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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 U.N. Security Council yesterday failed to pass a resolution drafted by Kuwait and Sweden imposing a 30-day ceasefire on the besieged rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the Syrian capital Damascus. Russia, which is an ally to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, used its position on the Council to block the resolution and the Russian U.N. ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused his fellow ambassadors and U.N. officials of being under a “massive psychosis” as a consequence of the “propagandistic scenarios of catastrophe” spread by the global news media. Michael Schwirtz and Nada Homsi report at the New York Times.
At least 403 people have been killed in Eastern Ghouta since pro-Syrian government forces intensified their campaign on Sunday, 150 children are among those killed and almost 2,120 have been wounded, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday. Doctors in the area have said that medical facilities have been targeted, Al Jazeera reports.
“You can still save lives in eastern Ghouta – and elsewhere in Syria,” the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock told the Security Council yesterday, reminding all parties of their obligations under international humanitarian law and imploring Member States to take action to allow the delivery of aid. The U.N. News Centre reports.
Nebenzia circulated a list of proposed Russian amendments to the draft resolution. The text of the draft resolution has now been changed and will go to a vote today, but it is not immediately clear what changes were made to the text and whether it has the support of Russia, Reuters reports.
Nebenzia called for “feasible” not “populist” action, his comments were supported by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who said that the draft resolution – which exempted attacks on the Islamic State group or the formerly al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front – should be extended to include the two biggest rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta. The BBC reports.
“I don’t know what some of you expect us to do,” the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said yesterday, adding that the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Trump administration were“fully engaged” in the situation in Eastern Ghouta, but Nauert did not elaborate on specific steps when asked what Tillerson was doing to alleviate the suffering. She added that the best tool was “an attempt to do diplomacy” and that the U.S. would “continue to take action at the U.N. Security Council,” Laura Koran and Nicole Gaouette report at CNN.
The German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday urged Russia and Iran to curb the Syrian government’s campaign on Eastern Ghouta, making the comments ahead of yesterday’s U.N. Security Council meeting and stating that “the regime is not fighting against terrorists, but against its own people, killing children, destroying hospitals, and this is a massacre to be condemned.” Laurence Norman reports at the Wall Street Journal.
The Trump administration has said that no new authorization is needed from Congress to keep U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq indefinitely, letters from State Department officials said that the continued potential threat by the Islamic State group provides the legal rational for open-ended troop presence. Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times.
The Trump administration has proposed removing the position of special envoy for the campaign against the Islamic State group, the militants have suffered significant losses in Syria and Iraq, however the possible scrapping of the role has caused concern that it would lead to a U.S. diplomatic vacuum. Rhys Dubin and Dan De Luce report at Foreign Policy.
The Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin was in close touch with the Kremlin and Syrian officials ahead of the pro-Syrian government forces assault on U.S. troops and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) on Feb. 7, U.S. intelligence believes that Prigozhin “almost certainly” controls Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria, and the U.S. responded to the Feb. 7 advance on their position near Deir al-Zour with airstrikes, killing scores of pro-regime forces. Prigozhin has been in the spotlight recently as he was indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller last week as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Ellen Nakashima and Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly report at the Washington Post.
The commander of the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia in Aleppo said yesterday that the Assad government had regained control of Kurdish-held districts in the city as Y.P.G. fighters had gone to help Syrian Kurds counter a Turkish offensive in the northern Afrin region. Reuters reports.
“Turkey will try to enhance the infrastructure and resources in Afrin after it is secured for them [Syrians] to return,” a chief adviser to Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan said yesterday. The Turkish military and Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) rebels began an offensive against the U.S.-backed Y.P.G. in Afrin last month as Turkey deem the Y.P.G. to be an extension of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.), Umut Uras reports at Al Jazeera.
Pro-Syrian government militias entered Afrin yesterday following a deal between the Syrian government and Kurdish militias and with the backing of Russia and Iran, taking back territory that Turkish forces had advanced on. Carlotta Gall reports at the New York Times.
The Turkish army today struck a convoy entering Afrin “carrying terrorists, weapons and ammunition,” however the Y.P.G. have said the convoy was transporting civilians, Reuters reports.
Russia appears to have deployed fifth-generation SU-57 fighter jets to its Hmeimim airbase in Syria, the Kremlin and Russian Defense Ministry have both declined to comment on the aircraft and whether they have been deployed. Andrew Roth reports at the Guardian.
Russia’s actions at the Security Council shows Russian President Vladimir Putin’s determination to protect Assad, the feeble outrage has once again shown the failure of “collective security” at the U.N., the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.
The Syrian conflict has entered a “grim new phase,” the recent Israel-Iran confrontation “is the most dangerous new factor in Syria” and raises the prospect of a regional war, and the Eastern Ghouta has seen horrifying bloodshed in what is a replay of the siege of Aleppo. Trump administration officials have sought to develop their strategy against Iranian forces in Syria, however this does not address wider questions about Iranian influence and the future of Syria, David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post.
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
The Trump administration is set to announce a tough new set of sanctions against North Korea, according to a senior administration official, they would constitute “the largest package of new sanctions against the North Korean regime,” but did not elaborate further. The announcement comes as North and South Korea have worked to improve their relations since the beginning of this year and are preparing for further talks, Christine Kim and Steve Holland report at Reuters.
North and South Korean officials will meet Monday to discuss the possible participation of North Korea in the Winter Paralympic Games, the South Korean Unification Ministry said in a statement today. Will Ripley and James Griffiths report at CNN.
A North Korean delegation led by Gen. Kim Yong-chol and a U.S. delegation led by the president’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump have the potential for an encounter at the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Sunday. However, an opportunity to meet would be problematic as Gen. Kim is believed to have had a role in the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship and his presence may to be to send a tough message to the U.S. and South Korea, Jonathan Cheng reports at the Wall Street Journal.
Ivanka Trump arrived in South Korea today, there are not yet any signs that she will meet with Gen. Kim. Youkyoung Lee reports at the AP.
Gen. Kim is the “right person” for inter-Korean and denuclearization talks, the South Korean lawmaker Kang Seok-ho said today after being briefed by the country’s spy agency. Reuters reports.
Two Japanese men fired shots at North Korea’s de facto embassy in Tokyo today, they were arrested by police and are believed to be right-wing activists. The AP reports.
North Korea’s U.N. Mission accused the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres of acting as a “henchman” representing the U.S., saying Guterres’s comments at the Munich security conference on Feb. 16 about Pyongyang were “reckless” and did not mention at all that the U.S. is the “main culprit for all aggravation of current situation.” Edith M. Lederer reports at the Washington Post.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s office issued new charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates yesterday, the new indictment alleges tax and bank fraud charges. A spokesperson for Manafort said that he was innocent and that the new allegations “once again, have nothing to do with Russia and 2016 election interference/collusion.” Aruna Viswanatha reports at the Wall Street Journal.
The new indictment brings the alleged total of money laundered by Manafort and Gates to £30m in income, primarily from their work on behalf of the Ukrainian government and the Russia-aligned former Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovych. Michael S. Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo report at the New York Times.
“The White House has repeatedly declined to comment on the matters involving Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates given the fact that none of the charges pertain to the campaign or to the White House,” the White House counsel Ty Cobb said in a statement. Katelyn Polantz and Kara Scannell report at CNN, and the new indictment can be found here.
A closed hearing has been ordered today by a U.S. judge in the case against Gates, according to a court filing yesterday. Karen Freifeld and Sarah N. Lynch report at Reuters.
Examples of job advertisements posted by the Russian “troll factory” the Internet Research Agency are provided by Jane Lytvynenko at BuzzFeed News. The agency has gained notoriety for its work during the 2016 U.S. election.
A profile on the Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who was indicted by Mueller on Feb. 16, is provided by Nataliya Vasileyeva at the AP.
A timeline of the Russia investigation is available at NBC News.
IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL
“If the same policy of confusion and uncertainties about the J.C.P.O.A. [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] continues, if companies and banks are not working with Iran, we cannot remain in a deal that has no benefit for us,” the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said yesterday, referring to the official name for the 2015 nuclear deal and explaining that uncertainty about the U.S. position has been harming Iran’s economic efforts. Bozorgmehr Sharafedin reports at Reuters.
“If we lose J.C.P.O.A., we would face another nuclear crisis, which would be very difficult to be resolved this time,” Araghchi also said yesterday. Ted Regencia reports at Al Jazeera.
“I think they’re finishing it up,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said yesterday in response to a question about the Trump administration’s plan for a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine, adding that it “won’t be loved by either side, and it won’t be hated by either side.” Anne Gearan reports at the Washington Post.
The U.S. has been moving to reinforce its ties to Taiwan as China increases pressure on the self-governing island, Congress has been introducing bills to promote visits by warships and civilian officials and the Trump administration has also been taking efforts. Keith Bradsher reports at the New York Times.
The White House chief of staff John Kelly and national security adviser H.R. McMaster may leave the White House due to tensions with the president, according to four senior administration officials, but noting that tensions could blow over as has been the case for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. John Walcott reports at Reuters.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is expected to recommend to the president that transgender troops be allowed to continue serving in the U.S. military this week, a spokesperson for Mattis said that the president will make an announcement at some point after being briefed by the Defense Secretary. Dan Lamothe, Anne Gearan and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.
The Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will visit the White House today and relations with Trump are expected to be much improved since the infamous phone call between the president and the prime minister on Trump’s eight day in office. Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker explain at the Washington Post.