The Early Edition: July 25, 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.

SYRIA

Israel shot down a Syrian fighter jet that penetrated Israeli airspace yesterday, the Israeli Defense Forces (I.D.F.) said, adding that the plane took off from the T-4 airbase near Homs. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the incident a “gross violation” and called on Syria to “strictly abide” by the Golan Heights armistice line. Yaniv Kubovich, Noa Landau and Jack Khoury report at Haaretz.

A Syrian military source said that one of its jets was targeted by Israel as it was conducting raids on the Yarmouk region basin in southern Syria, state media has reported. The Yarmouk basin remains in the control of the Islamic State group and, if captured, would bring the southern Syrian area under the control of President Bashar al-Assad. Oren Liebermann, Amir Tal and James Masters report at CNN.

The shooting down of the Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jet has the potential to raise tensions in the region bordering Syria, Israel and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, with a spokesperson for the Israeli military, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, saying: “We are not involved in the fighting in Syria, but we are ready and prepared for developments.” Felicia Schwartz and Raja Abdulrahim report at the Wall Street Journal.

“From our perspective, this event has finished. It is not ongoing,” the I.D.F. spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said yesterday, explaining that Israeli’s Syria policy remains one of “non-interference.” Loveday Morris reports at the Washington Post.

A series of coordinated attacks today by Islamic State militants in the southwestern Syrian city of Sweida has killed at least 50 and wounded 78, according to health authority officials who spoke to Hezbollah-run al-Manar T.V., marking the deadliest attack on government territory in months. Reuters reports.

The attack on Sweida has taken place amid the Syrian government forces operation to capture the southwest of the country, making advances with the help of Russian forces. The BBC reports.

Recent remarks by the U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel have “discredited the official position” of President Trump regarding Russia-U.S. cooperation in Syria, the Russian defense ministry said in a statement yesterday, referring to Gen. Votel’s comments saying that seeing Russia’s military actions in Syria had given him “some pause” about coordinating with its forces. Nancy A. Youssef reports at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday that the U.S. military would continue as before when it comes to the approach to its Russian counterparts in Syria, explaining that “what we do with the Russian Federation, we deconflict our operations. We do not coordinate them, we deconflict them.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

“Two U.S. citizens, charged in separate cases with federal violations, have been transferred from the custody of the Syrian Democratic Forces to US custody and transported to the US where they will soon appear in federal courts,” a spokesperson for the Justice Department said in a statement yesterday. The defendants have been identified as Ibrahim Musaibli and Samantha Elhassani, also known as Samantha Sally. Laura Jarrett and Ryan Browne report at CNN.

The Turkish Preisdent Recep Tayyip Erdogan said today that he would discuss the pro-Syrian government forces offensive on the southwestern province of Deraa with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and also ways to protect civilians in the northern rebel-held province of Idlib. Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 24 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between July 16 and July 22. [Central Command]

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT

The Kremlin was not forthcoming yesterday when asked whether it would accept an invitation from President Trump to hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Washington later this year, saying only that the two men had other chances to meet. Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters that “there are other options [to meet] which our leaders can look at,” citing the upcoming November G-20 meetings in Argentina as an example. Reuters reports.

“The latest summit with Donald Trump shows that we are open for cooperation, open for going forward,” Russian Economy Minister Maxim Oreshkin said in Johannesburg today at the first day of a summit for B.R.I.C.S. (the association of five major emerging national economies) in South Africa, Reuters reports.

“The speaker and I have made it clear that Putin will not be welcome up here, at the Capitol,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stated yesterday – indicating that should Putin visit the U.S. in the fall he will not be invited to Capitol Hill, as is customary for visiting foreign leaders. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Two Senate panels are making plans for a series of hearings to review the White House’s policies toward Russia and examine whether additional sanctions against the country are justified. McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters yesterday that he had instructed the chairmen of the Senate committees – Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) – to “recommend to the Senate additional measures that could respond to or deter Russian malign behavior,” Alexander Bolton reports at the Hill.

“Democrats and Republicans alike were shocked to watch President Trump publicly side with Russia over its responsibility for interfering in the 2016 U.S. elections and directly contradict the Intelligence Community’s assessment,” states a letter written by Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. The three top Democrats have requested in the letter that administration officials brief their committees by noon tomorrow on what happened in Trump’s one-on-one meeting with Putin, Rebecca Kheel reports in the Hill.

“A couple of mistakes were made … it was a mistake not to try to craft some kind of a joint statement,” former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s interpreter Pavel Palazhchenko has claimed in an interview, though he refused to label the summit as a failure overall. Palazhchenko, a constant presence in the ten summits that brought the Cold War to an end, added that “the press conference did not go well. Those things happen, stuff happens. But nevertheless, one has to move forward,” Kate de Pury and David McHugh report at the AP.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis yesterday completed two days of meetings with Australia’s foreign and defense ministers at the Hoover Institution, where U.S. officials stressed allegiance to the world order fashioned by decades of U.S. diplomacy, in spite of concerns around President Trump’s conduct towards N.A.T.O. and the events of his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week in Helsinki. Ryan Bender reports at POLITICO.

“I think the South Pacific, like most places in the world, understands the enormity of having an American ally,” Pompeo said yesterday after meeting with his Australian counterpart, making the comments amid China’s growing influence in the region. Alexandria Sage reports at Reuters.

Pompeo will face questions today from Republican and Democratic lawmakers anxious about the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s foreign and trade policies, but there are doubts about the extent to which he will be able to answer. Pompeo is scheduled to testify at 3 p.m. before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with lawmakers eager to ask about Trump’s Helsinki summit, the status of diplomatic talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the administration’s next moves are after withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May. Alexander Bolton reports at the Hill.

The White House has put on hold the practice of publishing public summaries of the president’s phone calls with world leaders, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation, bringing an end to a common exercise from both Republican and Democratic administrations. It is unclear whether the suspension is permanent, Kaitlan Collins reports at CNN.

“A major problem for Trump is that he’s a golfer; he doesn’t play a team sport,” former House speaker and close informal Trump adviser Newt Gingrich claimed yesterday.  Trump cannot win as a “solo golfer,” David Ignatius comments at the Washington Post, drawing on Gingrich’s comments to suggest that when it comes to foreign policy, Trump must learn to play with Mattis, Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton.

Mattis appears to have adopted a strategy for survival, David Welna comments at NPR, arguing that Mattis has worked out that “the less he says in public, the more he’ll be heard by a president who loathes any competition for the spotlight.”

There is no consensus as to what constitutes Republican foreign policy principle – Republicans hoping to oppose Trump’s maneuvers abroad cannot fall back on tradition but will have to rely on “the emergence of a different voice, leading a team that has something more interesting and compelling to say,” Philip Zelikow argues at Foreign Policy.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

“Based on the fact that no President has been tougher on Russia than me, [Russia] will be pushing very hard for the Democrats,” President Trump claimed yesterday in a message on Twitter, although he offered no evidence for the assertion. American intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election in aid of Trump’s candidacy and that Moscow is now targeting the midterm congressional races, Reuters reports.

It was not immediately clear whether Trump’s warning reflected an intelligence briefing he has received about actual Russian activity or whether he was simply aiming to provoke, Kelsey Snell reports at NPR.

A Senate resolution supporting the intelligence community’s findings on Russia’s electoral interference was blocked for a second time yesterday. Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Christopher Coons (D-Del.) pushed for consent to get their resolution passed, but the request was blocked by Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) who described it as a “political distraction,” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) yesterday asked the Treasury Department to level financial penalties on 12 Russian intelligence officers indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller last week for allegedly hacking the emails of top Democrat officials. The bipartisan duo’s letter to Treasury Secretary Mnuchin requested that the alleged cyber-criminals are targeted under sanctions enacted by Trump, Sylvan Lane reports at the Hill.

Sens. Richard Blumental (D-Conn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) are calling on the Judiciary Committee to examine whether National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) officials were aware of Russian attempts to use the organization to donate to the Trump campaign, with the senators making the appeal in a letter to Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) following the arrest and indictment of Russian woman Mariia Butina. Butina was indicted for allegedly working to advance Moscow’s interests by infiltrating “organizations active in U.S. politics,” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Former Russian parliamentarian and Mariia Butina’s backer Alexander Torshin was first introduced to former N.R.A. President David Keene by Tennessee attorney G. Kline Preston IV in 2011, Betsy Woodruff, Adam Rawnsley and Spencer Ackerman report at The Daily Beast, noting that the pro-Confederate and birther Preston has been sending pro-Russian messages on social media in the intervening years.

The White House yesterday reiterated Trump’s intention to consider revoking security clearances for a six former intelligence officials who have been critical of the Trump administration, with White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley telling reporters on Air Force One that the president has “begun the mechanism” to remove security clearances from the men. Gidley provided no specifics however, and the timetable and process for the revocation remains unclear, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

“We’ve got some bad apples that need to be dismissed from the swamp of Washington,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told a crowd of more than 600 young conservatives at Trump International Hotel in Washington last night, doubling down on his calls for the former security officials to have their security clearances revoked. “I am thinking, maybe, how about [former C.I.A. director] John Brennan, number one?” Rand added, Didi Martinez reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s war on his own intelligence community “could cause long-term damage that extends beyond [his] administration,” Julian E. Barnes and Mike Mazetti comment at the New York Times.

Russian disinformation was not the only factor in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election but Trump would not have won without it, Max Boot comments at the Washington Post.

PAKISTAN

At least 29 people have been killed in a bombing attack today near a polling station in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, according to officials. The Islamic State group has taken responsibility for the attack which took place hours after polls opened for the country’s parliamentary elections, Al Jazeera reports.

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s election front-runner, will have a major challenge trying to manage Pakistan’s “broken foreign relations,” Mehreen Zahra-Malik writes at Foreign Policy, highlighting Pakistan’s fraught relations with India, U.S. and Afghanistan, and its attempts to get closer to China.

IRAN

“And we’ll see what happens, but we’re ready to make a real deal [with Iran], not the deal that was done by the previous administration which was a disaster,” President Trump said during a speech yesterday, referring to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – which the president withdrew the U.S. from in May this year – and making the comments two days after warning Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a message on Twitter that Iran would “suffer consequences” if he threatens the United States again. Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

The president’s message on Twitter was intended to make clear to Iran “that they’re on the wrong track,” the U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday, pointing to Iran’s “destabilizing influence” in the region and highlighting Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and for the Yemeni Houthi rebels. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

“There is no need for us to respond to any nonsensical comment and answer back to them,” Rouhani said, making his first remarks since Trump sent his message on Twitter, adding that the “strongest response to their cheap comments” would be “indifference to their plots and choosing to resist and foil their schemes.” The AP reports.

U.S. threats to block all Iranian exports would result in an “unimaginable and regrettable” reaction, the Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri said yesterday, while the foreign ministry spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi was quoted as saying that Iran would meet American measures “with a reaction and equal countermeasures.” The heightened rhetoric comes amid U.S. efforts to stop all countries from importing Iranian oil as part of a diplomatic and economic pressure campaign against Tehran, Reuters reports.

“We do not have to adhere to the sanctions imposed on a country by another country. We don’t find the sanctions right either,” the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said yesterday, explaining that Turkish officials had met with U.S. counterparts and “told them openly” that they oppose U.S. sanctions on Iran. Reuters reports.

The European Union has been facing challenges trying to maintain business relations with Iran following U.S.’ withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the reinstatement of sanctions, casting doubt on the ability of European countries to salvage the 2015 agreement. Michael Peel reports at the Financial Times.

A fact-check of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech to Iranian-Americans in California on Sunday is provided by Rick Gladstone at the New York Times, giving an overview of Pompeo’s assertions about Iran’s economy, leadership and ongoing protests.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

 The Trump administration’s upcoming plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace is “dead upon arrival,” Palestinian ambassador to the U.N. Riyad Mansour said yesterday, telling reporters that following Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on Dec. 6, the U.S. “lost the qualification to be the only party to supervise the political process.” Mansour added that the U.S. is “eager” for Palestinian engagement on the plan but “we are not going to engage,” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The Group of 77 – the biggest bloc of developing countries at the U.N. – has chosen the observer state of Palestine as its next leader, Mansour said yesterday, highlighting a decision that could cause fresh tensions with Israel and the U.S.. Ric Gladstone reports at the New York Times.

U.S. envoy to the U.N. Nikki Haley yesterday criticized Arab and Islamic states for being “generous with their words” towards the Palestinians but not giving more money to help, alleging that “all of the words spoken here in New York do not feed, clothe, or educate a single Palestinian child … all they do is get the international community riled up.” Haley listed how much member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation had given to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (U.N.R.W.A.), which helps Palestinian refugees, also calling out Russia and China for the size of their contribution, Reuters reports.

U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process Nickolay Mladenov said 100,000 tons of fuel provided by the U.N. crossed into Gaza yesterday following the partial reopening of the Kerem Shalom crossing, and that hospitals and emergency services would be prioritized in allocating the supplies. “[The] situation in the south remains tense but quiet,” Mladenov commented in a message on Twitter, Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“After intense efforts by the United Nations and Egypt, I can report that the situation is calming down, although tensions remain,” Mladenov told the Security Council via video link from Jerusalem yesterday. Mladenov told the Council that “last Saturday we were minutes away from another devastating confrontation between Israel and [Palestinian militant group] Hamas in Gaza,” the U.N. News Centre reports.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has hit back against Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accusing him of “massacring Syrian and Kurds” and claiming that Turkey has become a “dark dictatorship” under his administration. The comments follow Erdogan’s criticisms of Israel after the passing of Israel’s new “nation state” law – Erdogan having claimed that  “this measure has shown without leaving the slightest room for doubt that Israel is the world’s most…fascist and racist state…the spirit of Hitler, which led the …has found its resurgence among some of Israel’s leaders,” the BBC reports.

“The fact that the ‘champion of democracy’ Erdogan is attacking the nation-state law is the biggest compliment for this law,” Netanyahu added in yesterday’s response. Haaretz reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Satellite imagery suggests “that North Korea has begun the process of dismantling a key missile site, and we appreciate that,” President Trump told an audience yesterday at an event for military veterans in Kansas City, Missouri. Trump used the opportunity to hit back at criticisms of his administration’s progress since his June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, commenting that “we had a fantastic meeting with Chairman Kim and it seems to be going very well,” AFP reports.

“As you may know we’re also working to bring back the remains of your brothers in arms who gave their lives to Korea,” Trump claimed at the veterans event, adding that “I hope that very soon these fallen warriors will begin coming home to lay at rest in American soil.” Reuters reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that the North’s apparent dismantling of Sohae Satellite Launching Station was consistent with the commitments made by Kim at last month’s summit, but that Pyongyang must go further and denuclearize fully. Reuters reports.

Kim has said that his country should feed its soldiers better, state media K.C.N.A. reported today, after a defected North Korean soldier’s health last year showed up the isolated state’s nutrition issues. On a visit to a military rations factory, Kim said the facility should produce nutritious food to “substantially contribute to improving the diet of the servicepersons,” Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A trio of senior State Department officials made an unannounced visit to Cuba this week to “gain deeper insight” into the mysterious health symptoms suffered by U.S. government personnel at the Embassy in Havana, a State Department spokesperson said, referring to suspected attacks that have injured at least 26. Steve Dorsey reports at CBS News.

The Islamic State group today claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack on civilians in Toronto, but provided no evidence or further details. Reuters reports.

White House counsel Donald McGahn met privately with key Senate Republicans yesterday to discuss how many of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s documents should be publicly released — an issue currently serving as a major point of contention in the confirmation process. Democrat lawmakers are demanding that Kavanaugh must disclose any document he touched during his time at the George W. Bush White House, where he served in the counsel’s office and as staff secretary, Seung Min Kim reports at the Washington Post.

Major U.S. airlines are to change how they refer to Taiwan today in accordance with a deadline set by the Chinese government, which threatened sanctions if changes weren’t made. China considers Taiwan to be a part of its territory and does not recognize it as a sovereign nation, Lauren Gardner reports at POLITICO. 

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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).