The Early Edition: April 17, 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

President Trump has scrapped plans to impose a fresh round of sanctions on Russia in response to Moscow’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the alleged chemical weapons attack on the town of Douma on April 7. The White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement yesterday that the Trump administration is “considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future,” Peter Baker reports at the New York Times.

The delay on sanctions contradicted comments made by the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, who said earlier this week that the Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin would announce sanctions on Monday against Russian companies found to be assisting Assad’s chemical weapons program. Philip Rucker, Carol D. Leonnig, Anton Troianovski and Greg Jaffe report at the Washington Post.

“Mr. President, get your act together. What’s the strategy?” the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said yesterday, criticizing President Trump for his apparent backtracking on the decision to impose sanctions on Russia. Mallory Shelbourne reports at the Hill.

A team of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.) will be given access to the Douma site tomorrow, the investigators had been denied access since Saturday and U.S. officials have expressed fears that Russian forces may have interfered with the site during the delay. Rebecca Collard and agencies report at the Financial Times.

Russia and Syria said O.P.C.W. access to the site was delayed due to “pending security issues to be worked out,” the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also said that he could “guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site” and claimed that there was evidence that the Douma attack was a “staged thing.” The BBC reports.

“Our policy hasn’t changed,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday, stating that Trump still intends U.S. troops to pull out of Syria “very soon” and making the comments after French President Emmanuel Macron said that he had convinced Trump to maintain U.S. presence for the “long term” – which Macron later partially backtracked on. Karen DeYoung, James McAuley and William Booth report at the Washington Post.

A Trump administration initiative is seeking to establish a force consisting of troops from Arab nations to send to northern Syria and replace the U.S. military contingent once the Islamic State group has been defeated. Michael R. Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Syrian government forces have begun preparations to take complete control of the capital of Damascus, including an assault to recapture of the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, which has been under the control of Islamic State group militants. Reuters reports.

Syrian government forces appear to have turned their attention to fully recapturing the province of Homs, Al Jazeera reports.

Syrian state television said today that the country’s air defenses were triggered last night by a “false alarm,” quoting an unnamed military official, not providing more information and denying earlier reports of “outside aggression.” Zeina Karam reports at the AP.

The British Prime Minister Theresa May insisted that U.K.’s participation in U.S.-led strikes was not done because President Trump asked, but “because we believed it was the right thing to do,” making the comments in Parliament and defending her decision amid criticism from lawmakers about bypassing Parliament and acting without U.N. approval. Pippa Crear and Jessica Elgot report at the Guardian.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are expected to brief Congress today on U.S. strikes against Syria, according to sources familiar with the matter. Elana Schor and Heather Caygle report at POLITICO.

Assad has consistently used chemical weapons during the course of the Syrian war, this has been part of a tactic of “chemical cleansing” that allows the Syrian President to shift populations, Nic Robertson writes at CNN, arguing that the U.S., U.K. and France have failed to formulate a plan that deals with the “core problem of Assad.”

Iranian-backed militias operating in Syria have begun to turn their focus on U.S. troops in the country, the U.S.-led airstrikes have the potential to further motivate anti-American hostility and attacks, particularly in northern and northeastern Syria. Borzou Daraghi provides an analysis at Foreign Policy.

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]

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

The U.S. and U.K. yesterday accused Russia of launching a global campaign of cyberattacks on computer routers and networking equipment, Jim Finkle and Doina Chiacu report at Reuters.

“When we see malicious cyber activity, whether it be from the Kremlin or other malicious nation-state actors, we are going to push back,” the White House cyber security coordinator, Rob Joyce, said yesterday. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

U.S. and U.K. officials said the scope of the claimed Russian compromise was unclear, David D. Kirkpatrick and Ron Nixon report at the New York Times.

AUTHORIZATION FOR THE USE OF MILITARY FORCE

Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn) and Tim Kain (D-Va.) yesterday unveiled a new proposal for an updated authorization for the use of military force (A.U.M.F.), in an attempt to define and limit the president’s ability to authorize war. Leigh Ann Caldwell and Vivian Salama report at NBC News.

The proposal would authorize “all necessary and appropriate force” against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic State group and associated forces. Corker said that the new A.U.M.F. could be debated and possibility voted on as soon as next week, Patricia Zengerle reports at Reuters.

If passed, the new legislation would replace the 2001 and 2002 A.U.M.F.s which authorized U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq and have formed the legal basis for subsequent action against terrorist groups in the region. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Trump will host the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Mar-a-Lago retreat today for two days of talks, the approach to North Korea will feature highly on the agenda due to Japan’s fears that its interests will be being sidelined in the upcoming summit meetings between Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Steve Holland reports at Reuters.

Japan is concerned that Trump would pursue an agreement that focuses on North Korea’s ability to strike the U.S. mainland and ignore their ability to strike Japanese territory. Japan also has other concerns, such as the fate of its citizens that were abducted by North Korean spies over the past few decades, Justin McCurry reports at the Guardian.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

The U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson has been ordered to remain behind bars in Turkey, Brunson has been accused of aiding the separatist Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) and for having links to the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who has been accused of orchestrating the failed coup against President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016. Mehmet Guzel reports at the AP.

Brunson has denied the charges and his case has been taking place amid deteriorating U.S.-Turkey relations, Carlotta Gall reports at the New York Times.

Turkey is essentially holding Brunson as an American hostage, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, noting Erdogan’s desire for the U.S. to extradite Gülen to Turkey.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

At least six civilians have been killed by gunmen in Afghanistan’s western Ghor province today, according to local officials, with no one claiming immediate responsibility for the attack. The AP reports.

Family members of Canadian diplomats in Cuba are being sent home, according to a senior government official, diplomats and their relatives have continued to experience mysterious health symptoms even after their return to Canada. The cause of the symptoms is not known and at least 24 U.S. embassy staff and their relatives who were also in Cuba have reported suffering from illnesses, Kim Mackrael reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Women and children with perceived ties to the Islamic State group have been subjected to abuse in Iraq, according to a report by Amnesty International released today. The AP reports.

An overview and analysis of Trump’s foreign policy is provided by Susan B. Glasser at POLITICO Magazine.

The former F.B.I. Director James Comey’s memoir has shone a spotlight on the contents of the dossier compiled by the former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele, which alleged Trump-Russia connections. Michelle Goldberg writes at the New York Times, noting that the salacious rumors contained in the document are important because they could show that the president may be compromised by Moscow. 

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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