The Early Edition: February 6, 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

Russian and Syrian jets carried out heavy bombardment of the rebel-held Idlib province yesterday, at least two major hospitals were hit and civilians have fled the area, with some monitoring groups saying yesterday that up to 150 airstrikes were conducted on Sunday. The bombardment has been taking place following the downing of a Russian fighter jet over Idlib on Saturday and despite the fact that Idlib is supposed to be a designated “de-escalation zone,” Martin Chulov and Kareem Shaheen report at the Guardian.

Air strikes today hit the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus, killing 16 people, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Reuters reports.

The U.N. today called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Syria of at least one month in light of reports of heavy bombardment and civilian casualties in rebel-held areas, including Idlib and Eastern Ghouta. Tom Perry reports at Reuters.

The attacks on Sunday included a chlorine gas attack on the town of Saraqeb in Idlib which wounded more than a dozen people. Idlib remains the last opposition stronghold in the country, Raja Abdulrahim reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“We cannot hope to end the use of chemical weapons if those who use them escape the consequences of their action,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said at the Security Council yesterday, accusing Russia of shielding Assad from accountability for recent chlorine gas attacks and calling for an independent mechanism to determine responsibility for chemical attacks in Syria. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The Russian ambassador to the U.N. Vassily Nebenzia accused Haley of “artificially heating up” the chemical weapons issue, James Bays reports at Al Jazeera.

“Strict measures need to be taken to put an immediate end to the war crimes and genocide Russia is committing in Syria,” the opposition Syrian National Coalition (S.N.C.) said yesterday, adding that there should be a U.N. Security Council resolution to ensure that the perpetrators of war crimes, including chemical weapons-use, be held accountable. Mohammed Tawfeeq, Tamara Qiblawi and Mary Ilyushina report at CNN.

The “obligation to enact a meaningful response” to the use of chemical weapons “will be further intensified” once the reports by the Fact Finding Mission are published, the U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu said yesterday. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Syrian government forces has set up new air defenses and anti-aircraft missiles to the frontlines of Aleppo and Idlib provinces as a “message to everyone,” a commander in the Syrian army said yesterday. Reuters reports.

A Turkish soldier was killed in a rocket and mortar attack in northwest Syria when trying to set up a military post in Idlib aimed at overseeing the “de-escalation zone,” the Turkish military did not specify which militants were behind the attack. Daren Butler and Orhan Coskun report at Reuters.

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’s personal lawyers have warned the president against speaking with special counsel Robert Mueller in a wide-ranging interview on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and potential obstruction justice, with Trump’s lawyers expressing concern that he could be charged with lying to investigators if he makes false statements or contradicts himself, and his lawyers also believe that Mueller does not have the legal standing to question the president on certain matters he is investigating. The consequences of Trump rejecting an interview with Mueller could open the possibility of Mueller subpoenaing the president to appear for a grand jury, which could then lead to a court battle. Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

The former White house strategist Stephen Bannon will not testify before the House Intelligence Committee today, according to two sources, despite the fact that he has been subpoenaed to appear before the panel to testify as part of the its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Bannon’s failure to appear could lead to a charge of contempt of Congress, Reuters reports.

The House Intelligence Committee yesterday voted unanimously to release the Democrats’ 10-page classified memo rebutting some of the claims made in the Republican-authored memo which was released last week. The Republican memo, which was drafted by the panel’s chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), cast doubts on the early stages of the Russia investigation and claims that the F.B.I. and Justice Department misused their authority when obtaining a warrant to conduct surveillance on the former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, Byron Tau and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

The president has four days to review the request release the Democrat-authored memo, the Republican-authored memo claimed that the F.B.I. partly relied on research compiled by the former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele in its application for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.) warrant on Page and that F.B.I. agents did not disclose that Steele’s research was financed by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee (D.N.C.). The Democrat memo highlights that the F.B.I. mentioned potential political bias in the F.I.S.A. application and say that the Republican-authored memo constitutes part of efforts to discredit the Russia investigations, Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

The New York Times yesterday called on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to disclose information in the F.I.S.A. application to surveil Page, arguing that President Trump “lowered the shield of secrecy surrounding such materials on Friday by declassifying the Republican memo about Mr. Page.” Charlie Savage and Adam Goldman report at the New York Times.

A profile of Carter Page, his relevance to the Russia investigation, and an explanation of the controversy surrounding his surveillance, is provided by Ken Dilanian and Mike Memoli at NBC News.

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) yesterday released their referral for a criminal investigation into Steele, which was sent last month, they also asked the Justice Department and the F.B.I. to declassify more information related to their Steele request yesterday. Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

Grassley and Graham’s heavily redacted referral alleges that Steele lied to federal agents or the Justice Department knowingly or mistakenly permitted “materially false statements” to appear in classified records, the letter does not specify which classified records it is referring to, but it may relate to information provided by Steele that the Justice Department included in its application to surveil Page. Del Quentin Wilber and Byron Tau report at the Wall Street Journal.

Nunes claimed yesterday evening that there was a “clear link” between the Democrats and Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign, accusing the Democrats of hypocrisy and adding that their links to the Steele dossier meant that a “counterintelligence investigation should have been opened up against the Hillary campaign when they got a hold of the dossier.” Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

Steele should not be forced to give evidence in a U.S. libel case pursued by Russian businessman Aleksej Gubarev against the BuzzFeed website, as doing so could put his sources at risk and harm U.K. national security, his lawyer said yesterday. Mark Hosenball and Michael Holden report at Reuters.

Grassley’s referral raises more questions about the Steele dossier and the F.B.I. application to surveil Page, including a revelation that Clinton campaign associates “fed Mr. Steele information apart from the dossier,” the entire referral letter should be declassified to allow Americans to get the “complete F.I.S.A.-Steele story.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

The Nunes memo was underwhelming, but its release has potential implications for intelligence and counterintelligence issues. Just Security Guest Author John Sipher explains the significance of the memo calling Steele a “source” at POLITICO Magazine; highlights that the memo does not reflect on the content of the Steele dossier; and argues that whether or not Steele was an F.B.I. source, “the memo gives the impression that the U.S. Congress and White House were willing to smear those who take risks to give us information for political gain.”

NORTH KOREA

The U.S. disarmament ambassador today warned that North Korea “may now be only months away from the capability to strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles,” Stephanie Nebehay reports at Reuters.

“I think we’ll just see,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in response to a question about the possibility that U.S. and North Korean officials would have direct contact at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, later this week. Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

China’s senior foreign policy adviser will meet with Tillerson later this week amid concerns over increasing tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, according to a statement released by the Chinese state Xinhua News Agency yesterday. The AP reports.

A North Korean 140-member arts troupe was cleared to travel to South Korea this week via ferry to participate in the Winter Olympics, as the ban on North Korean ships entering the South’s waters was temporarily lifted, officials said yesterday. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

More than 100 crew members and relatives are suing North Korea under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act for seizing the U.S. spy ship, the U.S.S. Pueblo, more than 50 years ago. James Griffiths reports at CNN.

Vice President Mike Pence’s attendance at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics has the potential to damage intra-Korean relations, Pence has criticized North Korea’s participation as a “charade” and Pence will be attending the ceremony with the father of Otto Warmbier – the American student who was detained in North Korea and died shortly after his release. Bryan Harris explains at the Financial Times.

NUCLEAR WEAPONS POLICY

The U.S. and Russia have both said they have fulfilled their commitments under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (or New START), which limits the two countries to no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, and yesterday was the deadline for meeting the limits. Felicia Schwartz and Michael R. Gordon report at the Wall Street Journal.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has changed his position on the U.S. nuclear arsenal, he was previously skeptical about aspects of the program but has now offered full-throated support for current and planned nuclear capabilities. Paul Sonne describes the evolution of Mattis’s view at the Washington Post.

The Trump administration’s nuclear policy takes us back to the Cold War, the Nuclear Posture Review (N.P.R.) released last week reveals a view of the world that is “far from a consensus” and marks a significant departure from Obama administration policy. Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

An Israeli Rabbi was stabbed to death outside a West Bank settlement yesterday, the Israeli security forces said that it was a terrorist attack and have identified a Palestinian man as the attacker. The BBC reports.

“Negative trends on the ground have the potential to create an irreversible one-state reality,” the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said yesterday, reiterating his commitment to a two-State solution and noting that the “illegal” expansion of settlements in the West Bank constitutes “a major obstacle to peace.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

Pope Francis and the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan both expressed their objection to the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital at a meeting yesterday, the Vatican said that the meeting highlighted the need for “dialogue and negotiation, and with respect for human rights and international law.” Francis X. Rocca reports at the Wall Street Journal.

GUANTÁNAMO

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis dismissed the Guantánamo war court overseer Harvey Rishikof yesterday, the decision has no impact on ongoing proceedings, however it was not immediately known why Mattis fired the top official. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

A feature on the lawyer representing the Saudi man Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in the U.S.S. Cole case at Guantánamo, and the lawyer’s lack of experience, is provided by Dave Philipps at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A draft report by the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) from late last month called for continuous evaluations of Sunni Muslim immigrants, the report identifies Sunni Muslim residents as being potentially “vulnerable to terrorist narratives.” George Joseph reports at Foreign Policy.

The concerns about returning Islamic State fighters to the U.S. have been overstated, according to a study conducted at George Washington University, which notes that the returns have been limited. Robert Windrem reports at NBC News.

Two key Iranian-backed Iraqi militia groups have called on all U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq, with a spokesperson for one of the organizations stating that “U.S. presence will be cause for international polarization and a magnet for terrorists.” Reuters 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