The Early Edition: January 16, 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.

SYRIA

The Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan yesterday denounced a U.S. proposal for a military force on the Turkish-Syrian border consisting of the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.), Turkey views the Kurdish fighters as terrorists, while the U.S. views the Kurdish fighters as the most capable within the S.D.F., Eric Schmitt reports at the New York Times.

The Turkish government has a duty “to drown this terrorist force before it is born,” Erdoğan said yesterday, his comments demonstrating the main priority of the Turkish government, which has shifted from supporting rebel groups against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to preventing Kurdish fighters from increasing their presence along the border. Louisa Loveluck reports at the Washington Post.

The U.S.-led coalition’s proposal was first reported Saturday by The Defense Post, which explained that the coalition seeks to create a force of around 30,000 personnel “over the next several years,” half of which would consist of S.D.F. fighters. The BBC reports.

Erdoğan’s threats mark another significant rift between the N.A.T.O. allies and a further deterioration in U.S.-Turkey relations, with Erdoğan stating that “a country we call an ally is insisting on forcing a terror army on our borders.” Ellen Francis and Ezgi Erkoyun report at Reuters.

Turkey deployed military reinforcements along its border with Syria yesterday, according to Turkey’s state Anadolu Agency. Al Jazeera reports.

The Syrian army is determined to end any form of U.S. presence in the country and the U.S-proposed border force constitutes a “blatant assault” on Syria’s sovereignty, the Syrian foreign ministry said, according to state media. Reuters reports.

The Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) mainstream rebel group have called on the U.S. to resume a suspended C.I.A. program equipping and training certain rebel groups, a senior F.S.A. official, Mustafa Sejari, also said that supporting the rebels was crucial to supporting Trump’s stated desire to confront Iranian expansionism and the influence of Iranian militias in the region. Suleiman Al-Khalidi reports at Reuters.

The recent drone attacks on the Russian Hmeimim air base in Syria reveal the weaknesses in Russia’s security within the country. Thomas Grove explains at the Wall Street Journal.

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s comments on Syria and the proposed border force amounts to bluster “intended to get the U.S. to walk away from the Kurds,” the U.S. should not submit to such demands as the Kurds have been instrumental in the fight against Islamic State militants, they offer a moderate alternative to the other power brokers in the country, and are a bulwark against Iranian expansionism. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

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]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Palestinian Authority “will not accept the U.S. to be a mediator” in the peace process between Israel and Palestine, the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas said in a speech Sunday, accusing Israel of killing the Oslo accords and attacking Trump for his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, for threatening to cut U.S. aid to the Palestinians, and for threatening to close the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (P.L.O.) mission in Washington. David M. Halbfinger reports at the New York Times.

A meeting of P.L.O.’s central council voted yesterday to suspend recognition of Israel until Israel recognizes a Palestinian state, the council also said in a declaration that the Palestinians should no longer be bound by the Oslo accords, should cease security cooperation with Israel, and called for a peace process based on the Arab Peace Initiative. The council’s recommendations have been put forward to P.L.O.’s executive committee, which has the task of implementing them, Loveday Morris reports at the Washington Post.

Israeli leaders denounced Abbas’s speech, the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Abbas’s rhetoric “tore off the mask” and revealed that the “root of the conflict” is the Palestinians “continuous refusal to recognize the Jewish state in any borders.” Aron Heller reports at the AP.

The Trump administration is yet to make a decision whether to send U.S. funds to the U.N.R.W.A. Palestinian aid agency, however it seems likely that it will withhold around $65m in aid and the administration could announce a decision as early as today. Matthew Lee and Julie Pace report at the AP.

NORTH KOREA

A North Korean pop orchestra is scheduled to perform at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea next month, the two nations agreed to their participation yesterday as part of talks to improve intra-Korean relations. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have eased ahead of the Winter Olympics, and the Senate Foreign Relations committee ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) welcomed the intra-Korean talks as a “positive sign,” however others have warned that North Korea’s participation in the Games is an attempt to give the Pyongyang regime some legitimacy. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

There is no indication that North Korea reacted to the false alert sent by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency on Saturday, the U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday, the alert warned that there would be an imminent ballistic missile strike. Hans Nichols reports at NBC News.

President Trump accused the Wall Street Journal of misquoting him when they reported last week that he said he had a “very good relationship” with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the White House released a portion of an audio interview to support its claim. However, the Wall Street Journal defended its reporting and released a recording that it says supported its version of events. Reuters reports.

The U.S. and Canada are scheduled to host a meeting in Vancouver today to increase pressure on North Korea and explore means to boost maritime security around North Korea. David Ljunggren and David Brunnstrom report at Reuters.

The “hard won momentum” in easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula must continue and China is “ready to join the U.S. for proper settlement of [the] nuclear issue,” the Chinese President Xi Jinping told Trump in a phone call today, according to Chinese state media. Alice Woodhouse reports at the Financial Times.

Global businesses continue to have joint ventures operating in North Korea by utilizing opaque structures, according to experts, allowing the North Korean economy to create revenue despite financial sanctions. Ian Talley reports at the Wall Street Journal.

An estimated 50,000 North Korean laborers work in Russia, according to the U.S. around 80% of their earnings are sent to support the Pyongyang regime. Emma Burrows and Matthew Chance report at CNN.

IRAQ

At least 38 people were killed in a twin suicide bombing in a central Baghdad square yesterday, according to an official in Iraq’s Interior Ministry. No group has yet claimed responsibility, which constitutes the deadliest attack since the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claimed victory over the Islamic State group last year, Ghassan Adnan and Isabel Coles report at the Wall Street Journal.

The bombings have undermined the sense of hope that had been growing since Iraq’s security forces successfully defeated the Islamic State group, the bombings have taken place ahead of national elections in May and the campaigning periods in Iraq have been marred by violence since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Falih Hassan and Margaret Coker report at the New York Times.

Meetings between the government in Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region were “held in an atmosphere of trust and understanding,” according to a statement by the Iraqi government, adding that yesterday’s talks culminated in a number of recommendations to help resolve issues and conflict that was triggered in October, following the region’s decision to hold an independence referendum. Reuters reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is scheduled to meet with the House intelligence Committee today as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Sarah N. Lynch reports at Reuters.

The House Intelligence Committee is expected to interview the White House Communication Director Hope Hicks as soon as this week, Hicks was an important figure in Trump’s presidential campaign and the panel intends to ask her about her knowledge of contacts between Trump campaign associates and Russians. Manu Raju, Dana Bash and Jeremy Herb report at CNN.

The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) has called on Republicans on the panel to release the transcript of their interview with the opposition research firm Fusion G.P.S., Schiff told reporters that he did not have the “unilateral authority” to make the information public, unlike Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) who decided last week to release the transcript. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said Sunday that he plans to appear voluntarily before the House Intelligence Committee this week, saying that he has “nothing to hide” and did not “collude or cooperate or coordinate with any Russian, Russian agency, Russian government or anybody else, to try and impact this election.” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Some members of Congress have been attempting to heal bipartisan divides, after a series of disputes over recent weeks, in an effort to support the legitimacy of the congressional Russia investigations. Elana Schor and Kyle Cheney explain at POLITICO.

The Russia investigations have the potential to crack Bannon “like an egg,” Betsy Woodruff writes at The Daily Beast.

IRAN

Russia would work to preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and would not support attempts by the U.S. change the agreement, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

The death of three young Iranian men during the recent anti-government protests have sparked outrage, members of mainstream Iranian society have openly assailed the judiciary for claiming that two of the men killed themselves and the other was a terrorist. Thomas Erdbrink reports at the New York Times.

The U.S. should reactivate all sanctions against Iran and increase economic pressure. The 2015 Iran nuclear deal cannot be “fixed” and U.S. policy should be focused on accelerating the end of the regime in Tehran, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton writes at the Wall Street Journal.

TRUMP IMMIGRATION COMMENTS

Trump hit back at claims that he called multiple countries and African nations a “shithole” at a meeting last week, the BBC reports.

The Nigerian Foreign Ministry yesterday summoned a representative of the U.S. ambassador to explain Trump’s remarks, in a statement the ministry said that the Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama “sough clarification on the veracity or otherwise of the substance of the remarks.” Reuters reports.

African ambassadors in Washington are set to meet this week to discuss a response to the remarks, Robbie Gramer reports at Foreign Policy.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

The U.A.E. yesterday accused Qatar of “intercepting” two of its civilian airliners, the claim comes amid a dispute, which began in June, when Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Egypt and Bahrain diplomatically isolated Qatar due to its alleged support for terrorism and close ties to Iran. Kareem Fahim reports at the Washington Post.

Qatar dismissed the claims as “completely false,” Al Jazeera reports.

AFGHANISTAN

The decision to deploy another 1,000 military advisers to Afghanistan has prompted discussion among lawmakers about the authorization for use of military force (A.U.M.F.) legislation and the role of Congress in military decisions. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Recent comments from the Russian Foreign Ministry suggest that Moscow has been pursuing a strategy that challenges “internationally accepted rules of engagement” with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Samuel Ramani writes at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

An Islamic State group affiliate has claimed responsibility for the attack on four U.S. soldiers in Niger in October, the AP reports.  

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced the U.S. for issuing regular “threats” to countries such as North Korea and Iran, and accused the U.S. of destabilizing the world. Emma Burrows, Angela Dewan and Lindsay Isaac report at CNN.

The Pentagon plans to develop two new sea-based nuclear weapons, following recommendations in the Nuclear Posture Review that reassessed the U.S. nuclear strategy. Michael R. Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. counterintelligence officers warned the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner that the prominent Chinese-American businesswoman Wendi Deng Murdoch could be using her close relationship with him and his wife Ivanka Trump to further Chinese government interests, according to people familiar with the matter, a representative for Kushner and Ivanka Trump said that the officials’ warnings amounted to a “routine senior staff security briefing.” Kate O’Keefe and Aruna Viswanatha report at the Wall Street Journal.

A feature on the hunt for the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is provided by Martin Chulov at the Guardian.

A discussion of the Obama administration’s foreign policy with the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power and Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes is provided by Susan B. Glasser at POLITCO Magazine. 

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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