The Early Edition: January 23, 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’s operation against the U.S.-backed Y.P.G. Syrian Kurdish fighters near its border continued yesterday, Turkish troops and its allies, the Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) rebels, advanced on the Y.P.G.-controlled town of Afrin despite calls from the U.S. to exercise restraint. The Turkish offensive against the 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.) – represents a further the deterioration of U.S.-Turkey relations and demonstrates how the U.S. has been sidelined in Syria, Mark Landler and Carlota Gall report at the New York Times.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and British Foreign Secretary called on Turkey to exercise restraint in their offensive against the Syrian Kurds in comments to reporters in London yesterday, however the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan dismissed the calls, saying that Turkey “respects the territorial integrity of Syria” and knows “when to pull back.” Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Afrin will be sorted out. We will take no step back,” Erdoğan said yesterday, defying calls from the U.S. to limit its operation and adding that Turkey had reached an agreement with Russia – a key ally to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – over the operation but did not divulge any details. Erin Cunningham reports at the Washington Post.

Turkey yesterday called on the U.S. to stop its support for the Y.P.G. and said that the Kurdish fighters were using U.S.-supplied weapons against Turkish troops trying to create a 19-mile “safe zone” inside Syria, and a presidential spokesperson warned that Turkey “cannot tolerate the P.K.K. establishing some kind of a state structure along our border in Syria.” The BBC reports.

Turkey may advance onto the Kurdish enclave of Manbij where the U.S. has forces and allies on the ground, opening the possibility of a conflict between forces allied with the two N.A.T.O. countries. Arshad Mohammed and Idrees Ali report at Reuters.

“Our goal is not to clash with Russians, the Syrian regime or the United States, it is to battle the terrorist organization,” Turkish state media quoted Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavosuglu as saying today, who also warned that “terrorists in Manbij are constantly firing provocation shots. If the United States doesn’t stop this, we will stop it.” Tuvan Gumrucku and Ellen Francis report at Reuters.

“The violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area of Syria,” the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said today, warning that the Turkish offensive was distracting from defeating the Islamic State group. Robert Burns reports at the AP.

Turkey shelled the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli and other towns along the Syrian-Turkey border today, according to a Y.P.G. spokesperson, the AP reports.

The German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel spoke to his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavosoglu to express concern about the Afrin operation and the potential humanitarian consequences in a phone call yesterday. Andrea Shalal reports at Reuters.

Syria is at “a crossroads,” the French ambassador to the U.N. Francois Delattre told the Security Council at a briefing on Turkey’s Afrin operation, warning that the war-torn country could go down the path of fragmentation and ethnic cleansing. The AP reports.

The Syrian Kurds are unlikely to attend Russia’s Syrian peace congress in Sochi due to Russia’s “collusion” with Turkey in their offensive in the Afrin region, a Syrian Kurdish politician said yesterday. Tom Perry reports at Reuters.

An explanation of the Turkish operation’s aims, and the possible consequences, is provided by Zeynep Bilginsoy at the AP.

An explanation of the motivations behind Turkey’s offensive, the nature of the U.S.-Turkey relationship, and the position of the Kurds, is provided by Sewell Chan at the New York Times.

Rebels in the Damascus enclave of Eastern Ghouta have shelled the government-controlled Damascus old quarter killing nine civilians, Syrian state media said yesterday, Reuters reporting.

The head of U.S. Central Command Army Gen. Joseph Votel called for efforts to rebuild and stabilize Raqqa upon his visit to the destroyed Syrian city yesterday, which was formerly claimed by the Islamic State group as its capital and was retaken by U.S.-backed forces in October 2017 with the assistance of coalition airstrikes. Nancy A. Youssef reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Loyalists to the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq number up to 10,000, according to experts, Vivian Salama and Courtney Kube report at NBC News.

Turkey constitutes a key counterbalance to Russian-imposed peace in Syria and Erdoğan’s preoccupation with the Kurds may lead him to reaching a deal with Russia and Assad. Turkey’s  changed stance would remove crucial leverage for Western nations who fear the implications of a Russia-led peace initiative, Patrick Wintour writes at the Guardian.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 63 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between January 12 and January 18. [Central Command]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Vice President Mike Pence addressed Israel’s Knesset yesterday and said in his speech “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” that the U.S. would open its embassy in Jerusalem by the end of 2019 and urged Palestinian leaders to return to peace negotiations. After Trump’s announcement in December that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas warned that the Palestinians would consider abandoning effort to restart peace talks, but he has recently softened his tone, Peter Nicholas, Rory Jones and Laurence Norman report at the Wall Street Journal.

Palestinian leaders have refused to meet with Pence during his Middle East visit, the Palestinians believe that East Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state and the chief negotiator for the Palestinians Saeb Erekat denounced Pence’s Knesset speech as a “messianic discourse … that has proven that the U.S. Administration is part of the problem rather than the solution.” Ben Hubbard reports at the New York Times.

Abbas urged the E.U. to “swiftly recognize” a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital during a meeting with E.U. foreign ministers in Brussels yesterday, adding that the E.U. was a “true partner and friend” and called on the bloc to increase political efforts in the Middle East. Al Jazeera reports.

“I want to reassure President Abbas of the firm commitment of the European Union to the two-state solution with Jerusalem as the shared capital of the two states,” the E.U. foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said yesterday. Robin Emmott reports at Reuters.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency (U.R.W.A.) for Palestinian refugees yesterday launched a global fundraising campaign to support humanitarian programs, saying that the U.S. reduction in funding for the agency could potentially impacts the lives of millions of vulnerable Palestinian refugees in the region. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The occupation of Palestinian territory poses a challenge for the future of the Christian community in the region, Palestinian church leaders canceled their scheduled meetings with Pence after Trump announced the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Ian Lee explains at CNN.

IRAN

Formal talks between the U.S., U.K., Germany and France about the 2015 Iran nuclear deal could begin as early as next week, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday, the talks would address what the administration deems to be flaws in the agreement – in particular, the absence of restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missiles program. Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Tillerson noted that the U.S. has a timetable to address the flaws in the deal, but that the U.S. could not “set timetable for others,” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

The French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian asked today why the Trump administration was “kicking the ball back to Congress and the Europeans” and not China and Russia, who are also party to the nuclear deal, the AP reports.

European leaders and the E.U. must fight to preserve the Iran nuclear deal, the Trump administration’s hostile approach “should serve as a wake-up call for Europe” to protect its economic and security interests and embark on a coordinated strategy to shield their companies from potential U.S. sanctions against Iran. Ellie Geranmayeh writes at Foreign Policy.

The U.S. could support Iran’s anti-government protestors by targeting the Supreme Leader’s financial interests, Mark Dubowitz and Saeed Ghasseminejad write at the Wall Street Journal.

NORTH KOREA

North Korea announced today that it would hold a national holiday on Feb. 8 to honor its army, the date is on the eve of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea and the announcement raises the possibility that North Korea will stage a large military parade. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

A delegation of South Korean officials visited North Korea yesterday to arrange logistics for joint events at the Winter Olympics, the intra-Korean dialogue has prompted mixed reactions, with some saying that Pyongyang’s outreach is a ploy to drive a wedge between South Korea and the U.S., and others saying that the improved relations are important to achieving a resolution to the nuclear standoff. Hyung-Jin Kim reports at the AP.

“We’re confident that the Olympics will be a stepping stone to bring peace to the Korean peninsula, to Northeast Asia and the world,” a spokesperson for South Korea’s presidential Blue House said today, rejecting criticisms of the government’s approach to North Korea and comments from opposition politicians that the Games are the “Pyongyang Olympics” rather than the “Pyeongchang Olympics.” Hyonhee Shin reports at Reuters.

YEMEN

The U.N. announced yesterday that its special envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed will resign as of next month, Ahmed’s resignation reflects the inability to progress peace initiatives in the war-torn country, which has been caught in a wider regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Rick Gladstone reports at the New York Times.

A Saudi-led coalition airstrike hit a building that housed a small clinic and a house in northern Yemen, killing seven civilians, Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Congress voted yesterday evening to end the government shutdown after agreeing to fund the government through to Feb. 8. Sean Sullivan, Ed O’Keefe and Elise Viebeck report at the Washington Post.

The recent increase in U.S.-led airstrikes against militants in Somalia have led to dozens of civilian deaths, the strikes generally target the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab militants, however the number of strikes in the last six months have been already surpassed the number of strikes for the whole of 2016. Jason Burke reports at the Guardian.

The Attorney General Jeff Sessions has tried to pressure the F.B.I. Director Christopher A. Wray to make personnel changes, including the removal of deputy director Andrew McCabe. Devlin Barrett and Philip Rucker report at the Washington Post.

The European Union levied sanctions against seven senior Venezuelan officials yesterday due to their “non-respect for democratic principles or the rule of law as well as in the violation of human rights.” The AP reports.

The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (S.I.G.A.R.) suggested that Congress prohibit spending on Afghan military units whose members sexually abuse children or commit other human rights abuses in a report released today, however the Pentagon have resisted the suggestion by the government watchdog. Dan Lamothe reports at the Washington Post.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has been pushing for U.S. forces to work closely with Indonesia’s special operations Kopassus group, the Kopassus were barred from working with the U.S. military in 1999 after they were found to have committed human rights abuses. Alex Horton reports at the Washington Post.

The U.S. needs to pay attention to its relationship with the U.K. and the importance of bilateral ties, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday during a meeting with the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Haitians protested in their capital yesterday against comments by President Trump, in which he reportedly called Haiti a “shithole country.” Joseph Guyler Delva reports at Reuters.

The Trump administration has increased use of air power and relaxed restrictions on the use of strikes, however it has not made clear the ways in which it has changed the rules of engagement and how it has expanded the use of drones. This has decreased transparency and threatens to create “an increasingly indiscriminate, increasingly opaque, global war in which civilians are likely to account for an ever larger share of the victims,” Julian Borger explains at the Guardian.

The Defense Secretary Jim Mattis unveiled the 2018 National Defense Strategy last week, the document offers a clear vision of the threats faced by the U.S. but is less effective in providing realistic expectations about funding for the Defense Department, nevertheless the strategy is ambitious and constitutes a “solid foundation” for a defense program. Kori Schake writes at Foreign Policy. 

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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