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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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered daily five-hour “humanitarian pauses” in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the Syrian capital Damascus, the Russian initiative effectively upends the U.N. Security Council resolution passed at the weekend which called for a 30-day nationwide ceasefire, but did not provide for a deadline or a mechanism for implementation. Kareem Shaheen and Andrew Roth report at the Guardian.
A five-hour pause has begun today in Eastern Ghouta, around 400,000 civilians are in the area and have faced over a week of intense bombing by pro-Syrian government forces. The U.K.’s deputy ambassador to the U.N., Jonathan Allen, said the Russian announcement does not constitute a full implementation of the 30-day ceasefire passed by the U.N. Security Council resolution at the weekend, Jamie Tarabay report at CNN.
Russian military police and Syrian troops have set up a humanitarian corridor for civilians to leave Eastern Ghouta, according to Russia’s state Tass news agency, residents of the enclave have expressed fear that they could be harassed and possibly arrested if they enter government-held areas. Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.
A number of shells hit towns in Eastern Ghouta during the first two hours of the “humanitarian pause,” according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Syrian state news agency reported that “terrorists” had shelled the route of the humanitarian corridor. The BBC reports.
Syrian government war planes struck the enclave despite Russia’s call for a five-hour truce, Reuters reports.
“It’s high time to stop this hell on earth,” the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said yesterday, noting that “Security Council resolutions are only meaningful if they are effective” and that “Eastern Ghouta cannot wait.” Nick Cumming-Bruce reports at the New York Times.
The parties to the conflict must agree on how to implement the ceasefire so it “would be complete and full scale across all of Syria,” the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a televised news conference yesterday, his comments presenting a challenge to the Security Council resolution. Laurence Norman and Thomas Grove report at the Wall Street Journal.
There must be an “immediate end” to offensive operations in Syria, the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday, adding that the Syrian government is “terrorizing hundreds of thousands of civilians” with its campaign and “a looming ground attack,” also noting that the “regime’s use of chlorine gas as a weapon only intensifies this.” The AP reports.
A suspected chemical attack killed one child and injured 18 others in Eastern Ghouta yesterday, according to Syria’s Civil Defense team, also known as the White Helmets. Fighting continued elsewhere in the country, including in the northern Afrin region where Turkey has been carrying out an offensive against Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. fighters, Al Jazeera reports.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.) opened an investigation on Sunday into reports of the use of chlorine gas attacks in Eastern Ghouta, according to sources, Anthony Deutsch reports at Reuters.
The U.K. should “seriously consider” joining the U.S. military in conducting strikes against the Syrian government if there is “incontrovertible evidence” of their involvement, the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said yesterday, adding that the people in Eastern Ghouta “cannot get the idea the West is going to intervene to change the odds dramatically in their favor.” Reuters reports.
Syrian women have been sexually exploited by men working on behalf of the U.N. and humanitarian agencies, aid workers have said. James Landale and Vinnie O’Dowd report at the BBC.
An explanation of the situation in Eastern Ghouta is provided by Al Jazeera.
U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 41 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between February 16 and February 22. [Central Command]
The KOREAN PENINSULA
“We want to talk also … only under the right conditions,” President Trump told governors at the White House yesterday, making the comments after the North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics told South Korea of its willingness to start a dialogue with Washington. Motoko Rich reports at the New York Times, explaining that the U.S. and North Korea have taken step towards starting a dialogue but remain far apart on what they believe discussions should involve.
Trump criticized his predecessors for allowing the North Korean threat to develop during his remarks to governors, Jeremy Diamond reports at CNN.
The senior U.S. diplomat overseeing North Korea policy, Joseph Yun, will retire on Friday, the State Department confirmed yesterday, marking the latest departure of a top official since the beginning of the Trump administration. Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO.
Yun’s departure comes as the prospect of talks between North Korea and the U.S. have been tentatively raised, Yun said that his retirement was his “own personal decision,” however a person familiar with Yun’s thinking said that it reflects frustration across the State Department about diplomats’ relative lack of power in the Trump administration. Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.
“We are sorry to see him retire, but our diplomatic efforts regarding North Korea will continue based on our maximum pressure campaign,” the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement yesterday, adding that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accepted Yun’s resignation “reluctantly.” Andrew Jeong and Jonathan Cheng report at the Wall Street Journal.
“Sanctions are not an end in themselves and not meant to bring down North Korea,” the South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said today, adding that the purpose of sanctions were to make Pyongyang understand that the path forward lies with denuclearization. Reuters reports.
The visit by the president’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump to the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in South Korea has caused tension in the West Wing, according to two sources familiar with the situation, the White House chief of staff John Kelly felt Ivanka Trump did not have the appropriate experience to lead the U.S. delegation due to the particular situation on the Korean Peninsula. Jeff Zeleny, Kevin Liptak and Kaitlan Collins report at CNN.
Trump administration officials have reiterated that they do not support a “bloody nose” preemptive strike against North Korea, despite the “Trumpian” nature of such talk, aides have expressed frustration at the phrase’s staying power. David Nakamura and Greg Jaffe explain at the Washington Post.
Russia yesterday vetoed a U.K.-drafted and U.S.-backed resolution that criticized Iran for its activities in Yemen and for “non-compliance” with the 2015 U.N. arms embargo. The U.S. ambassador for economic and social affairs, Kelley Currie, said the Russian veto served “only to protect Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region and spread its malign influence,” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.
The U.N. Security Council voted yesterday in favor of a Russian resolution to extend an arms embargo on Yemen, the Russian resolution made no mention of Iran and was passed after it vetoed the U.S.-backed resolution. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, said that Russia had “prevented accountability and endangered the entire region” in spite of a “mountain of credible, independent evidence showing Iran violated the Yemen arms embargo,” Farnaz Fassihi reports at the Wall Street Journal.
“If Russia is going to continue to cover for Iran then the U.S. and our partners need to take action on our own,” Haley said yesterday after the Russian veto, but did not specify what kind of action it could take. Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.
Europeans have been moving to create a successor deal to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and its ability to produce nuclear fuel rather than reopening the original agreement. In exchange for the initiative, Europeans have demanded a guarantee that Trump will abide by the successor deal after it is negotiated, Mark Landler, David E. Sanger and Gardiner Harris report at the New York Times.
The White House communications director Hope Hicks is scheduled to appear before the House Intelligence Committee today in a closed-door session as part of their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Hicks is likely to face questions about her role drafting a statement about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Trump campaign officials and a Russian lawyer, Karoun Demirjian reports at the Washington Post.
It remains to be seen whether Hicks will cooperate fully with the Committee in their questioning, the possibility that the White House has limited the scope of her testimony, like they did for the former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, has been raised by members of the panel. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.
Republicans investigating Russian interference have decided to avoid looking at Trump and his family’s finances, saying they see little reason to pursue those lines of inquiry and some have said that such issues should be taken up by special counsel Robert Mueller. Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb report at CNN.
The State Department has signed a $40m deal with the Pentagon to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation through the Global Engagement Center, the department announced yesterday. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.
The U.S. is working with French intelligence and military in Mali to locate the Islamic State group fighters who ambushed U.S. Special Forces troops in Niger in October last year, a Trump administration official has said. Barbara Starr reports at CNN.
Judge Army Col. James L. Pohl said yesterday that he would order Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to explain why he fired the Guantánamo Bay war court overseer Harvey Rishikof and his legal adviser, saying that “we simply need to know why they were terminated.” Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.
The top military commanders in Saudi Arabia were sacked last night by royal decree amid the ongoing Saudi-led coalition involvement in Yemen, the BBC reports.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was closed on Sunday after a dispute between the largely Palestinian Christian community and Israeli authorities. Tensions have risen since Trump announced that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Palestinian officials want the eastern part of the holy city, where the church is located, to be the capital of a future Palestinian state, Rory Jones reports at the Wall Street Journal.
Fraying U.S.-Pakistan relations may lead to shifting alliances as Russia moves to strengthen ties with Islamabad, Kathy Gannon observes at the AP.
The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in United States v. Microsoft today, the case raises questions about privacy and government access to data stored overseas by American companies. Craig A. Newman explains at the New York Times, writing that whatever the result of the case, Congress must act to pass a new law regulating information that crosses borders.
Gen. Khalifa Haftar of the self-styled Libyan National Army has presented himself as the only person able to bring stability to Libya, however he remains a divisive figure who has rejected the U.N.-backed Libyan transitional government and does not have full control of the situation on the ground. Al Jazeera explains.