The Early Edition: February 15, 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.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Trump agreed that there would be “no meaningful dialogue” with North Korea unless it agreed to “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” the Japanese foreign ministry said in a statement today based on a phone call between the two leaders yesterday. Reuters reports.

“Talking is not negotiation – talking is understanding one another,” Vice President Mike Pence said yesterday on the possibility of discussions with North Korea, emphasizing that talks would provide the opportunity for America to relay its position that the Pyongyang regime must completely abandon its nuclear weapons program before negotiations can take place. Roberta Rampton reports at Reuters.

“I didn’t avoid the dictator’s sister, but I did ignore her,” Pence said yesterday when discussing his trip to the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in South Korea, at which the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Kim Yo-jong, was also present. Cristiano Lima reports at POLITICO.

“It is indisputable Kim is rapidly closing the gap between rhetoric and capability,” the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee yesterday. Missy Ryan reports at the Washington Post.

“I think we must continue to improve our missile defenses … And that’s why I’m an advocate for the defense Hawaii radar system,” Adm. Harris also said yesterday, calling for increased capabilities in Hawaii, and for the T.H.A.A.D. anti-missile defense system in Guam and ballistic missile defense ships stationed around Japan. Rebecaa Kheel reports at the Hill.

A North Korean tanker was spotted around 155 miles east of Shanghai by a Japanese spy plane, which likely constitutes a violation of U.N. sanctions. Joshua Berlinger and Yoko Wakatsuki report at CNN.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s chief of staff has played a central role in the thawing North-South relations, Im Jong-seok is now being floated as a possible special envoy to North Korea to discuss the proposal for Moon to visit Pyongyang, however Im’s critics have expressed concern that he would prioritize reconciliation with the North rather than the South’s alliance with the U.S.. Hyonhee Shin explains at Reuters.

SYRIA

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called for a “renewed focus on the campaign” to defeat the Islamic State group when he met with his Turkish counterpart yesterday, the Pentagon said in a statement today, which comes as the U.S. and Turkey’s diverging interests in Syria have been brought to the forefront due to Turkey’s ongoing offensive against the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia in the northern Afrin region. Idrees Ali reports at Reuters.

The U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, described the situation in the country as the most “violent and dangerous” that he has seen in four years, he reiterated that all parties to the conflict should “de-escalate immediately and unconditionally.” De Mistura’s comments came as Syrian government forces and its allies have intensified their campaign on rebel-held areas, and at a U.N. Security Council meeting yesterday, the U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley and Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia were engaged in a back-and-forth about who bore responsibility for the failure to de-escalate the situation, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

“The last several weeks have seen a new cross-border conflict in Afrin with yet no clear end in sight,” de Mistura also said yesterday when calling for de-escalation, referring to the ongoing Turkish operation against the Syrian Kurds and noting that there have been reports of exchange of fire between Turkish and Syrian government forces, and between the U.S.-led coalition and pro-Syrian government forces. The U.N. News Centre reports.

A U.N. aid convoy was able to deliver aid to the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, near the capital Damascus, yesterday. The area has been besieged by pro-Syrian government forces and aid had not reached the enclave since late November, Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. citizen suspected of fighting for the Islamic State group in Syria and currently detained by the U.S. military sought press credentials to write about the conflict in the country and other events in the Middle East, according to court filings which were unsealed yesterday. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Reports that Russian citizens were killed in last week’s U.S.-airstrike against pro-Syrian government forces have been repeatedly played down by Russia, the interaction between Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov and reporters yesterday demonstrated the lengths to which Russia has been going to avoid discussing the incident as it casts an “unwelcome light on Russia’s shadow army in Syria.” Anton Troianovski explains at the Washington Post.

The issue of U.S.-Turkey relations has been top of the agenda this week, ties between the two countries have been strained as a consequence of the Turkish operation against the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds. U.S. policymakers are right to call for a focus on defeating the Islamic State group, however this should not be the sole objective, and the U.S. should help Turkey resolve its Turkish problem, “develop a strategy for Syrian governance and security that provides stability across the entire region,” and express concern about Turkish actions that are damaging relations, Amanda Sloat writes at Foreign Policy.

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

“Irrespective of efforts that were made in 2016 by foreign powers, it is the universal conclusion of our intelligence communities that none of those efforts had any impact on the outcome of the 2016 election,” Vice President Mike Pence said yesterday, despite the fact that the intelligence community has not made any such conclusion – as demonstrated in an unclassified assessment released in January 2017. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

“We have discussed plans going forward to ensure that meddling in our elections by Russian or other powers around the world will be rebutted,” Pence added yesterday, Reuters reports.

“I can assure you those sanctions are coming,” the Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said yesterday in response to questions about imposing sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Donna Borak and Nicole Gaouette report at CNN.

Democrats yesterday introduced legislation that would provide more than $1bn to increase cyber security of U.S. voting systems, with House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stating that “we cannot let the Russians laugh about and take joy in the success they had in the last election.” Dustin Volz reports at Reuters.

Election systems have vulnerabilities that foreign powers can exploit, the Trump administration and Congress should take four steps to improve security: issue a declaration that sets out the U.S. position on foreign interference; pass legislation to provide greater resources for cybersecurity; establish an interagency task force to combat foreign attempts to influence democratic institutions and processes; and ensuring the U.S. government has the authorities to increase efforts to deter foreign actors. The former Representative for Michigan, Mike Rogers (R), and the former deputy director of the National Security Agency, Rick Ledgett, write at the Washington Post.

President Trump continues to ignore warnings about Russian interference in American democracy, although the federal government has been taking action, the President has failed to commit to strengthening electoral defenses, the New York Times editorial board writes, asking why Trump has dismissed the concerns of the intelligence community.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The former White House strategist Stephen Bannon is expected to be interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee today, Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the panel have said they must issue contempt proceedings if Bannon continues to avoid testifying and undermine the congressional subpoena. Karoun Demirjian reports at the Washington Post.

Bannon was subpoenaed by the panel last month after he refused to answer questions relating to their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, there have been diverging views on the panel as to whether Bannon will comply with the subpoena to appear before them this week. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Republican leaders on the House Intelligence Committee have been resisting requests by Democrats for intelligence chiefs to present their annual global threat report to the panel, according to two Democratic sources speaking on the condition of anonymity. Jonathan Landay and Mark Hosenball report at Reuters.

“There is certainly an abundance of non-public information … [some] is evidence on the issue of collusion and some … on the issue of obstruction,” the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (Calif.) told reporters yesterday in relation to the panel’s investigation into Russian interference in the election, possible Trump-Russia connections, and whether the president obstructed justice. Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

White House counsel Don McGahn reconstructed the 18 days between when he was warned about former national security adviser Michael Flynn and his firing, according people familiar with the episode. The details have been handed to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team for review, Josh Dawsey, Rosalind S. Helderman and Matt Zapotosky report at the Washington Post.

Trump may have the power to fire Mueller, but he does not have the authority to fire the grand jury that Mueller’s team have been presenting evidence to, the grand jury could continue its work even if all of Mueller’s team are removed, though the decision to continue work may be contentious and the Chief Judge would have key decisions to make about how to proceed. David Yassky and Bennett L. Gershman write at POLITICO Magazine.

AFGHANISTAN

“Prolonging the war in Afghanistan and maintaining troop presence is neither beneficial for America nor for anyone else,” the Taliban said in a document issued yesterday, which the Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid confirmed was primarily aimed at a U.S. audience. The letter was issued after a recent spate of insurgent attacks in the capital of Kabul which have led to largescale civilians deaths and increased public anger, and also as the Trump administration implements its new military strategy for Afghanistan, Pamela Constable reports at the Washington Post.

A total of 10,453 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2017, according to the U.N. mission’s annual report, marking a nine percent decline on the previous years, however the U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto emphasized that “the figures alone cannot capture the appalling human suffering inflicted on ordinary people” and the report also highlighted that the number of airstrikes conducted by international military forces and the Afghan forces have intensified and airstrike-related civilian casualties have increased as a consequence. Rahim Faiez reports at the AP.

TILLERSON MIDDLE EAST TRIP

Trump’s Middle East peace plan is “fairly well-advanced,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday during a visit to Jordan, as part of his tour of the Middle East. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

Tillerson signed an agreement for nearly $1.3bn U.S. annual assistance to Jordan yesterday, despite the two countries’ diverging views on the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

GUANTÁNAMO BAY

The senior al-Qaeda member Ibrahim Suleiman Adnan Adam Harun is set to be sentenced tomorrow in the federal court system for conspiring to kill two American service members, the conviction raises questions for the Trump administration as Attorney General Jeff Sessions has criticized the federal courts for being too lenient with terrorists captured overseas, but the federal courts have proven to be far more efficient than the military tribunals at Guantánamo Bay. Ellen Nakashima and Missy Ryan report at the Washington Post.

The war court judge presiding over the U.S.S. Cole terrorism case at Guantánamo Bay has said that he hasn’t yet decided whether to have the civilian lawyers who quit the case to be arrested, saying that he was clear that he wanted “draft options.” Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The U.N. Middle East envoy Nikolay Mladenov briefed the Security Council on the situation in Gaza in a closed-door session, the Bolivian ambassador Llorentty Soliz said that Mladenov described rising unemployment, a shortage of drinking water, and hospitals being closed in the Gaza Strip and Soliz said that primary responsibility for the situation rests with Israel. The U.N. ambassador for Israel, Danny Danon, responded that the Islamist militant Hamas group, which controls the Gaza Strip, has responsibility, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to carry on in the face allegations of corruption against him that threatens the stability of his ruling government, arguing that he has the security credentials to protect Israel in light of threats from other countries in the Middle East. Rory Jones reports at the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis yesterday called on European N.A.T.O. countries to increase their defense spending, Julian E. Barnes and Robert Wall report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. ambassador to N.A.T.O. Kay Bailey Hutchinson issued a warning to the European Union about its plans for defense cooperation, saying that E.U. plans should not distract from the alliances responsibilities. Michael Peel, Katrina Manson and Mehreen Khan report at the Financial Times.

Many of the Trump administration’s political appointees do not have permanent security clearance, Carol E. Lee, Mike Memoli, Kristen Welker and Rich Gardella report at NBC News.

 “Given that weapons sales are part of our security cooperation with these states, I am lifting my blanket hold on sales of lethal military equipment to the G.C.C. [Gulf Cooperation Council],” the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said in a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, making the decision in spite of the ongoing Gulf crisis, which began when a Saudi-led bloc diplomatically isolated Qatar in June last year. Rebecca Kheel reports 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