The Early Edition: October 27, 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

The U.S.’s goal “is not war, but rather the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday during a visit to the demilitarized zone (D.M.Z.) that separates North and South Korea. Gordon Lubold and Jonathan Cheng report at the Wall Street Journal.

“We’re doing everything we can to solve this diplomatically – everything we can,” Mattis also said yesterday, the AP reports.

The “aggressive deployment” of U.S. strategic assets in the region have been successful in deterring North Korea, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said today following his meeting with Mattis. Phil Stewart reports at Reuters.

The U.S. Treasury yesterday imposed sanctions on North Korean individuals and entities for “flagrant human rights abuses,” the measures have been targeted at North Korean military and regime officials, the Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced. Sylvan Lane reports at the Hill.

South Korea has been pushing to gain control of its own military from the U.S. should a war break out with the North, the issue is set to be high on the agenda today during talks today between Mattis and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and the U.S. has been reluctant to relinquish control of the command structure. Gordon Lubold and Jonathan Cheng report at the Wall Street Journal.

Democrats in Congress have launched a bill to prohibit the president from unilaterally launching a pre-emptive attack on North Korea, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) saying yesterday that “as long as President Trump has a Twitter account, we must ensure that he cannot start a war or launch a nuclear first strike without the explicit authorization of Congress.” Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

North Korea announced today that it would repatriate a South Korean fishing boat captured at the weekend that, according to North Korea’s K.C.N.A. news agency, illegally crossed the eastern maritime border, marking a rare humanitarian gesture amid raised tensions on the Peninsula. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

The deployment of three U.S. Navy aircraft carriers next week is “not directed towards any particular threat,” the Defense Department chief spokesperson Dana White said yesterday, adding that the deployment is a “demonstration that we can do something that no one else in the world can.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

A comprehensive assessment of sanctions “is needed in order to avoid unintended negative impact on human rights,” the U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea’s human rights situation Tomas Ojea Quintana said yesterday, warning that the measures could constitute “collective punishment.” Reuters reports.

Trump’s rhetoric may have led to unintended consequences, including a boost for North Korea’s textile industry, Will Ripley and Tim Schwarz report at CNN.

SYRIA

“The United States wants a whole and unified Syria with no role for Bashar al-Assad in the government,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters yesterday, making the comments about Syria and President Assad after meeting with the U.N. envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura in Geneva. Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

“The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and the only issue is how that should be brought about,” Tillerson also said following yesterday’s meeting, after which de Mistura announced plans for the eighth round of U.N.-mediated Syrian peace talks on Nov. 28. Jamey Keaten and Matthew Lee report at the AP.

“Time is not on our side,” de Mistura warned when announcing the latest round of peace talks, urging for “focus and realism” to encourage negotiation. The UN News Centre reports.

The Joint Investigative Mechanism (J.I.M.) blamed the Assad government for the April 4 chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun, the panel, which was established by the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.) released its report on the incident yesterday. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

More than 87 people died in the Khan Sheikhoun attack, which was a rebel-held town in northwest Syria, the AFP reports.

“Today’s report confirms what we have long known to be true,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. said in response to J.I.M.’s report, the findings contradicted contentions by the Assad government and its ally, Russia, that the incident was fabricated. The BBC reports.

“Russia has consistently chosen to cover up for Assad,” the U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in a statement responding to the J.I.M. findings, adding that Russia’s actions “can only undermine the global consensus against the use of chemical weapons.” Reuters reports.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has raised concerns about dehumanizing rhetoric used against Islamic State fighters, saying yesterday that humanitarian law applies “with no exceptions” and making the statement following inflammatory remarks from several Western officials. Anne Barnard reports at the New York Times.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out seven airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on October 25. Separately, partner forces conducted eight strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

IRAQ

Iraqi federal forces yesterday launched an offensive against the last remaining Islamic State group-held territory in the country near the border with Syria, separately pro-Syrian government forces launched an offensive against the militants from the other side of the border, when announcing the operation on the region of Rawa and al-Qaim, the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the militants would have “to choose between death and surrender.” Maher Chmaytelli and Tom Perry report at Reuters.

Iraqi federal forces advanced on Kurdish Peshmerga positions in northern Iraq at the same time as advancing on Islamic State militants in al-Qaim, demonstrating that the two U.S. allies – who were previously united in their campaign against the Islamic State group – have now turned on each other. Isabel Coles and Ali Nabhan observe at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S.-led coalition has killed 51 civilians in Iraq and Syria since February, the coalition said in a statement, the figure is much lower than those provided by outside organizations, with monitoring group Airways saying at least 5,637 civilians have been killed by coalition strikes. Reuters reports.

Iraq’s Sunni Arabs are struggling to exercise their influence and are in a “political no-man’s land” as many have felt Prime Minister Abadi has prioritized Shi’ites and moved Iraq closer to its Shi’ite neighbor Iran at the expense of helping Sunnis to rebuild. David Zucchino explains at the New York Times.

The U.S. still needs the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.) as an ally in Iraq and the region as the K.R.G. can help to stand up to Iran’s influence. Ranj Alaaldin writes at Al Jazeera.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The F.B.I. will comply with requests to hand over documents related to the dossier which was compiled by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele and alleged ties between Trump and Russia, the House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said yesterday, saying that Congress has been asking for the documents by next week. Scott Wong reports at the Hill.

Twitter has been the Russian media outlets Russia Today (R.T.) and Sputnik from buying advertising, the social media company saying in a statement yesterday that the decision was “based on the retrospective work” that it has been doing around the 2016 U.S. election and the U.S. intelligence authorities’ findings that the outlets act as “a platform for Kremlin messaging”. The BBC reports.

Russia would respond to Twitter’s decision, the Russian Foreign Minister said yesterday according to the R.I.A. news agency, Reuters reports.

Facebook has stepped up its lobbying efforts amid talk of potential federal regulation as a consequence of the revelations about Russian political ads on its platform, Julie Bykowicz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have expressed frustration with the panel’s Russia investigation, saying that the probe has been going slowly and that the work has of the committee has been delayed by offshoots from the main Russia investigation. Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

The issue of the budget for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged connections between Trump and Russia is set to cause partisan division, Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

The reports that the data research firm Cambridge Analytica tried to reach out to WikiLeaks is “significant,” demonstrating “potential collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian interference,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said yesterday. Julia Manchester reports at the Hill.

Top Democrats in the House sent letters to data research firms yesterday to ask if they had communication with Russian entities during the 2016 U.S. election campaign, Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

The recent revelations about opposition research firm Fusion GPS and the Steele dossier raise plenty of further questions, including whom Steele worked with and who paid for the research. The firm’s attempts to avoid releasing the names of its clients suggests that much more is to come from the saga and further “bombshells” are also yet to come in relation to the F.B.I., its role in the dossier and its investigation into Trump campaign team’s alleged links to Russian operatives. Kimberley A. Strassel writes at the Wall Street Journal.

Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein comments that “American citizens are pretty savvy … I don’t think they’d be influenced by ads posted by foreign governments” earlier this week, do not accord with reality as “oftentimes we don’t realize the factors that are influencing us,” and it is unclear why Rosenstein made the comments. Aaron Blake writes at the Washington Post.

The ability of Russian operatives to approach Trump campaign officials was due to their ability to exploit the vulnerabilities and motivations of individuals close to Trump. Former C.I.A. officer Alex Finley writes at POLITICO Magazine, setting out the how an intelligence officer might approach various characters.

NIGER

The four U.S. Special Forces members who were killed in Niger were separated from their squad during the Oct. 4 ambush, according to Pentagon officials, the latest details reveal a shifting narrative that has frustrated members of Congress. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

A second U.S. military team was in the vicinity of the ambush, the Pentagon joint staff director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said yesterday, declining to offer more details on the team. Reuters reporting.

A briefing by Pentagon officials to the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday was “excellent” and there has been progress, the Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, noting that outstanding questions remain. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

There are “more questions than answers” about the Niger attack, Senate Armed Service Committee Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said yesterday following the briefing, Jeremy Herb reporting at CNN.

Two top Democrats have called for a public hearing on the Niger incident, Patricia Zengerle reports at Reuters.

IRAN

The House voted to impose non-nuclear sanctions on Iran yesterday in relation to its ballistic missiles program and support for the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah militia group, the measures passed with bipartisan backing and Republicans have not yet set in motion any plans to impose nuclear sanctions against Tehran. Cristina Marcos reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration’s Iran strategy has no details to deal with Tehran’s expansionism, the rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran has the potential to lead to further negative consequences for the region. Liz Sly writes at the Washington Post, explaining the role of Iran’s proxies and the U.S.’s aims in the Middle East.

RUSSIA

The Trump administration belatedly took the first steps toward tightening sanctions on Russia yesterday, the move is part of legislation passed weeks ago in response to Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Reuters reports.

The possible sanctions against Russia are a cause for concern and reflect the U.S.’s hostile attitude, the Kremlin said today, Reuters reporting.

The sanctions against Russia were delayed due to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision to shutter the Coordinator for Sanctions Policy office, Tillerson’s reorganization of the State Department has put the issue in the hands of one mid-level official. Robbie Gramer and Dan De Luce report at Foreign Policy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin took part in Russian nuclear forces military exercises yesterday, the Kremlin said today, the drills included all elements of the nuclear triad according to spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. The AP reports.

The number of troops participating in the Russia-Belarus “Zapad” military exercises “significantly exceeded the number announced before the exercise,” the NA.T.O. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said yesterday, with Russia saying that N.A.T.O.’s comments were anti-Russian propaganda. Robin Emmott reports at Reuters.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Myanmar’s military chief to support efforts to end the violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority, in a statement yesterday. Reuters reports.

The Trump administration’s approach to Pakistan has caused consternation in Islamabad, Tillerson’s latest comments about dealing with terrorists and extremist sanctuaries during this week’s visit with senior Pakistani officials has led to a push back. Paul Sonne and Saeed Shah explain at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley called on the Democratic Republic of Congo to organize elections yesterday, Al-Hadji Kudra Maliro reports at the AP.

CUBA EMBASSY “INCIDENTS”

Cuban officials attempted to debunk allegations that it used sonic weapons to attack U.S. diplomats in Havana in a television special yesterday, emphasizing the U.S.’s lack of evidence to back up its allegations. Michael Weissenstein and Andrea Rodriquez report at the AP.

The U.S. has appointed a new chief diplomat to its embassy in Havana amid increased U.S.-Cuba tensions in relation to the allegations of mysterious sonic attacks, Reuters reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Egyptian security forces killed twelve “terrorist elements” in the Giza governate, an Egyptian official said today, Reuters reporting.

The former C.I.A. Director and Trump campaign adviser James Woolsey worked on lobbying efforts to discredit U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen last year, Gülen was accused by Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan of being the mastermind behind the July 2016 failed coup. Nathan Layne reveals at Reuters.

The U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres condemned yesterday’s attack on peacekeepers in Mali, which killed three and injured two, the UN News Centre reports.

President Trump has delayed the release of parts of the records related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, 2,800 documents were immediately released last night. Ian Shapira, Steve Hendrix and Carol D. Leonnig report at the Washington Post.

Prototypes of the U.S.-Mexico border wall were unveiled by the Department of Homeland Security yesterday, however much more must be done to meet the president’s aspirations, including securing funding from Congress and seizing private land to build the wall. Ron Nixon reports 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