The Early Edition: February 5, 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

A rebel faction shot down a Russian military plane over the rebel-held Idlib province on Saturday and killed the pilot, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, adding that the Russian military carried out a retaliatory strike in the province, killing 30 militants. Raja Abdulrahim reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (H.T.S.) claimed responsibility for the downing of the Russian fighter jet apparently using a “man-portable air-defense system”, or MANPAD, and the use of the sophisticated weaponry has the potential to strain relations between Turkey and Russia as both countries oversee a “de-escalation” agreement over the province and Turkey has been accused of developing closer relations with the H.T.S.. Erin Cunningham and Louisa Loveluck report at the Washington Post.

At least 68 Russian airstrikes hit Idlib province yesterday, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, with civilians fleeing the area being bombarded in retaliation for the downing of the Russian fighter jet. Al Jazeera reports.

Civilians were hit by chlorine gas in the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province yesterday, according to Syrian activists, wounding six civilians and three White Helmet volunteers. Erika Solomon and Kathrin Hille report at the Financial Times.

At least seven Turkish soldiers were killed and one tank was destroyed on Saturday during the Turkish operation against the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia-controlled Afrin region in northern Syria, marking the worst losses for Turkey during its offensive, with reports that the losses may have been higher. Rod Nordland reports at the New York Times.

The Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that the Kurdish militia will pay “twice as much” for the deaths of Turkish soldiers in Afrin in a message on Twitter posted Saturday, making the threat against the Y.P.G., whom Ankara consider to be an extension of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.). Kelly Murray reports at CNN.

At least 23 civilians have been killed by Syrian government airstrikes on the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta enclave near the Syrian capital of Damascus, according to Syrian activists. The AP reports.

Thousands of Islamic State foreign fighters and their families have fled Syria and Iraq, with many going underground, some defecting to the Syrian al-Qaeda branch and others paying to be smuggled across the border to Turkey. Eric Schmitt reports at the New York Times.

The French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan discussed developing a “diplomatic road map” for Syria in the “coming weeks” during a phone call Saturday, with the French presidency saying that a political solution should be pursued under the auspices of a U.N. process. The AP reports.

The Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) rebels said that it would investigate the alleged mutilation of the corpse of a female Y.P.G. fighter, the F.S.A. have been fighting alongside Turkey during the Afrin operation. Al Jazeera reports.

The campaign by the Syrian government and its allies on the Idlib province has raised tensions among foreign powers, the shooting down of the Russian jet fighter has led some Russian lawmakers to suggest that the U.S. was behind the attack and the offensive on Idlib has also strained relations between Turkey, Russia and Iran. Sune Engel Rasmussen and James Marson explain at the Wall Street Journal.

There is a real possibility of a direct conflict between the Turkey and the U.S. in northern Syria, to avoid a confrontation between the two N.A.T.O. allies, the U.S. should find areas of cooperation with Turkey and work to restore trust. Sinan Ulgen writes at the Financial Times.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 41 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between January 26 and February 1. [Central Command]

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Trump said Saturday that the memo drafted by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) “totally vindicates” him in the Russia probe, adding in his message on Twitter that the memo released Friday – which casts doubt on the early stages of the Russia investigation and claims that the Justice Department and F.B.I. inappropriately when authorizing a surveillance warrant against former Trump campaign policy adviser Carter Page – shows that there was “no collusion” and “no Obstruction.” Sabrina Siddiqui reports at the Guardian.

The fallout from the release of the Nunes memo continues. The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (Calif.) said the Republican-authored memo was a “political hit job on the F.B.I. in service of the president” and that there would be efforts to release the Democrats’ response to the memo, some Republicans also distanced themselves from Trump’s comments, including House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) who said that he doesn’t believe the memo, which he helped draft, “has any impact on the Russia probe” and that the president should not fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Elise Viebeck and Shane Harris report at the Washington Post.

Nunes has “abused the chairmanship” of the Intelligence Committee, the former C.I.A. Director John Brennan said yesterday, stating that the F.B.I. was “very forthcoming” with information presented to the court that authorized surveillance on Page. Shane Harris reports at the Washington Post.

The House Intelligence Committee will consider today whether to publicly disclose the Democrat rebuttal to the Nunes memo, according to two sources, and Rep. Michael Quigley (D-Ill.) expressed concern that the president would redact the Democrat’s memo “in a fit of hypocrisy.” Jonathan Landay and Doina Chiacu report at Reuters.

A decision by Trump to fire Rosenstein or Mueller “could precipitate a constitutional crisis,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said yesterday, Maegan Vazquez reports at CNN.

“Of all the thing that we went through in the West Wing, I never felt that the president was going to fire the special counsel,” the former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said yesterday, disputing recent reports that Trump ordered the firing of Mueller in June and adding that he “never felt that there was some sort of collusion or some kind of obstruction situation going on in the West Wing.” Kailani Koenig reports at NBC News.

Reps. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) and Brad Wenstrip (R-Ohio) both expressed support for the release of the F.I.S.A. application which authorized surveillance on Page, Himes saying that conclusions are being drawn based on a document only seen by Gowdy and Schiff. Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

The process of gathering relevant evidence for a F.I.S.A. application takes months and even years, the F.I.S.A. application is likely to set out how the F.B.I. obtained this information going back to 2013 when Page was first approached for having contacts with Russians, and the F.B.I. would have had to demonstrate to the F.I.S.A. court granting the application that Page was “engaging in behavior that appeared to be facilitating Russia’s intelligence activities.” Just Security editor Asha Rangappa explains the F.I.S.A. application process at the Washington Post and argues that the Nunes memo failed to cast doubt on the F.B.I.’s interest in Page.

The memo does not “vindicate” the president, in fact Trump’s reaction to the release of the Nunes memo could support the case that he obstructed justice, and the information contained in the document does not allege that the F.B.I. or Justice Department used false information or knowingly used false information. Just Security editor Renato Mariotti writes at the New York Times.

NORTH KOREA

The head of the North Korean parliament Kim Yong-nam is scheduled to attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea this week, his presence reflects improved intra-Korean relations but, according to analysts, is unlikely to signal a change in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. The BBC reports.

U.N. Member States, such as China and Russia, are failing to clamp down on illicit trade with North Korea, according to a draft report by the U.N.’s panel of experts on North Korea, which also sets out instances of North Korean weapon shipments to Syria over the last decade and an indication that Pyongyang has been helping Syria to develop a chemical weapons program. Ian Talley reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The international sanctions against North Korea could curb opportunities for the development of markets, which would be undesirable from the U.S. perspective, separately Unicef warned last week that 60,000 North Korean children will become severely malnourished and may face starvation as international sanctions slow the delivery of food aid. Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

The U.S. and North Korea’s actions ahead of the Winter Olympics have the potential to overshadow the Games, Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to attend the opening ceremony with the father of Otto Warmbier – the U.S. student who was detained in North Korea and died soon after his release – and North Korea is planning a military parade on the eve of the Olympics. James Griffiths reports at CNN.

A U.S. limited “bloody nose” strike on North Korean infrastructure would carry huge risks, the Trump administration must engage in a logical analysis of the implications of a preemptive strike. The Washington Post editorial board writes.

NUCLEAR POSTURE REVIEW

The Pentagon released its Nuclear Posture Review (N.P.R.) on Friday and the plan contains a provision that could lead to a U.S. use of nuclear weapons in response to a major non-nuclear attack. Michael R. Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Our strategy will ensure Russia understands that any use of nuclear weapons, however limited, is unacceptable,” the N.P.R. states, and the president said in a statement that the N.P.R. addresses the need to modernize “our nuclear weapons, infrastructure, and delivery systems.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The Chinese defense ministry said yesterday that it “firmly” opposed the N.P.R. and that it hopes the U.S. “will abandon its Cold War Mentality, earnestly assume its special disarmament responsibilities, correctly understand China’s strategic intentions an objectively view China’s national defense and military build-up.” The BBC reports.

“The Americans are shamelessly threatening Russia with a new atomic weapon,” the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said yesterday in response to the N.P.R., and the foreign minister Javad Zarif warned that the document risked “bringing humankind closer to annihilation.” Reuters reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The executive committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) asked the Palestinian government to “begin devising plans to disengage from the Israeli occupation authorities,” after its meeting on Saturday, making the move after pressure on it to change its stance to Israel following recent developments, including Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on Dec. 6. Al Jazeera reports.

The Israeli government will legalize the Havat Gilad settlement in the West Bank in response to the murder of a resident there by a Palestinian last month. Reuters reports.

The Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to discuss the status of Jerusalem and other issues with Pope Francis today, the AP reports.

Israel and Egypt have been fostering closer relations, reports that Israel has been targeting Islamic State militants in the Sinai Peninsula with the support of the Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi have emerged. While neither country has publicly admitted to the strikes, the pact demonstrates common interests and that the issue of Palestine is no longer the “all-encompassing emotive issue it once was,” Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

YEMEN

The Yemeni Houthi rebels claimed that a Saudi-led coalition airstrike on the rebel-controlled capital of Sana’a yesterday killed eight people and wounded around 58. The AP reports.

The recent fighting in the strategically important city of Aden reveals the complexity of the war in Yemen and the fragility of the alliances supporting various proxies. Ali Al-Mujahed and Sudarsan Raghavan observe at the Washington Post.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tour of Latin America has seen him trying to reinforce a message of cooperation while trying to deflect from Trump’s comments about Latin American countries, in particular remarks about Mexico on immigration and trade. Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. has been considering sanctioning the sale of oil from Venezuela as part of measures that would lead to “free, fair and verifiable elections” and an end to the crisis, Tillerson said yesterday. Luis Andres Henao reports at the AP.

Trump’s style of diplomatic bargaining has not been working, his comments on Pakistan have fractured relations, the withholding of aid to the Palestinians could worsen the security situation for Israel, and his demands to European countries and Congress to rewrite the 2015 nuclear agreement is likely to fail to achieve what he wants. Jackson Diehl writes at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.S. troops have started to withdraw from Iraq after the Iraqi government declared victory over the Islamic State group last year, an Iraqi government spokesperson confirmed the reduction in U.S. presence today but said that it did not mark the beginning of a complete pullout. Susannah George and Qassim Abdul-Zahra report at the AP.

The Trump administration has signaled its intention for large military build-up and is expected to ask Congress for $716bn for defense for the 2019 fiscal year. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill. 

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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