The Early Edition: April 9, 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

Aid groups and Western governments yesterday blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government for a suspected chemical attack on Saturday on the town of Douma, near the capital of Damascus and in the rebel Eastern Ghouta enclave, with President Trump pointing the finger at Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran for “backing Animal Assad” in messages on Twitter and vowing that there would be a “Big price to pay.” France also said it would “do its duty” in responding to the attack, Carol Morello and Jenna Johnson report at the Washington Post.

Syrian state media denied that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack which killed at least 42 people, accusing the Jaish al-Islam rebel group of fabricating videos in order to attract support from the international community. The attack also came amid the ongoing pro-Syrian government offensive in Eastern Ghouta, with Douma remaining the last town in the area controlled by rebels, Ben Hubbard reports at the New York Times.

The U.S. National Security Council will hold a small group meeting to discuss Syria and the suspected chemical attack this afternoon. According to one official, a small group meeting is typically held to discuss options for the President, and today’s discussion will be led by the new national security adviser John Bolton, Eli Watkins reports at CNN.

“Such claims and allegations by the Americans and some Western countries … are an excuse to take military action,” the Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Bahran Qasemi was quoted as saying yesterday by the I.R.N.A. news agency. Reuters reports.

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today called reports of the suspected chemical attack in Douma a “provocation,” adding that Russian military found no traces of chemicals when they visited the site of the suspected attack. The AP reports.

The Jaish al-Islam rebels today agreed to withdraw from Douma within 48 hours and move to the city of Jarablus near the border with Turkey. Reuters reports.

The Russian and Syrian militaries stated that Israeli fighter jets carried out airstrikes on a Syrian government airbase near the city of Homs this morning, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights at least 14 military personnel were killed and most of the personnel were Iranian or members of Iran-backed groups. Julian Borger and Kareem Shaheen report at the Guardian.

Responsibility for the attack on the airbase near Homs has been clouded in confusion, Syrian state media initially said that the U.S. was behind the attack, which the Pentagon denied, and there were reports at that France conducted the strikes, which were also denied. Al Jazeera reports.

Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies have been “emboldened” by President Trump’s remarks last week saying that he wanted to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement yesterday, responding to the suspected chemical attack in Douma and calling on the president to respond “decisively.” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

The U.N. Security Council will meet today, Russia issued a request for a meeting on “international threats to peace and security,” while the U.S. and other countries called for a meeting to discuss the suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma. Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.

The Douma attack has the potential to change Trump’s strategy in Syria, the president recently expressed a desire to withdraw U.S. troops as soon as possible, but has now promised to respond to the incident in Douma. Ben Hubbard and Julie Hirschfeld Davis provide an analysis at the New York Times.

Trump has once more issued mixed messages when commenting on the Douma attack, raising the possibility that the president will order a series of strikes on Syria despite having recently called for U.S. troop withdrawal. Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post, writing that the president’s approach to Syria has been riddled with hypocrisy.

Assad is likely to continue his campaign of impunity even if Trump takes retaliatory action in response to the Douma attack. Patrick Wintour writes at the Guardian, arguing that Assad believes that these tactics are key to winning the war.

Trump was right to express outrage at the attack in Douma, however rhetoric is not enough to counter Assad and his allies and the “hard truth is that only hard power can prevent dictators like Assad from using W.M.D. against their citizens.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

Decisive action by the President would require going much further than ordering strikes on Syrian military targets, the Trump administration needs a “comprehensive diplomatic-military plan” to respond to civilian suffering under the Assad regime, but such an approach has been sorely lacking. Max Boot writes at the Washington Post.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out nine airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between March 30 and April 5. [Central Command]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

“The U.S. has confirmed that [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un is willing to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” a Trump administration official said yesterday, referring to the potential Trump-Kim summit meeting. Michael R. Gordon and Jonathan Cheng report at the Wall Street Journal.

The comments from Trump administration officials marked the first direct confirmation from North Korea that Kim intends to participate in a summit meeting with Trump, North Korean representatives delivered the message in secret talks with U.S. officials ahead of next month’s expected meeting. Julie Hirschfeld Davis reports at the New York Times.

North Korea has not yet publicly confirmed that the Trump-Kim summit will take place, however there are indications that that the talks will take place. The BBC reports.

The U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres praised China for its approach to the Korean Peninsula and its pursuit of a diplomatic solution to the crisis during a meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping at the weekend. The U.N. News Centre reports.

China has banned the export of 32 items to North Korea, the items having potential dual use related to weapons of mass destruction. Reuters reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli military today struck a Hamas target in the Gaza Strip in response to the discovery of two explosive devices near the Israel-Gaza border. The action comes amid increased violence at the border following protests by Palestinians, Tia Goldenberg reports at the AP.

The International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) prosecutor Fatou Bensouda yesterday called for an end to the violence on the Israel-Gaza border, saying that “any new alleged crime committed in the context of the situation in Palestine may be subjected to my Office’s scrutiny.” Reuters reports.

The protests on the border are likely to continue due to the “new strategic initiative” embarked upon by the Palestinian Hamas movement, which has been focused on organizing mass non-violent protests. Imad Alsoos writes at the Washington Post.

Hamas’s strategy of non-violent protest is a bid to provoke a crisis, a heavy-handed response by Israel plays to the militant group’s advantage. Hussein Ibish writes at Foreign Policy.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The Senate is preparing for potential battles in the bid to confirm Mike Pompeo as Trump’s new Secretary of State and Gina Haspel as the new C.I.A. Director, Haspel’s confirmation process is likely to be challenging due to her controversial role in “enhanced interrogation techniques” at a so-called black site prison. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

John Bolton will begin his role as Trump’s national security adviser today, he faces a series of immediate foreign policy issues to grapple with, including: Syria, the crisis on the Korean Peninsula, the Iran nuclear deal, China, Russia, and the Palestinian Authority. Peter Baker reports at the New York Times, providing an analysis of Bolton’s foreign policy instincts and what his appointment means for the Trump administration.

Bolton’s appointment has the potential to isolate the U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the two men have differing instincts on key foreign policy issues. Katrina Manson writes at the Financial Times.

It is hard to keep track of the number of foreign and domestic crises surrounding the President, Stephen Collinson provides an analysis at CNN.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

The Facebook founder and C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg is scheduled to meet with U.S. lawmakers today ahead of tomorrow’s Congressional hearings, where he is due to testify. The social media company has been under scrutiny for its approach to the user data and the harvesting of profile information by the research firm Cambridge Analytica, David Shepardson reports at Reuters.  

The Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie said that he would cooperate with the “law enforcement and the Department of Justice,” during an interview. Julia Manchester reports at the Hill.

Wylie said yesterday that the data of more than 87 million Facebook users could be stored in Russia, Caroline Kelly reports at CNN.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

“Iran will not violate the nuclear deal, but if the United States withdraws from the deal, they will surely regret it,” the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said today, making the comment ahead of Trump’s May 12 decision whether to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 agreement. Reuters reports.

The Nigerian military stated yesterday that it rescued 149 women and children who had been taken hostage by the militant Islamist Boko Haram group in the north of the country, Al Jazeera reports.

U.S. and Afghan forces have increased airstrikes on Taliban drug production facilities in a bid to undermine the terrorist group’s ability to raise revenue, however an expert has warned that the intensified campaign threatens civilians and may not be an effective blow to the militant group. Rod Nickel reports at Reuters.

The Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has ordered the Russian government to explore retaliatory measures to new U.S. sanctions on Russian entities and individuals, which were issued on Friday. Reuters reports.

The former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort could take an aggressive approach to the F.B.I. in the case against him, potentially accusing the investigators of bias and going outside their remit when charging him of money-laundering and lobbying-related crimes. Josh Gerstein provides an analysis at POLITICO. 

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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