The Early Edition: July 5, 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

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travels to North Korea today under considerable pressure to make progress with Pyongyang, as U.S. intelligence reports cast doubt on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s commitment to dismantle his nuclear and missile programs. Zachary Cohen and Elise Labott report at CNN.

Pompeo will spend a day and a half in North Korea tomorrow and on Saturday, on what will be his third trip to the country this year, with the U.S. seeming to have ditched its “all or nothing” approach to North Korean denuclearization. David Brunnstrom, John Walcott and Hyonhee Shin report at Reuters.

“Many good conversations with North Korea – it is going well!” Trump claimed in a message on Twitter Tuesday morning, but the president’s critics argue that Trump’s softer tone towards Pyongyang in recent weeks indicates that he was taken in by Kim. David E. Sanger reports at the New York Times.

Citizens under the North Korean regime are increasingly convinced that the flurry of U.S.-North Korean diplomacy is a charade and that Kim will never abandon his arsenal of nuclear weapons. Bryan Harris reports at the Financial Times.

The two Koreas began two days of friendly basketball games in Pyongyang yesterday, in the latest gesture of goodwill amid diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff. Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the Washington Post.

President Trump and Kim made a commitment at their June summit in Singapore to repatriate remains of as many as 200 U.S. soldiers, but the nature of past efforts suggests the repatriation process could be fraught with pitfalls, including a mixed record of cooperation from Pyongyang and arduous identification process. Dan Lamothe and Paul Sonne report at the Washington Post.

The U.S. administration needs something – anything – from Pompeo’s visit to indicate that Kim will keep at least one of the commitments from last month’s summit in Singapore, as Trump repeatedly makes concessions upfront,  Donald Kirk argues at The Daily Beast.

SYRIA

Pro-Syrian government forces today launched their most intensive bombing campaign yet in their ongoing offensive on southwestern Deraa province, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (S.O.H.R.) said hundreds of missiles and barrel bombs were dropped by Syrian and Russian warplanes on rebel-held areas. The AFP reports.

The assault was carried out after armed opposition group Syrian Negotiations Commission (S.N.C.) said that ceasefire talks with Russia had failed, with the apparent intention to establish a comprehensive ceasefire covering the provinces of Deraa and Quneitra, and the rebels walking out of the talks saying that the Russian terms amounted to a humiliating surrender. Al Jazeera reports.

The number of civilians displaced by fighting in Deraa is estimated to be between 270,000 and 330,000, according to a spokesperson for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.). The U.N. News Centre reports.

The son of the Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has reportedly been killed in Syria fighting Russia and Syrian government forces in central Homs province. Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned Turkey against expanding its influence in the northern Afrin region of Syria in comments yesterday after meeting with Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan, referring to the recent Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia. Ahmed Aboulenein reports at Reuters.

Iran has been under increasing pressure to withdraw its military presence in Syria; however, it “will do everything in its power to resist and attempt to be forced out of Syria, a very important asset in its geopolitical game.” Marwan Kabalan writes at Al Jazeera, arguing that the Syrian conflict may end up becoming Iran’s “greatest regional failure in the near future.”

A feature on the new U.S. military base in Iraq which carries out operations against the Islamic State group in Syria is provided by Jane Arraf at NPR.

An overview on the treatment of the family members of Islamic State group militants in Syria is provided by Ben Hubbard at the New York Times.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 29 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between June 25 and July 1. [Central Command]

IRAN

The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met with Austrian officials yesterday to discuss efforts to preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz also asked Rouhani for “full clarification” on the case of the Vienna-based Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi who has been detained in connection with a suspected plot to bomb last week’s rally of the Iranian exiled Mujahedin-e-Khalq (M.E.K.) group in France. The AP reports.

Iran would remain in the 2015 agreement only if other countries can “guarantee Iran’s interests,” Rouhani said yesterday. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

Rouhani told the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) yesterday that Iran could reduce its cooperation with the body and said that “the responsibility for the change of Iran’s cooperation level with the I.A.E.A. falls on those who have created this new situation” – referring to U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and its threats to reduce Iranian oil exports to “zero.” Bozorgmehr Sharafedin reports at Reuters.

The U.S. and its regional allies “stand ready to ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce wherever internal law allows,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Central Command said yesterday, responding to suggestions by Rouhani that Iran could halt regional oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz shipping route. Al Jazeera reports.

President Trump yesterday reissued a threat to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (O.P.E.C.) to raise oil output, linking the call for lower oil prices to U.S. security ties with U.S. allies in O.P.E.C. and also making the comments as U.S. prepares to reinstate sanctions on Iran and cut its oil exports. David Sheppard reports at the Financial Times.

Iran’s foreign ministry has summoned French, Belgian and German top diplomats in protest over the arrest of Iranian diplomat Assadi, Reuters reports.

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday called on Europe to take a tougher stance against Iran following the suspected plot to attack the M.E.K., urging leaders to “stop financing the terrorist regime that is financing terrorism against you on your soil. Enough with the policy of appeasement and weakness regarding Iran.” Reuters reports.

The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has canceled his scheduled trip to Tehran, according to Kyodo news, which comes amid increased pressure from the Trump administration on Iran. Reuters reports.

Demonstrations have broken out in Iran as part of a “larger pattern of discontent with the ruling theocracy” and President Trump’s increased pressure on Tehran following his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the nuclear deal. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, stating that the ruling establishment in Iran risks losing control at home if it does not amend its “marauding behavior.”

YEMEN

Yemeni government forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition have bombarded rebel positions outside the strategic port city of Hodeidah, after a brief pause in their advance, government sources said Tuesday. Iranian-backed Houthi rebels are building up their defenses inside the city as more civilians flee, Al Jazeera reports.

The U.N. envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths expressed optimism yesterday after discussing efforts to end the conflict in the country, saying that rebels and their allies have relayed their “strong desire for peace,” but a Houthi negotiator said there had been no breakthrough during the talks. Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.  

“There is no justification for this carnage,” the Unicef chief Henriette Forde told reporters on Tuesday, setting out the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen and the pressure on civilians in Hodeidah. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Aid groups have warned that Yemen is on the cusp of a humanitarian catastrophe, and there have been concerns that the Trump administration’s policies have been enabling the Saudi-led coalition and perpetuating the crisis. Robbie Gramer and Lara Seligman report at Foreign Policy.

NOVICHOK POISONINGS

A man and woman are in currently in a coma at a hospital in southwest England, having been poisoned by the Russian nerve agent Novichok – the same type of chemical used in an attack against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter four months ago, British counterterrorism investigators said last night. William Booth and Karla Adam report at the Washington Post.

U.K. Security Minister Ben Wallace has pointed to Russia as being responsible for the poisonings, and called on Moscow to assist authorities keep the U.K. population safe by giving information. An urgent investigation is under way to discover how the couple were exposed to the nerve agent, Steven Morris, Vikram Dodd and Caroline Bannock report at the Guardian.

The two victims are British citizens, identified locally as Charlie Rowley, 45, and Dawn Sturgess, 44, with the U.K. police saying that there was no indication that the couple would have been targets. The pair fell ill on Saturday in the southern town of Amesbury, after having visited Salisbury – including a spot near where the Skripals were stricken in March, Ellen Barry reports at the New York Times.

“How dumb [do] they think [Russia] is to use ‘again’ so-called ‘Novichok’ in the middle of the FIFA World Cup…The show must go on?,” the Russian embassy to the Netherlands commented in a message on Twitter today. Andrey Ostroukh and Andrew Osborn report at Reuters.

The upcoming N.A.T.O summit, already billed as one of the tensest in the alliance’s 69-year history, will be yet more strained in light of the poisonings. Nico Hines explains at The Daily Beast.

N.A.T.O. SUMMIT

Tensions in the U.S.-European relationship are reaching a critical point as President Trump prepares to face allies at the July 11-12 N.A.T.O. summit, with the president having repeatedly vented his frustration at other members who he claims are not meeting the alliance’s defense spending goal. Trump’s tariffs, his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and his overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin are further sources of friction, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

“I am not very impressed by this type of letter” said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, referring to a letter from president Trump chastising allies for not meeting defense spending obligations. European officials are interpreting the letters as a thinly veiled threat that if the allies don’t spend more in defense of the alliance, the U.S. may do less, Michael R. Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

When it comes to transatlantic security the president actually has a good story to tell, Derek Chollet argues at the Washington Post, questioning why the president is not bragging about his successes with the N.A.T.O alliance.

America’s overseas allies are right to see Washington as a mess, comments Karl Rove at the Wall Street Journal, who is nonetheless confident that “the good sense of the American people” will reassert itself.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Palestinian protests broke out at a Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar facing demolition by the Israeli authorities in the occupied West Bank yesterday, with rights groups condemning the Israeli plans as a bid to expand Jewish settlement. Israel moved three bulldozers to the village early yesterday though demolition had yet to begin, Ali Sawafta reports at Reuters.

At least 134 Palestinians have been wounded in a mass women’s demonstration on the Gaza Strip, with media representatives among those injured by Israeli gunfire. The protesters participating in the Great March of Return protests arrived in buses on Tuesday and moved in groups to within 50 metres of the border fence, Al Jazeera reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle dismissed a lawsuit alleging that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia and WikiLeaks to publish hacked Democratic National Committee (D.N.C.) emails during the 2016 U.S. election, but adding in the ruling on Tuesday that “this Court’s ruling is not based on a finding that there was no collusion between defendants and Russia… .” Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

The Senate Intelligence Committee contradicted its counterpart in the House on Tuesday and unequivocally upheld the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment on Russia interference in the 2016 election and that Russia had developed a “clear preference” for then-candidate Trump. Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

A feature on warnings by the British Government Communications Headquarters (G.C.H.Q.) about Russian hacking of the 2016 U.S. election is provided by David E. Sanger at The Daily Beast.

The SUPREME COURT

“I think you’re going to be very impressed,” President Trump said Tuesday of his nominee to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. The announcement of his pick scheduled for Monday, Andrew Restuccia reports at POLITICO.

Trump has focused on three federal judges to be his nominee: Brett Kavanaugh, Raymond Kethledge and Amy Coney, according to sources familiar with the matter. Peter Nicholas and Louise Radnofsky report at the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump repeatedly asked top aides whether the U.S. could invade Venezuela during a meeting last August at the Oval Office to discuss sanctions– the suggestion allegedly leaving former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster stunned. Ariana Cubillos reports at NBC.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with President Trump in Moscow on July 16, Lavrov said yesterday. Reuters reports.

A suspected U.S. drone strike killed a militant commander Qari Abdullah Dawar and his associate near the Pakistan-Afghan border yesterday in North Waziristan, according to Pakistani intelligence officials. Ishtiaq Mahsud reports at the AP.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has urged the U.N. Security Council to refer the Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) immediately, in light of the refugee crisis that has seen more than 700,000 members of the Rohingya Muslim minority escape to Bangladesh. Zeid commented that a statement from the Myanmar Government avowing its commitment to human rights “almost creates a new category of absurdity,” The U.N. News Centre reports.

Four Taliban insurgents including a senior leader were killed today by a bomb explosion in the Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, according to an Afghan official, though no one has immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. Islamic State group militants have previously targeted the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan, and have gained a foothold in the area, the AP reports.

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) is anxious about the prospect of Russian cyber interference in the upcoming midterm elections, telling CBS News “I am concerned that the Russians never left.” Quigley suggested that “first, they attacked our election infrastructure. They hacked into somewhere between 20 and 40 state board of elections, including, in August of 2016, my own state of Illinois,” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her defense minister yesterday vowed to increase military spending, the pledge coming after pressure from allies – including the U.S. – over Germany’s contribution to N.A.T.O. and its military preparedness. Reuters reports.

Philippine government troops clashed with dozens of Islamic State group-affiliated militants in a southern town yesterday and their attempts to take positions in the area were thwarted. The AP reports.

“The Middle East’s wars are turning cities into Stalingrads,” Antönio Sampaio comments at Foreign Policy, arguing that as cities expand across the developing world, preventing and de-escalating lengthy urban warfare represents one of the most important strategic and humanitarian challenges of our time. 

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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).