The Early Edition: April 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.

SYRIA

The U.S., U.K. and France launched strikes against targets in Syria on Friday night in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged used of chemical weapons on April 7 on the town of Douma, in the Eastern Ghouta enclave. President Trump explained that the military action does not indicate a widening of U.S. involvement in Syria, Jim Garamone reports at DoD news, U.S. Centcom.

The Western military action was an act of aggression accompanied by a campaign of disinformation, Assad’s office quoted him as saying yesterday, after a meeting with Russian officials. Reuters reports.

President Assad “is in a good mood,” a Russian lawmaker said yesterday, following the meeting with the Syrian President, during which Assad commented on Russia’s superior weaponry and their ability to counter U.S. strikes. Russia claimed that 71 of the 103 missiles fired at Syrian targets were shot down, but this has been denied by the Pentagon, Liz Sly reports at the Washington Post.

Assad’s forces launched an offensive against rebels in Homs and Hama yesterday, suggesting that the strikes have not disrupted the regime’s plans to gain control of the country. Sune Engel Rasmussen and Raja Abdulrahim report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.N. Security Council rejected a Russian resolution condemning the airstrikes in a meeting on Saturday, the Russian ambassador to the U.N., Vassily Nebenzia, explained to the Council that Russian President Vladimir Putin viewed the airstrikes as “an act of aggression.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

The U.S. is “locked and loaded” if Syria uses chemical weapons again, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley told the Council at Saturday’s meeting. Haley Britzky reports at Axios.

“Vladimir Putin, in particular, stressed that if such actions committed in violation of the U.N. Charter continue, then it will inevitably lead to chaos in international relations,” the Kremlin said in a statement yesterday, which was issued after a phone call between Putin and the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Jack Stubbs and Laila Bassam report at Reuters.

Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group yesterday warned that Western airstrikes had undermined the prospects for a political settlement in Syria, Bassem Mroue and Sarah El Deeb report at the AP.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis persuaded President Trump to take a more restrained response to the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, according to people familiar with the matter, Mattis presented the president with three military options and Trump approved a hybrid plan that included more than 100 missile strikes on three Syrian targets with chemical weapons capabilities. Gordon Lubold and Dion Nissenbaum report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. will impose further sanctions on Russia, Haley said in an interview broadcast yesterday, also stating that Assad is “not worthy” of direct talks with the U.S.. Emily Tillett report at CBS News.

The U.S. will not leave Syria until it has accomplished its goals, Haley said in an interview with “Fox News Sunday” yesterday, explaining that the U.S. has three aims: defeating the Islamic State group, ensuring that chemical weapons are not used in a way that threatens U.S. interests, and the opportunity to monitor Iran’s activities in the region. Samuel Chamberlain reports at Fox News.

A team of Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.) investigators were set to begin examining the site in Douma yesterday, there have been doubts over what the investigators would find due to the delay in reaching the town, which has now been captured by pro-Syrian government forces. Kareem Shaheen reports at the Guardian.

Russia said today that it “confirms its commitment to ensure” the security of the O.P.C.W.’s mission, the AP reports.

Macron persuaded Trump that it was “necessary to stay” in Syria for the “long term,” despite the fact that Trump had recently said he wanted to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country, the French President said in an interview broadcast yesterday. Reuters reports.

“It was retaliation, not an act of war,” Macron also said in the interview, adding that he wanted Western powers, Russia and Turkey to work toward finding a sustainable political solution to Syria. The AP reports.

The British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Macron are expected to face tough questions from their domestic legislatures today for their decision to launch strikes at suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria. Jamie Tarabay reports at CNN.

“The rest of the Syrian war must proceed as it will,” the U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said yesterday, adding that the “primary purpose” of the joint action was to “say no to the use of barbaric chemical weapons.” The BBC reports.

The Israeli Prime Minister praised the U.S., U.K. and France for their action and warned Assad that “his provision of a forward based for Iran and its proxies endangers Syria,” Reuters reports.

“We stress our absolute condemnation of the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people,” a statement following a summit of the Arab League said yesterday, also condemning Iran for its activities in Syria and Yemen. Stephen Kalin and Sarah Dadouch report at Reuters.

The Iranian drone launched in February from a Syrian airbase and incurred into Israeli territory was “tasked to attack,” the Israeli military said Friday following an analysis of the incident. The drone was shot down by Israeli military, preventing the attack “Iran had hoped to carry out in Israeli territory,” the BBC reports.

The most dangerous confrontation of the Syria war is unfolding, Thomas L. Friedman writes at the New York Times, arguing that the conflict between Iran and Israel is a “hair-trigger away from going to the next level.”

The Western strikes were restrained and “offered yet another reminder of the limit of Washington’s scope for action within the grinding misery of the Syrian war.” Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

The military strikes on Syria are not enough to deter Russia and Iran and the Trump administration “needs a more ambitious strategy” that looks at the larger battlefield and wider interests. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 15 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between April 6 and April 12. [Central Command]

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The former F.B.I Director James Comey said that Trump was “morally unfit to be president” during an interview with ABC News broadcast yesterday, speaking ahead of the release of his new memoir. Comey was fired by Trump in May 2017 and the circumstances surrounding his departure have the potential to form part of an obstruction of justice case that might be brought by special counsel Robert Mueller – who is investigating Russia interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker report at the New York Times.

Comey discussed his conversation with the president at Trump Tower about the dossier compiled by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele which alleged Trump-Russia connections. Alex Johnson reports at NBC News.

“It’s possible” that the Russians have information that could compromise the president, Comey said in the interview, also claiming that there is “certainly some evidence” that Trump obstructed justice. Clare Foran reports at CNN.

Trump hit back at Comey and his forthcoming memoir in a series of messages on Twitter yesterday. The BBC reports.

The White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday that she was “not aware” of any plans to fire Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing Mueller’s investigation. Martin Matishak reports at POLITICO.

Trump has been under intense pressure due to Mueller’s ongoing Russia investigation, Comey’s memoirs, the F.B.I. raid on his personal lawyer Michael Cohen, and rumors about the president firing Department of Justice officials. Tom McCarthy explains at the Guardian, saying that the Mueller investigation constitutes the biggest threat to the president.

A breakdown of five key revelations in Comey’s interview are set out by Meghan Keneally at ABC News.

Annotated excerpts of the Comey interview are provided by Michael D. Shear at the New York Times.

Trump may be able to fire Rosenstein or Mueller and still survive, Margaret Sullivan writes at the Washington Post, highlighting the influence of pro-Trump media and the tribalism of American politics.

If Trump takes action to cripple or shut down Mueller’s investigation it would be an attack on the rule of law and an affront to the constitution, the New York Times editorial board writes, arguing that Republican lawmakers have a duty to respond should the president take such drastic action.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un welcomed a top Chinese diplomat, the North Korean state K.C.N.A. news agency reported yesterday, demonstrating the attempts between the two countries to improve their relations. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to meet with President Trump on Tuesday, relations between the U.S. and Japan have been tested by the approach to North Korea and its nuclear and missile weapons program, and differences over trade. Alastair Gale reports at the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump was furious that his administration was portrayed as taking a tougher stance on Russia than European allies when it came to the expulsion of diplomats in response to the nerve agent attack on the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, in the English city of Salisbury. Greg Jaffe, John Hudson and Philip Rucker reveal at the Washington Post, explaining Trump’s unease with his own policy toward Russia.

Leaders gathered for the Summit of the Americas said that they would not recognize next month’s presidential election in Venezuela in a session on Saturday. Ryan Dube reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Israeli military yesterday announced that it had destroyed an “offensive [Palestinian] Hamas terror tunnel” originating from Gaza, Ian Lee reports at CNN. 

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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