The Early Edition: September 19, 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.

KAVANAUGH CONFIRMATION

California professor Christine Blasey Ford –who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault – insisted yesterday that her accusation must be investigated by the F.B.I., all but ruling out an appearance at next week’s scheduled extraordinary Senate hearing unless such an investigation takes place. Ford’s lawyers stated that an investigation should be “the first step” before she is put “on national television to relive this traumatic and harrowing incident,” Peter Baker, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

“A full investigation by law enforcement officials will ensure that the crucial facts and witnesses in this matter are assessed in a non-partisan manner … and that the committee is fully informed before conducting any hearing or making any decisions,” Ford’s legal team wrote in a letter to the panel last night. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) responded, stressing his position that Ford “deserves to be heard” and that the invitation to testify on Monday “still stands,” but claiming that “nothing the F.B.I. or any other investigator does would have any bearing on what Dr. Ford tells the committee, so there is no reason for delay,” Lauren Gambino reports at the Guardian.

Ford’s response raises questions as to whether Republicans will proceed with the session and consequently the vote on Kavanaugh’s accession to the Supreme Court. The two-page letter does not explicitly say that Ford will not attend if there is no F.B.I. probe, Seung Min Kim, Robert Costa and John Wagner report at the Washington Post.

Mark Judge – the individual who is said to have witnessed Kavanaugh’s alleged assault on Ford – said yesterday that he would not speak publicly about the allegations, despite calls from Senate Democrats for Republicans to invite Judge to testify in front of the committee next week alongside Kavanaugh and Ford. “I have no memory of this alleged incident … Brett Kavanaugh and I were friends in high school but I do not recall the party described in Dr. Ford’s letter,” Judge told the Senate Judiciary Committee in a statement sent by his attorney, adding “… I have no more information to offer the committee and I do not wish to speak publicly regarding the incidents described in Dr. Ford’s letter,” Andrew Desiderio reports at The Daily Beast.

“I feel so badly for him that he’s going through this,” Trump said of Kavanaugh in a White House joint press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda, adding “this is not a man that deserves this.” Trump criticized Democratic lawmakers for not having brought up the accusation earlier in the confirmation process, arguing that they had deliberately withheld the information to harm his nominee, Julie Hirschfeld Davis reports at the New York Times.

“I don’t think the F.B.I. really need to be involved because they don’t want to be involved,” Trump stated regarding Ford’s demand for an investigation, adding that “if they wanted to be, I would certainly do that, but as you know, they say this is not really their thing.” Reuters reports.

An account of how lawmakers from both parties are attempting to “calibrate their message and strategy” in light of the Kavanaugh fallout is provided by Kristina Peterson, Natalie Andrews and Peter Nicholas at the Wall Street Journal.

A series of “ground rules” for the Senate Judiciary committee to follow when hearing testimony relating to sexual violence is set out by Anita Hill at the New York Times, arguing that “as Judge Kavanaugh stands to gain the lifetime privilege of serving on the country’s highest court … he has the burden of persuasion … and that is only fair.”

SYRIA

The deal struck between Turkey and Russia to create a demilitarized buffer zone protecting civilians in northern Idlib province has been welcomed by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who has called on the warring parties and their international backers to ensure the efficacy of the agreement. “The Secretary-General stresses the need for swift action to address the root causes of the conflict and forge, at long last, a durable political solution in line with Security Council resolution 2254,” Guterres’ spokesperson claimed in a statement, the U.N. News Centre reports.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu yesterday claimed that no civilians will be removed from Idlib under the agreement brokered with Moscow, adding that “the borders of Idlib will be protected under the memorandum of understanding signed in Sochi … there would be no change in the status of Idlib.” Cavusoglu added that “terrorist” groups are to be removed from the area, Al Jazeera reports.

Moscow and Ankara intelligence and security officials will hold further discussions regarding status of “radical” groups in Idlib, Cavusoglu added yesterday. Reuters reports.

Both the Syrian government and opposition have welcomed the deal, with both sides claiming yesterday that it would forestall imminent violence, although the administration of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad vowed to keep up its campaign against “terrorism.” Syria’s armed opposition commented that the deal represents a victory for the resistance and will place it on better footing following heavy defeats at the hands of the government earlier this year throughout the country, Bassem Mroue and Sarah El Deeb repot at the AP.

Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. Gholamali Khoshroo has described the Russia-Turkey agreement as the “right step” toward combating terrorism and restoring peace to Syria. Khoshroo told the U.N. Security Council yesterday that the agreement “is in line with the determination expressed by the presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey in Tehran to continue cooperation to eliminate all terrorists while taking into consideration its humanitarian aspects,” although U.S. Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey hit back that “there will not be stability in Syria as long as Iran and its proxy forces remain,” the AP reports.

The success of the Russian-Turkish agreement depends on the response of jihadist fighters in the region, and could unravel rapidly if Moscow and Ankara are unable to jointly impose their plan on groups such as Tahrir al-Sham. Tulav Karadeniz and Dominic Evans provide an analysis at Reuters.

An account of various responses to the Russia-Turkey deal, amidst some doubt as to whether the deal can prevent – rather than merely postpone – an eventual conflict in the province, is provided by Liz Sly and Louisa Loveluck at the Washington Post.

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday dampened fears of a Russia-Israel confrontation over the downing of a Russian surveillance aircraft over Syria on Monday, blaming “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances” for the accident. The Russian defense ministry had earlier accused Israel of hiding its F-16s behind the Russian Il-20, effectively turning the Russian craft into a target for Syrian antiaircraft weapons; Putin, however, drew a distinction between the event and the downing of a Russian fighter plane by Turkey in 2015 “because an Israeli plane didn’t shoot our plane down,” David M. Halbfinger and Andrew Higgins report t the New York Times.

Putin told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday that Israel’s air force was conducting operations in breach of Syria’s sovereignty, despite his apparent reluctance to hold Israel directly responsible for the attack. Reuters reports.

Israel blamed the Assad regime for the incident, holding Iran and militant Lebanese Hezbollah group responsible for the deaths of the Russian crew. “Israel expresses sorrow for the death of the air crew members of the Russian plane that was downed tonight due to the Syrian anti-aircraft fire,” the Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) said in a statement, claiming that I.D.F. fighter jets had targeted a Syrian military facility that it suspected was set to transfer “accurate and lethal weapons” from Iran to Hezbollah – weapons that “were meant to attack Israel, and posed an intolerable threat,” Henry Foy and Mehul Srivastave report at the Financial Times.

Russia has told Israel it will take all necessary measures to protect its military personnel in Syria, Moscow’s foreign ministry stated yesterday, after meetings between ministry officials and Israeli Deputy Ambassador in Moscow. Reuters reports.

“It sounds to me and it seems to me based on a review of the facts that Syria shot down a Russian plane,” President Trump commented yesterday at his joint press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda, adding that “I understand about 14 people were killed and that’s a very sad thing but that’s what happens … we have done a tremendous job in Syria and in that region eradicating I.S.I.S., which is why we are there … and we are very close to finishing that job.” Reuters reports.

“Yesterday’s unfortunate incident reminds us of the need to find permanent, peaceful, and political resolutions to the many overlapping conflicts in the region and the danger of tragic miscalculation in Syria’s crowded theatre of operations,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement yesterday, also calling for an end to Iran’s “provocative” transit of weapons through the country, Reuters reports.

“America’s moment in the Middle East is now over … the Russian era, on the other hand, looks like it has only just begun,” James Barr comments at Foreign Policy, charting the U.S. long history of intervention in the region.

Trusting Putin’s stated intentions in Syria is a foolish course of action, Nic Robertson comments at CNN.

“Washington’s laissez-faire policy toward Syria is letting Putin do America’s dirty work for it, largely cost-free,” Michael Hirsh argues at Foreign Policy.

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

North Korea said today that it will allow foreign inspectors to visit its missile test site and will be open to decommissioning its nuclear-enrichment facility. Speaking at a joint news conference and signing a document after an hour-long private session on their second day of talks in Pyongyang – Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in claimed that they had agreed to turn the Korean peninsula into a “land of peace without nuclear weapons and nuclear threats,” Reuters reports.

Kim also said he would visit South Korea in the near future, in what would be a first for a North Korean leader, and Moon claimed that the two Koreas would work toward a joint bid for the 2032 Summer Olympics. President Trump signaled his optimism about the diplomatic developments, sending a pair of messages on Twitter just after midnight labeling the news as “very exciting!” Jonathan Cheng and Dasl Yoon report at the Wall Street Journal.

“I am acutely aware of the weight that we bear,” Moon told Kim as they opened two hours of formal talks at the headquarters of the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyoyngang yesterday, with Moon adding that he felt a “heavy responsibility.” The North’s K.C.N.A. news agency reported that the talks covered “various issues arising in further accelerating the development of the north-south relations,” and – without elaboration – that the two leaders “had a frank and candid conversation over important matters of mutual concern,” AFP reports.

Kim thanked Moon for brokering Kim’s one-on-one summit with Trump in Singapore in June, claiming: “thanks to that, the political situation in the region has stabilized and I expect more advanced results.” Moon expressed gratitude for Kim’s “bold decision to open a new era,” Reuters reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will host a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on North Korea on Sept. 27, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert announced yesterday. Reuters reports.

An analysis of yesterday’s summit as the “perfect propaganda set piece” for Kim is provided by Foster Klug at the AP.

The events of the past two days serve as the prelude to Trump once again being “suckered into still more concessions” by Kim, Donald Kirk comments at The Daily Beast.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump claimed yesterday that he ordered the release of classified documents in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference to demonstrate to the public that F.B.I. probe started out as a “hoax,” and that exposing it as such could serve as one of the “crowning achievements” of his presidency. In a 45-minute Oval Office interview with Hill.tv, Trump also stated that he regretted not firing former F.B.I. Director James Comey immediately rather than waiting until May 2017, John Solomon and Buck Sexton report at the Hill.

Trump’s order on Monday to declassify documents and correspondence relating to Mueller’s investigation has paved the way for a further deterioration of relations between the president and the intelligence community. “You don’t have to be a legal expert to see that the president has a built-in conflict here to take some of the actions that he is taking because they relate to an investigation of people surrounding him,” commented former F.B.I. Assistant Director Ron Hosko, while former C.I.A. acting Director John McLaughlin commented that the decision “shows no regard at all for the judicial and the investigative process, which are the foundation of our system of laws … it is clearly being done as a purely political gamble,” Olivia Beavers and Jacqueline Thomsen report at the Hill.

Fired F.B.I. Deputy Director Andrew McCabe has written a book on the bureau’s attempts to safeguard the U.S. which will warn that Trump is undermining U.S. security, McCabe’s publisher announced yesterday. McCabe has stated that he believes he was politically targeted because he corroborated Comey’s claims that Trump tried to pressure Comey into terminating the Russia probe, Reuters reports.

“Whatever [former Trump Campaign Manager] Paul Manafort has offered the special counsel in exchange for his last-minute cooperation deal… it must be really good,” former federal prosecutor Michael J. Stern writes in a letter at the New York Times.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) troops opened fire during a demonstration in the northern Gaza Strip near a border crossing yesterday, killing two Palestinian protesters and injuring 46 others, according to the Palestinian health ministry. Reuters reports.

Israeli police say officers shot and killed a Palestinian individual who attacked a Jewish worshipper in Jerusalem and then charged at them, the incident occurring on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, the AP reports.

An in-depth analysis of the current state of the Israel-Palestine conflict is provided by Thomas L. Friedman at the New York Times.

YEMEN

A sea-craft attacked a fishing boat off the Yemeni Red Sea port of al-Khoukha killing 18 fishermen yesterday, according to relatives of the casualties. The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels in the country denied reports that it was responsible for the sea attack, Reuters reports.

Human Rights organization Save the Children has reported that a further one million children are at risk of famine in Yemen, bringing the total to 5.2million. Fighting around the strategic Red Sea port city of Hodeidah – the principal lifeline for almost two-thirds of the Yemeni population – is contributing to the risk, the BBC reports.

IRAN

An Iranian government-aligned group of hackers have launched a significant campaign aiming at Middle Eastern energy firms and other targets, ahead of the imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran, cybersecurity firm FireEye warned yesterday. Jon Gambrell reports at the AP.

President Trump regards next week’s main session of the U.N. General Assembly as an opportunity to condemn Iran for spreading “chaos and terror” through the Middle East. However, the U.S.’ European allies led by France, Britain and Germany – and unofficially backed by Russia and China – will likely use the forum to present Trump himself as a threat to world peace, Nahal Toosi, David Herszenhorn and Matthew Karnitschnig write in an analysis at POLITICO.

“The pressure approach won’t help the U.S. force Iran to roll back its nuclear program,” Eric Brewer and Ariane Tabatabai comment at Foreign Policy, arguing that “Washington should … use this time to develop realistic and credible options short of war.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.N. investigators have provided a new report giving evidence for their accusation of genocide in Myanmar, reportedly detailing “horrific accounts of murders, rapes, torture and indiscriminate shelling” allegedly committed by Myanmar’s army against the minority Muslim Rohingya group. Michael Safi reports at the Guardian.

President Trump said yesterday that the U.S. is considering a request from Poland for a permanent U.S. military presence, acknowledging he shares Poland’s concerns about potential Russian aggression. During a White House meeting between the two leaders, Polish President Andrzej Duda asked Trump for a permanent U.S. base, offering to name it “Fort Trump,” Reuters reports.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis yesterday brushed off reports that he might leave the Trump administration later this year, telling reporters “I wouldn’t take it seriously at all.” Megan Keller reports at the Hill.

“Let us proceed together … building a world more equal and free … more sustainable and respectful of nature … and more inclusive and supportive,” new U.N. General Assembly President María Fernanda said in her first keynote speech today. The U.N. News Centre reports. 

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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).