The Early Edition: January 19, 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 U.S. has backtracked on a proposal for a military force along the Syria-Turkish border, the plan was to establish a force of 30,000 troops consisting of U.S.-backed Y.P.G. Kurdish fighters to secure the area against Islamic State militants. The proposal, announced last week, has fueled tensions in the region particularly with Turkey – who view the Y.P.G. as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) and have called the U.S. plan a betrayal – and have threatened to carry out an operation against Kurdish areas in northern Syria, Dion Nissenbaum reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Syrian Air Force is “ready to destroy Turkish air targets in the skies of Syria,” the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister warned as Turkey has been building up forces on the border with Syria, threatened to attack the Y.P.G.-controlled enclaves of Afrin and Manbij, and sought approval for an air campaign from the Syrian government allies, Russia and Iran. The BBC reports.

“Turkey is subject to attacks every day from Afrin. It is our right to self-defense in line with international law to take measures against a terror group,” the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavosuglu said yesterday, adding that Turkey has informed the U.S. that it will be intervening in Afrin. Al Jazeera reports.

Russia has begun moving military observers near Afrin away from the area in preparation for a Turkish military operation, according to a Turkish official. Umut Uras reports at Al Jazeera.

The Turkish operation against Afrin has “de facto” begun with cross-border shelling, the Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said today, the AP reports.

A Y.P.G. spokesperson said that Turkish forces have started to heavily bomb Kurdish villages in the Afrin region, Reuters reporting.

The U.S. called on Turkey to refrain from carrying out a military operation against Afrin and “keep focused” on the fight against the Islamic State group, the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a briefing yesterday. Reuters reports.

The deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Turkey could push Turkey – a N.A.T.O. ally – closer to Russia and Iran, and the U.S. strategy in Syria has not engaged with Turkey’s concerns about the Kurdish fighters. F. Brinley Bruton explains at NBC News.

Tillerson’s speech on the Trump administration’s Syria strategy indicates that the U.S.’s war on terror “has gotten another indefinite lease on life,” the U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and many others countries show no sign of concluding and any hope that Trump would end the “forever war” have “long past.” Adam Taylor writes at the Washington Post.

Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq may have resulted in up to 6,000 civilian deaths in 2017, the Airwars watchdog group said yesterday. Missy Ryan reports at the Washington Post.

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]

POTENTIAL GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN

The possibility of a U.S. federal government shutdown remains significant despite a bill being passed by the House providing a short-term extension of government funding yesterday, the standoff has been caused by differences over illegal immigration policy and other divisive issues. Mike DeBonis, Ed O’Keefe and Erica Werner report at the Washington Post.

The State Department is prepared if a government shutdown happens, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday, ahead of today’s funding deadline, the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert also said that the agency was developing contingency plans in the event of a shutdown. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

An explanation of the consequence of a government shutdown is provided by Daniella Diaz at CNN.

NORTH KOREA

North Korea may hold a military parade a day before next month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea, according to analysts and diplomats. The display could fracture the eased tensions that have been achieved through intra-Korean talks, John Smith reports at Reuters.

The U.S. should prioritize re-establishing military-to-military communications with North Korea, lawmakers said in a letter to Trump yesterday, adding that such a move should not be controversial as it does not amount to “some negotiation or some ultimate reconciliation,” but serves the purpose of avoiding the escalation of war due to a miscalculation. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

At least six Chinese-owned or -operated cargo ships violated U.N. sanctions against North Korea, according to intelligence gathered by U.S. officials, the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement that Beijing abides fully with Security Council resolutions and “any measure taken by the Security Council should be based upon conclusive evidence and facts.” Michael R. Gordon and Chun Han Wong report at the Wall Street Journal.

Clandestine shipments to North Korea are difficult to detect and prevent, though Trump has criticized China for sanctions violations, but the reality of dealing with North Korea’s trafficking activities is complicated. Chris Horton, Steven Lee Myers and Michael Schwirtz explain at the New York Times.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Trump administration has said that it would accelerate its plan to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and the new mission would be ready in 2019, following Trump’s decision in December to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there. Felicia Schwartz and Jess Bravin report at the Wall Street Journal.

The plans to move the embassy at a faster rate was first broached by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite the fact that Trump insisted last month that the move would not happen until the end of his term. The decision to relocate the embassy carries symbolic importance and an accelerated timetable has the potential to harm the White House’s attempts to keep the peace process between Israel and Palestine alive, Mark Landler reports at the New York Times.

The French President Emanuel Macron sent an aide to lobby Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) officials earlier this week to persuade them to give Trump’s peace efforts a chance. Barak Ravid reports at Axios.

Relations between the U.S. and the Palestinians have deteriorated to their lowest point in years, following controversial decisions by the U.S. to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and cut funding to the U.N.R.W.A. Palestinian aid agency, and the fiery speech delivered by the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas reflects disappointment with Trump and a realization of the weakness of his position compared to his Israeli counterparts. Mehul Srivastava and Katrina Manson write at the Financial Times.

UKRAINE

Ukraine’s parliament passed a law yesterday to reintegrate eastern territories seized by “aggressor country” Russia, and the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko welcomed the legislation, however Russia warned that the measures effectively kills the 2015 Minsk peace deal and could only be considered as preparation “for a new war.” The BBC reports.

Belarus ridiculed Kazakhstan’s suggestion that it host Ukraine peace talks, the Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said in a statement that moving the venue from the Belarusian capital of Minsk was “hardly relevant” to achieving success. Yuras Karmanau reports at the AP.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The head of opposition research firm Fusion G.P.S. Glenn Simpson was angered when the former F.B.I. Director James Comey announced in October 2016 that he was reopening an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, according to a transcript of Simpson’s interview before the House Intelligence Committee released yesterday, adding that Comey’s decision motivated his firm to approach the press and tell them that both presidential candidates were under investigation. Devlin Barrett, Karoun Demirjian and Matt Zapotosky report at the Washington Post.

Simpson alleged in his testimony that some of Trump’s business dealings suggested that Russians were laundering money to him, but stopped short of saying that Fusion G.P.S. had hard evidence of such dealings. Katie Bo Williams and Olivia Beavers report at the Hill.

The Russian government used the Steele dossier as a pretext to arrest and kill certain individuals, Simpson said in his testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, adding that some of those purged may have been sources for the U.S. intelligence community. Betsy Woodruff and Julia Arciga report at The Daily Beast.

Republican lawmakers are seeking to understand how the dossier compiled by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele was used by the Justice Department to partly justify surveillance of Trump’s campaign adviser Carter Page. The Steele dossier was commissioned by Fusion G.P.S. and alleged ties between Trump and Russia, Byron Tau and Del Quentin Wilber report at the Wall Street Journal.

Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee have authorized their colleagues to access a highly classified report that includes Republican concerns about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.) and whether a F.I.S.A. warrant was inappropriately obtained by the F.B.I. to surveil Carter Page. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Bipartisan legislation introduced in the Senate this week mandates a robust U.S. response to foreign interference in a federal election, including imposing sanctions on entities and individuals and freezing assets, and Congress should act quickly to pass the legislation. The Washington Post editorial board writes.

Trump personally took the decision to limit the testimony of the White House former chief strategist Steve Bannon in his appearance before the House Intelligence Committee earlier this week, according to sources familiar with the matter, the same sources added that the deputy White House counsel has concluded that former Trump administration officials do not have legitimate claims to executive privilege if they are questioned by special counsel Robert Mueller. Murray Waas reports at Foreign Policy.

TRUMP IMMIGRATION COMMENTS

“Africa is very important for the United States,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. told African envoys yesterday, but did not apologize for the insulting comments reportedly said by Trump last week, where he labeled African nations and others as “shithole countries.” Edith M. Lederer reports at the Washington Post.

African U.N. envoys suggested to Haley that Trump address African leaders directly at their upcoming African Union meeting in Ethiopia this month, Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is scheduled to travel to Europe next week to discuss Iran and Syria with European leaders, the State Department said yesterday, Reuters reports.

A federal judge yesterday barred the U.S. government from transferring an unnamed U.S.-Saudi citizen to Saudi Arabia, the unnamed citizen surrendered to Syrian forces while fighting for the Islamic State group and is currently being held in military detention in Iraq. Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

House investigators interviewed Comey’s former chief of staff James Rybicki yesterday in relation to the bureau’s investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server. Katie Bo Williams and Morgan Chalfant report at the Hill.

The Saudi-led coalition has violated international humanitarian law, according to a report released yesterday by New York-based Human Rights Watch, Al Jazeera reports.

Tensions have escalated along the India-Pakistan frontier in the disputed Kashmir region, each country has blamed the other for provoking the violence. Aijaz Hussain and Munir Ahmed report at the AP.

Israel has formally apologized for the fatal shootings of two Jordanian citizens in Israel’s embassy compound in Amman in July 2017, and Netanyahu’s office confirmed that it would resume full operations at the embassy immediately. Al Jazeera reports.

An analysis of the locations and number of people killed by terrorist attacks across the world is provided by Amanda Erickson and Laris Karklis at the Washington Post.

Long-term budget cuts and “Washington melodrama” have led to the deterioration of U.S. military equipment, the House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said yesterday. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The arrested former C.I.A. officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee, charged with mishandling classified information, had repeated contacts with Chinese intelligence, according to a former colleague, and this new information about suspicious contacts suggests why U.S. investigators suspect Lee of playing a part in the dismantling of a C.I.A. network of agents in China. Scott Shane reports at the New York Times.

The draft version of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review contains an overly broad definition of what could trigger a U.S. nuclear attack, the Trump administration would be wise to reconsider this provision. George Perkovich writes at POLITICO Magazine.

The Pentagon seems to have finally understand that the people of the Middle East must fight their own battles, the Trump administration has engaged with innovative military experiments in Afghanistan and the move demonstrates a broader engagement with shaping military plans for the Middle East. David Ignatius writes 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