The Early Edition: October 24, 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.

NIGER

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford provided further details about the Oct. 4 attack in Niger on U.S. Special Forces members yesterday, revising the timeline of the attack and the response, and raising questions about the U.S. operation and its support structures. Ben Kesling reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. military did not call for support from French forces for about an hour after the attack took place and it took the French another hour for their fighter jets to arrive. Dan Lamothe reports at the Washington Post, setting out other issues that have created questions, including the length of time it took to recover the body of Sgt. La David Johnson.

“We owe the families as much information as we can find out about what happened, and we owe the American people an explanation,” Gen. Dunford said yesterday, pledging to be forthcoming about information amid a perception that the Department of Defense needs to do better to inform Congress about the incident. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The soldiers were ambushed by terrorists tipped off by residents sympathetic to local Islamic State affiliates, according to three U.S. officials with knowledge of the matter, Gen. Dunford did not address the emerging theory when briefing reporters yesterday. Courtney Kube, Carol E. Lee and Ken Dilanian report at NBC News.

Congress must have an updated authorization for the use of military force, Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain (R-Ariz.) said yesterday, telling reporters that he has been working with Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) on a proposal, McCain also telling reporters that congress expects “more information” about the Niger attack. Elana Schor and Connor O’Brien report at POLITICO.

The Oct. 4 ambush draws attention to the U.S.’s role in Niger and other African countries, and prompted questions about authorization for military action, the U.S.’s impact in the fight against jihadist insurgency in the Sahel region and the Trump administration’s Africa policy. Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

The potential for the U.S. military to become entrenched in Niger and the Sahel region may mirror U.S. involvement in the Middle East; to help avoid a quagmire the U.S. should devise a strategy that understands the dynamics of power and the grievances that allow terrorist groups to thrive. Max Bearak writes at the Washington Post.

SYRIA

The final phase of the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria is in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour where the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) and Russia- and Iran-backed Syrian government forces are fighting based on competing agendas and civilians are fleeing the city of Deir al-Zour. Nick Paton Walsh, Salma Abdelaziz and Naz Sayed report at the CNN.

The U.S.-led coalition today denied striking Deir al-Zour city after the Syrian army accused the coalition jets of killing civilians yesterday, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 22 people were killed but it was unclear who was responsible. Reuters reports.

A mass killing of civilians in the Syrian town of Qarytayan in Homs province was carried out by retreating Islamic State militants as they were driven out by pro-government forces, Syrian state media reported yesterday, demonstrating the terrorist group’s ability to inflict damage and harm civilians even as it loses most of its territory. Anne Barnard reports at the New York Times.

Less than five percent of Syria remains under the control of the Islamic State group, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said yesterday, the AP reports.

Turkey’s military operation in the northwest Idlib province has largely been completed, the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan said today, Reuters reporting.

The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to vote today on extending the work of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (J.I.M.) looking at responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the U.N.-sponsored resolution has the strong support of U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, however the Russian ambassador has criticized the investigation. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The pro-Syrian government forces’ siege of the capital of Damascus and its surrounding suburbs has worsened the humanitarian crisis, leading to children dying of malnourishment. Raja Abdulrahim reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Israel’s military activity in Syria has happened sporadically and is thought to be as a consequence of stray fire landing in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, despite the exchange of fire, the possibility of a major escalation between Israel and Syria is unlikely. Zena Tahhan provides an analysis of Israel’s involvement at Al Jazeera.

The Free Syrian Army rebels have credited Iran for the success of the President Bashar al-Assad’s army, and Iran has been expanding its influence in Syria to serve its socioeconomic ambitions. Ali Younes and Shafik Mandhai explain at Al Jazeera.

What has the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State group accomplished and what does their impending defeat mean for the future? Stephen M. Walt provides an analysis at Foreign Policy.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out seven airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on October 22. Separately, partner forces conducted three strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

IRAQ

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson received a chilly reception on his visit to Iraq to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi yesterday, Tillerson having made unfortunate comments about Iranian-backed militia members of the Population Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.) on Sunday, mistakenly stating that the militia are Iranian when they are Iraqi. Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

The P.M.F. “should be encouraged because they will be the hope of the country and the region,” Abadi’s office said yesterday, the BBC reports.

“We have friends in Baghdad and friends in Erbil and we encourage all parties to enter into discussion,” Tillerson said yesterday, referring to the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (K.R.G.) of Erbil and urging dialogue between the two U.S. allies who have been at loggerheads since last month’s controversial Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum. Jonathan Landay and Maher Chmaytelli report at Reuters.

The K.R.G. accused Iraqi federal forces of launching an attack south of a Kurdish oil export pipeline today toward the border with Turkey, the Baghdad government responded that “there are no clashes” taking place, Reuters reporting.

“We call on the Iraqi government to immediately cease its military aggression and withdraw from all territories,” the Kurdistan Region Security Council said yesterday, expressing concern about the “dangerous deployment” of Iraqi federal forces near the border of the Kurdish region. Al Jazeera reports.

AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. is looking to engage with the more “moderate voices” among the Taliban who “do not want to continue to fight forever,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday during an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, stating that the fight against the Taliban must continue but there would be a place for the Taliban in government if they renounce terrorism and violence and commit to a “stable and prosperous Afghanistan.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

“If America genuinely wants a peaceful settlement of the crisis then it needs to pull out its troops and end the occupation,” the Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Majid said yesterday in response to Tillerson’s suggestion that some Taliban fighters would be willing to give up fighting. Antonio Olivo and Carole Morello report at the Washington Post.

Pakistan’s cooperation is essential for defeating the Taliban, Tillerson said yesterday, saying that the U.S. has made “some very specific requests to Pakistan” to curb support for the militant group. Paul Sonne and Craig Nelson report at the Wall Street Journal.

A feature on the notorious former al-Qaeda and Taliban ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has returned to Kabul to call for unity, is provided by Sune Engel Rasmussen at the Guardian.

NORTH KOREA

The threat posed by North Korea has reached “an unprecedented, critical and imminent level,” Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told his U.S. and South Korean counterparts yesterday at a tripartite meeting, reiterating Japan’s support for the U.S. position that “all options are on the table” to deal with the Pyongyang regime. Gordon Lubold reports at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump will urge Chinese President Xi Jinping to fully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions against North Korea when he visits China next month, a senior White House official said yesterday. Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick report at Reuters.

The U.S., South Korea and Japan began a two-day missile tracking drill today off the coasts of South Korea and Japan to prepare for any nuclear or missile threats from North Korea. Reuters reports.

Trump should “lower the volume of rhetoric” on North Korea, the former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said yesterday, saying that the administration should “focus on developing both our strength and capacity in the region,” Ellen Mitchell reporting at the Hill.

Trump has been boosted by Abe’s decisive re-election as Abe has been a strong ally of Trump and supports his aggressive approach to North Korea. James Griffiths explains at CNN.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been aided by Chinese President Xi Jinping and the North Korean threat in his mission to change Japan’s pacifist constitution and Abe’s efforts to bolster Japan’s defense capabilities “are moderate and long overdue.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

SOUTH SUDAN

The U.S. would continue to send aid to South Sudan despite the civil war and concerns about human rights abuses, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said yesterday, warning that South Sudan could become a breeding ground for extremism. The AP reports.

The Trump administration faces a difficult task dealing with the civil war in South Sudan, Kevin Sieff and Anne Gearan provide context to the conflict and the U.S.’s role at the Washington Post.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

The U.S. would consider imposing targeted sanctions on those responsible for violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, the State Department said yesterday, Reuters reporting.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ trip to the Philippines today comes at an opportune time due to the recent defeat of Islamic State affiliates in the Philippine city of Marawi with the help from the U.S. military, however it also poses challenges as the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has embarked on a campaign to cultivate ties with Russia and China. Phil Stewart and Manuel Mogato explain at Reuters.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Russia’s state R.T. news outlet has utilized social media to distribute content, and the news organization – which has been labeled “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” by federal intelligence officials – has had an extensive reach and its relationship with YouTube is drawing closer scrutiny as part of the investigation into Russian interference in U.S. politics. Daisuke Wakabayashi and Nicholas Confessore report at the New York Times.

Trump’s personal lawyer and associate Michael Cohen is scheduled to appear before the House Intelligence Committee today in a private session as part of the committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. NBC News reports.

Russian “troll farms” were partly located on U.S. soil, Katie Zavadski, Ben Collins, Kevin Poulsen and Spencer Ackerman reveal at The Daily Beast.

The efficacy of Facebook’s fact-checking should be questioned and “we should be cautious about placing too much trust in a private algorithm,” Brendan Nyhan writes at the New York Times.

SGT. BOWE BERGDAHL

Trump’s comments about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who walked off his military base in Afghanistan in 2009 and was captured by the Taliban soon after, has delayed sentencing proceedings, the president having made disparaging remarks about the sergeant. Morgan Radford and Corky Siemaszko report at NBC News.

The military judge presiding over Bergdahl’s sentencing yesterday expressed concern about perception of fairness in light of the president’s comments, Jonathan Drew reports at the AP.

A summary of Bergdahl’s circumstances and the legal battles over his case and sentencing is provided by Richard A. Oppel Jr. at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Several U.S. government employees will be sent back to their posts in Venezuela after they were withdrawn in July amid unrest and anti-government protests, the AP reports.

The 2015 Iran nuclear deal would survive in spite of the U.S. decision not to certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement, the U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said yesterday, Reuters reporting.  

The Gulf crisis “could see more complications,” Kuwait’s ruler Sheikh Sabad Al Ahmad Al Sabah warned today, saying that the crisis – which began on June 5 when Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Egypt and Bahrain isolated Qatar due to its alleged support for terrorism and ties to Iran – will have “a negative effect regionally and internationally.” The AP reports.

The founder of Kaspersky Lab Eugene Kaspersky has ruled out moving the cybersecurity firm away from Russia to temper U.S. concerns about the software being used for Russian espionage, Kaspersky saying yesterday that he could not change his origin or his company’s foundation. Joe Uchill reports at the Hill.

China’s President Xi Jinping has been elevated to the level of Chairman Mao Zedong, representing Xi’s tight grip on power and unassailable position in the Communist Party hierarchy. The BBC reports. 

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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