The Early Edition: August 30, 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

“The final touches for the first stage” of a large-scale Syrian government offensive on the northern rebel-held province of Idlib are being prepared, an official close to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime said yesterday, adding that the initial targets would be the southern and western parts of the territory, and that negotiations with Russia, Turkey and Iran about the offensive were ongoing. Laila Bassam and Angus McDowall report at Reuters.

“I hope our Western partners will not give in to [rebel] provocations and will not obstruct an anti-terror operation” in Idlib, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday at a press conference alongside his Saudi counterpart, also accusing the West of “actively heating up” the idea of a “so-called planned chemical attack by the [Syrian] government.” The AFP reports.

“This festering abscess needs to be liquidated,” Lavrov said at the press conference, describing Idlib as “the last hotbed of terrorists” and explaining that there is a political understanding between Turkey and Russia – who support opposing sides in the Syrian civil war – about the need to distinguish between the Syrian opposition and terrorists. Reuters reports.

Russian media reports have alleged that Syrian rebels are preparing a chemical weapons attack in Idlib to provoke Western powers to attack Syrian government forces, and this prospect has led to a Russian naval buildup in the Mediterranean Sea off the Syrian coast. In response, the U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said this was “false-flag-type reporting” and that Russia were “trying to put the onus on other groups,” the AP reports.

Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov warned U.S. officials against “groundless and illegal aggression against Syria,” the Russian Embassy said today. Reuters reports.

Russia will hold a major naval exercise in the Mediterranean from Sept. 1 to Sept. 8, the Tass news agency cited the Russian defense ministry as saying today, which comes amid rising U.S.-Russian tensions over a potential Syrian government assault on Idlib. Reuters reports.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and the Syrian opposition leader Naser al-Hariri have discussed options for a peace settlement, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement today. Reuters reports.

“No agreement between Syrian and Iran will deter us; neither will any threat deter us,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday, adding that his country “would take strong and determined action against Iran’s attempts to station forces and advanced weapons systems in Syria.” Al Jazeera reports.

The likely assault on Idlib may mark the end of the line for the al-Qaeda-linked Tahrir al-Sham alliance, with analysts saying that the armed opposition group has few options left. Ali Younes writes at Al Jazeera.

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

President Trump cast further uncertainty yesterday on the future of U.S.-South Korea military drills, suspended earlier this year to pave the way for denuclearization talks with the North that have since stalled.  Trump sent a message on Twitter – titled “Statement from the White House” – claiming that “there is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games,” adding that “besides, the president can instantly start the joint exercises again with South Korea, and Japan, if he so chooses … if he does, they will be far bigger than ever before,” Nancy A. Youssef reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“President Donald J. Trump feels strongly that North Korea is under tremendous pressure from China because of our major trade disputes with the Chinese government,” Trump claimed in his series of tweets, adding that “at the same time, we also know that China is providing North Korea with considerable aid, including money, fuel, fertilizer and various other commodities … This is not helpful!” Trump contrasted the alleged Chinese interference with his warm personal relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Betsy Klein reports at CNN.

Trump’s comments have sown confusion around the joint military exercises, coming a day after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis claimed that the U.S. military “suspended several of the largest exercises, but we did not suspend the rest,” adding that “there are ongoing exercises all the time on the Peninsula.” Ahead of Trump’s tweets yesterday, Mattis issued a follow-up statement, in which he said that three specific military exer­cises had been suspended but that otherwise, “our military posture has not changed since the conclusion of the Singapore summit and no decisions have been made about suspending any future exercises,” Paul Sonne reports at the Washington Post.

Initial attempts by the South to develop cross-border transport connections with the North have been stymied by the U.N. in a move likely to fuel anxieties that Washington is unhappy about Seoul’s plans for integration with Pyongyang. The two Koreas last week had planned to start on a field study in order to develop rail links, but an application to send a train from Seoul through the demilitarized zone to the northern city of Sinuiju was denied by U.N. Command – a body with U.S. leadership, Bryan Harris and Song Jung-a report at the Financial Times.

Trump’s latest move has been to level blame at China for the stalemate in negotiations with Pyongyang, but the real problem “may lie in vague, verbal promises Trump made in Singapore” at his one-to-one summit with Kim, Simon Denyer comments at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump announced yesterday that White House counsel Don McGahn will be leaving his job this fall, making the declaration in a message on Twitter reportedly without having informed McGahn first. The message comes 11 days after the revelations that McGahn has given 30 hours of testimony in at least three voluntary interviews with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team in their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Trump has claimed that he gave McGahn permission to cooperate with the Mueller probe, stating yesterday that he was unconcerned by McGahn’s participation as: “we do everything straight, we do everything by the book,” Michael C. Bender reports at the Wall Street Journal.

House Democrats yesterday brushed aside Republican attacks on Department of Justice (D.O.J.) official Bruce Ohr following his testimony on Tuesday.  G.O.P. lawmakers had claimed that Ohr “has done nothing but exacerbate … concerns” regarding anti-Trump bias within the D.O.J., but Democrats defended Ohr and his ties to former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who compiled a dossier containing potential damaging and unverified information on the president, Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

“How the hell is Bruce Ohr still employed at the Justice Department?… Disgraceful! Witch Hunt!” Trump lashed out in a message on Twitter today, employing the term he often invokes to describe special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

The F.B.I. yesterday stated that it had found no evidence for President Trump’s claim that former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s private email server was accessed by hackers working under orders from the Chinese government. In a brief statement, the organization stated that it had “not found any evidence the servers were compromised,” John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Trump has allegedly spent the past 10 days lobbying aggressively for the removal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, venting his anger at Sessions to “any senator who will listen,” according to one G.O.P. aide. In a move that has provoked much of the president’s ire, Sessions recused himself from investigations into Russian interference in March 2017 following revelations that he held two undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador, Eliana Johnson and Elana Schor report at POLITICO.

Mueller has asked for more time to decide whether to retry former Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort on 10 bank and tax fraud charges left unresolved at his trial in Virginia earlier in August. The charges arose from Mueller’s investigation, but do not relate to the issue of Russian interference, Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Mueller’s team is hoping to review emails between Manafort and one of his former lawyers — correspondence typically protected by attorney-client privilege. Mueller’s team argued in a court motion yesterday that Manafort’s emails are a special case, Theodoric Meyer reports at POLITICO.

The removal of McGahn and dialing up of attacks on Sessions demonstrates Trump acting on his intention to rid his top circle of any dissenting voices, although “it’s not clear whether their replacements will be any more willing to cede to Trump’s demands,” Kevin Liptak and Jeremy Diamond report at CNN.

Veteran lawyer McGahn has assumed a key role in Trump administration successes, “despite the threats and distractions of the Robert Mueller investigation and the President’s frequent unwillingness to accept legal advice,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

“The Trump administration strongly support the efforts of President al-Sisi and the Egyptian government to help facilitate an agreement to restore calm in Gaza,” the U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt said in a statement yesterday, also criticizing the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) led by Mahmoud Abbas for trying to undermine the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire deal between the Palestinian militant Hamas group and Israel, and calling for the P.A. to be “part of the solution for the Palestinian of Gaza and Palestinian as a whole.” The Times of Israel reports.

The Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar warned yesterday that the militant group are capable of “causing six months of rising and falling air raid sirens” in the Tel Aviv area, while also saying that Egypt and U.N.-brokered talks with Israel for a long-term ceasefire are ongoing, and that an agreement could be reached without the need for reconciliation between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the P.A. in the West Bank. Haaretz reports.

U.S. cuts in humanitarian aid to Palestinians have already had a significant impact and the recent freeze on funds to USAid comes in addition to the Trump administration’s cuts to the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency (U.N.R.W.A.). There have been concerns that the deteriorating humanitarian situation could also affect the political and security situation, Peter Beaumont and Oliver Holmes report at the Guardian.

Top Israeli security officials are worried about the impact of U.S. cuts in aid to Palestinians, warning that the move could incentivize violence against Israel. Neri Zilber explains at Foreign Policy.

IRAN

“Naturally, if we reach the conclusion that [the 2015 Iran nuclear deal] is no longer maintaining our national interests, we will put it aside,” the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said at a cabinet meeting yesterday, warning that Iran must not “put its hopes” on European efforts to salvage the deal – which the U.S. withdrew from in May this year. The AFP reports.

“The Americans have shown they have no limit or boundary in imposing pressure and using force on others, even on their own allies,” the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in the Turkish capital of Ankara yesterday. Reuters reports.

“Iran, a country without nuclear weapons, is threatened with atomic annihilation by a warmonger standing next to an actual nuclear weapons factory,” Zarif said in a message on Twitter yesterday, referring to a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made in the southern Israeli city of Dimona – the site of a nuclear reactor – and Netanyahu’s warning that “whoever threatens us with our demise puts himself in similar danger.” Haaretz reports.

An Iraqi delegation will be sent to the U.S. to negotiate the country’s obligations towards U.S. sanctions imposed against Iran following Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said yesterday, explaining that Iranian commodities are important to Iraq’s economy. Ramy Allahoum reports at Al Jazeera.

Declassified U.S. interrogation reports reveal the extent of Iran’s role in the Iraq war, Michael R. Gordon and Ben Kesling report at the Wall Street Journal.

An analysis of the internal pressures faced by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the impact of U.S. sanctions, and the possibility of Rouhani becoming Supreme Leader, is provided by Alex Vatanka at Foreign Policy.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

President Trump yesterday reiterated his claim that Google’s search engine is biased against conservatives, but said that what he wanted “fairness” and not regulation. Douglas MacMillan reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Australia has banned U.S. whistleblower Chelsea Manning from entering the country, with Australian human rights groups saying the move against Manning – who was convicted of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks – was a “political stunt” to appease the Trump administration. Paul Karp reports at the Guardian.

CHINA

“China and the international community are all supporting Afghanistan to strengthen its defense and counterterrorism building efforts,” the Chinese defense ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said today in response to questions about China’s reported efforts to establish a “mountain brigade” in Afghanistan to bolster counterterrorism efforts.

China has embarked on a largescale program of naval and missile modernization in the Pacific, posing a challenge to the U.S. and its allies. Steven Lee Myers explains at the New York Times.

MYANMAR

“There is no question of the Nobel Committee withdrawing the peace prize” from Myanmar’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the director of Norway’s Nobel Institute, Olav Njolstad, said yesterday, making the comments after a U.N. report described Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority as “genocide.” The AFP reports.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s should have resigned over the military campaign against the Rohingya, the outgoing U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said yesterday, adding that “there was no need for her to be the spokesperson of the Burmese military.” The BBC reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Russian foreign ministry is working to arrange a meeting between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, which begins on Sept. 18, the spokesperson Maria Zakharova was quoted as saying today. Reuters reports.

A suicide attack today in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk has killed at least two policemen and wounded three, with no group claiming responsibility. The bombing follows an Islamic State group attack on Wednesday at a security checkpoint in western Iraq, Reuters reports.

Qatari lobbyists have targeted 250 people identified as Trump’s influencers to change U.S. policy, which comes amid the ongoing Saudi-led blockade of Doha over its alleged support for terrorism. Julie Bykowicz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. Embassy in South Africa has tacitly rebuked Trump’s claims about land reform issues and violence against white farmers in the country, sending a message clarifying the issue and correcting misperceptions put forward by the president. Robbie Gramer and Colum Lynch report at Foreign Policy

The U.S. Navy seized hundreds of small arms from an unflagged boat in the Gulf of Aden Tuesday, with the crew of the Jason Dunham destroyer carrying out the boarding, a U.S. defense official has announced, Reuters reports.

Germany has no plans to assist Turkey with financial aid, a government spokesperson said yesterday, telling reporters that “our position remains unchanged.” Turkey’s economy has suffered since the imposition of U.S. sanctions which come as the two N.A.T.O. allies are engaged in a continuing dispute over the detention of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, Reuters reports.

An outbreak of violence in the Libyan capital of Tripoli has exposed the fragility of the armed cartel that had seemed to provide the appearance of stability in the city. Street battles on Monday and Tuesday pitted the Seventh Brigade from Tarhouna against the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigades (T.R.B.) and the Nawasi – two of the capital’s most significant factions, Al Jazeera reports.

There is no precedent for Trump’s pandering to Saudi Arabia “and his slavish obeisance to its dangerous and irresponsible policies,” Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky comment at POLITICO Magazine, arguing that at the least Washington should “stop letting them screw us at every turn.

“Mediation is no longer an option; it is a necessity” in the context of increasingly complex international warfare, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told the Security Council yesterday.  The U.N. News Centre 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).