The Early Edition: November 28, 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.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING AND The G-20

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is hoping to restore his image on the international stage, following the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 that has strained ties between the kingdom and its Western allies. The prince is currently traveling on a tour of Mideast allies, after which he is expected to attend the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Buenos Aires which begins Friday, Margherita Stancati in Beirut and Amira El-Fekki report at the Wall Street Journal.

Argentinian authorities are considering possible criminal charges against bin Salman days before his arrival. Advocacy group Human Rights Watch have lodged a formal complaint against the Crown Prince also accusing him and the Saudi government of torture of Saudi citizens; Argentina’s constitution recognizes universal jurisdiction for war crimes and torture, such that it can investigate and prosecute crimes wherever they were committed, and regardless of the nationality of the suspects or their victims, Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

President Trump will not meet with bin Salman at the G-20 summit, the White House announced yesterday. White House Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told a press briefing that although the White House has not “ruled out any interaction,” the president’s schedule at the summit does not allow for any additional meetings, Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton yesterday defended the fact that neither he nor the president had listened to audio of Khashoggi’s killing, arguing that they did not speak Arabic and so would not be able to understand what was on the tape. “Why do you think I should [listen to the audio]?” Mr. Bolton asked reporters, suggesting he could read a transcript instead, adding: “people who speak Arabic have listened to the tape, and they’ve given us the substance of what’s in it,” Katie Rogers reports at the New York Times.

C.I.A. Director Gina Haspel is not yet confirmed for today’s briefing on Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that she is viewed as a “key authority” on her agency’s report on Khashoggi’s killing.  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are scheduled to attend the 11 a.m. session which will primarily focus on the U.S.’ role in the conflict in Yemen; Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has been pressing for Haspel to also attend, Alexander Bolton reports at the Hill.

A power struggle within the Saudi royal family provides the context for Khashoggi’s killing. David Ignatius provides an analysis of the “rage in the royal court” at the Washington Post.

RUSSIA-UKRAINE RELATIONS

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has warned of the threat of “full-scale war” with Russia following the fallout over Moscow’s detention of Ukrainian navy vessels in the Kerch Strait. Poroshenko yesterday told national television that the number of Russian units deployed along the Ukraine-Russian border had “grown dramatically” and the number of Russian tanks had tripled, cautioning: “I don’t want anyone to think this is fun and games. Ukraine is under threat of full-scale war with Russia,” Andrew Roth reports at the Guardian.

The Kremlin has warned that the conflict could escalate due to Kiev’s decision to declare martial law, with Russian President Vladimir Putin claiming that Ukraine is to blame for the confrontation. In a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday, Putin reportedly said that he is “seriously concerned” about the weekend naval standoff, and doubled down on a claim that Ukraine provoked the confrontation for political reasons, Al Jazeera reports.

Both the U.S. and the E.U. have appealed to Russia and Ukraine to exercise restraint, but in an act of resistance to Western pressure, Russia yesterday moved ahead with proceedings against some of the 24 detained Ukrainian sailors, with a court in Russian-controlled Crimea determining that at least two amongst them would remain behind bars until at least Jan. 25 on charges of illegally crossing the border, Anton Troianovski and Amie Ferris-Rotman report at the Washington Post.

President Trump has said he may cancel a long-awaited meeting with Putin at the upcoming G-20 summit in Buenos Aires. Trump warned that any such meeting would depend on the results of a report being prepared by his national security advisers about the weekend’s naval confrontation: “maybe I won’t have the meeting … maybe I won’t even have the meeting,” Trump told reporters yesterday, AFP reports.

“The very symbolism of martial law … whatever its scope … might be just what Poroshenko needs to shore up support to win re-election in March,” Michael Colborne argues at Foreign Policy, in an analysis of the political ramifications for Kiev.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort held secret talks with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and visited around the time he joined Trump’s campaign, according to source. The alleged meetings are said to have taken place in 2013, 2015 and in spring 2016; it is “unclear” why Manafort would have wanted to see but the final alleged meeting is likely to interest special counsel Robert Mueller investigating collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, Luke Harding and Dan Collins report at the Guardian.

“This story is totally false and deliberately libelous,” Manafort commented on the reports, adding: “I have never met Julian Assange or anyone connected to him … we are considering all legal options against the Guardian, who proceeded with this story even after being notified by my representatives that it was false.” The Guardian report and Manafort’s subsequent denial come a day after Mueller halted a cooperation deal with Manafort, accusing him of lying to investigators, Reuters reports.

WikiLeaks also yesterday denied the reports, claiming it would bet $1 million there was no meeting between the two men. “Remember this day when the Guardian permitted a serial fabricator to totally destroy the paper’s reputation,” the organization stated in a message on Twitter,  Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

Senate Republicans are assessing support for legislation protecting Mueller and could bring the bill up for a vote, No. 2 Senate Republican Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) said yesterday. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

President Trump launched a fierce new attack on Mueller yesterday, escalating political tensions as the probe “increasingly menaces” the White House. In a series of messages on Twitter, Trump claimed that “the Phony Witch Hunt continues, but Mueller and his gang of Angry Dems are only looking at one side, not the other … wait until it comes out how horribly & viciously they are treating people, ruining lives for them refusing to lie. Mueller is a conflicted prosecutor gone rogue…. the Fake News Media builds Bob Mueller up as a Saint, when in actuality he is the exact opposite … He is doing TREMENDOUS damage to our Criminal Justice System, where he is only looking at one side and not the other.” AFP reports.

The worst thing you can do is lie to a prosecutor, Barbara McQuade and Mimi Rocah write at The Daily Beast, unpicking Manafort’s possible motivations for doing so and hypothesizing what might come next.

The implications of the collapse of Manafort’s plea deal on the wider Mueller probe are considered in analysis by Elie Honig at CNN.

SYRIA

Syrian workers have exhumed more than 500 bodies from one of the largest mass graves near Islamic State group’s former capital of Raqqa, and are still uncovering remains, according to a local official yesterday. Zeina Karam reports at the AP.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 168 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Nov.11. and Nov. 17. [Central Command]

AFGHANISTAN

Three American military personnel were killed in a roadside bombing yesterday in Afghanistan’s eastern Ghazni province, marking the deadliest incident for U.S. troops this year, according to the U.S. military. The Taliban have claimed responsibility for the attack which also left three other U.S. service members and an American contractor wounded, Ehsanullah Amiri reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“For the vast majority of the country, they have grown up knowing conflict and nothing else, so there …  there is a tremendous hunger for peace,” Deputy Special Representative for the U.N. Mission in Afghanistan (U.N.A.M.A.) Toby Lanzer told journalists yesterday, pledging that “the United Nations will be doing what it can and offering its support in that regard.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. has told Israel’s government it expects to release its long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan in the beginning of next year, Israel’s U.N. ambassador Danny Danon said yesterday. Danon told a group of U.N. reporters that with Israeli elections now likely next May or June, there is “a window of opportunity for the administration to present the peace plan” early next year, adding that “today, the president is able to come and present it without interfering in a political debate in Israel,” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is willing to allow inspectors into the country’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported yesterday, citing a senior diplomatic source. “I understand that Chairman Kim told [South Korean] President Moon [Jae-in] during their summit in September that if the U.S. took corresponding steps he would not only be willing to shut down the Yongbyon nuclear facilities but also allow verification,” the report quoted the source as saying, Reuters reports.

An analysis of how Islamic State group lost its self-declared caliphate and what lies ahead for the militant group is provided at the BBC. 

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).