The Early Edition: September 18, 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 Korean leader Kim Jong-un is “going to have to give up his nuclear weapons,” White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said yesterday, reiterating the White House position that North Korea must denuclearize and that “all options are on the table” if the regime continues to threaten the U.S. and its allies; prompting criticism from some who argue that Kim would be unlikely to give up developing his nuclear weapons program. Gordon Lubold and Ben Leubsdorf report at the Wall Street Journal.

If Pyongyang’s “reckless behavior” leads the U.S. to defend itself or its allies, “North Korea will be destroyed,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said yesterday, adding that “none of us want war” but that “something is going to have to be done.” David Nakamura and Anne Gearan report at the Washington Post.

“We have pretty much exhausted all the things that we can do at the Security Council at this point,” Haley also said yesterday, stating that it was not an empty threat when the president said last month that North Korea would face “fire and fury” if it continued its belligerent behavior. Eli Watkins reports at CNN.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized that the Trump administration seeks a peaceful solution to the crisis, in an interview yesterday, but stated that “if our diplomatic efforts fail, though, our military option will be the only one left,” Rebecca Savransky reporting at the Hill.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Trump agreed on the need to “exert stronger and practical sanctions” on North Korea and to strengthen cooperation, a spokesperson for the South Korean presidential Blue House said yesterday. Reuters reporting.

Trump asked President Moon how “Rocket Man is doing,” the president tweeted yesterday, seemingly mocking the North Korean leader and making the comments after his advisers reiterated the White House position that the regime would face destruction if it continued its behavior. Joanna Walters reports at the Guardian.

North Korea’s aim “is to establish the equilibrium of real force with the U.S. and make the U.S. rulers dare not talk about a military option,” the North Korean state K.C.N.A. news agency quoted Kim as saying on Saturday, the AP reports.

China and Russia began joint naval exercises today close to the Russia-North Korea border, the U.S. and South Korea also conducting joint military exercises today, flying bombers and fighter jets over the Korean peninsula. Ben Blanchard and Hyonhee Shin report at Reuters.

Kuwait will expel North Korea’s ambassador and four other diplomats, in response to pressure from the international community to limit its relationship with Pyongyang, Kuwait providing the only diplomatic post for North Korea in the Gulf. Jon Gambrell reports at the AP.

Direct talks and a “security guarantee other than the nuclear bomb” are needed to deal with the North Korean threat, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said in comments reported by a German newspaper today. The AP reports.

The ban on North Korea’s garment industry will have an impact across North Korean society and will primarily impact women, according to analysts – marking a change from previous U.N. Security Council resolutions which emphasized that sanctions were targeted at the regime. Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

“The international community must stay united and enforce the sanctions” in light of North Korea’s threat, and the adoption of U.N. Security Council sanctions would be ineffective without proper implementation. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe writes at the New York Times.

North Korea’s missile program may no longer be reliant on outside suppliers and the regime may be producing the potent U.D.M.H. fuel needed to power the missiles itself. William J. Broad and David E. Sanger explain the perspectives of intelligence officials and experts at the New York Times.

Russia could be an effective broker with North Korea, having interests in Pyongyang like China but not as directly affected by the regime’s nuclear ambitions than the U.S., South Korea or China, Dmitri Trenin writes at the New York Times.

Sanctions can only go so far and diplomacy remains the “final option,” the Trump administration would be wise to consider the North Korean threat within a wider Asia strategy and a long-term policy goal that ensures that the U.S. and its allies are militarily dominant in the region. James P. Rubin writes at POLITICO Magazine.

SYRIA

Russian forces struck a location “known to the Russians to contain Syrian Democratic Forces and Coalition advisers” near the eastern province of Deir al-Zour, causing injuries to U.S.-backed Kurdish-dominated S.D.F. fighters, according to a statement by Operation Inherent Resolve on Saturday.

The communications line between the U.S. and Russia was apparently not used in this instance, and a spokesperson for the Russian Defense Ministry, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said that such an incident wasn’t possible but didn’t add any details. Ben Kesling, Nathan Hodge and Felicia Schwartz report at the Wall Street Journal.

The chief of Russia’s general staff and the chairman of U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed the allegations by phone for an hour, a Russian newspaper reported yesterday. Reuters reporting.

Turkey deployed military convoys and vehicles to its southern border with Syria, the Turkish state Anadolu news agency reported yesterday, with Syrian opposition officials and activists expecting the Turkish troops to advance into Syria as part of the agreement for de-escalation zones brokered at talks last week in the Kazakh capital of Astana. Al Jazeera reports.

The battlefield in the oil-rich Deir al-Zour province has become increasingly congested and complicated, with tensions now heightened following the U.S.-led coalition’s accusation that Russia attacked S.D.F. forces. Louisa Loveluck explains at the Washington Post.

As the Islamic State group nears defeat, regional and world powers scramble for power in Syria, in a bid that is likely to “get messy” as the various parties pursue their competing interests. Liz Sly provides an analysis of the endgame in Syria at the Washington Post.

A stranded convoy containing Islamic State fighters was allowed to continue its journey to Deir al-Zour following a Russian request for the U.S. to stop monitoring the convoy in the desert as part of “deconfliction” efforts. Rod Nordland and Eric Schmitt explain the circumstances surrounding the request at the New York Times.

IRAN

Iran and the U.S. yesterday accused each other of reneging on commitments contained in the 2015 nuclear deal, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson observing that Iran’s “technical compliance” with the agreement does not detract from its “destabilizing activities” in the Middle East, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tweeting that the U.S.’ attitude exposed its “viciousness.” Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

A “wrong move” by the U.S. on the nuclear deal would lead to a “reaction” from Iran, Khamenei was quoted as saying yesterday on Iranian state television, Reuters reports.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reiterated the importance of the nuclear deal to the international community yesterday, explaining its benefits by analogy to a dinner party ahead of his trip to the U.S. for the U.N. General Assembly. The AP reports.

The nuclear deal is set to be a key point of contention at the U.N. General Assembly this week, with Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expected to attack the agreement, and European allies seeking to convince Trump to commit to the deal. Julian Borger explains at the Guardian.

Iran’s actions in the Middle East pose a threat, but “Trump may be about to make everything worse” by withdrawing from the nuclear deal, which would do nothing to rein in Tehran’s expansionism and would send a message that the U.S. does not keep its promises. The Economist writes.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces recaptured the area of Akashat on Saturday, making the advance in the western part of the country near the borders with Syria and Jordan and helping to secure the newly reopened border crossing with Jordan. Ghassan Adnan and Isabel Coles report at the Wall Street Journal.

Iraq’s Supreme Court has temporarily suspended the Sept. 25 Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum, the court said in a statement today, the AP reports.

The Baghdad government is prepared to “intervene militarily” if the referendum leads to violence, Iraqi Prime Minister Haide al-Abadi said at the weekend, arguing that challenging the constitution and Iraq’s territorial integrity would be a “public invitation to the countries in the region to violate Iraqi borders as well.” The AP reports.

Turkey conducted military exercises at the Iraqi border today, a week ahead of the Kurdish independence referendum, which Turkey has expressed strong opposition to and threatened to react if the vote goes ahead. Reuters reports.

The U.N. Secretary General António Guterres opposes the referendum, U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said yesterday, stating that Guterres believes the referendum detracts from the fight against the Islamic State group. The AP reports.

Why is the referendum taking place and what is at stake? Michael Knights provides an analysis at the BBC.

CUBA EMBASSY “INCIDENTS”

The U.S. is considering closing its embassy in Cuba, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday, making the comments following the “health attacks” on U.S. diplomats by what officials believe to be sonic weapons. The AP reports.

A joint letter by five Republic senators has called on Tillerson to shut the U.S. embassy in Cuba and expel Cuban diplomats in the U.S., Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

U.N. GENERAL ASSEMBLY

“The president is going to say the United Nations can’t be effective unless it reforms its bureaucracy and unless it achieves a higher degree of accountability for member states,” Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster said yesterday, offering a preview of the president’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly tomorrow. Julia Manchester reports at the Hill.

The North Korea crisis is set to be a key issue at the General Assembly, with North Korean diplomats and diplomats of the 193-body keen to hear Trump’s speech tomorrow morning, Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.

The annual U.N. General Assembly convening this week will raise a number of issues, Somini Sengupta and Rick Gladstone set out five to watch out for at the New York Times.

The General Assembly offers an opportunity to see how much influence U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley has on Trump, having shown herself to be a deft politician but not always on the same page as the president. Somini Sengupta writes at the New York Times.

Trump needs the U.N. more than ever, despite castigating the organization as ineffectual, Richard Gowan writes at POLITICO Magazine.

The rise of Ambassador Haley has thrown a spotlight on her relationship with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Trump administration’s view of Tillerson, Annie Karni writes at POLITICO.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Trump’s lawyers have debated how much to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller and his team looking into Russian meddling in the election, with the arguments erupting into conflict last week, Peter Baker and Kenneth P. Vogel explain at the New York Times.

A close business associate of Trump, Michael Cohen, is scheduled to testify to the Senate Intelligence Committee tomorrow, Cohen said yesterday. Reuters reports.

Attorney Kyle Feeny has joined Mueller’s team, moving to his new position from his previous role at the Justice Department. Josh Greenstein reveals at POLITICO.

PALESTINE

The Palestinian militant group Hamas agreed to conditions for reconciliation with Palestinian authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party, Hamas said yesterday, attempting to reunify the Palestinian national movement that has been split since 2007, with Hamas controlling Gaza and Fatah leading the Palestinian authority in parts of the West Bank not under Israeli control. The BBC reports.

Palestinian statehood cannot happen now but can in the future if Trump focuses on “pragmatic results” rather than “the ultimate deal,” Jackson Diehl writes at the Washington Post.

Can Sunday’s deal between Hamas and Fatah offer hope for the future? Daoud Kuttab provides an analysis at Al Jazeera.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

Qatar has signed a deal with the British government for 24 fighter jets amid increased tensions in the Gulf, Robert Wall and Nicolas Parasie report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Gulf crisis shows that no end is in sight, causing concern within the Trump administration that the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Egypt and Bahrain distracts from the fight against the Islamic State and empowers Iran. Karen DeYoung writes at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.K. terror threat level has been lowered to severe after being raised to critical following Friday’s attack on the London Underground, two suspects are being questioned by police. The BBC reports.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met yesterday and discussed Syria, the Middle East and Ukraine, according to Lavrov’s spokesperson, Reuters reports.  

Russia’s ambassador to the U.N. said the U.S. and Ukraine rejected its proposal for U.N. peacekeepers to patrol the border in eastern Ukraine, Reuters reports.

The Moscow-based cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab has caused controversy, Morgan Chalfant sets out five things to know about the company at the Hill.

The Islamic State group has established cells in Libya, using the bases to raise revenue and transport attackers to Europe. Hassan Morajea and Benoit Faucon report at the Wall Street Journal. 

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About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK