The Early Edition: November 28, 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

A new round of U.N.-backed Syria peace talks in Geneva are scheduled to start today, ahead of the talks the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura called for “real” diplomacy and for Syrians to “begin to find some common ground.” The UN News Centre reports.

The talks are expected to focus primarily on a new constitution and elections, however there is little optimism that the talks would lead to a political solution to the Syrian conflict and there are questions over the ability of the groups opposed to the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to put on a united front. Barbara Bibbo reports at Al Jazeera.

“Our goal in the negotiation will be the departure of Bashar al-Assad from the beginning of the transition, Nasr Hariri, the head of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee (H.N.C.), which constitutes the opposition delegation, said yesterday. Stephanie Nebehay reporting at Reuters.

The Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim warned that Turkey could renege on its agreement with the E.U. on refugees if the U.S. and E.U. grant the Y.P.G. a role in the Geneva talks, saying after a meeting with the British Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday that Turkey sees the Y.P.G. “as a terrorist organization and [it] has no place in the peace process.” Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

The Pentagon stopped short of saying that it would halt the supply of weapons to Syrian Kurdish (Y.P.G.) militia after Turkey’s foreign ministry said on Friday that Trump had pledged to stop providing weapons to the group which heads the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.), with Pentagon spokesperson Col. Robert Manning saying yesterday that the Defense Department would be “reviewing pending adjustments to the military support provided to our Kurdish partners.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Russia proposed a two-day ceasefire yesterday in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area near the capital of Damascus following reports of civilian deaths, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying that 18 were killed by bombing over the past two days. Reuters reports.

The shelling of the Eastern Ghouta area has been less intense following the Russian ceasefire proposal, according to witnesses and a war monitor, however there have been no indications that a ceasefire has been agreed. Reuters reports.

Russia’s defense ministry yesterday denied reports that it carried out airstrikes on the Islamic State-held village of Al Shafah in the Deir al-Zour province after the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 53 civilians were killed by Russian strikes, the ministry saying in a statement that Russian forces target “areas outside population centers, and only facilities of the international terrorist groups.” The BBC reports.

The Syrian opposition’s stance is seen by Assad and his allies as being unrealistic as pro-Syrian government forces have achieved a series of military victories and the rebels have almost been defeated, while the opposition have accused the Syrian government of refusing to seriously engage. Angus McDowall explains at Reuters why there is little prospect of success at the Geneva talks.

The image of Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin hugging in the Russian city of Sochi last week symbolizes the power dynamics in the Syrian conflict and Russia’s success in supporting the Assad regime, with Putin having been able to marginalize the U.S. and enlist the support of Turkey and Iran in his plan for Syria – Russia’s achievements signaling an “acceleration of the collapse of U.S. global leadership.” The Washington Post editorial board writes.

NORTH KOREA

“[We] cannot rule out the possibility Pyongyang may declare the completion of their nuclear program in a year,” South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said today, Reuters reporting.

Japan has detected radio signals that signal the preparations for a possible North Korean ballistic missile launch, a Japanese government source said today, however noting that the signals are not unusual and are not enough to determine if there would be a launch soon. Reuters reports.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister welcomed the fact that North Korea has not tested any weapons for more than two months during a visit to South Korea yesterday, however the pause in testing may be “seasonal, rather than strategic” and a full resumption may come in February. Adam Taylor observes at the Washington Post.

The U.S. and China must bridge gaps on key questions regarding North Korea before any lasting resolution the crisis becomes likely, including their approach to the Pyongyang regime and how they intend to bring North Korea to the negotiation table. Krishnadev Calamur writes at the Atlantic.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

Trump’s foreign policy reflects current realities because it acknowledges what many experts have not yet grasped: “that America’s post-Cold War national strategy has run out of gas.” Walter Russell Mead writes at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that Trump’s approach understands the limitations of U.S.’s role, however the president must do more than “demolish the old.”

The Foreign Service “is facing perhaps its greatest crisis,” as the U.S. juggles with a plethora of national security challenges and complicated dynamics in conflicts in the Middle East, the Trump administration has weakened the Foreign Service “by a series of misguided decisions since taking office.” Former ambassadors Nicholas Burns and Ryan C. Crocker write at the New York Times, warning about the impact of deep cuts at the State Department.

The dynamics of power in the Middle East may provide Trump with the “zero-sum game” that he has wanted, however nuance regarding Saudi Arabia and Iran’s respective influence in the region is needed to try and defuse tensions. Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

The possibility of the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump becoming the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. is not as preposterous as it would initially seem, the current ambassador Nikki Haley did not have expertise on the U.N. but has proven to be capable, Ivanka Trump could prove similarly capable and has some of the qualities to make a good ambassador. Richard Gowan writes at POLITICO Magazine.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Lawyers for Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn met with members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team yesterday, raising the possibility that Flynn is preparing to negotiate a plea deal with prosecutors, however a member of Trump’s legal team said that no one “should draw the conclusion that this means anything about Gen. Flynn cooperating against the president.” Matthew Mosk, Mike Levine and Brian Ross report at ABC News.

Flynn was involved in a project to build nuclear power plants in Egypt and Israel in partnership with Russia interests in June 2015, revealing another instance where Flynn may have had a personal interest in a project while he was advising Trump during the campaign for the presidency, and creating further potential legal questions in the wide-ranging investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Michael Kranish, Tom Hamburger and Carol D. Leonnig report at the Washington Post.

The U.S. “needs to come to terms with substantial evidence that the president is in thrall to a foreign power,” Michelle Goldberg writes at the New York Times, pointing to the cast of shady characters surrounding the president and the evidence of cooperation with the Kremlin documented in Luke Harding’s new book “Collusion.”

RUSSIA

A Russian interception of a U.S. aircraft at the weekend was “unsafe,” a spokesperson for the Pentagon said yesterday, adding that the “U.S. aircraft was operating in international airspace and did nothing to provoke this Russian behavior.” Ryan Browne reports at CNN.

Trump’s tweets at the weekend attacking C.N.N. came hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law requiring certain U.S. media outlets working in Russia to register as foreign agents, there are concerns about the implications of the requirement to register. Michael M. Grynbaum observes at the New York Times.

The Trump administration has two differing approaches to Russia, and is incoherent on Russia’s role in Ukraine, U.S.-Russia relations, Russia’s strategy in Syria and on a host of other issues. Susan B. Glasser writes at POLITICO Magazine referring to her interview of the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Kurt Volker.

LEBANON

The Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said yesterday that he does not wish to discuss the details of the events following his resignation announcement on Nov. 4 from the Saudi capital of Riyadh, having now deferred his decision to resign. There has been intense speculation surrounding the situation and Hariri cited the destructive role of Iran and its Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah ally as the reason for his resignation. Al Jazeera reports.

“Lebanon cannot resolve a question like Hezbollah which is in Syria, Iraq, everywhere because of Iran,” Hariri also said yesterday, adding that he would stay on as Prime Minister if Hezbollah accepted to stick by Lebanon’s policy of staying out of regional conflicts. Reuters reporting.

EGYPT

The residents of the village of Rawda in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula had been expecting an attack after months of increased threats, however they did not expect an attack as savage as the massacre on the mosque on Friday which killed at least 305 people. Sudarsan Raghavan and Heba Farouk Mahfouz explain at the Washington Post.

The mosque that was attacked had a Sufi character, many of the media reports have misrepresented Sufism’s qualities and its role within mainstream Islamic thought. H.A. Hellyer writes at the Guardian, saying that the rhetoric deployed by many purist Salafis that push narratives about Sufism should be addressed if there is to be a “counter-extremism” approach.

IRAQ

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for a suicide attack southeast of Baghdad yesterday, killing 35 members of the Shi’ite paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces, Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 11 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between November 24 and November 26. [Central Command]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Pentagon was unable to explain inconsistencies regarding the number of U.S. troops in conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere yesterday, the spokesperson Col. Robert Manning attempted to set out why there are discrepancies between official statements and statistics available on government-operated websites. Alex Horton reports at the Washington Post.

U.S. airstrikes on the Islamic State group in northeast Somalia killed one militant, the U.S. military said yesterday, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Broadcasts on Iranian state T.V. of a U.S. citizen and a British-Iranian citizen at the weekend suggest that Tehran has been trying to pressure the U.S. and U.K., the two detainees have been sentenced on espionage charges. Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

“Today we are discovering a ‘fifth estate’ that makes claims but up until now does not want to take any social responsibility,” the head of Germany’s domestic agency said yesterday, criticizing tech giants like Facebook for hiding behind legal privileges to avoid taking over “editorial verification of their content.” Reuters reporting.

The Islamic State may regroup in the Philippines since it has suffered territorial losses in Syria and Iraq, Patrick B. Johnston and Colin P. Clarke write at Foreign Policy, saying that the siege of the Philippine city of Marawi by militants supportive of the terrorist group may be a taste of things to come. 

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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