The Early Edition: October 19, 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

The U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) have cleared 98 percent of the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, the spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition Col. Ryan Dillon tweeted today.

The impending defeat of the Islamic State group in Raqqa will open a new phase in the Syrian conflict, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday, blaming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for hindering previous efforts to liberate the city. Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

The U.N. seeks access to Raqqa and is ready to increase assistance following the defeat of Islamic State militants, a U.N. official in the Syrian capital of Damascus said yesterday, adding that aid groups were struggling to support the thousands of civilians in camps for the displaced near Raqqa. The BBC reports.

The S.D.F. will redeploy fighters to the frontlines of the eastern Deir al-Zour province, a spokesperson for the S.D.F. said yesterday, adding that victory in Raqqa would have a “positive impact” on the offensive against the Islamic State fighters. Tom Perry and Lisa Barrington report at Reuters.

A senior Syrian army commander has been killed in the near the eastern city of Deir al-Zour in an operation against Islamic State militants, Brig. Gen Issam Zahreddine led government offences in the Homs province and maintained a government presence in Deir al-Zour despite the almost three year long siege on his forces. The AP reports.

The U.N. must “ensure accountability” for the April 4 chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said yesterday, urging the Security Council to quickly vote on renewing the Joint Investigative Mechanism which is investigating the incident that killed more than 90 people. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The al-Qaeda-linked Tahrir al-Sham alliance released a video yesterday purporting to show its leader Abu Mohamad al-Golani, two weeks after the Russian military said it had critically injured Golani. Reuters reports.

The Islamic State group’s loss of territory has undermined its ability to raise revenue and collect money from civilians in its self-styled caliphate; it is likely that the group will now adopt insurgent tactics instead of pursuing state-building ambitions. Maria Abi-Habib explains at the Wall Street Journal.

The Islamic State group is set to establish itself as a guerilla force following the heavy territorial losses it has suffered in Syria and Iraq, many counterterrorism officials have said; the group still has many fighters, sympathizers and the ability to inspire attacks abroad. Margaret Coker, Eric Schmitt and Rukmini Callimachi explain that the terrorist group is far from defeated at the New York Times.

The defeat of the Islamic State group in Raqqa ushers in a period of uncertainty, the plethora of parties on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq trying to gain influence now that their common enemy faces impending downfall. Sarah El Deeb and Zeina Karam set out the various parties and alliances and their conflicting interests at the AP.

Tahrir al-Sham is set to benefit from the downfall of the Islamic State, the alliance, also known as the Levant Liberation Committee, dominates Syria’s northern Idlib province and has allowed some Islamic State fighters who have fled to the province to join their group. Bassem Mroue and Qassim Abdul-Zahra explain at the AP.

The U.S. lacks a strategy for the next phase of the war in Syria, the Financial Times editorial board sets out the potential future dangers.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out two airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on October 17. Separately, partner forces conducted five strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended his role in the firing of former F.B.I. director James Comey in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday which focused on Russian interference in U.S. politics, saying that he did not think “the significance of the error the Mr. Comey made on the Clinton matter” had been “fully understood,” referring to Comey’s 2016 comments that the was not recommending charges against presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her private email use. Aruna Viswanatha and Del Quentin Wilber report at the Wall Street Journal.

Sessions pointedly changed his previous account of his contacts with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in 2016, stating that he did “not recall” whether certain areas were discussed in the meeting. Sessions also said that he “did not have a continuing exchange of information” with the Russians, a shift from his previous claim that he had no contacts with them. Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

Special counsel Robert Mueller has not interviewed Sessions in relation to the Russia investigation, the Attorney General said yesterday, at the hearing Sessions also refused to address questions about his private conversations with Trump on the Russia investigations, the firing of Comey and other key issues. Josh Gerstein and Elana Schor report at POLITICO.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) questioned Sessions on his comments during his confirmation hearing, pointing out his shifting testimony, to which Sessions responded that he had “conducted no improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country.” Lydia Wheeler reports at the Hill.

Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was interviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday, according to a source familiar with the matter, Lewandowski was privy to campaign officials’ efforts to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin and maintained close ties to the Trump campaign after his departure. Karoun Demirjian reports at the Washington Post.

Officials from opposition research firm Fusion GPS met with the House Intelligence Committee yesterday in response to a subpoena issued by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), but refused to testify before the panel. Focus has been on the firm as it commissioned a controversial dossier about Trump’s connections to Russia compiled by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein report at POLITICO.

Google has privately briefed the House and Senate Intelligence Committees ahead of two Nov. 1 hearings into Russian interference in the U.S. election and the online disinformation campaigns. Mary Clare Jalonick reports at the AP.

Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch will testify before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees at the Nov. 1 hearings, Jonathan Allen reports at NBC News.

Democratic senators are preparing today to unveil new legislation targeted at political ads on social media, subjecting them to transparency and disclosure laws. Ali Breland reports at the Hill.

An account purporting to speak for Tennessee Republicans was a fake Twitter account set up by Russian operatives, according to two people familiar with the matter, the success of the account demonstrating the reach of the Russian disinformation campaign. Craig Timberg, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Adam Entous reveal at the Washington Post.

Prominent Trump campaign officials and supporters amplified the tweets by the fake Tennessee Republicans account, Betsy Woodruff, Ben Collins, Kevin Poulsen and Spencer Ackerman report at The Daily Beast.

IRAQ

Thousands of Iraqi Kurds have fled northern Iraq following the Iraqi government forces’ seizure of a host of territory from Kurdish Peshmerga forces, the Iraqi forces have taken control of the disputed Kirkuk region, demonstrating the changing political map in Iraq and the potential for new conflict between ethnic groups. Isabel Coles and Ali A. Nabhan report at the Wall Street Journal.

“We have not yet closed the gates [with Iraq], but this could happen at any time,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Tuesday in response to the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum. Hande Firat reports at The Hürriyet Daily News.

A united Iraq is “best for our stability” and “best for the stability of the region and the world,” the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi writes at the New York Times, noting the successes of the Iraqi people in the fight against the Islamic State, castigating the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum and urging unity.

This week’s battle for the Iraqi disputed city of Kirkuk put the U.S. and Iran on the same side and against the U.S.’ Kurdish allies. David Zucchino and Eric Schmitt explain the strange dynamics and the U.S. approach to the Kurdish independence referendum at the New York Times.

AFGHANISTAN

A Taliban attack on an Afghan army base yesterday killed 43 soldiers, and the fight ended with a U.S. airstrike, according to N.A.T.O. officials. Antonio Olivo reports at the Washington Post.

The latest attack marks a week of bloodshed in Afghanistan, including a suicide bombing in the city of Gardez on Tuesday that killed at least 41 and the killing of at least 30 on the same day in Ghazni province. The BBC reports.

New fencing and guard posts along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border would help to reduce militant attacks in both countries, Pakistan’s military said yesterday, however the Afghan government has objected the fence and does not recognize the frontier as an international border. Munir Ahmed reports at the AP.

IRAN

“I don’t want to waste time on answering the rants and whoppers of the brute U.S. president,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said yesterday, responding to Trump’s decision not to certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement. The BBC reports.

Europe’s opposition to Trump’s decision was “good, but not enough,” Khamenei added, saying that they “must stand up against the U.S. measures … including the sanctions they anticipate to emerge from Congress.” Frederik Pleitgen, Tamara Qiblawi and Shirzad Bozorgmehr report at CNN.

“Where’s the outrage?” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley asked the Security Council yesterday, saying that member states should not judge Iran “by the narrow confines of the nuclear deal” as this “misses the true nature of the threat.” Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.

Trump has provided Europe with a “moment of truth on Iran,” Europeans too readily embraced Iran and the business opportunities provided by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and they should now work with Washington to craft a better approach. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

NORTH KOREA

A nuclear powered U.S. aircraft carrier patrolled waters off the Korean Peninsula today in a show of power in the face of the North Korean threat, Tim Kelly reports at Reuters.

Trump administration officials are debating whether the president should visit the demilitarized zone (D.M.Z.) between North and South Korea, with some saying his presence could further increase tensions and others expressing concern about his personal safety. David Nakamura reports at the Washington Post.

European leaders will deliver a statement today calling on North Korea to “abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner,” Reuters reports.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

The U.S. is a reliable partner to India and shares its “values and vision for global stability, peace and prosperity,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a speech yesterday ahead of a planned trip to Asia, also chastising China for, “at times, undermining the international, rules-based order.” Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration seeks to deepen ties between the U.S. and India, Tillerson also said, his remarks comparing the U.S. relationship with India versus its relationship with China marking a significant and pointed criticism of Beijing. Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

China “contributes to and defends the rules-based world order,” the Chinese embassy in Washington said in a statement, responding to Tillerson’s comments. The BBC reports.

The U.S. would hold Myanmar’s military leaders accountable for its actions against the Rohingya Muslim minority, Tilllerson said yesterday, but stopped short of saying whether the U.S. would take any measures against the military leaders. David Brunnstrom and Jonathan Landay report at Reuters.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Islamist militant Hamas group must explicitly commit to nonviolence if it is to play any role in the Palestinian government, and it must recognize the state of Israel, the U.S. Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt said today, reflecting demands made by Israel. The AP reports.

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can enjoy the support of Trump, however some in Israel have expressed concerns about the future should the Israeli government be perceived as being too close to Trump. Aron Heller provides an analysis at the AP.

GUANTÁNAMO

Guantánamo Bay prison guards seized court-approved, non-networked laptop computers and hard drives issued to the accused Sept. 11 attack plotters yesterday, raising questions about respect for client-attorney privilege. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

The chief war crimes prosecutor at Guantánamo has postponed his retirement for at least another two years, a Pentagon spokesperson said yesterday. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Chad was included in Trump’s latest travel ban because it ran out of passport paper, U.S. officials have said, the AP reports.

Lawyers for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl filed a brief on Tuesday arguing that Trump’s comments about the sergeant – who walked off his base in Afghanistan in 2009 – cast “impermissible shadow” over upcoming sentencing proceedings. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) has expressed “deep concerns” about reports that Hewlett Packard Enterprise complied with a Russian request to review its cybersecurity software in a letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, urging the Pentagon to disclose any “specific risk” to U.S. military systems. Morgan Chlafant reports at the Hill.

The key points made by Chinese President Xi Jinping in his speech to the 19th Community Party Congress, including his comments on China’s place in the world and its foreign policy aims, are set out by Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher at the New York Times. 

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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