The Early Edition: January 31, 2018

STATE OF THE UNION

President Trump delivered his State of the Union address last night, topics covered included the economy, immigration, warnings about the threat posed by North Korea and terrorism, and an announcement that the administration will keep open the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. Peter Nicholas, Louise Radnofsky and Siobhan Hughes report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump praised the role of the U.S.-led coalition in its fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, stating that the he was “proud to report that the coalition … has liberated very close to 100 percent of the territory” recently held by the terrorist group, Trump also called on Congress to make sure that U.S. funds for foreign assistance “only go to America’s friends.” Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear report at the New York Times.

Trump signed an executive order yesterday to keep the prison at Guantánamo Bay open, the order was signed shortly before Trump delivered his address and he made the announcement during the speech. Trump’ action reverses parts of an executive order signed by President Obama in 2009, who promised to close the detention facility, Connor O’Brien reports at POLITICO.

“North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland,” Trump warned, adding that the U.S. was “waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from ever happening.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Trump lauded the military efforts in Afghanistan and the “new rules of engagement” that allow the U.S. to pursue its objectives. He also asked Congress to “address the fundamental flaws in the terrible Iran nuclear deal” and said that the U.S. “stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom,” referring to recent protests that took place across the country. Euan McKirdy gives an overview of Trump’s remarks on foreign policy issues during his speech at CNN.

“As part of our defense, we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal,” Trump pledged, the comment coming days before the Pentagon is expected to release its Nuclear Posture Review, a leak draft of which calls for the development of so-called low-yield nuclear weapons to deter Russia and China. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The President’s speech did not acknowledge the longer-term threats facing the country, on foreign policy he claimed credit for various actions – such as recapturing most of the land held by the Islamic State group and for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – but he did not elaborate or make clear his vision on these key issues. The Washington Post editorial board writes.

SYRIA

The Russia-hosted peace initiative for Syria ended yesterday with the conference in Sochi largely being attended by delegates supportive of President Bashar al-Assad and opposition delegates leaving the talks early, though there were more consequential negotiations between the U.N. special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and Russia. Anne Barnard reports at the New York Times.

The Sochi congress participants agreed on a set of principles for resolving the conflict in a closing statement, including “full commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and unity of the Syrian Arab Republic,” however key parties to the Syrian war were not present – including the opposition and the Kurds. Louisa Loveluck and Liz Sly report at the Washington Post.

The conference ended with a plan to draft a new constitution for Syria, as the congress was being held, opposition activists reported more airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces on the rebel-held Idlib province and Turkish soldiers continued their operation against Syrian Kurdish militia in the northern part of the country. Nataliya Vasikyeva and Vladimir Isachenkov report at the AP.

The closing statement avoided mention of key opposition demands, including whether Syrian refugees would be able to take part in future elections and whether there would be reform of the security forces, with a senior official for the Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) rebel group saying that the conference was “tailor-made for Assad and his terrorist regime.” Kinda Makieh and Maria Tsetkova report at Reuters.

De Mistura welcomed the progress on talks of a new Syrian constitution and told reporters yesterday that “we are actually going to establish a constitutional committee.” The AP reports.

The Syrian Negotiation Committee (S.N.C.) said that they would “reject the establishment of any constitutional commission at this stage,” adding that the main opposition to Assad wants the establishment of a transitional governing body first. Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S., U.K., France and others did not attend the Sochi conference, with the French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian saying that a resolution must be pursued under the auspices of the U.N. and not Sochi. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

At least 15 people were killed by a suspected Russian airstrike on the rebel-held city of Ariha in Idlib yesterday, according to residents and rescuers. Reuters reports.

Turkey and Russia have agreed to accelerate efforts to establish observation points in Idlib, a source in the Turkish Presidential palace said today, Reuters reports.

“I am appalled by the ongoing attacks on hospitals and other medical facilities in northwestern Syria,” the U.N. regional coordinator for the Syria crisis, Panos Moumtzis said yesterday, Tom Miles reporting at Reuters.

Turkey’s operation against the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia in northern Syria has created confusion, further undermining the U.S.-Turkey relationship and creating further contradictions in America’s Syria policy. Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

The U.S. needs to reassess the priorities of its strategy in Syria as it has now committed to a long-term presence in the country, and it must be careful when engaging with the various parties to the conflict. Charles Lister and William F. Wechsler write at POLITICO Magazine.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 60 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between January 19 and January 25. [Central Command]

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Special counsel Robert Mueller is seeking an interview with the former spokesperson for Trump’s legal team Mark Corallo, according to a source familiar with the matter. Corallo resigned from his position after it was revealed that Donald Trump Jr. arranged a meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russians at Trump Tower in June 2016, Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) yesterday highlighted the Trump administration’s decision not to impose new sanctions against Russia on Monday and called it an “extreme dereliction of duty by President Trump,” who was given the authority to levy the sanctions as part of a bipartisan bill signed last year in response to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

The Trump administration did not impose new sanctions against Russia, but the Treasury Department yesterday released a list of Russian figures whose names appear on the Kremlin’s website and Forbes’s 2017 list of the wealthiest Russians, demonstrating the confused nature of U.S. sanctions policy toward Russia. Emily Tamkin reports at Foreign Policy.

Russian officials and influential figures yesterday dismissed the Treasury list as a “telephone directory” of the rich, although the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov warned that the publication “could potentially damage the image and reputation of our firms, our businessmen, our politicians, and of members of the leadership.” Polina Devitt and Katya Golubkova report at Reuters.

The House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said yesterday that he wanted the public to see the secret Republican-authored memo – which is based on classified information and casts doubt on the early stages of the Justice Department and F.B.I.’s investigation intro Trump-Russia connections – but warned that the memo drafted by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) should not be used to undermine Mueller’s investigation. Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times, explaining that the political reality is that Ryan has thrown his weight behind releasing the memo and that the aim is to shift focus away from the investigation.

Senior Justice Department officials warned White House chief of staff John F. Kelly on Monday about the dangers of releasing the Nunes-drafted memo, the Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein stating that the memo could jeopardize classified information. Josh Dawsey and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

Nunes has refused to say whether he worked with the White House on the memo, which includes claims that Rosenstein inappropriately vetted a request for surveillance on Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page. Betsy Woodruff and Spencer Ackerman report at The Daily Beast.

Trump is “100 percent” behind calls to release the Nunes memo, the president told Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) as he was leaving the House chamber after delivering his State of the Union address yesterday. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Trump’s legal team are arguing that Mueller has not met the threshold to interview the President, according to sources familiar with conversations between the President’s team, the White House counsel’s office and other outside legal experts. Pamela Brown and Gloria Borger report at CNN.

The controversial political activist and former journalist Cody Shearer drafted a memo that may corroborate parts of the dossier compiled by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele, which alleged connections between Trump and Russia. The F.B.I. received the Shearer memo in October 2016 and the veracity of its claims have not yet been determined, Stephanie Kirchgaesnner and Nick Hopkins report at the Guardian.

The director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service (S.V.R.) Sergey Naryshkin recently met with the C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo in the U.S., according to Russian state media. Naryshkin has been under U.S. sanctions for the past three years and the S.V.R. have been accused by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence of interfering in the 2016 U.S. election, Katie Zavadski and Spencer Ackerman report at The Daily Beast.

Democrats have been attempting to force Republicans to consider legislation to protect Mueller from presidential interference by using aggressive tactics. Andrew Desiderio and Sam Stein report at The Daily Beast.

The White House should approve public disclosure of the Nunes memo, it would offer transparency about the actions of the F.B.I. and the use of the authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.). The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

AFGHANISTAN

“Believe me, I will take revenge,” the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said yesterday referring to a series of attacks by militants that killed over 100 people over the past week, his comments reflecting a decidedly more aggressive tone taken by Afghan officials against the Taliban, and rendering the possibility of peace more elusive. Pamela Constable reports at the Washington Post.

The Taliban are now openly active in 70% of Afghanistan, according to research conducted by the BBC, which has also found that the Islamic State group is largely confined to a small stronghold on the border with Pakistan.

The U.S. military had “no intent” to withhold data about the Afghan war “unnecessarily” and the process which lead to data becoming classified was due to “a human error in labeling,” the U.S. military spokesperson Capt. Tom Gresback said yesterday, making the statement after there were criticisms earlier this week from the Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction (S.I.G.A.R). Reuters reports.

YEMEN

The U.A.E.-backed Southern Transitional Council (S.T.C.) separatists seized the strategic Yemeni port city of Aden yesterday, their success came after two days of fighting against forces loyal to Saudi-backed and internationally recognized Yemeni President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi. Sudarsan Raghavan reports at the Washington Post.

The S.T.C. gain reveals a fracture in the coalition fighting the Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia are both part of the Saudi-led coalition and their support for differing factions complicates the alliance. Saeed Al-Batati and Rick Gladstone report at the New York Times.

The S.T.C. handed back two military bases in Aden to the Hadi government today following mediation by the Saudi-led coalition. Mohammad Mukhashaf reports at Reuters.

NORTH KOREA

North Korea is planning to hold a military parade on Feb. 8, a day before the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, two diplomatic sources said today. Will Ripley and Joshua Berlinger report at CNN.

The White House has said that it would no longer consider Victor Cha to be the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, according to two sources familiar with the situation the White House stopped communicating with Cha after he expressed concern about a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea. Demetri Sevastopulo reports at the Financial Times.

The U.S. military could destroy most of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s nuclear missile program infrastructure, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul J. Selva said yesterday, he also said North Korea has not shown that it has the technology that allows for specific targeting of a missile and a “reentry vehicle,” but did not rule out that it has the capability. Paul Sonne reports at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have called for reduced tensions between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc, at a joint appearance with their Qatari counterparts yesterday, making the comments in light of the diplomatic isolation of Qatar which began in June 2017 due to its alleged support for terrorism and close ties to Iran. Reuters reports.

The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has done much to increase stability over the past three years, however the country remains weak and the upcoming elections have the potential undo what has been achieved. Margaret Coker and Falih Hassan explain at the New York Times. 

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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