The Early Edition: January 18, 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

A U.S. plan for a border force in northern Syria consisting of the U.S.-backed Kurdish (Y.P.G.)-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) has fueled tensions with Turkey, Turkey considers the Y.P.G. to be an extension of the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) – which is designated as a terrorist group by Turkey and the U.S. – and President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan warned Tuesday that Turkey would “destroy all terror nests one by one in Syria,” starting with the cities of Afrin and Manbij. Sune Engel Rasmussen, Nancy A. Youssef and Dion Nissenbaum report at the Wall Street Journal.

“Turkey has reached the limits of its patience. Nobody should expect Turkey to show more patience,” the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister and Government spokesperson Bekir Bozdag told reporters yesterday, saying that Turkey would carry out its threat of an imminent operation in Afrin unless the U.S. withdrew its support for a border force. The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denied the plans, saying that “some people misspoke,” that the U.S. is “not creating a border security force at all” and that the U.S. intention was only “to ensure that local elements are providing security to liberated areas,” Dominic Evans and Tuvan Gumrukcu report at Reuters.

“This is not a new ‘army’ or conventional ‘border guard’ force,” the Pentagon said in a statement yesterday, adding that the U.S. was continuing to train local security forces in Syria to “enhance security for displaced persons returning to their devastated communities.” Reuters reports.

Tillerson pledged to maintain the presence of U.S. troops in Syria to ensure that the Islamic State group are comprehensively defeated and said in a major policy speech yesterday that history would not “repeat itself,” referring to the Obama administration’s policy of withdrawing troops from Iraq before the threat of extremism was extinguished and Obama’s failure to stabilize Libya after N.A.T.O.’s intervention. Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

The U.S. strategy in Syria intends to focus on Iran’s presence in the country and its activities in the region as the threat posed by the Islamic State group diminishes, Tillerson said yesterday, stating that Iran has expanded its influence “by deploying Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops, supporting Lebanese Hezbollah and importing proxy forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.” Alexa Corse reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Tillerson set out the Trump administration’s aims in Syria during the speech: overcoming extremism, ousting Iran and achieving a peace settlement that excludes a role for the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, Tillerson’s speech comes against the backdrop of a looming crisis on the Syria-Turkey border and the U.S. proposal for a 30,000 border force to protect the Kurdish-controlled area of northeastern Syria, Liz Sly and Carol Morello report at the Washington Post.

Tillerson urged Russia to “exert its unique leverage” to reach a political settlement in Syria and engage with U.N. efforts, Katrina Manson and Erika Solomon report at the Financial Times.

“Assad’s regime is corrupt” and his oppression “cannot persist forever,” Tillerson said yesterday, Max Greenwood reporting at the Hill.

The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura has invited the Syrian government and the opposition to a special meeting in Vienna on Jan. 25-26, the meeting would have a “specific focus” on constitutional issues and the implementation of Security Council resolution 2254, which calls for a new constitution, U.N.-supervised elections and accountable governance structures. Reuters reports.

An explanation of Turkey’s threatened operation against Kurdish fighters in Syria is provided by the BBC.

The U.S.-proposed border force is seen as a betrayal in Turkey, while the U.S. presence makes sense in terms of shoring up support for the Kurds and curbing Iran’s expansionism, the administration has not taken into consideration Turkey’s concerns. Nick Paton Walsh writes at CNN.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 96 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between January 5 and January 11. [Central Command]

NORTH KOREA

“Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea,” Trump said in an interview yesterday, stating that while China was helping to put pressure on the regime, Russia was helping Pyongyang to evade sanctions, and adding that he would sit down for talks with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but he’s “not sure that sitting down will solve the problem.” Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton and Jeff Mason report at Reuters.

The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yesterday accused Russia of not implementing all U.N. sanctions against North Korea and said that there was “some evidence they may be frustrating some of the sanctions.” Reuters reports.

South Korea will continue talks with North Korea with “clear eyes,” the South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-ha said today, adding that Seoul had to “make the most” of the opportunity. The BBC reports.

North Korean and South Korea athletes have agreed to march under a single flag at the opening of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea next month, South Korea said yesterday, however the agreement could drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington as they have seemingly diverged in their approach to the Pyongyang regime. Andrew Jeong and Jonathan Cheng report at the Wall Street Journal.

“We have to be very clear-eyed” about the North Korean threat, the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said today in talks with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, warning that North Korea’s outreach does not mean that the Pyongyang regime will change its behavior and commit to denuclearization. Mari Yamaguchi reports at the AP.

The intra-Korean talks are welcome, but North Korea are “still continuing to pursue their nuclear development,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said yesterday after returning from a trip to Japan and South Korea along with Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.). Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

South Korea “are undercutting what Trump’s trying to do” by engaging with North Korea, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said yesterday. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The North-South Korea détente complicates Trump’s strategy to put pressure on the Pyongyang regime to denuclearize, the easing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the symbolic gesture of unity planned for the Winter Olympics is not expected to translate into a broader breakthrough in the nuclear standoff. Choe Sang-Hun and Mark Landler explain at the New York Times.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Trump yesterday denied that the U.S. Embassy in Israel would relocate to Jerusalem by the end of this year, Trump announced in December that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there from Tel Aviv. Reuters reports.

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it recognized that the construction of a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem would take time but that it believes Washington is considering “interim measures that could result in an embassy opening much faster.” Reuters reports.

The U.N. has urged the international community to provide funding for Palestinian refugees after the U.S. decided to withhold $65m of relief to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (U.N.R.W.A.), the Palestinian Liberation Organization stated that “Palestinian refugees and children’s access to basic humanitarian services [are] not a bargaining chip but a U.S. and international obligation.” Rory Jones reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. decision to cut funds to U.N.R.W.A. has sparked the agency’s largest-ever financial crisis, U.R.W.A. has said that it will launch a global fundraising campaign to try to make up the shortfall. Tamara Qiblawi reports at CNN.

Belgium has pledged $23m in funds to U.N.R.W.A., the Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said in a statement, announcing the donation after the U.S. decided to withhold funding. Al Jazeera reports.

Debates about U.N.R.W.A. and its role have reignited since the U.S. decision to withhold funds, David M. Halbfinger explains at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The former White House chief strategist and Trump campaign adviser Steve Bannon plans to “tell all” to special counsel Robert Mueller when he is questioned about ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, a source close to Bannon said. Peter Nicholas and Byron Tau report at the Wall Street Journal.

Bannon has agreed to be interviewed by Mueller and will avoid a grand jury inquiry, but his lawyers have delayed his appearance before the House investigators, stating that the House Intelligence Committee’s demand for an interview today does not allow the lawyers enough time to get clearance from the White House about what Bannon can discuss. During Bannon’s interview with the panel earlier this week, he refused to answer certain questions, citing executive privilege, Karoun Demirjian and Rosalind S. Helderman report at the Washington Post.

The White House spoke with the House Intelligence Committee before Bannon’s interview and they agreed to limit questioning of Bannon to the Trump campaign and not to ask about the transition or Bannon’s time in the White House, according to a White House official, adding that the committee broke that agreement. Eamon Javers reports at CNBC.

The White House did not tell Bannon to invoke executive privilege, the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said yesterday, Reuters reports.

Republican lawmakers denounced Bannon for refusing to answer questions during his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, with some threatening to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

The former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski refused to answer certain questions during his appearance before the House Intelligence Committee yesterday. Mike Memoli reports at NBC News.

Mueller’s team are investigating Russian financial activity within the U.S., including a payment of $120,000 made to former Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak ten days after Trump’s election. Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier report at BuzzFeed News.

Facebook has expanded its investigation into Russia interference to the 2016 U.K. referendum on membership of the European Union, Facebook said yesterday. Jenny Gross reports at the Wall Street Journal.

ARREST OF EX-C.I.A. OFFICER

A feature on the investigation and arrest of former C.I.A. officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee, who is suspected of being a mole and for playing a role in the deaths of C.I.A. sources in China,  is provided by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman at the New York Times.

Former U.S. spies and officials have expressed skepticism that Lee would face charges, Shane Harris and Ellen Nakashima explain at the Washington Post.

IRAN

“I think there’s a path forward, but we’ve got to understand the last conversations between the [Trump] administration and Europe first,” the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told reporters in relation to legislation on Iran and the 2015 nuclear deal. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Any issues not directly to the deal “should be addressed without prejudice to preserving the agreement,” a spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned yesterday. Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

“The specter of violence” in Libya “remains present” and military forces “are flexing their muscles in many parts of the country,” the U.N. envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame told the Security Council yesterday, adding that Libya needs a government to deliver public services and unify the country. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The Pentagon’s new national defense strategy will focus on countering China and Russia and ensuring that the U.S. retains its traditional military advantage. Katrina Manson reports at the Financial Times.  

The Islamic State group yesterday claimed responsibility for Monday’s suicide bomb attacks in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, the terrorist group were delayed in releasing a statement and made a number of errors in their message, suggesting that their media apparatus has been disrupted since it has lost significant territory in Iraq and Syria. Rukmini Callimachi and Margaret Coker report at the New York Times.

The White House chief of staff John Kelly told Democratic lawmakers that some of Trump’s hardline immigration policies he advocated during the campaign were “uninformed,” including the pledge to build a wall on the U.S.’s southern border with Mexico. Ed O’Keefe reports at the Washington Post.

Saudi Arabia yesterday pledged to inject $2bn to stabilize Yemen’s national currency, the fall in currency and high inflation has raised the cost of crucial goods and more than eight million people are at the risk of starvation, the Saudi measure comes amid international criticism of its role in Yemen’s war. Asa Fitch and Saleh al-Batati report at the Wall Street Journal.

The House passed the Cyber Diplomacy Act yesterday, restoring a State Department office to engage with the international community on cybersecurity policy. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to visit Britain next week to visit the new U.S. embassy in London, Reuters reports.

The former U.S. ambassadors to 48 African nations have called on Trump to reassess his views of the continent after it was reported that he called countries there and other nations a “shithole.” Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

A survey of opinion in 134 countries has found a collapse in global confidence in U.S. leadership, the approval for the U.S. role in the world has fallen to a new low. Julian Borger reports at the Guardian. 

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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