seemingly unable to understand India’s concerns in a number of areas, including: the China-India border dispute, China’s expansionism, and a lack of strategy for Afghanistan. Jackson Diehl writes at the Washington Post.

Does the Trump administration have the ability to stop a war between China and India? Bruce Reidel explains the dynamics of the China-India border dispute and how JFK defused tensions during the 1962 Sino-India War at The Daily Beast.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and his team have failed to offer anything by way of strategy or even goals in the Middle East after seven months in position as the man President Trump has entrusted with brokering “the ultimate deal,” Middle East peace, and though the White House insists that there is a plan – a secret one – it’s not known whether the U.S. is working toward a two-state solution that was previously the bulwark of U.S. policy. Katrina Manson and John Reed write at the Financial Times.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is a micromanager with few diplomatic successes and has failed to give direction to many of his departments, his critics have said, and his efforts to reorganize the State Department and centralize decision-making have contributed to paralysis. Gardiner Harris explains at the New York Times.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

U.S. States have stepped up defenses to election systems to counter cybersecurity threats in the upcoming 2018 state elections, following allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

A U.S. judge has set bail of $30,000 for British cybersecurity researcher Marcus Hutchins – who rose to prominence after neutralizing the global “WannaCry” ransomware attack – accused of creating and distributing software designed to steal online financial information, Al Jazeera reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

China was urged to ensure that a South China Sea code of conduct would be legally binding by Australia, Japan and the U.S. today, who committed to drawing up the code yesterday, adding that they were strongly opposed to “coercive unilateral actions” at the A.S.E.A.N. forum. Manuel Mogato reports at Reuters.

Jordan’s King Abdullah will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah today in the wake of weeks of tension in Jerusalem’s Old City over restrictions against Muslims at al-Aqsa Mosque compound which has also left the relationship between Jordan and Israel on shaky ground, Al Jazeera’s Scott Heidler reports.

A U.S. military Osprey aircraft that crashed off the Australian coast Saturday leaving three Marines missing was located by an Australian Navy survey ship today, Australia’s Defense Minister Marise Payne confirmed. James Regan reports at Reuters.

The U.S. Army has embraced Cold War-era skills to counter threats from Russia in Eastern Europe, as demonstrated by a 10-day exercise with 25,000 U.S. and allied troops last month in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, marking a significant change from the skills learned by troops to counter insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eric Schmitt explains 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