The Early Edition: February 14, 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 Pentagon believes that Russian contractors were among those killed in a U.S. airstrike on Feb. 7 near the city of Deir al-Zour in Syria, the U.S. claimed that the strike was in response to an unprovoked attack by pro-Syrian government forces on a U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) position, where U.S. personnel are also embedded. Nancy A. Youssef and Thomas Grove report at the Wall Street Journal.

Many details of the fighting last week remain unclear, a Syrian military officer said that around 100 pro-Syrian government soldiers were killed by the U.S. airstrike and the Kremlin has played down the incident, emphasizing since last Wednesday that Russians fighting alongside Syrians were mercenaries and that no Russian armed forces members were killed. Ivan Nechepurenko, Neil MacFarquhar and Thomas Gibbons-Neff report at the New York Times.

“It’s not as simple … to sort out exactly who everyone is down there,” the head of Air Forces Central Command Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian told reporters yesterday, adding that the U.S. and Russia have daily conversations about “deconfliction” in Syria. Anton Troianovski and Andrew Roth report at the Washington Post.

A U.S. drone destroyed a Russian-made tank in Syria over the weekend, Harrigian said yesterday, adding that U.S. forces were acting in self-defense in response to an engagement by the tank and three people were killed. Harrigian refused to say whether those operating the tank were Russians, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The strike on the Russian-made tank marks the second defensive strike against pro-Syrian government forces in less than a week, though Defense Secretary Jim Mattis played down the incident, saying that he does not want to “dignify it as a big attack.” Phil Stewart reports at Reuters.

“Our ally’s decision to give financial support to the [Syrian Kurdish] Y.P.G. [militia] … will surely affect the decisions we will take,” the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan told members of his ruling A.K. Party yesterday, referring to the U.S. support for the Y.P.G. and also making the comments ahead of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Turkey this week. Ercan Gurses and Daren Butler report at Reuters.

France “will strike the place where these [chemical weapons] launches are made or where they are organized” if it is found that the Syrian government has been using them against civilians, the French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters yesterday, there have been numerous reports of suspected chlorine attacks since the beginning of the year. The BBC reports.

“It’s time to take real action and not just talk about red lines,” a spokesperson for Syria’s rescue workers, known as the “White Helmets,” said in response to Macron’s comments, emphasizing that the focus should be on pushing for a ceasefire. John Irish reports at Reuters.

“What we would like to see is an immediate ceasefire – and I think that’s very possible,” the U.N.’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, Ramesh Rajasingham, said yesterday, adding that the U.N. has been engaging on all fronts to push for this to happen. Tom Miles and Marina Depetris report at Reuters.

European countries have expressed reluctance about taking responsibility for European Islamic State militants captured by the U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Iraq, Mattis yesterday called for them to take responsibility and noted that “doing nothing is not an option.” The reticence of European nations is partly due to potential difficulties prosecuting the returnees and, in relation to the two recently captured U.K. prisoners, the U.S. State Department’s under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs Steve Goldstein said that using the Guantánamo Bay detention center “remains an option.” Stacy Meichtry and Julian E. Barnes report at the Wall Street Journal.

New fronts have opened up in Syria following an exceptional set of circumstances over the past week, which has seen various countries deepening their involvement in the conflict and a number of jets and drones being downed – including the downing of a Russian jet by al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels, Y.P.G. fighters downing a Turkish helicopter, Israel downing an Iranian drone, and Syrian government forces shooting down an Israeli jet fighter. This has been taking place as the Syrian government and its allies have stepped up their campaign to try and retake rebel-held areas of the country, Zeina Karam explains at the AP.

The Syria-Israel-Lebanon front is the most dangerous war zone in the world, the proliferation of forces and proxies on the ground, and the recent developments means that it is a “powder keg,” however no one wants to “own” the war in Syria due to previous experiences in the region, and thereby the parties seek to avoid responsibility for “fixing” the situation. Thomas L. Friedman writes at the New York Times.   

The extent of the damage to the Syrian city of Raqqa should offer lessons to the U.S.: that the U.S. were resolved in annihilating the Islamic State militants and adversaries should be “warier of picking a fight;” that a group like the Islamic State should never be able to take control of an urban center as it means they can only be rooted out “at great human cost;” and that the parties to a conflict should be “careful about destroying the ruling order, anywhere, without knowing what will come next.” David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post.

The Turkish offensive against the Y.P.G. in northern Syria raises the possibility of a direct confrontation between the U.S. and Turkey, Erdoğan has threatened to extend the offensive to the city of Manbij where the U.S. has troops on the ground. The U.S. should clearly communicate to Turkey that it has been acting irresponsibly – not only in Syria but also on a number of issues that relate to U.S.-Turkey relations, the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Eric Edelman, and the former national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, Jake Sullivan, write at POLITICO Magazine.

The clashes between Israel and Iran via Syria at the weekend should not be exaggerated as they do not constitute “a watershed moment that will alter the strategic balance in the Middle East.” Amos Yadlin and Ari Heistein write at Foreign Policy.

The ability of Iran to capitalize on its support for Assad faces obstacles, regime officials have been more enthusiastic about attracting business from Russia and China due to concerns about Iran’s ambitions to increase its influence in the country, and some Iranian officials fear that Russia may be limiting Iranian investments. Erika Solomon and Najmeh Bozorgmehr report at the Financial 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]

RUSSIAN ELECTION INTERFERENCE

“We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople and other means of influence,” the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday, warning about Russian interference in the upcoming U.S. midterm elections. Matthew Rosenberg, Charlie Savage and Michael Wines report at the New York Times.

The President has not specifically directed the F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray to stop Russian efforts to meddle in the midterm elections, Wray said in response to a question by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) during testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

It would be useful if the U.S. intelligence “blew the whistle publicly on Mr. Putin’s bots and trolls in real time,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

Trump has consistently characterized the claims of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections as a “hoax,” however for his intelligence agencies the threat posed by Russia is real and their warnings issue a challenges to Trump’s agenda. Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

AFGHANISTAN

“Our preference is to solve the Afghan issue through peaceful dialogue,” a statement by the Taliban said today, but did not mention the recent spate of attacks carried out by the militants and added that their call for dialogue did not mean “that we are exhausted or our will has been sapped.” Reuters reports.

“The overall situation in Afghanistan probably will deteriorate modestly this year,” according to a U.S. intelligence assessment released yesterday, noting the impact of political instability, the ongoing Taliban-led insurgency and flaws in Afghan security forces operations and a lack of financial stability. Michael R. Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The deputy commander of the Pakistani Taliban, Khan Sayed, was killed by a U.S. drone in Afghanistan last week, the Pakistani Taliban confirmed, Sayed was thought to be close to the militant Haqqani network. Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud and Ismail Khan report at the New York Times.

TILLERSON MIDDLE EAST TRIP

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to sign a memorandum of understanding with Jordan today to secure five more years of U.S. financial assistance, in spite of threats by the Trump administration that it would withhold support for those countries who opposed the U.S. position on recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Reuters reports.

Tillerson attended a conference on Iraq reconstruction in Kuwait yesterday, a statement released by Iraq’s minister of planning, Salma Al-Jameeli, said that $88.2bn would be needed to rebuild the country following the defeat of the Islamic State militants.  Mohammed Tawfeeq, Tamara Qiblawi and Hamdi Alkhshali report at CNN.

Donation pledges at the Kuwait conference fell far short of what Iraq has asked for, the U.S. offered no financial support, though the State Department emphasized that it had already offered $7.7bn in funds since 2014. Margaret Coker and Gardiner Harris report at the New York Times.

Tillerson may be forced to grovel when he visits Turkey this week, the diverging U.S. and Turkey interests in Syria, and the Trump administration’s policies in the Middle East, complicates Tillerson’s position and undermines his stated aims in the region: to stabilize the region and defeat the Islamic State group. Simon Tisdall writes at the Guardian.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister’s charm offensive has not managed to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea, the South Korean President Moon Jae-in was rightfully cautious about accepting the North’s invitation for a visit, and the Trump administration has successfully coordinated with other countries and increased pressure on the Pyongyang regime. Walter Russell Mead writes at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that the U.S.’s alliances remain united and the Winter Olympics are a reminder that the White House should continue coordinating policies with Moon.

The possibility for serious dialogue on North Korean denuclearization have increased since the Winter Olympics opening ceremony, much of this would depend on developments in intra-Korean talks and North Korea can demonstrate its seriousness by releasing American citizens detained in North Korea or announce a pause in nuclear and missiles testing. The New York Times editorial board writes.

GUANTÁNAMO BAY

The Pentagon has requested $69m to replace the “maximum-security detention facility” at Guantánamo Bay, 15 former C.I.A. captives are kept at the facility. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

The drafting of warrants to seize two civilian defense attorneys who quit the U.S.S. Cole terrorism case have been ordered by the judge presiding over the case, the two lawyers quit in October due to an ethics issue. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

“The quicker we get the Democrat memo out, the better,” the House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said yesterday, referring to a memo written by Democrats on the committee which rebuts claims made in a Republican-authored memo, drafted by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), that casts doubt on the early stages of the Russia investigation and alleges 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. Josh Delk reports at the Hill.

“All I can say is we’re trying to get it out as soon as possible,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said about the memo yesterday, saying that he was still working with the F.B.I. to determine which sections of the document should be redacted. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

The Democrat memo should be approved for release if the Republicans really believe in transparency, the Washington Post editorial board writes.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was denied a request to lift a British arrest warrant yesterday, Assange’s lawyers argued that the warrant no longer served the public interest and that he was justified in seeking refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy due to fears of being extradited to the U.S. to face possible charges for releasing highly classified U.S. documents. Karla Adam and William Booth report at the Washington Post.

The U.S. has been taking steps to put Pakistan on a global terrorist-financing watch-list, according a senior Pakistani official, which comes amid threats by the U.S. that it would take a tougher stance to Pakistan over its alleged ties with Islamist militants. Drazen Jorgic and Asif Shahzad report at Reuters.

“A political solution in Libya remains out of reach in the near future,” a U.N. panel of experts said yesterday, noting the instability and chaos across the country. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone will be nominated by Trump to lead the National Security Agency (N.S.A.), an administration official said yesterday, Morgan Chalfant reporting at the Hill. 

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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