The Early Edition: November 22, 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.

SYRIA

The Russian President Vladimir Putin held unannounced talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier this week ahead of a summit being held today in the Russian city of Sochi with the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan to discuss the post-conflict scenario in Syria. Nathan Hodge reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Russian officials have stated that their aim is to ensure Assad’s support for a political process, however Assad has been resistant to granting any sort of concession to the Syrian opposition and it is unclear how far Russia would be willing to push Assad to compromise; according to a Trump administration official, the issue of a political transition was not raised during Putin’s call to Trump yesterday, which took place after Assad and Putin’s meeting. Anne Barnard reports at the New York Times.

Russia’s efforts comes as the U.S. effectively granted Russia a leading role in diplomatic initiatives this month in return for an acceptance of a continued U.S. role in Syria and, during Trump and Putin’s phone call yesterday, Putin explained that he had secured a commitment from Assad to cooperate with Russia’s initiatives, and Putin and Trump emphasized their commitment to a political settlement in Syria through the framework of the U.N.-backed peace process in Geneva. Liz Sly, Louisa Loveluck and David Filipov report at the Washington Post.

Putin also spoke with Saudi King Salman, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi in phone calls yesterday, according to a source in Netanyahu’s office, Putin and Netanyahu discussed Iran’s attempts to expand its influence in Syria and Israel’s opposition to this possibility. Katya Golubkova and Tom Perry report at Reuters.

The U.N. envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura called on Syrian opposition groups to come as a united delegation for Geneva talks on Nov. 28, making the comments today at the opening of a three-day conference of Syrian opposition groups being held in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, the AP reports.

“There is no solution to the crisis without a Syrian consensus that would achieve the demands of the Syrian people” within the framework of the Geneva process and U.N. Security Council resolution 2254, the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said today at the conference in Riyadh. Reuters reports.

A series of Syrian government airstrikes on the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area have killed dozens of people since the forces launched an offensive on the Damascus suburb – which is covered by a Russia, Turkey and Iran-brokered de-escalation agreement –last week, leaving residents fearing that they would be forced to surrender in a similar fashion to the surrender of the formerly rebel-held city of Aleppo last year. Raja Abdulrahim reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Sexual violence against men and boys has been widespread during the Syrian conflict, cuts proposed by the Trump administration to the 2018 international affair budget would worsen the situation, Sarah Chynoweth explains at the Guardian.

The Trump administration has ceded control of post-conflict planning in Syria to Russia and has not done enough to exact concessions from Putin on its core interests, in particular curbing Iran’s role in the region. Michael Crowley writes at POLITICO.

An analysis of the significance of Putin’s meeting with Assad and the dynamics of their relationship is provided by Nick Paton Walsh at CNN.

NORTH KOREA

The U.S. Treasury imposed further sanctions against North Korea yesterday and targeted Chinese individuals and entities doing business with Pyongyang, the Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that the U.S. is “steadfast” in its “determination to maximize economic pressure” to isolate the country. The sanctions were not directly connected to Monday’s decision to designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. decision to re-designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism was a “serious provocation and violent infringement,” North Korea’s state K.C.N.A. news agency said today, Reuters reporting.

China’s Foreign Ministry said today that it opposes unilateral sanctions in response to the U.S. Treasury announcement, Reuters reports.

North Korea violated the 1953 armistice ending the hostilities in the Korean War by pursuing a North Korean soldier who defected to the South last week, according to the findings of the U.S.-led U.N. Command, a spokesperson saying today that it had notified North Korea of the violations. Joshua Berlinger reports at CNN.

The decision to re-designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism has undermined hopes in the region of talks and diplomacy leading to a de-escalation of tensions, analysts said yesterday, also noting that sanctions would be unlikely to make a real impact and that it may make diplomacy more difficult. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

LEBANON

The Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has said that he would “hold off” from handing in his resignation during a meeting with the Lebanese President Michel Aoun today, making the statement after an extraordinary series of events following Hariri’s unexpected resignation announcement on Nov. 4 in a televised broadcast from the Saudi capital of Riyadh, citing the role of Iran and its Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah political and militant ally as the reason behind his decision.

“Today I presented my resignation to the president and he urged me to hold onto it for more dialogue about its reasons and its political underpinnings,” Hariri explained in a televised speech today, Al Jazeera reports.

Hariri made the announcement after returning to Lebanon yesterday and there has been speculation over the circumstances of his resignation, including whether he was pressured by Saudi Arabia to resign and whether the Kingdom had restricted his freedom of movement for two weeks. Erika Solomon reports at the Financial Times.

It remains unclear whether Hariri will rescind his resignation, his return to Beirut comes following intense diplomacy by the French President Emmanuel Macron and trips to Egypt and Cyprus for meetings with their leaders. Louisa Loveluck and Suzan Haidamous report at the Washington Post.

IRAN

An Iranian national was charged by the F.B.I. yesterday for his alleged hacking of H.B.O.’s computer network, adding that the hacker had “worked on behalf of the Iranian military” to target Israeli infrastructure and nuclear software systems. Devlin Barrett reports at the Washington Post.

Iran enjoys the upper hand in every confrontation with Saudi Arabia across the Middle East, the aggressive approach by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is unlikely to achieve a turn-around unless Saud Arabia’s allies are engaged and the Kingdom embarks on a “steep learning curve in the methods of political and proxy warfare.” Jonathan Spyer writes at Foreign Policy.

IRAQ

The Islamic State group carried out a truck bomb at a market in northern Iraq yesterday, killing at least 17 people and demonstrating a return to insurgency tactics as the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate crumbles. Ghassan Adnan and Isabel Coles report at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. There were no reported strikes conducted on Nov. 19 in Iraq or Syria. [Central Command]

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team have been quizzing Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner about his interactions with foreign leaders during the presidential transition, according to source familiar with the matter, the questions include Kushner’s possible involvement in efforts to intervene in a controversial U.N. resolution passed in December 2016 that condemned the construction of Israeli settlements. It is unclear why Mueller’s team – which is investigating connections between the Trump campaign and Russia – has been asking about the U.N. resolution, Peter Nicholas, Aruna Viswanatha and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

The former C.E.O. of private military contractor Blackwater, Erik Prince, is scheduled to testify before the House Intelligence Committee next week as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Prince has been under scrutiny since the Washington Post reported that the U.A.E. brokered a secret meeting between Prince and a Russian close to Putin shortly before Trump’s inauguration. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

 “Critical data” was destroyed when Russian hackers breached the Democratic National Committee (D.N.C.) system in the lead up to the 2016 election, the interim D.N.C. chair Donna Brazile said in an interview yesterday, the D.N.C. has pushed back on the comments saying that there was “no evidence the voter file was compromised.” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

The U.S. would like the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) to keep their offices in Washington open, the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said yesterday, adding that the Department are in contact with Palestinian officials amid doubts over the status of the office after the Trump administration threatened to close it due to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s call for Israeli officials to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against Palestinians. Reuters reports.

The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson overruled recommendations from an annual human-trafficking report, prompting State Department officials to write a memo criticizing Tillerson for failing to include three countries in a list of those who recruit and use child soldiers. Nauert defended the Secretary of State yesterday, saying that he had based his decision on the “technical” merits of each case, Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

The U.S. efforts to revive the Asian “Quad” alliance must overcome obstacles to cooperation, specifically the reluctance of India to work with the U.S., Japan and Australia. Sanjeev Miglani writes at Reuters.

ZIMBABWE

Zimbabwe’s leader Robert Mugabe resigned yesterday ending 37 years of rule, the former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa will be sworn in as the new president later this week. Euan McKirdy and Dominique van Heerden report at CNN.

“We congratulate all Zimbabweans who raised their voices and stated peacefully and clearly that the time for change was overdue,” the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement yesterday, Olivia Beavers reporting at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladić has been convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (I.C.T.Y.) today and has been sentenced to life imprisonment. Owen Bowcott and Julian Borger report at the Guardian.

A U.S. airstrike killed more than 100 al-Qaeda-backed al-Shabaab militants in Somalia yesterday, according to the Defense Department’s U.S. Africa Command, Jessica Donati reports at the Wall Street Journal.

A U.S. Navy transporter plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan, the Navy’s 7th Fleet said today, eight of the eleven crew members have been rescued. Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

More remains from the body of Sgt. La David T. Johnson were discovered on Nov. 12, the Pentagon revealed yesterday, making the discovery weeks after four Special Forces members in Niger were killed in an ambush and raising further questions about the incident. Alex Horton reports at the Washington Post.

The U.S. military has carried out two airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Libya over the past few days, the U.S. Africa Command said in a statement yesterday, Reuters reporting.

Some Afghan lawmakers and provincial representatives have expressed concern about the U.S.-Afghan air campaign on Taliban-run opium-production plants which was announced Monday, saying that the operations were misplaced, have led to civilian suffering and that the U.S. should focus on Afghanistan’s borders with Pakistan and Iran where the transit of drugs are facilitated. Pamela Constable reports at the Washington Post.

The Uranium One deal “was not a scandal” and the allegations that the Clintons played a nefarious role in the deal, which allowed a Russian state-owned company to extract uranium from the U.S., have been widely undermined. John Ritch writes at the New York Times.

Russia’s upper house today approved a bill allowing authorities to designate foreign media operating in the country as “foreign agents,” the bill was in response to a recent similar measure taken by the U.S., Reuters reports.

The acting U.S. attorney in the case against Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab said that claims that the prosecution was “being driven by domestic Turkish politics” were “ridiculous,” adding that prosecutors were not connected in any way to the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen who has been accused by the Turkish government of being the mastermind behind last year’s failed coup in Ankara. Benjamin Weiser reports at the New York Times.

An analysis of Trump’s potential picks for the Supreme Court following a “refreshed” list of names is provided by S.M. at the Economist. 

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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