The Early Edition: January 8, 2018

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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

The former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon walked back on his comments that Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russians at Trump Tower in 2016 was “treasonous,” the former chief strategist’s remarks were quoted in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.” Bannon issued a statement yesterday saying that Trump Jr. was “both a patriot and a good man” and that his reference to “treason” was aimed at the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort – who also attended the Trump Tower meeting – rather than the president’s son, Jeremy W. Peters and Michael Tackett report at the New York Times.

Manafort should have known “how the Russians operate,” Bannon said in his statement, adding that he believes there was “no collusion” and that the investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia “is a witch hunt.” David Nakamura, Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

“Everything I’ve done is 100 percent proper,” Trump said Saturday during a press conference, denying that his campaign colluded with Russia and casting doubt on claims that he instructed the White House counsel to convince Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s Russia investigation. Andrew Restuccia, Rachael Bade and Seung Min Kim report at POLITICO.

Trump’s lawyers have been discussing a possible interview between the president and special counsel Robert Mueller, one source said that the discussions with F.B.I. investigators were preliminary, while two other sources said that the president’s team were also seeking potential compromises to avoid an interview altogether. Kristen Welker, Carol E. Lee, Julia Ainsley and Hallie Jackson reveal at NBC News.

“Yes, I continue to be concerned, not only about the Russians, but about others’ efforts as well,” the C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo said yesterday in response to a question about Russian interference in U.S. elections – including the upcoming midterm elections. Reuters reports.

The Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election is far from over, the panel’s top Democrat Mark Warner (Va.) suggested on Friday. Mark Hosenball and Warren Strobel report at Reuters.

Russia has launched a campaign to interfere with Mexico’s 2018 presidential election, the U.S. national security adviser H.R. McMaster said in a speech last month, according to a video clip that was published at the weekend. David Alire Garcia and Noe Torres report at Reuters.

NORTH KOREA

North Korea and South Korea are scheduled to hold high-level talks tomorrow, the participation of a North Korean delegation at next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea is set to top the agenda and the talks will help determine whether the inter-Korean outreach could lead to decreased tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Andrew Jeong reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“When discussing inter-Korean relations, the government will seek to raise the issue of war-torn families and ways to ease military tensions,” South Korea’s Unification Minister said today, Bryan Harris reporting at the Financial Times.

Trump would have “no problem” at all with talking to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the phone, Trump said Saturday in response to questions from reporters, saying that he would talk to Kim and expressed hope that “something can come out” of the inter-Korean talks. James Oliphant reports at Reuters.

Tomorrow’s inter-Korean talks indicates that the U.S.-led pressure campaign is working, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday, adding that the talks could be a “vehicle through which they would like to tell us that they would like to have some discussions. Saphora Smith reports at NBC News and based on an interview with the AP.

There has been “no turnaround” in Trump administration’s North Korea policy, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said yesterday, following Trump’s comments on Saturday that he would be willing to talk to Kim. Ian Kullgren reports at POLITICO.

The inter-Korean talks are unlikely to lead to a breakthrough, the C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo said yesterday, stating that North Korea would be unlikely to change its outlook and is likely to maintain its nuclear capability – a position that it “unacceptable.” Julia Manchester reports at the Hill.

Trump’s tweets on North Korea keep Kim “on his toes,” Haley also said yesterday when asked whether the president’s use of Twitter was wise. Reuters reports.

North Korea expects to send participants to Winter Olympics, North Korea’s representative at the International Olympic Committee said at the weekend, according to Japan’s Kyodo News. Reuters reports.

The U.S. intelligence agencies underestimated the pace and progress of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, while the agencies had predicted that Pyongyang would successfully test a hydrogen weapon, they did not predict the timing of this milestone correctly. David E. Sanger and William J. Broad explain at the New York Times.

A profile on Kim is provided by Jamie Tarabay at CNN.

IRAN

The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) declared yesterday that it had ended the unrest in the country, nevertheless signs of protests remain on social media and some have shared images of burnings, including the burning of identification cards for the volunteer militia Basij group. Asa Fitch and Isabel Coles report at the Wall Street Journal.

The I.R.G.C. blamed the unrest on the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, supporters of the overthrown monarchy and the exiled group Mujahideen-e Khalq, the protests began Dec. 28 and were sparked by economic grievances. The AP reports.

From Wednesday, Trump has several opportunities to refuse to extend U.S. sanctions relief to Iran under the 2015 nuclear deal, this would lead to a breach of the deal’s provisions and would be more significant than his expected decision not to certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement, and the protests in Iran have added to the uncertainty. Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. request for a Security Council meeting on the protests were a “preposterous example” of U.S. bullying tactics at the U.N., the Iranian ambassador to the U.S. Gholamali Khshroo said Friday at the session after Haley called on the Security Council to “amplify the message of the Iranian people.” Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

“However worrying the events of the last few days in Iran may be, they do not constitute per se a threat to international peace and security,” the French ambassador to the U.N. said Friday, the ambassador’s comments were reflected by other diplomats at the session. Reuters reports.

President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed the Iran protests and developments on the Korean Peninsula during a phone call on Saturday, according to the White House. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

The protests in Iran have the potential to aid hard-liners, the unrest resembles demonstrations in the early 2000s which led to conservatives exploiting the situation to undermine the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. To help the situation Trump can take several steps: hold Iran accountable for human rights violations, keep the nuclear deal in place, and provide satellite internet access to allow Iranian activists to communicate. Nazila Fathi writes at the New York Times.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday that he “completely agrees” with Trump’s criticisms of U.N.R.W.A., the agency that aids Palestinian refugees, he suggested that the U.N.R.W.A. budget be transferred to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, saying that U.N.R.W.A. “perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem.” Aron Heller reports at the AP.

The Arab League is set to lobby the U.N. to recognize a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, the Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said at the weekend, the efforts will be based on the Arab League’s earlier decision to oppose Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Reuters reports.

Audio recordings have been released of an Egyptian intelligence officer asking the hosts of several talk show hosts to persuade their viewers to accept Trump’s Jerusalem decision, the intelligence officer, Capt. Ashraf al-Kholi, said that tensions with Israel were not in Egypt’s national interests. David D. Kirkpatrick reports at the New York Times.

The lobbying efforts of Trump’s transition team on the December 2016 vote on a U.N. resolution criticizing Israel were more intense than previously reported, the efforts were pursued at the request of Israel and included Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, the former national security adviser Mike Flynn and the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley. Flynn lied about the diplomatic efforts to federal officials and this has formed part of his plea agreement that he struck with special counsel Robert Mueller – who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Kate O’Keeffe and Farnaz Fassihi reveal the extent of the lobbying campaign at the Wall Street Journal.

Kushner’s financial ties with Israeli partners have deepened in spite of his role trying to achieve a peace between Israel and Palestine, the dealings do not appear to violate federal ethics laws and the White House has said that Kushner would work with his ethics advisers to ensure he recused himself from “any particular matter involving specific parties in which he has a business relationship with a partner to the matter.” Jesse Drucker reports at the New York Times.

PAKISTAN

Pakistani officials slammed the Trump administration for its decision to suspend military aid to the country, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the measure taken last week to freeze around $2bn in military assistance was “counterproductive in addressing common threats.” Shaiq Hussain and Annie Gowen report at the Washington Post.

The U.S. has been exploring ways to mitigate any retaliation from Pakistan and the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis played down concerns about the rift leading to the U.S. facing difficulties accessing U.S. forces in Afghanistan via Pakistan. Phil Stewart reports at Reuters.

Although Trump has deployed harsh rhetoric on Pakistan, the comments are unlikely to lead to a real shift in U.S. policy as Washington has, for some time, been frustrated with Pakistan and its inability to counter terrorism. Ishaan Tharoor writes at the Washington Post.

SYRIA

The Syrian army has broken the rebel-held siege of an army base in Eastern Ghouta, near the capital of Damascus, Syrian state television and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported yesterday. Al Jazeera reports.

At least 23 people were killed in a bombing yesterday in the rebel-held Syrian city of Idlib, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who added that the blast struck the headquarters of a minor rebel faction. The BBC reports.

Syrian government forces and its allies have launched an offensive on the rebel-held Idlib province which borders Turkey, Bassem Mroue reports a the AP.

Russian forces thwarted an attempted drone attack on the Syrian Hmeimim airbase on Saturday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The BBC reports.

Russian-backed airstrikes have killed at least 17 civilians in Eastern Ghouta on Saturday, airstrikes over the last nine days have also hit at least 10 medical facilities. Eyad Kourdi, Mohammed Tawfeeq and Angela Dewan report at CNN.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 58 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between December 29, 2017 and January 4, 2018. [Central Command]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A Saudi fighter jet crashed in Yemen yesterday, the two pilots have been rescued and a Saudi official statement blamed the crash on a “technical failure,” while the Yemeni Houthi rebels claimed that they had downed the plane. The AP reports.

The Trump administration has scheduled a series of high-level engagements with the Russian government, according to U.S. officials, and the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said that the talks were part of the “normal course of diplomacy” and many issues were needed to be discussed. John Hudson reports at BuzzFeed News.

The increased use of airstrikes has led to largescale civilian deaths, in 2017 airstrikes killed almost double the number of civilians than 2016. Karen McVeigh reports at the Guardian.

The Pentagon has almost completed the Nuclear Posture Review, the review was ordered by Trump in January 2017 and may provide the president the opportunity to leave his mark on the nuclear arsenal. Barbara Starr reports at CNN.

A feature on the attempts to locate the Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi  is provided by Anne Speckhard and Adrian Shajkovci at The Daily Beast.

A closed national security session has been scheduled this week at a conference room near the Pentagon, the session will include lawyers and the judge in an al-Qaida war crimes case and constitutes a first as such sessions have been held at Guantánamo Bay. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald. 

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