The Early Edition: February 16, 2018

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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.

TILLERSON MIDDLE EAST TRIP

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned yesterday that the actions of the militant Hezbollah group threaten Lebanon and regional security after a meeting with the Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri during his tour of Middle Eastern nations, adding that the U.S. “has considered Hezbollah a terrorist organization for more than two decades now …. The only legitimate defender of the Lebanese state is the Lebanese armed forces.” Al Jazeera reports.

Tillerson’s comments about Hezbollah come amid rising tensions in the region, Hezbollah are supported by Iran and have been fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria. Hezbollah’s actions in Syria have prompted Israel to carry out a number of airstrikes against them and Israel has accused Iran of seeking to set up weapons factories in Lebanon from which to threaten their state, Yara Bayoumy and Lisa Barrington report at Reuters.

Tillerson met with Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu yesterday evening, they held discussions for more than three and a half hours, but Tillerson broke with protocol by having Cavusoglu translate their conversations and Tillerson was not accompanied by policy aides. Nicole Gaouette reports at CNN.

Talks between Tillerson and Turkish leaders took place against a backdrop of strained U.S.-Turkey relations, which have been further damaged since Turkey launched an operation against the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia in the northern Syrian area of Afrin last month. Julian E. Barnes and Felicia Schwartz report at the Wall Street Journal.

There was a “productive and open conversation about a mutually beneficial way forward in the U.S.-Turkey relationship,” according to a U.S. statement. Before Tillerson’s meeting with Turkish leaders, he explained that the U.S. and Turkey are united in the objective to defeat the Islamic State group and terrorism, and to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Syria, however there have been “some differences about tactically how to achieve that endpoint objective.” Matthew Lee and Lolita C. Baldor report at the AP.

Cavusoglu said today that the U.S. and Turkey have reached an “understanding to normalize” their relations and that they have agreed to set up “mechanisms” to try to resolve a series of disputes between the two nations, who are also N.A.T.O. allies. Matthew Lee and Suzan Fraser report at the AP.

Turkey today proposed to the U.S. that Turkish and U.S. troops be stationed together in the Manbij area, an area held by Syrian Kurdish fighters and where the U.S. has troops on the ground. Turkey also proposed that the Y.P.G. withdraw to east of the Euphrates river in Syria, Yara Bayoumy, Orhan Coskun and Ece Toksabay report at Reuters.

Tillerson toured the Middle East as a “messenger without a message.” An overview of the Secretary of State’s trip and the lack of a coherent Trump administration policy in each nation is provided by Ben Wedeman at CNN.

SYRIA

Around 300 Russian citizens working for a Kremlin-linked private military firm were killed or injured last week in Syria, according to three sources. The reported casualties coincide with a battle on Feb. 7 between pro-Syrian President Bashar al-Assad forces and U.S.-led coalition forces near the city of Deir al-Zour, and a spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry said that their initial information was that five Russian citizens may have been killed, but they were not members of Russia’s armed forces and the reports of greater casualties are disinformation. Maria Tsvetkova reports at Reuters.

The Kremlin said today that it had no new information on Russian citizens killed last week, the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov adding that “we have said everything we have to say on this.” Reuters reports.

Civilians in the northern Syrian area of Afrin are trapped in the Kurdish enclave as Turkey continues its operation against the U.S.-backed Y.P.G. Syrian Kurdish militia. Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

The complicated and convoluted battleground in Syria has obscured who is friend and who is foe. Over the past two weeks there have been numerous developments – including the Turkish Afrin operation, U.S. airstrikes against pro-Assad forces, a Turkish threat to attack U.S. forces embedded with the Y.P.G. in Manbij, Israeli airstrikes on Syrian targets, the downing of a Russian jet by Syrian rebels who cooperate with Turkey, the downing of an Israeli jet by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, the downing of a Turkish helicopter by the Y.P.G., and the downing of an Iranian drone which was launched from Syria by Israel – that have highlighted the extent of foreign involvement in the war and increased the potential for a disastrous miscalculation, Yaroslav Trofimov 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 February 2 and February 8. [Central Command]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

There is no strategy for a “bloody nose” strike on North Korea, the senior U.S. diplomat for Asia, Susan Thornton, said yesterday, referring to reports of ongoing discussions within the Trump administration of a limited strike on North Korean infrastructure. David Brunnstrom reports at Reuters.

“I am confident that I can defend the United States,” Gen. Lori Robinson, who is in charge of the command that defends the U.S. from missile threats, told the Senate Armed Service Committee yesterday, adding that it was “critical that we continue to improve the ballistic missile defense enterprise.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration has increased its intelligence capabilities to focus on North Korea, one former official has said that the first strike against the Pyongyang regime “will be cyber.” Jenna McLaughlin reports at Foreign Policy.

Vice President Mike Pence’s promise of a “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea must be given a chance, the Trump administration has been making progress on the “dangerous mess” that it inherited and “it would be disastrous if it were stalled by more promises of engagement.” Daniel Blumenthal writes at Foreign Policy.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon was interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team multiple times in the last week, according to two sources familiar with the matter. Mueller is investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and whether the president obstructed justice, Hallie Jackson reports at NBC News.

Bannon answered all questions asked by Mueller’s team, according to a source familiar with the matter, the questions were expected to include Trump’s decision to fire F.B.I. Director James Comey and to fire national security adviser Michael Flynn. Other questions may have included Bannon’s knowledge of the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 between Trump campaign officials and Russians; Bannon’s affiliation with the Cambridge Analytica data firm; a meeting between Bannon, Flynn and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and a subsequent meeting between the crown prince and Trump donor and Bannon ally, Erik Prince. Kara Scannell reports at CNN.

Bannon refused to answer a series of questions during closed-door testimony before the House Intelligence Committee yesterday as part of their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, his lack of response drew condemnation from Republicans and Democrats on the panel. Byron Tau reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“The only questions he [Bannon] would answer were questions that had been scripted, literally scripted, for him by the White House,” the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), said yesterday, adding that they were a “set of 25 questions … to which the answer to each must be ‘no’.” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

The bipartisan complaints about Bannon’s testimony ring hollow, a White House official said, stating that the 25 questions that Bannon was authorized to answer were the product of weeks of negotiations between staff members of the House Intelligence Committee and White House counsel. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

A federal judge criticized both sides for failing to set a trial date in the fraud and money-laundering case of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates, Manafort and Gates were charged by Mueller as part of his team’s Russia investigation. Spencer S. Hsu reports at the Washington Post.

Gates is poised to cooperate with Mueller’s team, according to sources familiar with the matter, who say that Gates is finalizing a plea deal with the special counsel. Gates’s cooperation could increase pressure on Manafort to also cooperate with Mueller, Katelyn Polantz and Sara Murray report at CNN.

A Justice Department lawyers argued yesterday that the government still cannot reveal the date that it received the dossier compiled by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele, despite the fact that Trump had declassified a Republican memo that alleged the F.B.I. used the dossier to authorize surveillance on former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. Sarah N. Lynch reports at Reuters.

GUANTÁNAMO BAY

Saudi citizen Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed Haza al-Darbi may be transferred from the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay to Saudi Arabia in the coming days, Al-Darbi’s plea agreement, which was accepted Feb. 20, 2014, waived his right to a trial and stated that he would be transferred “after completing four years in United States custody following the acceptance of my plea.” Courtney Kube reports at NBC News.

The judge presiding over the U.S.S. Cole terrorism case at the Guantánamo war court may ask Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to testify to help resolve the stalemate caused by “a rogue defense organization.” Two civilian attorneys, who are on the payroll of the Defense Department, quit the case defending the suspected mastermind of the U.S.S. Cole bombing due to ethical issues, Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

U.S. intelligence agencies will begin briefing election officials today and over the weekend on possible cyberthreats to election infrastructure ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections. Josh Delk reports at the Hill.

The White House joined the U.K. in blaming Russia for carrying out a huge cyberattack last June which was targeted at Ukraine but affected computers across the world, threatening unspecified “international consequences” for the attack. Mark Landler and Scott Shane report at the New York Times.

Germany has ruled out procuring autonomous weapons, the head of Germany’s cyber command Lt. Gen. Ludwig Leinhos said yesterday. Autonomous weapons have been described as “killer robots” by critics, Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia ruled that Trump’s latest travel ban was unconstitutional and “tainted with animus toward Islam,” in a ruling yesterday, adding that it “denies the possibility of a complete, intact family to tens of thousands of Americans.” The AP reports.

The International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) has received 1.17 million statements from Afghans saying that they were victims of war crimes, including atrocities carried out by the Taliban, the Islamic State group, Afghan Security Forces, government-affiliated war lords, the U.S.-led coalition, and foreign and domestic spy agencies. Kathy Gannon reports at the AP.

Tensions between the U.S. and European officials are high at the N.A.T.O. conference this week, the U.S. has called on European countries to commit to more defense spending and European diplomats have said that relations with the U.S. have been undermined by Trump’s confrontational statements and some of his policy positions. Laurence Norman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. diplomats suffered mysterious health symptoms when they were stationed at the embassy in Havana, Cuba, and a report published this week by experts has not helped to determine the cause of the symptoms. The F.B.I. ruled the possibility of a “sonic attack” last month, Gina Kolata reports at the New York Times.

John Demers was yesterday confirmed by the Senate as the head of the Justice Department’s national security division, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Egyptian security forces killed 53 Islamist militants and arrested 630 suspects during their week-long counterterrorism offensive, an Egyptian military spokesperson said yesterday. Nadine Awadalla reports at Reuters.

The Trump administration has been largely disengaged from the volatile situation in the Middle East, it should make efforts to create a more stable balance of power, Fareed Zakaria writes at the Washington Post. 

Filed under:
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