The Early Edition: January 26, 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 Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. fighters countering the Turkish operation against them in the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin have called on President Bashar al-Assad to intervene and protect Syria’s borders with Turkey from attack, the autonomous authority governing Afrin said in a statement yesterday, the call for intervention further complicates the dynamics of the conflict as the U.S. backs the Y.P.G. fighters, remains an ally to Turkey and seeks to oust the Assad regime. Kareem Shaheen reports at the Guardian.

The Turkish operation’s aim is “to cut more Syrian land by occupying Afrin,” the Kurds said in their statement, making the comments as the Turkish operation against the Y.P.G. – whom Turkey consider to be an extension of the banned Turkey-based Kurdistan Worker’s Party (P.K.K.) – began earlier this week. The BBC reports.

The Afrin operation has led to the deaths of 14 Turkish soldiers and Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) rebels, the Turkish health minister said today, adding that 130 had been brought to Turkish hospitals. Reuters reports.

Turkish officials have pledged to expand their operation in northern Syria to the Kurdish-controlled town of Manbij where U.S. troops are present, the Turkish offensive could lead to U.S. soldiers being caught in the fighting between Turkish troops and the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia. Ryan Browne and Barbara Starr reports at CNN.

The Turkish operation could extend eastwards to the border with Iraq, the Turkish president Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan said today, Reuters reports.

The U.S. must “cut support given to terrorists” if it wants to “avoid a confrontation with Turkey,” the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesperson Bekir Bozdag said yesterday, Al Jazeera reports.

The Pentagon said yesterday that it carefully tracks the weapons it provides to the Y.P.G. and ensures “to the maximum extent possible” that they do no fall into the wrong hands. Tuvan Gumrukcu and Dahlia Nehme report at Reuters.

“Turkey is an ally and we’re going to work with them, but this current issue offensive is a distraction,” the chief Defense Department spokesperson Dana White said yesterday, urging Turkey to focus on the battle to defeat the Islamic State group and adding that the U.S. has been working to accommodate Turkey’s national security interests. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The Y.P.G. have been backed by the U.S. and have been called terrorists by Turkey, their position in the Syrian war is complex and the U.S. has often simplified the nature of its alliance with the Kurds. Anne Barnard and Ben Hubbard provide an explanation of the Kurdish fighters’ role in Syria, and the diverging perspectives of the U.S. and Turkey, at the New York Times.

“Iran is turning the entire country of Syria into the largest military base in the world,” the Israeli ambassador to the U.N. Danny Dannon told a Security Council meeting yesterday, telling the meeting that he would share classified information with them: that there are 82,000 fighters “directly under Iranian authority in Syria.” Nicole Gaouette reports at CNN.

The U.N.-led peace talks in Vienna on the Syrian peace process began yesterday, a Syrian government delegation and an opposition delegation attended the talks, but there has been no sign that the two sides met. The Vienna talks are taking place ahead of a Russia-hosted peace initiative in the Russian city of Sochi, which has been viewed with suspicion by Western countries and some Arab states as a process tipped in favor of the Assad government and its allies. Reuters reports.

The U.S.-led coalition has killed 831 civilians since the start of the war against the Islamic State group, the coalition acknowledged in its civilian casualty report released yesterday. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The Syrian city of Aleppo is struggling to recover from the damage and destruction of fighting and there are few signs of reconciliation on the ground. Bassem Mroue reports at the AP.

The fighting between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds strengthens Assad and Iran, Turkey shares the same basic goals as the U.S. and Europe – to stop Iran’s expansionism, which is being aided by Russia – and the U.S. can take steps to improve the situation, including encouraging the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (P.Y.D.) to further distance itself from the P.K.K., setting up direct channels for discussions between the P.Y.D. and Turkey, and reassure Turkey that the U.S. does not support any Kurdish secessionism or territorial expansion in Syria. James F. Jeffrey and David Pollock write at Foreign Policy.

New conflicts are emerging in Syria from the remnants of old conflicts, the wars between Sunni Arab rebels and the Assad regime, and the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against the Islamic State group, are drawing to close, the new phase of the war centers on the competing interests of nation states. Jonathan Spyer writes at Foreign Policy.

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 ordered special counsel Robert Mueller’s firing last June but backed off after the White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign over the move, according to sources familiar with the matter. The incident marks the first known time that the President has tried to fire Mueller and the special counsel’s office has knowledge of the situation following interviews with current and former White House officials as part of their investigation into Trump-Russia connections and whether the president obstructed justice, Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

“Fake news, folks. Fake news,” Trump told reporters today when asked about the reports that he wanted to fire Mueller, which have prompted Democrats to renew calls for Congress to protect the special counsel from being fired by the president. Rosalind S. Helderman and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

“We decline to comment out of respect for the Office of the Special Counsel and its process,” the White House lawyer Ty Cobb said when asked about the episode. Sophie Tatum and Kara Scannell report at CNN.

The head of Trump’s private legal team John Dowd said yesterday that the White House had provided more than 20,000 pages of documents to Mueller as part of the investigation, adding that the handing over of the documents demonstrates “the most transparent response in history by a president to special counsel inquiries.” Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) yesterday expressed his intention to release the transcript of the committee’s interviews relating to the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 between Trump campaign officials and Russians, the top Democrat on the panel Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) said that she agreed that the committee should release the transcripts to Mueller and to the public if it does not interfere with the investigation. Patricia Zengerle reports at Reuters.

Trump’s supports and the media have been stepping up their criticisms of the F.B.I. and pushed the idea of a conspiracy within the agency in order to discredit the Russia investigations and Mueller’s probe. The narrative includes a memo published by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) that casts doubt on the origins of the Russia investigation and the F.B.I.’s handling of the dossier compiled by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele, anti-Trump texts that were exchanged between F.B.I. agent Peter Strzok and F.B.I. lawyer Lisa Page, and the Justice Department’s report of lost text messages on F.B.I.-issued phones, Tom McCarthy reports at the Guardian.

The Justice Department called on the House Intelligence Committee to share a copy of the memo drafted by Nunes, spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores said that the department would “very much like to act on any wrongdoing that’s gone at Department of Justice.” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are expected to vote to release the Nunes-drafted memo in defiance of the Justice Department, which has warned that releasing the classified memo would be “extraordinarily reckless” without first consulting with the department.  Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

The Justice Department has successfully recovered text messages from F.B.I. devices, including missing messages between Strzok and Page between December 2016 and May 2017, the Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in a letter to lawmakers yesterday. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s allies and advisers are trying to convince him not to give testimony under oath to Mueller and have been reiterating that he must listen to his lawyers, there have been concerns about what he would say in an interview, with one senior White House officials saying that an interview under oath would be “monumentally and historically stupid.” Lachlan Markay and Asawin Suebsaeng report at The Daily Beast.

A timeline of the key figures, meetings and details relating to the Russia investigations is provided by NBC News.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The U.S. would not give money to the Palestinians “unless they sit down and negotiate peace,” Trump told reporters yesterday as he met with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it was not clear what funds Trump was referring to, but it likely relates to U.S. funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (U.R.W.A.) supporting Palestinian refugees and the recent U.S. decision to withhold $65m in aid. Rebecca Ballhaus and Rory Jones report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Palestinian are “going to have to want to make peace” like Israel wants to, Trump also said, adding that past efforts for an Israel-Palestine peace deal were too timid in using U.S. contributions as leverage and had not understood the benefit of taking the Jerusalem issue “off the table” – as he claims to have done when recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last month. Anne Gearan reports at the Washington Post.

The U.S. is the only one that can broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, Netanyahu said yesterday, Reuters reporting.  

“Trump could buy many things with his money, but he won’t be able to buy the dignity of our nation,” the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) secretary general Saeb Erekat said in response to Trump’s comments. The BBC reports.

The U.S. will not “chase after a Palestinian leadership that lacks what is needed to achieve peace,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley told the U.N. Security Council yesterday, criticizing the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas for his fiery speech earlier this month, which Haley said indulged “outrageous and discredited conspiracy theories” and were not “the speech of a person with the courage and the will to seek peace.” Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.

“If Jerusalem is off the negotiating table, so is the U.S.,” a spokesperson for Abbas said yesterday, adding that the status of Jerusalem is “the key to war and peace in the region.” Al Jazeera reports.

“We are at a critical point in the peace process,” the U.N. Special Coordinator the Middle East Peace Process told the Security Council yesterday, saying that the focus should move beyond “managing” the issue to resolving it. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The U.S. has supported U.N.R.W.A. for very little return, the agency requires a fundamental shake up, increased accountability and a changed focus to economic self-sufficiency and advancement. Jonathan Schanzer and Richard Goldberg write at POLITICO Magazine.

NORTH KOREA

The U.S. and South Korea are scheduled to hold joint military exercises after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics next month, a South Korean defense official said today, the annual military drills were delayed due to North Korea’s outreach to South Korea and the announcement of intra-Korean talks. Ben Westcott reports at CNN.

The idea of a military solution to the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula is “unacceptable,” the South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said yesterday. Soyoung Kim reports at Reuters.

China’s envoy for North Korean affairs has not visited Pyongyang, saying today that the reasons for this are “complicated,” Christopher Boden reports at the AP.

North Korea has shipped coal to Russian ports and reloaded them onto ships that delivered them to South Korea or Japan, according to Western European intelligence sources, the action is likely in violation of U.N. sanctions imposed against the Pyongyang regime. Guy Faulconbridge, Jonathan Saul and Polina Nikolskaya report at Reuters.   

PAKISTAN

The U.S. yesterday dismissed the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ claim that an American drone struck an Afghan refugee camp in the Kurram district, bordering Afghanistan. Asif Shahzad reports at Reuters.

The U.S. Treasury Department yesterday announced sanctions against six individuals linked to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network, the designations include two Pakistanis and four Afghans living in Pakistan, Reuters reports.

The U.S. and Pakistan have a difficult relationship but their interests are intertwined, analysts say that despite frustrations with one another, they need to maintain an alliance. Pamela Constable explains at the Washington Post 

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Trump administration has been preparing an executive order to keep Guantánamo Bay prison open, U.S. officials said yesterday, a move that would reverse an Obama-era directive to close the detention facility and it is expected Trump would sign the order before, during or after his State of the Union speech on Tuesday. Nahal Toosi and Andrew Restuccia report at POLITICO.

The Iranian military has stopped routine harassment of U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf for the past five months, according to U.S. military officials, the head of U.S. Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel said that he hopes this is because “we have messaged our readiness … and that it isn’t tolerable or how professional militaries operate.” Gordon Lubold and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

The chairman of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat that they were still “digesting the statements of the president of the United States” when he called African nations and others “shithole countries,” adding that the African continent would not be silent on these remarks and Trump’s other recent announcements on the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and on funding for peacekeeping missions. Paul Schemm reports at the Washington Post.

Trump has said that he is prepared to apologize for sharing the videos of a British far-right group on his Twitter account in November, the president’s retweets drew a rebuke from the British Prime Minister Theresa May. The BBC reports. 

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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