The Early Edition: September 12, 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

The U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) have started to move against the final remaining pockets of militant Islamic State group fighters in the country. The S.D.F. has launched a third and final phase of its operation that started in May, with the latest phase aiming to clear Islamic State elements in and around Hajin, in the Deir Ezzour area of eastern Syria near the Iraqi border, Gordon Lubold reports at the Wall Street Journal.

One senior S.D.F. official estimates the battle will last two to three months. Rukmini Callimachi reports at the New York Times.

At least 21 pro-government soldiers have been killed in clashes with Islamic State group fighters in southern Syria, in a separate development that highlights the persistent threat posed by the group despite its shrinking influence. Philip Issa reports at the AP.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley warned Russia and Iran of “dire consequences” should the two powers continue to carry out airstrikes in northwestern Idlib, the last rebel-held area in Syria. During the second session on Idlib in four days, Haley told the Security Council that “the world has seen a clear military escalation” this month by Russia and the Syrian administration, whose forces have conducted more than 100 airstrikes, using “barrel bombs, rockets and artillery,” Zachary Cohen and Richard Roth report at CNN.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been warned against using chemical weapons in Idlib, but declined to say whether the U.S. would take military action if such weapons were used. “The first time around he lost 17 percent of his pointy nosed Air Force airplanes,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon, in a reference to the U.S. strike on a Syrian airfield in April 2017 following an Assad-directed chemical weapons attack, Elen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said yesterday that the situation in Idlib is unsustainable and stressed that the presence of terrorist groups sheltering in the region cannot be tolerated. However, he added that “fighting terrorism does not absolve warring parties of their core obligations under international law,” and called on parties to “spare no effort” in protecting civilians, the U.N. News Centre reports.

Iran shares the U.N.’s concerns about a potential humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib province, special assistant to Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi told reporters yesterday, commenting “we are also worried … we are going to work towards that not happening.” Reuters reports.

Turkey yesterday urged the international community “to vocally and actively support” Turkish calls for a cease-fire in Idlib, with Turkish Ambassador to the U.N. making the appeal after telling the U.N. Security Council that Assad’s regime is seeking to legitimize its military operation in Idlib on the grounds that it is fighting terrorism. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

It is up to Turkey to separate Islamist militants from the moderate opposition, Russian envoy Alexander Lavrentiev said yesterday, adding that while Moscow wants to see a peaceful settlement to the conflict, “Idlib province is … a sort of zone of responsibility of Turkey.” Reuters reports,

Three first-hand accounts describing the humanitarian situation in Idlib are provided by Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple at the New York Times.

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]

RUSSIA

The two men charged by the U.K. for carrying out a nerve agent attack in Salisbury have been identified by Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said today, claiming that Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov are civilians, not criminals. “We know who they are, we have found them,” Putin commented at an economic forum in the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok, adding Petrov and Boshirov may imminently make media appearances to protest their innocence, Andrew Roth reports at the Guardian.

Romania, Turkey and Poland have all expressed anxiety about Russia’s “increasing and visible offensive military posturing” in areas close to N.A.T.O. borders. The Foreign Ministers of the three N.A.T.O. members yesterday issued a statement calling out “the repeated violation of N.A.T.O. airspace, the continued military buildup in Crimea and Kaliningrad” and condemning Russia for “continued violation of obligations and commitments on arms control,” the AP reports.

Intelligence agencies investigating the mysterious suspected “attacks” that led to brain injuries in U.S. personnel in Cuba and China consider Russia to be the main suspect. The suspicion is supported by evidence from communications intercepts – known as signals intelligence – amassed during a substantial investigation involving the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and other U.S. agencies. Josh Lederman, Courtney Kube, Abigail Williams and Ken Dilanian report at NBC.

”We have seen sort of a firestorm of reports out there today assigning blame to the Russian government … according to some unnamed U.S. government officials,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert commented, adding: “I would caution you all to be very skeptical of those officials’ statements right now.” Chris Mills Rodrigo reports at the Hill.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday he would visit Macedonia before a Sept. 30 referendum on changing the nation’s name, and expressed his concern about suspected Russian interference in the plebiscite, a charge Moscow denies. Reuters reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested today that Russia and Japan sign a peace deal “without any preconditions” by the end of this year, the proposal coming as the two nations attempt to resolve a longstanding territorial dispute. The conflict relates to the four southernmost islands in the Kuril chain, occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II but claimed by Japan, AFP reports.

Putin told Chinese President Xi Jinping that Moscow and Beijing’s relations are based on trust in areas ranging from politics to security and defense, making the remarks at an economic forum in the Russian eastern city of Vladivostok. Reuters reports.

Putin has said that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un can visit Russia at any time convenient for him, making the comments days after the Kremlin claimed that it had sent Kim a letter of invitation. Reuters reports.

Russia and China’s recent military exercises should worry the U.S., the Economist comments, arguing that “the world’s democracies, led by America, should be mounting a collective defense of liberal values … instead Mr Trump is busy wrecking them.”

The I.C.C.

The International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) said yesterday that it would “continue to do its work undeterred,” a day after U.S. national security adviser John Bolton threatened punishing sanctions if the tribunal proceeded with an investigation of U.S. activities in Afghanistan. The court issued a statement claiming that it would continue with its work “in accordance with those principles and the overarching idea of the rule of law,” Reuters reports.

Afghan rights workers yesterday cautioned that an attack on the I.C.C.’s investigation into alleged war crimes by U.S. personnel would reinforce a climate of impunity in Afghanistan and serve to prolong the conflict. “It’s very unfortunate because delivering justice to victims will help to facilitate the peace process in Afghanistan,” Head of Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission Sima Samar commented, adding: “justice is not a luxury … it is a basic human right,” Kathy Gannon reports at the AP.

“France, with its European partners, supports the International Criminal Court … both in its budgetary contribution and in its cooperation with it,” French Foreign Ministry spokesperson Agnes von der Muhll said in a statement following Bolton’s speech. The statement added: “the court must be able to act and exercise its prerogatives without hindrance, independently and impartially, within the legal framework defined by the Rome Statute,” Reuters reports.

AFGHANISTAN

A bombing at a peaceful protest in eastern Afghanistan killed at least 68 and wounded 165 people yesterday, according to officials –the deadliest in a series of attacks across Nangarhar Province over the course of the day. The bombings, also targeting three schools, follow a pattern of recent attacks by the Islamic State group in the country, which has publicly vowed to target educational institutions, Zabihullah Ghazi and Fahim Abed report at the New York Times.

The bombing took place as scores of demonstrators blocked the highway between the provincial capital Jalalabad and a key border crossing with Pakistan. The provincial governor’s spokesperson Attaullah Khogyani issued a statement with a revised casualty total today after earlier estimates put the death toll at 32, Al Jazeera reports.

The Taliban are reportedly ready for a second round of talks with the U.S., likely to focus on prisoner exchanges; confidence building measures; and ways to progress from back-door meetings to formal negotiations, according to a number of Taliban officials in recent days. One of the officials said that a July meeting ended with a plan for the two sides to meet again in September, although the U.S. has refused to confirm or deny that meeting, Katy Ganon reports at the AP.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday that the Afghan government was increasing the vetting and training of local forces in order to minimize so-called “insider attacks,” making the comments after his recent surprise visit to the Afghan capital Kabul, Reuters reports.

IRAN

The White House claimed that it was Iranian-backed militias in Iraq who carried out “life-threatening attacks” against the U.S. consulate in the Iraqi city of Basra on Saturday and the U.S. Embassy in Iraqi capital Baghdad earlier in the week. “The U.S. will hold the regime in Tehran accountable for any attack that results in injury to our personnel or damage to U.S. government facilities,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement issued yesterday, adding that “America will respond swiftly and decisively in defense of American lives,” Michael R. Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Iran did not act to stop these attacks by its proxies in Iraq, which it has supported with funding, training, and weapons,” Sanders claimed. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Three mortar bombs landed inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone that houses the U.S. Embassy on Friday, but the explosives caused no casualties or damage according to the Iraqi military. The U.S. Consulate in Basra, located near the airport, was attacked by rockets on Saturday – although here again neither damage nor casualties were recorded, Reuters reports.

Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said yesterday that he hopes that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal will survive President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S., cautioning that Tehran stands ready to build advanced centrifuges and further enrich uranium. Jon Gambrell and Nasser Karimi report on the exclusive interview at the AP.

“I think [Trump] is on the loser’s side because he is pursuing the logic of power,” Salehi told the AP, adding that “he thinks that he can, you know, continue for some time but certainly I do not think he will benefit from this withdrawal, certainly not.” Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry warned yesterday that the Trump administration is pursuing “regime change” in Iran, citing this as the reason for Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May. John Bowden reports at the Hill.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki yesterday described President Trump’s decision to halt U.S. funding for the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency (U.N.R.W.A.) as an attack on international law. Trump’s decision has left U.N.R.W.A. attempting to cover a $200 million shortfall from Gulf and European donors, and has further heightened tensions between Washington and the Palestinian leadership, Reuters reports.

Dozens of Palestinian activists have gathered at the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar; the village’s scheduled demolition has been authorized by the Israeli Supreme Court despite international protestation against the move. Reuters reports.

More than half a million Israelis have become eligible for gun permits under new firearms rules, sparking fears amongst Palestinians living in the West Bank. Tessa Fox explains at Al Jazeera.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

The U.S. military is in negotiations to expand its operations in Greece, signaling a potential move toward the eastern Mediterranean amid escalating tensions with Turkey, according to officials. Nancy A. Youssef reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Washington yesterday expressed disappointment that Turkey will not be in attendance at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting – Europe’s largest human rights conference. Turkey took the decision to boycott the conference for a second year in a row because it was not allowed to prevent the participation of non-governmental organizations that it finds objectionable, the AP reports.

The alliance between Washington and Ankara must be preserved, Selim Sazak comments at Foreign Policy, arguing that the current rift is worse than might be expected, but that “creative thinking, collective energy, and shared commitment are needed to remind the United States and Turkey that there is more that unites them than divides them.”

The KOREAN PENINSULA

South Korean President Moon Jae-in yesterday called on the U.S. and North Korea to “make bold decisions” and continue their negotiations on the North’s denuclearization despite an apparent stalemate between the two sides. “North Korea must carry out its nuclear dismantling and the United States must take a corresponding step,” Moon said during a cabinet meeting, adding “under such a process, the two countries must pull back their deep-rooted mutual distrust caused by their 70 years of hostile relations,” Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said today that he wants to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but that there have been no discussions to arrange a summit. Reuters reports.

CHINA

The U.S. State Department has announced that it is deeply worried by China’s “worsening crackdown” on the minority Muslim Uighur group in China’s northwestern Xinjiang territory, and the Trump administration is reportedly considering sanctions against senior Chinese officials and companies linked to the allegations of human rights abuses. Lily Kuo reports at the Guardian.

China has called on new U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to respect its sovereignty after she highlighted the “deeply disturbing” allegations of regarding mass detentions of the Uighur in her first remarks since assuming the role. Al Jazeera reports.

The Trump administration – cowed by pressure from Beijing – could do much more to help Taiwan, the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Former director of the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) Mike Rogers yesterday split with other former intelligence officials who signed a letter condemning President Trump’s decision to revoke former C.I.A. Director John Brennan’s security clearance. In his first public appearance since stepping down from the role, Rogers criticized the decision of other former senior officials who spoke out against the president on Brennan’s behalf, Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration is reportedly preparing a new executive order that will allow sanctions of foreign citizens suspected of interference in U.S. elections. Although the new order is aimed broadly at any potential outside meddling, it is meant to give the government an additional tool to punish and deter Russian entities suspected of attempts to spread disinformation or other efforts at electoral influence, Julian E. Barnes and Katie Benner report at the New York Times.

“[Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro needs to go … but an American-backed coup is not the answer” the New York Times editorial board argues.

The U.S. is “safer” than before but the threats facing the country have evolved, F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray claimed in an interview marking 17 years since the 9/11 attacks, adding that “today’s terrorism threat is everywhere, coast to coast, north, south, east, west … it’s not just big cities,” and explaining that cyber threats are “at an all-time high.” Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill. 

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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).