The Early Edition: September 7, 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

The shelling of the northern rebel-held province of Idlib and the possibility of a large-scale assault by the Syrian government has forced hundreds of civilians to flee to the fringes of the territory, with the head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying that “around 180 families, or some 1,000 people” have escaped since Wednesday night. The AFP reports.

Residents of Idlib are awaiting an assault and have few opportunities to escape, with Turkey having closed the border and those considering fleeing to government-controlled areas facing the possibility of retribution. Ben Wedeman and Waffa Munnayer report at CNN.

“Idlib will soon be restored to the nation,” the Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khalmis said yesterday, adding that “Syria has prevailed and will win in any coming war.” Reuters reports.

There is “lots of evidence” that the Syrian government is preparing to use chemical weapons in Idlib, James Jeffrey – who was named last month as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “representative for Syria engagement” – said yesterday, adding that “the last chapter of the Idlib story has not been written. The Turks are trying to find a way out” through diplomatic talks with Russia and Iran. Reuters reports.

Jeffrey’s warning comes as the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey prepare for a summit meeting in Tehran today to discuss the situation in Idlib. Russia and Iran are key backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey supports some of the rebel factions, the BBC reports.

Russia, Iran and Turkey will seek to agree a last-minute deal to avert a bloodbath in Idlib at today’s summit in Tehran, but each country has their own interests in the Syrian conflict. Jon Gambrell and Nasser Karimi report at the AP.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has appealed to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to prevent a military confrontation in Idlib, Al Jazeera reports.

A joint statement by eight European countries yesterday urged Syria, Russia and Iran to uphold the ceasefire in Idlib and avert an assault that would have “potentially catastrophic humanitarian consequences for civilians.” The AP reports.

The U.S. yesterday announced new sanctions on Assad’s allies amid concerns over an “imminent attack [on Idlib] from the Assad regime, backed by Iran and Russia,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. Brandon Conradis and Emily Birnbaum report at the Hill.

SYRIA: OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump has agreed to a new policy in Syria that would commit the U.S. forces to remaining in the country to ensure the withdrawal of Iranian forces and the “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State group, senior State Department official James Jeffrey said yesterday, declining to describe any new military mission but emphasizing that there would be a “major diplomatic initiative.” Karen DeYoung reports at the Washington Post.

Russia has warned U.S. forces twice in the last week that its forces and Syrian government units are prepared to attack the area close to the U.S.’ Tanf military base in the south of the country, according to several U.S. defense officials, who expressed concern that imprecise strikes could draw U.S. forces into a confrontation. Barbara Starr reports at CNN.

The political wing of the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) has begun forming a unified administration for territories it has captured during the civil war, signaling that the S.D.F. are looking at their potential future role in Syria. Reuters reports.

The U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs – Izumi Nakamitsu – yesterday provided an update on the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma near the Syrian capital earlier this year. The U.N. News Centre reports.

A feature on Israel’s secret program to support at least 12 rebel groups in southern Syria to counter Iranian proxy forces and the Islamic State group is provided by Elizabeth Tsurkov at Foreign Policy.

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 KOREAN PENINSULA

“Kim Jong-un of North Korea proclaims ‘unwavering faith in President Trump … ’ thank you to Chairman Kim … we will get it done together,” President Trump wrote in a message on Twitter yesterday, in an apparent response to Kim’s praise for the president, relayed through a South Korean delegation that met with Kim in Pyongyang on Wednesday. Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

Kim had reportedly told the South Korean delegation that his faith in Trump was “unchanged” and that he wants denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the end to hostile relations with the U.S. before Trump’s first term ends in early 2021. Reuters reports.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres also welcomed Kim’s stated commitment to denuclearization, with his spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric releasing a statement yesterday saying that “the Secretary-General commends the continued momentum and efforts by both Koreas to further trust-building and reconciliation, in line with the Panmunjom Declaration.” The statement added that Guterres “looks forward to further progress at the inter-Korean summit later this month towards sustainable peace, security, and complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, in accordance with relevant Security Council resolutions,” the U.N. News Centre reports.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said today that he is pushing for “irrevocable progress” in attempts to denuclearize the North, as he prepares for his third summit with Kim. Moon described the envoy to the North earlier this week as having achieved “much more than what was expected,” Hyung-Jin Kim reports at the AP.

New U.S. envoy to North Korea Stephen Biegun will travel to Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing Sept. 10-15, the State Department announced yesterday, although no travel plans to North Korea were announced. The Department said that during the visit, Biegun is set to meet with counterparts and “continue diplomatic efforts to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” under the accord struck between Trump and Kim in June, Courtney McBride reports at the Wall Street Journal.

North Korea conducted a 12-month effort to hack into U.S. companies and steal from international financial institutions, the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) charged yesterday in a 174-page criminal complaint detailing the damage caused to the global economy by hackers. Park Jin-hyok was the only North Korean individual identified by name, charged with computer and wire fraud in the 2014 hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment, David E. Sanger and Katie Benner report at the New York Times.

“Working for a foreign government does not immunize criminal conduct,” commented Assistant Attorney-General John Demers of the findings. Kadhim Shubber and Demetri Sevastopulo report at the Financial Times.

The revelations in Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward’s upcoming book “Fear” have unsettled officials in South Korea. Accounts that that Trump had to be tricked out of terminating a U.S.-South Korean trade deal; that he threatened to move a U.S. missile defense system from South Korea to Oregon; and that he ordered a plan for a pre-emptive attack on North Korea have taken some in Seoul by surprise, although others are unmoved by the disclosures, Kim Tong-Hyung and Hyung-Jin Kim report at the AP.

North Korea is set to hold a massive military parade Sunday to mark the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding, coinciding with a large-scale choreographed performance known as the Mass Games – held for the first time in five years. It is unclear whether large intercontinental ballistic missiles will feature in the parade, with their inclusion a possible point of contention with the U.S., Benjamin Haas reports at the Guardian.

The parade will give Kim a chance to flaunt North Korea’s military prowess, and provide “ample proof that North Korea has built out substantially its nuclear deterrent force, which it declared complete last November,” Ankit Panda comments at The Daily Beast.

An explainer of the Mass Games celebrations is provided at Reuters.

NOVICHOK POISONINGS

The Kremlin yesterday said Britain’s accusation that Russia was behind the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, was “unacceptable,” and denied that there was any involvement by Moscow in the use of the Novichok nerve agent. Reuters reports.

A joint statement by France, Canada, U.S. and Germany yesterday expressed full confidence in Britain’s assessment that two Russian agents carried out the Novichok attack, adding that the Britain’s announcement that Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov were suspects “further strengthens our intent to continue to disrupt the hostile activities of foreign intelligence networks in our territories, uphold the prohibition of chemical weapons, protect our citizens and defend ourselves from all forms of malign state activity….” Heather Stewart reports at the Guardian.

The countries called on Russia to “provide full disclosure” of the Novichok program to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.), Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Russia wants to “find out” who the two suspects are, the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said today, calling on Britain to share their intelligence. The AP reports.

The threat from Russia to the international community is “real” and “active,” the head of Britain’s G.C.H.Q. intelligence and security organization warned yesterday, saying that the threat “will be countered by a strong international partnership of allies.” The BBC reports.

Representatives of Britain and Russia traded barbs at the U.N. Security Council yesterday over the Skripal affair, with Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vassily Nebenzia saying Britain’s accusation were “unfounded.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Top Trump administration officials raced yesterday to deny authorship of Wednesday’s anonymous New York Times Op-Ed slamming the president, with some senior White House aides privately conceding that they are unlikely to identify the author of the piece. Trump was reportedly keeping a close watch on the developments, as denials poured in from senior officials and confidants, Michael C. Bender and Vivian Salama report at the Wall Street Journal.

Vice President Mike Pence was the first senior official to deny authorship, with Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo swiftly following suit. Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman and Eileen Sullivan report at the New York Times.

Democrats appeared to react gleefully to the chaos. “It probably won’t take long for us to find out who wrote it,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) commented, adding: “the Vice President— that was my first thought. Then Coats, Pompeo, they denied that they had written it …  I guess by process of elimination, it’ll come down to the butler.” John Wagner and Felicia Sonmez report at the Washington Post.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said yesterday that Trump should employ lie-detector tests to establish the author’s identity, commenting that “it’s not unprecedented for people with security clearances to be asked whether or not they’re revealing things against the law under oath and also by lie detector.” Alexander Bolton reports at the Hill.

Trump yesterday derided the unnamed author as an “anonymous, gutless coward” at a rally in Montana, and repeated his calls for The New York Times to reveal their identity. The details of the author are known to The Times’s editorial board, but have not been shared with those reporters who cover the president, Emily Cochrane and Mark Landler report at the New York Times.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A recap of an explosive week at the White House, with myriad developments raising “the specter of a shadow administration,” is provided by Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Greg Jaffe at the Washington Post.

“What this person did is badly hurt the effort to rein in Trump … and it will make him crazy,” commented one Republican close to the White House. An analysis of the reaction to the anonymous Op-Ed from within the G.O.P. is provided by Burgess Everett and Eliana Johnson at POLITICO.

A selection of journalistic reactions to the anonymous Op-Ed from across the political spectrum is provided by Liam Stack at the New York Times

“When does one transition from ‘administration official’ to ‘senior administration official?’” Matt Flegenheimer explores the question at the New York Times.

The anonymous author of the Op-Ed suggested that there were “early whispers” among Trump’s advisers about trying to the president by invoking Section 4 of the 25th Amendment. An explainer of the legal provision is provided by Michael D. Shear at the New York Times

“The manipulation of the president in a good cause works,” Michael Gerson argues at the Washington Post.

“It is time for the author and the ‘many others’ to come out of the shadows and tell the American people—on the record—what has really happened within the Trump administration,” former federal prosecutor and Just Security editor Renato Mariotti comments at POLITICO, adding that “it is also time for Congress to investigate the author’s claims and Trump’s corrupt statements and actions.”

Trump has a blind spot when it comes to the Constitution, the New York Times editorial board comments, highlighting “Trump’s […] failure to understand the nature of the office he holds, the government he leads and the democracy he has sworn to serve.”

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump will not consider his response to special counsel Robert Mueller’s obstruction-related questions until Mueller has completed the Russian collusion aspect of the probe, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said yesterday. Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Julie Bykowicz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“I think we’re pretty close to an agreement, maybe this weekend,” Giuliani said the prospects of a deal on written responses to questions on alleged collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

“That’s a no-go … that is not going to happen … there will be no questions at all on obstruction,” Giuliani told the AP. However, when later asked about obstruction-related questions by NBC News, Giuliani answered that those questions are “not ruled in or out,” Hallie Jackson reports at NBC.

Giuliani implied that Mueller’s team has hardened its stance toward the president, telling reporters: “they want a commitment” to a follow-up interview … we’ve said no, and let’s see how they deal with it.” Reuters reports.

Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and nine other Republicans yesterday issued a direct plea to President Trump to declassify and release the public surveillance renewal applications used to surveil former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. The conservative lawmakers also demanded that officials declassify a dozen FD-302s — the forms employed by the F.B.I. to record investigative activities — relating to interviews of Department of Justice official Bruce Ohr about his ties with former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

KAVANAUGH CONFIRMATION

President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh faced a third day of confirmation hearings yesterday and was challenged on a range of issues. The members of the Senate Judiciary Committee attacked each other on the release of documents related to Judge Kavanaugh, Rebecca Shabad, Frank Thorp V and Garrett Haake report at NBC News.

An analysis of Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings is provided by Stephen Collinson at CNN.

The sparring on the Committee during Kavanaugh’s confirmation process “shows us just how far the Senate has fallen,” the Washington Post editorial board writes.

RUSSIA

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are scheduled to meet next week, the AP reports.

A feature on Dimitri Simes who had early access to Trump’s 2016 pro-Russia speech is provided by Betsy Woodruff at The Daily Beast.

IRAN

European companies will find themselves “on the railroad tracks” and at risk of retaliation from the U.S. if they obey E.U. orders to defy Iran sanctions re-imposed by Washington, the State Department warned yesterday. President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal in May, Michael Peel reports at the Financial Times.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the U.S. and Israel of waging a media war to discourage Iranians, state TV reported. “Today, [Iran’s] Islamic system faces an all-out economic war that is carefully guided by a war room, but along with this war, there is a major media and propaganda warfare that is often neglected,” Khamenei told members of a senior clerical body, Reuters reports.

A forecast of Trump’s role presiding over the U.N. Security Council next week – in a session in where he intends to focus on Iran’s activity in the Middle East – is provided by Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman at the New York Times.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

President Trump told U.S. Jewish leaders yesterday that he cut U.S. financial aid to the Palestinians to pressure them back to negotiations on peace with Israel. Amir Tibon reports at Haaretz.

Paraguay called on Israel to reconsider its “exaggerated” response to Paraguay’s decision to move its embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem. Paraguay’s initial move followed the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem and Paraguay’s reversal has prompted Israel to close its embassy in Asuncion, the AP reports.

Vice President Mike Pence has put pressure on Paraguay to keep its embassy in Jerusalem, Pence’s office said yesterday. Reuters reports.

YEMEN

Yemen’s Houthi rebels did not show up at yesterday’s U.N.-mediated peace talks for a resolution to the Yemen civil war, with Yemen’s Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani saying the Houthis committed “a huge mistake by not engaging seriously in these peace talks.” Bushra Shakhshir and Marina Depetris report at Reuters.

A senior Houthi official said the rebel movement did not attend the talks because they were concerned that they might be denied return to Yemen. The AP reports.

Democrat lawmakers have started drawing up a privileged resolution that would force a vote on the U.S. forces involvement in the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign against the Houthis. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

AFGHANISTAN

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made a surprise trip to Afghanistan today, as the U.S. attempts to make progress after 17 years of war in the country. Mattis was set to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as well as the new Commander of Resolute Support and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, Comm Army Gen. Scott Miller. Jennifer Hansler reports at CNN.

Mattis met Ghani in his presidential palace, where “they discussed peace process, positive impact of the South Asia strategy […] upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, counter-terrorism and dialogue with Pakistan,” according to Ghani’s official spokesperson. Reuters reports.

Mattis’ visit comes a little more than a year after President Trump launched a revamped strategy for the country, committing thousands of additional U.S. forces to the nation on an open-ended basis. The trip will mark Mattis’ fourth visit to Afghanistan since becoming Defense Secretary in January 2017, AFP reports.

“[There is] still hard fighting but right now we have more indications that reconciliation is no longer just a shimmer out there … no longer just a mirage,” Mattis said ahead of his visit. The Trump administration is relying on tentative indications that the Taliban may be ready to end the conflict in return for a role in government, but recent months have seen a spate of violent attacks killing hundreds including six U.S. soldiers, Katrina Manson reports at the Financial Times.

China will train Afghan troops on Chinese land, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Beijing Janan Mosazai said Tuesday, describing the military cooperation as an attempt to battle al Qaeda and Islamic State militants who hope to attack China from its western neighbour. Afghanistan has also asked China to provide combat helicopters to bolster Afghanistan’s security forces, Reuters reports.

An account of the human suffering taking place in “a bad year in America’s longest war” is provided by Brent Swails at CNN.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) yesterday ruled that it has jurisdiction to investigate the deportation of the around 700,000 Rohingya Muslim minorities who were deported by Myanmar as a crime against humanity. Marlise Simons reports at the New York Times.

The U.S. and India yesterday signed a military and intelligence cooperation agreement following meetings between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and their Indian counterparts. Rajesh Roy and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

China yesterday accused Britain of sailing into its territorial waters in the South China Sea. The incident indicates that U.S. allies are joining forces to counter Beijing’s expansionism, Jeremy Page reports at the Wall Street Journal. 

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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).