The Early Edition: September 13, 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.

YEMEN

The U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen has resumed its assault on the strategic Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, as U.N.-brokered peace talks stalled and the Trump administration hit back at U.S. lawmakers’ attempts to cut support for the three-year-old conflict. Asa Fitch, Dion Nissenbaum and Saleh al-Batati report at the Wall Street Journal.

The renewed coalition offensive to take control of the city from the Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebel movement follows peace talks in Geneva – abandoned on Saturday when the Houthi delegation failed to attend. The renewed assault could put further pressure on U.N. special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths, who has vowed to press ahead with diplomatic efforts regardless, Reuters reports.

The coalition yesterday seized control of two key roads near Hodeidah, according to military sources. The head of elite Giant Brigades military unit said that his forces took control of the Kilo 16 area, cutting off the Houthi rebels’ main supply route linking Hodeidah city to the rebel-held capital Sanaa, with the army also capturing a second supply route around Hodeidah known as Kilo 10, Al Jazeera reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that he had confirmed to Congress that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) are working to reduce civilian casualties in Yemen, and therefore there is no need to limit U.S. assistance to Saudi Arabia. “The governments of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure resulting from military operations of these governments,” Pompeo told Congress on Tuesday, Reuters reports.

 “I endorse […] Secretary Pompeo’s certification to the Congress that the governments of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are making every effort to reduce the risk of civilian casualties and collateral damage to civilian infrastructure resulting from their military operations to end the civil war in Yemen,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in support of his colleague’s position. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

 Pompeo’s call for continued support comes despite repeated accusations from human rights groups, alleging that the Saudi-led coalition has caused disproportionate civilian deaths in the conflict, including last month’s airstrike that hit a bus carrying children. Merrit Kennedy reports at NPR.

“Pompeo’s ‘certification’ is a farce,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said in a message on Twitter yesterday, adding “the Saudis deliberately bombed a bus full of children … there is only one moral answer, and that is to end our support for their intervention in Yemen … if this executive will not do it, then Congress must pass a War Powers Resolution.” Robbie Gramer and Lara Seligman report at Foreign Policy.

Spain will go ahead with the sale of 400 laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia, in a transaction it had put on hold due to the Saudis’ role in Yemeni conflict, El Periodico newspaper reported yesterday citing diplomatic sources. The Spanish defense ministry declined to comment, Reuters reports.

SYRIA

Turkey is reinforcing its military posts within Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib province, according to Turkish and Syrian rebel sources, in an apparent effort to deter a Syrian government offensive which Ankara claims would unleash a humanitarian disaster on its border. Turkey – currently hosting 3.5 million Syrians – says it cannot absorb more victims of the war and has accused Western nations of abandoning it to face the consequences of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s recapturing of the nation, Reuters reports.

“We are working with Russia, Iran and other allies to bring peace and stability and to stop a humanitarian tragedy,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar commented. The AP reports.

Top German officials yesterday appealed for concerted international efforts to prevent the use of chemical weapons in Syria, as Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country could not simply look away if chemical attacks were to take place. “It cannot be the German position to simply say ‘No’, no matter what happens in the world,” Merkel told the Bundestag yesterday, Reuters reports.

“The international community – including us – must do everything to prevent chemical weapons being used,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told the Bundestag yesterday, adding that a “credible deterrent” was needed. The comments cometwo days after Merkel’s government said it was in talks with its allies about a possible military in Syria, Reuters reports.

“We will make an autonomous decision in line with constitutional guidelines in effect in Germany, and of course, with international law,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said yesterday, claiming that diplomatic means remain the top priority to prevent the use of chemical weapons, Reuters reports.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said yesterday that indiscriminate bombing of Idlib by Russian, Syrian and Iranian forces could amount to war crimes. “The hypothesis of war crimes can not be excluded … once one begins to indiscriminately bomb civilian populations and hospitals,” Drian told lawmakers, Reuters reports.

All parties to the seven-year conflict and their allies should do “everything in their power” to prevent a full-scale military assault on Idlib, the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic – a high-level U.N.-appointed panel of investigators –said yesterday. The Commission found that more than one million Syrian men, women, and children were displaced in six key battles over a period of less than six months this year; yet Chair of the Commission Paulo Pinheiro said that “all the other disasters would be minor events compared to what can happen in Idlib,” the U.N. News Centre reports.

The Commission called on rebel groups in the province to leave urban areas to protect civilians from any looming regime assault, with Pinheiro commenting: “most of those terrorist groups and other armed groups, they are in the cities … perhaps one wonderful scenario is: leave the cities.” Fellow panel member Hany Magallt added: “shouldn’t the armed groups move out and spare the civilian population?” AFP reports.

Turkish intelligence has seized a man in Syria suspected of planning a May 2013 bombing that killed 53 people in southern Turkey, a Turkish security official said yesterday. The detained man – Yusuf Nazik – confessed to having received orders from Syrian intelligence to coordinate an attack in Turkey and to arranging the transport of explosives over the border, Reuters reports.

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: NOVICHOK POISONINGS

The U.K. yesterday accused Russia of lying about the two men accused of using the nerve agent Novichok in the southwestern town of Salisbury in March, following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial that the two men – charged with the attempted killing of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yiulia – were military intelligence officers. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesperson told reporters that “we have repeatedly asked Russia to account for what happened in Salisbury in March, and they have replied with obfuscation and lies,” AFP reports.

Russia’s state-funded television station aired an interview today with Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov – two Russian men who have the same names as those accused by the U.K. Reuters reports.

Boshirov and Petrov claimed they visited Salisbury as tourists, calling it a “wonderful town” and saying they wanted to see the famous Salisbury Cathedral. The U.K. has released CCTV footage and photographs showing the two men walking in Skripal’s neighborhood on March 4, the day of the attack, the AP reports.

The men described themselves as victims of a “fantastical coincidence,” Reuters reports.

RUSSIA: OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russian President Vladimir Putin today attended Russia’s largest-ever war games, involving around 300,000 troops in addition to a significant contingent of Chinese forces. Speaking at the Tsugol firing range about 80 miles north of the Chinese border, Putin praised the troops for their skills, saying they “demonstrated their capability to deflect potential military threats,” Vladimir Isachenkov and Sergei Grits report at the AP.

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shogyu visited the Tsugol firing range yesterday with his Chinese counterpart Gen. Wei Fenghe, and told reporters that Russia and China “have agreed to conduct such exercises on a regular basis.” The AP reports.

Russia’s G.R.U. military intelligence agency is testing the patience of Western countries, with its cyberattacks pushing the Trump administration into sanctioning several of its officers, and its role in the U.K. Novichok attacks leading to the expulsion of suspected intelligence officers from the U.S. Morgan Chalfant provides an analysis at the Hill.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel security forces today dismantled several shacks put up by Palestinian protesters in the occupied West Bank, near the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, slated for demolition by the Israeli administration. Israel’s military liaison agency with the Palestinians – C.O.G.A.T. – announced in a message on Twitter that five “movable structures that were illegally transported & installed” in the area had been taken down, Reuters reports.

Palestinians leaders are considering retaliatory measures against the U.S.’ decision to close down the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (P.L.O) diplomatic office in Washington, DC. Ending security cooperation “is among possible steps we are thinking about,” P.L.O. executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi told reporters in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah yesterday, adding that “we are thinking of many things that can be done,” Al Jazeera reports.

Palestinian envoy to Washington Husam Zomlot has said that his staff have been given a month to pack up, following the Trump administration’s decision to close the P.L.O. mission, telling the AP that the closure would not deter Palestinians from seeking a state with East Jerusalem as the capital. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton announced the closure on Monday, claiming that the mission had not taken sufficient steps towards peace talks with Israel, Al Jazeera reports.

On the 25th anniversary of the historic Oslo accords “activists and diplomats should focus on recreating the conditions that made it possible,” Daniel Levy argues at Foreign Policy.

IRAN

Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani claimed yesterday that Tehran has between 3,000 and 4,000 active centrifuges, the number remaining within the limit allowed under the nuclear deal with world powers. The rare announcement of specific data on the country’s nuclear program comes a day after Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi announced that the country had completed a facility to build advanced centrifuges, Reuters reports.

Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz has said that Iran can expect to face a “military” response should it choose to continue pursuing its nuclear program, making the comments in response to Salehi’s remarks. Katz added that if Iran presses forward it will face a “direct threat from the U.S. and its allies,” the AP reports.

IRAQ

“Helping Iraq is a fast way to demonstrate American leadership at least cost with the potential of high reward,” Kimberly Kagan and Frederick W. Kagan comment at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that provision of water, energy and medical assistance is a low-risk, affordable way of avoiding a disastrous Shi’ite civil war in the country.

Iraqi officials say a car bomb exploded outside a restaurant north of Baghdad yesterday killing at least six people and wounding 42. The AP reports.

MYANMAR

Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi said that today that the country’s handling of Rohingya Muslims could have been better, but she nonetheless defended security forces from charges of civilian atrocities. 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh amid a brutal military campaign, with Myanmar’s army accused of mass rape and killings in the aftermath of an August 2017 Rohyngia militant attack on security outposts, Elaine Kurtenbach reports at the AP.

Suu Kyi added that the jailing of two Reuters journalists had nothing to do with freedom of expression, telling an audience at a conference of the World Economic Forum in Hanoi that “they were not jailed because they were journalists, they were jailed because … the court has decided that they have broken the Official Secrets Act.” She said the journalists were free to appeal their sentences, Reuters reports.

U.N. teams have been granted access to Myanmar’s Rakhine State to inspect dozens of villages and townships that housed Rohingya Muslims fleeing from persecution in 2017. The four teams will spend two weeks in the northern state, Angus Watson, Sandi Sidhu and Sheena McKenzie report at CNN.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s legal team is allegedly discussing a possible plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller’s office in a bid to avoid a second criminal trial, scheduled to begin next week in Washington. Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, but U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson has forbidden prosecutors from mentioning the Russia investigation during the Washington trial, Aruna Viswanatha and Julie Bykowicz report at the Wall Street Journal.

Former Trump foreign policy aide George Papadopoulos has indicated that he is willing to testify before Congress. Papadopoulos – whose overseas interactions kick-started the F.B.I.’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s links with Russia – told reporters yesterday that “I don’t have an issue [with testifying] as long as my lawyers are fine,” Kyle Cheney reports at POLTICO.

The potential firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions is proving a source of anxiety for Republican lawmakers, Burgess Everett and Eliana Johnson explain at POLTICO. In a move that has provoked ire from President Trump, Sessions recused himself from investigations into Russian interference in March 2017 following revelations that he held two undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador

The I.C.C.

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini said today that “we will continue to fully and strongly support the I.C.C. and its work,” following U.S. national security adviser John Bolton’s broadside against the International Criminal Court on Monday. The AP reports.

Bolton’s “obsession with the International Criminal Court is outdated,” Jeremy Shapiro comments at Foreign Policy, arguing that if officials are spending their time giving speeches on outmoded preoccupations, concerns should arise as to “who is minding the president?”

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Facebook’s C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg has catalogued all the steps that the social media giant has taken to make the world safer from electoral interference, publishing the various actions in a lengthy blog post yesterday. Sheera Frenkel and Mike Isaac report at the New York Times.

Russian man Peter Yuryevich yesterday pleased guilty to criminal hacking charges relating to his operation of the Kelihos botnet, the U.S. Justice Department annunced in a statement. Yuryevich used the Kelihos botnet– a global network of tens of thousands of infected computers – to harvest login credentials, distribute bulk spam emails, and install ransomware and other malicious software, Reuters reports.

In the age of cyber-warfare the world “desperately needs digital Geneva Conventions,” Tara Wheeler argues in an illustrated analysis at Foreign Policy.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. and Japan successfully tested Japan’s Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system off Hawaiian coast on Tuesday, U.S. military officials said in a statement released yesterday. Reuters reports.

Missiles were fired at the Libyan capital Tripoli yesterday, including at the city’s only functioning airport, forcing officials to divert flights to another airport to the south, less than a week after the U.N. brokered a cease-fire between rival armed groups in the city. The Rami Musa reports at the AP.

An analysis of the reaction to the revelations regarding a U.S.-backed “military option” to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is provided by Joe Parkin Daniels at the Guardian.

Islamic State group attacks in the West fell steeply in 2018, but the number of attempted attacks remains steady –“suggesting that the group remains committed to carrying out catastrophic harm,” Rukmini Callimachi explains at the New York Times. 

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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).