The Early Edition: January 24, 2018

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yesterday blamed Russia for a chemical weapon attack in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta enclave near the Syrian capital of Damascus on Monday, stating that “whoever conducted the attacks, Russia ultimately bears responsibility,” calling on Russia to stop vetoing U.N. Security Council votes on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and adding that Russia has breached the 2013 international agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The apparent chlorine gas attack in Eastern Ghouta raises “serious concerns that Bashar al-Assad may be continuing to use chemical weapons against his own people,” Tillerson said yesterday, making the comments within the context of previous findings by the U.N. that said Assad’s forces were responsible for a chemical weapon attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

Russia sent a “dangerous message to the world” when it vetoed the renewal of the U.N. panel investigating chemical weapons attack, the Joint Investigative Mechanism (J.I.M.), the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said, adding that this action by Russia – which is a key ally to the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – meant they bore some responsibility for the chemical attack. Michael Shwirtz reports at the New York Times.

“Russia is complicit in the Assad regime’s atrocities,” Haley said at a U.N. Security Council meeting, adding that Russia would not hold Assad to account for human rights abuses. Richard Roth reports at the CNN.

“This is a blatant and, by any standard, outrageous example of the American side’s manipulating facts,” the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in response to the U.S. accusations, his comments following from a Russian proposal yesterday that the Security Council create a new inquiry to investigate chemical weapon attacks in Syria, a move that the U.S. has condemned as an attempt to distract from J.I.M.’s findings that blamed the Assad regime for the Khan Sheikhoun attack. Louisa Loveluck and Carol Morello report at the Washington Post.

Russia’s ambassador to the U.N. Vassily Nebenzia denounced Tillerson’s accusation, saying that Tillerson assigned responsibility without any investigation and had attempted to “drag Russia into this as well.” The AP reports.

The U.S. has sent out mixed messages about Turkey’s continuing operation against the Y.P.G. Syrian Kurdish militia in Afrin and along the Turkey-Syria border, the U.S. backs the Y.P.G. and views them as a key partner in the fight against the Islamic State group, while Turkey views the Y.P.G. as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) and has vowed to crackdown on them in pursuit of its national security interests. The White House has equivocated between taking steps to assuage Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan, including turning back on a proposal last week for a Kurdish militia-led border force in northern Syria, and statements committing the U.S.’s strong support for the Syrian Kurds, Mark Landler, Carlotta Gall and Eric Schmitt explain at the New York Times.

The Turkish military said yesterday that it has killed at least 260 Y.P.G. fighters and Islamic State militants since Saturday, the operation has brought U.S.-Turkey relations close to a breaking point as the two countries are N.A.T.O. allies but have deep differences over the Syrian Kurds. Ece Toksabay, Ellen Francis and Tuvan Gumrukcu report at Reuters.

Around 5,000 civilians have fled the Afrin region since Turkey launched its operation against Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. fighters, and both sides appear to have made limited gains since the offensive began Saturday. The BBC reports.

The Y.P.G.-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) accused Turkey of making false claims about the presence of the Islamic State group in the Afrin region, saying that Turkey was trying to mislead opinion. Reuters reports.

Trump plans to speak with Erdoğan today to discuss the Turkish offensive in northwest Syria, the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the U.S. wants Turkey to “de-escalate” and it is probable that this would be discussed. Nicole Gaouette reports at CNN.

The Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with Erdoğan yesterday by phone to discuss the Afrin operation, according to a statement by the Kremlin, Reuters reports.

A potential Turkish offensive on the Kurdish-controlled northern Syrian town of Manbij could provide the flashpoint for the breakdown in U.S.-Turkey relations, the U.S. has forces on the ground in the town and currently the two N.A.T.O. “partners” are engaged in military brinkmanship. David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post.

There is only a small possibility of Turkish forces coming into direct contact with the U.S. in Manbij, the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said today. Reuters reports.

The U.S.-led coalition killed an estimated 150 Islamic State militants in Syria over the weekend, the U.S. Central Command said in a statement yesterday, adding that the strikes were aimed at the militants in the Middle Euphrates River Valley and that the operations “underscore our assertion that the fight to liberate Syria is far from over.” Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

It is unsurprising that Turkey wants to destroy the U.S.-backed Y.P.G. forces near its border, Erdoğan has been clear about Syrian Kurdish presence in northern Syria constituting a red line and the Trump administration has been inconsistent in its policy and messaging, further complicating the precarious situation. Amanda Sloat writes at Foreign Policy.

The U.S. approach to the Afrin operation has demonstrated to the Kurds that they are “disposable” to regional and global powers, the U.S. lack of support for the Syrian Kurds is part of a broader pattern of the Kurds being abandoned once their help is no longer needed. Yaroslav Trofimov writes at the Wall Street Journal.

Tillerson’s announcement on Syria strategy “will break just about every relevant law on the books,” his speech committed U.S. troops to an indefinite presence in Syria to prevent Assad from re-establishing power and to counter wider threats in the region, however the president cannot take unilateral action and must make the case for the presence of U.S. forces to Congress, the American people and the international community. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Oona A. Hathaway write at the New York Times.

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]

AFGHANISTAN

Gunmen have attacked the offices of the Save the Children charity in the Afghan city of Jalalabad today, killing at least two and injuring twelve, according to officials. The BBC reports.

The Islamic State group have claimed responsibility for the attack on the charity, saying that the targets were “British and Swedish institutes.” Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. Air Force has deployed an A-10 squadron as part of the U.S.-Afghan air campaign against the Taliban, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The indefinite nature of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and the lack of an endgame reflect a status quo that should perhaps be embraced, as Afghanistan is “as close to ungovernable, untameable, as any land on earth” and an absence of victory does not necessarily mean that there has been a defeat. David Von Drehle writes at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The Attorney General Jeff Sessions was questioned last week by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team as part of the investigation into collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, the Justice Department confirmed yesterday, marking the first time that the Trump campaign is known to have interviewed a member of Trump’s Cabinet. Sarah N. Lynch reports at Reuters.

Session’s interview took place as Mueller has increasingly focused on whether Trump obstructed justice while in office, Mueller has informed the president’s lawyers that he will most likely want to question Trump about the firing of the F.B.I. Director James Comey and about the former national security Michael T. Flynn. Trump said yesterday that he was not concerned that Sessions had met with Mueller, Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

The F.B.I. Director Christopher A. Wray is replacing two former Comey aides, including the appointment of Dana Boente, who is viewed by some as a Trump loyalist, and the move comes as Wray has been under pressure from Sessions to make personnel changes. Sari Horowitz and Matt Zapotosky reports at the Washington Post.

Trump asked the then-acting F.B.I. Director Andrew McCabe in May whom he had voted for in the 2016 election and about his wife’s political leanings, according to anonymous officials, with one former official saying that McCabe had found the conversation with Trump “disturbing.” McCabe has been repeatedly castigated by Trump for being part of, what the president claims to be, a politically motivated investigation into links between Trump and Russia, Ellen Nakashima, Josh Dawsey and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

The senior F.B.I. agent Peter Strzok expressed skepticism about joining Mueller’s team, saying in a text in May that his “gut sense and concern is there’s no big there there.” Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team in July after it was revealed that he exchanged anti-Trump and pro-Clinton messages with F.B.I. lawyer Lisa Page, Del Quentin Wilber and Aruna Viswanatha report at the Wall Street Journal.

Sessions has ordered an investigation into the missing text messages between Strzok and Page, the F.B.I.’s system failed to store messages between mid-December 2016 and mid-May 2017 due to a software glitch. Sarah N. Lynch reports at Reuters.

Republican lawmakers have intensified the congressional investigations of the Justice Department’s and F.B.I.’s handling of their Trump-Russia probes and have increased their charges of political bias in the law enforcement agencies. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Democratic lawmakers have demanded further information about a Republican-authored memo about the intelligence agencies’ use of the dossier compiled by British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele, which alleged connections between Trump and Russia, with Democrats saying that the memo is an attempt to discredit the F.B.I. and Mueller’s investigation. Byron Tau reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The White House supports “full transparency” in relation to the Republican-authored memo and have said it is up to the House Intelligence Committee to release the document. Cristiano Lima reports at POLITICO.

The addition of attorney Tom Green to the defense team of former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates suggest that Gates may be changing his approach to his not-guilty plea, Gates was charged by Mueller for money-laundering, failing to register foreign lobbying and other business, and Green’s involvement suggests ongoing negotiation with the prosecutors. Katelyn Polantz reports at CNN.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) called on the chief executives of Facebook and Twitter to investigate an alleged campaign to discredit Muller’s investigation, in a letter yesterday, raising the possibility of an online Russian manipulation campaign. Hannah Kuchler reports at the Financial Times.

The series of revelations about the Trump-Russia investigations yesterday suggest that Mueller’s investigation is on its way to reaching a conclusion, Stephen Collinson explains at CNN.

NORTH KOREA

The C.I.A. are “still suffering from having gaps” in knowledge about North Korea’s nuclear missile program, the C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo said yesterday, saying that the agency was in a “much better place today than we were 12 months ago.” Shane Harris reports at the Washington Post.

Pompeo suggested a new U.S. red line for the North Korean regime in comments yesterday, saying that the U.S. must ensure that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would not be able to develop an arsenal of weapons that have the “capacity to deliver from multiple firings of these missiles simultaneously.” Julian Borgers reports at the Guardian.

Pompeo warned that Kim would use nuclear weapons “beyond self-preservation” and combine nuclear force with conventional military force to coerce the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Zachary Cohen reports at CNN.

Pompeo’s comments indicate that the Trump administration has been considering a pre-emptive strike against the Pyongyang regime, Spencer Ackerman explains at The Daily Beast.

It is likely that North Korea would resume missile testing after the Winter Olympics, experts have warned. Lester Holt and Alexander Smith report at NBC News.

Vice President Mike Pence intends to use his attendance at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea next month to offset North Korea’s propaganda efforts, a White House official said yesterday. Jeff Mason reports at Reuters.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to the Middle East drew to a close yesterday, his speech to lawmakers in the Israeli Knesset was well-received, and he departs having brought the U.S.-Israel closer together, but having widened the relationship between the U.S. and the Palestinian leadership. Ruth Eglash and Jenna Johnson report at the Washington Post.

Pence’s speech to the Knesset was “one of the most Zionist speeches ever given by a non-Jew in the Knesset” and his remarks were a milestone in American-Israeli relations. Meir Soloveichik writes at the Wall Street Journal.

Pence’s trip to the Middle East served little purpose other than boost his own ego and interests, the trip improved the Trump administration’s standing with evangelicals in the U.S. and Pence’s speech further weakened America’s position as a broker for a peace deal. The New York Times editorial board writes.

The U.S. and Israel relations are closer than ever, Pence’s trip symbolized the how the administration has changed the relationship from “special” to “seemingly exclusive” and this has seemingly harmed the prospect of a peace deal, however the erratic style of the Trump presidency may deliver a surprise. Aaron David Miller writes at POLITICO Magazine.

Israel and Palestine need a status quo, in the present circumstances, Trump’s purported peace plan “is overly ambitious and even dangerous” and could lead to the situation spinning out of control. Shalom Lipner writes at Foreign Policy.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

At least 33 people have been killed in a double car bombing in the Libyan city of Benghazi last night, no group has immediately claimed responsibility for the attack and the attacks have disrupted the relative calm that had recently returned to Benghazi. Al Jazeera reports.

Strikes by a U.S. drone killed two Haqqani network militants in Pakistan near the Afghan border yesterday, according to Pakistani officials and police. Hussain Afzal reports at the AP. 

Filed under:
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