The Early Edition: August 31, 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

“What we need to do now is to wipe out these terrorist groups which persist, particularly within the de-escalation area of Idlib” in the northern part of Syria, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday, referring to the last rebel-held province in the country which borders Turkey. Al Jazeera reports.

Syrian government forces will “go all the way” in Idlib, the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said yesterday, making the comments after meeting with Lavrov and adding that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces would not use chemical weapons in any offensive. Reuters reports.

The U.N. Special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura has said that he is “ready to go to Idlib” and escort civilians to safety ahead of a possible large-scale assault on the territory, also questioning why Russia, Turkey and Iran – who reached a de-escalation agreement during talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana – would not allow more time for discussions before hurrying towards a military operation. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Both the government and the rebels have the ability to make and deploy chlorine-based chemical weapons, de Mistura said, explaining that the approximately 10,000 al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda terrorist fighters must be defeated, but not at the expense of thousands of civilian lives. The BBC reports.

Turkey and the al-Qaeda-linked Tahrir al-Sham alliance (H.T.S.) held negotiations yesterday to avert an offensive on Idlib and talks are still under way, the Director of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, said yesterday, explaining that Russia has set a condition that the H.T.S. disband and that the launch of the assault “hinges on the failure or success of these talks with H.T.S.” The AFP reports.

Idlib is home to nearly three million people and both the U.N. and aid workers have warned that up to 800,000 are at risk of renewed displacement if the Syrian government carries out an offensive. Philip Issa explains the significance and humanitarian impact of a potential assault at the AP.

The Trump administration is considering sending hundreds of captured Islamic State militants held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) in a rebel-controlled area of Syria to an Iraqi prison and some high-value fighters to the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, according to five U.S. officials and two European diplomats. Courtney Kube, Dan De Luce and Josh Lederman report at NBC News.

“The Iranians have reduced the scale of their activity in Syria,” the Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liebrman said in an interview published today, claiming that the slow-down to its long-term force deployment is due to the Israeli military’s “daily, hard work in Syria” and the economic crisis in Iran which has been compounded by U.S. sanctions. Reuters reports.

All indications show that the final phase of fighting in Syria is about to begin in Idlib, Nic Robertson explains at CNN, pointing to Russia’s naval build-up in the Mediterranean; Russian claims about the possibility that the rebels will use chemical weapons; rhetoric exchanged between Moscow and the West over the past week; and discussions behind the scenes about refugee flows.

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

South Korean President Moon Jae-in will send a special delegation to the North Wednesday, with the goal of setting up a summit for next month, Moon’s office announced today. The planned trip comes amid growing concern over the slow progress on denuclearization following President Trump’s Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June, Hyung-Jin Kim reports at the AP.

In addition to the planning of a potential summit, the special envoy will aim to discuss “establishing peace,” “advancing inter-Korean ties,” and the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” a spokesperson for South Korea’s presidential Blue House told reporters. Reuters reports.

China yesterday called out what it described as “irresponsible and absurd logic” on the part of the U.S., after President Trump accused Beijing of acting to undermine Washington’s relationship with Pyongyang. “A lot of people, like me, feel that the U.S. is first in the world when it comes to twisting the truth, and irresponsible and absurd logic,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying commented at a regular press briefing, AFP reports.

Russia announced yesterday that it is delaying the publication a report by U.N. experts, who claim that North Korea is violating U.N. sanctions, in part through the failure to halt its nuclear and missile programs and by “a massive increase in illicit ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products.” Russia’s Ambassador to the U.N. Vassily Nebenzia told reporters after a closed Security Council that Moscow would stymie the release “because we disagree on certain elements of the report,” Edit M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Japan’s military has requested record spending next year to enable major upgrades to its defenses geared to shoot down ballistic missiles from Pyongyang. The Ministry of Defense budget proposal released today calls for defence spending to rise 2.1 percent to 5.3 trillion yen for the year starting April 1 – the announcement coming in the same week as the release of a white paper that stated that the threat from North Korea remains unchanged, Reuters reports.

The planned purchases include a $2.1 billion for a new U.S. missile-defense system, one of Japan’s most significant military acquisitions. Alastair Gale and Chieko Tsuneoka report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. State Department announced yesterday its decision to extend by 12 months its prohibition on U.S. citizens’ travel to North Korea, citing ongoing concerns about the threat of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. nationals in the North, Reuters reports.

After decades of joint military drills, South Koreans are coming to terms with a “jarring new reality: an American president who does not like the drills, at least in part because they cost too much.” Choe Sang-Hun provides an analysis at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump’s legal team is putting together a “counter-report” that will seek to delegitimize special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani told The Daily Beast in an interview yesterday, claiming that the report would examine whether the “initiation of the investigation was… legitimate or not.” Giuliani added that the bulk of the report will be divided into two sections: one seeking to question the legitimacy of the probe generally, and the other responding to more substantive allegations of Trump campaign collusion with Moscow agents as well as obstruction of justice charges, Lachlan Markay and Asawin Suebsaeng report at The Daily Beast.

Trump pledged yesterday to “get involved” if the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) and F.B.I. do not start “doing their job and doing it right.” Trump’s comments, delivered at a campaign rally in Indiana, came a matter of hours after he told Bloomberg News that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would remain in his job at least until the midterm elections, though Trump declined to say whether that would remain the case after that juncture, Jonathan Allen reports at NBC.

“I just would love to have him do a great job,” Trump said of Sessions’ continuing role.  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, Michael C. Bender reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump slammed the coverage of White House Counsel Don McGahn’s planned departure from the administration yesterday morning, sending a series of messages on Twitter pushing back against the notion that McGahn served as a moderating force. “I am very excited about the person who will be taking the place of Don McGahn as White House Councel! [sic],” Trump claimed, adding “I liked Don, but he was NOT responsible for me not firing Bob Mueller or Jeff Sessions … so much Fake Reporting and Fake News!” Stephanie Murray reports at POLITICO.

Trump has attempted to backtrack on comments last year, in which he linked his decision to fire former F.B.I. Director James Comey to Mueller’s probe. The president sent a message on Twitter yesterday accusing NBC News of “fudging” the interview in which he had made the relevant remarks, offering no supporting evidence for the claim, Reuters reports.

Longtime Donald Trump associate Roger Stone is appealing for contributions to a legal defense fund, saying he expects to be charged with an offense. Stone claimed that Mueller’s team is “examining every aspect of my personal, private, family, social, business and political life,” in an attempt “to frame me for some nonexistent crime to silence me and pressure me to testify against the president. … I am not going to do it,” Ken Dilanian reports at NBC.

“The president’s words about the judicial process matter, have real consequences and should not be discounted or dismissed as mere angry rants,” Just Security Founding Editor Alex Whiting and Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman comment at the New York Times, arguing that Trump’s speculative comments concerning a pardon for convicted former campaign Chairman Paul Manafort already constitute improper conduct.

An analysis of the relationship between Trump and McGahn, whose once-strong connection has deteriorated since the president needed “somebody to blame for the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller … and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe,” is provided by Andrew Restuccia, Nancy Cook and Elana Schor at POLITICO.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump could hold talks this year at summits in Singapore, France and Argentina, the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said today. Reuters reports.

Russia’s “harassment of international shipping” heading to Ukraine demonstrates its “ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilize” the country, the U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement yesterday, commenting that Russia had prevented at least 16 commercial ships from reaching Ukrainian ports in recent weeks. Reuters reports.

Physicist and U.S. citizen Valentin Gapontsev has been erroneously included in a list of Russians based on their “closeness” to Vladimir Putin, net assets, and indices of corruption – and the Treasury Department “should remove Valentin from the oligarch list and clearly state that his inclusion was a mistake,” Michael C. Child comments at the Wall Street Journal

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Trump administration has canceled all U.S. funding to the U.N.’s Palestinian refugee agency (U.N.R.W.A.), with an announcement setting out the administration’s disapproval of U.N.R.W.A.’s operation to be made within the next few weeks. The move comes as the administration is preparing to unveil its Israel-Palestine peace plan and follows Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Karen DeYoung and Ruth Eglash report at the Washington Post.

The U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman made revealing comments during a private conversation with members of the American Jewish Congress this week about Israel’s place in the Middle East and his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Noa Landau explains at Haaretz.

IRAN

Iran has transferred short-range ballistic missiles to allies in Iraq over the last few months, according to three Iranian officials, two Iraqi intelligence sources and two Western intelligence sources, with one one senior Iranian official saying that the logic behind the move was to “have a backup plan if Iran was attacked.” John Irish and Ahmed Rasheed reveal at Reuters.

The U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) yesterday certified that Iran continues to comply with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, including the restrictions on enrichment of uranium and uranium stocks. Tamer El-Ghobashy reports at the Washington Post.

Iran’s compliance is in spite of the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (J.C.P.O.A.), and comes as the remaining signatories to the deal seek to salvage the deal. The Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said yesterday in a message on Twitter that honoring the J.C.P.O.A. “is not Iran’s only option.” Al Jazeera reports.

“There is no reason, need, reliability or trust for negotiations on issues that are non-negotiable,” the Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Bahram Qassemi said today, responding to comments by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian yesterday that Tehran should be ready to negotiate on nuclear issues, ballistic missiles and its role in Syria and Yemen following U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. Reuters reports.

YEMEN

A bipartisan group of senators yesterday sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about U.S. military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition, which is conducting a campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, calling on the Trump administration to adhere to the recently signed National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.) which requires a certification within 30 days that Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.’s actions in Yemen are helping to end the war, alleviate the humanitarian crisis and protect civilians. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The Houthi threats to Dubai should be taken seriously, Jon Gambrell explains at the AP, arguing that though this week’s claim that the rebels attacked Dubai International Airport was quickly disproved, it “shows real danger could loom ahead.”

AFGHANISTAN

Afghanistan’s Islamic State group affiliate detonated a roadside bomb in eastern Nangarhar province that killed five border police and wounded four others yesterday, the insurgent group announced in a statement released today. Amir Shah reports at the AP.

The Taliban appealed to Afghan soldiers Thursday to attack Dutch troops serving in the N.A.T.O.-led Resolute Support mission, in an act of retaliation for a competition of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad proposed by far-right Netherlands politician Geert Wilders, Reuters reports.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

Erdogan said today that his country needs Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems as well as U.S.-made weapons and F-35 fighter jets, making the comments after the U.S. expressed concern that the Russian system could risk the security of U.S. military technology. Reuters reports.

“I’m very disappointed in him, but we’ll see how it all works out,” President Trump said yesterday of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when asked about Ankara’s detention of American Pastor Andrew Brunson and the subsequent diplomatic spat between the two countries. John Micklethwait, Jennifer Jacobs and Margaret Talev report at Bloomberg News.

The Trump administration must not resort to “drastic and destabilizing steps” to put further pressure on Turkey as this would “further alienate the partners it needs to apply effective pressure over the long term,” Nick Danforth writes of the U.S.-Turkey relationship at the New York Times.

MYANMAR

Myanmar’s military has been using fake photographs to rewrite history and attempt to justify the campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority, according to a Reuters investigation. Reuters reports.

Western officials and world leaders missed warning signs about the genocide against the Rohingya because they were focused on supporting Myanmar’s transition from a junta to a democracy. Justin Lynch explains at Foreign Policy.

CHINA

U.S. lawmakers have called for sanctions on Chinese officials allegedly linked to the mass internment of Muslim Uighurs in China’s western Xinjiang province, following a U.N. report that cited estimates that “tens of thousands to upwards of a million Uighurs” may be detained. The Guardian and agencies report.

Trump’s comments Wednesday accusing China of compromising former Clinton’s email server are an attempt to “scapegoat” China, the official China Daily said in an editorial today. The editorial continued: “to the thinking person, there are few things more disconcerting than a tweet by the U.S. president as they initially seem to accord to reality but then quickly turn into messages from some alternative universe,” Reuters reports.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Former N.S.A. contractor Reality Winner responded yesterday to President Trump’s tweet that described her sentence as “so unfair.” Winner, who has been sentenced to more than five years in prison for leaking a secret report on Russian election hacking told “CBS This Morning” that “I can’t thank [Trump] enough” for his message, and that she “deeply regretted” the actions for which she was convicted, CBS News reports.

The F.B.I. announced yesterday that it has launched a new website to share information on attempts to counter foreign influence campaigns. The bureau announced that the platform is geared “to educate the public about the threats faced from disinformation campaigns, cyber attacks, and the overall impact of foreign influence on society,” Jaqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

Trump told a supporters at a rally in Indiana yesterday that his administration is standing up for free-speech rights, claiming that large social media companies should not be permitted to “control what we can and cannot see.” Trump added: “you look at Google, Facebook, Twitter and other social media giants and I made it clear that we as a country cannot tolerate political censorship, blacklisting and rigged search results,” Reuters reports.

Russia is reportedly looking at new measures that will block online apps; the most recent move in Moscow’s efforts to crack down on the messaging app Telegram. Telegram has attracted attention its role as an explicitly private application that does not concede to the demands of governments, Ali Breland reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Saudi Arabia is considering digging a canal that would separate the Qatari peninsula from the mainland and turn it into an island, the development coming in the context of a year-long dispute between the two powers. Reuters reports.

The recent violence in the Libyan capital of Tripoli demonstrates the difficulties the fragmented society faces to reach reconciliation, and a path to stability should start with curbing foreign interference in the conflict who have been providing arms and support to opposing factions in the ongoing civil war. Guma El-Gamatary writes at Al Jazeera, suggesting further ways to stabilize Libya. 

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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).