The Early Edition: March 5, 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.

SYRIA

“The operation in Ghouta is a continuation of combating terrorism in different places,” the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said yesterday, referring to the pro-government forces’ operation in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus and adding that “there is no contradiction” between the Russia-ordered five-hour daily ceasefires and “combat operations.” Jamie Tarabay reports at CNN.

Around 400,000 civilians are in Eastern Ghouta and have been under siege by Assad and his allies, no civilians have left Eastern Ghouta through the humanitarian corridor set up by Russia and the Syrian government last week and the rebel factions announced on Sunday that they had launched a counteroffensive. Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

At least one third of Eastern Ghouta has been captured by pro-Syrian government forces, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said today, also stating that more than 700 have been killed in the enclave since the Syrian government intensified its offensive on Feb. 18. Reuters reports.

“The United States condemns the ongoing military offensive that the Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, is perpetrating against the people of Eastern Ghouta,” the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement yesterday. President Trump and the British Prime Minister Theresa May discussed situation in the enclave in a phone call yesterday and, according to Downing Street, agreed that “Russia and others with influence over the Syrian regime must act now to cease their campaign of violence and to protect civilians,” Brent D. Griffiths reports at POLITICO.

“After repeatedly delaying the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2401, which demanded a 30-day cessation of hostilities across Syria, Russia has gone on to ignore its terms and kill innocent civilians under the false auspices of counterterrorism operations,” Sanders said in the statement, which also condemned the Assad regime for its “continued use of chemical weapons.” Brandon Conradis reports at the Hill.

The French President Emmanuel Macron urged the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to use Iran’s influence to halt the Syrian government offensive on Eastern Ghouta, according to a statement by the French presidency. Dominique Vidalon reports at Reuters.

The U.N. intends to deliver humanitarian aid to Eastern Ghouta today, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (O.C.H.A.) said at the weekend, separately the U.N. Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, Panos Moumtzis, said in a statement that the continued offensive and the “collective punishment of civilians is simply unacceptable.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

At least 36 pro-Syrian government troops were killed on Friday by a Turkish airstrike in the northern Syrian Afrin region, pro-government forces entered Afrin two weeks ago to help the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. counter Turkey’s operation. Turkey began the offensive near its border in January as it deems the Y.P.G. to be an extension of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.), the BBC reports.

The Turkish military made advances in Afrin over the weekend during their operation against the Y.P.G., on Saturday the Turkish military said it killed 82 “terrorists” and on Sunday warplanes carried out airstrikes in support of a ground offensive. Sune Engel Rasmussen reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. should take action to support Israel to counter Iranian expansion in Syria, the U.S. must ensure that it coordinates with Israel to consider every possible future scenario in order to further joint interests. The former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel B. Shapiro, writes at Foreign Policy.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 23 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between February 23 and March 1. [Central Command]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, and the director of National Intelligence Service, Suh Hoon, arrived in North Korea today, the top aides are seeking to establish whether the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would be interested in negotiating an end to the nuclear weapons program and to engage in talks with Washington. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

Eui-yong and Hoon are expected to open discussions for a possible meeting between Moon and Kim, last month Kim extended an invitation to Moon to visit Pyongyang for a summit. Jonathan Cheng reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. will be meeting with North Korea but has said it must first “denuke,” Trump suggested during his speech to the annual Gridiron Club dinner on Saturday. It was not clear whether the president was joking or talks are, in fact, about to take place, Makini Brice reports at Reuters.

North Korea said that the U.S. “should not misjudge” its intention for dialogue, saying in a statement yesterday following Trump’s comments on Sunday, adding that it is “really more than ridiculous” that the U.S. insists on denuclearization as a precondition and that it continues its “maximum pressure” campaign against Pyongyang “until complete denuclearization is realized.” Kevin Bohn and Maegan Vazquez reports at CNN.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team have been focusing on the Lebanese-American businessman George Nader and any possible attempts by the United Arab Emirates to influence the Trump administration, according to sources familiar with the investigation. Nader became an adviser to Prince Mohammed of the U.A.E. in 2016 and, around the time of Trump’s inauguration, he met with the top Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy, Mark Mazzetti, David D. Kirkpatrick and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Mueller issued a grand jury subpoena last month to ten top Trump campaign officials for all their communications from November 1, 2015 to the present. Jonathan Swan reports at Axios, providing a list of the individuals’ names.

“Never. Russia does not extradite its citizens to anyone,” the Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly which aired Sunday, responding to Kelly’s question whether his country would extradite the 13 Russians indicted by Mueller last month for alleged communication “with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign.” Martin Pengelly reports at the Guardian.

ELECTION INTERFERENCE

The State Department has not spent any of the $120m allocated to it to counter foreign attempts to meddle in elections or spread disinformation, Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

The former chief of staff to President Barack Obama said yesterday that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “watered down” a bipartisan language in a September 2016 letter warning about Russian attempts to interfere in the presidential election. Kailani Koenig reports at NBC News.

IRAN

The U.S. and Israel will have an opportunity present a united front in the face of the threat posed by Iran when the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump meet today. The discussions are expected to include discussion of Iran’s expansionism, its ballistic missiles program, and the perceived flaws in the 2015 nuclear deal, Matt Spetalnick and Jeffrey Heller report at Reuters.

The French President Emmanuel Macron expressed support for the 2015 nuclear deal during a phone call with the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani yesterday, but, according to a statement by the French presidency, he also raised concerns about Iran’s regional policies and its ballistic missiles program. The call took place ahead of the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s trip to Tehran today, Michael Peel and Najmeh Bozorgmehr report at the Financial Times.

CHINA

A U.S. Navy aircraft today anchored near the Vietnamese port city of Danang in order to send a message to China and its activities in the South China Sea, Matt Rivers reports at CNN.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s power grab has caused concern in Europe, there were hopes that Xi would champion the global system, but his actions have raised alarm about China’s political and economic intentions in Europe and across the world. Steven Erlanger writes at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Islamic State group have released a video claiming to show the ambush of U.S. soldiers in Niger in October, four Special Forces soldiers were killed in the attack and it is not clear why the release of the footage has been delayed by the terrorist group until now. The BBC reports.

The U.S. Embassy in Turkey will be closed today “due to a security threat,” the embassy in Ankara said in a statement, the AP reports.

The Trump administration’s plan for peace between Israel and Palestine is still at its early stages and already faces key obstacles, according to experts and diplomats, who note the increasing mistrust of the Trump administration by Palestinians and their Arab allies, the domestic issues facing Trump and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the problems faced by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has been one half of the team leading the administration’s Middle East peace efforts. Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Pentagon is actively looking for a new job for the Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster, according to U.S. officials, in the meantime, McMaster remains in the White House with few supporters and has a poor relationship with the president. Dion Nissenbaum and Gordon Lubold report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Obama administration sought to roll back sanctions on Myanmar and be more open to the country, however it did not foresee the genocide that would be carried out against the Rohingyan Muslim minority. Nahal Toosi provides an overview of the Obama administration’s approach, the situation in Mynamar and whether the U.S. could have done more at POLITICO Magazine. 

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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