The Early Edition: December 22, 2017

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The U.N. General Assembly yesterday voted 128 to 9 in favor of a resolution calling on the U.S. to withdraw its Dec. 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the non-binding vote was largely symbolic but demonstrated the weight of the international consensus against the shift in U.S. policy, and many U.N. Security Council resolutions over the decades have warned that the boundaries of Jerusalem constitute a final status issue to be decided in negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Rick Gladstone and Mark Landler report at the New York Times.

The General Assembly vote followed Monday’s failed attempt to adopt a similar resolution at the U.N. Security Council due to the U.S.’s use of its veto power. The Assembly vote demanded that all States comply with Security Council resolutions on the status of Jerusalem, that any unilateral decisions on the status of Jerusalem would be “null and void,” and that all States should refrain from moving their diplomatic missions to Jerusalem, the U.N. News Centre reports.

“The United States will remember this day in which it was singled out for attack in the General Assembly,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said during the debate preceding the vote, adding that the U.S. would still move its embassy to Jerusalem. Farnaz Fassihi reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The General Assembly’s overwhelming vote was in spite of U.S. threats to cut aid to countries that supported the resolution, some of the 35 countries that abstained offered explanations distancing themselves from Trump’s Dec. 6 decision. Carol Morello and Ruth Eglash report at the Washington Post.

Many of the U.S.’s Western and Arab allies voted in favor of the measure, including Egypt, Jordan and Iraq who receive significant U.S. financial and military assistance, and Haley said that the U.S. would remember this vote when it is “called upon to once again make the world’s largest contribution to the United Nations.” Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.

“Israel completely rejects this preposterous resolution,” the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement yesterday, on the other hand, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas praised the vote, saying that it demonstrated the international community’s support for the Palestinian cause and that “no decisions made by any side could change the reality, that Jerusalem is an occupied territory under international law.” Rory Jones reports at the Wall Street Journal.

A breakdown of how each country voted is provided at Al Jazeera.

Palestinians “will no longer accept any plan from the United States,” Abbas reiterated today, referring to the U.S.’s role as a mediator in the Israel-Palestine peace process. The BBC reports.

The Iranian Foreign Minister welcomed the vote in the face of the “Trump regime’s thuggish intimidation,” in a message posted on Twitter, Reuters reports.

The Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan said yesterday that he expects the Trump administration to rescind its Jerusalem decision without delay, Reuters reports.

“The president’s foreign policy team has been empowered to explore various options going forward; however, no decisions have been made,” the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said yesterday in response to the General Assembly vote. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

The Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak led a demonstration in solidarity with Palestinians today, noting that he had visited the White House recently and that Trump is a “good acquaintance,” but that he would not “pawn the sanctity of Islam.” The AP reports.

A “reevaluation” of the U.S. role as the single largest donor to the U.N. is “long overdue,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a message posted on Twitter yesterday, stating that the U.N. has tended to be a forum for anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

The U.S. threat to cut aid may have resulted in the increase in the number of abstentions, according to some analysts, however others have said that the threat did not bear much weight. An analysis of the U.S. warning to cut aid is provided at Al Jazeera.

NORTH KOREA

The U.S. circulated a draft resolution imposing new sanctions on North Korea to the U.N. Security Council yesterday, the proposal would limit North Korea’s fuel imports, tighten shipping restrictions, and call for the return of North Korean citizens “earning income abroad” within 12 months. Rick Gladstone reports at the New York Times.

The Security Council is set to vote on the draft U.S. resolution today, according to the U.S. the sanctions would ban over 90 percent of North Korea’s exports reported in 2016 and the cutoff in work permits would eventually cost the regime around $500m a year. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

China has formally requested a postponement on a U.N. Security Council decision to blacklist 10 ships that the U.S. has claimed have violated international sanctions against North Korea, calling for the decision to be delayed until Dec. 28 while it examines the proposed list. Michael R. Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program “stopped being funny” in 2017, Adam Taylor and Tim Meko explain at Washington Post why weapons testing by the Pyongyang regime over the past year has increased talk of a conflict.

AFGHANISTAN

Vice President Mike Pence made an unannounced trip to Afghanistan yesterday, he said that the Trump administration believes “we are now on the path to achieve a lasting victory for freedom and security in Afghanistan.” Gordon Lubold reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“We’re here to see this through,” Pence said, his visit coming after Trump announced a new strategy for Afghanistan in August that focuses on a “fight to win” rather than a “time-based” approach. Ken Thomas reports at the AP.

Pence did not say whether more troops would be needed in Afghanistan, noting that the decision would be needed to be taken by Trump, he also said that he had pushed Afghan leaders to enact political reforms in the country. Jeff Mason reports at Reuters.

A suicide car bombing killed four policemen in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province today and a bombing in Herat province killed four civilians last night. The Islamic State group have claimed responsibility for the Herat attack but there has been no claim of responsibility for the attack in Kandahar, the AP reports.

SYRIA

“Russia is failing to genuinely de-conflict airspace in Syria,” the chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana W. White said yesterday, making the comments after the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that it was unclear why Russia was violating the agreement separating Russian and U.S.-led coalition forces operating in Syria. Ryan Browne reports at CNN.

The U.S. presence in Syria “must end,” the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy for Syria said yesterday, speaking at a new round of Russia, Iran and Turkey-brokered Syrian peace talks being held in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana. Reuters reports.

The U.S. expects Russia to maintain a “fairly significant presence” in Syria despite an announcement that they are going to withdraw, the U.S. special envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, told reporters today. Reuters reports.

Russia is set to host a Syrian congress of national dialogue on Jan. 29-30, according to the Russian news reports. The AP reports.

China’s repression of its Uighur Muslim minority motivated thousands of Uighurs to travel to Syria to fight with a Uighur Islamist militant group and alongside al-Qaeda, the return of the militants to China may present a security challenge as the war in Syria de-escalates. Gerry Smith reveals at the AP.

The perception that the war in Syria is winding down has come as the Syrian government has achieved a series of battleground victories with the help of Russia and Iran; however, the reality is much more complicated, the violence is likely to continue, and there is the potential for new conflicts to emerge. Zeina Karam provides an analysis at the AP.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 19 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between December 15 and December 17. [Central Command]

YEMEN

The U.S. welcomed the decision by the Saudi-led coalition to keep Yemen’s Hodeidah port open for a month to allow for the flow of humanitarian aid, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tim Lenderking said in a briefing yesterday. Separately, comments by the White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested that the U.S. believes Iran bears the ultimate responsibility for the Dec. 19 missile launch by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Reuters reports.

“There is no military solution to end the war in Yemen” and “aggressive diplomacy” offers the best way to end the crisis, Lenderking also said yesterday, adding that “there is room for Houthis in a political settlement” but not while they continue to launch rockets on a regular basis, especially against Saudi Arabia. Al Jazeera reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The F.B.I. Deputy Director Andrew McCabe appeared before the House Intelligence Committee this week in a closed-door session, McCabe discussed his conversations with the former F.B.I. Director James Comey about the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation and its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, according to sources with knowledge of the testimony. McCabe’s questioning comes amid increased scrutiny of the F.B.I. and criticism of the agency from Republicans, Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb report at CNN.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into the foundation that purportedly helped Americans adopt Russian children, representatives of the foundation met with Trump campaign officials and the foundation has been alleged to be a front for Russian government interests. Stephanie Baker and Irina Reznik report at Bloomberg.

The intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election was relevant to the Justice Department’s decision to designate the Russian-backed Russia Today (R.T.) channel as a foreign agent, a Justice Department official said yesterday. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Mueller faces four threats from Trump and his allies: curbing his investigation, issuing pardons to those involved, a smear campaign, and firing. Richard W. Painter and Norman L. Eisen write at the New York Times, argue that “peaceful force” must be deployed to maintain the integrity of Mueller’s investigation.

UKRAINE

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to work together to create the conditions for Russian ceasefire observers return to eastern Ukraine, the two leaders spoke by phone yesterday and spoke about the situation which started in 2014 following a Russia-backed insurgency. Reuters reports.

The Trump administration’s recent decision authorizing the sale of lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine is a welcome reversal of Obama-era policy, Ukraine needs support in the face of Russian aggression and a “strong U.S. push back in Ukraine will do more to impress Mr. Putin than all of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric about desiring good relations.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited the Guantánamo Bay naval base yesterday, he did not discuss the future of the detention facility on the base and said: “I am confident that we’re doing the right thing here.” Robert Burns reports at the AP.

Justice Department prosecutors have started to interview F.B.I. agents about their investigation into the Uranium One deal, the deal was made during the Obama administration while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, however the F.B.I. investigation about the sale of U.S. uranium mining facilities to a Russian state company ended with no charges being filed. Tom Winter, Pete Wiliams and Ken Dilanian report at NBC News.

The British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called for an improvement in relations with Russia during his visit to Moscow today, ahead of the meeting the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Britain of making “aggressive and insulting” statements about Russia’s role in Syria and Ukraine and its alleged campaign of cyber interference. The BBC reports.

Mattis has managed to be by the president’s side and seemingly not be damaged by his proximity to power, however the situation may not last and Mattis faces a difficult task in the next year with regard to the threat posed by North Korea. David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post.

The substance of Trump’s national security strategy (N.S.S.) report released this week contained many elements that reflect longstanding U.S. principles, however, there is a significant disconnect between the document and the president’s unpredictable comments and actions, the New York Times editorial board writes. 

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