The Early Edition: March 13, 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 United States remains prepared to act if we must” should the international community fail to act on Syria, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said yesterday at the Security Council, making the comments after a Council passed resolution 2401 last month which called for a 30-day Syria-wide ceasefire that has failed to stop the violence, in particular in the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta, near the capital Damascus. Michelle Nichols and Suleiman Al-Khalidi report at Reuters.

“Today, we know that Russians did not keep their commitment … as bombs continue dropping on the children of Eastern Ghouta,” Haley also said yesterday, her remarks coming ahead of claims by activists and state media that Eastern Ghouta has been split into three parts by pro-Syrian President Bashar al-Assad forces. Jamie Tarabay reports at CNN.

Haley proposed a new resolution that would be “simple straightforward and binding,” “will take effect immediately upon adoption by this council … [and] contains no counterterrorism loopholes for Assad, Iran and the Russians to hide behind,” referring to the fact that resolution 2401 allowed for continued military strikes on “terrorist” groups – which Haley has said has provided the pro-Syrian government forces a pretext to continue attacks on civilians. Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

“Syria is bleeding inside and out,” the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said at yesterday’s Security Council meeting, highlighting that violence in Eastern Ghouta has intensified since resolution 2401 was passed, that none of the Council’s directives have been implemented, the delivery of humanitarian aid has been impeded, sieges have not been lifted and no critically ill or wounded people have been evacuated from the rebel enclave. The U.N. News Centre reports.

“I am deeply disappointed by all those … who allowed this to happen,” Guterres also said, referring to the continued attacks and the high death toll in Eastern Ghouta. Al Jazeera reports.

The French President Emmanuel Macron yesterday threatened to take action and “proceed with targeted strikes” if there is “irrefutable proof” that chemical weapons were used in Syria. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

The Army of Islam rebel group in Eastern Ghouta have vowed to continue fighting and not leave the area in a statement yesterday, which was issued after local reports said that the rebel group was negotiating with the Syrian government and Russia to leave the area. Bassem Mroue and Suzan Fraser report at the AP, also offering an overview of other recent developments in Syria.

The Army of Islam reached an agreement with Russia yesterday to evacuate wounded civilians from Eastern Ghouta, Russia has not confirmed the agreement, but the U.N. has said that there have been talks between the two parties. The BBC reports.

Sick and injured civilians have begun leaving Eastern Ghouta today, Reuters reports.

Pro-Syrian government forces are using the tactics used in the assault on Aleppo in 2016 in Eastern Ghouta now, Nada Homsi and Anne Barnard explain at the New York Times.

Turkish troops will soon “clear” the northern Syrian town of Afrin of militants, the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesperson Bekir Bozdag said yesterday, referring to Turkey’s ongoing operation against the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia – whom Turkey consider to be terrorists – in the northern Afrin region. Reuters reports.

The U.S. has called an urgent meeting in Jordan following reports of strikes in in a de-escalation zone in southwestern Syria, saying that the action would “jeopardize the ceasefire and make future cooperation more difficult.” Reuters reports.

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

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee yesterday concluded that there was no collusion between members of the Trump campaign and Russian operatives in a 150-page draft report. The Republican lawmakers have closed the panel’s investigation of Russian election interference, Rebecca Ballhaus and Byron Tau report at the Wall Street Journal.

There was “perhaps some bad judgment, inappropriate meetings” between Trump campaign officials and Russians, Rep. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.), who oversees the committee’s Russia investigation, said yesterday, reiterating that, nevertheless, they had found “no evidence of any collusion.” Trump triumphantly welcomed the announcement in a message in Twitter, Karoun Demirjian reports at the Washington Post.

Conaway said that Republicans on the committee do not think that Russian interference was intended to boost the Trump campaign, explaining that “we don’t think that’s supported by the underlying data” and contradicting the assessment made by the U.S. intelligence community in January 2017. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

The Republican report has not yet been shown to Democrats on the panel and has not been publicly released, Conaway said in his announcement that the G.O.P draft report sets out “an attempt to use foreign sources with respect to the Clinton campaign,” in particular the work commissioned by the research firm Fusion G.P.S. which was compiled by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Olivia Beaver and Katie Bo Williams report at the Hill.

“The special counsel [Robert Mueller] is not an unguided missile,” the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has said in an interview with USA TODAY, explaining that he does not believe “there is any justification at this point for terminating the special counsel,” and making the comments in the face of ongoing attacks on Mueller’s Russia investigation, including by the president. Kevin Johnson reports at USA TODAY.

“We write to urge your administration to devote all resources available to ensure that the Russian nationals indicted for allegedly interfering with the 2016 elections are brought to justice and stand trial in the United States,” top congressional Democrats have written in a letter to the president, referring to Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities last month. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

The Republican announcement has further exposed partisan divisions, Democrats have accused the panel’s Republicans of seeking to shield the president and shutting down the investigation prematurely. Democrats are expected to release their own report on the Russia investigation, Patricia Zengerle reports at Reuters.

Republicans on the panel have given Trump a gift in his “war of credibility with America’s spy agencies” and have increased the chances of Trump allies calling for Mueller to be fired. Stephen Collinson provides an analysis at CNN.

RUSSIA

The British Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday accused Russia of being responsible for the “indiscriminate and reckless” nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia in the English city of Salisbury. During her statement to the House of Commons, May issued Russia an ultimatum to respond by the end of today to explain what had happened and said that a lack of a “credible response” would lead to the conclusion that the action “amount to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom,” George Parker, Jim Packard and Henry Foy report at the Financial Times.

May said they had evidence that Skripal had been targeted by Novichok, a “military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.” In response to May’s statement, Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova called the remarks “a provocation” and part of a “circus show in the British parliament,” Anushka Asthana, Andrew Roth, Luke Harding and Ewen MacAskill report at the Guardian.

Russia does not intend to comply with May’s demand and insists that Russian experts should have access to British evidence that links the attack in Salisbury to Moscow, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said today. Matthew Bodner reports at the Washington Post.

The British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has said he has been encouraged by the “strength of support” shown to the U.K., the N.A.T.O. secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said that the U.K. is a “highly valued ally, and this incident is of great concern,” other European countries have also expressed support. The BBC reports.

Russia is an “irresponsible force of instability in the world,” the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday, saying that the U.S. will stand “in solidarity” with the U.K. and striking a much harsher tone than the White House in response to the attack in Salisbury – adding that those responsible “most face appropriately serious consequences.” Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO.

“This is a really egregious act. … It appears that it clearly came from Russia,” Tillerson also said yesterday, noting that the Novichak nerve agent “is only in the hands of a very, very limited number of parties.” Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

The ways in which the U.K. could respond to Russia are explored by the BBC.

The use of the Novichok nerve agent raises questions about the other chemical weapons that Russia may possess, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, arguing that other countries should also take retaliatory measures if Russia does not explain the situation.

The attack in Salisbury requires a “powerful response” from N.A.T.O. and the U.S., the New York Times editorial board writes, noting that the Russian Vladimir Putin has carried out destabilizing activities across the world.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The White House said yesterday that it “fully expects” a meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to take place, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

North Korea has not made a statement since President Trump agreed to a summit with Kim last week, the lack of response has raised concern about Pyongyang’s intentions. Bryan Harris reports at the Financial Times.  

It is “extremely important that North Korea takes concrete actions” to achieving denuclearization, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said today ahead of talks with the South Korean National Intelligence Service director Suh Hoon, who is in Japan to brief officials on developments on the Korean Peninsula and discussions the South Korea delegation had with Kim last week. Mari Yamaguchi reports at the AP.

The U.N. Security Council shares the Trump administration’s optimism about a diplomatic solution to the threat posed by North Korea, the U.S. national security adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters yesterday after briefing the Council, adding that “we’re determined to keep up the campaign of maximum pressure until we see words matched with deeds and real progress towards denuclearization.” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

A leaked draft of a U.N. report claims that two Singapore-based firms have violated international sanctions on North Korea, the report is likely to be published later this week. Karishma Vaswani reports at the BBC.

AFGHANISTAN

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has arrived in Afghanistan today for an unannounced visit, he will meet with senior U.S. and Afghan officials and discussions will include the possibility of a peace settlement with the Afghan Taliban. Dan Lamothe reports at the Washington Post.

The U.S. has “picked up” some interest in reaching a settlement from some Taliban factions, Mattis said today. Euan McKirdy reports at CNN.

Afghanistan may be on the verge of once again becoming a “safe haven” for terrorist groups who plot against the U.S., the Islamic State group has grown in the country and the number of terrorist groups has increased. Helene Cooper reports at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A convoy carrying the Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah was attacked today as it was entering the Gaza Strip, the explosion lightly injured several people and Hamdallah emerged unharmed. The Fatah Party, which governs the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, blamed Hamas, which rules in Gaza, for the attack and said it was an “attempt to kill all reconciliation efforts,” Al Jazeera reports.

Two defense lawyers representing the Saudi citizen Rahim al-Nashiri in the U.S.S. Cole bombing case at Guantánamo have questioned the government’s account of the discovery of a hidden microphone in a special client meeting room, saying that the government statement omits key details. Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times.

The Nigerian presidency has said that it would seek to negotiate the release of 110 schoolgirls abducted in the northeastern part of the country last month, the Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said that he had discussed the use of negotiations with the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson while he was visiting the Nigerian capital of Abuja. Reuters reports.

Trump has prohibited a bid by the Singapore-based Broadcom for the U.S.-based Qualcomm, saying in a presidential order that he had “credible evidence” that the deal would have implications for U.S. national security. The action raises questions about the use of national security arguments to push back against private-sector foreign investment, Cecilia Kang and Alan Rappeport report at the New York Times.

The White House will host the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on March 20, the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday, Reuters reporting.

The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar has given an account of likely “crimes under international law” that have been committed against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the country’s Rakhine state, the rapporteur, Yanghee Lee, called for the creation of an independent investigative body to collect information on human rights violations and abuses. Hannah Ellis-Petersen reports at the Guardian. 

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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