The Early Edition: September 18, 2018

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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

Russia and Turkey yesterday reached a tentative agreement to establish a demilitarized buffer zone in the rebel-held northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, in a development that could forestall violence and avert a humanitarian disaster in the province. Russian President Vladimir Putin met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, with the leaders agreeing that by Oct. 10 all heavy weaponry as well as radical groups will be moved out the demilitarized zone, David Gauthier-Villars and Raja Abdulrahim report at the Wall Street Journal.

Putin was quoted as saying that he and Erdogan had agreed to create a demilitarized buffer zone about nine to 12 miles wide by Oct. 15 to separate forces loyal to Syrian President Bashir al-Assad and those of his opponents. The U.N. gave its cautious welcome to the agreement, Andrew Higgins and Rick Gladstone report at the New York Times.

“The Idlib deal preserves lives of civilians and their direct targeting by the regime … it buries Assad’s dreams of imposing his full control over Syria,” Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) rebel group official Mustafa Sejari commented, adding that “this area will remain in the hands of the Free Syrian Army and will force the regime and its supporters to start a serious political process that leads to a real transition that ends Assad’s rule.” Reuters reports.

A pro-Syrian government newspaper claimed today that Syrian state institutions will return to Idlib under the Turkish-Russian agreement once insurgents have handed over all of their heavy weapons and depart from civilian areas. Citing unidentified diplomatic sources, Al-Watan newspaper also reported that any factions rejecting the agreement would be considered enemies “even of the Turkish army and will be classed as terrorists that must be fought,” Reuters reports.

A Russian reconnaissance aircraft was downed by a Syrian missile over the Mediterranean killing all 15 people on board, the Russian defense ministry said today. Russia has blamed Israel for the crash, claiming that the plane was caught in crossfire as four Israeli fighters – along with French fighters – attacked targets in northwestern Syria, Nataliya Vasilyeva reports at the AP.

“The Israeli pilots were using the Russian aircraft as a shield and pushed it into the line of fire of the Syrian defense,” Russia defense ministry spokesperson Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said in a statement, claiming that Russia would make an “appropriate response” to Israel. An Israeli military spokesperson stated: “we don’t comment on foreign reports,” Al Jazeera reports.

“We deny any involvement,” French Col. Patrik Steiger claimed, regarding the downing of the Russian plane. Reuters reports.

Syrian air defenses last night intercepted and downed missiles targeting a number of locations across the northwestern city of Latakia, according to state media. The official S.A.N.A. news agency leveled blame at Israel for the strikes, which targeted “state technical industry institutions” in the government-controlled city, and came just hours after the Russia-Turkey brokered agreement, Al Jazeera reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 66 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Sep. 10 and Sep. 16 [Central Command]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

South Korean President Moon Jae-in arrived in Pyongyang today for his third summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The two leaders are expected to work towards crafting a political statement that will declare a formal end to the Korean War, AFP reports.

Kim greeted Moon and his wife with hugs and handshakes after they stepped off their plane in the Pyongyang International Airport. The two leaders later moved to their cars after inspecting a military honor guard, then taking an open convertible through the city, while crowds along the route chanted for the “reunification of the fatherland!” Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

The specifics of the agenda for the three-day summit are not clear, but South Korean officials have indicated that they hope to discuss inter-Korean engagement projects and ways to facilitate the “stalled” nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. Jonathan Cheng and Andrew Jeong report at the Wall Street Journal.

Prior to the visit the North had characterized the summit as an important exercise in “further accelerating the development” in relations between the rivals nations, with North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency publishing a the statement today just hours before Moon’s arrival. The AP reports.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley claimed yesterday that Russia is undermining international pressure on North Korea by obstructing the release of a report that shows Russia and China helped Pyongyang evade sanctions. “Russia is actively working to undermine the enforcement of Security Council sanctions,” Haley told the U.N. Security Council yesterday, claiming that Moscow had “cheated” and “lied” to help Pyongyang evade international economic sanctions, Farnaz Fassihi reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) confirmed Sunday that “there was a point in time” when he and President Trump discussed pulling U.S. military dependents out of South Korea —a move that would have been widely regarded as a sign of forthcoming military action on the peninsula. Graham said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that at the time of the conversations, “it looked like nothing was going to happen, there was no dialogue going [with Pyongyang regarding its nuclear program],” adding that “once you start moving dependents out of South Korea, that is a signal to everybody that we’re running out of time,” Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

There are indications that North Korea is “still maintaining and developing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs,” U.N. political affairs chief Rosemary di Carlo told the Security Council yesterday. Carlo welcomed the announcements made by Pyongynag in May regarding an end to nuclear testing on the peninsula, but cited the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) Yukiya Amano – who had reported nuclear signatures consistent with the continued operation of a plutonium production reactor, radiochemical laboratory and alleged uranium enrichment facility in Yongbyon, the U.N. News Centre reports.

The U.S. and South Korea “are making big bets” on the notion that Kim desires reform, Gideon Rashman comments at the Financial Times.

An explainer on what a formal end to the Korean War might look like, and on the obstacles that still lie ahead, is provided by Foster Klug at the AP.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump yesterday ordered the declassification of sensitive documents relating to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference, in a move that could eventually allow the public unprecedented access to the probe. The documents to be declassified include more than 20 pages of a federal warrant used to obtain a secret wiretap on former Trump adviser Carter Page, the F.B.I. interviews that went towards obtaining the warrant and all F.B.I. reports of interviews with Justice Department lawyer Bruce Ohr. Byron Tau, Rebecca Ballhaus and Dustin Volz report at the Wall Street Journal.

The president also ordered the publication of underacted text messages from senior Department of Justice and F.B.I. officials including Ohr; former F.B.I. Director James Comey; former F.B.I. Deputy Director Andrew McCabe; former F.B.I. Special Agent Peter Strzok; and former F.B.I attorney Lisa Page. Martina Stewart reports at NPR.

The move is “all but certain” to further worsen Trump’s relationship with the law enforcement community. The president and his circle have accused law enforcement officials of improperly obtaining the secret warrant to wiretap Page, citing little evidence to back up their assertions, with Democrats in turn accusing Trump’s allies of politicizing a legitimate inquiry that holds major national security implications, Adam Goldman reports at the New York Times.

Mueller is asking a federal judge in Washington, D.C., to push ahead with the sentencing of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, nearly 10 months after Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to F.B.I. agents about his links to Russia. “The matter is now ready to be scheduled for sentencing,” Mueller’s prosecutors wrote in a joint filing with Flynn’s defense attorneys yesterday, requesting that Judge Emmet D. Sullivan fix a date, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

The guilty plea agreement signed by Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on Friday appears to include unprecedented measures undercutting Trump’s ability to pardon Manafort. Some legal experts and attorneys advocating broad use of executive power have criticized what they characterize as an effort by Mueller’s team to tie the president’s hands, Josh Gerstein explains at POLITICO.

KAVANAUGH CONFIRMATION

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and California professor Christine Blasey Ford – who has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her decades ago – will both testify before the Senate on Monday, in a “potentially dramatic and politically perilous hearing” that may determine the fate of Kavanaugh’s nomination. Senate Republicans yesterday delayed a committee vote scheduled for Thursday and scrapped tentative plans for the matter to be handled behind closed doors amid growing bipartisan calls for Kavanaugh and Ford to testify publicly under oath, Felicia Sonmez, Seung Min Kim, Sean Sullivan and John Wagner report at the Washington Post.

President Trump engaged with the issue late yesterday afternoon, telling reporters at a workforce development event at the White House that Kavanaugh is “somebody very special” who “never even had a blemish on his record.” Trump expressed openness to holding hearings to air Ford’s allegations, claiming that he would like to see “a complete process;” however, when asked whether Kavanaugh had offered to withdraw from the confirmation process, the president retorted that it was a “ridiculous question,” Nancy Cook reports at POLITICO.

A panel of legal scholars comment on possible implications and best outcomes from the Kavanaugh fallout at POLITICO Magazine.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Two Palestinians have been killed in an Israeli air strike near the fence between Gaza and Israel in the southern Gaza Strip, according to the Gaza-based health ministry. The two casualties – Ibrahim al-Najjar and Mohammed Khidr – were taken to the Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis after their bodies were discovered last night by Red Crescent medics, with the Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) claiming in a statement that they had targeted a group of “terrorists” acting in a “suspicious” way near the fence, Al Jazeera reports.

The Palestinian health ministry backed away yesterday from its assertion that an 11-year-old boy killed at a border protest on Friday had been shot by Israeli soldiers, with a ministry source stating “the boy died of a head injury,” without elaboration or attribution of blame. An I.D.F. spokesperson stated that there were “increasing indicators from Gaza that question the credibility” of the Palestinian health ministry’s original statement about the boy’s death, adding that “according to the indicators and testimonies, the boy was killed as a result of an injury from stones thrown during the violent riots,” Reuters reports.

The U.S. has cut an additional $10m aid to the Palestinians for programs supporting conflict resolution with Israel, adding to more than $500m in other cuts. The tranche of the money involving Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip is being redirected to programs between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, a U.S. embassy official said on Sunday, Al Jazeera reports.

The Trump administration cannot simply punish the Palestinians into negotiating, Dana H. Allin and Steven Simon comment at the New York Times, arguing that eventually, “the extinction of hopes for Palestinian independence will generate future trouble.”

YEMEN

Yemeni government forces in combination with the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition have launched a fresh offensive to retake the rebel-held Red Sea port city of Hodeidah. U.A.E. state news agency W.A.M. reported that the military alliance had launched a “large-scale” offensive to retake the strategic city, with Yemeni ground forces capturing the Kilo 7 and Kilo 10 near the city’s busy fish market, Al Jazeera reports.

The bomb used by the Saudi-led coalition in the air strike that hit a bus carrying school children on Aug 9. was sold as part of a U.S. State Department-sanctioned arms deal, munitions experts have told CNN. The news outlet claims to have established that the explosive was a 500-pound laser-guided MK 82 bomb made by U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin. Nima Elbagir, Salma Abelaziz, Ryan Browne, Barbara Arvanitidis and Laura Smith-Spark report at CNN.

An interactive guide to the string of civilian deaths in Yemen linked to U.S. bombs is provided by Nima Elbagir, Salma Abelaziz and Laura Smith-Spark at CNN.

A group of House Democrats is planning to introduce a resolution under the War Powers Act that would withdraw U.S. forces from the war in Yemen.
“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,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) – who is leading the House effort – said in a message on Twitter last week, adding “if this executive will not do it, then Congress must pass a War Powers Resolution,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

AFGHANISTAN

U.N. envoy for Afghanistan Tadamichi Yamamoto said yesterday that the country is in its best position since 2001 to kick-start a process leading to peace talks with the Taliban. However, Yamamoto told the U.N. Security Council that the road ahead will be extremely challenging and that Afghan government efforts – “which we hope would be reciprocated by the Taliban” – need to be reinforced by regional and other key countries, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

At least nine members of a local Afghan police force were killed yesterday when another policeman opened fire at a checkpoint in northern Balkh province, a provincial official said today, in the latest so-called “insider attack” in the country. The AP reports.

U.S. SPACE FORCE

President Trump’s desired Space Force could cost around $13 billion over five years, according to a new Air Force estimate. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

A bipartisan group including generals and lawmakers is concerned that the creation of the Space Force would divert resources from other programs and serve to weaken the military. Bryan Bender and Jaqueline Klimas explain at POLITICO.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Myanmar’s army should be removed from politics, U.N. investigators said today in the final draft of their report reiterating calls for top military officials to be prosecuted for genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority group. AFP reports.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson claimed yesterday that by 2030 the service needs to expand by 74 additional squadrons–a near 25% increase – in order to “face the world as it is”. Elen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

“American democracy is in crisis,” former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton writes at the Atlantic, calling on U.S. citizens to resist the Trump administration’s attempt to undermine civil rights. 

Filed under:
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).