The Early Edition: February 8, 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 U.S.-led coalition carried out air and artillery strikes against pro-Syrian government forces yesterday in response to an “unprovoked attack” on the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) near the Euphrates River de-confliction line in Khusham, the coalition said in a statement, adding that the action was taken in self-defense. Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne report at CNN.

The U.S.-led coalition killed over 100 pro-Syrian government troops after around 500 soldiers launched an apparent “coordinated attack” on the S.D.F. headquarters in Khusham, U.S. military officials said yesterday. Jacqueline Klimas reports at POLITICO.

Some U.S. forces were co-located with the S.D.F. at the site in Khusham, however none were injured in the attack carried out by forces supportive of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. One U.S. official said that the pro-government forces may have been trying to seize the Khusham oil fields, the BBC reports.

The U.S.-led coalition attack was the third known strike on pro-Assad forces since the beginning of the Syrian conflict to defend the S.D.F. or coalition personnel, Nancy A. Youssef reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. military has around 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria, mostly operating to support the Kurdish dominated S.D.F., which have been key partners in the fight against Islamic State group, and yesterday’s attack comes as the U.S. seeks to conclude its campaign against the militants in Syria and Iraq. Missy Ryan and Karen DeYoung report at the Washington Post.

The U.S. strike on pro-Assad forces was “beyond all doubt” an act of aggression, Russian Member of Parliament Franz Klintsevich was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. Reuters reports.

Syrian government and Russian forces continued their air campaign on rebel-held areas, at least 34 civilians were killed in the Eastern Ghouta enclave near the capital Damascus yesterday and four were killed in the Idlib province, bringing the total death toll to at least 180 since the intensified campaign began four days ago. Al Jazeera reports.

Syrian government airstrikes on Eastern Ghouta killed 21 people today, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Reuters reports.

Senior U.S. military officers visited the northern Syrian city of Manbij yesterday, marking the first visit since the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to attack the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia-dominated city, where the U.S. has troops on the ground. Rod Nordland reports on his travels to northern Syria with U.S. generals at the New York Times and gives an overview of the possibility of a direct conflict between the U.S.-backed Y.P.G. and Turkish forces, as Turkey deems the Y.P.G. to be an extension of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) and began an offensive against the Y.P.G. on Jan. 20.

Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, a commander in the coalition fighting the Islamic State group, yesterday expressed concern about a “miscalculation” on the Manbij frontline, but stated that the U.S. and Syrian Kurdish forces were needed in the town to stop Islamic State militants from going back into Turkey and into Europe. Nick Paton Walsh and Ghazi Balkiz report at CNN.

The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu discussed the war in Syria yesterday, the Iranian state-run I.R.N.A. news agency quoted Rouhani as reiterating the importance of relations between Iran, Turkey and Russia in regional affairs and urged “further consultation and cooperation” to resolve the conflict. The AP reports.

The Syrian battleground is crowded and has the potential to expand to a wider conflict, the U.S. must start working to “untangle this mess” by engaging in diplomatic efforts with Turkey. David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post.

Western diplomats must stand up to Erdoğan as he carries out “Operation Olive Branch” against the Syrian Kurds, the European Union must take a hard stance against the Turkish president and the question of whether Turkey belongs in N.A.T.O. must be reopened in a serious way. Bernard-Henri Lévy writes at the Wall Street Journal.

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

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un oversaw a military parade in Pyongyang today ahead of tomorrow’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Kim addressed the crowd and vowed “as long as imperialism … and U.S.’s hostile policy against North Korea continues, the mission of the Korea People’s Army to be the strong sword that protects the country and people, and peace can never change.” Joshua Berlinger and Will Ripley report at CNN.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in plans to meet with Kim’s sister Kim Yo-jong and other senior North Korean officials when they visit for the Winter Olympics, a spokesperson for Moon said yesterday. Moon has been trying to use the Games as an opportunity to pursue diplomacy with North Korea, Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the AP.

Vice President Mike Pence will also be attending the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, he did not rule out talks between U.S. and North Korean officials in comments earlier this week and U.S. officials have said any meeting involving Pence would have to be with an appropriately high-ranking North Korean – which raises the possibility of a meeting with Kim Yo-jong. Jonathan Cheng and Andrew Jeong report at the Wall Street Journal.

“We have never begged for dialogue with the U.S. and [it] will be the same in the future,” a North Korean foreign ministry official said today, saying that North Korea “don’t have a willingness” to meet with the U.S. delegation. John Bowden reports at the Hill.

“Our forces are ready and our nation is resolved,” Pence said when addressing U.S. troops at an air base in Japan today, reiterating that the U.S. “will always seek peace” but that the countries’ adversaries should know that “all options are on the table.” Reuters reports.

The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi today expressed hope that the intra-Korean talks would keep up their momentum and that this would gradually open the door to peace. Reuters reports.

Pence’s announcement of more tough sanctions against North Korea, and his harsh rhetoric, has attempted to focus allies’ attention on the threat posed by the Pyongyang regime and has tempered growing intra-Korean relations. Zeke Miller explains at the AP.

Pence’s five-day trip to Japan and South Korea this week demonstrates that he “intends to be the administration’s one-man ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against North Korea,” Ashley Parker explains at the Washington Post.

South Korea has been flexible with international sanctions on North Korea in order to foster an Olympic spirit. Kim Tong-Hyung and Youkyung Lee explain at the AP.

The changing relationship between the two Koreas has been reflected in their approach to international sporting events over the years, Choe Sang-Hun explains at the New York Times.

The Winter Olympics offers a rare opportunity for real diplomatic progress, there has been a lot of skepticism and fatalism about the prospects of de-escalation and peace, however Moon has shown that it is possible to reason with Kim and the international community must explore how to sustain the momentum created by the improved intra-Korean relations. John Delury writes at the Financial Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The White House chief of staff John Kelly has given White House lawyers until the end of today to recommend whether Trump should release a classified 10-age Democratic memo that rebuts allegations made in a previous Republican-authored memo released last week, which cast doubt on the early stages of the Russia investigation and claimed that the F.B.I. and Justice Department misused their authority when obtaining a surveillance warrant against former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Neither former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon nor former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski have articulated “legitimate grounds for refusing to appear and answer questions before Congress” in relation to the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (Calif.) said in a statement yesterday. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

 “We saw a targeting of 21 states [by Russia] and an exceptionally small number of them were actually successfully penetrated,” the head of cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security, Jeanette Manfra, said of the voter registration rolls prior to the 2016 election. Cynthia McFadden, William M. Arkin and Kevin Monahan report at NBC News.

President Obama sought information from the F.B.I. on Russian election interference. Associates of F.B.I. agent Peter Strzok and F.B.I. lawyer Lisa Page made the claim about the former president’s interest based on a text message between the two F.B.I. employees, which was released by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) yesterday. Del Quentin Wilber reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Russia meddled in the 2016 election and that is “dangerous for our democracy,” former president George W. Bush said today. Reuters reports.

U.S. sanctions against Russia for interference in the 2016 election has complicated foreign policy and may the mean the U.S. has to sanction some of its closest allies. Nicole Gaouette reports at CNN.

Justice Department official David Laufman stepped down this week, he helped oversee the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and the investigation into Russian interference. Ellen Nakashima reports at the Washington Post.

IRAN

“There is no link between the [nuclear] deal and our role in the region,” the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said today, and gave no indication of willingness to discuss Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional influence. Parisa Hafezi and John Irish report at Reuters.

The White House signaled a willingness to engage in a potential prisoner swap when it secretly reached out to Iran in December, Iran did not respond to the proposal and has, to date, refused to engage with U.S. officials, according to sources with knowledge of the matter. Farnaz Fassihi and Felicia Schwartz report at the Wall Street Journal.

AFGHANISTAN

Joint U.S.-Afghan airstrikes have killed 25 militants, an Afghan provincial police chief said today, Amir Shah and Kathy Gannon report at the AP.

A fierce battle between Afghan government forces and the Taliban in the Ghazni province has led to the deaths of four children, an Afghan official said today, adding that the government was investigating. The AP reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has scaled back expectations of his planned restructure of the State Department. More limited reforms could mitigate some concerns within the department about the impact of the redesign on U.S. diplomacy, Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO.

Al-Qaeda poses a greater threat than the Islamic State group in several regions, a panel of U.N. experts have said in a report, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Top intelligence officials are scheduled to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee next week for a hearing intended to examine threats to U.S. national security, the officials include F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

The International Criminal Court has begun a preliminary investigation into allegations of crimes against humanity committed by the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during his anti-drugs crackdown. Hannah Ellis-Petersen reports at the Guardian.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has acted as a check on President Trump, he has influence across government and has been one of the most consequential members of Trump’s foreign policy team. Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan observe at the Washington Post. 

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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