The Early Edition: July 9, 2018

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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 met with North Korean officials at the weekend. Washington and Pyongyang offered different characterizations of the talks discussing denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula following the June 12 summit meeting in Singapore between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Jessica Donati and Andrew Jeong report at the Wall Street Journal.

North Korea accused the U.S. of having a “gangster-like mindset” in denuclearization talks, in a statement carried by the state K.C.N.A. news agency, adding that “the attitude of the U.S. in the first high-level talks held on the 6th and 7th were indeed regrettable.” Veronica Stracqualursi reports at CNN.

“If the requests were gangster-like, the world is a gangster,” Pompeo said in response, referring to international sanctions and U.N. resolutions to end Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, and explaining that the North Korean officials did not “push back” when his team spoke to them about denuclearization. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Pompeo said he saw progress in talks with Pyongyang, but emphasized that economic sanctions against North Korea would remain in place until it completely dismantles its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and that the U.S. would maintain its “ironclad” commitment to defend allies South Korea and Japan. David Brunnstrom, Tim Kelly and Patricia Zengerle report at Reuters.

Pompeo blamed the media for presenting apparent differences between his and North Korea’s assessment of the talks, Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

“I would like to pay my tribute to the strong leadership you have demonstrated in negotiating with North Korea,” the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Pompeo yesterday when they met in Tokyo, offering his praise in spite of North Korean accusations about U.S.’ “gangster-like” demands. David Brunnstrom and Nobuhiro Kubo report at Reuters.

Pompeo highlighted Vietnam’s economic prosperity and relations with the U.S. and urged North Korea to “replicate this path” during a press conference in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi yesterday. Bryan Harris reports at the Financial Times.

The North Korean statement following Pompeo’s visit “may offer the most comprehensive signal yet of how Pyongyang views the possibility of abandoning its nuclear weapons,” Adam Taylor writes at the Washington Post, explaining that North Korea views the Singapore agreement as “the very beginning of talks, not a promise to unilaterally disarm.”

Pompeo left Pyongyang without extracting any concessions and having allowed North Korea to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea, Donald Kirk writes at The Daily Beast.

North Korea’s harsh statement on Pompeo’s visit reveals that the path to denuclearization is not as simple as Trump has made out, Andrea Mitchell writes at NBC News.

SYRIA

The Syrian army and allied troops laid siege to the rebel-held enclave in the southern city of Deraa today and are poised to gain complete control of the city, according to rebel fighters. Opposition spokesperson Abu Shaima commented that several thousand people are now encircled after the army advanced into a main base west of the city without a fight. Reuters reports.

The Syrian army and opposition fighters have accused each other of breaching a ceasefire deal agreed two days ago in Deraa province, with opposition activists claiming yesterday that government air raids leaving at least four people dead were aimed at a group of rebel fighters in Um al-Mayadin village, while the rebels have allegedly refused to give up their arms as stipulated in the agreement. Al Jazeera reports.

The majority of Syrians displaced by recent fighting stranded at the border with Jordan in Deraa have returned to their homes, the return to government-controlled areas coming two days after Syrian troops regained control of the Naseeb border crossing in addition to a long stretch of the border. Bassem Mroue and Fares Akram report at the AP.

U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Jordan Anders Pederse said yesterday that only about 150-200 people remained at the Syria-Jordan border, Reuters reports.

The Russian military plans to evacuate up to 1,000 people from the southwestern de-escalation zone in Syria, via a humanitarian corridor near the city of Deraa, Interfax news agency reported today, with Russia’s Center for Reconciliation in Syria saying that evacuees will be taken to Syria’s northern Idlib province. Russian state news agency R.I.A also cited the Center for Reconcilliation in Syria, reporting that 90 villages and towns have now joined the truce in south-western Syria, Reuters reports.

The Syrian administration yesterday accused Israel of attacking an air force base near the city of Homs known to be housing Iranian troops. Reports said that around six missiles struck near the base, causing damage but no casualties or injuries, Jack Khoury reports at Haaretz.

“Our air defense systems thwarted an Israeli aggression and brought down a number of missiles that were targeting the T4 [military base],” commented a military source cited by Syrian state-run media, the source adding that the Syrian air defenses hit one of the “attacking planes and forced the rest to leave.” Reuters reports.

The U.K.-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has commented that the missiles targeted Iranian troops and non-Syrian pro-Iranian fighters. The attack comes amid a Syrian government offensive against rebel groups near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, with Russia and Iran providing crucial military support to the Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, the AP reports.

“Various chlorinated chemicals” were found at the site of an attack in the Syrian city of Douma,” according to a preliminary report by international chemical weapons watchdog Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.). The attack in April killed dozens of citizens and prompted air strikes by the U.K., France and the U.S., Reuters reports.

“Along with explosive residues, various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples from two sites,” the preliminary report said, adding that “work by the team to establish the significance of these results is on-going… the F.F.M. (fact-finding mission) team will continue its work to draw final conclusions.” The BBC reports.

With the Trump-Putin summit fast approaching, the credibility of the U.S. is on the line, John Podesta and Brian Katulis comment at Foreign Policy, pointing out that Trump has done almost nothing in response to Russian violations of the cease-fire deal in southern Syria.

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]

NOVICHOK POISONINGS

The British woman Dawn Sturgess died yesterday after being exposed to the Novichok nerve agent. She and another man, Charlie Rowley, fell ill last weekend near the English city of Salisbury where the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by Novichok in March, the AFP reports.

British police have opened a murder investigation and Prime Minister Theresa May said she was “appalled and shocked” by the death – which is likely to escalate tensions between the U.K. and Russia. The development also comes ahead of the planned summit July 16 meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Stephen Fidler reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The police have said that Dawn Sturgess was most likely accidentally exposed to residue of Novichok left after the attack on Skripal, which Britain blamed on Russia. Ellen Barry reports at the New York Times.  

The Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov today expressed condolences over the death of Dawn Sturgess and added that linking Russia to the poisoning that it would be “absurd.” The AP reports.

N.A.T.O. SUMMIT

U.S. allies fears that this week’s N.A.T.O. summit will be fractious in light of President Trump’s attacks on European allies and his criticisms of the military alliance. Greg Jaffe, Josh Dawsey and Carol D. Leonnig report at the Washington Post.

“Our diplomats are professional and they are staying on our N.A.T.O. issues, where we are 100 percent allied,” the U.S. Ambassador to N.A.T.O. Kay Bailey Hutchinson said yesterday, explaining that tensions over trade have not spilled over into the N.A.T.O. relationship. Louis Nelson reports at POLITICO.

N.A.T.O. is making progress on defense spending and are “doing it really at President Trump’s insistence,” Hutchinson also said yesterday. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

An overview of the five key things to watch for at this week’s summit is provided by Rebecca Kheel at the Hill.

N.A.T.O. allies now have a clear idea of Trump’s approach to international relations: he does not believe in preserving historic alliances, he does not support peace and reconciliation, he is not afraid to spark disastrous trade wars, and he has no desire to stand firm against authoritarian regimes. Julian Zelizer writes at CNN.

“N.A.T.O. remains central to major American national security initiatives,” the New York Times editorial board writes, urging the president to make a firm commitment to the military alliance and its values.

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) yesterday expressed his concerns about President Trump’s consistent failure to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, the comments being made ahead of the planned one-on-one meeting between the two leaders on July 16. Flake remarked on CNN’s “State of the Union” that “many of us are concerned … about the president’s ongoing rhetoric that really demeans or ridicules our allies and praises our adversaries,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

“Arms control, most definitely!” replied Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov when asked what should be on the agenda for next week’s summit. Security experts from both sides are concerned that a new generation of weapons and cyberwarfare capabilities could pull to pieces existing arms-control treaties, Henry Foy, Kathrin Hille and Demetri Sevastopulo report at the Financial Times.

The SUPREME COURT

President Trump is expected to announce his nominee to be Supreme Court Justice today and said yesterday that four candidates are front-runners. Robert Costa and Robert Barnes report at the Washington Post.

The four federal judges being considered are Brett M. Kavanuagh, Thomas M. Hardiman, Raymond M. Kethledge and Amy Coney Barrett. Maggie Haberman, Adam Liptak and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times, offering an overview of each of the candidates.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian collusion in the 2016 presidential election is “the most corrupt investigation I have ever seen,” President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani told ABC News yesterday morning, although he did not rule out the possibility that Trump might sit for an interview with Mueller’s team. Louis Nelson reports at POLITICO.

Giuliani said that Trump’s legal team is demanding that investigators give a “factual basis” for any interview, telling NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “we’re not asking to show us that he committed a crime … of course he didn’t commit a crime … what we’re asking them for is: Is this the witch hunt that a lot of people think it is? Or is there a factual basis for this?” Vaughn Hillyard reports at NBC.

Giuliani confirmed that the White House had contested a request from Mueller to interview White House chief of staff John Kelly, and added that Mueller’s team is dealing with White House attorney Emmet Flood on the issue. Eli Watkins reports at CNN.

Giuliani said the investigation would not find any “evidence of wrongdoing” by the president, adding in an interview with CNN that “I have a pretty good idea because I have seen all the documents that they have … I have debriefed all their witnesses.” Lalita Clozel reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Giuliani said that Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen should cooperate with prosecutors, and when asked whether he had any concerns as to what Cohen might say, answered “Zero. None … as long as he tells the truth, we’re home free.” Miles Parks reports at NPR.

Lawyers for Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort are complaining about a meeting between Justice Department prosecutors and four AP reporters last year, Manafort’s defense having long argued that the off-the-record session on April 11, 2017 served as a potential conduit for improper leaks to the press about the probe that led to two criminal cases against Manafort, and now arguing that fresh evidence bolsters that argument. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Manafort requested that his trial in Northern Virginia be moved to the Western District of Virginia, arguing Friday in a three-page court filing that “this may be the rare case where a juror’s predisposition may directly tie to their vote in the last presidential election.” The filing argues that Northern Virginia forms part of the Washington, D.C. media market and as such is saturated with coverage of the special counsel investigation, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Trump is conducting himself as if he were guilty, his behavior suggestive of “one who has a very real and well-founded fear that he is in imminent jeopardy,” Charles M. Blow argues at the New York Times.

TAIWAN

The U.S. Navy has sent two warships down the Taiwan Strait on Saturday amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and China, with a spokesperson for the U.S. Pacific Fleet saying that U.S. Navy ships “transit between the South China Sea and East China Sea via the Taiwan Strait and have done so for many years.” The AFP reports.

“We urge the United States to at once scrupulously abide by the one-China principle … and avoid harming China-U.S. relations and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said today in response to the U.S. Navy maneuvers. Reuters reports.

IRAN

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has commented that European countries have the political will to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal after U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, although he added that to save the deal “they need to take practical measures and certain decisions within the time limit.” Reuters reports.

One of the world’s biggest cargo shippers –France’s C.M.A. C.G.M. – announced Saturday that it would pull out of Iran due to the threat of U.S. sanctions, the move denting Tehran’s hopes of persuading European countries to keep their companies operating in Iran. Reuters reports.

A question remains as to whether the bombing at the rally of the dissident Iranian Mujahedin-e-Khalq (M.E.K.) group last week in Belgium was plotted by the Iranian government, or was a “false flag” operation planned by the group itself. Robert Windrem and Nancy Ing provide an analysis at NBC.

AFGHANISTAN

An operation to clear Islamic State militants from a district in the eastern Afghanistan province of Nangarhar is close to completion, officials said Saturday, with a member of the U.S. First Special Forces group stating that the district provided money, finance and logistics to the Islamic State group and was a site to “prepare and move high-profile attacks on Kabul and Jalalabad.” James Mackenzie reports at Reuters.

Cpl. Joseph Maciel has been identified by the Pentagon as the U.S. service member killed Saturday in Afghanistan in an apparent insider attack. Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

A feature on the U.S. drug war with the Taliban in Afghanistan and how the battle was lost by the Obama administration is provided by Josh Meyer at POLITICO.

ETHIOPIA-ERITREA RELATIONS

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki shared an embrace as Abiy walked off the plane in Eritrea yesterday, the gesture surprising observers given the two nations have been in conflict for almost twenty years. The hug signals a dramatic thaw in tensions, Merrit Kennedy reports at NPR.

The two nations agreed to normalize relations after an unprecedented summit, with Abiy commenting that “we have agreed to open up embassies in our respective countries, allow our people to visit each other’s cities, and allow our airlines and ports to operate freely … love is greater than modern weapons like tanks and missiles.” Paul Schemm reports at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump’s former communications director Hope Hicks has indicated to friends and close associates that she has ruled out even even entertaining a return to the Trump administration for the rest of 2018, even were the president were to request it. Asawin Suebsaen reports at The Daily Beast.

Al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab militants set off two bombs and stormed a government building in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu on Saturday, killing at least five and wounding 21. Abdi Sheikh and Feisal Omar report at Reuters.

Al-Qaeda militants fight on in Yemen despite constant pounding from U.S. airstrikes. Sudarsan Raghavan and Lorenzo Tugnoli provide a photo- and video-essay at the Washington Post. 

Filed under:
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).