The Early Edition: December 20, 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

President Trump has ordered a rapid withdrawal of all U.S. military forces from Syria, officials announced yesterday, marking an marked shift in U.S. Middle East strategy. The Pentagon immediately began moving a handful of personnel from Syria and will reportedly aim to extract about 2,000 forces in the coming weeks, ending a four-year military campaign against Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.), Mark Landler, Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

Officials have not said when the withdrawal will be complete, but reports suggest it will happen by early 2019. The Economist reports.

“We have defeated I.S.I.S. in Syria … my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump stated in a message sent on Twitter yesterday morning. Trump’s claim is at odds with his own administration’s assessments, with the Pentagon having reported in August that there were still as many as 14,500 I.S.I.S. fighters still in the war-torn country; officials were reportedly taken by surprise when they learned of Trump’s decision Tuesday night, Julian Borger and Michael Chulov report at the Guardian.

The U.S.’ principle ally in Syria – the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) – today rejected Trump’s claim that I.S.I.S. militants have been defeated, cautioning that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would lead to a resurgence of the extremist group. “The war against terrorism has not ended and [I.S.I.S.] has not been defeated,” the S.D.F. claimed in a statement, adding that the fight against I.S.I.S. is at a “decisive” requiring heightened support from the U.S.-led coalition, Zeina Karam and Sarah El Deeb report at the AP.

The S.D.F. statement warned that the withdrawal would “negatively impact” the anti-I.S.I.S. campaign and risk allowing the group “to revive itself again.” It added that the U.S. move would have “dangerous implications” for regional stability and “create a political and military vacuum… leaving its people between the claws of hostile parties,” the BBC reports.

“It’s obviously a political decision,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters, after heading to the White House for a previously scheduled meeting with Trump where he planned to ask him about the Syria decision. Without explanation, Trump canceled on Corker – one of several G.O.P. lawmakers to express shock that the president would “wake up and make this kind of decision” to pull out of Syria “with this little communication, with this little preparation,” Karoun Demirjian, Seung Min Kim and Paul Kane report at the Washington Post.

“I don’t know what they’ve done … but this is chaos,” staunch Trump ally and Armed Service Committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham(R-S.C.) told reporters, adding that he planned to discuss the matter with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Shortly before that, Graham issued a statement characterizing the troop withdrawal as an “Obama-like mistake,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Trump doubled down on the decision, claiming “we have won” the fight against I.S.I.S. In a video posted to his Twitter account, the president invoked the memory of service members who died fighting in the country while explaining his decision, adding: “they’re all coming back and they’re coming back now … we won, and that’s the way we want it and that’s the way they want it,” Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) praised Trump’s decision. “I am happy to see a President who can declare victory and bring our troops out of a war,” Paul wrote in a message sent on Twitter, Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

Russia weighed in to praise the U.S. withdrawal. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova commented yesterday that the decision represents “a milestone story which might evolve from this decision is a real prospect for a political solution,” according to Russian news agency T.A.S.S., with the Russian Embassy in the U.S. also sharing a statement claiming that “the #U.S. decision to pull its troops from #Syria creates good prospects for a political solution in that Arab country,” Chris Mills Rodrigo reports at the Hill.

Trump did not discuss in advance the decision with Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, according to a senior U.S. official yesterday. “The president made his own decision … it was not something he discussed with President Erdoğan… he has informed President Erdoğan of his decision,” said the official, who also told reporters on condition of anonymity that the U.S. believes the remaining pockets under I.S.I.S. control in Syria can be eliminated by U.S. and remaining partner forces. Reuters reports.

The U.K. said yesterday that I.S.I.S. remains a threat despite holding no territory in Syria, with the Foreign Office issuing a statement claiming that “much remains to be done and we must not lose sight of the threat they pose … even without territory, Daesh [I.S.I.S.] will remain a threat.” The statement added: “as the United States has made clear, these developments in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign … we will continue to work with members of the Coalition on achieving this,” Reuters reports.

Some U.S. administration officials have indicated an effort is underway to stop or slow a pullout. Spencer Ackerman explains at The Daily Beast.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 208 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Dec 9. and Dec. 15. [Central Command]

SYRIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“For Trump … it was the latest instance of conducting policy by tweet without forewarning,” Lara Seligman and Michael Hirsh comment at Foreign Policy in an account of yesterday’s “‘stunning’ about-face”

An analysis of the fallout and “total surprise” amongst U.S. lawmakers following Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria is provided by Kevin Liptak at CNN.

“Walking away now is a remarkable gift for I.S.I.S …” Martin Chulov argues at the Guardian, providing an analysis as to whether the militant group has truly been defeated as Trump claims.

Yesterday’s decision hands victory in the region over to Moscow and Tehran, Dan De Luce, Josh Lederman and Courtney Kube comment at NBC.

“At no point has Trump been able to articulate a clear endgame for U.S. policy regarding Syria,” Ishaan Tharoor comments at the Washington Post, placing yesterday’s move in the context of the Trump administration’s Middle East strategy.

Trump’s view that U.S. forces cannot alter the strategic balance in the Middle East was fundamentally shared by his predecessor Barack Obama, and the president’s “biggest critics, the Democrats, will have a hard time going after him on this decision,” David E. Sanger argues in an Op-Ed at the New York Times.

An explainer on what might come next for U.S. strategy in Syria is provided by Greg Myre at NPR.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump’s choice for attorney general William Barr sent an unsolicitedmemo earlier this year to the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) “excoriating” special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion by the Trump campaign, describing the probe as based on a “fatally misconceived” theory that risks causing lasting damage to the presidency and the executive branch. The 20-page document reportedly provides the first in-depth look at Barr’s views on the Mueller probe, which he would likely oversee if confirmed as attorney general, Sadie Gurman and Aruna Viswanatha report at the Wall Street Journal.

The president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani admitted yesterday that then-candidate Trump signed an October 2015 letter of intent to develop a real estate project in Russia, after earlier denying it in a weekend television interview. Giuliani had told C.N.N. on Sunday that “no one signed” the letter of intent to go forward with the Moscow project, backtracking in comments to Reuters yesterday after CNN reported late Tuesday that it had obtained a copy of the Oct. 28, 2015 letter signed by Trump; “if I said it, I made a mistake,” Giuliani said of his previous denial, Reuters reports.

It is indisputable that former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn lied to the F.B.I., Chuck Rosenberg comments at NBC, arguing that “it is remarkable for [Harvard Law School professor Alan] Dershowitz and others to suggest that Flynn did not commit a crime, when the facts and the law and Flynn so clearly say otherwise.”

An anlaysis of Flynn’s dramatic sentencing hearing Tuesday is provided by Liam Brennan at Just Security.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

The D.C. attorney general today filed a lawsuit against tech giant Facebook for failing to protect user data and allowing political data firm Cambridge Analytica to access personal information, marking the first move by U.S. officials to punish the social media organization for the misstep. Margaret Harding Mcgill reports at POLITICO.

Hackers spent years eavesdropping on the diplomatic communications of European Union (E.U.) officials, in a suspected China’s People’s Liberation Army operation – disrupted only after researchers discovered hundreds of intercepted documents online a few months ago. Al Jazeera reports.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

The U.S. Treasury Department yesterday imposed a fresh raft of sanctions against Russia, blacklisting 15 intelligence agents it alleges were linked to attacks including the attempted Novichok nerve-agent assassination of a former agent Sergei Skripal in the U.K. as well as election interference in the U.S. and elsewhere. The sanctions—levied against an alleged former intelligence official, the Russian social-media troll farm Internet Research Agency, and others—are part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to punish Moscow, with many of the intelligence agents sanctioned have already been indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller this year for their alleged role in the 2016 presidential election, Ian Talley reports at the Wall Street Journal.

In a related action the Treasury Department said it will remove Russian energy holding company EN+ Group and two subsidiaries from its sanctions list. Courtney Weaver, Henry Foy and Neil Hume report at the Financial Times.

An analysis of the context for and implications of the fresh round of U.S.-Russia sanctions is provided by Adam Rawnsley at The Daily Beast.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned today that the world is underestimating the threat of nuclear war and leveled blamed the U.S. for risking a collapse in global arms controls. “Now they are leaving the treaty on eliminating the short and middle-range missiles,” Putin said – referring to the Trump administration’s threat to pull out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (I.N.F.) which the U.S. accuses Russia of violating – “what’s next? It’s hard to imagine how the situation will evolve … what if those missiles appear in Europe? What do we do then?” Yuliya Talmazan and Alexander Smith report at NBC.

YEMEN

A U.N.-led team tasked with overseeing Tuesday’s ceasefire in the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah has begun planning operations with a conference call to talk through the general outlines of its work, including agreement of a code of conduct, a U.N. spokesperson announced yesterday. The Redeployment Coordination Committee (R.C.C.) is led by retired Major General Patrick Cammaert –veteran of variety of peacekeeping roles at the U.N. including in Ethiopia and Eritrea, the U.N. News Centre reports.

The U.S. wants the U.N. Security Council to condemn Iran in a U.K-drafted resolution being negotiated to back the Hodeidah ceasefire deal, but Russia has rejected the move, according to diplomats yesterday. The initial draft text reportedly condemns “the supply, from whatever source, of weapons and associated materiel in contravention of the arms embargo provisions,” but does not name any specific countries, Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Israel yesterday appealed to a special session of the U.N. Security Council to condemn Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and designate the group as a terrorist organization, following the discovery of cross-border tunnels stretching into Israel over the Lebanese frontier. The council took no action on the Israeli request, though several members sided with Israel expressing concerns over Hezbollah’s violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution that ended a 2006 war between the parties, Josef Federman reports at the AP.

North Korea has said it will not unilaterally surrender its arsenal of nuclear weapons unless the U.S. first removes its nuclear threat from the Korean Peninsula. “The United States must now recognize the accurate meaning of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and especially, must study geography the right way,” the North said, in a statement marking the latest deterioration in Pyongyang-Washington relations as denuclearization talks stall, The Daily Beast reports. 

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About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Senior Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).