The Early Edition: April 20, 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.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea has expressed a desire for the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, the South Korean President Moon Jae-in said yesterday, speaking ahead of an inter-Korean summit to be held on April 27 and a planned meeting between the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Trump in May or June. David Smith and agencies report at the Guardian.

North Korea “is not making demands that the U.S. cannot accept, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Korea,” Moon also said, explaining that Pyongyang wants an “end to the hostile policy” and a “guarantee of its security” in exchange for dismantling its nuclear and missile program. Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

The Trump administration responded with suspicion to North Korea’s decision to drop its demand that U.S. troops withdraw from the Korean Peninsula, expressing doubts about Kim’s motives. Mark Landler and Choe Sang-Hun report at the New York Times.

A hotline has been opened between the two Koreas ahead of next week’s inter-Korean summit, a South Korean presidential official said today. The AFP reports.

Moon faces significant challenges at the inter-Korean summit, Kim Tong-Hyung explains at the AP.

Differing interpretations of the meaning of “denuclearization” remain ahead of the inter-Korean and Trump-Kim summits. North Korea’s statements on denuclearization have been ambiguous, while the U.S. and South Korea’s definition is the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement.” Ben Westcott explains at CNN.

North Korean hackers have significantly improved in sophistication and capability, Timothy W. Martin explains at the Wall Street Journal.

The risks of a Trump-Kim summit remain high, but the administration has been making preparations and the “decision to pursue serious diplomacy” should be welcomed. Jon Wolfstahl writes at Foreign Policy.

SYRIA

Insurgents from the enclave around the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp near the capital Damascus have agreed to surrender today. Angus McDowall reports at Reuters.

Syrian rebels agreed to surrender and evacuate the town of Dumayr in the Damascus enclave of Eastern Ghouta yesterday, marking Assad’s latest success for in his strategy of besieging opposition areas until they agree to accept government control. Philip Issa reports at the AP.

It is “incumbent upon” Russia and Syria to allow the team of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.) into the town of Douma, where an alleged chemical weapons attack took place on April 7, the U.K. ambassador to the U.N. Karen Pierce said yesterday, making the comments after the investigators’ visit was delayed due to gunfire and an explosion at the site. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Russia no longer has “moral obligations” to withhold S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems from Assad due to the U.S.-led strikes last week – which were in response to the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma – the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying today by the Russian R.I.A. state news agency. Reuters reports.

Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) demanded yesterday that President Trump provide Congress with the legal justification for carrying out strikes against Syria last week, saying in a letter that it “is not sufficient information for the American public to understand what limits, if any, you and your Administration believes constrains you as the President from taking military action anywhere in the world for any purpose.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

A commander for the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) said today that Mohammed Haydar Zammar has been detained in northern Syria, Zammar is a German-born Islamist and reportedly had links to the 9/11 attackers. The BBC reports.

The Pentagon today confirmed the reports about Zammar and said he had been captured by the S.D.F. over a month ago. Reuters reports.

An offensive by Assad’s forces against rebels in southern Syria has the potential to ignite a wider conflict, Free Syrian Army rebels are preparing for a battle that could draw in the U.S. and Israel, and Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies. Alice Su explains at the AP.

The city of Raqqa – formerly the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State in Syria – has been struggling to recover six months after it was liberated. Tamer El-Ghobashy and Alice Martins provide a feature at the Washington Post.

An analysis of the former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn’s plan for Syria is provided by Josh Rogin at the Washington Post.

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 partially redacted memos of former F.B.I. Director James Comey have been published after having been handed to Congress. The BBC reports.

Comey’s memos detail conversations with Trump and reveal that the president expressed concerns about the then-national security adviser Michael Flynn’s judgment. Trump also discussed about his 2013 trip to Moscow with Comey, saying that “there were no prostitutes; there were never prostitutes,” Jeremy Herb reports at CNN.

Comey told the then-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus in a Feb. 8, 2017 meeting that the content of the dossier compiled by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele had been corroborated by other intelligence, the memos also show that Comey expressed concerns that Priebus questioned him about possible F.B.I. surveillance of Flynn. Mike Memoli reports at NBC News.

Trump claimed that the memos had vindicated him and said in message on Twitter that they had shown clearly “that there was NO COLLUSION and NO OBSTRUCTION.” Kadhim Shubber reports at the Financial Times.

The contents of Comey’s memos were already largely in the public domain, however there were some new details and the documents have further entrenched partisan lines in Congress. Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

The former New York mayor and Trump ally Rudy Giuliani joined Trump’s legal team yesterday along with two other former federal prosecutors, Giuliani is expected to take the lead role in as Trump’s personal representative in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and possible links between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

The bolstering of Trump’s legal team comes at a particularly tense time in the Mueller investigation. Robert Costa, Josh Dawsey and Rosalind S. Helderman report at the Washington Post.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein offered Trump an assurance last week that he was not the target of any part of Mueller’s investigation or the investigation into his personal lawyer Michael Cohen, according to sources familiar with the matter. Jennifer Jacobs, Chris Strohm and Jennifer Epstein report at Bloomberg.

Cohen has decided to drop the libel suits against BuzzFeed and the research firm Fusion G.P.S. over publication of the Steele dossier, Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL

The French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will hope to persuade Trump to keep the U.S. in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal when they visit the White House next week, making the trips before Trump’s self-imposed May 12 deadline for parties to address the Trump administration’s concerns about the agreement. Felicia Schwartz and Laurence Norman report at the Wall Street Journal.  

“Tehran’s reaction to America’s withdrawal of the deal will be unpleasant,” the Iranian Foreign Minister Moahmmad Javad Zarif was quoted as saying by Iranian state television yesterday. Reuters reports.

Parliamentarians from the U.S., Germany and France have urged U.S. Congress to stop Trump from abandoning the nuclear agreement. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

POMPEO CONFIRMATION PROCESS

Trump’s nominee to be new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, yesterday received the endorsement of Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) has expressed support for Pompeo’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea, pushing Pompeo closer to receiving Senate approval. Byron Tau reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is still not poised to recommend Pompeo’s confirmation, Democrats on the panel appear set to vote against Pompeo along with Republic Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.). Nicholas Fandos and Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

Sen. Rand Paul could still stop Pompeo from being confirmed as the new Secretary of State, Burgess Everett and Elana Schor explain at POLITICO.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton met with Russian ambassador Anatoly Antonov at the White House yesterday, discussions included U.S.-Russia relations, Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, chemical weapons use in the U.K., and Russia’s role in Ukraine and Syria. John Bowden reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration has been taking steps to increase U.S. arms and drones sales, with the president highlighting U.S. military equipment during meetings with foreign leaders. Paul Sonne reports at the Washington Post.

Australian and Japanese troops are set to join the annual U.S.-Philippine two-week military exercises starting on May 7, Reuters reports.

The State Department should consider adding Russia to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) writes at the New York Times. 

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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