The Early Edition: February 19, 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.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The office of special counsel Robert Mueller announced the indictment of 13 Russian individuals and three Russian entities on Friday for interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said the suspects “allegedly conducted what they called ‘information warfare against the United States,’ with the stated goal of spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.” Devlin Barrett, Sari Horowitz and Rosalind S. Helderman report at the Washington Post.

One of the entities named in the indictment was the Russian state-backed “troll farm” the Internet Research Agency and the charges allege that Russian operatives “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign.” Rosestein added that “there is no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge,” Jon Swaine and Marc Bennetts report at the Guardian.

Mueller’s indictment said that Russians adopted false online personas and posed as Americans when staging political rallies, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) said that the details provided “overwhelming and unequivocal” evidence of the threat from Russian interference and proved that the Russian investigations were not a “hoax” – as the president has claimed. Michaelle Price reports at Reuters.

Trump sent numerous messages on Twitter over the weekend in response to the Mueller indictment, tweets included messages attacking the F.B.I. for focusing on “trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign” rather than working to prevent the recent Florida school shooter; an attack on the Obama administration for failing to respond to cyberattacks and stop interference; criticism of the ongoing investigations; and he also relied on tweets by the Vice President of Facebook, Rob Goldman, to play down the impact of Russian interference. Julie Bykowicz and Janet Hook report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump did not criticize Russia in his tweets over the weekend, the president and the White House framed the indictments as vindication because they do not allege collusion between Russians and the Trump campaign. Matthew Nussbaum reports at POLITICO.

Mueller’s indictment provided “really incontrovertible” evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the national security adviser H.R. McMaster said Saturday, after which Trump reproached McMaster in a message on Twitter for failing to say that “the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians.” Julian E. Barnes reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Our American colleagues launched some kind of hunting spree throughout the world on Russian computer wizards,” the former Russian ambassador the U.S. Sergey Kislyak said Saturday, on the same day the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that he had “no response” to the indictments and “until we see the facts everything else is just blather.” Sophie Tatum reports at CNN.

Democrats and former intelligence officials have urged Trump to act to protect future elections from Russian interference, Oliver Laughland reports at the Guardian.

Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates will plead guilty to fraud and money-laundering-related charges within days, according to people familiar with the matter, and he has clearly indicated that he would testify against the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Gates and Manafort were charged by Mueller as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the election, David Willman reports at the Los Angeles Times.

The Trump administration has intermittently called out Russia for interference, however the president has expressed little concern about the attempts by a foreign power to undermine American democracy. Peter Baker explains at the New York Times.

The Kremlin caterer Yevgeny Prigozhin was named in the Mueller indictment and has been a key figure in online campaigns to influence opinions and sow discord abroad. Thomas Grove reports at the Wall Street Journal.

A former Russian “troll” Mara Miniyarov explains his reaction to Mueller’s indictment and what he did at the “troll factory” in a conversation with Anton Troianovski at the Washington Post.

The reaction of “troll factory” mole Lyudmila Savchuk to the Mueller indictment is provided by Anna Nemtsova at The Daily Beast.

The Russian business magazine R.B.C. published an article in October 2017 which set out much of the information that was in the Mueller indictment, including the use of the Internet Research Agency to wage an online campaign ahead of the 2016 election. An interview with the article’s authors, Polina Rusyaeva and Andrey Zakharov, with Adam Taylor is provided at the Washington Post.

Russia wanted to get caught to undermine credibility in the system and spread uncertainty, Julian Sanchez writes at the New York Times.

The Obama administration and former top intelligence officials did not make Russia pay for interfering in American politics, Trump should make them “pay a price that Mr. Obama never did.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

“The question is whether Mr. Trump will at least accept the fact of Russian interference and take aggressive measures to protect American democracy,” the New York Times editorial board writes.

The Russian interference campaign used modern-day versions of methods that have been used for decades, including by the U.S. since the C.I.A. was established in 1947. Scott Shane writes at the New York Times.

MUNICH SECURITY CONFERENCE

“You can take back with you a message to the tyrants of Tehran: Do not test Israel’s resolve,” the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday at the Munich security conference, addressing his comments to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and brandishing what he purported to be a fragment of an Iranian drone that was shot down by Israel last week after it was launched from Syria and incurred into Israeli airspace. Katrin Bennhold and Isabel Kershner report at the New York Times.

Iran is “the greatest threat to our world,” Netanyahu claimed, saying that Israel “will act, if necessary, not just against Iran’s proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself,” adding that Iran supports proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Gaza and is trying to “colonize” Syria. Netanyahu also criticized the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and compared it to the 1938 Munich agreement and the policy of appeasing Hitler before the second world war, Guy Chazan reports at the Financial Times.

“Israel will continue to act to prevent Iran from establishing another terror base from which to threaten Israel,” Netanyahu said, referring to Iran’s expanding role in Syria and its “belligerent ambitions,” to which Zarif said that Netanyahu’s “cartoonish circus” did not “even deserve the dignity of a response.” Al Jazeera reports.

“Well, if they try to exercise that threat, they will see the response,” Zarif said in an interview yesterday on the sidelines of the conference responding to Israel’s warning that it would act against Iran. Bill Neely and F. Brinley Bruton report at NBC News.

“Once the Syrians have the guts to down one of its planes it’s as if a disaster has happened,” Zarif said at the conference in response to Netanyahu’s comments, referring to the downing of an Israeli fighter jet by Syrian government forces – of whom Iran is an ally – last week. Robin Emmott and Thomas Escritt report at Reuters.

“Israel uses aggression as a policy against its neighbors,” Zarif said in his conference speech, stating that Israel had made “almost-daily incursions into Syrian airspace” and had struck targets in Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territory. Griff Witte and Michael Birnbaum report at the Washington Post.

“So the time is now, we think, to act against Iran,” the U.S. national security adviser H.R. McMaster said yesterday at the Munich conference, calling on U.S. allies to halt trade that allowed the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) to expand. McMaster also expressed concern about Iranian proxies in the region, including Iran’s support for the Lebanese Hezbollah group, and criticized the nuclear deal as containing “serious flaws” that allows Iran to continue its destabilizing activities. Andrea Shalal and Sabine Siebold report at Reuters.

The Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir also blamed Iran for rising regional tension and called for “fundamental change in the Iranian regime.” Al Jazeera reports.

European diplomats met with the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Aragchi on Saturday at the Munich conference to seek to limit Iran’s activities in Syria, Yemen and other parts of the region, and with the aim of persuading Trump to maintain the 2015 nuclear deal. Laurence Norman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. has expressed concern about the European Union’s defense plans during the Munich conference, despite the fact that U.S. and N.A.T.O. officials welcomed the plans in November last year. Steven Erlanger reports at the New York Times.

SYRIA

“Public accounts and photos clearly show that [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad’s chemical weapons use is continuing,” the U.S. national security adviser H.R. McMaster said Saturday at the Munich security conference, saying that it was “time for all nations to hold the Syrian regime and its sponsors accountable for their actions.” Idrees Ali and Thomas Escritt report at Reuters.

A chief adviser to the Turkish president Reçep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday denied claims that the Turkish military used chemical weapons on civilians during its operation against the Kurdish Y.P.G. fighters in the northern Syrian area of Afrin. On Friday, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syrian state media said that six people had symptoms of suffocation from a gas attack, Umut Uras reports at Al Jazeera.

The Syrian government and Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. forces have reached a deal for the Syrian army to enter the Afrin region, senior Kurdish official Badran Jia Kurd said yesterday, adding that the Syrian government forces could enter within the next two days and would deploy along some border positions. Ellen Francis reports at Reuters.

If the Syrian army “comes in to defend the Y.P.G., then nothing and nobody can stop us or Turkish soldiers,” the Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned today. Reuters reports.

“Don’t ask me. I don’t know,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Saturday in response to questions about who directed the attack on U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) on Feb. 7 near the city of Deir al-Zour. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

A feature on Iran’s presence in Syria is provided by Ben Hubbard, Isabel Kershner and Anne Barnard at the New York Times.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 43 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between February 9 and February 15. [Central Command]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed hope that the “improved inter-Korean relations” would “create a growing consensus for the need for dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea,” in a visit to the Pyeonchang Olympics on Saturday. Jonathan Cheng and Eun-Young Jeong report at the Wall Street Journal.

“We’re not using a carrot to convince them to talk. We’re using large sticks,” the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said of the U.S. approach to bringing North Korean to the table for negotiations, adding that the campaign of pressure and economic sanctions is “having its bite on North Korea.” Josh Delk reports at the Hill.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Fighting broke out between Israel and Gaza at the weekend, four Israeli soldiers were killed by an explosive device on Friday, Israel responded by striking a Palestinian observation post and airstrikes against a further six targets, leading to rocket fire from Gaza and more attacks by the Israeli military. David M. Halbfinger reports at the New York Times.

The Israeli military said it hit 18 Hamas military targets over the weekend, including three training camps, a tunnel being dug by the militants and “weapons manufacturing infrastructure.” The BBC reports.

Two Palestinian teenagers were killed by Israeli airstrikes, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health and the Palestinian W.A.F.A. news agency. Oren Libermann reports at CNN.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

“We are asking for your commitment that we should work together to seek a supplemental or follow-on agreement that addresses Iran’s development or testing, long-range missiles, ensures strong I.A.E.A. inspections, and fixes the flaws of the ‘sunset clause,’” the U.S. State Department said in a cable to European allies, setting out the Trump administration’s approach to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Arshad Mohammed, John Irish and Robin Emmott report at Reuters.

At least 20 were killed and 20 were wounded by three suicide bombing attacks near the city of Maiduguri in Nigeria on Saturday, the attackers were reported to all be female and the attack bore similarity to attacks carried out by the Boko Haram terrorist group. Dionne Searcey reports at the New York Times.

The judge presiding over the U.S.S. Cole terrorism case at the Guantánamo war court announced that he was “abating these proceedings indefinitely” due to the inability to get three civilian lawyers to return to the case. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

A feature on the U.S. operation in Niger and the death of four American soldiers in October last year is provided by Rukmini Callimachi, Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt, Alan Blinder and Thomas Gibbons-Neff at the New York Times.

The Islamic State group have claimed responsibility for yesterday’s attack on worshippers at a church in the Dagestan region of Russia, Andrew E. Kramer and Rukmini Callimachi report at the New York Times. 

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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