The Early Edition: January 22, 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

Turkey launched an offensive on the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G.-controlled enclave of Afrin along the Syria-Turkey border at the weekend, the Turkish military conducted airstrikes and began a ground offensive against the U.S.-backed Y.P.G. – which Turkey considers to be a terrorist group and an extension of the Turkey-based separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) – and the Kurdish fighters retaliated with rocket fire against the Turkish army and Turkey-backed forces. Sune Engel Rasmussen and Dion Nissenbaum report at the Wall Street Journal.

Turkey’s forces intend to create an 18-mile deep security zone inside Syria near its border encompassing Afrin and the city of Manbij, the Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said yesterday. The operation has followed threats by President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan to eliminate “terrorist nests” in the Kurdish enclave and comments yesterday that he seeks to return Afrin to the Syrian people, Carlotta Gill reports at the New York Times.

The U.S. backs the Y.P.G. as a proxy force in the fight against the Islamic State group, the Turkish offensive marks a further deterioration in U.S.-Turkey relations and is taking place within the context of a recent U.S. proposal to train a military force along the Syria-Turkey border. Kareem Fahim and Louisa Loveluck report at the Washington Post.

Approximately 25,000 Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) rebels have joined the Turkish operation, the rebel commander Maj. Yasser Abdul Rahim said yesterday, adding that the rebels sought to “encircle the city and ensure the militias are evicted” and regain “Arab towns and villages occupied by the foreign militias (Y.P.G.) with the help of the Russian air force.” Suleiman Al-Khalidi reports at Reuters.

Turkey warned the U.S. before launching airstrikes against the Y.P.G., the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday, Julia Manchester reports at the Hill.

“We urge Turkey to exercise restraint and ensure that its military operations remain limited in scope and duration,” the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement yesterday, adding that the focus of all the parties should be on defeating the Islamic State group. Julia Manchester reports at the Hill.

The Turkish military continued shelling today, despite calls from the U.S. to exercise restraint, and Turkey has said that the operation would be completed swiftly. Mert Ozkan reports at Reuters.

There have been reports of casualties on both sides, a Y.P.G. spokesperson said that Turkish troops had been “forced to retreat,” the Turkish military said that it had hit 45 targets yesterday during its air and ground offensive, the BBC reports.

Iran has called for an immediate end to the Turkish operation and warned that the violence in Afrin has the potential to boost terrorist groups in northern Syria, Reuters reports.

France yesterday called for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting about the Turkish operation, Al Jazeera reports.

The Turkish operation may give the Islamic State group breathing space and the possibility of the conflict in Afrin being contained depends on how extensive the operation is, Tim Lister provides an analysis at CNN.

Erdoğan’s operation is a “risky gamble” that could “quickly turn sour,” preventing the prospect of an autonomous Kurdish entity has become the Turkish president’s highest priority, but he is not supported in his aim by any of the “big players,” including Iran, Russia and the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Simon Tisdall writes at the Guardian.

AFGHANISTAN

At least 22 people were killed in a terrorist assault on an international hotel in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul over the weekend, including 14 foreign nationals. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the siege, while the Afghan interior ministry said the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network planned the attack, Michael Safi and Haroon Janjua report at the Guardian.

Attacks took place across Afghanistan at the weekend, including the siege of the hotel and attacks in four provinces, demonstrating the increasing violence and the struggle to stabilize the security situation in the country. Mujib Mashal and Fatima Faizi report at the New York Times.

The attack on the hotel “may amount to a war crime,” the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (U.N.A.M.A.) Tadamichi Yamamoto said in a statement. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yesterday condemned the attack and offered condolences to families and friends of those killed, Mallory Shelbourne reports at the Hill.

Up to a further 1,000 U.S. troops could be deployed to Afghanistan this spring, according to senior Pentagon officials, and they expect the total force to be around 15,000 troops. The proposals for new forces have not yet been signed off by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan report at the Washington Post.

NORTH KOREA

A North Korean delegation began a two-day visit to South Korea yesterday to prepare for a musical performance at next month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. The North-South Korea détente has divided opinion, with some saying that it hands the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un a propaganda victory, while the South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said that it has allowed for the easing of tensions, Andrew Jeong reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Winter Olympics offers a “precious chance to open the door” for talks about the nuclear issue and efforts must be taken to sustain dialogue “so that inter-Korean talks will lead to talks between the United States and North Korea and other forms of dialogue,” Moon said today. Hyonhee Shin and Yuna Park report at Reuters.

Trump asked Moon to publicly give him credit for pressuring North Korea into engaging in dialogue during a Jan. 4 phone call, according to sources familiar with the conversations, and shortly afterward Moon praised Trump for his role, demonstrating Moon’s attempts to manipulate Trump to change his North Korea policy. However, Moon’s approach has been shaped by Kim, who has been able to set the agenda by successfully getting South Korea and the U.S. to postpone a joint military drill and by scoring a propaganda victory through participation in the Winter Olympics, Anna Fifield provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Vice President Mike Pence began a four-day trip to the Middle East at the weekend and visited Jordan yesterday, where he heard criticism from King Abdullah II about Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, saying that the status of the holy city “is key to peace in the region” and adding that the decision could make it harder to tackle radicalization. Peter Nicholas reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“We agreed to disagree on the decision by the United States to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Pence told reporters after his meeting with King Abdullah II, adding that despite those differences, they agreed on “the need for all parties to come back to the table.” Rana F. Sweis reports at the New York Times.

King Abdullah II stressed the importance of making progress on the two-state solution, with East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state formed on pre-1967 borders and living alongside Israel, Pence said during the meeting that the U.S. “remains committed, if the parties agree, to a two-state solution,” and that the U.S. is “committed to continuing to respect Jordan’s role as the custodian” of Jerusalem’s holy sites. Jenna Johnson and Loveday Morris report at the Washington Post.

Pence arrived in Jerusalem today and said that he was honored to be “in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem,” making the comments at the start of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Jeff Mason and Jeffrey Heller report at Reuters.

Trump’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an extension of the U.S.’s own culture wars, the Trump administration’s policies “align perfectly with American identity politics” rather than wider foreign policy considerations. Max Fisher writes at the New York Times.

GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN

The U.S. government shutdown at midnight on Friday as lawmakers were unable to agree a spending bill, efforts to produce a compromise on immigration and spending have not yet materialized and the continuing shutdown affects federal workers and federal agencies. Robert Costa, Erica Werner, Mike DeBonis and Sean Sullivan report at the Washington Post.

Republicans have blamed the Democrats for the shutdown and accused them of disadvantaging the military, the situation means that active-duty troops and essential civilians will not get paid until Congress reaches a budget agreement. Gregory Hellman and Connor O’Brien report at POLITICO.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The F.B.I. did not preserve the text messages between two senior officials who were involved in the investigations of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and Trump’s alleged connections to Russia between mid-December 2016 and mid-May 2017, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said in a letter to F.B.I. Director Christopher A. Wray at the weekend. The two senior officials, agent Peter Strzok and lawyer Lisa Page, exchanged anti-Trump and pro-Clinton texts during the investigations and Republicans have pointed to the texts as signs of bias, however Strzok was removed from the Russia investigation once the messages were discovered, Devlin Barrett reports at the Washington Post.

An analysis of 270 individuals linked to the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election is provided by Darren Samuelsohn, Sarah Frostenson and Jeremy C.F. Lin at POLITICO.

YEMEN

The Yemeni U.A.E.-backed Southern Resistance Forces (S.R.F.) separatists have declared a state of emergency in the port city of Aden and vowed to overthrow the internationally recognized government within the next week, the S.R.F. said yesterday. The U.A.E. are part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia support the internationally recognized government of Adbrabbu Mansour Hadi, Al Jazeera reports.

The Saudi-led coalition have announced $1.5bn in aid to Yemen and said that they would open new routes for vital imports, the U.N. have said that thousands have been killed in Yemen’s war between the Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, and millions are on the brink of starvation. Asa Fitch reports at the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The 9/11 trial judge and the prosecution did nothing wrong when authorizing the decommissioning a former C.I.A. “Black Site” prison without advance notice to defense attorneys, the trial judge ruled at the weekend, saying that defense attorneys had failed to show that the physical evidence was of “such central importance to an issue that is essential to a fair trial.” Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

The F.B.I. has requested that Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) provide his memo of alleged surveillance abuses by the intelligence community and has not yet received a response, the memo has been attacked by the Democrats as “a misleading set of talking points attacking the F.B.I.”. Betsy Woodruff reports at The Daily Beast.

Philippine intelligence operatives have arrested the Iraqi explosive expert Taha Mohamed al-Jabouri, the Philippine police said today, Jabouri admitted during interrogation to having consulted for Hamas in Syria. Felipe Villamor reports at the New York Times.

China’s official newspaper said today that U.S. activities in the South China Sea would motivate China to “strengthen and speed up the building of its abilities there,” Reuters reporting.

The U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres faces a difficult task of reforming the U.N. and his task has been made more difficult due to Trump’s hostility to the institution and the international order, Guterres has received praise from some quarters for blunting some of Trump’s instincts. Janine Di Giovanni writes at POLITICO 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