The Early Edition: November 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.

EGYPT

The attackers who killed at least 305 at a mosque in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on Friday were carrying the flag of the Islamic State group, according to Egyptian officials, the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi said following the attack that he would respond with “the utmost force.” The BBC reports.

The assault was carried out by suicide bombers and up to 30 gunmen, according to survivors and officials, though no one has claimed responsibility it is widely believed to have been carried out by the Islamic State group. Louisa Loveluck and Heba Farouk Mahfouz report at the Washington Post.

The Egyptian army conducted airstrikes against the vehicles that were used in Friday’s attack, however the use of devastating force has been the defining feature of Sissi’s approach to the Islamist insurgency in the Sinai and it has not delivered success, leaving civilians trapped between militants and heavy-handed military tactics. Declan Walsh and David D. Kirkpatrick explain at the New York Times.

The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vowed to counter “terrorism and extremism,” at a gathering of an alliance of 40 Muslim-majority nations yesterday, making the comments in light of the Sinai attack. Officials said that the alliance would allow members to request or offer assistance to each other to fight militants, Stephen Kalin reports at Reuters.

Sinai tribesmen called on “men and youths” to “coordinate for a major operation” with the Egyptian army in a statement posted to Facebook after Friday’s attack, demonstrating the desire to end the Islamist insurgency despite the historically strained relationship between the army and Egyptian Bedouins. Dahlia Kholaif and Rory Jones report at the Wall Street Journal.

The unprecedented attack in the Sinai Peninsula should prompt Trump to re-examine Sissi’s aggressive approach to the Islamist insurgency, which has led to large-scale deaths of Egyptian security personnel, reported abuses carried out by Egyptian troops, and increasing insecurity for civilians. The instability of the Peninsula should require a multifaceted strategy for political and economic reconstruction, Ishaan Tharoor writes at the Washington Post.

The Sinai attack was different because “it was carried out in a way that completely cuts across local dynamics,” undermining the ability of radical groups to recruit local Egyptians and fomenting opposition to extremist ideology, H.A. Hellyer writes at the BBC.

The death toll in the Sinai shows that “this is a crisis that has built over decades and accelerated in recent years,” the Guardian Editorial board writes, arguing that Sissi’s heavy-handed approach has further isolated an area that has been marginalized, neglected and repressed and that “relying on brute force” would likely lead to more civilian deaths.

SYRIA

The White House acknowledged Friday that the Trump administration would stop arming Kurdish (Y.P.G.) fighters in Syria, in a statement a few hours after a phone call between Trump and the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan, the policy shift has been long sought by the Turkish government due to its concerns about Y.P.G.’s ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.), which has fought against the Turkish state for decades. Carol Morello and Erin Cunningham report at the Washington Post.

Trump’s pledge not to arm the Y.P.G. “will lose value if it is not implemented,” the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said today, a spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition said yesterday that it was looking at “adjustments” to the support it provides to the Y.P.G.-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.). Reuters reports.

The Pentagon is likely to acknowledge that there are approximately 2000 U.S. troops in Syria, two anonymous officials said Friday, saying that a last minute change in schedules could delay an announcement. Idrees Ali reports at Reuters.

Russian air strikes have killed at least 53 civilians in the Islamic State-held village of Al-Shafah in the Deir al-Zour province at the weekend, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Russia had confirmed earlier that six long-range bombers had carried out air strikes in the area but stated that they had hit militants and their strongholds. The BBC reports.

At least 23 civilians were killed yesterday in pro-Syrian government forces operations against the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area near the capital of Damascus, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, despite the fact that the area forms part of an agreed “de-escalation” zone brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran. Reuters reports.

Russia has been emboldened by its efforts to support President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin has been pragmatic in his approach to Syria, however the challenge now is how to win the peace. Jonathan Marcus provides an analysis at the BBC, adding that the Trump administration’s support for the Kurds provided it key leverage in the future of Syria but it may have conceded its influence to pacify Turkey.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. There were no reported strikes conducted on Nov. 19 in Iraq or Syria. [Central Command] The figures have not been updated since Nov. 20.

LEBANON

The return of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has raised questions about the future of Lebanon and the region, Hariri unexpectedly resigned on Nov. 4 from the Saudi capital of Riyadh in a televised announcement citing the destructive role of Iran and its Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah ally as the reason for his decision, leading to two weeks of speculation over his status and Saudi Arabia’s potential role in his resignation. Ben Hubbard and Hwaida Saad observe at the New York Times, explaining the situation and its relevance to the Saudi-Iran rivalry and regional instability.

“We will not accept Hezbollah’s positions that affect our Arab brothers or target the security and stability of their countries,” Hariri said in a statement released by the prime minister’s office Saturday, Al Jazeera reports.

Hezbollah has “cemented its status as a regional power” and it may benefit from the instability that has been caused since Nov. 4 – both within Lebanon and in its militant activity outside the country, which it has been conducting with the support of Iran. Erin Cunningham and Louisa Loveluck provide an analysis at the Washington Post.

IRAN

Iran would increase the range of its missiles “if Europe wants to turn into a threat,” Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami said at the weekend in comments quoted by the state-run Fars news agency, making the remarks after the French President Emmanuel Macron called for discussions on Iran’s ballistic missile program earlier this month. Al Jazeera reports.

The election of Trump and the foreign policy approach of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman have united Iranians in the belief that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia cannot be trusted and that Iran is “capable of staring down its enemies,” especially in light of the successes of Iranian-led militias in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State group. Thomas Erdbrink writes at the New York Times.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

The trial of Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab in Miami has the potential to further deteriorate U.S.-Turkey relations, Zarrab has been charged with conspiring with Turkish officials to help evade U.S. sanctions on Iran, charges which have infuriated Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan. David Gauthier-Villars and Nicole Hang report at the Wall Street Journal.

Erdoğan has attempted to paint the charges as a fabrication and the continuation of last year’s failed coup against Ankara, he has raised the issue with U.S. officials on numerous occasions and with Trump in September, revealing the level of anxiety that the Turkish government feels about Zarrab’s case. Carlotta Gall and Benjamin Weiser report at the New York Times.

Speculation surrounding Zarrab’s possible cooperation with U.S. prosecutors has prompted some to question whether he has been providing information to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team in his investigations into Trump’s associates, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn who worked on behalf of the Turkish government before the 2016 U.S. election. Devlin Barrett reports at the Washington Post.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

The U.S. reversed its decision to close the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) mission in Washington last week, saying that it would impose limitations that it would expect to lift after a 90-day period. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner still has responsibility for a plan to end the Israel-Palestine conflict, however his portfolio has shrunk significantly since the appointment of White House chief of staff John F. Kelly. Sharon LaFraniere, Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker explain at the New York Times.

The strained relations between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and much of the staff at the State Department was exemplified by the recent departure of the chief of security, with many diplomats concerned about Tillerson’s lack of focus on policy and the priority he has placed on reorganizing the department. Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

Tillerson has been focusing on “fiddling around” with the “org chart” and “mundane tasks” instead of focusing on diplomacy, he has failed to fill key positions and has immersed himself in bureaucracy. Tillerson “needs to stop playing management consultant and be the secretary of state,” the former U.S. State Department director of policy planning, David McKean, writes at POLITICO Magazine.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The F.B.I. did not notify tens of U.S. officials that Russian hackers attempted to break into their personal email accounts, an AP investigation has found, Raphael Satter, Jeff Donn and Desmond Butler report.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team have been investigating former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s work on a documentary film targeting exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen and financed by Turkish interests, the questions about the film come as part of a wider probe into whether Flynn improperly concealed financial ties to Turkey and Russia, and amid speculation that Flynn may be working on a deal with Mueller. Dion Nissenbaum and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

“We are still in a stalemate,” the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. John Nicholson said last week, adding the U.S. is only 90 days into Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy and that “we’ve set all the conditions to win.” Hans Nichols and Jonathan Allen report at NBC News.

South Korea’s defense ministry today warned North Korea not to violate the armistice agreement after North Korean troops fired across the demilitarized zone (D.M.Z.) separating the two countries in an attempt to stop a defecting troop. Reuters reports.

Women who have joined the Islamic State group pose a significant challenge when they return to their native countries, many appear to have embraced the terrorist group’s ideology and pose a threat to national security upon their return, including the possibility that they would indoctrinate family members. Souad Mekhennet and Joby Warrick report at the Washington Post.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tactics in Ukraine threaten to push the Trump administration into “another bad deal” that undermines the West and strengthens Russia’s hand, Josh Rogin writes at the Washington Post. 

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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