The Early Edition: March 16, 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 Trump administration yesterday sanctioned five Russian entities and 19 Russian individuals for interfering in the 2016 U.S. election and for carrying out cyberattacks on U.S. infrastructure, the action comes as Congress has expressed concerns about Russia’s actions – including meddling in the U.S. election, its role in Ukraine and Syria, and its involvement in the recent Novichok nerve-agent attack on the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the U.K.. Ian Talley reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The individuals sanctioned include those indicted last month by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The Trump administration’s measures came after significant delay, with Congress having authorized the administration to enact sanctions months ago, Kevin Liptak reports at CNN.

Russian state hackers targeted U.S. and European nuclear power plants and water and electric systems, according to a report by the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) released yesterday, the F.B.I. also offered new details about the Russian cyberattacks on utilities and the White House officially laid the blame on Russia yesterday. Nicole Perlroth and David E. Sanger report at the New York Times.

The leaders of the U.K., U.S., France and Germany yesterday issued a joint statement in response to the attack on Skripal, accusing Russia of being involved in the “first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the second world war,” carrying out “an assault on U.K. sovereignty” and noting that Russia had failed to respond to the U.K. request for an explanation of the incident. Peter Walker, Julian Borger and Ewen MacAskill report at the Guardian.

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed today that Moscow would expel British diplomats in retaliation for the U.K. expelling Russian diplomats over the Skripal affair. Kathrin Hille reports at the Financial Times.

The Trump administration’s actions against Russia yesterday constitute its toughest measures yet, however they have fallen short of what Congress has mandated and what lawmakers have called for. Anne Geran and Ellen Nakashima explain at the Washington Post.

The Russian President Vladimir Putin has been “taunting” the West because he knows that they won’t respond forcefully, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, calling for stronger measures.

Russia’s greatest vulnerability is its dependence on energy exports, Trump could use alliances with other countries to punish Russia. David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post.

A feature on President Putin, his political style and foreign policy is provided by Timothy Snyder at the Guardian.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The President has decided to oust his national security adviser H.R. McMaster and is discussing potential replacements, according to sources familiar with the matter. The White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders pushed back against the reports, saying that McMaster and the president “have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the N.S.C. [National Security Council],” Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey, Philip Rucker and Carol D. Leonnig report at the Washington Post.

Trump has conveyed his decision to oust McMaster to his chief of staff, John Kelly, however officials have said that the move may be delayed as the president does not yet have a replacement for McMaster in mind. One official also said that Trump wants McMaster to have a more graceful exit than the recently fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Rebecca Ballhaus, Michael C. Bender and Aruna Viswanatha report at the Wall Street Journal.

“There will always be change. I think you want to see change,” Trump said yesterday, suggesting that more departures from the administration are coming, and a number of Cabinet members and advisers are at risk of being ousted. Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

The firing of Tillerson is “a Washington, D.C., story” in most parts of the world, the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters yesterday, downplaying the president’s decision and emphasizing that America’s “durability” with foreign nations “goes beyond personalities.” Dan Lamothe reports at the Washington Post.

Trump’s nominee to lead the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) looks likely to be approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee, Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone sat for his second confirmation hearing yesterday and received positive comments from members of the panel after answering their questions. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Reps. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) sent a letter yesterday to chief of staff Kelly and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan offering evidence that indicates an effort to “clean” the State Department of employees insufficiently loyal to Trump, citing evidence from a whistleblower. Karoun Demirjian and Carol Morello report at the Washington Post.

A report on one of the employees pushed out of the State Department is provided by Nahal Toosi at POLITICO.

SYRIA

Around 20,000 civilians have fled the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus and around 30,000 have fled the northern Syrian town of Afrin in recent days. Forces loyal to the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been carrying out an intensified campaign in Eastern Ghouta, and in Afrin, Turkish forces and their allies have been carrying out an offensive against the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia, whom Turkey deem to be an extension of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.), the BBC reports.

At least 1,540 people have been killed and nearly 6,000 injured in Eastern Ghouta since the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution on Feb. 24 calling for a 30-day ceasefire, according to the Eastern Ghouta health directorate. Liz Sly and Louisa Loveluck report at the Washington Post.

Pro-Syrian government forces are close to capturing Eastern Ghouta, the enclave has been split in three by airstrikes and ground assaults. Martin Chulov, Kareem Shaheen and Julian Borger report at the Guardian.

Turkey has said that it won’t hand over Afrin to the Syrian government once it has cleared the area of the Y.P.G., the Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said yesterday that Afrin’s city center would be “cleansed of terrorists in a very short time.” Al Jazeera reports.

“Russia is also complicit in Assad’s atrocities,” the national security adviser H.R. McMaster said yesterday, also condemning the Syrian government and Iran, and calling for “all nations to respond more forcibly than simply issuing strong statements … [and impose] serious political and economic consequences on Moscow and Tehran.” Matthew Nussbaum reports at POLITICO.

The U.S. military in Syria’s Deir al-Zour province are prepared for further attacks from Russian mercenaries and pro-Assad forces, on Feb. 7 the U.S.-led coalition repelled a surprise assault and between 200-300 Russian mercenaries died in the clashes, the attacking force retreated and is now stationed three miles away from where U.S. troops are based. Richard Engel and Kennett Werner report at NBC News.

The senior Syrian Kurdish official Omar Alloush was found dead in his apartment yesterday, Alloush played a key role in forming the U.S.-backed civil council for Raqqa – the city that was formerly the Islamic State group’s de facto capital in Syria. Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

Syrian government forces and allied militias have raped and sexually assaulted civilians during the war in Syria, according to a report by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, adding that rebel groups have also committed similar crimes, but these “were considerably less common,” Stephanie Nebehay reports at Reuters.

“Whoever prevails in what remains of Syria will achieve a pyrrhic victory,” Martin Chulov writes at the Guardian, noting the scale of destruction and civilian suffering.

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 North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho travelled to Sweden yesterday and met with his counterpart amid speculation that Sweden could be the venue for preparatory talks for the potential summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, or for the summit itself. Gerry Mullany reports at the New York Times.

Satellite imagery indicates that North Korea has been carrying out preliminary testing of one of its nuclear reactors, it is unclear whether Pyongyang plans for the reactor to be used for electricity generation or its weapons program. Tim Lister reports at CNN.

“I think they were a little bit surprised that Washington, President Trump, readily accepted [Kim’s offer for talks],” the recently retired U.S. Special Envoy on North Korea policy, Joseph Yun, said in an interview, saying that he was “very supportive” of the Trump’s decision. Laura Koran reports at CNN.

South Korea will seek to have talks about talks with North Korea this month, the South Korean presidential chief of staff has said, as preparations for a Trump-Kim summit begin today. Christine Kim reports at Reuters.

“As we go into this, I think we can’t be overly optimistic on outcomes,” the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, warning that the Trump-Kim summit may not deliver results. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Special counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization to turn over documents related to his investigation, according to two sources. It is not clear why Mueller has issued a subpoena, but the move suggests that Mueller’s investigation will continue for at least a few more months and that he is broadening his probe to look at the role of foreign money on Trump’s political activities. It is also not clear how much of the subpoena relates to Trump’s business ties outside of Russia, Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

An attorney for the Trump Organization said that the reports of the subpoena being issued are “old news and our assistance and cooperation with the various investigations remains the same today,” the statement did not confirm that a subpoena had been issued. Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Four Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have asked the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate the F.B.I.’s use of the dossier compiled by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele, which alleged Trump-Russia connections. Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

Mueller appears not to have interviewed Donald Trump Jr., Philip Bump writes at the Washington Post, arguing that the president’s son is likely to have a valuable insight on Russia connections.

IRAN

“We have worrisome evidence that Iran is trying to influence – using money – the Iraqi elections,” the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters yesterday, saying that this was part of Iran’s destabilizing actions in the Middle East. The AP reports.

The Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “wants to create his own project in the Middle East very much like Hitler, who wanted to expand at the time,” the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said in an pre-recorded interview that will be broadcast Sunday. Ben Hubbard reports at the New York Times.

Saudi Arabia “will follow suit as soon as possible” if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, Mohammed bin Salman also said in the interview. Iran responded to the crown prince’s comments saying he was a “delusional naïve person,” Al Jazeera reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Saudi Arabian officials and Yemen’s Houthi rebels have held secret talks to end the war in Yemen, according to diplomats and Yemeni political sources. Mohammed Ghobari and Noah Browning report at Reuters.

A U.S. military aircraft crashed in western Iraq yesterday, officials have not confirmed how many service members have been killed. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Margaret Coker report at the New York Times.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley is considering a move to make foreign aid conditional on support for the U.S.’s political positions, according to a confidential document drafted by her staff. Colum Lynch reveals at Foreign Policy.

The majority of N.A.T.O. members have failed to increase their defense spending to 2% of G.D.P., Julian E. Barnes reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Lebanon is in a precarious situation and the prospect of war is real, the U.S. appears unprepared for the consequences of a conflict. Elliot Abrams and Zachary Shapiro write at POLITICO Magazine, explaining why a conflict may break out. 

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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