The Early Edition: December 21, 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.

MIDDLE EAST TROOP WITHDRAWAL AND JIM MATTIS RESIGNATION

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned yesterday after clashing with President Trump over the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan, writing a resignation letter claiming that the president deserves someone to lead the Pentagon who is “better aligned” with his views. Mattis’ “surprise” departure came a day after Trump created shockwaves through Congress and the international community by announcing the U.S. departure from Syria and declared victory over Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.,) contrary to the assessments of his own intelligence and security officials. Paul Sonne, Josh Dawsey and Missy Ryan report at the Washington Post.

“My views on treating allies with respect and also being cleareyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held,” Mattis wrote in his parting letter, adding “because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.” Trump announced that Mattis –the last of his old-guard national security team – will leave at the end of February, and commented that the former Marine was “a great help to me in getting allies and other countries to pay their share of military obligations,” Helene Cooper reports at the New York Times.

Mattis’ resignation letter appears to refute several planks of Trump’s foreign policy, with the outgoing defense secretary stressing the importance of U.S. alliances and of taking an “unambiguous” stance toward adversaries such as Russia and China. Earlier yesterday, a senior administration official told CNN’s Jake Tapper that Mattis was “vehemently opposed” to the Syria decision and his parting letter is notably devoid of any praise for the president, Jeremy Diamond, Barbara Starr and Zachary Cohen report at CNN.

Trump is reportedly planning to withdraw more than 5,000 of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with the move following Wednesday’s controversial decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria that prompted Mattis’ resignation. One official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters that a decision had been made and verbal orders had been given to start planning for the drawdown – with exact timelines being discussed, Reuters reports.

The disclosure of the Afghan troop reductions comes as U.S. officials had begun to display greater confidence about negotiations to end to the conflict with the Taliban, but the preemptive move to withdraw troops before a deal is reached risks endangering that process. However, one person familiar with the peace talks claimed it is possible that the Taliban might reciprocate with a goodwill gesture, Gordon Lubold and Jessica Donati report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump repeatedly publicly advocated leaving Afghanistan before his election to the presidency, describing U.S. involvement in the conflict as a waste of money. However, last year the president suggested he would keep U.S. forces there on the ground indefinitely to prevent the country’s collapse, and said the U.S. would send 3,000 extra troops to the country, the BBC reports.

Afghan officials and the U.S.’ western partners reacted with unease today to reports of the planned withdrawal and Mattis’ departure from government. “The withdrawal will certainly affect overall operations but we will have to wait and see which units are going to go home first … it is too early to say anything for now,” one senior Afghan government official commented; Mattis has been widely seen in Afghanistan as a guarantor of U.S. engagement, and his departure will “inevitability” raise concerns in the minds of many Afghan officials, Reuters reports.

Russia does not want anything to happen that could destabilize the situation in Afghanistan, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said today when asked about the possible U.S. withdrawal of troops from the country. Peskov added that the Kremlin needed to monitor whether the withdrawal would actually happen as a previous U.S. pledge to leave Afghanistan had not translated into action, Reuters reports.

Israel will escalate its fight against Iranian-aligned forces in Syria after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the nation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday. Several hours after he spoke, Netanyahu’s office confirmed he had spoken with Trump about the country and “discussed ways to continue cooperation between Israel and the United States against the Iranian aggression.” Reuters reports.

“We do not share the analyses that the territorial caliphate [of I.S.I.S.] has been annihilated,” French Defense Secretary Florence Parly said yesterday on R.T.L. radio regarding the Syria decision, adding “it’s an extremely grave decision and we think … the job must be finished.” Reuters reports.

Mattis’ departure shook an “already tense” Capitol last night, with lawmakers from both parties anxious about the implications of the development for the Trump administration and the international community. Top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Mark Warner (Va.) sent a message on Twitter describing Mattis as “an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration,” adding “this is scary;” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.,) characterized the developments as a “national security crisis,” Ali Vitali reports at NBC.

An account of the international reaction to Mattis’ departure is provided by Griff Witte and Isaac Stanley-Becker at the Washington Post.

JIM MATTIS RESIGNATION: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An analysis of the foreign policy disagreements leading up to the point at which Jim Mattis had simply “had enough,” is provided by Scott Bixby at The Daily Beast.

Mattis’ resignation signals a watershed moment for the Trump administration, Edward Luce comments at the Financial Times, arguing that “regardless of who replaces Mr Mattis, the world has lost a critical lifeline … it can still phone plenty of friends, all of whom will sympathize … it can also ask the audience (ditto) … but it knows that military men do not resign in U.S. politics.”

Mattis’ decision “was a warning that will ring through history about an impulsive President who spurns advice … disdains America’s friends and proudly repudiates the codes of U.S. leadership that have endured since World War II,” Stephen Collinson argues at CNN, forecasting that the Defense Secretary’s departure will embolden Trump to act on his more extreme foreign policy positions.

“For two years … Defense Secretary Jim Mattis slow-walked and stymied President Donald Trump’s most dramatic impulses on military policy …that strategy came to a swift end when it came to Syria,” Wesley Morgan comments at POLTICO.

Mattis’ departure follows that of John Kelly and H.R. McMaster, Vivian Salama notes at the Wall Street Journal, commenting that all three were “viewed by many as the voices of experience in a White House that was known for its turbulence,” and locating the development within “the assertion of the president’s ‘America First’ foreign policy … a skepticism of overseas engagements, disdain for allies that he sees benefiting from America’s vast military spending, and a combination of overture and military muscle for rivals and foes such as China and Russia.”

An Op-Ed considering the combined impact of the Syrian departure and Mattis’ resignation is provided by the New York Times editorial board.

MIDDLE EAST TROOP WITHDRAWAL: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) leaves the group exposed, Asser Khattab, Andrew England and Laura Pitel comment in an analysis at the Financial Times, describing the withdrawal as a “stinging blow” to the group.

“A pullout [of Syria] would harm U.S. interests as well,” Tommy Meyerson argues at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that the move will “shred America’s credibility as a counterterrorism partner world-wide, while abandoning a strategic area and making it harder to check jihadist, Iranian and Russian ambitions … Trump should make clear the U.S. stands with the Syrian Kurds and won’t permit a Turkish invasion …. U.S. interests and honor demand that they stay for now.”

A breakdown of the “winners and losers” arising from Trump’s Syria decision is provided by Megan Specia at the New York Times.

SYRIA: OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S.’ principle Kurdish allies in Syria – the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) – are discussing the release of 3,200 I.S.I.S. prisoners, according to U.K.-based monitor Syrian Observatory on Human Rights and a Western official of the anti-Islamic State coalition yesterday, with the announcement coming a day following President Trump’s order for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the country. Top S.D.F. officials allegedly met Wednesday to discuss the possibility of releasing about 1,100 Islamic State fighters and 2,080 relatives of the group’s members, according to head of the Observatory Rami Abdul Rahman; however, S.D.F. spokesperson Mostapha Bali denied that there had been any discussion of releasing I.S.I.S. prisoners, Hwaida Saad and Rod Nordland report at the New York Times.

Outgoing U.N. envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura has acknowledged that the committee tasked with writing a new constitution for the war-torn nation would not be in place by the end of 2018 as was previously hoped.  “We have nearly completed the work of putting in place a constitutional committee to draft a constitutional reform, as a contribution to the political process – but there is an extra mile to go,” De Mistura told the U.N. Security Council yesterday, adding “I deeply regret what has not been achieved, and I am sorry more was not possible,” in what will be de Mistura’s final address to the body before he steps down, Al Jazeera reports.

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]

CHINA

The Trump administration increased its pressure campaign on Beijing yesterday, as the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) indicted Chinese nationals Zhu Hua and Zhang Jianguo – both with ties to China’s ministry of state security – for infiltrating the most significant providers of internet services and compromising government computer systems, including a major Department of Energy laboratory. The unsealing of the indictment came as the U.K. identified the same intelligence operation, often labeled A.P.T. 10 by cybersecurity firms – as responsible for separate attacks in the U.K. and elsewhere, David E. Sanger and Katie Benner report at the New York Times.

China strongly rejected allegations of economic espionage, accusing Washington of “fabricating facts.” In a statement today, the Chinese foreign ministry said it resolutely oppose the allegations and called on the U.S. to drop the charges against the two Chinese nationals; “the Chinese government has never participated in or supported anyone in any way in stealing trade secrets,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said, describing the accusations as “deliberate defamation” pulled “out of thin air,” Al Jazeera reports.

An explainer on the A.P.T. 10 group is provided by Yuan Yang and Ben Bland at the Financial Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) yesterday concluded that acting attorney general Matt Whitaker had no legal reason to recuse himself from oversight of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference according to a person familiar with the decision. Whitaker had formerly made comments strongly critical of the probe, and despite the D.O.J. determination, an agency ethics adviser reportedly told Whitaker the decision was a “close call,” recommending that he step aside — a recommendation Whitaker has declined to follow, Pete Williams and Dartunorro Clark report at NBC.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said yesterday that a memo written by Trump’s attorney general nominee William Barr – criticizing Mueller’s investigation – had no impact on the ongoing probe. “The memo that you made reference to reflects Mr. Barr’s personal opinion,” Rosenstein said during a press conference yesterday after announcing criminal charges for Chinese hackers, adding “lots of people offer opinions to the Department of Justice, but they don’t influence our own decision making,” Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

An in-depth analysis of the legal implications of the Barr memo is provided by Marty Lederman at Just Security.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) claims it has begun destroying a network of cross-border tunnels built by Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militant group. Israel this month announced the discovery of the tunnels on the Lebanon-Israel Frontier, which it alleges were part of a Hezbollah attack plot; thus far, it has uncovered four tunnels in an “open-ended” operation intended to destroy the entire network, the AP reports.

The U.N. Security Council called a vote for today on a resolution that would authorize the use of U.N. monitors to observe the implementation of a cease-fire in Yemen’s key port city of Hodeidah and the withdrawal of warring forces from the area. U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths has urged rapid deployment of U.N. monitors as “an essential part of the confidence” required to help implement the Dec. 13 cease-fire agreement between Yemen’s government-in-exile and Iran-backed Houthi Shiite rebels; the accord also calls for the “phased but rapid mutual withdrawals” of fighters from Hodeidah as well as its main docks and two others in the province, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Saudi Arabia has claimed it is creating government bodies to enhance oversight of its intelligence operations, in the wake of international outrage over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The kingdom alleges Khashoggi was killed inside its Istanbul consulate on October 2 in a “rogue operation” led by the then-Deputy Intelligence Chief Ahmad al-Assiri and Royal Court Adviser Saud al-Qahtani, both of whom have been removed from their posts; the international community broadly alleges Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the killing, Al Jazeera reports.

An illustrated op-ed on the rise of digitalpolitik –“an emerging tactical playbook for how governments use their political, regulatory, military, and commercial powers to project influence in global, digital markets,” is provided by Sean McDonald and Xiao Mina at Foreign Policy. 

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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).