The Early Edition: February 7, 2018

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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 government and Russia have stepped up their air campaign against rebel-held strongholds in Syria, at least 80 people were killed yesterday in strikes on the Eastern Ghouta enclave near the capital Damascus, at least six were killed in the northern province of Idlib, and hospital and clinics have been damaged in the past week. Anne Barnard reports at the New York Times.

The U.N. called for an immediate ceasefire yesterday to enable the delivery of aid, warning of the “dire consequences” of the humanitarian crisis and the impact on civilians. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The U.N. described the situation in Syria as “extreme” and one that it hadn’t seen before at any point during the war, with the U.N. assistant secretary general and humanitarian coordinator in Syria, Panos Moumtzis, saying that the organization can “no longer stay silent.” Moumtzis also noted that the “de-escalation zones” across the country – including Idlib province – have, in reality, been “serious escalation areas,” Martin Chulov reports at the Guardian.

At least 23 civilians were killed in Eastern Ghouta today, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Reuters reports.

The beginning of 2018 has been one of the most violent periods in the seven-year conflict, hundreds have been killed in airstrikes, almost 300,000 have been displaced in northwestern Syria and 400,000 are at risk of starvation in Eastern Ghouta, with Moumtzis saying that the situation is at a “really critical stage” and the humanitarian situation has “dramatically deteriorated.” Liz Sly reports at the Washington Post.

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on the human rights situation in Syria said yesterday that it would investigate the “multiple reports” of recent chlorine gas attacks on the town of Saraqeb in Idlib and in Douma in Eastern Ghouta, Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. fighters have started to leave the operation to defeat the Islamic State group to focus on countering the Turkish operation against them in the northern Afrin region, the U.S. had warned that the Turkish offensive against the Y.P.G. – whom Turkey believe to be an extension of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) – would be a distraction from defeating the Islamic State militants. The Y.P.G. form part of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.), on whom the U.S. relies to shore up security in key areas of the country, including the liberated city of Raqqa, Nancy A. Youssef reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“We have to mend our trust,” the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said yesterday of the Turkish relationship with the U.S. and the strained ties since the offensive on the Y.P.G., stating that he would relay this message to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he visits in the near future. Reuters reports.

Syrian Kurdish militants have been firing rockets at Turkish border towns in retaliation for the Afrin offensive, demonstrating how the Syrian war has drawn Turkey deeper into the conflict. Laura Pitel reports at the Financial Times.

“We wish that Turkey’s operation in Syria will end at the earliest time,” the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said yesterday, calling on Turkey to stop its operation on Afrin and said that his government believes “a military foreign intervention should be based on the authorization of the host country and its people.” Al Jazeera reports.

The French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian today accused Iran and Turkey of violating international law in Syria and demanded all Iranian-backed militia withdraw from the country, he did not specially call for Turkey to pull back from its operation in Afrin, but added that Turkey “should not add war to war.” John Irish and Sophie Louet report at Reuters.

Israeli war planes fired rockets at a Syrian army position near Damascus today, according to the Syrian army, adding that the “general command of the armed forces holds Israel fully responsible for the dangerous consequences for its repeated, aggressive and uncalculated adventures.” Reuters reports.

Russia’s conference for Syrian peace at the end of last month failed to deliver its goals and “proved a debacle,” the Kurds did not attend the conference due to Turkey’s Afrin offensive, the main Syrian opposition boycotted the talks and the Russians were unclear about the relevance of their Congress to the U.N.-led Geneva process. Neil Hauer writes at Foreign Policy, arguing that the outcome of the conference is a recognition that “Moscow is singularly ill-equipped to resolve Syria’s deep-seated conflicts and force all its players to the table.”

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]

NORTH KOREA

The U.S. will soon announce the “toughest and most aggressive round of economics sanctions on North Korea ever,” Vice President Mike Pence said today during his visit to Japan, adding that the U.S. would continue to isolate North Korea “until it abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile programs once and for all.” Pence also did not rule out a potential meeting with North Korean officials, Zeke Miller reports at the AP.

The sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea on Friday, Kim Yo-jong is said to be very close to her brother and was promoted to North Korea’s Politburo last year. James Griffiths and Sophie Jeong report at CNN.

“A limited pre-emptive strike on the D.P.R.K. is under consideration within the U.S. administration,” North Korean diplomat Ju Yong-chol said yesterday during disarmament talks, using the official acronym for the country, and accusing the U.S. of searching for justifications for a strike in a similar way to its statements in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war. Al Jazeera reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The House Intelligence Committee’s interview with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has been postponed until next week, Bannon was scheduled to testify before the panel yesterday as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, with some members expressing frustration with Bannon’s failure to comply with a subpoena to testify before the committee. Louis Nelson reports at POLITICO.

“Should Bannon maintain his refusal to return and testify fully to all questions, the committee should begin contempt proceedings to compel his testimony,” the top Democrat on the panel Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) said yesterday, adding that Bannon’s attorney informed them that Bannon would not testify beyond 14 pre-approved yes-or-no questions. Patricia Zengerle reports at Reuters.

It would be “very difficult to pre-empt” a Russian attempt to influence the U.S. midterm elections, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday, warning Russia that if it does not stop, it would “continue to invite consequences.” Alex Johnson reports at NBC News.

The House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif) declined to explain his next steps in his investigation into the F.B.I. and Justice Department during a committee meeting on Monday, Nunes drafted a controversial memo that was released last week that alleged the F.B.I. and Justice Department misused their authority when obtaining a surveillance warrant against the former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. Betsy Woodruff and Spencer Ackerman explain the significance of Nunes failure to elaborate at The Daily Beast, and give an overview of the partisan tensions and its relevance to the Russia investigations.

An analysis of the risks should Trump decide to give an interview to special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Trump-Russia ties and whether the president obstructed justice, is provided by Danny Cevallos at NBC News.

The former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele has proven to be a key figure in the Russia investigations, Steele was commissioned by the firm Fusion G.P.S. to conduct research on the Trump campaign and compiled a dossier alleging links between Trump and Russia. Steele alerted the F.B.I. about the links and his concerns in October 2016. Tom Hamburger and Rosalind S. Helderman give an overview of his role in the investigation at the Washington Post and provide an analysis of how he is seen by “hero” by some and a “hired gun” by others.

AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. military has expanded its air campaign in Afghanistan to the northern part of the country, the military said yesterday. Its bombing campaign included the targeting of Taliban training facilities, those affiliated to the Taliban and other militant groups, Dan Lamothe reports at the Washington Post.

The war in Afghanistan will cost $45bn this year, the assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, Randall Schriver, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, and some Senators questioned the rationale behind the spending and the ability of the U.S. to force the Taliban to reach a political settlement. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

The U.S. “may consider lifting the suspension” of military assistance to Pakistan when it sees “decisive and sustained actions to address our concerns,” the Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yesterday proposed the unification of two offices at the State Department to focus on cyber issues, adding that the department “must be organized to lead diplomatic efforts related to all aspects of cyberspace.” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration has equivocated on its Libya policy, on the one hand it has said the U.S. should have no role in the country, but has also that the U.S. must fight the Islamic State militants there, meanwhile Russia has bolstered its support for Gen. Khalifa Haftar of the self-styled Libyan National Army and has further tested the U.S. approach by exercising greater influence in the country. Jo Becker and Eric Schmitt explain at the New York Times.

The U.S. relationship with Jordan is important for U.S. goals in the region, however Jordan “is literally surrounded by problems” and the U.S. must not take its alliance with the country for granted, especially while the Trump administration seeks to create a relationship with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Russian President Vladimir Putin plan to discuss a possible new mechanism for peace talks when they met in the Russian city of Sochi on Feb. 12, the Interfax news agency reported today. Reuters reports.

A Palestinian man who stabbed an Israeli security guard was shot dead yesterday, tensions in the West Bank have risen since Trump announced his decision on Dec. 6 to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Eli Berlzon reports at Reuters.

IRAQ

The U.S. has been pressuring its European N.A.T.O. allies to establish a long-term train-and-advise missions in Iraq, the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sent a letter to N.A.T.O. headquarters last month calling for a formal N.A.T.O. mission. Robin Emmott reports at Reuters.

The Iraqi army and Iran-backed Iraqi militias yesterday began an operation to destroy “sleeper cells” along a planned oil transit route to Iran, the Iraqi armed forces said in a statement, adding that it was being supported from the air by the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group and in coordination with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The introduction of at least one of two new nuclear weapons could be used as a bargaining chip with Russia, the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee yesterday, making the comments when justifying the Pentagon’s new nuclear weapons policy and saying that he wants to “make sure that our negotiators have something to negotiate with” when trying to get Russia to comply with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (I.N.F.) Treaty. Paul Sonne reports at the Washington Post.

Trump asked the Pentagon to devise plans for a military parade in a Jan. 18 meeting, officials have begun to plan a parade and Trump was inspired to make the request after attending the Bastille Day celebrations in France last year. Greg Jaffe and Philip Rucker report at the Washington Post.

Mattis rebuked Congress for failing to provide reliable funding for the military in his testimony yesterday, and the Defense Secretary should be given credit “for exposing this pathetic budget exercise,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

Qatar has engaged in considerable lobbying efforts to strengthen its relations with the U.S. amid the ongoing Gulf crisis, which began in June last year when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, U.A.E. and Bahrain decided to isolate the country due to its alleged support for terrorism and close ties to Iran. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Rhys Dubin explain at Foreign Policy. 

Filed under:
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