The Early Edition: February 20, 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.


At least 110 people were killed yesterday in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the Syrian capital of Damascus, according to local counts, four hospitals were also bombed by pro-Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and there have been reports that Assad’s forces are planning to enter the area. Kareem Shaheen reports at the Guardian.

At least 49 people were killed today in Eastern Ghouta, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, bombing on the enclave has intensified since Sunday and the U.N. yesterday called for an immediate ceasefire in the area. Reuters reports.

The death toll made it one of the deadliest days for Eastern Ghouta since Assad government forces began its siege in 2013, the government has also conducted airstrikes on the rebel-held areas of Douma, Misraba and al-Nashabiya. The BBC reports.

“U.N.I.C.E.F. is issuing this blank statement. We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage,” the U.N. children’s fund said today in response to the casualties among children in Eastern Ghouta and Damascus. Reuters reports.

“Such targeting of innocent civilians and infrastructure must stop now,” the U.N. regional humanitarian coordinator the Syria crisis, Panos Moumtzis said in a statement today, Al Jazeera reports.

The Turkish deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag warned Syria of “disastrous consequences” if the Syrian government send forces to support the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia in the northern Afrin region, Turkey began an operation against the U.S.-backed Y.P.G. in Afrin last month as it deems the Y.P.G. to be an extension of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.). Yesterday it appeared that Syrian Kurdish factions had reached an agreement with the Syrian government, Jamie Tarabay reports at CNN.

“There is no agreement. There is only a call from us for the Syrian army to come in and protect the borders,” the Y.P.G. spokesperson Nouri Mahmoud said late yesterday. Al Jazeera reports.

The possible deployment of Assad forces to Afrin was averted due to talks with the Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan said today, Reuters reports.

Turkey will begin besieging the town of Afrin the coming days, Erdoğan said today, Reuters reporting.

“The U.S. should stop playing very dangerous games which could lead to the dismemberment of the Syrian state,” the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday at a conference in Moscow, alongside Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and atop adviser to Assad, saying that there was an attempt to “exploit the Kurds’ aspirations.” Henry Meyer reports at Bloomberg.

Vladimir Putin and Erdoğan discussed setting up new observation posts in the rebel-held town of Idlib during a phone call yesterday, according to a source in Erdoğan’s office. Reuters reports.

The U.S. and U.K. are engaged in talks about the two London-born suspected Islamic State militants who were captured by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) last month, Reuters reports.

The U.S. role in Syria has the potential to entrench divisions within Syria as they quietly establish a longer-term presence in parts of the country, including in the north and the east, and its continued support for the Syrian Kurdish militia has rattled Turkey. Kareem Shaheen writes at the Guardian.   

A feature on the Syrian Kurdish fighters is provided by Rod Nordland at the New York Times, explaining how their deaths, seen as martyrdom, are used as a recruitment tool.

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]


Special counsel Robert Mueller has shown an interest in the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and his efforts to secure financing from foreign investors during the presidential transition, including Kushner’s connections to Chinese investors, according to sources familiar with the matter. Shimon Prokupecz, Kara Scannell and Gloria Borger report at CNN.

Mueller’s indictment against Russian entities and individuals has prompted renewed criticism of Facebook for its role in allowing alleged Russian attempts to influence U.S. public opinion. The indictment, issued Friday, described a broad online manipulation campaign starting in 2014 and attempts to foment discord in the run up to, during and after the 2016 presidential election, Georgia Wells and Robert McMillan report at the Wall Street Journal.

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) yesterday suggested that the Russia investigation would claim “witting participation” between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, noting the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 between Trump campaign officials and Russians, the guilty plea by former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, and the dumping of stolen documents during the campaign. Edward Helmore reports at the Guardian.

Several former employees of the Russian “troll factory,” the Internet Research Agency, have welcomed Mueller’s indictment, Naira Davlashyan and Irina Titova report at the AP.

The reports of a backchannel between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Trump’s adviser Roger Stone continues to raise questions, the intermediary named by Stone, Randy Credico, claimed that he never had a backchannel to Assange and neither did Stone. Betsy Woodruff reports at The Daily Beast.

Russian automated Twitter accounts took up the issue of gun control after the Florida school shooting last week  as part of an apparent disinformation campaign. The “bots” have helped to popularize a series of divisive issues and the latest attempt demonstrates how Russian operatives have continued their efforts to spread inflammatory messages, Sheera Frenkel and Daisuke Wakabayashi report at the New York Times.

The indictment makes it harder for President Trump to undermine Mueller’s Russia investigation, Mueller’s careful and nonpartisan approach makes it more difficult for Trump to claim that Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “are out of control,” thereby buying the special counsel more time to further investigate. Just Security editor Renato Mariotti writes at POLITICO Magazine.

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was correct to label Russia “America’s greatest foe” in 2012, President Obama owes Romney an apology for dismissing his comments, and last week’s indictments also reveal that Obama’s intelligence chiefs seemingly did little to anticipate the threat of Russian interference despite the fact that Russian meddling attempts began in 2014. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Moscow must be laughing at Trump and not with him, Eugene Robinson writes at the Washington Post, referring to Trump’s message on Twitter that said that the Russia investigations had granted Russia’s aim of creating discord.

The real aim of the Russian campaign is to undermine American democracy, this should offer a warning about the threats to democracy as a force across the globe and America’s ability to lead the world in a direction it wants. Gerald F. Seib writes at the Wall Street Journal.


Plans for joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises will be announced before April, the South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo said today, explaining that the drills were “postponed according to the spirit of the Olympics” and that basis would be upheld until after the Paralympics. Christine Kim and Hyonhee Shin report at Reuters.

A “bloody nose” strike on North Korea would be “high risk and unpredictable,” retired Adm. Dennis Blair has warned, saying that any U.S. led action should be in response to a North Korean provocation as this would be a “lot safer.” Daniel Hurst reports at the Guardian.

North Korea could host the Asian Winter Games with South Korea in 2021, the North Korean member of the International Olympic Committee, Chang Ung, said today. Yhe governor of Gangwon, the province where the current Pyeongchang Winter Olmpics are being held, made a similar offer, according to South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, Benjamin Haas reports at the Guardian.


The potential for a U.S.-Russia deal for a peacekeeping force for eastern Ukraine has raised concerns, with some current and former U.S. officials casting doubt on Russia’s intentions in the Crimea – which was annexed by Russia in 2014. Julian E. Barnes reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Defense and security spending in Ukraine has increased significantly since 2014, however the funding has opened up new channels for corruption. Andrew Higgins reports at the New York Times.

A coal deal between U.S. and a Ukrainian state-owned company has been economically and politically expedient, helping Ukraine win favor with the Trump administration as it continues to face a conflict with Russia. Alessandra Prentice reports at Reuters.


The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., plans to deliver a foreign policy speech on Indo-Pacific ties while making an “unofficial” visit to India this week to meet with investors and business leaders, where the Trump Organization has real estate projects. Annie Gowen reports at the Washington Post.

At least 27 members of the Iraqi Shi’ite-led Popular Mobilization Forces militia were killed by Islamic State militants yesterday, according to a statement released by the terrorist group. Mohammed Tawfeeq reports at CNN.

A bomb killed three tribal elders in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province today, separately in the western Farah province, at least nine policemen were killed in attacks, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility. The AP reports.

“German readiness levels are a serious concern,” a N.A.T.O. diplomat said yesterday, amid concerns about Germany’s equipment shortages ahead of its preparation to take command of a N.A.T.O. rapid response force in Eastern Europe. Andrea Shalal reports at Reuters.

“I am aware of the threats – as aware as anybody – but there is a finite amount of money out there,” the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee (Wash.) said yesterday in an interview with Jeff Schogol at Task & Purpose, referring Trump’s proposed military budget.

Israeli settler leader Yaakov Katz has praised settlement growth in the West Bank and Trump’s role in creating a friendly atmosphere, saying yesterday that number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank grew at nearly twice the rate of Israel’s population last year. Josef Federman reports at the AP. 

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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