The Early Edition: March 15, 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.

RUSSIA

The British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the U.K. would expel 23 Russian diplomats in response to the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the English city of Salisbury last week. Moscow ignored the ultimatum issued by May this week to explain the situation, and the Prime Minister said in a statement to the House of Commons that the attack on Skripal with the Novichok nerve agent represented an “unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom,” Jenny Gross reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Russia will “soon” expel U.K. diplomats in response to the U.K.’s decision, Russian media quoted the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying today. The BBC reports.

“The United States believes that Russia is responsible for the attack on two people in the United Kingdom using a military-grade nerve agent,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said at a Security Council meeting yesterday, adding that “if we don’t take immediate concrete measures to address this now, Salisbury will not be the last place we see chemical weapons used.” During the meeting, the Russian ambassador to the U.N., Vassily Nabenzia, dismissed the accusations by the U.K. and its allies, saying that there has been no research on Novichok in Russia and suggested that the U.K. may have carried out the attack to smear Moscow, Laura Koran reports at CNN.

“The United States shares the United Kingdom’s assessment that Russia is responsible for the reckless nerve agent attack on a British citizen and his daughter,” the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement yesterday, adding that the White House supports the U.K.’s decision to expel Russian diplomats “as a just response.” Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

The U.S. made further criticisms of Russia yesterday, at the Security Council Haley said that “this latest action … fits into a pattern of behavior in which Russia disregards the international rules-based order,” and the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement that “Crimea is part of Ukraine,” referring to the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014. Cristiano Lima reports at POLITICO.

“There is something in the kind of smug, sarcastic response that we’ve heard [from Russia] that indicates their fundamental guilt,” the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said yesterday, adding that he had been “very heartened” by the strength of support for Britain from across the world in light of the attack. Matthew Weaver and Jon Henley report at the Guardian.

“I interpret this incident as part of a pattern of reckless behavior by President Vladimir Putin,” Boris Johnson writes at the Washington Post, expressing hope and belief that the U.K.’s friends and allies “will stand alongside us.”

The French government said that it was too early for France to decide a response to the nerve agent attack, saying that such decisions should be made after Russian involvement has been proved. May is scheduled to speak to French President Emmanuel Macron about the situation today, Reuters reports.

It remains unclear what further action the U.K. could take against Russia at the U.N. due to Russia’s position as a permanent member of the Security Council, reactions in Russia suggest that they do not expect serious consequences. Michael Schwirtz reports at the New York Times.

“An adequate international response to Mr. Putin would push back against his ventures on all fronts,” including in Syria, Ukraine, and in cyberspace, the Washington Post editorial board writes, arguing that the U.S. should join the U.K. in responding forcefully to the Russian President.

President Trump has been largely silent on the Salisbury attack, leading to concerns about Trump’s equivocation and what this means for geopolitics. Julian Borger writes at the Guardian.

The U.K. has limited options to respond to Russia, Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) announced yesterday that he would oppose the nomination of Gina Haspel to be C.I.A. Director, citing her role in the post-9/11 C.I.A. interrogation program and saying that he couldn’t endorse “the head cheerleader for waterboarding,” his opposition likely meaning that Haspel would need votes from Democrats during the confirmation process. Kristina Peterson reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is considering a recommendation by the Justice Department’s inspector general to fire the former F.B.I. Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, an internal review concluded that McCabe was not forthcoming about the disclosing of information to reporters about the F.B.I. investigation into the Clinton Foundation in 2016. Katie Benner, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman report at the New York Times.

McCabe stood down as F.B.I. Deputy Director in January and may be fired before his expected retirement, McCabe became acting director of the bureau for several months when Trump fired the former Director James Comey and has been strongly criticized by Trump and his allies as being potentially biased against the president and the Republican party, Del Quentin Wilber and Aruna Viswanatha report at the Wall Street Journal.

The firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by Trump on Tuesday has caused concern among foreign countries ahead of the potential meeting between Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the Japanese Foreign Minister expressed “much regret” over Tillerson’s departure and South Korea emphasized that business would continue as usual. Tillerson’s replacement, the former C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo, is expected to take a much harder line on North Korea and other foreign policy issues, Jamie Tarabay provides an analysis at CNN.

The ousting of Tillerson has led to mixed reactions within the State Department, employees are preparing for a shift in style, with some welcoming the prospect of a new Secretary of State that has a good relationship with the president, and others concerned about Pompeo’s hardline views and foreign policy instincts. John Hudson explains at the Washington Post.

Pompeo is likely to manage the State Department better than his predecessor and be in a better position to represent the U.S. overseas because of his alignment with Trump’s wordlview, meaning that his “ultimate test will be how to manage his loyalties to the president against his responsibilities to the institution he intends to lead.” Shamila N. Chaudhary writes at POLITICO Magazine.

SYRIA

Pro-Syrian government forces have advanced on the town of Hammuriyeh in the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus, the AFP reports.

A center run by the Russian defense ministry announced that it expects at least 100 civilians to leave Eastern Ghouta today and that the enclave would also receive 137 tons of food of humanitarian aid. Reuters reports.

Turkish forces and their allies have completely encircled the Kurdish city of Afrin in northern Syria and cut access to water, Turkey began an offensive against the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia in the Afrin region in January as it deems the Y.P.G. to be an extension of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.). Al Jazeera reports.

Turkish and U.S. forces will form a “safe zone” around the town of Manbij in the Afrin region if Washington keeps its promises, a spokesperson for the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan said today. Reuters reports.

President Bashar al-Assad looks set to be victorious in Syria, the role of Iran, Iranian-backed militia and Russia have been central to his successes on the battlefield. Nevertheless, the military tactics used and the scale of destruction mean that Assad would preside over a broken country, Tim Lister writes at CNN.

As the Syrian war enters its eighth year, the West should stop pretending that it cares about the conflict, the West has used plenty of words of condemnation but has not matched these with action, allowing the violence to continue. Nick Paton Walsh writes at CNN.

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]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The possibility of a meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has led to a flurry of diplomatic activity, China has welcomed the prospects of talks enthusiastically and Russia has offered support. Christine Kim reports at Reuters.

North Korea still has not responded to Trump’s decision last week to accept Kim’s invitation for a meeting, an analysis of the lack of response is provided by Jamie Tarabay at CNN.

The North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho is scheduled to meet with his Swedish counterpart today, the U.S. is represented in North Korea by Sweden because it does not have an embassy or diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. Alecander Smith reports at NBC News.

Fixing the “fatally flawed nuclear deal with Iran” would help Trump to succeed in denuclearization talks with North Korea, Richard Goldberg and Mark Dubowitz write at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that Iran and North Korea have exchanged nuclear expertise and cooperated for more than three decades.

IRAN

“The United States is determined to leave the [2015 Iran] nuclear deal, and changes at the State Department were made with that goal in mind,” the Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi said yesterday, referring to Trump’s decision to fire Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and arguing that this reflects a desire to rip up the agreement. Julia Manchester reports at the Hill.

A team of U.S. foreign policy officials will meet with European counterparts today and increase pressure on them to “fix” the nuclear deal, Trump has given European parties to the agreement a deadline of May 12 to address perceived flaws in the agreement and a State Department spokesperson said that “this is a last chance.” Katrina Manson and Michael peel report at the Financial Times.

It appears that Iranian naval forces have “made a conscious decision” to stop provoking U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf, the spokesperson for U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, Cmdr. William Urban, said today. Robert Burns reports at the AP.

YEMEN

The Senate is scheduled to vote on a resolution next week on whether to continue U.S. military involvement in Yemen, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) have said that U.S.  military involvement is unconstitutional as Congress has not had a say in entering the conflict. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis yesterday urged lawmakers to reject the resolution on Yemen, saying that the proposal would undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East and the relationship with Saudi Arabia, and increase the possibility of a regional war with Iran. Dion Nissenbaum reports at the Wall Street Journal.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee have set March 22 as the date to vote on adopting their report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Democrats are working on their own report and have accused the Republicans of stopping the panel’s investigation prematurely. Reuters reports.

Lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee have been arguing over whether to release transcripts of the panel’s interviews with witnesses as part of their Russia investigation, Republicans have said the panel may not be able to release all the transcripts, while Democrats have said all of them should be released once they have been reviewed by the intelligence community. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

The former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s legal team have been seeking the dismissal of special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment, arguing in a court filing yesterday that Mueller’s appointment as special counsel to investigate connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, and the remit of his probe, was defective. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

AFGHANISTAN

“We have a moment where the objective of our campaign [in Afghanistan] and reconciliation are in play, so this is significant,” the commander of U.S. and N.A.T.O. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, told reporters yesterday, referring to the offer to the Afghan Taliban proposed by President Ashraf Ghani last month, recent Taliban requests for talks, and the early stages of new forces being deployed in Afghanistan as part of a military campaign. However, there have been concerns that the U.S. does not have the diplomatic preparedness to pursue peace efforts, Gordon Lubold and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

Nicholson also said that the main U.S.-led military coalition goal was to defend the Afghan capital of Kabul, noting that “Taliban is in the city” and their “networks need to be identified and destroyed.” Dan Lamothe reports at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.S. Special Forces worked with Nigerien government forces and killed 11 Islamic State militants in a firefight in December, the previously undisclosed episode demonstrates that the Oct. 4 ambush was not an isolated incident and U.S. has been carrying out major operations in West Africa. Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt and Thomas Gibbons-Neff report at the New York Times.

The ousting of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may indicate a forthcoming “cold peace” in the Gulf, Tillerson and Trump appeared to have differing views on the dispute, which began in June last year when Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Egypt and Bahrain isolated Qatar due to its alleged support for terrorism. William Roberts provides an analysis at Al Jazeera. 

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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