The Early Edition: September 11, 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.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE and the I.C.C.

The U.S. is set to close the Washington headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.), according to the U.S. State Department. The Department made the announcement in a statement, claiming that P.L.O. leaders had failed to engage with U.S. efforts to bring about peace with U.S. ally Israel, and had sought to kick-start an International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) investigation into Israel. The BBC reports.

“We have permitted the P.L.O. office to conduct operations that support the objective of achieving a lasting … comprehensive peace between Israelis and the Palestinians,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said, going on to claim that “the P.L.O. has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.” Merrit Kennedy reports at NPR.

The P.L.O. claimed that it was being blackmailed by a dangerously biased White House, describing the move as a “dangerous escalation” of tensions in the region. P.L.O. Secretary General Saeh Erekat added: “this is yet another affirmation of the Trump administration’s policy to collectively punish the Palestinian people, including by cutting financial support for humanitarian services including health and education,” AFP reports.

“We reiterate that the rights of the Palestinian people are not for sale, that we will not succumb to U.S. threats and bullying,” Erekat said in a statement, adding that “accordingly, we continue to call upon the International Criminal Court to open its immediate investigation into Israeli crimes.” Reuters reports.

The move represents the latest in a series of decisions by the Trump administration that represent a shift away from the 1993-95 Oslo accords. The Oslo agreements set the terms for relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and provide for the establishment of an interim government for the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank as a step towards an independent Palestinian state, Michael R. Gordon and Felicia Schwartz report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration recently announced it was cutting more than $200m in economic aid to the Palestinians, and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – moving its embassy from Tel Aviv. Senior White House adviser and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has also questioned Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ commitment to peace; analysts, however, have warned that the U.S.’ most recent decision increases the potential for violence and unrest in the region, Al Jazeera reports.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton yesterday issued a threat to the I.C.C., claiming that the court will face sanctions should it carry out investigations into the U.S. and Israel. “The U.S. will always stand with our friend and ally, Israel,” Bolton said in speech to the Federalist Society in Washington, D.C., Al Jazeera reports.

“The U.S. will use any means necessary to protect our citizens and those of our allies from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court,” Bolton told the audience at the Mayflower Hotel, adding that “we will let the I.C.C. die on its own … for all its intents and purposes, [it] is already dead to us.” Human rights advocates have commented that Bolton’s remarks may represent an attempt by the U.S. to intimidate the I.C.C. into dropping its inquiries into the crimes allegedly carried out by U.S. servicemen,” Erin Banco reports at The Daily Beast.

Bolton stated that the U.S. is prepared to level financial sanctions and criminal charges on officials of the court if they proceed against the U.S., telling his audience “we will ban its judges and prosecutors from entering the United States … we will sanction their funds in the U.S. financial system, and we will prosecute them in the U.S. criminal system.” Bolton added that “we will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans,” AFP reports.

Bolton condemned the court’s history of securing only eight convictions despite its spend of $1.5bn on investigations, claiming that “this dismal record is hardly a deterrent to dictators and despots … the hard men of history are not deterred by fantasies of international law . . . history has proven that the only deterrent to evil and atrocity is what Franklin Roosevelt once called ‘the righteous might’ of the U.S. and its allies.” Demetri Sevastopulo and Michael Peel report at the Financial Times.

Major European powers yesterday issued a rare joint statement warning Israel against its scheduled demolition of Bedouin encampment Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank. France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K. cautioned that “the consequences a demolition and displacement would have on the residents … as well as on the prospects of the two-state solution would be very serious,” adding that the strategic location of the settlement is important to maintain “contiguity of a future Palestinian state,” the AP reports.

Israel’s top court rejected petitions against the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar on Wednesday, ruling that a temporary injunction preventing the destruction would lapse in a week. Reuters reports.

“If the Palestinians want to be treated with the respect of a peace partner, they have to first show a desire for peace,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments, arguing that the decision to close the Washington P.L.O. mission is long overdue.

Trump’s administration’s hostility to the I.C.C. is not a mere defense of U.S. sovereignty, but rather “the unacceptable face of American exceptionalism,” Simon Tisdall comments at the Guardian.

An explainer on “five things to know about the International Criminal Court” is provided by Morgan Chalfant and Rebecca Kheel at the Hill.

SYRIA

The U.S. is working with the U.K. and France on strategies for a coordinated military strike in Syria if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons in its expected offensive in the rebel-held north-western province of Idlib. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton warned yesterday that a new attack by the Western allies would be much more powerful than the two airstrikes launched by the U.S. in April 2017 and April 2018 following reports that Assad had carried out chemical weapon attacks, Dion Nissenbaum reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“There needs to be ways of dealing with this problem that do not turn the next few months in Idlib into the worst humanitarian catastrophe … with the biggest loss of life of the 21st century,” U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock told reporters in Geneva yesterday. The Syrian administration – backed by Russia and Iran – has been massing troops for weeks in preparation for the attack, with Government forces dropping leaflets in the province calling on rebels to lay down their weapons and reconcile with the state or face a crushing offensive, the AP reports.

More than 30,000 people have so far fled their homes in the region since the administration and allied forces resumed air and ground bombardments last week, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (O.C.H.A.) announced yesterday. Reuters reports.

The German government announced yesterday it is in talks with its allies about a possible military deployment in Syria, provoking a sharp rebuke from the Social Democrats (S.P.D.) and escalating tensions in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition. Reuters reports.

Social media organization YouTube has suspended the accounts of at least three media outlets controlled by the Syrian government, with the accounts of Syria’s public international news organization S.A.N.A., the Ministry of Defense and the Syrian Presidency targeted weeks after a report found that the channels were violating U.S. sanctions and generating revenue from advertisements, Al Jazeera reports.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has made use of Congress’ administrative procedures to delay the confirmation of David Schenker as the next Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, apparently as an act of protest against the Trump administration’s failure to provide a secret memo it drafted that contains the legal justification for launching strikes against Syria in April 2017. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo committed to releasing the memo to Kaine last spring, but has yet to do so, Robbie Gramer and Lara Seligman write at Foreign Policy.*

Assad’s offensive in Idlib may not commence as soon as expected, with Syrian government troops vastly outnumbered – and allied Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah militant group forces seemingly disinterested in the assault. Roy Gutman explains at The Daily Beast.

“We cannot leave the Syrian people to the mercy of Bashar Assad,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan writes at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that “the purpose of a regime offensive against Idlib would be indiscriminate attacks to wipe out its opposition—not a genuine or effective campaign against terrorism.” Erdoğan appeals to the U.S. “to reject its arbitrary hierarchy of death,” also commenting that “Russia and Iran … are likewise responsible for stopping this humanitarian disaster.”

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 16 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Sep. 3 and Sep. 9 [Central Command]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The White House announced yesterday that it is working to arrange a second meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in an apparent attempt to rekindle the diplomatic efforts between Washington and Pyongyang that have stalled since the two leaders met in Singapore in June. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that Kim had sent a letter requesting to meet with Trump, describing the letter as “very warm” and “very positive.” Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“The primary purpose of the letter was to request and look to schedule another meeting with the president … which we are open to and are already in the process of coordinating,” Sanders said, rejecting suggestions that the U.S. and North Korea had made no progress towards the goals outlined at the first summit in Singapore. Sanders cited the lack of nuclear armaments at last weekend’s military parade in Pyongyang as an example of North Korea’s sincerity in the negotiations, Demetri Sevastopulo and Bryan Harris report at the Financial Times.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is scheduled to have his third summit with Kim next week in Pyongyang and is expected to present a proposal to Kim suggesting phased steps toward denuclearization and U.S. security guarantees – which Moon could then discuss with Trump during the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York later this month. Moon’s administration has pushed for a three-way meeting involving Trump, with the objective of agreeing a joint declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War, Reuters reports.

“The possibility of another meeting between the two presidents obviously exists … but President Trump can’t make the North Koreans walk through the door he’s holding open,” U.S. national security adviser John Bolton commented yesterday in his speech to the Federalist Society in Washington, D.C. Although Bolton used the speech to detail the president’s “America First” foreign policy, he appeared to diverge from Trump’s optimism about Pyongyang’s commitment to denucliarization, commenting that “they’re the ones that have to take the steps to denuclearize, and that’s what we’re waiting for,” Mark Landler reports at the New York Times.

North Korea’s 70th anniversary celebrations came to a close last night, with tens of thousands of students rallying in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square, though Kim did not attend. Eric Talmadge reports at the AP.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

A lawyer for Attorney General Jeff Sessions yesterday defended Sessions’ congressional testimony regarding a Trump campaign meeting in March 2016 at which Trump aide George Papadopoulos proposed that Trump meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Papadopoulos recently made comments in an interview and in court filings alleging that Sessions had responded enthusiastically to the idea; Sessions’ attorney Chuck Cooper released a statement yesterday claiming that his client “has publicly testified under oath about his recollection of this meeting … and he stands by his testimony,” Katie Benner reports at the New York Times.

Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia yesterday criticized both prosecutors and defense lawyers in the criminal case against detained Russian agent Mariia Butina, issuing a gagging order and claiming that Butina’s defense lawyers were risking their client’s chances of a fair trial by “trying this case in the media.” Sharon LaFraniere reports at the New York Times.

Judge Chutkan firmly rejected Butina’s bid to be released from jail pending trial, describing her as a “very real” flight risk, Reuters reports.

Former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman yesterday released a new secret recording in which President Trump can be heard discussing former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the Russia investigation. Manigault Newman said that the recording was made in October 2017 during a meeting about tax reform – a meeting that Trump crashed to discuss the dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele alleging collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, Dartunorro Clark reports at NBC.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders yesterday called for the Department of Justice (D.O.J). to investigate the identity of the author of last week’s anonymous New York Times Op-Ed critical of President Trump, echoing the Trump’s own demand for such a probe. “If that individual is in meetings where national security is discussed or other important topics, and they are attempting to undermine the executive branch, that would certainly be problematic and something that the Department of Justice should look into,” Sanders told reporters at a briefing, Rebecca Ballhaus and Peter Nicholas report at the Wall Street Journal.

Sanders said that the White House is not considering lie detector tests to identify the author, claiming that “frankly, the White House and the staff here are focused on doing our jobs.” The statement contrasts with Vice President Mike Pence’s offer Sunday to submit to a polygraph as part of an attempt to identify the writer, Hugh T. Ferguson reports at POLITICO.

“The Woodward book [“Fear”] is a Joke — just another assault against me, in a barrage of assaults … using now disproven unnamed and anonymous sources,” Trump claimed in a message on Twitter yesterday morning, claiming that that many of those interviewed by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward “have already come forward to say the quotes by them, like the book, are fiction.” “Dems can’t stand losing. I’ll write the real book!” Trump added, Emily Goldberg reports at POLITICO.

AFGHANISTAN

Taliban fighters killed nearly 60 members of Afghanistan’s security forces in a spate of assaults across the north of the country yesterday. The heavy overnight fighting across four provinces follows a wave of violence across the country that has left hundreds of civilians, police and soldiers dead in recent weeks, AFP reports.

The increasingly fragile situation in Afghanistan’s north presents a major challenge to new commander of U.S. and coalition forces in the country – Gen. Scott Miller – who took up his post earlier this month. Reuters reports.

YEMEN

Spain has said that it is holding talks with Saudi Arabia regarding a shipment of 400 laser-guided precision bombs which Spanish defense authorities fear could end up used against civilians in Yemen. Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles told senators at a hearing yesterday that the decision is not final and that she expects that talks between the two trade partners will resolve the dispute, the AP reports.

Dozens of Yemeni detainees held by U.A.E. forces have commenced a hunger strike to protest their continued detention despite a prosecutor’s decision to release some amongst them. The detainees include those tortured at the hands of Emirati forces – the U.A.E. serving as key member of the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels in the country, the AP reports.

IRAN

Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security council Ali Shamkhani has said Tehran will respond to any hostile action against the country and that the era of “hit and run” is over, Tasnim news agency reported yesterday. Relations between the U.S. and Iran have soured since President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal in May and the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on Tehran, Reuters reports.

A federal judge in Washington, D.C. yesterday ordered that Iran pay $104.7 million to victims of the June 1996 truck bombing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. military personnel, although it is unclear how and when the the plaintiffs might receive payment. Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russia has launched its most significant military exercise since the Cold War. “Vostok-2018” in eastern Siberia will involve around 300,000 service personnel, with China sending 3,200 troops, armoured vehicles and aircraft to take part. The BBC reports.

The U.N.’s newly appointed High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet yesterday delivered her first speech since taking up the role, focusing on the Human Rights Council, Myanmar, Syria and the Global Compact on Migration. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The C.I.A. is allegedly growing its armed drone programme in Africa and will start using a military base in the Nigerien desert to carry out raids on areas where Islamic State group and al-Quaeda militants are thought to operate. Al Jazeera reports.

In the seventeen years following the 9/11 attacks – al-Quaeda “have definitively won the battle for the American mind,” Stephen Marche argues at Foreign Policy.

*Correction: The Early Edition has been corrected to show that Sen. Kaine is not protesting President Trump’s decision to launch airstrikes in Syria in 2017. Instead, he’s asking the Trump Administration to release its memo that contains the legal justification for them.  

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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).