The Early Edition: June 29, 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.

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT

A summit meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin has been scheduled for July 16 in the Finnish capital of Helsinki, the White House said yesterday, adding that “the two leaders will discuss relations between the United States and Russia, and a range of national security issues.” Andrew E. Kramer and Eileen Sullivan report at the New York Times.

The summit will take place against the backdrop of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia and the ongoing probe by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. John Wagner, Anton Troianovski and Philip Rucker report at the Washington Post.

“If we could all get along it would be great. The world has to start getting along,” Trump told reporters in response to questions about the upcoming summit.  The AFP reports.

The N.A.T.O. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the announcement, saying “dialogue is a sign of strength.” The Trump-Putin meeting will take place shortly after the July 11-12 N.A.T.O. summit in Brussels, the BBC reports.

Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea is expected to be a key issue on the agenda. Moscow’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine led to U.S. sanctions against Russia, Vladimir Isachenkov reports at the AP.

Trump is expected to call on Russia to help rein in Iran’s military presence in Syria when he meets with Putin, according to European diplomats and U.S. officials. Earlier this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress that he would “applaud” Russia if they could “get the Iranians out of there,” Michael R. Gordon and Dion Nissenbaum report at the Wall Street Journal.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has welcomed the summit and said it could be a historic event leading to greater cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. The AP reports.

The summit has raised concern among U.S. allies who have been seeking to isolate and contain Russia due to its disruptive and expansionist activities. Doina Chiacu and Andrew Osborn explain at Reuters.

Experts and analysts have expressed concerns that Trump will grant too many concessions to Putin, just as Trump made concessions to the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when they met earlier this month. Mark Landler explains at the New York Times.

There is plenty at stake when Trump meets Putin, the U.S. president’s top national security advisers and Republican lawmakers must do all that they can to ensure he is prepared and understands the threat posed by Russia and areas where progress can be made. The New York Times editorial board writes.

SYRIA

Russian airstrikes on rebel-held towns in Syria’s southwestern Deraa province killed at least 25 civilians yesterday, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (S.O.H.R.), marking the bloodiest day yet since the pro-government forces’ offensive began on June 19. The AFP reports.

The airstrikes were carried out in spite of the 2017 U.S., Russia and Jordan ceasefire agreement in the area which borders Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The fighting has the potential to spark a wider conflict, including between Israel and Iran, Karen DeYoung, Liz Sly and Zakaria Zakaria report at the Washington Post.

The U.N. has warned of a deepening humanitarian crisis in the provinces of Deraa and neighboring Quneitra, with the top U.N. official Jan Egeland appealing to Jordan to help refugees fleeing the area. The U.N. News Centre reports.

A temporary truce has taken effect in Deraa, according to sources, who say it was agreed by the Syrian government and Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) rebels following Russian-led talks in Jordan. However, a source close to the government has said that Damascus has not been informed of any truce, Al Jazeera reports.

More than 120,000 civilians have been uprooted by the Syrian government offensive on the southwest, S.O.H.R. said today, adding that tens of thousands of refugees have gathered at the border with Jordan and thousands at the Golan Heights border. Reuters reports.

President Trump suggested withdrawing U.S. troops out of Syria when he met with King Abdullah of Jordan this week, according to sources familiar with the private meeting, with one source saying that Trump believes he can strike a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the “de-escalation” zone in southwest Syria which would allow the U.S. to “get out ASAP.” Michelle Kosinski and Zachary Cohen report at CNN.

The Trump administration’s only major goal in Syria is to curb Iranian influence; the president appears ready to back a deal with Russia to push back against Iranian presence in the country in exchange for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad maintaining his authority and Russia increasing its influence in the country and region. David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 35 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between June 18 and June 24. [Central Command]

THE KOREAN PENINSULA

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Pyongyang next week to accelerate the Trump administration’s attempts to force North Korea to denuclearize, according to four people familiar with his plans. The visit will mark the first senior level face-to-face contact since Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at their landmark summit in Singapore earlier this month, Katrina Manson and Kiran Stacey report at the Financial Times.

The U.S. formally ended seven decades of military presence in the South Korean capital of Seoul today, with a ceremony marking the opening of a new headquarters farther from North Korean artillery range. Most troops have already transferred to the new location at Camp Humphreys, and the U.S. claims the remaining ones will move by the end of the year. Hyung-Jin Kim and Kim Tong-Hyung report at the Washington Post.

“This was a project that cost nearly $10.8 billion to build over 10 years and the Republic of Korea investment was over 90 percent of the cost,” chief of the U.S. military forces Comm. Vincent Brooks said in a speech at the base, adding  “for that 90 percent, the United States remains with you 100 percent.” Phil Stewart and Tim Kelly report at Reuters.

“The successful summits, between the two Koreas and between North Korea and United States, steps towards complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and permanent peace were only possible with the support of the deterrent and the preparatory stance of the South Korea-U.S. alliance,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in wrote in a commemorative letter for the opening ceremony. Christine Kim reports at Reuters.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis was in Seoul yesterday as part of a tour of Asian nations, where he reassured South Korean officials that the U.S. will maintain current troop levels on the Peninsula and offered assurances that the two nations’ alliance remains “ironclad” – despite the recent scrapping of a significant joint military drill. Thomas Gibbons-Neff reports at the New York Times.

“I note with respect the blue lapel pin you wear, and we’re with you,” Mattis told Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera today in Tokyo, in an apparent attempt to reassure his counterpart that the U.S will not overlook Japanese security concerns as it embarks on denuclearization talks with North Korea. The pin to which Mattis referred commemorates the 17 Japanese citizens who Tokyo claims were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. Gordon Lubold and Andrew Jeong report at the Wall Street Journal.

“We’re in the midst of very unprecedented negotiations right now with North Korea, but in this dynamic time, the long-standing alliance between Japan and the United States stands firm,” Mattis remarked to reporters at Japan’s Defense Ministry, adding that “we are not going to take our alliance with another democratic and free nation into account in this separate negotiation, so it stands firm.” Missy Ryan reports at the Washington Post.

South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon today remarked that strengthened relations between the two Koreas will increase the likelihood of successful nuclear diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang, telling an audience at a forum that “[our] government will closely communicate and cooperate with North Korea and the United States, all our neighboring countries, and the entire international community so that the agreements between North Korea and the United States could be quickly and completely carried out.” The AP reports.

The two women accused of murdering Kim’s estranged half-brother at Kuala Lumpur international airport in February 2017, must have been trained to carry out an assassination using a deadly nerve agent, Malaysian prosecutors told high court in Shah Alam yesterday. Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong are charged with having common intent with four North Korean fugitives to kill Kim Jong-nam, Reuters reports.

We can anticipate that North Korean nuclear research and facilities upgrades will continue rapidly – especially given Trump’s lack of patience and of restraint on social media, Jonathan Cristol comments at CNN.

N.A.T.O.

“N.A.T.O. is as bad as N.A.F.T.A.,” President Trump told other world leaders at the G-7 summit earlier this month, according to an official who read notes transcribed from the private meeting, which indicates that the upcoming July 11-12 N.A.T.O. summit will be contentious and anxiety-inducing for U.S. allies. Jonathan Swan reports at Axios.

Leaders of the European Union today pledged to increase defense spending and strengthen military readiness, saying in a summit statement that the steps to bolster European defense would complement and reinforce N.A.T.O. activities. Robin Emmott reports at Reuters.

Trump seeks to destabilize the transatlantic alliance by attacking the European Union and N.A.T.O. as part of “a brazen attempt to undo the strategic infrastructure both America and Europe need more than ever.” Josh Rogin writes at the Washington Post.

The SUPREME COURT

Republicans and Democrat lawmakers are preparing for the battle to choose Justice Anthony Kennedy’s successor, with the White House again enlisting executive vice president of the Federalist Society Leonard Leo to help with a selection process that has narrowed down to fewer than six candidates. Louise Radnofsky and Joshua Jamerson report at the Wall Street Journal

Among the front-runners is Brett Kavanaugh of Maryland, according to those involved in the process. Kavanaugh serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and like Trump’s previous nominee Neil Gorsuch, is a former law clerk for Justice Kennedy, Pete Williams reports at NBC.

The Democrats lack the option of a filibuster, meaning that President Trump’s nominee will embark on the process safe in the knowledge that a seat on the Supreme Court can be won solely with Republican votes. Democrats, however, will still consider other tactics to derail the process, Carl Hulse reports at the New York Times.

Republican lawmakers are hoping that Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) –two Senators who rejected the G.O.P.’s effort to scrap Obamacare – will ultimately support Trump’s nomination. Murkowski, however, commented yesterday that “there’s pressure because of the gravity of such a nomination … I am not going to suggest that my opportunity as a senator in the advise and consent process is somehow or other short-cutted just because this is a Republican president and I’m a Republican,” Burgess Everett and John Brensham report at POLITICO.

The White House embarked on a quiet campaign to create a Supreme Court opening, with Trump singling out Kennedy for praise, the administration nominating people close to him to important judicial positions and even members of the Trump family forging personal connections – all in order to assure Kennedy that his judicial legacy would be safeguarded should he retire at the end of the court’s term. Adam Liptak and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Even ahead of Justice Kennedy’s retirement the past year has been a successful one for conservatives on the Supreme Court, with University of Texas law professor and Just Security Co-Editor-in-Chief Stephen Vladeck commenting that “in just about all of the close cases, the conservatives won.” Brent Kendall reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Kennedy’s resignation serves as an example of Trump striking lucky once again, Michael Gerson comments at the Washington Post.

The selection process for Supreme Court justices does not have to be politicized, Rick Noak argues at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

“I am not keeping any information from Congress,” the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said yesterday in response to questions by House Republicans about Congress’s requests for information relating to the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Rosenstein was joined by F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray who also rejected criticisms that the bureau had not been forthcoming when dealing with document requests, Del Quentin Wilber and Andrew Duehren report at the Wall Street Journal.

Wray and Rosenstein defended special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, and there were particularly tense exchanges between Rosenstein and House Republicans. Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

The five highlights from Rosenstein and Wray’s hearing are provided by Katie Bo Williams, Olivia Beavers and Morgan Chalfant at the Hill.

The links between the campaign for the U.K. to leave the European Union, the 2016 Trump campaign, and Russian officials and oligarchs are uncovered by Manual Roig-Franzia, Rosalind S. Helderman, William Booth and Tom Hamburger at the Washington Post.

The legal team for the former aide to the Trump ally and longtime adviser Roger Stone filed a motion yesterday to quash a subpoena from Mueller, if successful it would allow Andrew Miller to avoid appearing before the grand jury impaneled by Mueller, but Miller’s legal team appear ready that the request will be denied and have said that their client will refuse to answer any questions at the hearing. Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

The former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos will be sentenced on Sept. 7. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty last year to lying to F.B.I. agents in Mueller’s probe of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, Tom Winter reports at NBC News.

YEMEN

U.N. Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths confirmed today that parties in the conflict are willing to restart negotiations, even as fighting continues for the crucial port city of Hodeida. The AP reports.

Griffiths has advocated that de-escalation of fighting in Hodeida is central to a ‘long-overdue’ restart of Yemen peace talks, but has expressed that his “principal and over-riding responsibility” is to bring about negotiations to end the war. U.N. News Centre reports.

“I’d like to get the parties together within the next few weeks at the very latest,” Griffiths said in a U.N. radio interview last night, adding that “I’m hoping that the [U.N.] Security Council will meet next week and we’ll put a plan before them as to how we’re going to bring the talks back.” Tom Miles reports at Reuters.

Ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.) said yesterday that the administration had not satisfied his concerns about the potential sale of thousands of precision-guided munitions to members of the Saudi-led coalition that could be used to kill Yemeni civilians. Menendez wrote in a letter: “I remind you that the American public has a right to insist that the sales of U.S. weapons to foreign governments – especially those of this magnitude and lethality – are consistent with U.S. values and national security objectives,”  Patricia Zengerle reports at Reuters.

IRAN

A State Department official has commented that Washington wants Iranian oil buyers to halt imports from November, with U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley telling Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lessen dependence on Iranian oil. Haley spoke with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo early on Wednesday in advance of the meeting with Modi. Al Jazeera reports.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said today that Turkey does not have to follow “unilateral” U.S. decisions on Iran, adding that “the fact that we are allies does not mean that we have to abide by all its decisions or all that it says word by word.” The remarks follow threats from the Trump that countries who refuse to cut off Iranian oil imports by early November will be hit by sanctions, the AP reports.

As Defense Secretary Jim Mattis moves further from the center of the Trump administration, his mission seems increasingly focused on preventing war with Iran. Mark Perry comments at Foreign Policy.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The White House chief of staff John Kelly is expected to leave the administration soon and President Trump has been consulting with advisers about successors, with Nick Ayers and Mick Mulvaney emerging as the front-runners. Rebecca Ballhaus and Peter Nicholas report at the Wall Street Journal.

A new set of leaked emails has revealed that Trump’s close confidant Tom Barrack was prepared to exchange inside information about administration appointments with U.A.E. ambassador to Washington Yousef al-Otaiba before Trump took office. Barrack also promised Otaiba that the incoming Trump government would keep his Emirati interests at the heart of the new administration’s Middle East policy, with the emails indicating an earlier connection between the Trump administration and the U.A.E. than previously known, David Hearst reports at Middle East Eye.

The State Department has requested that U.S. Marines deploy troops to guard the U.S. de facto embassy in Taiwan, according to two U.S. officials, which has led the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson to say today that the U.S. “should exercise caution on this issue to avoid affecting overall bilateral ties.” Ryan Browne reports at CNN.

The U.K. intelligence services tolerated and abetted the torture of terrorist suspects by the U.S., according to a report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee released yesterday, which also said that the committee’s work was incomplete because it was not able to conduct interviews with many current and former intelligence officers. Richard Pérez-Peña reports at the New York Times.

Another U.S. diplomat at the embassy in Cuba has experienced mysterious health symptoms, the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert confirmed yesterday. There are now 26 confirmed incidents since U.S. personnel in Havana began reporting suffering symptoms in 2016, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

A senior Afghani Special Forces commander has been killed in Kabul, an Afghan official said today, with the Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid saying the militant group carried out the attack. The AP reports.

The commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army (L.N.A.) Gen. Khalifa Haftar yesterday claimed victory over militants and Islamists in the eastern city of Derna, if confirmed, it would grant the L.N.A. full control over the east of the country. Ayman al-Warfalli reports at Reuters.    

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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).