The Early Edition: November 13, 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.

TRUMP ASIA TRIP

President Trump highlighted his “great relationship” with the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during remarks to reporters at the A.S.E.A.N. summit in Manila today, Duterte’s war on drugs, and his attempts to move away from the U.S. and closer to China and Russia, loomed over the meeting and the Trump administration has sought to improve relations with the Philippines to counter China’s expansionism in the South China Sea. Julie Hirschfeld Davis reports at the New York Times.

U.S. reporters attempted to press Trump to talk about the human rights situation in the Philippines in light of Duterte’s “war on drugs” which has led to thousands of extrajudicial killings, however Duterte shut down the reporters and a spokesperson for the Philippine President said that human rights were not discussed during the formal bilateral meeting with Trump. David Nakamura and Emily Rauhala report at the Washington Post.

The White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that human rights were mentioned briefly in the discussions within the context of the war on drugs, contradicting Duterte’s spokesperson, the BBC reports.

“The Americans showed no flexibility, and unfortunately did not offer any other alternative proposals. That is why the meeting could not happen,” the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by the R.I.A. news agency yesterday, referring to attempts to arrange a bilateral meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (A.P.E.C.) summit at the weekend. Reuters reports.

Trump offered to mediate in the territorial dispute over the South China Sea yesterday, the dispute involves five countries and China has made claims over the waters. Saphora Smith and Reuters report at NBC News.

A joint U.S., South Korea and Japan military exercise in the Sea of Japan began yesterday, it constitutes the largest show of U.S. naval power in the region and the drills were highlighted by Trump last week while in Seoul as a deterrent to North Korea. Alastair Gale reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump lashed out at his critics at the weekend after what had largely been “measured, disciplined and studiously scripted” Asia trip, the president taking to Twitter to disparage the Russia investigation, Hillary Clinton and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Mark Landler reports at the New York Times.

Trump’s Asia trip delivered a confusing message and failed to offer a coherent policy for the region, he started his visit by articulating an “Indo-Pacific” vision but this was contradicted during his visit to China, and then further diluted on arrival in Vietnam and at the A.P.E.C. summit. Adam Taylor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election dogged the president during his Asia trip, Trump saying yesterday in Vietnam that “I believe that he [Russian President Vladimir Putin] feels he and Russia did not meddle in the election,” but adding that his assessment of Russian meddling was “with our agencies.” A day before making the comments, the president dismissed the intelligence agencies as “political hacks” and cast doubt on their findings about Russian interference. Jonathan Lemire and Jill Colvin report at the AP.

The C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo “stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 intelligence community assessment” of Russian interference in the U.S. election, a spokesperson for the agency said Saturday, making the statement following Trump’s comments about Putin’s denials that there was any Russian involvement. Mallory Shelbourne reports at the Hill.

Trump’s comments expressing support for the agencies failed to placate those he had criticized a day earlier, the former C.I.A. Director John Brennan saying that he believed Trump was trying to “delegitimize” the intelligence communities’ assessment of Russian interference and the former director of the National Intelligence James Clapper saying that the “Russians do not harbor good intentions toward the United States, and there shouldn’t be any illusions or any ambiguity about that.” Michael C. Bender reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Brennan and Clapper said that Trump has been “played” by Putin in relation to the Russian meddling in the election, Clapper adding that the threat posed by Russia is “manifest and obvious.” Eli Watkins reports at CNN

Trump “is not getting played by anybody,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said yesterday, saying that “it’s really time to move on off this issue.” Zachary Warmbrodt reports at POLITICO.

A photograph of the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson with the academic Joseph Mifsud emerged at the weekend, Mifsud has been a person of interest in the Russia investigations as there have been allegations that he acted as a conduit between the Trump campaign and Russia. Johnson has said that he has no recollection of the meeting, however the revelation raises questions about possible Russian influence in the U.K. government. David M. Herszenhorn reports at POLITICO.

No charges have yet been filed against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn despite many stating that evidence of wrongdoing has been gathered. There has been speculation that Flynn may already be cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and multiple news outlets have alleged that Flynn is under investigation for his ties to the Turkish government and a deal to try and secure the extradition of the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, who was accused of being the mastermind behind last year’s failed coup in Ankara. Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

The background to Flynn’s appointment as national security adviser is set out by Nancy Cook at POLITICO.

Every known interaction between members of the Trump campaign and Russians are set out by Meg Kelly at the Washington Post.

“Putin is a world-class liar,” the truth remains elusive inside Russia and Russia’s actions across Europe and in the U.S. demonstrate Putin’s mastery of the art of deception. Within this context, Trump’s acceptance of Putin’s blatant lies regarding Russian interference are weakening America’s institutions and defenses. Ryan Goodman, the co-editor-in chief of Just Security, and John Sipher, a former member of the C.I.A. National Clandestine Service, write at the Atlantic.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

The breach of confidential National Security Agency (N.S.A.) information in April 2016 has shaken the agency, there has been broad agreement that the breach has already far exceeded the damage down by the Snowden leaks and the wide-ranging investigation into the leak has not yet concluded whether the information was obtained through a high-level hack, an insider’s leak, or both. Scott Shane, Nicole Perlroth and David E. Sanger report at the New York Times.

Britain’s digital surveillance agency G.C.H.Q. has expressed concern that products from the Russia-based Kaspersky Lab may be being used by Russian government as a means to gather intelligence, Kaspersky Lab anti-virus software is used by more than two million U.K. customers. Sam Jones and Martin Arnold report at the Financial Times.

YEMEN

The top U.S. Air Force official in the Middle East claimed that the ballistic missile fired by Houthi rebels at the Saudi capital of Riyadh on Nov. 4 was manufactured by Iran, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian saying Friday that there were “Iranian markings on those missiles” and supporting Saudi Arabia’s allegations. Jon Gambrell reports at the AP.

The ballistic missile fired at Riyadh was “Yemeni-produced,” a spokesperson for the Houthi rebels said at the weekend, contradicting the contention by the U.S, the AP reports.

The Saudi-led coalition announced today that it would begin reopening ports in Yemen after it took a decision to close them in response to the Houthi missile launch, nevertheless the leader of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels vowed to retaliate to the Saudi blockade and said that the decision meant that the coalition had “shut down all doors for peace and dialogue.” Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

The U.S. would be unlikely to withdraw its support for the Saudi-led coalition despite the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the allegations of breaches in international humanitarian law. Farah Najjar provides an analysis at Al Jazeera within the context of a new bill that has been proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives.

LEBANON

“I will return to Lebanon very soon to initiate the necessary constitutional procedures,” the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said yesterday in a televised interview from Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh. Hariri resigned on Nov. 4 in a televised announcement from Riyadh and cited the role of Iran and Hezbollah – the Lebanese Shi’ite political and militant group supported by Iran – and threats against his life as the reasons behind his decision. The AFP reports.

Hariri claimed that he was able to move freely in an effort to dispel rumors that he has been held in Saudi Arabia against his will, however the televised interview is unlikely to clear up the confusion and assure viewers that he has not effectively been held hostage. Anne Barnard reports at the New York Times.

The Lebanese President Michel Aoun said yesterday that Saudi Arabia has been “imposing conditions” on Hariri’s residency and has restricted his freedom to some degree, making the comments ahead of Hariri’s televised interview, Reuters reporting.

Hariri said that his resignation was in the best interests of Lebanon, he urged Iran to stop “interfering” in countries throughout the region and supported Saudi Arabia in its war of words with Iran; Hariri also suggested that he would withdraw his resignation if Hezbollah committed to remaining neutral in regional conflicts. Louisa Loveluck and Suzan Haidamous report at the Washington Post.

Hariri warned that Gulf Arab nations could institute sanctions against Lebanon because of Hezbollah’s role in the region, adding that his resignation was meant to be a “positive shock” to Lebanon about the danger it is facing and asked why Hezbollah was present in Yemen to support the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Lisa Barrington and Laila Bassam reports at Reuters.

“Iran does not interfere in Lebanon’s affairs,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by Iranian state television today, referring to Saudi Arabia pointing the finger at Tehran for its role in Hariri’s resignation, and Iran’s response that Riyadh has been creating instability in the region. Reuters reports.

The talk of a war between Israel and Lebanon has escalated in Israel since Hariri’s resignation, with top military and political officials discussing the dynamics of a potential conflict. Peter Beaumont explains at the Guardian.

The fear that Lebanon would fall into a proxy war, similar to the current conflict in Yemen, has arisen, however “cooler heads need to prevail” as there is no appetite for confrontation. Halim Shebaya writes at Al Jazeera.

SYRIA

The Islamic State group regained control of Albu Kamal from Iranian-backed militias today, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, despite the fact that the Syrian army declared victory over the town – which was the militants’ last stronghold in Syria – last week. Suleiman Al-Khalidi reports at Reuters.

The U.S. and Russia issued a joint statement on Saturday agreeing that Syria must hold U.N.-supervised elections to bring new leadership to the country, the statement adding that more work must be done to secure stability and support de-escalation zones. Nancy Cook reports at POLITICO.

The U.S.-Russia statement “does not answer Israel’s unequivocal demands that there will be no developments that bring Iranian or Hezbollah forces closer to Israel’s border with Syria,” the Israeli Cabinet Minister Tzachi Haengbi said yesterday, reflecting Israel’s tentative welcome of an agreement for a post-war Syria, but their concerns about the balance of power in the region. Josef Federman reports at the AP.

Israel signaled that it would continue to carry out airstrikes on its border with Syria to keep Iranian-backed forces away from the Israeli-held Golan Heights, Dan Williams reports at Reuters.

The joint statement demonstrates that the U.S. has ceded the “regional advantage” to Russia and Iran due to the U.S.’s desire to retreat once the Islamic State group has been defeated, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces uncovered mass graves containing the bodies of at least 400 suspected victims of the Islamic State group at the weekend, Al Jazeera reports.

Iraqi federal forces and Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been avoiding clashes through daily phone calls and have taken on further importance since the de-escalation talks between the central government and the Iraqi Kurdistan region stalled at the end of last month, Margaret Coker explains at the New York Times.

AFGHANISTAN

U.S. troops have been embedded with Afghan units in the fight against the Taliban, a move that has been a radical departure from the Obama administration’s policy which sought to withdraw most of the U.S.’s ground forces. Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce report at Foreign Policy.

A Taliban attack in the western Farah province killed eight police officers today, according to an Afghan official, the AP reports.

Iranian-trained Shi’ite Afghan troops deployed to Syria are beginning to return to Afghanistan and there are concerns that their return would drive another sectarian battle in the country. Mujib Mashal and Fatima Faizi explain at the New York Times.

BAHRAIN

An explosion at a state-run oil company in Bahrain on Saturday was blamed on militants guided by Iran, the Bahraini Interior Minister said that the blast was “the latest example of a terrorist act performed by terrorists in direct contact with, and under instruction from Iran,” but he declined to offer further details about the cause of the explosion or who had been suspected of carrying it out. The AP reports.

Iran has denied allegations that it was involved in the attack, the AP reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. carried out three drone strikes in Somalia yesterday in its campaign against the Islamist al-Shabaab group and Islamic State militants, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. military command in Africa, the strikes were carried out in coordination with Somalia’s government. The AP reports.

A member of the U.S. Special Forces who was killed in last months’ Niger ambush may have been captured then executed, according to the testimony of two villagers. Sudarsan Raghavan reports at the Washington Post.

Turkey denied allegations that it tried to broker a deal for the kidnapping of the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, following reports that Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn discussed a plan with Turkey to “forcibly remove” the cleric. Zeynep Bilginsoy reports at the AP.

Iran rejected a call by French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss its ballistic missiles program, the Iran Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi saying yesterday that “France is fully aware” that Iran’s defense affairs “are not negotiable.” Al Jazeera 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