The Early Edition: October 20, 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.) declared “total liberation” of the city of Raqqa today, the spokesperson for the S.D.F. claiming that the defeat of the Islamic State militants in their de facto capital in Syria was a “historic victory” and that the future of the city would be “decided by its people.” Arwa Damon, Ghazi Balkiz and Laura Smith-Spark report at CNN.

Raqqa would form part of a decentralized federal Syria, the S.D.F. said today, however plans for autonomous zones in northern Syria have faced opposition from the U.S., Turkey and the Syrian government. Reuters reports.

The S.D.F. raised a banner bearing the image of Kurdish nationalist leader Abdullah Öcalan in the city of Raqqa yesterday, the controversial Turkish Marxist leader is detained in Turkey as a terrorist and the S.D.F.’s symbolic action has raised concerns among the majority Arab population that the Kurds would take control of Raqqa. Raja Abdulrahim reports at the Wall Street Journal.

A Syrian peoples’ congress bringing Syria’s ethnic groups together is being considered by Russia and others, Moscow said today, Reuters reporting.

The defeat of the terrorists in Syria is imminent, the Russian President Vladimir Putin said yesterday, noting the progress of Russia and Syrian government forces operations in the country and saying that the Syrian peace process was developing in a positive way. Reuters reports.

The recent territorial gains by the Russia and Iran-backed Syrian government forces in eastern Syria have changed the dynamics on the battlefield, giving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime greater leverage in any future political negotiations and forcing the U.S. military to reconsider its assumptions about the picture on the ground. Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly report at the Washington Post.

The Israeli military “targeted the source” of mortar fire from Syrian territory yesterday, according to the Israeli military. The AP reports.

Saudi Arabia’s Gulf Affairs Minister visited Raqqa yesterday to discuss reconstruction, meeting with the U.S. special envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State Brett McGurk and an adviser to the Raqqa civil council. Reuters reports.

The next phase of the Syrian war is set to include complex conflicts that redefine alliances on the ground as the common threat posed by the Islamic State group dwindles, the issue of control over the city of Raqqa leading to tension and the pro-Syrian government forces expected to turn their attention to the Syrian rebels. Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad explain at the New York Times.

The defeat of Islamic State militants in key cities in Syria and Iraq has brought untold destruction. Megan Specia reveals the scale of the challenge to rebuild at the New York Times.

The power of the U.S. military was demonstrated in Raqqa and in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, however neither the Obama administration nor the Trump administration devised a clear political strategy for what should come next. David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out five airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on October 18. Separately, partner forces conducted seven strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

NORTH KOREA

“We ought to behave” as if the North Korea is on the “cusp” of being able to hit the U.S. with a nuclear missile, the C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo said yesterday at an event organized by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, emphasizing that the U.S. prefers diplomacy, but military options would remain a possibility. Nicole Gaouette reports at CNN.

Pompeo highlighted that there was a difference between an ability to fire a single nuclear missile and having an arsenal of nuclear missiles, also saying that China could do more to rein in North Korea. The AP reports.

National security adviser H.R. McMaster also emphasized that the U.S. was pursuing diplomatic efforts at the same event, saying that the U.S. is “not out of time, but we are running out of time.” Demetri Sevastopulo reports at the Financial Times.

North Korea urged Australia to turn away from the “heinous and reckless moves of the Trump administration” in a letter, according to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who said that Pyongyang had also sent the letter to other nations. The BBC reports.

Turnbull dismissed the letter as a “rant” and a sign that North Korea was “starting to feel the squeeze” from the increased sanctions against the regime. Rod McGuirk reports at the AP.

A U.S. pre-emptive strike on North Korea would be unlikely to destroy all of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal, Russian president Vladimir Putin said yesterday, Reuters reporting.

“North Korea should not be backed into a corner,” Putin said yesterday, warning against the possibility of conflict and stating that “problems should be solved in dialogue.” Carlo Angerer reports at NBC News.

The mountain under which North Korea tests its nuclear weapons is suffering from “tired mountain syndrome,” according to some analysts, the impact of the testing changing the geological makeup of Mount Mantap that could lead to its collapse and consequent radiation release. Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

IRAN

The President does not intend to “interfere with business deals that the Europeans may have under way with Iran,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday, following Trump’s decision last week not to certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, Tillerson seemingly attempting to assuage concerns about the possibility of new U.S. sanctions on Iran impacting European banks and firms. Felicia Schwartz and Laurence Norman report at the Wall Street Journal.

The leaders of the 28 European Union countries affirmed their commitment to the Iran deal at a summit yesterday, according to the spokesperson for the European Council Preben Aamann. The AP reports.

The deal “remains valid despite the decision of the president of the United States not to certify its implementation,” the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said yesterday after a meeting with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) Yukiya Amano, reaffirming France’s support for the nuclear deal. The AP reports.

Iran remains “cautious” and the I.A.E.A. continues its “control and verification activities without any problems,” Amano said after his meeting with Le Drian, saying that Trump’s decision has not yet caused any problems. Reuters reports.

Leaving the fate of the Iran deal to Congress is “very dangerous” and opens the door to “party politics,” former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the 2015 deal, said yesterday, warning that Trump’s actions could risk worsening the crisis on the Korean Peninsula as it sent a signal to the Pyongyang regime that the U.S. does not keep its word. Stephanie Nebehay reports at Reuters.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

“The intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the assessment,” C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo said yesterday, his comments distorting the findings of a report compiled by the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies and released in January saying that Moscow sought to undermine public faith in U.S. political processes and support Trump’s presidential campaign. Greg Miller reports at the Washington Post.

“The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed,” C.I.A. spokesperson Ryan Trapani said yesterday following Pompeo’s remarks. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

“Not true,” the former C.I.A. Deputy Director David Cohen tweeted yesterday, responding to Pompeo’s comments, clarifying that the intelligence community “made no judgment on whether Russian interference” affected the election, Cohen was joined by others who criticized Pompeo. Michael Crowley reports at POLITICO.

Trump suggested that the F.B.I. were involved in the salacious dossier alleging links between the Trump campaign and Russia in a tweet yesterday,  the F.B.I. did offer to pay former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele who compiled the dossier in October 2016, but did not pursue further work with Steele once he became a publicly known figure. Anne Gearan and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

“When a country can come interfere in another country’s elections, that is warfare,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said yesterday, reproaching Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and in a pointed departure from Trump’s stance on Russian involvement. Joel Gehrke reports at the Washington Examiner.

A bipartisan bill expanding laws on political ads on social media platforms was unveiled yesterday in response to revelations of Russian interference in U.S. politics, the measures would include greater requirements on transparency and disclosure. Ashley Gold and Nancy Scola report at POLITICO.

Twitter’s acting general counsel Sean Edgett will testify before the House and Senate Intelligence committees on Nov. 1, Twitter said yesterday. Ali Breland reports at the Hill.

The Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, who has been under scrutiny for his connections to the Trump campaign, is under investigation in Monaco for alleged violations of privacy. Stephanie Kirchgaessner and Luke Harding report at the Guardian.

NIGER

The F.B.I. have joined the investigation into the killing of four U.S. special forces members in Niger two weeks ago, the F.B.I. has not taken over the investigation but has made the intervention amid criticism over a lack of detail about the incident. Ben Kesling and Julian E. Barnes report at the Wall Street Journal.

The ambush in Niger “was considered unlikely,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday, adding that the Pentagon would release findings from the Pentagon investigation into the attack “as rapidly” as possible. Connor O’Brien and Wesley Morgan report at POLITICO.

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain (R-Ariz.) may issue a subpoena to understand the circumstances surrounding the Niger ambush, McCain said yesterday, saying that the White House had not been forthcoming with information needed by the committee. Idrees Ali reports at Reuters.

“We have kept them up to date. Of course we will work with Sen. McCain and his staff,” the Pentagon chief spokesperson Dana White said yesterday, insisting that the Pentagon has been communicating with Congress about the Niger attack. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

IRAQ

Iraqi federal forces and Kurdish Peshmerga forces exchanged fire today at their border in Iraq amid increased tensions between the two U.S. allies and the Iraqi federal forces’ sweeping gains in Iraqi Kurdistan and disputed territories over the past week. Balint Szlanko reports at the AP.

The semiautonomous Kurdish Regional Government (K.R.G.) in northern Iraq welcomed calls for dialogue from Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, the K.R.G. saying in a statement yesterday that they have asked the international community to help negotiation efforts. Reuters reports.

News agencies and social media accounts have been amplifying tensions in Iraqi Kurdistan, sensationalizing stories and contributing to the creation of a sense of chaos. Tamer El-Ghobashy and Loveday Morris report at the Washington Post.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seeks to re-orientate the U.S. relationship with China and address the imbalanced trade relationship, he said in an interview yesterday, also acknowledging in the interview that he has a different style to the president and has no intentions of leaving his post. Michael C. Bender and Felicia Schwartz report at the Wall Street Journal.

“China is dedicated to developing long-term healthy and stable relations with the United States,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said yesterday, responding to Tillerson’s comments on Wednesday that China’s actions have been undermining the international order. James Griffiths and Steven Jiang report at CNN.

“I do not have a lot of expectations” that the crisis in the Gulf would be “resolved any time soon,” Tillerson said yesterday, saying that Qatar has shown it is “ready to engage” and the Saudi-led bloc that isolated the country on June 5 should show that they would reciprocate. Al Jazeera reports.

RUSSIA

Russia would retaliate if the U.S. takes steps to pressure Russian media outlets, Russian President Vladimir Putin said yesterday, Reuters reports.

Russia is not concerned by the U.S. military build-up in the Baltic region, Putin also said yesterday, Reuters reporting.

Russia would respond immediately if the U.S. withdraws from the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty, Putin said yesterday, Reuters reporting.

Russian warships arrived in the Philippines today in a sign of increasingly close relations between the two countries and the Philippines’ move away from the U.S. and China. The AP reports.

The TRAVEL BAN

The Trump administration is considering scaling up its vetting processes for refugee women and children, according to a source familiar with the matter, bringing the process closer into line with the checks taken against adult men refugees. Yeganeh Torbati and Mica Rosenberg report at Reuters.

Trump’s latest travel ban is “equally pointless” as the previous orders and the administration’s vow to appeal the Hawaii court and Maryland courts’ rulings on the revised order is misguided as the policy achieves nothing and the administration would be wise “to let the ban fade away.” The Washington Post editorial board writes.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A top Islamic State operative was “taken” in a gunfight in the Philippine city of Marawi, the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced yesterday. Felipe Villamor report at the New York Times.

A U.S. drone strike killed the leader of a militant Pakistan group yesterday, a spokesperson for the militants said yesterday, Saud Mehsud reports at Reuters.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) suggested using a subpoena to force the Trump administration regarding cybersecurity policy yesterday, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

A Palestinian unity government offers the hope for peace talks to progress, however it could also raise more difficulties as the Islamist Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip are considered a terrorist group and the U.S. and Israel have both stated that Hamas must explicitly renounce violence and recognize the state of Israel before negotiations can take place. David M. Halbfinger sets out the obstacles to peace at the New York Times.

Lasting stability in Somalia seems elusive but the Somali President must continue the military and political strategy against the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab militants as there is evidence of some success. Alex De Waal writes at Foreign Policy. 

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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