The Early Edition: August 29, 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

A large-scale Syrian government assault on the northern rebel-held Idlib province “has the potential to create a humanitarian emergency at a scale not yet seen,” the U.N. director of humanitarian operations John Ging told the U.N. Security Council yesterday, calling on members to do “all they can to ensure that we avoid this.” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Russia yesterday accused the al-Qaeda-linked Tahrir al-Sham alliance of preparing to carry out a chemical weapons attack in Idlib, which would be filmed by the Syrian first-responders known as the White Helmets – who have been accused by Russia of fabricating past attacks. Jim Heintz reports at the AP.

Russia has been reinforcing naval forces in the Mediterranean off the coast with Syria, with the maneuvers coming as Assad appears to be preparing for an assault on Idlib and after Russian accusations that the U.S. has been building up its own forces in the Mediterranean for a possible strike on Syrian government forces. Reuters reports.

N.A.T.O. confirmed yesterday that Russia has “dispatched substantial naval forces to the Mediterranean, including several ships equipped with modern cruise missiles,” with a spokesperson adding that the alliance “will not speculate on the intention of the Russian fleet, but it is important that all actors in the region exercise restraint.” Haaretz reports.

Russia has been in discussions with Iran, Turkey, the Syrian government and the opposition regarding the situation in Idlib and the northern Afrin region, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov was cited as saying today. Reuters reports.

“I will assure you that [the] Department of State has been in active communication, recent active communication, with Russia to enlist them” to prevent a chemical weapons attack in Idlib, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday. Reuters reports.

A U.S. delegation met with the Syrian security chief Ali Mamlouk near Damascus in June, the pro-Hezbollah group Lebanese al-Akhbar newspaper reported yesterday. When asked about the story, two senior U.S. intelligence officials said there was an “ongoing dialogue with members of the Assad regime” about the Islamic State group, the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stockpile, and the circumstances surrounding American journalist Austin Tice. Reuters reports.

The U.S. proposed an offer to Assad that would see it withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria in exchange for Iran’s withdrawal from the southern part of the country, according to the al-Akhbar newspaper. Haaretz reports.

U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura has invited the U.S. and six other countries for talks in Geneva on Sept. 14 about the “way ahead on the political process,” the U.N. spokesperson Alessandra Vellucci said yesterday, with the planned meeting following similar talks held in June. Reuters reports.

The Israel Defense Forces (I.D.F.) “will continue to act with full determination against Iran’s attempts to transfer military forces and weapons systems to Syria,” a senior Israeli official said yesterday, adding that his country would maintain diplomatic pressure on Iran and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made this his primary goal. Noa Landau reports at Haaretz.

Netanyahu has cultivated a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which has produced results, including the ability of Israeli forces to strike Iranian targets in Syria and the possibility of Russian pressure to keep Iranian forces away from Israel’s border. Mehul Srivastava and Kathrin Hille report at the Financial Times.

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]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The U.S. has “no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises” held with South Korea’s military, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday. Mattis explained that this year’s planned major joint military exercise was suspended as part of a “good-faith measure coming out of the Singapore summit” held between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June. Gordon Lubold and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

The possibility of future U.S.-South Korean military exercises comes amid increasing tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, and follows Trump’s decision last week to cancel a trip by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang to discuss denuclearization. Helene Cooper, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Edward Wong report at the New York Times.

The Pentagon will work closely with Pompeo to “reinforce his [diplomatic] effort,” Mattis said, adding that smaller military exercises are ongoing “all the time on the Peninsula.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Mattis did not set out when military exercises would resume, apparently giving North Korea leeway in future negotiations. The AFP reports.

Mattis’ announcement followed a letter sent to Pompeo this week by the North Korean lead negotiator and former spy chief Kim Yong-chol, warning that diplomatic talks were “again at stake and may fall apart.” Katrina Manson and Bryan Harris report at the Financial Times.

The souring of relations between the U.S. and North Korea is in danger of turning into a “more permanent fracture of the diplomatic initiative that peaked with June’s summit,” Stephen Collinson writes at CNN, explaining that recent developments are testing the Trump administration’s upbeat message regarding denuclearization.

MYANMAR

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called yesterday for Myanmar’s military leaders to be brought before international justice for atrocities against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority group, with Sweden and the Netherlands amongst other states urging the Security Council to refer the crimes to the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.). China, however, suggested that the international community should cease putting pressure on administration of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and allow it to work out the repatriation of Rohingya refugees with Bangladesh, the AP reports.

“The facts of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya must be said, and they must be heard,” commented U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, although she and other ambassadors stopped short of using the word “genocide,” cited in a U.N.-backed report released on Monday, AFP reports.

Haley presented the findings of a State Department survey interviewing more than 1,000 randomly selected Rohingya, claiming that “most importantly, the report identifies one group as the perpetrator of the overwhelming majority of these crimes: the Burmese military and security forces,” and adding that “the results are consistent with the recently released U.N. independent international fact-finding mission … the world can no longer avoid the difficult truth of what happened.” Reuters reports.

“It is a very specific legal designation … not one that is easily made,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert commented, explaining the decision not to use the term “genocide,” adding that “to the average person, of course these things are incredibly horrific and it seems we should just slap a label on something … well, they’re complex legal designations that have legal meaning and weight in courts around the world.” Reuters reports.

The Myanmar government rejected the U.N.-backed report today, slamming the allegations as false. “We didn’t allow the F.F.M. [U.N. Fact-Finding Mission] to enter into Myanmar,” commented senior government spokesperson Zaw Htay, adding “that’s why we don’t agree and accept any resolutions made by the Human Rights Council,” Al Jazeera reports.

Haley said yesterday that Washington expects to see two Reuters journalists charged by Myanmar’s administration acquitted of all charges next week.  On Monday, a Myanmar judge postponed the verdict in the case of Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone – accused of illegal possession of official documents – until Sept. 3, the AP reports.

An analysis of whether Myanmar’s military leaders will ever face international justice for crimes against the Rohingya is provided by Jamie Tarabay at CNN.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump claimed early today that China had hacked the emails of 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, offering no evidence to back up his assertion. “Hillary Clinton’s Emails, many of which are Classified Information, got hacked by China,” the president claimed in a message on Twitter, adding that the “next move better be by the F.B.I. & D.O.J. or, after all of their other missteps (Comey, McCabe, Strzok, Page, Ohr, F.I.S.A., Dirty Dossier etc.), their credibility will be forever gone!” Hudson Lockett reports at the Financial Times.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve heard similar kinds of allegations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying Hua responded during a daily news briefing, adding that “China is a staunch defender of cybersecurity … we firmly oppose and crack down on any forms of internet attacks and the stealing of secrets,” although she did not mention Trump or Clinton, Reuters reports.

Trump has privately revived the idea of firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions in conversations with aides and personal lawyers this month, following his highly public attacks on Sessions in recent weeks, according to three people familiar with the discussions. Trump has suggested that he regards Sessions as disloyal and has repeatedly criticized him for recusing himself from Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Carol D. Leonnig, Josh Dawsey and Gabriel Pogrund report at the Washington Post.

The White House reaffirmed yesterday that former C.I.A. director John Brennan has been stripped of his security clearance, after Brennan commented earlier he has yet to receive formal notice of the matter. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced on Aug. 15 that the decision to strip Brennan’s security clearance was taken because Brennan “leveraged his status as a former high-ranking official with access to highly sensitive information to make a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations — wild outbursts on the Internet and television — about this administration;” however, Trump later told the Wall Street Journal that he’d revoked Brennan’s clearance because of the former director’s role in a counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election which eventually led to Mueller’s probe, Shane Harris and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort will file a motion to move his next trial away from of Washington, D.C., claiming that a Washington D.C. jury will be unable to handle the case objectively. Manafort is facing his second trial as a result of Mueller’s investigation, although the charges against Manafort do not relate directly to Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Attorney for accused Russian intelligence agent Mariia Butina – Robert Driscoll – yesterday released a video of Butina singing a Disney song with Republican operative Paul Erickson, in order to prove the two had a genuine romantic relationship. Driscoll released the video in order to counter accusations that Butina traded sex for insider information, Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

The guilty plea by Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen last week serves as a reminder that “the president’s legal woes go further than the special counsel’s investigation,” Khaddim Shubber comments at the Financial Times.

The issue of Russian collusion has now served its purpose for those hoping to impeach Trump, who are now focussing rather on Trump’s business activities, Holman W. Jenkins Jr. comments at the Wall Street Journal.

The death of Republican Sen. John McCain has not only deprived the Kremlin of a scapegoat, “but the central protagonist in their favorite conspiracy theory — the view that Western sanctions against Russia and President Trump’s inability to lift them have nothing to do with anything Russia has done but are the result of ‘Russophobia,’” Andrew Higgins explains at the New York Times.

McCain’s choice of Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza as his pallbearer was a final dig at both Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Josh Meyer comments at POLITICO.

YEMEN

The U.S. will continue to work with the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday, explaining that the Pentagon “recognizes every mistake” that leads to civilian deaths, “but we have not seen any callous disregard by the people we’re working with.” Al Jazeera reports.

U.S. support for the coalition is not “unconditional,” Mattis added, explaining that the goal of the U.S. is to limit the number of civilian deaths and to get the Yemeni conflict to the “U.N.-brokered table as quickly as possible.” Reuters reports.

“Again and again, Saudi-led airstrikes have struck civilian targets, slaughtering innumerable innocents,” the New York Times editorial board asking why the U.S. is providing bombs and military aid to the coalition.

A suspected al-Qaida attack at a checkpoint in southern Abyan province last night killed five soldiers and wounded four others, according to Yemeni tribal and security officials. The attack allegedly targeted Security Belt forces trained and financed by the U.A.E., a key member of the coalition, Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP

Yemen’s Houthi rebels fired a Badr-1 ballistic missile over the border into Saudi Arabia, causing no apparent casualties, Houthi-controlled al-Masirah T.V. reported today with no indication of exactly when the missile was launched. Saudi air defenses intercepted a missile fired towards the southern city of Najran on Tuesday with no causalities, Reuters reports.

A feature on the conditions in the rebel-held strategic port city of Hodeidah, and the ongoing fight between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthis, is provided by Manal Qaed and Faisal Edroos at Al Jazeera.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Trump administration has decided to end funding altogether for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (U.N.R.W.A.) – the body providing humanitarian aid to more than 5 million Palestinian refugees – just months after scaling back its financial support for the agency. Sources have reported that the decision was made at a meeting earlier in August between President Trump’s advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Colum Lynch reports at Foreign Policy.

U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said yesterday that Washington wants to see reform at U.N.R.W.A. as a condition for fully supporting it, also commenting in a speech at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies summit that the Palestinian Authority is “bashing” the U.S. while simultaneously expecting it to provide financial support. Haley added without elaboration that the Trump administration was going to change the discussion over a Palestinian “right of return,” Amir Tibon reports at Haaretz.

IRAN

France has restricted the travel of its diplomats and foreign ministry officials to Iran in response to a foiled bomb plot and a “hardening of their position vis-à-vis our country, as well as some of our allies,” according to a memo dated Aug. 20. The move follows Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reinstate sanctions against the country, which has impacted economic relations between Iran and the remaining signatories to the agreement, John Irish reports at Reuters.

“The restriction on the French diplomats’ travel is not correct,” the Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying today, adding that his country “should be vigilant” against enemies who are trying to upset Iran-France relations. Reuters reports.

The U.S. State Department lawyer argued yesterday that the U.N.’s International Court of Justice (I.C.J.) “lacks prima facie jurisdiction” to hear claims issued by Iran regarding reinstated sanctions. Al Jazeera reports.

IRAQ

A suicide car bombing at a checkpoint in Iraq’s Anbar province near the border with Syria has killed at least eight people and wounded 12. Al Jazeera reports.

The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attack via its Aamaq news agency, adding that the attack killed 28 people. Reuters reports.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

Germany is considering offering Turkey emergency funds in aid as U.S. sanctions continue to bite. “We would do a lot to try to stabilize Turkey,” a senior German official commented, adding that “we don’t have much choice,” although the exact measures Berlin may take are not yet certain, Megan Keller reports at the Hill. .

U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis commented yesterday that the U.S. is concerned about Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system that cannot be integrated into N.A.T.O. The U.S. has already warned Turkey that it will be subject to further sanctions and its purchase of Lockheed Martin fighter jets stymied if it did not shelve plans for the purchase, Reuters reports.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

President Trump accused Google of “taking advantage of our people,” in comments at the Oval Office, following a series of messages on Twitter saying the search engine was politically biased and hiding “fair media” coverage of him. The administration’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow said later that the White House was “taking a look” at Google. Ginger Gibson and Susan Heavey report at Reuters.

The Trump administration’s changes to cyberweapons policy gives the U.S. Cyber Command greater ability to respond to cyber threats, Dave Weinstein writes at the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

“When the Americans put their nation’s credibility on the line, privatizing it is probably not a wise idea,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters yesterday, responding to plans put forward by the founder of private military firm Erik Prince to replace most U.S. troops in Afghanistan with private contractors. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

A suspected Islamic State militant in Libya was killed by a U.S. airstrike, U.S. Africa Command said yesterday, not naming the militant, but identified by residents as Walid Bu Hariba. Reuters 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 - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).