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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.
North Korea has been shipping supplies to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government which have likely been used to produce chemical weapons, according to intelligence from several member states cited in a U.N. report. The report has not been publicly released, Ian Talley reports at the Wall Street Journal.
The evidence of shipments comes as the U.S. and others have accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons, including in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the Syrian capital Damascus. The shipments also provide North Korea with an opportunity to generate revenue in spite of international sanctions against it, Michael Schwirtz reports at the New York Times.
North Korean missile experts visited Syria in 2016 and 2017 and, according to a U.N. member state, North Korean scientists may still be operating in three locations in the country. Richard Roth, Angela Dewan and Ben Westcott report at CNN.
At least five of the shipments were sent via a Chinese trading firm, according to the report, China responded that it had no evidence demonstrating that the firm has business with North Korean entities in violation of Security Council resolutions. The BBC reports.
“Russia is on the wrong side of history with regard to chemical weapons use in Syria,” the U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood said today. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to the accusations by saying that the “U.S. and its allies are simply exploiting baseless allegations of toxic weapons use by Damascus as a tool of anti-Syrian political engineering,” Stephanie Nebehay reports at Reuters.
The Russia-ordered five-hour ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta yesterday did not lead to a halt in fighting, the successful delivery of humanitarian aid or the ability for civilians to escape the area, aid agencies said the five-hour window was too short to deliver aid and that mortars landed near the humanitarian corridor opened by the Syrian government. Liz Sly reports at the Washington Post.
Another Russia-ordered five-day ceasefire has begun in Eastern Ghouta today following yesterday’s failed “humanitarian pause,” Al Jazeera reports.
Pro-Syrian government forces have gained ground in Eastern Ghouta today in spite of the Russian-ordered truce, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Reuters reports.
Russia is acting as “both arsonist and firefighter” in Syria, the head of the U.S. Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday, explaining that Russia has been using its diplomatic and military position to “undermine and weaken each party’s bargaining positions.” Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart report at Reuters.
Countering Iran in Syria is not a U.S. military objective but a “U.S. objective,” Gen. Votel said yesterday, explaining his understanding of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s speech on Syria strategy last month, during which Tillerson said that “U.S. disengagement from Syria would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.
Around 20,000 anti-Assad fighters are in Eastern Ghouta, a few hundred are al-Qaeda-linked, thereby giving the pro-government forces a pretext to continue its offensive. An overview of the various rebel factions is provided by Bassem Mroue at the AP.
“This decision is very clearly a decision in support of terrorism,” the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said yesterday in response to the Czech Republic’s decision to release the former leader of Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (P.Y.D.), Salih Muslim, after he was arrested in Prague on Sunday on Turkey’s request. The P.Y.D. is the political wing of the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia, whom Turkey consider to be an extension of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and Turkey began an operation against the Y.P.G. in the northern Syrian region of Afrin in January, Al Jazeera reports.
Turkey today rejected the U.S. and France’s calls to apply the U.N. Security Council resolution for a Syria-wide ceasefire to its operation in Afrin, saying that the resolution did not specifically mention the region and that its operation there was “a fight that is carried out against the terrorist organizations that target Turkey’s national security and Syria’s unity.” Reuters reports.
The U.N. report reveals how North Korea “will sell anything to any bad actor for a price.” If sanctions are going to stop the Pyongyang regime, “the U.S. and its allies will have to start boarding ships and commandeering aircraft believed to be carrying W.M.D. material,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.
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 TRUMP ADMINISTRATION
Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has had his security clearance downgraded and he will no longer have access to top-secret intelligence, according to sources familiar with the situation. Eliana Johnson and Andrew Restuccia report at POLITICO.
The downgrading comes amid increased tensions between the White House chief of staff John Kelly and members of Trump’s family. Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, have been frustrated by Kelly’s attempts to restrict their access to the president, and Kushner has played a key role in crafting foreign policy issues, including China, Mexico, Canada and a peace plan for Israel and Palestine, Michael C. Bender and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.
Kushner’s change in status will likely impact his foreign policy role, there is also speculation that the recent development might lead to Kushner and his wife leaving the White House and returning to their private businesses in New York. Michael D. Shear and Katie Rogers report at the New York Times.
Officials in the U.A.E., China, Israel and Mexico privately discussed ways to use Kushner’s lack of foreign policy experience and his financial situation as leverage, according to current and former U.S. officials. Kushner has complex business arrangements and, according to White House officials, the national security adviser H.R. McMaster expressed surprise that Kushner did not explain some of his foreign contacts, Shane Harris, Carol D. Leonnig, Greg Jaffe and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.
Kushner’s spokesperson Josh Raffel will be leaving the White House, administration officials said yesterday, Raffel worked on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues. Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.
Election systems in seven states were compromised by Russian-backed covert operations ahead of the 2016 U.S. election, the U.S. intelligence community believes, having gathered the evidence following a top-secret intelligence request by President Barack Obama during his last weeks in office. Cynthia McFadden, William M. Arkin, Kevin Monahan and Ken Dilanian report at NBC News.
“NBC’s reporting tonight on the 2016 elections is not accurate,” the Department of Homeland Security’s (D.H.S.) acting press secretary Tyler Q. Houlton said in a statement yesterday, adding that “we have no intelligence – new or old – that corroborates NBC’s reporting that state systems in seven states were compromised by Russian government actors.” Luis Sanchez reports at the Hill.
The head of the U.S. Cyber Command and National Security Agency (N.S.A.) Adm. Mike Rogers said that he had not been directed by the president to strike Russian election interference attempts at their “origin,” making the comments during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday and adding that the N.S.A. “have not opted to engage in some of the same behaviors that we are seeing.” Nancy A. Youssef reports at the Wall Street Journal.
“We’re taking steps, but we’re probably not doing enough,” Adm. Rogers also said, explaining that Russia will not change its behavior while the current dynamic continues. Aaron Blake and Ellen Nakashima report at the Washington Post.
Democrats on the Senate Armed Service Committee expressed dismay that the White House has not directed a stronger response to Russian interference, Adam Edelman reports at NBC News.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team have been asking witnesses about Trump’s business interests in Russia before the 2016 presidential campaign, according to three sources familiar with the matter, questions have included details about Trump’s decision run for president and his trip to Moscow in 2013. Kara Scannell, Pamela Brown, Gloria Borger and Jim Sciutto report at CNN.
The White House communications director Hope Hicks declined to answer some questions when she appeared before the House Intelligence Community yesterday as part of their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, some of the issues she avoided related to the presidential transition and her time in the White House. The top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) said Hicks had refused to answer questions on “key events such as the fabrication of that statement about the [June 2016] Trump Tower meeting” between Trump campaign officials and a Russian lawyer, Katie Bo Williams and Olivia Beavers report at the Hill.
Hicks told the committee that she told white lies for the president on occasion, Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.
Mueller yesterday asked for a series of criminal charges against former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates to be dropped in exchange for his guilty plea and testimony relating to the 2016 election. Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.
Belarussian escort service worker Anastasia Vashukevich has offered information on Trump-Russia links in exchange for help to release her from detention in Thailand. Vashukevick had an affair with the Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, who had previously employed the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Anton Troianovski reports at the Washington Post.
The process to obtain a warrant to surveil the former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page will be investigated, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions said yesterday, making the comments after a Republican-authored memo said the F.B.I. and the Justice Department misused their authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.). Del Quentin Wilber reports at the Wall Street Journal.
The Afghan President Ashraf Ghani today called on the Taliban to take part in peace talks to “save the country,” saying that the Afghan government “will consider the Taliban’s view in the peace talks.” Rahim Faiez reports at the AP.
“We are making this offer without preconditions in order to lead to a peace agreement,” Ghani explained, his comments marking a significant shift from his previous rhetoric labeling the Taliban “terrorists” and “rebels.” Incentives offered by Ghani included recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate political group, a proposal for a ceasefire, the release of Taliban prisoners, new elections involving the militants and a constitutional review. Hamid Shalizi reports at Reuters.
Ghani’s comments come as reports have emerged that the Afghan government has been discussing closing the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, a Taliban official said that further talk of closing the Doha office would lead to them withdrawing their offer of dialogue and he also said that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would remain a precondition for the Taliban taking part. Shereena Qazi reports at Al Jazeera.
The KOREAN PENINSULA
The announcement that the top U.S. diplomat on North Korea policy, Joseph Yun, will retire at the end of the week highlights the divisions within the Trump administration, differences have emerged over the value of negotiations with North Korea and Yun’s departure comes as the Pyongyang regime has indicated its willingness to talk with the Washington. Felicia Schwartz, Michael Gordon and Andrew Jeong report at the Wall Street Journal.
“To imply that Ambassador Yun is the only one that is capable of handling North Korea would simply be wrong,” the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said yesterday, seeking to assuage concerns about his departure. Reuters reports.
Joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises will start in early April, the South Korean presidential adviser Moon Chung-in has said, according to the South Korean Yonhap news agency. The joint drills were postponed due to the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, Reuters reports.
France, Germany, the U.K. and U.S. yesterday issued a joint statement condemning Iran for violating an arms embargo on Yemen, saying that Iran’s non-compliance “poses risks to peace and stability in the region” and making the statement after Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution criticizing Iran. The AP reports.
Trump discussed Iran’s “destabilizing activities” and other issues in a phone call with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nayhan of the U.A.E. yesterday, according to the White House. Reuters reports.
The chief prosecutor of the Kosovo war crimes court has been forced to leave his position largely due to inertia at the U.S. State Department, David Schwendiman explained that he had been given “no assurances” that the State Department has begun searching for his replacement. Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.
“I call on the parties to cease hostilities, reactive negotiations aimed at a peaceful settlement,” the outgoing U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed told the Security Council yesterday. The UN News Centre reports.