The Early Edition: June 22, 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

President Trump claimed yesterday that North Korea is destroying four of its major test sites and that a process of “total denuclearization … has already started,” though it was not immediately clear which sites Trump was referring to. Officials say that there is in fact no evidence of steps taken by the North toward denuclearization since Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last week in Singapore. David Brunnstrom and James Oliphant report at Reuters.

“[U.S.] Secretary [Mike] Pompeo will be meeting with them and talking with them at the earliest possible date,” said State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert yesterday, referring to a follow-up meeting with the Pyongyang administration. Nauert told reporters that there had been contact with the North Korea government since the summit, but added that “we don’t have any meetings or travel to announce at this time,” Lesley Wroughton reports at Reuters.

North and South Korean officials met today for talks on resuming reunions of families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War, as the two nations push for reconciliation. Seoul’s Unification Ministry said that the parties will discuss how to implement the agreement on family reunions struck by Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in during their summit in April. Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the Washington Post.

North Korean media has toned down its anti-U.S. rhetoric since last week’s summit in Singapore, apparently priming the nation’s people for a new beginning. Bryan Harris reports at the Financial Times.

U.S. military exercises in Korea are not a game, and although negotiations with North Korea are important, they should not come at the expense of military readiness in the region, Abraham M. Denmark and Lindsay Ford comment at Foreign Policy.

The U.S. is beholden to North Korea for the return of its soldiers’ remains, with Washington able to exercise little oversight of the repatriation efforts, Andrew Jeong comments at the Wall Street Journal.

The Singapore summit represented everything that national security adviser John Bolton has spent years railing against, but his hawkish approach may be essential in securing denuclearization, John Hannah argues at Foreign Policy

YEMEN

Yemeni government forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition face a significant challenge capturing the sea port in the city of Hodeidah from the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, and taking the port would mark a significant victory and would follow the coalition’s successful capture of the airport in Hodeidah. The U.N. has raised concerns about the humanitarian implications of the largescale offensive on the strategic city which is a key entry point for food supplies and assistance, Aziz El Yaakoubi reports at Reuters.

“I am confident that we can reach an agreement to avert any escalation of violence,” the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said in a statement yesterday, referring to his weekslong effort to negotiate a solution and “avoid a military confrontation” in Hodeidah. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The Houthi rebels have indicated their willingness to hand over management of the Hodeidah sea port to the U.N., according to sources familiar with the U.N. planning, with a U.S. official saying that the United States was urging Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. to accept the deal. Yara Bayoumy, Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay report at Reuters.

SYRIA

Syrian government forces shelled rebel-held areas in the southern province of Deraa yesterday despite it being designated a “de-escalation zone” by the U.S., Russia and Jordan, with the U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert warning Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of “serious repercussions” and calling on Russia to “restrain” Assad’s forces in the area. Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

This week’s offensive on Deraa by pro-government forces has displaced thousands of civilians, with the advance coming after a series of military victories by the Assad regime. Al Jazeera reports.

The U.N. yesterday expressed concern about the impact of the military offensive on the around 750,000 people in Deraa, Reuters reports.

A U.S. airstrike on a Syrian army outpost has killed a Syrian army officer. The strike took place near the U.S. garrison in Tanf and the Pentagon said U.S.-backed forces engaged yesterday evening with an “unidentified hostile force” outside a “deconfliction zone” around the base, Reuters reports.

Russia today claimed the U.S. and its allies relied on fabricated evidence to accuse Assad’s government of using chemical weapons against civilians, also stating that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had not objectively investigated the allegations. The AP reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 26 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between June 11 and June 17. [Central Command]

AFGHANISTAN

A Taliban attack in Afghanistan’s northern Baghdis province this morning has killed 16 members of a militia loyal to the government, according to an Afghan official. The AP reports.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has offered his support for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s recent ceasefire with the Taliban, the Saudi government said in a statement issued Wednesday, indicating that Saudi Arabia may be taking a more prominent role in the attempts to end the 17-year conflict. Missy Ryan reports at the Washington Post.

U.S. government advisers and former officials have said there is now an opportunity to discuss peace with the Taliban and negotiate an end to the conflict, however there remains internal divisions within the Trump administration about the right approach to the Taliban and how to respond to the recent Afghan government-Taliban ceasefire. Spencer Ackerman reports at The Daily Beast.

RUSSIA

The White House national security adviser John Bolton is scheduled to travel to Moscow next week to discuss a possible meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the potential meeting following the tense G-7 summit and in the context of the ongoing probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Peter Baker and Andrew E. Kramer report at the New York Times.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has signed a decree expanding sanctions on Russia companies and entities, with Ukraine’s council of national security and defense saying today that the imposed sanctions are “symmetrical to the sanctions imposed by the U.S. government on June 11 against legal entities involved in the activities of Russian special services in cyberspace.” Reuters reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson yesterday rejected a motion from former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort that aimed to suppress key evidence in his upcoming criminal trial, ruling that the materials seized by the F.B.I. from a self-storage owned by Manafort’s firm in May 2017 were not taken in violation of Manafort’s constitutional rights. Daniel Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team wants to employ a written questionnaire to ascertain whether “widespread media attention” has biased potential jurors for Manafort’s upcoming trial, with Mueller yesterday filing an eight-page motion raising concerns about the possibility of the jury being tainted by the (often inaccurate) coverage. Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions disclosed yesterday that F.B.I. agent Peter Strzok’s security clearance has been removed. Strzok has been under pressure over private text messages he exchanged with then-F.B.I. lawyer Lisa Page during the 2016 election that appeared to indicate anti-Trump bias, Julia Manchester reports at the Hill.

TURKEY

Turkish police have detained 14 suspected Islamic State group militants in raids in the capital of Ankara, Turkish state news media reported today. The AP reports.

Senators sought yesterday to block the transfer of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, submitting an amendment to the Senate’s appropriation bill minutes after the jet’s manufacturer, the U.S. company Lockheed Martin, held a ceremony to transfer to jets to Ankara. The action from the senators comes amid deteriorating U.S.-Turkey relations and concerns over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft system, Ryan Browne reports at CNN.

The re-election of Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan on Sunday “is likely to foment further instability in Syria and throughout the Middle East region,” Simon Tisdall writes at the Guardian, saying that Erdoğan, who is a dictator in all but name, should be kicked out by voters who have “a duty to the world, not just to themselves.”

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

The U.S. has assumed “strong positions” on issues such as Iran, trade policy and defense spending in order to strengthen the West, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Wess Mitchell, said yesterday, adding that the U.S. is committed to “finding a common way forward.” Robin Emmott reports at Reuters.

“Europe’s response to Mr. Trump must begin with a hard look at realities,” the New York Times editorial board writes, noting the divisions within the continent and the steps it should take to remain relevant in world affairs if it is stand up to Trump’s “reckless whims.”

N.A.T.O

“It is not written in stone that the trans-Atlantic bond will survive forever … but I believe we will preserve it.” N.A.T.O. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said during a speech in London yesterday. Stoltenberg called for an effort to strengthen the military alliance amid the divisions between Europe and the U.S. over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, climate change and trade, Jill Lawless reports at the Washington Post.

“There may be some strong language, some clear language on defense spending and other issues,” said Stoltenberg – seeming to anticipate President Trump’s conduct at next month’s summit – but adding that “as long as we make decisions and demonstrate that we are delivering then that’s the most important thing.” Stephen Fidler reports at the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Trump government is weeks away from releasing a long-awaited Middle East peace proposal, that according to officials will present U.S. goals for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, and which will be designed to kick-start negotiations between the parties as early as the summer. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is likely to reject the framework outright, given the Palestinian position that President Trump cannot serve as an honest broker, Anne Gearan, Karen DeYoung and Loveday Morris report at the Washington Post.

The U.S. is preparing to shelter as many as 20,000 migrant children on four military bases, a Pentagon spokesperson announced yesterday, as officials struggled to carry out President Trump’s executive order to keep immigrant families together following apprehension at the border. Michael D. Shear, Helene Cooper and Katie Benner report at the New York Times.

U.S. military aircraft have been targeted by lasers more than 20 times in recent months while operating over the East China Sea, according to officials, with the lasers appearing to come from fishing boats and on shore. The findings follow a series of similar incidents in which Pentagon officials allege Chinese forces used lasers against U.S. pilots in East Africa. Gordon Lubold and Jeremy Page report at the Wall Street Journal. 

Another employee of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba is suffering with mysterious health symptoms consistent with those suffered by at least 24 other staffers in Havana, the State Department confirmed yesterday. Investigators remain frustrated in their attempts to determine what has occurred since the first incident was reported in late 2016, with State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert claiming that “we still don’t know, to this day, what is causing it and who is responsible,” Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as renewed his appeal for a dialogue and “non-aggression” pact with regional neighbors, claiming that the security of the Middle East cannot depend on the “dangerous” and “erratic behavior” of U.S. President Trump. Zarif wrote an article published yesterday by the Iranian Mehr news agency, in which he claimed that regional powers should be able to resolve their problems “without outside interference and patronage,” Al Jazeera reports.

The former National Security Agency (N.S.A.) contractor Reality Winner has reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors relating to her Espionage Act charge. Winner was charged with leaking classified information detailing a Russian cyberattack on a U.S. voting software supplier, Sebastian Murdock reports at The Huffington Post.

The U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein today called for a Commission of Inquiry to investigate atrocities committed in Venezuela. The AFP reports. 

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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

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).