The Early Edition: February 21, 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 250 civilians have been killed in the past two days in the besieged, rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the Syrian capital of Damascus after intensified bombing by the Syrian government and its allies, with the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (S.O.H.R.) saying that the death of 106 civilians yesterday was the highest death toll in a single day since the alleged chemical attack on the enclave in 2013. Tamara Qiblawi and Sarah Sirgany report at CNN.

Residents of the enclave said that helicopters and warplanes dropped barrel bombs on the area, hundreds have been injured and 12 medical facilities have been put out of action in the past two days. The State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the U.S. is “deeply concerned” by the situation and expressed support for a U.N. appeal for a month-long ceasefire, Liz Sly and Louisa Loveluck report at the Washington Post.

“Illegal armed groups from Eastern Ghouta” hit Russia’s ceasefire monitoring center, the TASS news agency cited the Russian Defense Ministry as saying yesterday, Reuters reporting.

Pro-Syrian government forces yesterday entered the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in response to a call for help from the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia. Turkey launched an operation against the Y.P.G. last month as they consider the Y.P.G. to be an extension of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.), the BBC reports.

“The Syrian government has responded to the call of duty and sent military units … to deploy along the border and take part in defending the unity of Syria’s territory and borders,” the spokesperson for the Y.P.G., Nouri Mahmoud, said in a statement yesterday. Al Jazeera reports.

Turkey today warned pro-Syrian government forces entering Afrin to support the Y.P.G. of “serious consequences” and that they would be regarded as legitimate targets, Reuters reports.

Syrian state media reported that Turkey yesterday targeted pro-Syrian government forces entering Afrin with shellfire, the confrontation has the potential to lead to a wider escalation, with Turkey and the Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) rebels against the pro-Syrian government military alliance. The Y.P.G. are also allies of the U.S., and the U.S. sees them as an important partner in the fight against Islamic State militants, Gulsen Solaker and Ellen Francis report at Reuters.

Russian citizens were killed and “several dozens” were wounded in the Feb. 7 military clash between pro-Syrian government forces and U.S.-backed forces in the Deir al-Zour province, the Russian Foreign Ministry conceded yesterday, after having tried to downplay its citizens’ role in the engagement. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Some reports had said that more than 100 Russian mercenaries were killed on Feb. 7 when the U.S. conducted airstrikes against pro-Syrian government forces advancing on the headquarters of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.). The BBC reports.

The arrival of a pro-Syrian government convoy in Afrin marks another “geopolitical twist in a war that is growing ever more complicated,” it has the potential to shift alliances, with pro-Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, which include Iranian-backed militias, working in tandem with the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia. Other parts of the country have also seen a crowded and convoluted battleground, including in the rebel-held Idlib province, the Feb. 7 incident in Deir al-Zour province, the clash between Israel and Iran last week, and the ongoing slaughter in Eastern Ghouta, Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

“Eastern Ghouta is turning into Syria’s Srebrenica,” Simon Tisdall writes at the Guardian, comparing the pro-Syrian government siege of the enclave with tactics used in the Bosnian Muslim enclave in 1995.

“The war in Syria has exhausted all superlatives,” Ben Wedeman and Tamara Qiblawi provide an overview of the destruction and civilian suffering across the country and Eastern Ghouta at CNN, describing the situation as “perhaps the closest thing to hell on Earth.”

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 Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, who previously worked for Trump campaign adviser Rick Gates, yesterday pleaded guilty to lying to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team who are investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, admitting that he had discussed work on a project for the Ukrainian government with Gates in September 2016 after having told investigators that his last contact with Gates had been mid-August. Aruna Viswanatha and Del Quentin Wilber report at the Wall Street Journal.

According to court documents, Van der Zwaan had failed to disclose his contacts with Gates in September and with another person identified only as Person A, Stephanie Kirchgaessner, Julian Borger and David Smith report at the Guardian.

The filing has seen increased scrutiny of Van der Zwaan’s former law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom where he worked on the Ukrainian project. Skadden said that they had fired van der Zwaan last year and were cooperating with the special counsel’s investigation, Sharon LaFraniere and Kenneth P. Vogel report at the New York Times.

The court filing by Mueller’s office shows the pressure being put on Gates as he negotiates a plea deal, Gates was an associate of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the two men worked together on a project in Ukraine. Manafort and Gates, were charged by Mueller in October for money-laundering and fraud-related crimes, to which they pleaded not guilty, Katelyn Polantz, David Shortell and Marshall Cohen report at CNN.

It is not clear whether Van der Zwaan may be helping Mueller, he is the fourth person to plea guilty in the Russia probe and is the son-in-law of a Russian billionaire who was named in the dossier compiled by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele, which alleged connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. Ken Dilanian, Pete Williams, Tom Winter and Tracy Connor report at NBC News.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced yesterday that he would establish a cyber task force aimed at protecting against global cyber threats, including combating efforts to interfere in elections. Dustin Volz reports at Reuters.

The judge presiding over the criminal case against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn filed an order Friday calling on Flynn’s legal team to produce in a timely manner “any evidence in its possession that is favourable to defendant and any material either to defendant’s guilty or punishment.” The order for “exculpatory evidence” has raised speculation from some of a possible defect in Flynn’s guilty plea in December in response to Mueller’s charges, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians last week shows that Russian Vladimir Putin has “played Americans across the political spectrum for suckers” and “turned Trump supporters into the useful idiots of the 21st century,” Dana Milbank writes at the Washington Post.


North Korean officials canceled a secret meeting with Vice President Mike Pence when they were both present at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, Trump administration officials said yesterday, the meeting was scheduled to take place at South Korea’s presidential Blue House in Seoul on Feb. 10 and, according to Pence’s office, the meeting was called off after the vice president denounced Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and announced the “the toughest and most aggressive” sanctions yet against the country. Ashley Parker reports at the Washington Post.

Pence had intended to sit down with North Korean officials, including Kim Yo-jong, the sister of the country’s leader Kim Jong-un. Safia Samee Ali reports at NBC News.

“We regret the failure to seize this opportunity,” the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said yesterday, adding that the vice president “was ready to take this opportunity to drive home the necessity of North Korea abandoning its illicit ballistic missile and nuclear programs.” Gardiner Harris and Choe Sang-Hun report at the New York Times.

“North Korea dangled a meeting in hopes of the vice president softening his message,” Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, said yesterday. Kevin Liptak and Joshua Berlinger report at CNN.


“To solve the Palestine question, it is essential to establish a multilateral international mechanism emanating from an international conference,” the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas said at a U.N. Security Council meeting on the Middle East yesterday, stating, in a comment directed at the U.S., that it has “become impossible today for one country or state alone to solve a regional or interactional conflict.” Farnaz Fassihi and Felicia Schwartz report at the Wall Street Journal.

Abbas called for the international peace conference to be held by mid-2018 with the goals of full U.N. membership for Palestine, mutual recognition by the states of Israel and Palestine based on 1967 borders, and a timeframe for the two-state solution. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

“Israel is acting as a state above the law,” Abbas said, pointing to 86 U.N. Security Council resolutions that have been passed but not implemented, after the speech, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Danny Danon, blamed Abbas for inspiring “a culture of hate within Palestinian society.” Al Jazeera reports.

“Our negotiators are sitting right behind me, ready to talk, but we will not chase after you,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said after Abbas’ speech. Abbas left the room after giving his address and did not stay to hear the comments, Julia Manchester reports at the Hill.

“I will decline the advice I was recently given by your top negotiator Saeb Erekat. I will not shut up,” Haley remarked, referring to comments made by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) Secretary General earlier this month. Zachary Cohen and Richard Roth report at CNN.

“If at some point we believe that other countries could be helpful to the peace process, we would certainly be willing to bring them in,” the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said yesterday in response to a question about Abbas’ call for international peace talks. Reuters reports.

“There is no Plan B,” the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said at the Security Council meeting, reiterating the U.N.’s position that the only resolution to the conflict would be a two-state solution. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason D. Greenblatt sat at the Security Council meeting as Abbas and Danon both accused each other of being a barrier to peace. After the session, Kushner and Greenblatt held a closed-door meeting with the Security Council and a White House spokesperson said that administration was working on a plan “designed to benefit both the Israeli and Palestinian people,” Michael Schwartz reports at the New York Times.


The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has resisted giving up his access to highly classified information, Kushner still operates under an interim security clearance due to issues raised by the F.B.I. during background checks and Kushner’s intransigence has caused friction with White House chief of staff John Kelly, according to White House officials and others familiar with the matter. Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. visited India as a private citizen and the State Department has not played any role in his messaging, the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said yesterday, adding that Trump Jr.s’ trip was not in an official capacity. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

The president and his national security adviser H.R. McMaster have had a strained relationship, that was put on full display when the president reproached him in a message on Twitter at the weekend. Eliana Johnson explains at POLITICO.


The Saudi Guantánamo detainee Ahmed al-Darbi was still at the facility yesterday, al-Darbi pleaded guilty to war crimes and his plea agreement in February 2014 provided for his transfer to Saudi Arabia after serving four years in U.S. custody. The Pentagon has expressed hope that the transfer will take place soon, Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

Japan plans to buy at least 20 additional stealth fighters from the U.S.-based Lockheed Martin Corp, according to three sources. Tim Kelly and Nobuhiro Kubo report at Reuters.

A feature on the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab militants in Somalia is provided by Jason Burke at the Guardian. 

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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