The Early Edition: November 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.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

White House aides have been divided in their assessment of the investigations into Trump-Russia ties, with some noting the progress of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and anxious about the scope of the probe, and others more optimistic having taken on board the message of White House lawyer Ty Cobb that Mueller’s focus on the White House would conclude before or just after the new year. Ashley Parker and Carol D. Leonnig report at the Washington Post.

A senior Russian official proposed a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump in May 2016 through an email with the subject entitled “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite,” according to a source who has seen the message. According to other sources, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner sent a message to top Trump campaign officials rejecting the proposal, Matt Apuzzo, Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Goldman report at the New York Times.

Kushner has been under increased scrutiny following the revelation by Senate Judiciary Committee leaders last week that he failed to turn over the document about the “Russian backdoor overture,” the latest revelations adding to the host questions that have been raised about Kushner, including the status of his security clearance and his role in the firing of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

Mueller’s team have issued a directive to the Justice Department within the past month calling on the department to turn over a range of documents that include material related to the firing of former F.B.I. Director James Comey and the decision of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia investigations. Mike Levine reports at ABC News.

The publicist Rob Goldstone is ready to be interviewed by Mueller’s team, according to sources familiar with the matter. Goldstone helped to arrange a meeting between Donald Trump Jr., other key Trump campaign officials and the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya in June 2016, Robert Windrem reports at NBC News.

Social media and tech companies have increased their lobbying efforts amid increased scrutiny of their role in the 2016 U.S. election and the use of their online platforms by Russian operatives, Ali Breland reports at the Hill.

The editor in chief of the Kushner-owned and published New York Observer helped to arrange a “no-holds-barred” interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in October 2014, the interview was conducted by a freelance reporter for the Observer. Jenna McLaughlin explains the potential significance of the interview at Foreign Policy.

The five key things to know about the connections between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks are set out by Morgan Chalfant at the Hill.

A background to Trump’s 1987 trip to Moscow is revealed by Luke Harding at POLITICO Magazine.

Did Putin’s attempts to influence the 2016 election pay off? Fred Hiatt asks at the Washington Post, arguing that Russia has successfully undermined the U.S. and its democracy over the last year.

NORTH KOREA

A special envoy for the Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed issues of “mutual concern” with senior North Korean officials at the weekend, according to North Korea’s K.C.N.A. news agency, the conversations included the “situation of the Korean Peninsula and region and bilateral relations.” Choe Sang-hun reports at the New York Times.

“There is a possibility that North Korea could fire an array of ballistic missiles this year … to ratchet up its threats against the United States,” a member of South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence committee said today, following a briefing by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service. Hyonhee Shin reports at Reuters.

Trump’s visit to South Korea “actually led to an improvement in our bilateral relations,” the chairperson of South Korea’s Liberal Democratic Party said Friday, adding that the trip may have highlighted to the president the need for a peaceful resolution to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Rick Gladstone reports at the New York Times.  

SYRIA

The Syrian army and its allies have retaken the town of Albu Kamal from the Islamic State group, a Hezbollah-run media unit said yesterday, the pro-government forces recapturing the town having lost it in a counter-attack earlier this month. There are now only a few pockets of Islamic State group held territories in Syria, Reuters reports.

The Syrian army’s bombardment of the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region killed at least 14 civilians on Saturday, the region near the capital of Damascus is supposed to be part of a “de-escalation zone.” The AFP reports.

Russia, Iran and Turkey-brokered “de-escalation” zones have not stopped siege and bombardment tactics against rebel-held areas carried out primarily by the Syrian army, leading to increased skepticism of the ceasefire deals which were reached this year in the Kazakh capital of Astana. Nada Homsi and Anne Barnard report at the New York Times.

Russia, Turkey and Iran are scheduled to meet on Wednesday in the Russian coastal city of Sochi to discuss the Syrian civil war, the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov saying that only those three countries were included because they are the “guarantors of the political settlement and stability and security that we see now in Syria.” Al Jazeera reports.

A gathering in Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh to discuss the future of Syria is scheduled to take place on the same day as the talks being hosted in Russia, the Riyadh talks will include up to 30 groups opposed to Assad. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

A commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) was killed in Syria fighting the Islamic State group, along with a lower-ranking fighter, according to Iran’s Fars news agency. Reuters reports.

Russia’s veto of the resolution renewing the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (J.I.M.) investigating chemical weapons use in Syria last week was a “public embarrassment for the Trump administration” and the failure of the resolution shows that the administration must be willing to do more “than cede Syria to the Syria-Iran-Russia axis.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

The U.S. must acknowledge and then counter Iran’s strategy in Syria, which includes supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to retake all of Syria in order to advance Tehran’s aim to establish a land bridge to Beirut – a strategy that threatens U.S. national security interests. Josh Rogin 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 November 16. Separately, partner forces conducted five strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

LEBANON

The Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri met with the French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday amid increased speculation over his status in Saudi Arabia, Hariri resigned on Nov. 4 from the Saudi capital of Riyadh via a televised announcement citing Iran and Hezbollah’s destructive role in Lebanon and the region as the reason for his decision. Alissa J. Rubin, Anne Barnard and Elian Peltier report at the New York Times.

“I will be going to Beirut in the next few days,” Hariri said Saturday, saying that he would clarify his status and discuss his resignation with the Lebanese President Michel Aoun. Erin Cunningham and James McAuley report at the Washington Post.

Hariri will travel to Egypt tomorrow to meet with President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, Hariri’s office said yesterday, Reuters reporting.

SAUDI-IRAN RIVALRY

The Trump administration has been pushing for a swift resolution of the impasse in Lebanon so that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia can focus on the threat posed by Iran and its allies, the plans to deter Iran include ways to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s missile defense capabilities, Dion Nissenbaum and Felicia Schwartz report at the Wall Street Journal.

Saudi Arabia persuaded most of the 22 Arab League states to condemn Iran’s Hezbollah ally as a “terrorist organization” at an emergency meeting yesterday, the Bahraini Foreign Minister claimed at the gathering that Lebanon was “subject to full control” by Hezbollah. Ben Wedeman reports at CNN.

 “We have ties that are indeed partly covert with many Muslim and Arab countries,” an Israeli minister and member of the security cabinet said yesterday, revealing secret dealings between Saudi Arabia and Israel amid concerns from both countries about the threat posed by Iran. Jeffrey Heller and Stephen Kalin report at Reuters.

The normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel without a resolution of the Palestinian issue “will be detrimental to both Palestine and Saudi Arabia,” Ibrahim Fraihat writes at Al Jazeera, saying that the forthcoming plan devised by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner would “practically fragment the Saudi-sponsored 2002 Arab Peace Plan” and that if the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pursues this strategy he risks delegitimizing Saudi Arabia in the Muslim world and playing into Iran’s hands.

IRAN

The Trump administration must start by looking at Iran’s role in Syria and Iraq if it seeks to limit Tehran’s influence, Iran has overreached in Syria and does not have complete dominance in Iraq, and these provide the sites for strategic gains for the U.S. rather than Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain or the 2015 nuclear deal. Kenneth M. Pollack and Bilal Y. Saab write at the Wall Street Journal.

The Justice Department are preparing to announce criminal cases against Iran or Iranian nationals, some officials have expressed concern that the revelations are motivated by the Trump administration’s desire for Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran. Devlin Barrett reports at the Washington Post.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Trump administration warned the Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) last week that it may have to close its office in Washington, the State Department saying that calls by the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in September for an investigation and the prosecution of Israeli officials through the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) violate conditions imposed by Congress. Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

A decision to close the P.L.O. office would be an “unprecedented step” in the history of U.S.-Palestinian relations, Abbas said Saturday, saying that the move would have “dangerous consequences” for peace, a statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it was “a matter of U.S. law” and that Israel would “look forward to continuing to work with the U.S. to advance peace and security in the region.” Loveday Morris and Carol Morello report at the Washington Post.

We will put on hold all our communications with this American administration,” the senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Saturday in response to the decision, the AP reporting.

SOMALIA

The U.S. military has significantly increased its air campaign against al-Qaeda-backed al-Shabaab militants in Somalia over five days beginning Nov. 9, the increased efforts following a deadly truck attack in Mogadishu last month. Eric Schmitt reports at the New York Times.

The U.S. military presence in Somalia is the largest since the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” battle, the increase signaling a policy shift that includes the expansion of U.S. advise and support missions for Somali troops. Wesley Morgan reports at POLITICO.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

A recommendation to finance and sell anti-tank missiles to the Ukrainian government will be put forward to the president, according to a State Department official; if accepted it would mark a major shift in policy. Tara Palmeri reports at ABC News.

An analysis of the Trump administration’s policy toward Cuba is provided by Melanie Zanona at the Hill.

U.S. governors, mayors and other leading figures have been building international partnerships while the Trump administration pursues its “America first” agenda, with cities increasingly bypassing national governments to conduct diplomacy, but leading to the possibility of an ever-greater divide between cosmopolitan centers and other parts of the country. Ishaan Tharoor writes at the Washington Post.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has shown that “business experience isn’t easily transferable to government,” the New York Times editorial board writes, citing concerns over Tillerson’s reorganization of the State Department, the poor morale in the Department, and the lack of coherent policy as reasons why his position may be questioned.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The commander of the U.S. Strategic Command Gen. John Hyten said he would resist Trump if he ordered an “illegal” nuclear strike in comments to a security forum at the weekend, Reuters reporting.

Pressure from the Taliban on the Afghan Army has been affecting its ability to recruit, Najim Rashim and Mujib Mashal report at the New York Times.

The U.S. military has banned all soldiers stationed in Japan from drinking alcohol after a fatal car crash yesterday, in which a Marine soldier reportedly had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit. Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

“I should have left them in jail,” Trump tweeted yesterday about the three college basketball players who were released from custody in China last week after being accused of shoplifting, making the comments after the father of one of the players minimized Trump’s role in the players’ release. Gabriel T. Rubin reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The latest updates on the situation in Zimbabwe following last week’s military takeover are provided at Al Jazeera. 

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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