The Early Edition: March 12, 2018

TRUMP TO MEET KIM

Trump’s advisers have defended the president’s decision to accept North Korea leader Kim Jong-un’s invitation to talk, the president agreed to the meeting on Thursday and told the South Korean delegation, who delivered the invitation, to make a public announcement to that effect, leaving his administration scrambling to establish a diplomatic strategy. Ted Mann and Gordon Lubold report at the Wall Street Journal.

“The potential meeting has been agreed to; there are no additional conditions being stipulated,” the White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah said yesterday of the proposed Trump-Kim summit, emphasizing that North Korea cannot conduct missile and nuclear tests or object to upcoming U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, and that the talks have the potential to collapse – especially if Pyongyang defies the conditions set out in the invitation communication by the South Korean delegation to the White House. Brent D. Griffiths reports at POLITICO.

“While these negotiations are going on, there will be no concessions made,” the C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo said yesterday, adding that the Trump administration had given Kim “nothing” in exchange for agreeing to talk and that “President Trump isn’t doing this for theatre. He’s going to solve a problem.” Seung Min Kim reports at the Washington Post.

“We have not seen nor received an official response from the North Korean regime regarding the North Korea-U.S. summit,” the South Korean Unification Ministry said today, saying that they believe Pyongyang is “approaching this matter with caution and they need time to organize their stance.” The BBC reports.

The South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong is scheduled to meet the Chinese President Xi Jinping today to discuss the proposed U.S.-North Korea talks and ease concerns, separately another South Korean delegation is scheduled to meet with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to brief him on the matter. Euan McKirdy reports at CNN.

Chung today thanked President Xi and China for its “active support and contribution” toward achieving peace and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula during a meeting with China’s top diplomat, State Councilor Yang Jiechi. Chung will travel to Russia tomorrow to brief Moscow on developments on the Korean Peninsula, Christine Kim reports at Reuters.

“There’s no question these sanctions are working and that’s what brought them [North Korea] to the table,” the Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said yesterday, referring to the raft of sanctions imposed on Pyongyang by the Trump administration. Andrew Rafferty reports at NBC News.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said at the weekend that he does not want to talk about the Korean Peninsula “at all” and directed all questions about the potential meeting to the State Department, explaining that “when you get into a position like this, the potential for misunderstanding remains very high or grows higher.” Dan Lamothe reports at the Washington Post.

The possibility of a meeting between Trump and Kim has received mixed reactions from U.S. lawmakers, some Republicans have urged caution and warned about Pyongyang’s intentions, Democrats have raised concerns about the State Department’s resources to carry out such diplomacy. Mallory Shelbourne reports at the Hill.

Trump said Saturday that he had spoken to President Xi “at length” and that “China continues to be helpful” in a message on Twitter, he also said that the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was “very enthusiastic about talks with North Korea,” however his claims of enthusiasm belie the complicated nature of Asian leaders’ reaction to the development. Greg Miller explains at the Washington Post.

There has been speculation that a Trump-Kim meeting could lead to the release of three American men held in North Korea. Reuters gives an overview of the three men who are in detention.

The Trump administration’s approach to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal will have a bearing on North Korea’s attitude toward talks on denuclearization, David E. Sanger explains at the New York Times.

“It’s like Richard Nixon going to China, but if Nixon were a moron,” Jeffrey Lewis writes of the Trump-Kim meeting at Foreign Policy, arguing that Kim’s offer does not signal an intention to denuclearize and gives the North Korean leader the opportunity to be treated as an equal.

President Trump should be praised for deciding to sit down for talks, Nicholas Burns writes at the Financial Times, arguing that the president has “has chosen the wiser path for his country and the world,” but there are many obstacles to negotiations and Trump must be prepared to face the challenges and “commit himself to an aggressive diplomatic campaign.”

SYRIA

It would be “very unwise” for Syrian government forces to use weaponized gas, the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday, pointing to numerous reports of chlorine use but noting that he did not currently have clear evidence of cholrine gas attacks. Phil Stewart reports at Reuters.

Mattis also pointed the finger at Russia for Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, saying that “Russia was the framework guarantor that [Assad] would get rid of all of it,” and “either Russia is incompetent or in cahoots with Assad.” Eli Watkins reports at CNN.

Pro-Syrian government forces made significant gains over the weekend in the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus, a campaign on the enclave began three weeks ago and the advance of the pro-Syrian President Bashar al-Assad forces has raised the possibility that they will capture the territory imminently. Raja Abdulrahim reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Syrian government forces split Eastern Ghouta in two yesterday, a media unit run by the Assad-allied Iran-backed Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah group said that the army had also entirely surrounded the town of Douma. Reuters reports.

At least 1,099 civilians have been killed in Eastern Ghouta by government forces over the past 21 says, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (S.O.H.R.). The ongoing government offensive reflects patterns of its previous assaults on rebel-held territory, Al Jazeera reports.

The Russian military said yesterday it had evacuated 52 civilians from Eastern Ghouta after talks with local authorities in Misraba, Reuters reports.

Around 511,000 people have been killed since the Syrian war began seven years ago, S.O.H.R. said today, adding that pro-Syrian government forces were responsible for around 85 percent of the deaths. Reuters reports.

The U.S. has significantly scaled down its combat operations at Turkey’s Incirlik air base, the base was a center for operations against the Islamic State group. A Turkish official said the move was due to a shift in U.S. priorities from Syria to Afghanistan, however the move comes amid deteriorating U.S.-Turkey relations and differences in approach to the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia, whom the U.S. support but Turkey see as an extension of the Turkey-based outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.). Gordon Lubold, Felicia Schwartz and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

A feature on the Syrian Kurds, their support for the P.K.K. leader Abdullah Ocalan, and the Y.P.G. alliance with the U.S., is provided by Rod Nordland at the New York Times.

Civilian deaths in the city of Raqqa as a consequence of U.S.-led coalition strikes are much higher than previously reported, according to the war monitor, Airwars. Bodies are still being pulled from the rubble created by U.S. airstrikes in the city that was formerly the de facto capital of the Islamic State group in Syria, Samuel Oakford reports at The Daily Beast, writing that “to date, the Trump administration has shown little interest in properly understanding the civilian harm resulting from its defeat of I.S.I.S.”

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 20 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between March 2 and March 8. [Central Command]

TRUMP-RUSSIA

“So what if they’re Russians? … I couldn’t care less. … They do not represent the interests of the Russian state,” the Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly aired at the weekend, referring to allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and the indictments issued by special counsel Robert Mueller – who is investigating Trump-Russia connections, among other issues – against 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies for interfering in the election. Putin also suggested that “maybe they’re Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, just with Russian citizenship,” Alexander Smith reports at NBC News.

There has been speculation that the lawyer Emmet Flood is under consideration for a White House job assisting Trump with the Russia investigations, Flood advised former President Bill Clinton during his impeachment proceedings, however Trump has said that reports that he is concerned about his legal team are false and he is “very happy” with his lawyers. Karen Freifeld reports at Reuters.

Qatari officials decided not to give information they held about United Arab Emirates influence on Jared Kushner to Mueller, fearing the impact the details, including of secret meeting, would have on relations with the Trump administration. Qatar and the U.A.E. have been locked in a dispute since June last year, when the U.A.E., along with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain, decided to blockade Qatar due to its alleged support for terrorism. Julia Ainsley, Carol E. Lee, Robert Windrem and Andrew W. Lehren report at NBC News.

RUSSIA

The Russian military said Saturday that it had successfully tested a hypersonic missile, claiming that the missile “has no analogues in the world.” Radina Gigova reports at CNN.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo have dismissed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s touting of Russia’s nuclear weapons capability, saying that Putin’s recent comments did not change the assessment of Russia’s military capability and Pompeo adding that “Americans continue to be kept safe from threats from Vladimir Putin.” Dan Lamothe reports at the Washington Post.

The European Union announced today that it had extended sanctions against Russia for another six months, the reason for the initial sanctions were the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. Reuters reports.

The British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to be urged today to take a tougher line against Russia if it is found that the country was behind the attempted murder of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury on March 4. Owen Bowcott, Haroon Siddique and Peter Walker report at the Guardian.

An attack on a Russian defector on U.S. soil is possible, according to former spies. Justin Rohrlich writes at The Daily Beast.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban launched an assault on a district headquarters in the western Afghan province of Farah today, Afghan security forces have countered the attack and recaptured the district headquarters. Rahim Faiez reports at the Washington Post.

The Taliban must seriously engage with the unprecedented offer for peace made recently by Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, it offers the Taliban to pursuit its goals peacefully and has found support among Afghan people and the international community. The Afghan deputy foreign minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai writes at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Trump administration’s plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is close to completion, three senior officials said yesterday, adding that the administration faces an initial hurdle unveiling the plan as a number of developments have complicated the situation, including Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the domestic problems faced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mark Landler reports at the New York Times.

At least 10 people were killed yesterday by two separate Islamic State group attacks in the northern Iraqi provinces of Mosul and Kirkuk, according to police and local officials. Mustafa Mahmoud reports at Reuters.

Almost half of U.S. arms exports over the past five years have gone to the Middle East, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), Saeed Kamali Dehghan reports at the Guardian.

An overview of recent developments in the South China Sea is provided by Christopher Bodeen at the AP. 

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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