The Early Edition: November 17, 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-RUSSIA

Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner failed to hand over a document about a “Russian backdoor overture” to the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to a letter sent by committee chairman Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) yesterday, Michael S. Schmidt reports at the New York Times.

Kushner also failed to provide documents relating to an email he was sent in September 2016 about WikiLeaks and communications he had had with Belarusian-American businessman Sergei Millian who claimed close connections to the Trumps and was the source of salacious details in a dossier based on Trump’s 2013 trip to Moscow. Karoun Demirjian reports at the Washington Post.

Documents relating to Kushner’s security clearance were also requested, Kushner’s security clearance form has come under increasing scrutiny within the context of the Russia investigations. Daniella Diaz reports at CNN.

The Senate Judiciary Committee became aware of the documents through other witnesses, and a lawyer for Kushner has said that the president’s son-in-law was “open to responding to any additional requests.” The BBC reports.

Grassley and Feinstein’s letter called on Kushner to turn over all responsive documents by Nov. 27 and asked Kushner’s lawyer to resolve issues that might “implicate the president’s Executive privilege.” Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Kushner remains a person of interest in the investigations into Trump-Russia connections, according to an anonymous source familiar with the probes; investigators are keen to discover how much Kushner was involved with, or knew of, the efforts of Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn or others to lift U.S. sanctions on Russia. Jonathan Landay and Patricia Zengerle report at Reuters.

The Trump campaign former foreign policy adviser Carter Page delivered a bundle of documents under subpoena to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees yesterday, Page was recently interviewed by both committees as part of the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

The former Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak declined to name all of the Trump officials he had contact with, saying in an interview earlier this week that “the list is so ling that I’m not going to be able to get through it in 20 minutes.” Tucker Higgins reports at CNBC.

A worker paid by the Russian “troll factory,” the Internet Research Agency, has described how the organization churned out misinformation to meet specific quotas. Ben Popken and Kelly Cobiella report at NBC News.

The White House communications director Hope Hicks may be a key witness in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, having been part of Trump’s “inner circle” for years and been at the president’s side as the Russia scandal has unfolded. Mueller has requested an interview with Hicks but a date for questioning has not yet been revealed, Darren Samuelsohn explains at POLITICO.

The investigations into Trump-Russia connections reveal a “spectacular accumulation of lies,” from lies at confirmation hearings to lying to the F.B.I., demonstrating a lack of respect for ethics and morality which has spread to all aspects of the Trump administration. Michael Gerson writes at the Washington Post.

NORTH KOREA

Trump hailed China’s decision to send a special envoy to North Korea as a “big move,” in a tweet yesterday, however the trip will be officially concerned with China’s 19th Communist Party Congress and, according to analysts, is unlikely to lead to a major breakthrough on the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile program. Ben Westcott reports at CNN.

South Korea’s unification minister dismissed the possibility of unifying the Korean Peninsula on North Korea’s terms in an interview yesterday, saying that the two-month pause in missile launches should not be viewed as evidence of a thaw in the impasse as Pyongyang had not called for a return to dialogue.  Jonathan Cheng and Andrew Jeong report at the Wall Street Journal.

“So long as they stop testing, stop developing, they don’t export their weapons, there would be opportunity for talks,” the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday, noting the recent pause in North Korean nuclear and missile testing and suggesting that it may offer an opportunity for talks. Idrees Ali reports at Reuters.

The Trump administration has increased efforts to develop defense systems in the face of the North Korean threat, including cyberweapons, drones and fighter jets that would be able to interfere with a missile launch. David E. Sanger and William J. Broad report at the New York Times.

The South Korean and U.S. nuclear envoys met yesterday to discuss the North Korean threat and measures to bring about a peaceful resolution to the crisis, they agreed to hold more talks on the issue according to the South Korean foreign ministry. Reuters reports.

North Korea has been pursuing an “aggressive schedule” to build an operational ballistic missile submarine, according to a report released yesterday by the Washington-based 38 North monitoring group, saying that their findings were based on satellite images taken on Nov. 5. Reuters reporting.

“We will strengthen Japanese defense power, including missile defense capabilities,” the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said today in response to North Korea’s “escalating provocations,” also calling on the international community to put more pressure on Pyongyang. Mari Yamaguchi reports at the AP.

SYRIA

Russia used its veto power at the U.N. Security Council yesterday to block the renewal of the mandate of the international inquiry into chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (J.I.M.) is set to expire today, the UN News Centre reports.

Russia had expressed anger over J.I.M.’s report last month which blamed Syrian government forces for the attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, saying that the report was riddled with inconsistencies. Rick Gladstone reports at the New York Times.

“To my Russia friends: The next chemical weapons attack will be on your head,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. said in response to the vote, while the Russian ambassador compared the “endless distortions” about the Syrian government’s role to the flawed U.S. intelligence preceding the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Farnaz Fassihi reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The veto demonstrates that the U.S.-Russia partnership in Syria is limited and reinforces the fact that the two countries have differing objectives in the Syrian civil war, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon writes at CNN.

The impending defeat of the Islamic State group in Syria brings the risk of Iran’s strengthening its role in the country and region, a prospect that has caused significant concern in Israel who are anxious about Iran’s military capability, Yaroslav Trofimov explains at the Wall Street Journal.

IRAQ

Iraqi federal forces have recaptured the town of Rawa from the Islamic State group, retaking the last known Iraqi town held by the militants today, according to a statement by the Iraqi military. Hamdi Alkhshali reports at CNN.

U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State militants in Iraq have led to many more civilian deaths than previously reported and “no one knows how many Iraqis have simply gone uncounted.” Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal provide a feature at the New York Times.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 10 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on November 12. Separately, partner forces conducted one strike against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

LEBANON

The Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s unexpected decision to resign on Nov. 4 in a televised announcement from the Saudi capital of Riyadh – which Hariri blamed on Iran and its Lebanese Shi’ite proxy Hezbollah – has caused consternation in Lebanon and alienated Sunni Muslims who had once looked to Saudi Arabia as a close ally. Nazih Osseiran and Margherita Stancati report at the Wall Street Journal.

Hariri will make an official visit to France “soon” following an invitation by the French President Emmanuel Macron, the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said yesterday. The invitation has raised further questions about Hariri’s status, including whether he was forced to resign by Saudi Arabia and whether his movement has been restricted within the Kingdom. Erin Cunningham and Suzan Haidamous report at the Washington Post.

There has been concern in Lebanon that Saudi Arabia would impose a “Qatar-style” blockade on the country, a move that would throw the Lebanese economy into chaos, and analysts have said that Iran and Hezbollah would be unwilling to make significant concessions to ease the situation, Al Jazeera reports.

Despite its aggressive actions, Saudi Arabia has little leverage to deal with Hezbollah, the Kingdom has neglected its support for the Sunni bloc in Lebanon due to distractions in other parts of the region, Erika Solomon explains at the Financial Times.

SAUDI-IRAN RIVALRY

Iran is the “biggest threat to the region” and Israel would be prepared to share intelligence with “moderate” Arab states like Saudi Arabia to “deal with” the threat, Israel’s military chief Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said in an interview with a Saudi newspaper yesterday, marking a closer relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel who do not have diplomatic relations, with Eisenkot adding that “there’s an opportunity to form a new international coalition in the region with President Trump.” Peter Beaumont reports at the Guardian.

Israel would have no interest in launching an attack on the Iran-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah group in Lebanon, Eisenkot also said, Al Jazeera reports.

“China supports Saudi Arabia’s efforts to safeguard national sovereignty and realize greater development,” the Chinese foreign ministry quoted the President Xi Jinping as saying, not referring to particular recent events, but making the comments amid increased tension in the Middle East. Reuters reports.

The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should not expect Israel to fight a war against Lebanon on its behalf, Israel and Saudi Arabia are aligned in their view of Iran, but the Israeli government is unclear about Riyadh’s “game plan” and are wondering whether Bin Salman has the ability to execute his ambitious domestic and foreign policy agenda. Instead, the greatest threat to Israel’s stability is Iran’s growing influence and presence in neighboring Syria, and this “may be the place where a new serious military conflict may begin.” Amos Harel writes at Foreign Policy.

Saudi Arabia’s approach to Iran has been “haphazard, unsettling and counterproductive – and Iran remains one step ahead,” Emile Hokayem writes at the New York Times, explaining that Saudi Arabia’s intervention against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen has seemingly ended in failure, that the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar has been more successful but has led to reputational damage, and the forced resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri “is also likely to backfire.”

AFGHANISTAN

An explosion near a political gathering in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul killed at least 12 people yesterday, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing but did not offer any evidence for their claim. Sayed Salahuddin and Pamela Constable report at the Washington Post.

Trump’s Afghanistan policy “amounts to only a minor recalibration of policy” that will “never bring stability,” the U.S. should begin by gaining a better understanding of Afghanistan and then follow a strategy of “go local, go small, go long.” Hy Rothstein and John Arquilla write at the Wall Street Journal.

SOUTH CHINA SEA

President Trump laid an important marker on the South China Sea during his 12-day tour of Asia, directly challenging China’s actions in the disputed territorial waters and constituted a welcome message that the U.S. “has a vital national interest in keeping shipping lanes open and deterring Chinese territorial expansion,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

The Trump administration has been focused on North Korea and trade to the detriment of the dispute in the South China Sea, allowing China to seize the initiative and increase its influence. Dan De Luce writes at Foreign Policy.

TRUMP ADMINSITRATION FOREIGN POLICY

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has expressed reservations about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s management of the State Department and his planned reorganization, demonstrating Corker’s increasing frustration with Tillerson, with whom he had enjoyed a warm relationship. Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO.

Western diplomats have expressed frustration with the White House over its intransigent position in relation to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and have said that the State Department has been largely absent from discussions, meaning that their focus has been on Congress where bipartisanship has made their lobbying task more difficult. Nicole Gaouette and Michelle Kosinski report at CNN.

The U.S. would consider removing Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, the Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan said yesterday, making the comments a month after the Trump administration formally removed decades-old sanctions against the country and reflecting an improvement in relations between Washington and Khartoum. Jina Moore reports at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. military has conducted preliminary research and development into building prohibited ground-based, intermediate-range missiles, with officials saying that they are carrying out the work in response to Russia’s violation of a Cold War-era pact and they hope that it would demonstrate to Moscow the kind of U.S. weapons Russia could face if it continues to pursuit its own weapons. Julian E. Barnes, Paul Sonne and Brett Forrest report at the Wall Street Journal.

A federal judge rejected an attempt to quash a war court subpoena earlier this week, marking the first civilian court victory for the military judge presiding over the U.S.S. Cole case being heard at Guantánamo Bay. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

China and Russia’s military are scheduled to hold joint antimissile exercises in Beijing next month, China’s defense ministry said today, amid concern from both countries about the U.S. T.H.A.A.D. antimissile defense system that is based in South Korea. Reuters reports.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation is close to ending its assistance to WikiLeaks due to misgivings about the organization’s change in tone from holding governments and corporations to account to becoming increasingly partisan during the 2016 U.S. election and spreading other divisive messages. Kevin Poulsen and Spencer Ackerman reveal at The Daily Beast.

The Hungarian foreign ministry has accused the U.S. State Department of interfering in its election campaign, Lili Bayer reports at POLITICO.

The latest developments in Zimbabwe, following a military takeover, are provided by David McKenzie, Euan McKirdy and Angela Dewan at CNN. 

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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