The Early Edition: April 12, 2018

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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

“Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” Trump said in a message on Twitter this morning, appearing to cast doubt on the possibility of an imminent military strike on Syrian targets in response to Saturday’s alleged chemical weapons attack on the town of Douma, which is in the Eastern Ghouta enclave. Guy Faulconbridge and Vladimir Soldatkin report at Reuters.

U.S. Navy destroyers, jets, submarines and other assets are in position should President Trump order a military strike on Syrian targets, however the president’s message on Twitter yesterday – saying that the U.S. would fire missiles at Syria and that Russia should “get ready” – surprised his staffers and allies as a final decision had not yet been made on a response to the alleged attack in Douma. Zachary Cohen reports at CNN.

“The situation in the world is increasingly chaotic,” the Russian President Vladimir Putin said yesterday, several hours after Trump said in tweets that the U.S. would take military action in Syria, with Putin adding that he hopes “common sense will prevail in the end and that international relations will become more constructive.” Anne Gearan, John Wagner and Anton Troianovski report at the Washington Post.

“Final decisions” have not yet been made on using military options in response to the Douma attack, the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday, her comments more measured than those used by the President on Twitter. Cristiano Lima reports at POLITICO.

The British Prime Minister Theresa May has summoned her cabinet ministers to discuss the U.K.’s response to the Douma attack, according to sources, May appears to ready to take action without the consent of Parliament. The BBC reports.

“Any possible action [by Western states] will contribute nothing but an increase in instability in the region,” the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was quoted as saying today by Syrian state television. Reuters reports.

“Consultations are ongoing between the allies and they will not let matters progress as Washington wants,” an adviser to Assad, Bouthaina Shaaban, told the Lebanese al-Mayadeen channel yesterday, describing the alliance as including Syria, Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group. Reuters reports.

The top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vowed that Iran would stand by Syria in the face of “any foreign aggression,” Ali Akbar Velayati made the comments yesterday following a tour of Eastern Ghouta. Reuters reports.

Jaish al-Islam rebels in Eastern Ghouta appear to have given up the enclave and government forces have raised the Syrian flag above the central mosque in Douma. The Russian Maj. Gen. Yury Yevtushenko stated that today’s developments marked a “significant event in the history of Syria,” the AFP reports.

The Russian military announced today that the Syrian government is now in full control of Douma, in a statement, the Russian Defense Ministry said that the situation in the town was “normalizing.” Sarah El Deeb and Natalia Vasilyeva report at the AP.

The threats traded between Trump and Moscow over the suspected chemical attack in Douma have raised the possibility of a U.S.-Russia military confrontation, which would see U.S. military technology pitted against Russian defenses, including Russia’s sophisticated S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. Michael R. Gordon, Sune Engel Rasmussen and Thomas Grove report at the Wall Street Journal.

Some have raised concerns that Trump’s tweets about action in Syria may have disrupted military planning and prompted moves by adversaries, two Pentagon officials have expressed concern that the president’s pronouncements may also have undermined international support for strikes. Gordon Lubold and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

Putin and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed Syria in a phone call yesterday, according to Netanyahu’s office, the Prime Minister urged the Russian President not to take action that would destabilize Syria and said that Israel would continue a campaign to prevent Iran from entrenching its military in Syria. Reuters reports.

“The events of the last days teach that standing up to evil and aggression is a mission that is incumbent upon every generation,” Netanyahu said yesterday at Israel’s annual Holocaust commemorations, calling for action against Syria for the Douma attack and criticizing the West for “their lack of willingness” to stand up to the “tyrannical regime” in Iran. Reuters reports.

Nerve agent experts have been trying to get samples from corpses in Douma to establish what happened in the town, U.S. technicians have also been studying satellite images and other information to determine what happened, with doctors on the ground saying that they could not recognize the effects suffered by victims. Martin Chulov reports at the Guardian.

Uncertainty surrounds the timing and nature of any U.S.-led military action, any kind of intervention carries the risk of escalation as the battlefield in Syria is crowded with various parties with various interests. Peter Baker, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Helene Cooper explain at the New York Times.

Despite its best efforts, Israel has been caught in the rift between the U.S. and Russia, Netanyahu had managed to preserve a balance between its alliance with the U.S. and an understanding with Russia about Israel military action against Iranian targets in Syria. Yaroslov Trofimov writes at the Wall Street Journal.

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]

TRUMP-RUSSIA

“If I wanted to fire [special counsel] Robert Mueller in December, as reported by the Failing New York Times, I would have fired him,” President Trump said in a message on Twitter this morning, referring to a report by the New York Times earlier this week. Reuters reports.

The former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has been pitching a plan to members of Trump’s inner circle to undermine Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, according to four people familiar with the matter. The plan includes a decision by Trump to fire the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – who oversees Mueller’s probe – and a decision to no longer cooperate with Mueller’s team, Robert Costa reports at the Washington Post.

The Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said yesterday that his panel would schedule a bipartisan bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from being dismissed without cause, a vote on the bill would be expected on April 26. Byron Tau reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Grassley has joined a bipartisan group of Senators to produce the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, Rebecca Shabad reports at NBC News.

Grassley’s decision demonstrates the unease among some Republican Senators that Trump may undermine or fire Mueller, Elana Schor and Burgess Everett report at POLITICO.

Activists have organized for protests should Trump fire Mueller, more than 300,000 people have pledged to join “rapid response” protests across the country. Adam Gabbatt reports at the Guardian.

Members of the House Intelligence Committee have received access to an un-redacted document that formed a basis for the F.B.I.’s original investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, a Justice Department official confirmed yesterday. Katie Bo Williams and Olivia Beavers report at the Hill.

Congress must take urgent action to protect Mueller and his investigation, lawmakers must start by passing a bill to shield the special counsel. The Washington Post editorial board writes.

An explanation of the reasons why Trump has lashed out at Rosenstein and Mueller and the significance of the recent raid on Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, is provided by Just Security editor Renato Mariotti at POLITICO Magazine.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Tensions have increased on the border between Israel and Gaza, the Israeli military said this morning that it struck Hamas military targets in the Gaza Strip shortly after an explosive device exploded near an Israeli army vehicle along the border. The AP reports.

Palestinian medical officials said that a Hamas gunman was killed and another injured by the Israeli airstrike, Reuters reports.

The Trump administration’s Israel-Palestinian peace plan is close to completion but there are still debates as to when to unveil the plan, according to a senior White House official, noting a series of obstacles, such as the upcoming relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the increased violence on the Israel-Gaza border. Matt Spetalnick, Steve Holland and Yara Bayoumy report at Reuters.

POMPEO CONFIRMATION HEARING

The C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo faces a hearing today before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as part of the confirmation process to make him the new Secretary of State, he is expected to denounce Russia for acting “aggressively” and vow to work with U.S. allies to try to “fix” the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Guardian staff and agencies report.

Pompeo seems likely be confirmed quickly due to several ongoing foreign policy crises, Josh Rogin reports at the Washington Post.

Pompeo intends to address the low morale at the State Department under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and to highlight a softer side than the hawkish image presented of him. John Hudson reports at the Washington Post.

The five key things to watch during Pompeo’s hearing are set out by Rebecca Kheel and Katie Bo Williams at the Hill.

Pompeo has been undermining the State Department since October 2015 when he challenged then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the House Committee on Benghazi, Derek Chollet and Ben Fishman write at Foreign Policy.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears “sincere and genuine” about wanting to improve relations with South Korea, the South Korean Culture Minister Do Jong-hwan has said. Paula Hancocks and James Griffiths report at CNN.

The South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong is scheduled to meet with Trump’s new national security adviser John Bolton today, Chung led the South Korean delegation that met with Kim last month and delivered Kim’s invitation for a leaders’ summit to Trump. Reuters reports.

A strain of North Korean destructive malware has been discovered by U.S. intelligence analysts, according to Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) documents. Elias Groll and Jana Winter reveal at Foreign Policy.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

The Facebook founder and C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg yesterday faced a second day of questioning by congressional lawmakers, the topic of regulation to protect user privacy was consistently raised and Zuckerberg expressed qualified support for greater regulation. John D. McKinnon and Deepa Seetharaman report at the Wall Street Journal.

Many remain unconvinced that there will be imminent federal action on regulation and privacy, despite the fact that bipartisan lawmakers threatened more regulation during Zuckerberg’s testimony. Craig Timberg, Tony Romm and Elizabeth Dwoskin explain at the Washington Post.

The five key takeaways from Zuckberg’s two days of testimony are provided by Harper Neidig and Morgan Chalfant at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

An independent investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.) has confirmed the U.K. assessment that the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were attacked by the Novichok nerve agent developed by Russia, the O.P.C.W. does not have a mandate to attribute responsibility for the attack. Patrick Greenfield and agencies report at the Guardian.

China today announced live-firing military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, coming amid increased U.S.-China tensions of U.S. outreach to Taiwan. Christopher Bodeen reports at the AP.

Taliban militants today overran a government headquarters in the Afghan province of Ghazni and killed a district governor. Rod Nordland and Fahim Abed report at the New York Times.

Saudi air defenses yesterday intercepted a ballistic missile fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels at the kingdom’s capital of Riyadh, Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said yesterday that a decision by the Trump administration not to extend sanctions relief on Iran on May 12 would not mean U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, appearing to indicate that the Trump administration believes that re-imposing sanctions would not lead to collapse of the agreement. Lesley Wroughton and Arshad Mohammed report at Reuters.

The leader of the self-styled Libyan National Army, Khalifa Haftar, has reportedly been admitted to hospital in France after suffering a stroke, however his spokesperson has denied the reports. Haftar was previously an ally of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and has consistently cast himself as the person able to bring stability to Libya, Al Jazeera reports. 

Filed under:
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