The Early Edition: July 6, 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 landed in North Korea today for talks aimed at persuading Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear and ballistic missile programs – a mission that Pompeo has already conceded is doomed in conversation with at least two outside experts. Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

Pompeo is to hold talks today and tomorrow before leaving Pyongyang for Japan on his first around-the-world tour as Secretary of State. Live updates from the AP.

Pompeo claimed that consultations have been taking place since President Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore last month, adding that “on this trip I’m seeking to fill in some details on those commitments and continue the momentum toward implementation of what the two leaders promised each other and the world.” Jessica Donati reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Looking forward to continuing our work toward the final, fully verified denuclearization of #DPRK, as agreed to by Chairman Kim. Good to have the press along for the trip,” Pompeo added in a message on Twitter, using the official acronym for the North Korean regime. AFP reports.

Pompeo met with senior North Korean official Kim Yong-chol on arrival, who alongside Pompeo played a central role in organising last month’s leaders’ summit. Through the talks, Pompeo is to firm up the leaders’ deal on nuclear facilities and secure the remains of around 200 U.S. troops missing from the Korean War. Reuters reports.

“Today’s meeting is a really meaningful meeting,” Kim Yong-chol told Pompeo, who reportedly replied “Yes I agree … I look forward to it and I count on it being very productive.” Hyonhee Shin and John Walcott report at Reuters.

Current officials, diplomatic sources and others familiar with internal policy discussions claim that Washington has yet to agree with Pyongyang on a common goal or timeline, the sources describing the situation in general as chaotic. Elise Labott, Barbara Starr, Kevin Liptak and Jenna McLaughlin report at CNN.

The State Department yesterday denied that the U.S. has softened its approach toward the North’s denuclearization, with spokesperson Heather Nauert commenting that “we are committed to a denuclearized North Korea and Secretary Pompeo looks forward to continuing his consultations with North Korean leaders to follow up on the commitments made at the Singapore summit.”  Lesley Wroughton reports at Reuters.

Pompeo will reportedly offer Kim Jong-un a C.D. of Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ – a playful reference to an insult Trump formerly directed at Kim. South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo said that the gift illustrated Trump’s belief that Kim would follow through on the commitments outlined at last month’s summit, where Trump apparently raised the rocket man reference and Kim admitted to never having heard the song. Justin McCurry reports at the Guardian.

“I really believe that [Kim] sees a different future for the North Koreans … I hope that’s true,” Trump said to reporters aboard Air Force One as he flew to Montana yesterday. James Oliphant reports at Reuters.

North Korea has hit back against the U.S. over human rights criticism, with the state-run Uriminzokkiri website claiming that Washington should stop provoking the North with an “anachronistic human rights racket,” the comments published just hours ahead of Pompeo’s visit. The AP reports.

An analysis of Kim’s tactics, the signals from Washington and why the stakes have been raised since the Singapore summit is provided by Eric Talmadge at the AP.

A guide to what the U.S. and North Korea will want from one another in the course of the upcoming talks is provided by Hyung-Jin Kim at the AP.

SYRIA

The U.N. Security Council yesterday failed to agree a response on the escalating violence and civilian suffering in the rebel-held Syrian province of Deraa near the border with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. A pro-Syrian government forces offensive on the area, supported by Russian airstrikes, began on June 19 and an estimated 330,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Thousands of civilians fled Deraa yesterday after intensive airstrikes. It is estimated that more than 175 people have been killed since June 19 and the U.N. has warned that the lives of more than 750,000 people are endangered by the ongoing fighting, Farah Najjar reports at Al Jazeera.

Rebels in Deraa said yesterday that they are returning to talks with Russia to negotiate surrender after Russia and Syria launched a barrage of airstrikes, barrel bombs and missiles on rebel-held positions in the province on Wednesday. The AFP reports.

Assad’s forces are close to gaining control of the rebel-held border crossing with Jordan in Deraa, a pro-Syrian government commander said today, with the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying that government forces have made significant advances along the Syria-Jordan border. Reuters reports.

The Israeli security cabinet minister Gilad Erdan yesterday warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia that Israel could attack Syrian government forces if they are deployed at the border with the Golan Heights, explaining that “we will not accept any armed presence by the Assad regime in the areas which are meant to be demilitarized” as part of the U.N.-monitored 1974 Israeli-Syrian armistice. Dan Williams reports at Reuters.

“Our demand is that Iranian forces will go out or withdraw from Syria as a whole, and in it specifically southwest Syria,” a senior Israeli military official has said, indicating that Israel believes Assad’s forces – who are supported by Iran and Iranian-backed militia – will soon be present along its frontier. Josef Federman reports at the AP.

The Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militia group has been helping to lead the offensive on Deraa, revealing the limits of U.S. and Israeli attempts to push Iran and its backers out of Syria, with tensions likely to escalate further if pro-Syrian government forces and Iranian militia advance onto neighboring Quneitra province. Reuters and Haaretz report.

The Assad regime “has built up formidable momentum” following the successful capture of the Eastern Ghouta enclave near Damascus, Jeremy Bowen writes at the BBC, stating that “the Assad regime’s fight for survival is almost done.”

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

Top diplomats from Iran, France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China will meet in Vienna today to discuss ways to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal after President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement in May. The AP reports.

The European package of economic measures to preserve the deal “does not meet all our demands,” the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told French President Emmanuel Macron yesterday during a phone call, according to the Iranian state I.R.N.A. news agency. Reuters reports.

European diplomats see limited scope for preserving the deal and talks today are unlikely to satisfy Iran, with the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian saying that Iran “must stop threatening to break their commitments to the nuclear deal” and that Europe will try to implement an economic package by November. Parisa Hafezi, Francois Murphy and John Irish report at Reuters.

“We will not be able to compensate for everything that arises from companies pulling out of Iran” due to new U.S. sanctions, the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters today. Reuters reports.

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have escalated over oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz, with the exchange of threats over oil shipments taking place amid efforts to preserve the 2015 nuclear agreement. Bozorgmehr Sharafedin reports at Reuters.

The commander of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) Qassem Soleimani yesterday said his forces were ready to disrupt oil shipments if necessary, with the U.S. navy indicating that it was ready to confront Iran militarily in response. Saeed Kamali Dehghan reports at the Guardian.

A senior Chinese diplomat said today that Iran should “do more to benefit peace and stability in the region,” making the comments in response to threats over oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz. Reuters reports.

The threats over the Strait of Hormuz demonstrate growing Iran-U.S. animosity and any disruption could have implications on the global energy market. Ted Regencia and Alia Chughtai explain at Al Jazeera.

NOVICHOK POISONINGS

“It is now time that the Russian state comes forward and explains exactly what has gone on,” U.K. Home Secretary Minister Sajid Javid told Parliament yesterday, after exposure to Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok left a British couple in a coma. The remarks provoked a sharp response from Moscow, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova telling reporters that “we urge British law enforcement not to get involved in dirty political games,” AFP reports.

“It is completely unacceptable for our people to be either deliberate or accidental targets,” Javid added, also commenting that it was unacceptable for British streets or parks to be “dumping grounds for poison.” Karla Adam and William Booth report at the Washington Post.

“To see two more people exposed to the Novichok in the U.K. is obviously deeply disturbing, and the police, I know, will be leaving no stone unturned in their investigation in relation to what has happened,” said U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May at a press conference in Berlin, adding that her thoughts were with the people of the Wiltshire area where the poisoning occurred.  Jenny Gross and Will Horner report at the Wall Street Journal.

The nerve agent used in the recent poisoning was unlikely to have been left in the open, a government scientist has told BBC News. The scientist added that Novichok can be degraded by rainwater and sunlight over time, so it is more likely that the victims came across the substance in a contained space.

A recap of the first U.K. Novichok poisoning earlier this year and the build-up to the recent incidents is provided by Iliana Magra at the New York Times.

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT

“You know what? Putin’s fine. He’s fine. We’re all fine. … Will I be prepared? Totally prepared,” President Trump said yesterday at a rally in Montana, hitting back at critics who have questioned his approach to his upcoming summit meeting with the Russian President on July 16. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

Trump will raise the issue of Russia’s “malign activity” in Europe and its use of “hybrid warfare” when he meets with Putin, a senior administration official said yesterday. Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Democrats and Russia experts have criticized the delegation of Republican lawmakers who traveled to Moscow this week, Karoun Demirjian reports at the Washington Post.

It is unlikely that Putin will take on board Trump’s comments about Iranian military presence in Syria, analysts and former officials have said, explaining that the Trump administration does not understand Russia’s relationship with Iran and Russia’s posture in the region. Amy MacKinnon reports at Foreign Policy.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Taliban has once again rejected an Afghan offer for peace talks with the government in the capital city of Kabul, with Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid claiming that the group is “not interested in talks while foreign soldiers are still on Afghan soil.” Mujahid repeated consistent Taliban claims that Afghan government officials are “puppets,” the AP reports.

The U.N. Security Council members yesterday “encouraged all parties to engage constructively” with U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths’ efforts to negotiate a political solution to the Yemeni conflict, and reiterated that the ports of Hodeidah and Saleef must be “kept open and operating safely given the continuing risk to the humanitarian situation,” making the comments amid a Saudi-led coalition offensive to retake Hodeidah from the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The sanctioned Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg has links to Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen, vast ties to U.S. businesses and a significant amount of U.S. assets. Garance Burke and Stephen Braun explain the extent of Vekselberg’s influence in the U.S. at the AP.

Federal judges Brett Kavanaugh and Raymond Kethledge have emerged as the frontrunners to be Trump’s nominee to be Supreme Court Justice, according to sources familiar with the matter. Other candidates, including Judge Amy Coney Barrett, remain in contention and the president is expected to make an announcement on Monday. Robert Costa and Seung Min Kim report at the Washington Post.

The ousting of Islamic State group from the Libyan city of Sirte by joint U.S. and Government of National Accord forces in late 2016 is explored by monitoring group Airwars at The Daily Beast.

Air Force Col. Vance Spath “has an approved retirement date of Nov. 1, 2018,” according to Air Force spokesperson Brooke Brzozowske. Spath attracted attention as a military judge when he sentenced a Marine general to serve 21 days confinement in a Guantánamo trailer park for contempt of court — a conviction that found to be illegal by a federal court, Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

The Trump administration yesterday sanctioned three individuals who have been linked to allegations of state-sanctioned violence and suppression of citizens in Nicaragua. Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

A Russian court imposed a 100,000 rubles ($1,600) fine on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty yesterday, after it found that the U.S. government-funded media outlet had failed to comply with Russian foreign agents laws. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration is likely to halve the U.S. threshold for refugee admissions, according to sources with knowledge of the matter. Internal signals suggest that next year’s cap on refugee numbers will be between 20,000 and 25,000 people, Spencer Ackerman reports at The Daily Beast.

Although Islamic State group is in decline, the global threat of terrorism continues to spread, Eric Schmidtt explains at the New York Times.

Protesters have been given the green light to fly a blimp depicting President Trump as a giant orange baby over the U.K. Parliament when the president visits Britain next week. The Greater London Authority has given permission for the 20-foot inflatable to fly for two hours on July 13, the AP 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.