The Early Edition: April 10, 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: ALLEGED CHEMICAL WEAPONS ATTACK IN DOUMA

“We’ll be making some major decisions over the next 24 to 48 hours,” President Trump said yesterday in response to the suspected chemical weapons attack carried out by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on Saturday which killed at least 49 civilians in the town of Douma, in the Eastern Ghouta enclave, raising the possibility of an imminent U.S. military strike on Syria. Anne Gearan and Carol Morello report at the Washington Post.

“If it’s Russia, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out and we’ll know the answers quite soon,” Trump also said yesterday about the Douma attack, however it was not clear what action the president is considering against Syria’s allies. Peter Baker reports at the New York Times.

French President Emmanuel Macron and President Trump discussed the Douma attack yesterday and expressed a desire for a “firm response,” according to France’s presidential office, with a French government spokesperson saying that France would respond if it is confirmed that chemical weapons were used. The BBC reports.

There have been suggestions that the U.S., U.K. and France may coordinate a unified response to the Douma attack, the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the acting U.S. Secretary of State John Sullivan both agreed in a phone call yesterday that “this attack bore the hallmarks of previous chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime” and separately the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that the U.S. was “working with our allies and partners … to address this issue.” Dion Nissenbuam and Michael C. Bender report at the Wall Street Journal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin “stressed the unacceptability of provocation and speculation on this matter” during a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday, according to a statement by the Kremlin. Al Jazeera reports.

“History will record this as the moment when the [U.N.] Security Council either discharged its duty or demonstrated its utter and complete failure to protect the people of Syria,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said yesterday at a special meeting of the Council, adding that “either way, the United States will respond.” Nicole Gauoette reports at CNN.

“We must not overlook Russia and Iran’s role in enabling the Assad regime’s murderous destruction,” Haley also said, accusing Russia of obstructionism at the U.N. to “prop up Assad.” Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

“There was no chemical weapons attack,” the Russian ambassador to the U.N. Vassily Nebenzia said at the Security Council meeting, stating that “Russia is being unpardonably threatened.” Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

Nebenzia claimed that the Douma attack was staged and warned that any U.S. military action could have “grave repercussions,” Julia Manchester reports at the Hill.

“The Council cannot allow a situation of uncontrollable escalation to develop in Syria, on any front,” the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told the meeting, warning that escalation could have repercussions across the Middle East. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The U.S. plans to call a U.N. Security Council vote today on a resolution to establish a new investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria, the previous inquiry ended in November last year due to a Russian veto of a resolution to renew the mechanism’s mandate. The AP reports.

“It is now clear that Russia has betrayed its obligations to guarantee the end of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons program,” the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday. Reuters reports.

“The president should know by now that tough talk without a coherent strategy or follow through is dangerous,” the New York Times editorial board writes, arguing that the U.S. should impose tough new sanctions if it is found that Assad’s regime was responsible for the Douma attack; that Congress must approve any military action if the Trump administration seeks to take them; and that Trump administration must work with U.S. allies if Russia obstructs any Security Council measures.

“There’s little point in one-off punitive raids if there are to be no U.S. military or diplomatic initiatives behind them,” the Washington Post editorial board writes.

France’s support for joint action against Assad gives Trump little excuse not to carry out a military response, David A. Andelman writes at CNN.

Macron should prepare to strike Syria with or without the support of the U.S., Benjamin Haddad writes at Foreign Policy, highlighting Macron’s previous comments on chemical weapons use in Syria and France’s approach to Syria over the years.

SYRIA: OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Jaish al-Islam rebels have released dozens of hostages in exchange for surrendering the besieged town of Douma, the rebels began leaving the Eastern Ghouta enclave on Sunday and are being transferred to northern Syria, near the border with Turkey. Reuters reports.

A suspected Israeli attack on a Syrian air base yesterday has further raised tensions with Iran, Israeli officials have neither confirm nor denied that the country carried out the airstrike in Homs province which killed four Iranian military advisers at the base where Iran coordinates its military activities in Syria. Ben Hubbard and David M. Halbfinger report at the New York Times.

Israel has launched numerous previous airstrikes on Syrian territory, however yesterday’s attack was unusual because it prompted Russia to hold Israel responsible and was denounced by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as “a very dangerous development.” Patrick Wintour explains at the Guardian.

The apparent Israeli airstrike on the airbase highlight Israel’s growing fear of Iran entrenching itself in Syria’s eastern territory, Paul Goldman and F. Brinley Bruton provide an analysis at NBC News.

Recent developments in Syria have increased the possibility of a dangerous escalation, the suspected Douma chemical weapons attack, the talk of U.S. military strikes in response, and the apparent Israeli airstrike on the Syrian airbase where Iranian personnel were stationed have seen Syria become a site of conflicting interests. Liz Sly and Erin Cunningham report at the Washington Post, highlighting the various flashpoints across the country.

Assad’s forces targeted and killed the U.S. journalist Marie Colvin who recorded horrors taking place in Syria, lawyers for Colvin’s family have said in a wrongful-death suit filed in 2016, which was partly unsealed yesterday. Anne Barnard reports at the New York Times.

A feature on the circumstances surrounding the death of Marie Colvin and photojournalist Rémi Ochlick is provided by Johnny Dwyer and Ryan Gallagher at The Intercept.

The Russian President Vladimir Putin “is now sitting on a tinderbox,” Putin has failed to understand Iran’s interests in Syria and the dynamics of the various interests in the Middle East, consequently increasing the possibility of a regional war. Jonathan Schanzer writes at POLITICO Magazine, arguing that Trump should take advantage of Russia’s weakness to develop a coherent Syria policy.

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 North Korean leader Kim Jong-un yesterday made his first public acknowledgement of a potential summit with President Trump and a planned summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, ending a lengthy silence during which some questioned Pyongyang’s willingness to hold talks. Jonathan Cheng reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“We have a meeting that is being set up with North Korea, so that will be very exciting, I think, for the world,” President Trump said yesterday, explaining that he would meet with Kim in May or early June. Michael D. Shear reports at the New York Times.

“We welcome the gradual normalization of the situation [on the Korean Peninsula] … and the readiness for contacts between North Korea and the United States,” the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said today after a meeting with his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong-ho in Moscow, adding that he had accepted an invitation to visit Pyongyang. Reuters reports.

Various parties have differing interpretations of what “denuclearization” means, Anna Fifield explains at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating a donation of around $150,000 by Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk to the Donald J. Trump Foundation in September 2015. Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

“Many people have said, ‘you should fire him,” President Trump said yesterday in response to questions from reporters about Mueller, which came as Mueller’s referral helped lead to yesterday’s raid on Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen’s office, home and hotel room for possible bank fraud and campaign finance violations. Rebecca Savransky reports at the Hill.

Trump again hit out at Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, making the comments to reporters yesterday. Cristiano Lima reports at POLITICO.

The former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s legal defense team have sought to limit the evidence prosecutors can rely on, stating that the warrant to search Manafort’s property was excessive in scope. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

The Facebook Founder and C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg is scheduled to testify before Congress this week, Zuckerberg’s prepared testimony shows that he will tell lawmakers that the social media company “didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility.” Zuckerberg’s appearance follows revelations that Facebook improperly shared user data with the political research firm Cambridge Analytica, Siobhan Hughes reports at the Wall Street Journal.

An explanation of what to look at for during Zuckerberg’s testimony is provided by Dave Lee at the BBC.

AFGHANISTAN

The leader of the Afghanistan’s Islamic State in Khorasan has been killed by a U.S. airstrike, according to U.S. and Afghan officials, with the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, confirming the report in a press release yesterday. Rod Nordland and Zabihullah Ghazi report at the New York Times.

An attack in Afghanistan’s Herat province yesterday killed at least eight people, the Taliban have denied any involvement. Al Jazeera reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The daughter of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal has now been discharged from hospital, Yulia was exposed to the Novichok nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury along with her father last month. It is hoped that Sergei will be discharged “in due course,” the BBC reports.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said yesterday that a new bill on the authorization for the use of military force (A.U.M.F.) will be unveiled this week, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration may change its approach to the ongoing Gulf Crisis following Qatar’s charm offensive, the crisis began in June last year when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, U.A.E. and Bahrain decided to isolate Qatar due to its alleged support for terrorism and close relations with Iran. Trump had come down firmly in favor of the Saudi-led bloc, however he is now keen to push for a settlement, Gardiner Harris and Mark Landler report at the New York Times.

The International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has requested I.C.C. jurisdiction to investigate the deportation of the Muslim Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh, Reuters reports.

Saudi-led coalition airstrikes on the Yemeni city of Taiz killed at least 17 people yesterday, according to Yemeni tribal and rebel officials. Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

A video broadcast yesterday appears to show Israeli forces celebrating a sniper shot on a Palestinian man across the border in Gaza, Israeli military said the incident took place a number of months ago but would now be investigated. The footage comes at a tense time due to ongoing protests by Palestinians at the Israel-Gaza border, Isabel Kershner reports at the New York Times.

Tensions between U.S. and China have raised concerns about the future of Taiwan, a U.S.-China trade war could have serious consequences for the Taiwanese economy and disputes over the Taiwan Strait have the potential to escalate. Simon Denyer explains at the Washington Post. 

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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