The Early Edition: August 28, 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

An impasse in denuclearization talks between U.S. and North Korea has prompted South Korean President Moon Jae-in to re-evaluate the terms of his engagement for Pyongyang. A spokesperson for Moon yesterday acknowledged that further engagement between the two Koreas could be delayed, following Trump’s cancelation of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned visit to the North Korea, Andrew Jeong reports at the Wall Street Journal.

North Korean officials have warned in a letter to the United States that denuclearization talks were “again at stake and may fall apart”, CNN reported today. The letter was reportedly delivered directly to U.S Pompeo and stated that the Pyongyang administration felt that the process could not move forward, Reuters reports.

North Korea claimed late yesterday that Japan is engaged in naval exercises with U.K. forces to police the shipment of goods to the North, “under the pretext of strengthening the capability of monitoring the waters surrounding Japan.” The comments were carried in North Korean state media, which also alleged that “these are acts to check the climate of peace being created on the Korean Peninsula at any cost and ratchet up tension in the region,” Jamie Tarabay reports at CNN.

Japan is refusing to modify its hardline stance towards the North, claiming leader Kim Jong-un’s regime poses a “serious and imminent threat” to its security, despite the general de-escalation of regional tensions following President Trump’s meeting with Kim in June. The Japanese Defense Ministry today published its 2018 defense white paper, which claims that Pyongyang’s nuclear capability and ballistic missiles evidence an “increasingly severe” security environment, Justin McCurry reports at the Guardian.

An analysis of why Trump canceled Pompeo’s trip to North Korea, and what may lie ahead for the negotiations, is provided by Josh Rogin at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s defense team were unable to reach a deal with prosecutors to resolve a second set of charges against him ahead of his conviction last week, and so the two sides are reportedly moving closer to a second trial next month. The plea talks on the second set of charges allegedly stalled over issues raised by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election – although the charges against Manafort do not relate to that issue, Aruna Viswanatha reports at the Wall Street Journal.

It is unclear whether any plea deal would have involved Manafort cooperating with Mueller –a potentially perilous move given President Trump’s repeated expressions of sympathy for Manafort and the much-discussed possibility of a presidential pardon. Separately, Manafort has decided not to attend court hearings in advance of a second trial, Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Attorney for Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen – Lanny Davis – has claimed that he was an anonymous source in a July CNN story that reported that Cohen had privately claimed that President Trump had advance knowledge of the meeting at Trump Tower between the president’s Donald Trump Jr. and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya in June 2016. Davis, however, has backed away from that account in recent days, claiming that he is not certain if the claim is accurate, and that he could not independently verify it, Steven Perlberg reports at Buzzfeed News.

An analysis of the role of Department of Justice (D.O.J.) official Bruce Ohr, who has become one of Trump’s targets in recent weeks and who had allegedly had contacts with former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele – Steele having compiled a dossier containing potential damaging and unverified information on the president – is provided by Adam Goldman and Katie Benner at the New York Times.

Cohen has cast doubt on the significance of what was supposedly a key piece of collusion evidence, the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments, citing Davis’ claim that Cohen never went to Prague in the Czech Republic – contradicting a central claim in Steele’s dossier.

An in-depth analysis of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s strategy for representing the president is provided by Dan Barry, Benjamin Weiser and Alan Feuer at the New York Times.

RUSSIA

Russia is scheduled to hold Vostok-2018 (east-2018) war games in central and eastern Russian military districts next month, marking the biggest military exercises since 1981, the Russian Defense Ministry Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying today by Russian agencies. Reuters reports.

Moscow needs to assess the impact of new U.S. sanctions imposed in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the U.K. before it considers any possible response, the Kremlin said yesterday, adding that President Vladimir Putin would act in accordance with Russia’s national interest. Reuters reports.

AFGHANISTAN

Russia has agreed to postpone multilateral talks on peace in Afghanistan after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani asked the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for more time to prepare for negotiations with the Taliban and other regional nations. Jessica Donati and Ann Simmons report at the Wall Street Journal.

The talks had been scheduled for Sept. 4 and Russia invited 12 countries to the summit in Moscow, with the U.S. declining to attend the event. Reuters reports.

“In the telephonic conversation, it was decided to postpone the Moscow conference so that the two countries can coordinate on further preparations and effectiveness of the process,” the Afghan government said in a statement today. Al Jazeera reports.

Russia and Tajikistan yesterday denied that they had carried out airstrikes in a northeastern district on the Afghan-Tajik border, after clashes broke out between gunmen and Tajik border guards. Abdul Qadir Sediqi reports at Reuters.

SYRIA

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump spoke by phone yesterday about Syria and shared concerns about the humanitarian situation in the country, in particular in the northern rebel-held province of Idlib. Merkel’s spokesperson said in a statement that the two leaders also discussed Ukraine, the Western Balkans and trade, Reuters reports.

Russian Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said today that a U.S. guided-missile destroyer had entered the Mediterranean on Aug. 25 armed with cruise missiles capable of hitting any target in Syria, in comments cited by Russian news agencies. Haaretz and Reuters report.

U.S. military and intelligence officials are concerned that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime will use chemical weapons during a possible assault on Idlib and are watching for indications that the Syrian government is moving chemical weapons into the area. Barbara Starr reports at CNN.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said today that the Russian military was in talks with armed groups in Idlib with the aim of reaching a peaceful resolution, similar to those agreed in Eastern Ghouta and Deraa. Reuters reports.

“Syria under Assad is not safe,” one European Union (E.U.) official said yesterday, reflecting the views of the bloc regarding a Russian push for refugee returns and for the international community to contribute financially toward reconstruction of the war-torn country. Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 18 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Aug 20 and Aug. 26. [Central Command]

YEMEN

The Saudi-led coalition “need to come out and say what occurred” when an airstrike hit a school bus in northern Yemen earlier this month, the top U.S. air commander in the Middle East, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, said yesterday, adding that senior U.S. officials and policymakers have an important decision to make going forward: to increase U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led campaign to help prevent civilian casualties or keep involvement at its current level. Eric Schmitt reports at the New York Times.

The Pentagon has grown increasing frustrated with Saudi Arabia and is preparing to reduce military and intelligence support for its campaign against the Yemeni Houthi rebels if they do not demonstrate that they are seeking to limit civilian deaths in airstrikes, according to two officials familiar with the matter. Barbara Starr reports at CNN.

Experts working for the U.N.’s Human Rights Council said today that the governments of Yemen, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia may have been responsible for war crimes during the Yemeni conflict, saying in a report that the international community should “refrain from providing arms that could be used in the conflict.” Jamey Keaten reports at the AP.

“Coalition airstrikes have caused most of the documented civilian casualties,” the report to the Human Rights Council said, explaining that “such airstrikes have hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities.” Stephanie Nebehay reports at Reuters.

The experts will present their report to the Human Rights Council next month and allege that actions by the Houthi rebels may constitute war crimes, particularly in the southern city of Taiz. The BBC reports.

“We should review and respond to the [U.N.] experts’ report published today,” the U.A.E. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said today, adding that “the coalition is fulfilling its role in reclaiming the Yemeni state and securing the future of the region from Iranian interference.” Reuters reports.

Yemen’s national military said yesterday that heavy airstrikes hit Houthi targets at the International Airport in Sana’a and the Al Delmi air base. Reuters reports.

IRAN

Iranian lawyers yesterday asked the International Court of Justice (I.C.J.) to order the U.S. to lift sanctions leveled on Tehran by the Trump administration, but Washington hit back describing the claim as being without merit. The court’s president asked the U.S. to respect the outcome of the suit filed by Iran last month, with the hearings expected to continue throughout this week, Reuters reports.

Iranian lawyer Mohsen Mohebi told the court that the U.S. intended the sanctions to damage Iran’s economy “as severely as possible” and in addition had violated a little-known 1955 friendship treaty. The BBC reports.

“Iran’s filing with the I.C.J. is an attempt to interfere with the sovereign rights of the U.S. to take lawful actions – including reimposition of sanctions –which are necessary to protect our national security,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented in a statement issued yesterday, adding that “the proceedings instituted by Iran are a misuse of the court.” Al Jazeera reports.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will visit Iran on Sept. 7, his office announced yesterday. Morgan Keller reports at the Hill.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Palestinian Hamas militant group appears to have been making more progress on negotiating a de-escalation with Israel than reconciling with Fatah, who control the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Adnan Abu Amer provides an analysis at Al Jazeera.

The Israeli government’s recently enacted nation-state law included a statement that “development of Jewish settlement” is a “national value.” However, the inclusion of West Bank settlements points to what the law truly represents: “a small minority is trying to make Israeli society as a whole resemble the model of Israeli government in the territories,” Martin Peretz writes at the New York Times.

MYANMAR

Top military officials in Myanmar should be investigated and prosecuted for the “gravest” crimes against civilians under international law, including genocide, U.N.-appointed investigators said yesterday. The announcement follows the publication of a report into the circumstances surrounding the mass exodus of more than 700,000 people belonging to the Muslim Rohingya minority group, that started in mid-August 2017, the U.N. News Centre reports.

Facebook has been “slow and ineffective” in its efforts to tackle hatred against Rohingyas, according to the U.N. report. Facebook announced yesterday that it was excluding some Myanmar military leaders from its platform —including some of those identified in the U.N. report, Alastair Jamieson reports at NBC.

China said today that it does not intend to block action by the U.N. on the Rohingya issue, but that it does not believe that sanctions or criticism of the Myanmar administration will help resolve the crisis, the AP reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.S. sanctions against Turkey have the potential to create “large and unforeseeable problems,” the Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak said yesterday, warning that the punitive measures – imposed in response to Turkey’s detainment of American pastor Andrew Brunson – will damage regional stability, and fuel terrorism and the refugee crisis. Laura Pitel and Harriet Agnew report at the Financial Times.

A top official of the Islamic State group in the Greater Sahara was killed in a French operation in Mali, the French defense ministry said in a statement yesterday. Reuters reports.

Europe can “no longer rely” on the U.S. for its security, the French President Emmanuel Macron said yesterday, calling for “an exhaustive review of our security with all Europe’s partners, which includes Russia.” Saskya Vandoorne reports at CNN.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas criticized President Donald Trump in a speech yesterday, describing his policies towards Europe as “irritating.” Maas told a gathering of Romanian diplomats in Bucharest that “obviously it irritates us when President Trump describes Europe as an enemy of the U.S. in the same breath as Russia and China or calls N.A.T.O. into question almost as a throwaway remark,” AFP reports.

The long-serving army judge in the Sept. 11 case – Army Col. James L. Pohl – announced yesterday that he will retire on Sept. 30 and assigned a Marine colonel who has been a military judge for three years as his replacement. In a move that marks another setback for the progress of the trial, Pohl said the choice was “my decision and not impacted by any outside influence from any source,” Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has diminishing influence on Trump administration policy and there are doubts as to his ability to voice his opinion on key issues, including Iran and North Korea. Lara Seligman explains at Foreign Policy. 

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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).