The Early Edition: June 26, 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.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

President Trump met with King Abdullah of Jordan yesterday and said that a lot of progress has been made on his administration’s plan for peace between Israel and Palestine, but did not elaborate. The president’s comments follow an interview by his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, during which Kushner said that the peace plan would be announced soon with or without the input of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Reuters reports.

Senior Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi Arabian and Emirati officials have reportedly informed Kushner and U.S. Special Representative Jason Greenblatt that they would back the U.S. peace plan whether or not Abbas agrees to it, with senior Egyptian and Jordanian officials saying that they were told in advance the remarks that Kushner would make in his interview. Daniel Siryoti, Reuters and staff report at Israel Hayom. The peace plan is expected to be released in August.

The reports of Arab support for the peace plan take place against a backdrop of increased tensions between the Palestinian Authority and the U.S., with Palestinian Authority officials having rejected meetings with U.S. officials following Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the U.S. Embassy there. Al Jazeera reports.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres yesterday lamented the funding shortfall for the U.N.R.W.A. Palestinian refugee agency, saying the agency carries out vital work and that the price of failure would mean greater hardship and instability in the Middle East and the world. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The commissioner general of U.N.R.W.A., Pierre Krähenbühl, has warned that the organization would run out of money to distribute food and support essential services in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank “in a matter of weeks.” The shortfall follows the Trump administration’s decision to withhold a significant amount of funds to U.N.R.W.A., its call on the agency to make structural changes, and for other countries to take on more of the financial burden. Satoshi Sugiyama and Rick Gladstone report at the New York Times.

The U.S. has reportedly frozen aid to the Palestinian Authority pending review in accordance with the Taylor Force Act, which was passed by Congress two months ago and calls on the suspension of U.S. assistance to the West Bank and Gaza “that directly benefits the P.A. [Palestinian Authority]” unless the Secretary of State certifies that the Authority has met certain requirements. Eylon Aslan-Levy reports at i24 News.

“Putting out a new U.S. peace plan at this moment would be a terrible mistake that would likely only make matters worse,” Ilan Goldenberg writes at Foreign Policy, arguing that the priority for the Trump administration should be stabilizing the situation in Gaza.

The Senate should question the U.S. ambassador to Israel David Freidman on his foreign policy approach, including his advocacy for settlement expansionism and his promotion of far-right ideologies. Jeremy Ben-Ami writes at the Guardian.

SYRIA

Syrian State media reported today that two Israeli missiles struck an area close to Damascus International Airport. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (S.O.H.R.) also reported the strikes and said the target was a suspected weapons depot for Iranian-backed militias, the AP reports.

The Israeli military has not commented on the reports and S.O.H.R. said it had no information about casualties or damage. Reuters reports.

Syrian opposition sources said the missiles targeted an Iranian cargo plane landing at the airport. If confirmed, it would mark the latest Israeli attack on Iranian and Iran-affiliated targets in Syria since April, Al Jazeera reports.

Syrian government forces have made significant advances in the southwestern province of Deraa near the border with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, despite warnings from the U.S. not to carry out an assault in the designated “de-escalation” zone. Reuters reports.

Tens of thousands of civilians have been forced from their homes in Deraa as forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad carry out an offensive against rebel-held positions in the area. Al Jazeera 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]

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

“I am not at all concerned that anyone in the world can look at the United States and understand it to be anything but a beacon of hope, democracy and freedom,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview yesterday, defending and promoting the Trump administration’s approach in the face of increasing international anger toward U.S. trade and foreign policy. Elise Labott reports at CNN.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has been left out of the loop on key decisions, including Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the decision to suspend joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises following the Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, according to sources. In response to the media stories, the chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said that it was “pure silliness” and a National Security Council spokesperson said it was “ludicrous,” Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee report at NBC News.

Pompeo defended Trump’s foreign policy approach in an interview last week, saying that the rift in U.S.-Germany relations was only a blip, that the president is not retreating from global leadership, and that the U.S. must be “assertive but flexible” in dealing with Russia and China. Walter Russell Mead provides an overview of the secretary of state’s comments at the Wall Street Journal and argues that Pompeo “is in a better position than most” to understand the president’s mind.

European diplomats have expressed concern about the Trump administration’s foreign policy decisions, with the French diplomat François Delattre describing the approach as “a strange mix of unilateralism and isolationism that I would name ‘uni-solationism,” and another U.S. career diplomat warning of “a very dangerous moment” for the trans-Atlantic partnership. Gerald F. Seib explains at the Wall Street Journal.

Employees at the State Department have begun to feel disappointed by Pompeo and his promise to restore the department’s “swagger,” expressing concern with the so-called lift on the hiring freeze, internal arguments over nominations of diplomats and the direction of policy-making. Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has arrived in Beijing to meet with Chinese leaders. The negotiations with North Korea are expected to top the agenda, Lolita C. Baldor reports at the AP.

“I am not going to put a timeline on it … we hope that we will have an ongoing process of making progress,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview yesterday, referring to negotiations with North Korea following the summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, also contradicting reports that the U.S. will issue “specific asks” to the Pyongyang regime. Elise Labott reports at CNN.

Activists are concerned that the South Korean government and the Trump administration are down-playing North Korea’s human rights violations in order to maintain the détente that has been brokered over recent months. Yun-hwan Chae and Andrew Jeong report at the Wall Street Journal.

IRAN

“Even in the worst case, I promise that the basic needs of Iranians will be provided,” the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a speech broadcast today, saying that the country’s economy is resilient in the face of new U.S. sanctions that have come as a consequence of Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, and making the comments as protestors clashed with police yesterday over the collapse of the currency. Reuters reports.

“The U.S. cannot defeat our nation, our enemies are not able to get us to their knees,” Rouhani also said in his speech. Amir Vahdat reports at the AP.

Iran has changed since the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, but in a different way to Trump’s portrayal of the situation. Thomas Erdbrink explains at the New York Times.

 

TURKEY

“We respect the decision of Turkish voters and look forward to a constructive relationship with President [Reçep Tayyip] Erdoğan,” the U.S. State Department said yesterday in response to Erdoğan’s re-election, adding that efforts should be taken to “strengthen Turkey’s democracy.” Reuters reports.

“Democracy is remarkably resilient in Turkey, even if badly battered,” the New York Times editorial board writes, arguing that there are reasons to be encouraged despite what Erdoğan’s mandate means for Turkey’s democracy, the N.A.T.O. military alliance and the dynamics of power in the Middle East.

AFGHANISTAN

A Taliban suicide attack yesterday killed eight police officers in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, according to an Afghan official, however no one has claimed immediately responsibility for the bombing. The AP reports.

The Taliban yesterday rejected calls from Afghan elders and activists for an extension of a three-day ceasefire that was observed earlier this month, with Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid saying in a statement that the movement “are not speaking about the occupation or the withdrawal of foreigners.” Hamid Shalizi reports at Reuters.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) has rebuffed calls from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to provide more documents related to the early stages of the F.B.I.’s Russia probe and the investigation of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, saying that the Department had complied with the committee’s requests. Rebecca Ballhaus and Sadie Gurman report at the Wall Street Journal.

Top House Republicans have diverged in their response to D.O.J. and the F.B.I. and the demands for sensitive documents related to the early stages of Russia investigation, with some, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) welcoming the disclosure and others, such as Trump ally Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) saying “the notion that D.O.J./F.B.I. have been forthcoming with Congress is false.” Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Special counsel Robert Mueller has been increasingly focused on the Trump ally and founder of Blackwater private military firm Erik Prince as part of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter, and a spokesperson for Prince saying that his client has provided Mueller with “total access to his phone and computer.” James Gordon Meek reports at ABC News.

The Russian company charged by Mueller as part of his probe has been offering legal arguments echoing those of the president by questioning the legitimacy of the special counsel’s appointment. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Chinese warships have been conducting drills in waters near Taiwan for over a week, the Chinese state media said today, issuing the statement ahead of U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ trip to Beijing and increased U.S.-China tensions over the island. Reuters reports.

The Senate yesterday passed legislation requiring the Pentagon to notify Congress of the use of cellphone spying technology near U.S. military facilities. The provision comes amid concern about the use of International Mobile Subscriber Identity (I.M.S.I.) catchers being used in the Washington D.C. area, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Russia and the U.K. are pitted against each other over the mandate of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.) and a British proposal, to be discussed today, that the organization have responsibility to apportion blame for chemical attacks. The AP reports.

“At this time of extreme challenges, we must not abandon the responsibility to protect or leave it in a state of suspended animation,” the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said at a General Assembly debate yesterday, adding that atrocity crimes are not “inevitable.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

At least four Yemeni prisoners have been released from Emirati-linked facilities following an investigation by the AP into torture being carried out by the U.A.E., which is a key U.S. ally, at secret prisons. Maggie Michael reports at the AP. 

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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