The Early Edition: January 25, 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

President Trump spoke to the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan yesterday and called on Turkey to “de-escalate, limits its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties” in their operation against the U.S.-backed Y.P.G. Syrian Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, according to a White House statement, referring to the Turkish offensive that began Saturday in the Afrin region along the Syria-Turkey border. Turkey carried out the attack against the Y.P.G. as it believes the Kurdish militias to be an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Worker’s Party (P.K.K.), which it has designated as a terrorist group, Missy Ryan and Kareem Fahim report at the Washington Post.

Trump “urged Turkey to exercise caution and avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces” during the call with Erdoğan, and one senior U.S. official said that the U.S. has been “pretty clear that there will be consequences” if Turkey expands its offensive to the Y.P.G.-controlled town of Manbij – a town where the U.S. military has a presence to assist the Kurds. Dion Nissenbaum and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump reiterated that the U.S. and Turkey “must focus all parties on the shared goal of achieving the lasting defeat of I.S.I.S.,” during the call, using an acronym for the Islamic State group, however Erdoğan said in a speech yesterday that there was no difference between the Islamic State terrorists and the Kurdish militias. Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

Erdoğan told Trump that the U.S. must stop providing weapons to the Y.P.G. during the call, according to Erdoğan’s office. Reuters reports.

The White House statement on the call between Trump and Erdoğan does not “accurately reflect” the content of the discussions, Turkish officials said today, stating that Trump did not “voice concerns [about] escalating violence” over Turkey’s operation in northern Syria. Suzan Fraser reports at the AP.

Erdoğan said late yesterday that Turkey would expand its operation to the Y.P.G.-controlled town of Manbij, there are risks of Turkish and U.S. forces coming into direct conflict and the escalating U.S.-Turkey tension comes after the Pentagon proposed last week to establish a border force in northern Syria, near Turkey, consisting of Kurdish fighters. Martin Chulov reports at the Guardian.

The Turkish operation has “thwarted the game of those sneaky forces whose interests in the region are different,” Erdoğan said yesterday when announcing that the offensive would advance onto Manbij. Tuvan Gumrucku and Tom Perry report at Reuters.

The U.S.-backed Y.P.G. have deployed fighters to the frontline of Syria’s Manbij and the spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition Col. Ryan Dillon stated that the “coalition forces that are in that area have an inherent right to defend themselves and will do so if necessary.” Al Jazeera reports.

It would not be appropriate to discuss the creation of a “security zone” in coordination with the U.S. “until trust between the two countries has been re-established,” the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said today. Hande Firat reports at The Hürriyet.

Russia denied that it was behind Monday’s chemical attack in the rebel-held Damascus enclave of Eastern Ghouta, saying that the U.S. accusations were “propaganda” that were aimed at undermining the Syrian peace process. Reuters reports.

The U.N.-led peace talks in Vienna offer the “last hope” for a political solution for Syria, the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said yesterday, making the comments as the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears far from ready to negotiate with opposition Syrian groups and ahead of Russia’s Syrian peace congress to be held in Sochi, a few days before the Vienna meeting. John Irish and Shadia Nasralla report at Reuters.

Hundreds of Islamic State militants are being detained by the Y.P.G.-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) in northern Syria, the detainees occupy a legal gray area and there have been concerns about how the U.S. should deal with them. Eric Schmitt reports at the New York Times.

Turkey’s aims in its operation in northern Syria have been unclear, Zeina Karam provides an overview of what Turkish officials have said about the offensive at the AP.

The U.S. can do little in the short-term to pressure Turkey over its operation due to U.S. military reliance on a Turkish base to carry out airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria, according to analysts, however in the long term Turkey would be likely to listen to U.S. concerns about the operation. Nevertheless, the situation demonstrates the diverging interests of the two N.A.T.O. allies, Idrees Ali and Arshad Mohammed explain at Reuters.

The crisis in northern Syria threatens to undermine the Trump administration’s gains, the situation reveals the problem of having a lack of strategy and has the potential to undermine U.S.’s allies in the region, thereby giving a greater hand to Turkey, Iran and Russia. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

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]

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Trump told reporters yesterday that he was willing to testify under oath to special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election, adding that there has been “no obstruction whatsoever” and he was “looking forward” to speaking with Mueller. However, the White House lawyer Ty Cobb said that Trump had spoken hastily and only intended to say that he was willing to meet with Mueller and that Trump would be “guided by the advice of his personal counsel,” Maggie Haberman and Julie Hirschfeld Davis report at the New York Times.

Trump also suggested to reporters that he could be investigated by Mueller for obstruction of justice because he was “fighting back,” indicating that he believes the obstruction of justice investigation is unfair and his comments may be a preemptive defense against potential obstruction accusations. Josh Dawsey, David Nakamura and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

Cobb said that arrangements were still being worked out between Trump’s personal attorneys and Mueller’s office and emphasized that Trump remains committed to continued cooperation with the special counsel’s investigation. Jordan Fabian and Jonathan Easley reports at the Hill.

Trump’s comments about “looking forward” to meeting Mueller contrasts with remarks he made a few weeks ago, where he stated that it “seems unlikely” that he would have to meet with Mueller, Dartunorro Clark reports at NBC News.

Mueller’s team has provided a list of topics that the special counsel seeks to raise with the president to Trump’s legal team, according to sources familiar with the matter, and the issues of interest include the firing of former F.B.I. Director James Comey and the circumstances surrounding the firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn. Pamela Brown and Gloria Borger report at CNN.

Flynn met privately with F.B.I. investigators in January 2017 to discuss his communications with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, according to people familiar with the matter, Flynn was interviewed by the F.B.I. without a lawyer, and the president and other top White House officials had no knowledge of the meeting. The then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed the White House counsel Don McGahn about Flynn’s interview two days after it took place and warned McGahn that Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence and other top Trump officials about his conversations with Kislyak, Carol E. Lee reports at NBC News.

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have been “extraordinarily reckless” in their push for the release of a committee memo that discloses “classified and law enforcement sensitive information,” an assistant attorney general to the Justice Department, Stephen E. Boyd, said in a letter to the committee’s chairman yesterday. The memo – which has been dismissed by Democrats and others as an attempt to discredit the Russia investigations – concerns the origins of the Russia investigation, and people familiar with the memo said that it focuses on an F.B.I. application for a surveillance warrant targeted at Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, and includes information that casts doubt on the dossier compiled by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele, which alleged connections between Trump and Russia. Charlie Savage, Nicholas Fandos and Adam Goldman report at the New York Times.

The controversial Republican-authored memo, drafted by Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), is likely to be released soon, according to Democratic and Republican sources, and the possible publication comes as part of a sustained attack by Republicans on the F.B.I. and the Russia investigation. Betsy Woodruff and Spencer Ackerman report at The Daily Beast.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has not been given access to the Nunes-drafted memo, the Justice Department and F.B.I. have also been denied access to the document. Jeremy Herb and Manu Raju report at CNN.

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have drafted a memo to counter the Republican-authored memo, the panel’s top Democrat Adam Schiff (Calif.) said yesterday that the memo was needed to lay out “the actual facts and show how the majority memo distorts the work of the F.B.I. and the Department of Justice.” Karoun Demirjian reports at the Washington Post.

An apparent technical glitch meant that the F.B.I. failed to save text messages between mid-December 2016 and mid-May 2017, the missing messages include those exchanged by former senior F.B.I. agent Peter Strzok and F.B.I. lawyer Lisa Page, who were revealed to have sent each other anti-Trump and pro-Clinton messages. Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team in July after the texts were discovered, Matt Zapotosky reports at the Washington Post.

A memo apparently mistakenly filed to court by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s team yesterday suggests that federal investigators had an informant inside Manafort’s consulting firm, Manafort was charged by Mueller in October for charges that include money-laundering and failing to register foreign lobbying work while in Ukraine. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Although it seems that Trump’s comments about being interviewed by Mueller mark a turning point in the Russia investigation, it would be wise to treat the president’s statement with caution as he has a history of reversing from a previously stated position and it is unclear whether or not the remarks are part of a coordinated strategy with Trump’s legal team. Stephen Collinson explains at CNN.

An analysis of a potential interview between Trump and Mueller’s team, and the Trump’s defense attorneys’ considerations, is provided by Danny Cevallos at NBC News.

NORTH KOREA

The U.S. Treasury Department yesterday levied sanctions against 16 North Korean individuals that it says are operating in Russia, China and elsewhere, the Treasury also sanctioned two Chinese companies. Demetri Sevastopulo reports at the Financial Times.

A top Treasury Department official urged Chinese officials this week to expel North Korean “financial facilitators,” who help finance Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Ian Talley and Jeremy Page report at the Wall Street Journal.

Satellite imagery appears to show preparations for a North Korean military parade on Feb. 8, on the eve of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea. Eric Talmadge reports at the AP.

South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said today that Seoul has prepared “all contingency scenarios” should Pyongyang decide to conduct another weapons test, saying that “another provocation is always a possibility” despite the recent outreach. Soyoung Kim reports at Reuters.

A delegation of North Korean officials and athletes arrived in South Korea today for joint Olympics training, before their arrival North Korean state media issued an announcement to “all Koreans at home and abroad,” saying that they should make a “breakthrough” in unification of the Korean Peninsula without the help of other countries. Christine Kim and Josh Smith report at Reuters.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A letter from the leaders of 21 global aid organizations to the Trump administration yesterday asked for the reinstatement of U.S. funds for the U.N. Palestinian aid agency, U.N.R.W.A., after the administration announced last week that it was withholding $65m in funds. Rick Gladstone reports at the New York Times.

Vice President Mike Pence’s recent trip to Israel demonstrates that the Trump administration is unmoved by international criticism of the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Jenna Johnson observes at the Washington Post.

AFGHANISTAN

The siege of an international hotel in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul led to the killing of four U.S. citizens, the State Department said yesterday, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

The recent attacks in Afghanistan reveal a new Taliban strategy of attacking cities to highlight that the Afghan government cannot provide security for its citizens. Sami Yousafzi explains at The Daily Beast.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S.-U.K. “special relationship … is as strong as it ever has been,” the British Prime Minister Theresa May said today, adding that she would discuss Syria, North Korea and Iran during her meeting with Trump at the World Economic Forum. Reuters reports.

The South Sudanese President Salva Kiir is “an unfit partner” in the pursuit of peace, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said yesterday, saying that Kiir’s decision to promote three generals sanctions by the U.N. Security Council was a “slap in the face” of the council and of “basic decency.” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Saudi Arabia, U.A.E. and Bahrain used their platform at the World Economic Forum in Davos to criticize Iran and accuse the country of destabilizing actions in the region. Yara Bayoumy reports at Reuters. 

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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