The Early Edition: February 9, 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

Syrian state media yesterday denounced the U.S. military airstrike on pro-Syrian government forces as “an attempt to support terrorism,” the U.S. military stated that it carried out Wednesday’s strike in response to an “unprovoked attack” on U.S. coalition and personnel and its Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) allies near the village of Khusham, east of Deir al-Zour city. Raja Abdulrahim and Thomas Grove report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S.-led coalition strike killed around 100 pro-Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fighters, according to Col. Thomas F. Veale, who added that the coalition reported the buildup of pro-Assad forces in the area to the Russians, who offered assurances that they would not engage coalition forces near the de-confliction line in Khusham. Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

“This action was taken in self-defense,” Veale reiterated yesterday, adding that no coalition or U.S. personnel had been killed or injured, but one S.D.F. member had been wounded in what appeared to be “a coordinated attack on Syrian Democratic Forces” by around 500 pro-Assad troops. Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne report at CNN.

Russia and the Syrian government yesterday accused the U.S. strike of being an act of “aggression,” Russia called the U.S. presence in Syria “illegal” and motivated by a desire to seize Syria’s oil fields. The latest comments, and the military engagement on Wednesday, highlights the complex picture on the battlefield and raises the risk of U.S. “mission creep,” Liz Sly reports at the Washington Post.

A Pentagon official said that Russian mercenaries were also killed in the U.S. strike on pro-Assad forces, however Russia denies having personnel in the area and a coalition spokesperson Col. Ryan Dillon said that the Russians “gave us the green light” to launch strikes. The BBC reports.

The U.S.-led coalition strike was “very regrettable” and Russia will “ask them what happened,” Russia’s ambassador to the U.N. Vassily Nebenzia said yesterday, Reuters reports.

“Why they chose to initiate this attack, you’ll have to ask them,” the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said of the apparent coordinated attack on Wednesday, stating that it was “perplexing.” Reuters reports.

The U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock yesterday called for an immediate 30-day ceasefire to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid, however the U.N. Security Council took no action and Russian U.N. ambassador Nebenzia told reporters that a cease-fire was “not realistic” as “the terrorists” were continuing their attacks. The AP reports.

“The United States supports the United Nations calling for a month-long cessation of violence,” the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said yesterday, stating that the U.S. was concerned about the intensified bombing campaigns against the rebel-held areas of Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus and in Idlib province, and adding that “Russia must use its influence with Damascus to ensure the Syrian regime immediately allows the U.N. to provide vital assistance.” Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

More than 200 people have been killed by Russian and Syrian government strikes on Eastern Ghouta since an intensified campaign began earlier this week, demonstrating the failure of the ceasefire in the enclave and the violence across the country has signaled the de facto end of Russia, Turkey and Iran-brokered “de-escalation zones” in Syria. Kareem Shaheen reports at the Guardian.

Islamic State fighters have left a pocket of territory besieged by the Syrian government forces and moved to Idlib province, according the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, accusing the pro-Assad forces of opening a corridor for the militants to reach the region. Reuters reports.  

Turkey has resumed airstrikes against Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. fighters in the northern Syrian Afrin enclave, the Turkish military and state media said today. Unconfirmed reports stated that Turkey stopped its aerial bombing campaign after Russia closed the airspace over Afrin after militants shot down a Russian fighter in Idlib on Saturday, the AP reports.

Turkey’s operation in Afrin lost momentum while Russian forces restricted the airspace and the battle against Kurdish forces has proven to be difficult, however, the Turkish offensive has the potential to change the dynamics on the ground, especially if it continues on to the Kurdish-controlled city of Manbij, where the U.S. has troops on the ground. Louisa Loveluck and Zakaria Zakaria give an overview at the Washington Post.

The S.D.F. have detained two British men who are members of the Islamic State group, the men have been designated foreign terrorists by the U.S. and it is not yet clear when the U.S. would take custody of them or whether the Justice Department would prosecute them. Adam Goldman and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

The violence in Syria has escalated, highlighting the misperception that the war would wind down as progress is made to defeat the Islamic State and other insurgent groups. Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad explain the situation at the New York Times in light of a particularly bloody week in the conflict.

Wednesday’s attack complicates the Trump administration’s strategy in Syria and the aims set out by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his speech last month. Ryan Browne explains at CNN.

An explanation of the three major intersecting conflicts taking place in Syria is provided by Ben Hubbard and Jugal K. Patel at the New York Times.

The State Department has expressed alarm over report of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime over the past month, the Trump administration should match its outrage with action and must not repeat the mistakes of the Obama administration. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

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]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, has arrived in South Korea for the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics along with North Korea’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam. The BBC reports.

The opening ceremony kicked off today with the two Koreas marching under a flag of a unified Korea, Motoko Rich reports at the New York Times.

The U.N. Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against North Korea yesterday allowed certain sanctions exemptions to members of the North Korean delegation attending the Winter Olympics. Edith M. Lederer reports at AP.

There is a “good chance” that Kim Yo-jong will invite South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang, according to diplomatic sources, the invitation could be made at a scheduled lunch tomorrow, with August 15 as a potential date for the visit. Will Ripley reports at CNN.

“President Moon reaffirmed to me his strong support of our extreme pressure campaign to continue to bring additional sanctions on North Korea,” Vice President Mike Pence told reporters today. Reuters reports.

Pence has left open the possibility of an encounter with North Korean officials at the Games but has said that the U.S. has not requested a meeting, and the main purpose of his presence is to counter North Korean propaganda and focus the international community on a campaign to pressure the Pyongyang regime. Zeke Miller reports at the AP.

Pence and North Korean officials did not meet face-to-face at a reception before the opening ceremony, the AP reports.

China and the U.S. reaffirmed their commitment “to keep up pressure on North Korea’s illegal weapons and nuclear programs,” the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said yesterday, referring to Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s discussions with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during Yang’s two-day visit to Washington, which began yesterday. Reuters reports.

The military parade held by North Korea yesterday showcased what appeared to be the intercontinental ballistic missiles (I.C.B.M.) tested at the end of 2017, according to analysts. Hyonhee Shin reports at Reuters.

The U.S. and South Korea have diverged in their approaches to North Korea, the U.S. having taken a more aggressive line, while the South has sought to de-escalate tensions. The differing stances have been thrown into sharp relief in the run up to the Winter Olympics, David Nakamura explains at the Washington Post.

A feature on the South Korean attempts to encourage North Korea to participate in the Games and de-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula through “quiet diplomacy” is provided by Jane Perlez, Choe Sang-Hun and Rebecca R. Ruiz at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

A decision by the president is expected today whether to declassify a 10-page Democrat memo rebutting a Republican-authored memo, and the White House is inclined to approve the declassification, according to a source familiar with the matter. The Republican memo, drafted by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (Calif.) casts doubt on the early stages of the Russia investigation and claims that the Justice Department and F.B.I. misused their authority when obtaining a warrant to surveil former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. Rebecca Ballhaus and Byron Tau report at the Wall Street Journal.

The F.B.I. may have picked up a conversation between Page and then-Trump campaign adviser Steve Bannon while it was surveilling Page. Page testified before the House Intelligence Committee in November about his January 2017 call with Bannon, Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Nunes announced last week that he would investigate the relationship between former State Department official Jonathan M. Winer and former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who compiled a dossier alleging links between Trump and Russia. Winter gives his account of his interactions with Steele at the Washington Post.

The Senate Judiciary Committee must conduct further reviews before releasing transcripts of its interviews with Donald Trump Jr. and other key witnesses, and it may take a few weeks before they can be released, the chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a letter to Democrats on the committee yesterday. Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has started drafting a report on U.S. election system vulnerabilities, however the report is not expected to address the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential links between Trump associates and Russians. Byron Tau reports at the Wall Street Journal.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Trump said that both Israel and the Palestinians would need to compromise significantly to achieve peace in an interview with an Israeli newspaper, which will be published in full on Sunday, the president also described his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as an important promise he made and kept. J.T.A. and Haaretz report.

Negotiations for a Middle East peace process could be led by the U.N. Security Council and involve more countries beyond the “Quartet,” the Palestinian U.N. envoy Riyad Mansour said yesterday, calling for a “collective approach” that would have a “better chance of succeeding than the approach of only one country that is so close to Israel.” Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.

IRAN

“Make the [2015 Iran nuclear deal] a successful experience and then we can discuss other issues,” the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said yesterday, referring to Western powers, however it was not immediately clear whether Araqchi’s comments reflect the views of the hardliners within Iran’s governing institutions. Parisa Hafezi and John Irish report at Reuters.

An Iranian adviser to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei played down reports of a secret channel with the U.S. to discuss the release of prisoners, saying that the Trump administration’s outreach was “old news.” Thomas Erdbrink reports at the New York Times.

Trump has spoken bluntly about the Iranian threat in the Middle East and has cultivated ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia by doing so, however he has not matched his rhetoric with action as Iran has expanded its influence in Syria and Yemen and increased its support for the Shi’ite Lebanese Hezbollah militia. To move beyond symbolism, the Trump administration should perhaps make clear that “if the Russians do not act to contain further Iranian expansion in Syria, the United States will use its air power to do so.” Dennis Ross writes at Foreign Policy.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Germany and the U.S. have both offered to host two proposed N.A.T.O. commands aimed at countering Russia and as part of the response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. Robin Emmott, Andrea Shalal and Phil Stewart report at Reuters.

The Egyptian military announced a “comprehensive” operation against “terrorists and criminal elements” across the country today, including confrontations in the Sinai Peninsula, the Delta of Egypt and the desert west of the Nile Valley. Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. has no plans to announce a contribution to Iraq’s reconstruction after the defeat of the Islamic State group, a U.S. official said yesterday, with the U.S. instead encouraging private-sector investment and hoping that Iraq’s neighboring countries help with funding. Yara Bayoumy and Jonathan Landay report at Reuters.

The newly created U.S. Army 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade in Afghanistan faces a difficult task helping Afghans recover lost ground. Dan Lamothe explains at the Washington Post.

Permanent security clearances have still not been issued for dozens of White House employees, including the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. Josh Dawsey, Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett explain at the Washington Post.

The Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review recognizes the importance of the nuclear deterrent and modernizing the arsenal, justifiable concerns about President Trump should not “undercut the nuclear deterrent commanded by his successors.” Max Boot writes 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