The Early Edition: January 11, 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.

NORTH KOREA

South Korean President Moon Jae-in admitted that there were policy differences with the U.S. in terms of their approach to the Pyongyang regime in a news conference yesterday, however he also expressed “guarded optimism” about the future of inter-Korean relations and praised President Trump for facilitating the talks which took place Tuesday. Jonathan Cheng reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The current inter-Korean talks “could naturally lead to talks between the United States and North Korea for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the White House said in a statement following President Trump’s phone call with President Moon yesterday. Reuters reports.

Trump would be open to talks with North Korea “at the appropriate time, under the right circumstances,” Trump said in the phone call, according to the White House statement. Julian Borger and Justin McCurry report at the Guardian.

“I hope you let them know that there will be absolutely no military action as long as inter-Korean talks are ongoing,” Trump said, according to the South Korean government’s statement on the phone call. Dan Merica reports at CNN.

The U.N. Security Council has welcomed the inter-Korean talks in a statement issued yesterday, which expressed hope that the discussions would open “possibilities for confidence building and trust building on the Korean Peninsula.” The AP reports.

It would be detrimental to U.S. interests for the U.S. to conduct airstrikes against North Korea, such a measure would risk lives and escalation could lead to a response from China. Reps. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) and Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) write at Foreign Policy in response to an article by Edward Luttwak.

An investigation into a Chinese businesswoman represents a test for China, revealing how far it is willing to support U.S. efforts to put pressure on North Korea. The growth of Ma Xiaohong’s commercial empire has been supported by trade with North Korea and American prosecutors charged her for helping North Korea to evade international sanctions, Steven lee Myers explains at the New York Times.

IRAN

Some of Trump’s top advisers have urged the president to waive sanctions on Iran that were lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal, according to a senior administration official, Trump has privately expressed reluctance to waive the sanctions and he will seek to make a decision today following a meeting with national security aides. Steve Holland reports at Reuters.

President Trump is expected to continue to waive the sanctions ahead of tomorrow’s deadline, according to sources familiar with the deliberations, but Trump is likely to add that the waiver be coupled with new, targeted sanctions on Iranian individuals and entities. Matthew Lee and Josh Lederman report at the AP.

A decision to re-impose sanctions could be viewed as a U.S. violation of the 2015 agreement, and senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have recommended that Trump continue to waive the sanctions. Zachary Cohen, Elise Labott and Ted Barrett report at CNN 

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has traveled to Brussels to meet with European Union officials and European foreign ministers to discuss the 2015 agreement, the E.U. has strongly supported the deal but the recent anti-government protests in Iran have complicated its position. Mehreen Khan reports at the Financial Times.

The German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said today that the U.S. was right to raise concerns about Iran’s ballistic program and its role in the Middle East, but those concerns are separate to the particular issue of the nuclear deal. Robin Emmott reports at Reuters.

The British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is set to meet with Zarif today, where he will discuss the nuclear deal and raise the issue of the recent protests in Iran. Anabelle Dickson reports at POLITICO.

There has been no agreement within the Senate Foreign Relations Committee regarding legislation addressing what Trump deems to be issues with the nuclear deal, the panel’s top Democrat Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told reporters yesterday, adding that there have been “very positive discussions” with the committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and they have an understanding of the framework of issues that need to be dealt with. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump declined to commit to being interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 U.S. election, saying at a news conference yesterday that “when you have no collusion and nobody has found any collusion at any level, it seems unlikely that you’d even have an interview.” Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“I’ll speak to attorneys,” Trump also said in response to the question about meeting with Mueller, adding “we’ll see what happens,” his answer showing a change from his comments in June, where he said that he would be “100 percent” willing to give a sworn statement to Mueller. Julie Hirschfield Davis and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

“For 11 months, we’ve had this phony cloud over this administration,” Trump added, saying that the allegations of collusion were “a Democrat hoax” and insisting that there has been “no collusion.” Jeremy Diamond reports at CNN.

Trump attacked Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) for her decision to release the transcript of the founder of the opposition research firm Fusion G.P.S.’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this week, calling Feinstein “Sneaky” in a post on Twitter and urged Republicans to “take control” of the investigation. The Fusion G.P.S. founder Glenn Simpson hired the former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele to produce a dossier on Trump’s connections to Russia, Josh Dawsey and Ed O’Keefe report at the Washington Post.

The transcript from the Fusion G.P.S. founder’s testimony raises questions about what the F.B.I. knew at the time and Steele’s role in the investigation. Stephanie Kirchgaessner explains at the Guardian.

Senior Democrats in the Senate have accused Republican of engaging in efforts to discredit the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, leading to break downs in the congressional investigations, and Republicans have accused Democrats of politicizing the inquiries. Karoun Demirjian reports at the Washington Post.

The cybercrime expert Ryan Dickey has been a member of Mueller’s team since November, according to a U.S. official, Dickey’s role in the team suggests that the Mueller investigation may be focusing on computer hacking. Eric Geller reports at POLITICO.

The Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska has filed a lawsuit against Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his aide Rick Gates, alleging that they misappropriated millions of dollars of his investments. Manafort and Gates have both pleaded not guilty to charges filed by Mueller – as part of the Russia investigation – in relation to their work while in Ukraine, Scott Patterson reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Russia’s threat to Western democracies has been revealed as a consequence of the investigations, a report released by Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday has revealed the extent of the assault on democratic institutions and the Democrats’ warnings must be heeded. The New York Times editorial board writes.

The full Russian- Trump- F.B.I. record should be made public, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, arguing that there should be proper transparency, including the declassification of details relating to the F.B.I.’s handling of the Steele dossier.

The possible ways that president’s lawyers are preparing Trump for an interview with Mueller are set out by Bradley P. Moss at POLITICO Magazine.

SYRIA

Syrian pro-government forces have advanced into the rebel-held Idlib province and reached a rebel-controlled air base yesterday. Bassem Mroue reports at the AP.

The offensive on Idlib has led to the displacement of around 100,000 Syrian civilians, according to the U.N., Idlib was designated a “de-escalation zone” under a Russia-, Iran- and Turkey-brokered deal, nevertheless Syrian forces have continued their advance and Turkey has called on Russia and Iran to pressure Syria to halt the offensive. The BBC reports.

At least 85 civilians have been killed since Dec. 31 in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the capital of Damascus, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said yesterday, calling on all parties to respect international law. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The Turkish foreign ministry yesterday summoned the U.S. Embassy’s Charge d’Affaires to express Turkey’s “discomfort” with Washington’s support for Syrian Kurdish fighters, the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia have received arms and training from the U.S., Al Jazeera reports.

The drones that recently attacked the Russian Hmeimim air base in Syria were launched from a rebel-held village in the Idlib province, the Russian defense ministry held Turkey accountable for the drone attack, which was in contravention of a cease-fire agreement. Liz Sly and Zakaria Zakaria report at the Washington Post.

Rebel attacks on Russian military outposts in Syria have raised questions about the ability of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to consolidate gains and Russia’s ability to protect its assets. Vladimir Isachenkov reports at the AP.

Russia’s representative to the E.U. has called on European states to provide financial support to rebuild Syria, the comments highlight tensions faced by European countries who seek to stem the flow of Syrian refugees but do not want to boost the Assad regime. Michael Peel reports at the Financial Times.

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]

CUBA EMBASSY “INCIDENTS”

Canada has no plans to withdraw diplomats who have suffered symptoms at its embassy in Cuba, a senior Canadian government official said yesterday, U.S. diplomats and personnel also reported illnesses – which some have alleged may have been caused by some sort of attack. Tracey Lindeman reports at the AP.

The Canadian government said yesterday that it had no idea what caused the mysterious illnesses, Canadian citizens reported similar symptoms to U.S. Embassy employees in Cuba. Abigail Williams and Tracy Connor report at NBC News.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A criminal investigation has been opened by Egypt in relation to a New York Times article that described a covert effort by Egyptian intelligence to try and influence public opinion in favor of Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Declan Walsh reports at the New York Times.

The Trump administration’s reported decision to fund $125m in funds to the U.N.R.W.A. Palestinian aid agency marks an unprecedented change in policy, the administration should progress from this position by stating that U.N.R.W.A. has “outlived its usefulness” and that Palestinians are not “refugees,” following this, the administration should create a detailed plan to shift responsibility from U.N.R.W.A. to the Palestinian Authority. Alex Joffe and Asaf Romirowsky write at the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

“Punishing Pakistan pushes it towards America’s major adversaries,” the Pakistan Defense Minister Khurram Dastgir-Khan said in an interview, warning that Pakistan would move closer to China in light of the U.S. decision last week to freeze military aid to Pakistan. Saeed Shah reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The House is set to vote today on legislation renewing the National Security Agency’s (N.S.A.) warrantless surveillance program today, the House is also expected to vote on a bipartisan amendment that would be seen as a victory for privacy advocates. The votea on the legislation and amendment is likely to be close, Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

A U.S. military investigation has been launched after video footage was released appearing to show a U.S. soldier violating the rules of engagement while serving in Afghanistan. Wesley Morgan reports at POLITICO.

The Islamic State group have “two options should they decide to come up against the United States, our allies and partners: surrender or die!” the Pentagon’s senior enlisted adviser Sgt. Maj. John Wayne Troxell said in posts on social media yesterday. Dan Lamothe reports at the Washington Post.

The Islamic State affiliate in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula have declared on the Palestinian Hamas group, Iyad Abuheweila and Isabel Kershner explain the significance of the declaration at the New York Times.

China’s rise has been aided by a U.S. absence of leadership, Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post. 

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