The Early Edition: September 10, 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

Forces loyal to the Syrian government and Russian allies have intensified their attack on the northwest of the country, with air raids Saturday killing at least six civilians according to local activists. The attacks came a day after a summit of the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia failed to agree on a ceasefire that would forestall the offensive offensive. Al Jazeera reports.

At least 12 strikes hit a string of villages and towns in the south of Idlib province, as well as the towns of Latamneh and Kafr Zeita in the neighbouring province of Hama, with government helicopters reportedly dropping barrel bombs on the settlements. Reuters reports.

The bombardment continued yesterday, with five killed and Turkey sending more troops into the region to reinforce 12 observation points. Al Jazeera reports.

Yesterday’s casualties included an infant girl, according to the Syrian Civil Defense search-and-rescue group and U.K.-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the AP reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected Turkey’s calls for a truce in Idlib at Friday’s meeting in Tehran, with Putin claiming that Russia would continue its fight against “terrorists” fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani argued that “fighting terrorism in Idlib was an unavoidable part of the mission to restore peace and stability to Syria,” the BBC reports.

Either we are trying to find a political way to end this war and move to a postwar political scenario … or we will see this war reach new levels of horrors,” U.N. special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura told the Security Council, arguing that the military offensive is incompatible with diplomatic efforts. Ben Hubbard and Michael Schwirtz report at the New York Times.

U.S. officials have claimed that Assad has approved the use of chlorine gas in the offensive against Idlib, raising the possibility of another retaliatory U.S. military strike as thousands attempt to escape the region. President Trump has reportedly threatened to conduct a significant attack against Assad should his troops perpetrate a massacre in Idlib using chemical weapons, Dion Nissenbaum reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said that no decision had been taken by the U.S. to employ military force in response to a future chemical attack, but also told military reporters that “we are in a dialogue, a routine dialogue, with the president to make sure he knows where we are with regard to planning in the event that chemical weapons are used.” Dunford added that Trump “expects us to have military options and we have provided updates to him on the development of those military options,” Reuters reports.

Russia claimed yesterday that two U.S. F-15 fighter jets dropped phosphorus bombs over Syria’s Deir al-Zor province on Saturday, with the allegations carried by the T.A.S.S. and R.I.A. news agencies and subsequently denied by the U.S.. Reuters reports.

Both the U.S. and Turkey share a strategic interest in preventing Russia and Iran from expanding their influence in Syria, Dennis Ross comments at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that the U.S. must strike a hard bargain with Putin – who “gives nothing away without a price” – if it wants to protect its interests in the region.

“While the Russians run riot across a region that Washington once dominated … the U.S. is reduced to observer status,” Simon Tisdall comments at the Guardian.

An explainer for “everything you need to know about the looming battle for Idlib” is provided by Mariya Petkova and Farah Najjar at Al Jazeera.

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

President Trump drafted a tweet claiming “we are going to pull our dependents from South Korea – family members of the 28,000 people there,” according to Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward in his new book “Fear.” The draft tweet sparked concern amongst the Pentagon leadership and was never sent due to a back-channel message from the North Koreans indicating that they would view it as a sign the U.S. was preparing to attack, AFP reports.

“I know that a letter is being delivered to me … a personal letter from [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un … that was handed at the border,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One Friday, adding that “I think it’s going to be a positive letter.” Trump aimed to cast relations between Washington and Pyongynag in a positive light, despite the stalemate in talks surrounding denuclearization, Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

Top Chinese official Li Zanshu has stated that China remains committed to the goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and hopes to see the implementation of the deal struck between Trump and Kim at their June summit in Singapore, Chinese state media reported today. Li was in North Korea yesterday – in lieu of Chinese President Xi Jinping – to attend North Korea’s 70th anniversary parade, AFP reports.

The military parade marking the anniversary took place with no I.C.B.M. [inter-continental ballistic missiles] on display, focusing rather on conventional arms, peace and economic development. President Trump thanked Pyongyang for the reduced display, sending a message on Twitter quoting Fox News’ description of the parade as indicating a “commitment to denuclearize.” Reuters reports.

“We will both prove everyone wrong! There is nothing like good dialogue from two people that like each other! Much better than before I took office,” Trump added. The AP reports.

A steady stream of evidence suggests that Pyongynag is continuing to produce nuclear weapons, and despite Trump’s praise for Kim, the U.S. administration is starting to adopt a more aggressive stance toward the North, Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee explain at NBC.

A selection of photographs documenting yesterday’s parade is provided at NBC.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Vice President Mike Pence has condemned the writer of the anonymous New York Times Op-Ed last week that slammed President Trump and described the attempts of administration officials to rein him in. Pence claimed that the article displayed “an ignorance about President Trump and about our administration,” adding that “whoever wrote that editorial, and the narrative that comes out of some other writings recently, just doesn’t know what really happens in this White House,” Ted Mann and Kate Davidson report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump intensified his attack on the anonymous article Friday, declaring that he wanted Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate the article’s source. Trump told reporters on board Air Force One that “I would say Jeff should be investigating who the author of that piece was because I really believe it’s national security,” adding that he is also considering taking action against the Times. Mark Landler and Katie Benner report at the New York Times.

Prosecutors have indicated that it would be inappropriate for the Department of Justice (D.O.J) to conduct an investigation where it seems unlikely any laws were broken, and The Times has issued a statement saying it was confident the the D.O.J. “would not participate in such a blatant abuse of government power,” Reuters reports.

I think the motivation was to sow discord and create chaos,” senior adviser to the president Kellyanne Conway told CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday, adding that although she did not know if author had broken the law, any writer responsible for such a piece may well have divulged classified information. Eli Watkins reports at CNN.

“What you saw the other day was as serious as it can get … this is a direct attack on the institutions,” former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told journalists during a flying visit to Italy, adding “this is a coup, okay,” and warning liberal progressives not to take any pleasure from the developments, Reuters reports.

Woodward commented yesterday that he would not have chosen to publish the anonymous Op-Ed, telling “CBS Sunday Morning” that he did not know the identity of the author but that the article was too “too vague and does not meet the standards of trying to describe specific incidents … specific incidents are the building blocks of journalism, as you well know,” The Daily Beast reports.

Lawmakers and national security experts are querying whether Defense Secretary Jim Mattis can maintain his strong relationship with the president, following the revelations in Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s book regarding Mattis’ irritation at the President, and reports that the White House has been hunting for Mattis’ potential successor. Elen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Efforts to invoke the 25th Amendment in an attempt to remove Trump from office are inappropriate and could have unintended adverse consequences, David Greenberg and Rebecca Lubot comment at POLITICO Magazine.

An explainer on “How the Anonymous Op-Ed Came to Be,” responding to reader questions on the piece, is provided at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Former Trump adviser George Papadopoulos has been sentenced to 14 days in jail, having pleaded guilty last October to lying to the F.B.I. about the timing of meetings with alleged go-betweens working for Moscow. U.S. authorities were originally alerted to the possibility of Russian electoral interference in mid-2016, after Papadopoulos made comments to Australian diplomat in a London pub about his meetings with Maltese academic Professor Joseph Mifsud, the BBC reports.

D.N.C. lawyers wrote in court filings Friday that Mifsud “is missing and may be deceased,” with no elaboration on the subject. Bloomberg reports.

Papadopolous claimed that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was “enthusiastic” about the possibility of arranging a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 2016 election. Making the comments in an interview with CNN Friday, Papadopolous told host Jake Tapper that Sessions reacted positively to his suggestion of a meeting between the two leaders, adding that Trump “gave me a sort of a nod” but “wasn’t committed either way” to the idea, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Federal prosecutors have admitted that they were wrong to accuse detained Russian agent Mariia Butina of offering to trade sex for insider information. Prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office acknowledged the mistake in a court filing late Friday, claiming that they had misinterpreted text messages between Butiina and a friend who helped her renew her car insurance, but arguing that Butina should nonetheless remain detained in custody as she presents a flight risk, Sharon LaFraniere reports at the New York Times.

YEMEN

An attempt to hold peace talks for Yemen was abandoned Saturday after three days of waiting for delegates from the Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebel movement to attend, but the U.N. envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths vowed to push ahead with diplomatic efforts nonetheless. “They would have liked to get here, we didn’t make conditions sufficiently correct to get them here,” Griffiths commented without elaboration, Reuters reports.

Dozens of people have been killed in clashes and air raids around the strategic Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, following the collapse of the peace talks. “Multiple sources have reported that dozens, if not scores, of people have been killed in the past 24 hours after Saudi-UAE-led coalition attacks,” commented one reporter, noting that the situation is “definitely escalating in a fairly big way,” Al Jazeera reports.

IRAN

Iran has completed a facility with the capacity to build advanced centrifuges, Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said yesterday, as Tehran prepares to increase its uranium-enrichment capabilities in preparation for the possible collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal following the U.S.’ withdrawal in May. Reuters reports.

“I think it’s a very dangerous and ill-advised move that is not based on any broad strategy,” Former Secretary of State John Kerry said of Trump’s decision to withdraw, making the comments yesterday on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” David Cohen reports at POLITICO.

An analysis of Israel’s strategy against Iran, played out on the Syrian frontier, is provided by Jonathan Spyer at Foreign Policy.

AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. is set to adopt an aggressive stance against the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) today, threatening sanctions against its judges if they proceed with an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by U.S. personnel in Afghanistan. “The U.S. will use any means necessary to protect our citizens and those of our allies from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court,” national security adviser John Bolton is proposing to say according to a draft speech seen by reporters, Reuters reports.

The Taliban has attacked Afghani police forces and a pro-government militia in the north of the country, bringing the death toll from overnight fighting into today to 35. The AP reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.K. Home Secretary has said that the U.K. will detain two men accused of carrying out attacks using the nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury if they set foot outside Russia. The AP reports.

Trump administration officials repeatedly met with rebel Venezuelan military officers over the past 12 months to discuss plans for a possible coup aimed at replacing President Nicolás Maduro, according to the findings of a new report. Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

Armed men have stormed the headquarters of Libya’s National Oil Corporation (N.O.C.) in Tripoli, with at least two of the oil firm’s staff and two of the gunmen killed in today’s attack and the gunmen taking several hostages. Al Jazeera reports. 

About the Author(s)

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).