The Early Edition: February 13, 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 call for an immediate cessation of hostilities … has gone unanswered,” the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Syria Ali al-Za’tari said in a statement yesterday, referring to the U.N.’s call for an immediate ceasefire six days ago to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid, with Za’tari saying that the surge in violence has seen “some of the worst fighting of the entire conflict.” Reuters reports.

The clashes between Israel and Iran in Syria at the weekend set the scene for a potential showdown, Israel shot down an Iranian drone that was deployed from a Syrian airbase and incurred into Israeli territory, this was followed by the downing of an Israeli fighter jet by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, to which Israel responded by conducting airstrikes against Iranian and Syrian targets near Damascus. Iran states that its personnel at Syrian bases are there to advise the Assad government and that it does not have conventional armed forces in Syria, while Israel has warned that Iran seeks to set up permanent bases in Syria from which to attack Israel, Oliver Holmes and Saeed Kamali Dehghan report at the Guardian.

Israel faces “more surprises” if it attacks Syrian territory again, the Syrian government said today, Reuters reports.

The Syrian conflict began as an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and now risks becoming a wider regional war as various countries and proxies vie for influence, the parties to the conflict – the Syrian government forces, Russia, Turkey, the U.S., the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, Iran, Iranian-backed Syrian militias, Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah militia, Israel, the Islamic State group, the Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) rebels, and other armed opposition groups – have conflicting wider aims and conflicting interests on the battleground, creating alliances in some areas and opposing each other in different parts of the country, meanwhile Syrian civilians continue to suffer. Liz Sly and Loveday Morris report at the Washington Post.

The Syrian government today rejected U.N.-led efforts to form a committee to rewrite Syria’s constitution, Reuters reports.

The Russian, Iranian and Turkish foreign ministers plan to meet to discuss the situation in Syria in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana next month, Reuters reports.

The Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was injured in an airstrike in May 2017 near the Syrian city of Raqqa, according to several U.S. officials, the injuries were not considered life-threatening but meant that al-Baghdadi had to hand over control of the daily operations of the terrorist group. Nick Paton Walsh reports at CNN.

Israel’s warnings about Iran’s role in the Syrian conflict have not been understood by Russia and not been heeded by the Trump administration, the events of the weekend open the prospect of a wider conflict in the region and also demonstrates two key points: that Israel can no longer act in Syria without limitations and Russia is the dominant power in the region. Ronen Bergman writes at the New York Times.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 41 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between February 2 and February 8. [Central Command]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has called for a “further livening up” of the “warm climate of reconciliation” with South Korea which has been created at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The BBC reports.

Kim expressed thanks to South Korea for its “very impressive” and “sincere” efforts hosting North Korea’s delegation to the opening of the Winter Olympics, making the comments upon the return of the delegation to Pyongyang. Steve George reports at CNN.

The Trump administration has shifted in its approach to North Korea following internal discussions, moving to a position where it would “talk about talks” rather than demanding a North Korean commitment to denuclearization before any talks could take place. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments yesterday are the clearest indication of this change, stating that “we really need to have some discussions that precede any formal negotiations to determine whether the parties are in fact ready to engage in something meaningful,” Michael R. Gordon and Felicia Schwartz report at the Wall Street Journal.

“President Trump reiterated the importance of taking further steps to ensure the denuclearization of North Korea” during a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday, the White House said in a statement. Trump had said last month that Russia was “not helping up at all with North Korea,” Reuters reports.

Vice President Mike Pence said Sunday that the U.S. would be ready to talk with North Korea, signaling an apparent shift in policy, however once he returned to the U.S. from his trip to South Korea for the Games, he tweeted that “our policy regarding North Korea is unchanged.” Bryan Harris and Demetri Sevastopulo report at the Financial Times, explaining how the Trump administration has sent mixed signals about the conditions needed to engage in negotiations.

The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed that it was necessary to keep up maximum pressure on Pyongyang, Abe said today, Reuters reporting.

North Korea’s U.N. Mission called on the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to set up an international form to clarify the legality of Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Pence’s posturing at the Winter Olympics seemed to achieve little in countering the propaganda of the Pyongyang regime, however the politics that took place at Pyeongchang has the potential to lead to developments once the Games are over, including the invitation from Kim to Moon for talks, and comments by Pence that the U.S. would be open to talks without preconditions. Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

“We state that from now on we refuse to cooperate in any form with the U.S. in its status of a mediator, as we stand against its actions,” the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas told Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday, according to the Interfax news agency. Reuters reports.

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday that Israeli has been “maintaining a dialogue with the Americans” for some time about “the issue of expanding Israeli sovereignty” to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, an Israeli official said that Netanyahu had not presented the U.S. “with any specific annexation proposal.” Chaim Levinson and Noa Landau report at Haaretz.

“Reports that the United State discussed with Israel an annexation plan for the West Bank are false,” the White House spokesperson Josh Raffel said yesterday, adding that the U.S. and Israel have “never discussed such a proposal,” in response to the reports, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) Saeb Erekat said in a statement that it was “confirmation that final status issues are being unilaterally decided upon by Israel in coordination with the U.S. administration.” Al Jazeera reports.

The Trump administration has shown that it cannot be an honest broker in the Middle East peace process, Trump has shown that he has no interest in listening to or engaging with the Palestinians and he has given Netanyahu “veto power over the two-state solution,” the U.S. should give way for other parties to become mediators. Saeb Erekat writes at the New York Times.

The Gaza Strip is on the brink of collapse, attempts by Abbas to force Hamas to give the Palestinian Authority control of Gaza have failed to produce results despite an agreement reached in October. Hamas should never be defended, but the two million civilians in Gaza are suffering as a consequence of the Israeli blockade and ways must be found to meet their immediate needs, the New York Times editorial board writes.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been coordinating on security, including intelligence-sharing, riot control and official de-confliction mechanisms, the partnership has been working well however it has the potential to be disrupted or undermined by Trump and his threats to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority. Neri Zilber and Ghaith al-Omari report at The Daily Beast.

TILLERSON MIDDLE EAST TRIP

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi yesterday during his tour of Middle Eastern countries, Tillerson expressed staunch support for Sisi’s recently launched counterterrorism offensive, but did not mention the repression that has taken place across the country. Declan Walsh reports at the New York Times.

Tillerson called on Egypt to hold free and fair presidential elections next month and, according to aides, expressed U.S. concerns about democracy and human rights in private. Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

“The end of major combat operations does not mean we have achieved the enduring defeat of I.S.I.S.,” Tillerson said at a meeting of anti-Islamic State group coalition members in Kuwait today, using an acronym for the group and warning that the coalition must keep focused on the threat. Matthew Lee reports at the AP.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

A former senior F.B.I. official has been hired by BuzzFeed News to verify parts of the dossier compiled by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele, the dossier alleged connections between Trump and Russians and some of Steele’s memos were published by BuzzFeed. The investigation by the former F.B.I. official on behalf of F.T.I. consulting could have potential implications for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Jana Winter reports at Foreign Policy.

A resolution was introduced by three Democratic senators yesterday to pressure Trump to implement a bipartisan Russia sanctions bill, the Trump administration decided last month not to use its authority to impose new sanctions last month. Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

An explanation of key questions raised by the Russia investigation and a potential finding that President Trump obstructed justice is provided by the New York Times.

It is probably for the best that an interview between Trump and Mueller not take place, Mueller should be reluctant to subpoena Trump to testify before a grand jury when the president declines to sit for a voluntary interview. William Yeomans writes at POLITICO Magazine.

TRUMP BUDGET PROPOSAL

Trump’s budget proposal sent to Congress yesterday called for a huge increase in military spending and cuts to domestic programs, the proposal is very unlikely to be enacted. Julie Hirschfeld Davis reports at the New York Times.

The proposal includes a request for $716bn in defense spending in 2019, some of the money would be set aside to fix pressing needs and some would be intended to counter threats posed by Russia. Greg Jaffe reports at the Washington Post.

The budget proposal did not mention the closing of U.S. military bases across the world, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The proposal includes billions of dollars in cuts to foreign aid, raising debates about explicitly linking U.S. funding to support for its position at the United Nations. Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Afghan officials have been engaging in dialogue with the Taliban in spite of a wave of recent attacks carried out by the militants across the country. Kathy Gannon reports at the AP.

The British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson outlined plans for a British warship to sail through the South China Sea to make it clear “our navy has the right” to pass through the contested waters as it heads home, Williamson added that it was important that the U.S., Australia and others “assert our values” in the South China Sea. Jamie Smyth and Tom Hancock report at the Financial Times.

The U.S. carried out largescale annual joint military exercises in Southeast Asia today with service members from 29 countries, the U.S. and Thailand played down the presence of a Myanmar military officer at the drill. Myanmar’s military has been accused of human rights violations during a crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority, Jerry Harmer reports at the AP.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley yesterday denounced the violence by the Congolese government against opposition demonstrators and urged the Security Council to use pressure if necessary to ensure that presidential elections take place in the country at the end of this year. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The Bosnian Serb police is due to receive a shipment of 2,500 automatic rifles from Serbia next month, the purchase has raised concerns about the long-term stability of Bosnia and the increasing influence of Russia in the country and its support for the Serb separatist leader Milorad Dodik. Julian Borger reports at the Guardian. 

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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