The Early Edition: September 4, 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

Syrian government forces and its Russian and Iranian allies are preparing a large-scale assault on the rebel-held northern province of Idlib, with a build-up of forces taking place despite warnings that an offensive would have dire humanitarian consequences in the territory – which is home to nearly three million people. Margaret Coker, Hwaida Saad and Carlotta Gall report at the New York Times.

“President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province,” President Trump warned in a message on Twitter yesterday, adding: “The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!” The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley issued a statement shortly afterwards on Twitter saying: “All eyes on the actions of Assad, Russia, and Iran in Idlib. #NoChemicalWeapons.” The BBC reports.

Trump’s message followed comments by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday that Russia and Assad “agreed not to permit” an assault on Idlib and that the U.S. would see an offensive “as an escalation of an already dangerous conflict.” Devan Cole reports at CNN.

The Kremlin today dismissed Trump’s warning about Idlib, with spokesperson Dmitry Peskov saying that “a fairly large group of terrorists has settled there … we know that Syria’s armed forces are preparing to resolve this problem.” Reuters reports.

A Syrian regime offensive on Idlib “would have disastrous consequences,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement yesterday. Naomi Jagoda reports at the Hill.

Russian warplanes today launched more than a dozen airstrikes around the city of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Louisa Loveluck reports at the Washington Post.

“Terrorists must be purged” from Idlib, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said yesterday, making the comments at a start of a visit to the Syrian capital of Damascus where he met with his counterpart and President Bashar al-Assad. Albert Aji reports at the AP.

Zarif visited Damascus to discuss plans for a Sept. 7 summit between the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey in Tehran focusing on Idlib, according to Iran’s Fars news agency. Russia and Iran are key backers of Assad, while Turkey has been supporter of the rebels, Reuters reports.

A preliminary list of Syrian chemical weapon facilities that could be struck by U.S. forces has been drawn up by U.S. intelligence and military targeting experts, according to multiple U.S. officials, adding that the administration has not made a decision whether it would take action, but one administration official said the military “could respond very quickly” if chemical weapons are used by the Assad regime in an impending assault on Idlib. Barbara Starr reports at CNN.

Airstrikes hit a convoy of Iranian forces at the weekend near the southwestern U.S. Tanf military base near Syria’s borders with Iraq and Jordan, according to a report published yesterday by the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, adding that it was not clear who had carried out the bombing which killed one Iranian citizen, four Syrians and three non-Syrian combatants. Haaretz reports.

Russia wants to negotiate conditional surrenders in Idlib, according to Russian diplomats, in an attempt to repeat previous negotiating tactics in the southwest of the country which successfully split the opposition. Thomas Grove explains at the Wall Street Journal.

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]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The head of the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency (U.N.R.W.A.) Pierre Krähenbühl yesterday rejected U.S. criticism of his organization and claims by the U.S. State Department that U.N.R.W.A.’s definition of a Palestinian refugee perpetuates the problem by “expanding [the] community of entitled beneficiaries” served by the agency. Krähenbühl also said the organization would survive after the Trump administration withdrew funding, leaving a $200m shortfall, Ruth Eglash reports at the Washington Post.

“No matter how often attempts are made to minimize or delegitimize the individual or collective experiences of Palestine refugees, the undeniable fact remains that they have right under international law,” Krähenbühl said yesterday, saying the 5.4 million Palestinian refugees “cannot simply be wished away.” Jeffrey Heller reports at Reuters.

Donors have pledged increased funds for U.N.R.W.A. following the U.S. decision to withhold funds. Al Jazeera reports.

Israeli troops yesterday shot and killed a Palestinian man who approached an Israel Defense Force checkpoint near a settlement in the occupied West Bank, according to an Israeli military statement. Reuters reports.

Trump’s negotiating team submitted a proposal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for a Palestinian-Jordan confederation, according to reports from the left-wing Israeli organization Peace Now, with Abbas saying he would only agree to the offer of a confederation if it included Jordan and Israel. Tovah Lazaroff and Khaled Abu Toameh report at the Jerusalem Post.

YEMEN

The U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen admitted Saturday that it made mistakes in an August airstrike that hit a bus killing 40 schoolchildren. The coalition apologized for the attack, vowed to those responsible to account – pending the official findings from a Saudi-based investigatory body, and said it would revise its rules of engagement “in a manner that guarantees non-recurrence of such incidents,” Asa Fitch reports at the Wall Street Journal.

N.G.O. Human Rights Watch (H.R.W.) has called for the termination of all weapon sales to Saudi Arabia following the airstrike, releasing a statement Sunday just hours after the coalition issued its apology, warning that arms suppliers “risk of complicity in war crimes”. Al Jazeera reports.

Spain says it has canceled the sale of 400 laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia amid fears that the weapons could be used by the coalition, Aritz Parra reports at the AP.

Yemen’s warring parties are set to meet in Geneva on Thursday for a new round of peace talks, but the chances of a breakthrough are slim. The talks mark the first public meetings between the administration of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and the country’s powerful Houthi rebels since 2016, when 108 days of negotiations in Kuwait failed to produce a power-sharing deal, AFP reports.

The coalition announced yesterday that it had intercepted and destroyed a ballistic missile fired at the southern Saudi city of Jizan by the Houthi rebels, who claimed separately that they were targeting a Saudi Aramco facility. Reuters reports.

The U.S. has conducted six counterterrorism air strikes targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (A.Q.A.P.) in Yemen since May 16, bringing the total number of air strikes to 34. [Central Command]

IRAN

Israel indicated yesterday that it would be able to attack suspected Iranian military assets in Iraq as it has done in Syria. The claims follow reports last week that Iran had transferred short-range ballistic missiles to Shi’ite allies in Iraq, though Tehran and Baghdad both denied the account, Reuters reports.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on his country’s military to boost defence capacity at the weekend, with the country announcing plans to acquire modern jets and submarines. Khamenei’s website paraphrased him as saying: “based on political calculations there is no likelihood of a military war but … armed forces must be vigilant … and raise their personnel and equipment capacities,” Al Jazeera reports.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani today said that his country will continue exporting crude oil, despite U.S. efforts to stop it from doing so through sanctions “We will continue by all means to both produce and export” Rouhani said in remarks broadcast on state TV, adding “oil is in the frontline of confrontation and resistance,” the AP reports.

Powerful anti-Western cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati claimed today that Europe is undermining efforts to preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, as it keeps asking for additional talks on issues such as missiles. The U.S. withdrew from the deal in May, Reuters reports.

AFGHANISTAN

A U.S. service member was killed yesterday in eastern Afghanistan in an apparent insider attack, according to military officials. Phil Helsel reports at NBC news.

“Until you are willing to start talking, we will keep fighting,” the outgoing top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, said Sunday at a formal military ceremony, calling on the Taliban to “stop killing your fellow Afghans” and to engage in peace talks. Gen. Nicholson has been replaced by Lt. Gen. Austin Scott Miller, Pamela Constable reports at the Washington Post.

“It is time for this war in Afghanistan to end,” Gen. Nicholson said, who was described by the commander of the U.S. Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel as a “warrior-diplomat.” Mujib Mashal reports at the New York Times, providing an overview of Gen. Nicholson’s role in the conflict.

The founder of the Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network has died, the Afghan Taliban announced today. Jalaluddin Haqqani was suffering from long-term illness and his death makes a symbolic loss for the militant group, the BBC reports.

A U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province last week killed the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan branch, the U.S. military said in a statement on Sunday. Brandon Conradis reports at the Hill.

PAKISTAN

The Pentagon has announced that it has suspended $300 million in military aid to Pakistan, claiming that the decision was based on a “lack of Pakistani decisive actions in support of the South Asia strategy.” The move is likely to heighten tensions between Pakistan and the U.S. ahead of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Islamabad later this week, Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has said that he will “have exchanges” with Pompeo over the cancellation of aid, claiming that the move was not justified as the $300 million payment was intended to re-imburse Pakistan’s military for money spent fighting the Taliban and other militants threatening U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Reuters reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The U.S. and North Korea are at a deadlock over which party should make the next concession, in talks aimed at implementing the accord struck between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at their June summit in Singapore. Kim’s administration argues that the U.S. must reciprocate the North’s gestures – including the dismantling of its underground nuclear test site and the repatriation of U.S. war remains—with a statement declaring an official end to the Korean War; U.S. diplomats maintain that “the ball is in North Korea’s court” to make more concrete steps toward denuclearization, Jonathan Cheng and Andrew Jeong report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s series of tweets last week accusing China of undermining talks with the North reveals that the president “has not abandoned a generous and sometimes indulgent approach to North Korea and its backers,” Gordon G. Chang comments at The Daily Beast, arguing that “this approach, unfortunately, is risky in the extreme.”

Chinese President Xi Jingping is expected to visit North Korea Sunday for the 70th anniversary of the North’s founding; however, neither side has confirmed his attendance. An analysis of the implications of Xi’s presence for Chinese-North Korean relations is provided by Christopher Bodeen at the AP.

China’s Parliament Chief Li Zhanshu, will visit North Korea Saturday as Xi’s special representative, state news agency Xinhua announced today. Reuters reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Trump yesterday slammed Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the D.O.J’s decision to bring criminal charges against two Republican congressmen ahead of the midterm elections, drawing connections between the decision and the fate of the Republican Party. “Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department,” Trump wrote in a message on Twitter, adding “two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time … Good job Jeff,” Katie Rogers and Katie Benne report at the Hill.

Trump did not make clear the specific charges or name the congressmen, but the message apparently referred the indictments Reps. Chris Collins (N.Y.) and Duncan D. Hunter (Calif.) – two lawmakers amongst Trump’s earliest supporters during the 2016 election. Sessions has found himself a target of the president’s anger since the Attorney General recused himself from investigations into Russian interference in March 2017 following revelations that he held two undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador, Josh Dawsey reports at the Washington Post.

“The United States is not some banana republic with a two-tiered system of justice – one for the majority party and one for the minority party,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) hit back at Trump following the tweets. Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

President Trump launched an attack on officials at the F.B.I. and Department of Justice (D.O.J.) Saturday, following the publication of a report from a conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch regarding warrants to surveil former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. In a series of messages on Twitter, Trump expressed dismay over the report’s finding that the court overseeing Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.) requests held no hearings on the applications targeting Page, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Democrats are growing increasingly confident they will win back control of the House in November, and Democratic lawmakers who stand to control key panels are making preparations for a series of hearings, subpoenas and investigations that will examine the workings of the Trump administration in great detail. Democrats have reportedly shown interest in reopening the Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russian election interference, outlining an ambitious list of witnesses considered worthy of potential subpoena, Nicholas Fandos writes at the New York Times.

An in-depth analysis of the role of attorney Rudy Giuliani – “Trump’s clown” who is leading the president’s defense in the Mueller probe, is provided by Jeffrey Toobin at the New Yorker.

KAVANUAGH CONFIRMATION

Today marks the opening Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, with the two parties set to present starkly contrasting pictures of the judge. Democrats are vowing to disrupt the nomination, with minority leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) vowing to “oppose him with everything I’ve got,” but are unlikely to find success, Sheryl Gay Solberg reports at the New York Times.

Lawyer for former president George W. Bush – William A. Burck – yesterday disclosed over 42,000 pages of documents from the nominee’s service in the Bush White House. The move angered Schumer, who sent a message on Twitter yesterday evening claiming that “not a single senator will be able to review these records before tomorrow,” Fred Babash and Seung Min Kim report at the Washington Post.

The development follows the Trump administration’s decision Friday to hold back approximately 100,000 pages from Kavanaugh’s records as a lawyer in the Bush White House, in a move that Democrats claim clouds the confirmation hearings. Jess Bravin reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Even if Democrats cannot quash Kavanaugh’s confirmation, they have some chance of weakening Kavanaugh’s public persona and pressuring Republicans to come up with the votes to approve him. To do so, they will focus on arguments including the Kavanaugh’s likelihood of siding with Trump in any future legal battle with special counsel Robert Mueller, Elana Schor writes in an analysis at POLITICO.

The real reason Democrats are furious about the Kavanaugh’s nomination is not that he is likely to overturn precedent, but rather – that with five conservatives on the bench the Supreme Court will no longer be “an engine of progressive policy,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments.

Kavanaugh must answer concerns as to how he will negotiate his relationship with the man who appointed him – President Trump – and the likelihood and reasons for his recusal should the Supreme Court have to rule on questions relating to a criminal probe involving the president, the Washington Post editorial board comments.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

An analysis of the “the rise of the cyber-mercenaries” is provided by Neri Zilber at Foreign Policy, who explores the privatization of cyber-warfare capabilities.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley has condemned the conviction of two Reuters reporters in Myanmar, issuing a statement yesterday describing the development as a further stain on the country’s government and claiming that it is plain that the country’s military has committed vast atrocities. Haley said that the U.S. will continue to call for the reporters’ immediate and unconditional release, the AP reports.

“China’s investment in Africa does not come with any political conditions attached and will neither interfere in internal politics nor make demands that people feel are difficult to fulfill,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation yesterday after pledging $60bn in aid and loans for countries in the continent. Critics have said China is luring countries into “debt traps” and is a form of new colonialism, Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

The Pentagon has drawn up plans to withdraw almost all U.S. commandos from Niger following last year’s deadly ambush that killed four Special Forces members. If the proposals are approved by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, they would be part of a broader change to defense strategy, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

The former German ambassador to Washington, Wolfgang Ischinger, has warned that the longer Trump remains in office the harder it will be to defend the U.S.-Germany relationship, thereby emboldening the forces “calling for a closer relationship with countries like Russia or China.” Noah Barkin reports at Reuters.

France and Germany both said yesterday that the killing of a pro-Russian separatist leader in eastern Ukraine last week must not undermine talks to resolve the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 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).