The Early Edition: September 5, 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: IDLIB ASSAULT

Syrian and Russian airplanes yesterday launched a series of airstrikes on the rebel-held northern province of Idlib, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (S.O.H.R.). The strikes may indicate that the looming large-scale offensive by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies against rebels in the territory has begun – in spite of President Trump’s warning on Monday not to spark a humanitarian disaster and cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, Ben Hubbard reports at the New York Times.

“Until now, military action is more likely than reconciliations,” a Syrian government minister told Russia’s Sputnik news agency said yesterday, suggesting that Idlib will be retaken by force. The capture of Idlib – which is home to nearly three million people – would mark a major breakthrough for the Assad regime, though other large areas of the country still remain out of Damascus’ control, Angus McDowall and Tulay Karadeniz report at Reuters.

More than 45 airstrikes hit areas around the northern city of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib yesterday, killing nine people, according to S.O.H.R. The city and many parts of the province are controlled by the al-Qaeda-linked Tahrir al-Sham alliance (H.T.S.), Louisa Loveluck and Erin Cunningham report at the Washington Post.

Pro-Syrian government forces shelled positions in Idlib overnight and early today, according to S.O.H.R. Reuters reports.

“The United States is closely monitoring the situation in Idlib province, Syria, where millions of innocent civilians are under threat of an imminent Assad regime attack, backed by Russia and Iran,” the White House said in a statement yesterday, adding that the U.S. and its allies would respond “swiftly and appropriately” if Assad “chooses again to use chemical weapons.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Russia has dismissed concerns expressed by the U.S. that Syrian government forces will use chemical weapons during the assault on Idlib, with the response raising fears in Washington that Russia will give Assad a free hand to use chemical weapons on civilians. Sune Engel Rasmussen and Dion Nissenbaum report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said yesterday that Assad’s forces were “getting ready” to clear the “cradle of terrorism” in Idlib and added H.T.S. rebels were threatening Russian military bases in Syria and obstructing a political solution to the seven-year civil war. The BBC reports.

The leaders of Iran, Russia and Turkey will meet on Friday for a summit in Tehran to discuss the situation in Idlib, with the meeting is expected to determine the fate of the rebel-held province. The three countries are guarantors of the Astana process which set up “de-escalation zones” across the country, the AFP reports.

The top U.S. military commander Gen. Joseph Dunford yesterday warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” should the Syrian government carry out a large-scale assault on Idlib, suggesting that “counter-terrorism operations” against the around 20,000 to 30,000 militants in the province “should take place in a manner that mitigates the risk of the loss of innocent life.” Phil Stewart reports at Reuters.

“We, as we have said many times before, act precisely, selectively, trying to minimize the risks to the peaceful population,” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by the Russian R.I.A. news agency today. Reuters reports.

A U.N. Security Council meeting on the situation in Idlib will be held Friday, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said yesterday, telling reporters that if Assad and his allies “want to continue to go the route of taking over Syria, they can do that. But they cannot do it with chemical weapons.” Reuters reports.

“God forbid, a serious massacre could take place if there is a rain of missiles” in Idlib, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in remarks published today, explaining that his country’s cooperation with Russia now “is very important. The United States sends the ball into the corner of Russia and Russia into the corner of the U.S.” Turkey backs some of the rebel groups fighting against Assad, the AFP reports.

The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura yesterday called on President Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin to draw up a solution to prevent a major assault on Idlib, adding that he was “determined” to hold discussions with high-level representatives from Turkey, Iran and Russia next week. Al Jazeera reports.

The countries who are party to the conflict in Syria should use all the “moral pressure” they can to avoid a large-scale assault of Idlib, De Mistura said yesterday, saying the leaders of Russia and Turkey should talk via phone before the upcoming Tehran summit. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The looming Idlib offensive puts Trump’s lack of a Syria strategy “in sharp relief,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, warning that an “Obama-style retreat from Syria will not end well for U.S. interests” and the Trump administration must reassure the Kurds and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces that it will “protect them if they’re attacked while working out a longer-term strategy that raises the price for Iranian intervention.”

SYRIA: OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Turkey’s Defense Minister told the U.S. special representative for Syria James Jeffrey that the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militants must completely abandon Syria, expressing Anakara’s discomfort with the presence of Kurdish militants in the northern region in a statement yesterday. Reuters reports.

President Erdogan said yesterday that the U.S. was delaying the implementation of the U.S.-Turkish deal in the northern city of Manbij which would see the withdrawal Y.P.G. militia. Hande Firat reports at The Hürriyet Daily News.

Israeli fighter jets yesterday struck targets inside Syria’s western Hama province and the coastal Tartous province, killing one person and wounding 12, according to Syria’s state S.A.N.A. news agency. S.O.H.R. said the Israeli forces targeted Iranian military installations, Albert Aji and Philip Issa report at the AP.

“In the last two years Israel has taken military action more than 200 times within Syria itself” against Iranian targets, the Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said yesterday, confirming comments made by a senior Israeli official earlier in the day. Al Jazeera reports.

A map setting out who controls what in Syria is provided by Alia Chugtai at Al Jazeera.

President Trump wanted to assassinate President Assad after the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, according to an upcoming book written by journalist Bob Woodward, which adds that U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis dismissed the president’s comments and called for a more measured response. Haaretz reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 30 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Aug. 27 and Sep. 2. [Central Command]

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The Washington Post yesterday obtained an advance copy of the forthcoming book “Fear” written by its Associate Editor Bob Woodward, which reportedly paints a disquieting portrait of the Trump presidency heading for a “nervous breakdown.” The 448-page book – drawn from hundreds of hours of interviews with first-hand participants as well as meeting notes, personal diaries and government documents – depicts Trump’s anger and paranoia about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Philip Rucker and Robert Costa report at the Washington Post.

Amongst the explosive revelations in Woodwards’ book are the accounts of Trump mocking the Southern accent of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and calling him “mentally retarded;” former White House lawyer John Dowd wanting to prevent “idiot” Trump from testifying to Mueller; White House Chief of Staff John Kelly also calling Trump an “idiot” and lamenting he “worst job I’ve ever had;” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis being “exasperated” by Trump’s “Fifth-Grader” understanding of North Korea; and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn stealing papers from Trump’s desk (including those regarding withdrawal from N.A.F.T.A.) to prevent the president signing them. Pilar Melendez reports at The Daily Beast.

The White House aggressively challenged aspects Woodward’s book hours after several key incidents were reported by the Post. The public denials included statements from Kelly, Mattis, Dowd and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Ashley Parker and John Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

“The contemptuous words about the President attributed to me in Woodward’s book were never uttered by me or in my presence,” Mattis said in a statement, adding that “while I generally enjoy reading fiction, this is a uniquely Washington brand of literature, and his anonymous sources do not lend credibility,” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The Woodward book has already been refuted and discredited by General (Secretary of Defense) James Mattis and General (Chief of Staff) John Kelly” the president weighed in in a message on Twitter late last night. The president implied that the book was an attempt to influence the midterms, adding that “their quotes were made up frauds, a con on the public … likewise other stories and quotes … Woodward is a Dem operative? Notice timing?” the BBC reports.

“The already discredited Woodward book, so many lies and phony sources, has me calling Jeff Sessions “mentally retarded” and “a dumb southerner,” the president said in a further message, adding that “I said NEITHER, never used those terms on anyone, including Jeff, and being a southerner is a GREAT thing. He made this up to divide!” Brent D. Griffiths reports at POLITICO.

A raft of Southern lawmakers have rushed to Sessions’ defense following the revelations, Gabriel Pogrund reports at the Washington Post.   

Mattis has been able to keep private any negativity regarding the president, but the Woodward revelations put him in a similar “hot seat” to several other top Trump officials, including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Kelly who have all reportedly insulted Trump’s intelligence and seen their relationship with the president consequently suffer, Andrew Restuccia and Ryan Bender comment at POLITICO.

The Woodward revelations have renewed friction between Trump and Kelly, upsetting the “delicate equilibrium” of an already tense relationship, Eliana Johnson and Annie Karnie comment at POLITICO.

The most serious issue raised by Woodward’s book is the notion that those in the Situation Room alongside Trump “view him as so lacking in sophistication and judgment that they take extreme measures  … to sidestep the threat they perceive he poses to national security,” Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis at CNN.

Woodwards’ depiction of “Crazytown” reinforces an image of the Trump White House that is already familiar, Michael Hirsh argues at Foreign Policy.

Five takeaways from Woodward’s “Fear” are provided by Noah Weiland at the New York Times.

A transcript of a phone conversation between Woodward and Trump in early August, following Woodward’s completion of the manuscript, is provided by Aaroan Blake at the Washington Post.

Trump has added F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray to his list of key members of his administration whom he complains about, according to three people familiar with discussions between the president and his confidants. Trump has cast Wray as yet another figure within the Department of Justice who is not protecting his interests and may be out to undermine his presidency, Karol E. Lee, Nicolle Wallace and Kristen Welker report at NBC.

Trump’s criticisms of Sessions in recent days following the indictments of two Republican lawmakers, carrying the implication that the continued criminal prosecutions should be decided on the basis of partisan advantage, see the president crossing a new line, Peter Baker and Nicholas Fandos comment at the New York Times, arguing that  “impeachment advocates could include [the criticism of Sessions] as one more point among the president’s many tweets and comments on law enforcement to demonstrate an intent to abuse his authority.”

Trump’s criticism of Session indicates that “his real problem isn’t with the Justice Department but with the rule of law,” the New York Times editorial board comments.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Special counsel Robert Mueller will accept written answers from President Trump on questions about whether his campaign conspired with Russia’s election interference, Mueller’s office told the president’s lawyers in a letter on Friday, in a development that sees Mueller slightly relax his approach. The move comes as the president’s legal team, who have advised him against sitting for an interview with Mueller, are battling the president’s preference to answer investigators’ queries, Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

Mueller’s letter did not address questioning over whether Trump obstructed justice in an attempt to thwart the investigation. Ben Jacobs reports at the Guardian.

“A president with the power to initiate investigations of his opponents and quash investigations of his friends could destroy the rule of law and the ability of our criminal justice system to check corruption forever,” former federal prosecutor and Just Security editor Renato Mariotti comments at the New York Times.

A breakdown of how Mueller has “outfoxed” the president and managed to avoid dismissal is provided by Michael Wolraich at The Daily Beast.

KAVANAUGH CONFIRMATION

The confirmation process for President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh began chaotically yesterday, and was marked by protests and repeated interruptions during the proceedings. Ben Kamisar reports at NBC News, providing an overview of the key moments.

Senate Democrats expressed anger at being denied access to records related to Judge Kavanuagh and portrayed him as a hopeless partisan, leading to Republican Senator John Cornyn (Tex.) to accuse Democrats of engaging in “mob rule.” Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Adam Liptak report at the New York Times.

Democrats have little power to stop Judge Kavanuagh’s confirmation, but tried to derail the process through their outbursts. Jackie Kucinich and Andrew Desiderio explain at The Daily Beast.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Trump plan to discuss North Korea during the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this month, Moon’s office and the White House announced yesterday, in the context of slow progress in denuclearization talks with the North. The two leaders spoke for 50 minutes by telephone yesterday, reportedly agreeing “to explore the idea of meeting in person on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly and having in-depth consultations on strategies and how to cooperate on the peninsula issues,” Reuters reports.

Moon also briefed Trump on the meetings scheduled for today in Pyongyang during their phone call yesterday, Michael C. Bender reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Moon sent national security adviser Chung Eui-yong as his special envoy to the North today, in a move aiming to break the stalemate in the talks between Pyongyang and the U.S.. Chung’s entourage included Director of National Intelligence Service Suh Hoon, Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

The South Korean delegation met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, according to Moon’s office which said the delegation delivered Moon’s letter to Kim and “exchanged opinions” on unspecified issues. It was not immediately clear whether the officials had fixed a date for a third summit between Moon and Kim or made any progress in breaking an impasse in talks between the North and the U.S., Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the AP.

Earlier today the South Korean delegation was greeted in Pyongyang by North Korean official Ri Son Gwon –chairman of the committee in charge of cross-border affairs. The officials held a 20-minute meeting with Ri as well as lead negotiator and former spy chief Kim Yong-chol, Reuters reports.

“The envoys would return after the dinner,” a South Korea presidential spokesperson said in a statement adding that further details will be announced tomorrow, Reuters reports.

Chinese President Xi Jinping of China will send top official Li Zanshu to North Korea this weekend to attend major national celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the North’s founding, state-controlled media in both countries reported yesterday.  There had been speculation that Xi himself would attend, in what would have been his first visit to North Korea, Choe Sang-Hun and Liz Perlez report at the New York Times.

Concerns are growing in Seoul that the tentative détente on the Peninsula is starting to slip away, with the North poised to use the 70th anniversary of its national founding to glorify Kim Jong-un as a leader ready to stand up to the North’s enemies. An analysis of current relations between the two Koreas is provided by Kim Tom-Hyung at the AP.

IRAN

President Trump will chair a U.N. Security Council meeting on Iran Sept. 26 to highlight its “violations of international law,” during the world body’s annual gathering of international leaders in New York, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley announced yesterday. The U.S. – which holds the council presidency for September – has unsuccessfully pushed the Security Council to criticize Iran, and yesterday Haley again called out Tehran for its role in the conflict in Syria and Yemen, Reuters reports.

“It’s hard to find a place where there is conflict and Iran isn’t in the middle of it,” Haley said at a news conference, adding that “we think they’ve been ignored and given a pass for too long, and we think it’s time for Iran to stand up and explain themselves.” Michael Schwirtz reports at the New York Times.

Haley added that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani could attend the meeting if he should choose to do so, in an invitation in line with U.N. protocol. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Europe is planning to evade Trump’s sanctions and keep doing business with Iran in the wake of the U.S.’ withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal in May. Josh Lederman and Dan de Luce explain at NBC.

An analysis of the role and influence of Ali Akbar Velayati – longtime policy advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and “the man who actually runs Iran’s foreign policy” – is provided by Rohollah Faghihi at Foreign Policy.

AFGHANISTAN

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as the top envoy for Afghan peace, explaining that the envoy will “be the State Department’s lead person” for peace talks. Khalilzad’s appointment comes as the senior State Department official Alice Wells has been arranging meetings with Taliban representatives to help build trust between the parties, Jessica Donati reports at the Wall Street Journal.

A roadside bomb in Afghanistan’s northwestern Baghdis province today has killed at least two police officers, according to an Afghan official. No one has immediately claimed responsibility, but a spokesperson for the provincial governor accused Taliban insurgents, the AP reports.

Afghanistan’s authorities have arrested 11 members of the militant Haqqani network in the capital of Kabul, the country’s National Directorate of Security said today. The arrests were made a day after the Taliban announced that the founder of Haqaani network – who allied himself with the Taliban in the fight against U.S. troops – had died. Reuters reports.

PAKISTAN

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Pakistan today for meetings with newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan. During his flight to the capital, Islamabad, Pompeo said that there are “lots of challenges between our two nations, for sure, but we’re hopeful that with new leadership that we can find common ground and begin to work on some of our shared problems together.” Maria Abi-Habib and Salman Masood report at the New York Times.

Pompeo’s remarks on improving ties came days after the U.S. confirmed plans to cancel $300m of military aid to Pakistan due to the country’s lack of “decisive actions” in support of U.S. strategy in the region, including Islamabad’s relationship with the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network. The AFP reports.

LIBYA

A ceasefire deal has been reached between the armed factions fighting in the Libyan capital of Tripoli after more than a week of violence, the U.N. said yesterday. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The fighting in Tripoli has killed at least 47 people and internally displaced 1,800 families, according to officials. The latest ceasefire agreement is the third attempt to end clashes in Tripoli, with the first two ceasefires having been broken almost immediately, the BBC reports.

The violence in Tripoli has been fueled by rival groups using Facebook. Declan Walsh and Suliman Ali Zway explain at the New York Times.

U.S.-INDIA RELATIONS

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are set to meet Indian counterparts for talks in Delhi this week. The talks will take place against a backdrop of increasing uncertainty – with Trump having recently attacked New Delhi over trade, and India’s planned purchase of Russian missiles and dependence on Iranian oil serving as further points of friction, Amy Kazmin and Katrina Manson report at the Financial Times.

Trump has neglected a vital relationship when it comes to India, but tomorrow’s 2+2 talks provide “a perfect opportunity to put the U.S.-India partnership back in the win column,” Tim Roemer comments at Foreign Policy.

NOVICHOK POISONINGS

U.K. prosecutors announced today that they have charged two Russian men with the nerve agent poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the western English city of Salisbury. The Crown Prosecution Service (C.P.S.) said the men, known to British investigators as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, are charged in absentia with conspiracy to murder, attempted murder and use of the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, Jill Lawless reports at the AP.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said that the names of two men “do not mean anything to us,” according to R.I.A. news agency. Reuters reports.

British Police say they believe the Novichok was smuggled to the U.K. in a counterfeit Nina Ricci perfume bottle and applied to the front door of Skripal’s house. Live updates at the AP.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Twitter and Facebook executives will appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee today to testify in relation to foreign efforts to influence elections. Patricia Zengerle and David Shepardson report at Reuters.

Google will not attend the hearing but has submitted a written statement saying that the company is “committed to working with Congress” on the issue of foreign interference. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The weakening of the Islamic State group “has provided al-Qaeda with an opportunity to attempt to regain its former status,” the N.A.T.O. assistant secretary general for intelligence and security, Arndt von Loringhoven, warned yesterday. Reuters reports.

Vice President Mike Pence yesterday called on Myanmar to release two Reuters journalists “immediately” following their conviction and sentencing to seven years in jail, adding that they should be “commended – not imprisoned – for their work exposing human rights violations & mass killings.” Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

The U.S. is set to expand its drone operations against extremists in Africa at the same time as it pursues plans to withdraw U.S. troops from bases in the continent. Lara Seligman reports at Foreign Policy.

Israel’s Supreme Court today cleared the way for the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in the occupied West Bank to be demolished. The prospect of its destruction has drawn international condemnation, Aron Heller reports at the AP. 

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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).