The Early Edition: January 7, 2019

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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

The White House national security adviser John Bolton said yesterday that a number of conditions would have to be fulfilled before U.S. forces withdraw from Syria. Bolton’s remarks, which were made on a visit to Israel, contradict those of President Trump, who announced on Dec. 19 that the U.S. would withdraw from the war-torn country within 30 days, David E. Sanger, Noah Weiland and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

“The timetable [for withdrawal] flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement,” Bolton said, explaining that these decisions include discussions with allies such as Israel and Turkey; the need to ensure that the U.S.-backed Syrian-Kurdish forces would not be put in “jeopardy” by withdrawal; and to ensure that the Islamic State group “is defeated and is not able to revive itself and become a threat again.” Karen DeYoung and Karoun Demirjian report at the Washington Post.

Bolton said that Turkey must not attack the U.S.’ Syria Kurdish allies. Turkey has long objected to U.S. support for the Syrian-Kurdish Y.P.G. militia and deems them to be a terrorist group; however a spokesperson for the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan called Bolton’s remarks “irrational” and said that Anakara is focused on terror groups and rescuing Kurds “from the tyranny and oppression of this [Y.P.G.] terror group,” Eliott C. McLaughlin reports at CNN.

Bolton’s remarks came amid Israeli fears that U.S. withdrawal from Syria would empower Iran, which is a key ally of Assad and has a growing military presence in Syria, with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telling his Cabinet hours before the meeting with Bolton that Israel would continue “acting against any actor that is undermining or trying to undermine Israel’s security.” Elise Labott reports at POLITICO.

There has been “absolutely no change” in the Trump administration’s approach toward chemical weapons use by Syria President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Bolton said Saturday while en route to Israel, vowing that the White House would issue a “a very strong response” and that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would not represent “any diminution in our opposition to the use of weapons of mass destruction.” Vivian Salama reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Netanyahu yesterday called on the U.S. to recognize Israeli sovereignty over occupied Golan Heights. Israel captured the territory from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed it in 1981, the AP reports.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) said yesterday that it had captured two American citizens suspected of being members of the Islamic State group, but did not provide further details. Louisa Loveluck and Erin Cunningham report at Washington Post.

An Islamic State group attack on Saturday near the eastern Syrian town of Deir al-Zour has seriously injured two members of Britain’s special forces, the BBC reports.

The main Turkish-backed Syrian rebel force – the National Army – yesterday deployed in northwest Syria to halt the advance of the Islamist and formerly al-Qaeda-affiliated Tahrir al-Sham group. Suleiman Al-Khalidi reports at Reuters.

The chief Syrian opposition negotiator Nasr al-Hariri yesterday urged foreign nations to “revisit” their decision to reconcile with Assad, saying that the Syrian President “will remain a war criminal even if thousands of leaders had a handshake with him.” Marwa Rashad reports at Reuters.

The timetable for troop withdrawal from Syria is now in disarray, Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 469 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Dec. 16 and Dec. 29. [Central Command]

U.S.S. COLE

“Our GREAT MILITARY has delivered justice for the heroes lost and wounded in the cowardly attack on the U.S.S. Cole,” President Trump wrote in a message on Twitter yesterday, confirming that the Jamal al-Badawi – suspected of being one of the plotters of the al-Qaeda attack on the navy destroyer – was killed by a U.S. military strike in Yemen last week. Eric Schmitt reports at the New York Times.

The U.S. Central Command yesterday confirmed al-Badawi’s death, Felicia Sonmez reports at the Washington Post.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Trump administration wants to release its Middle East peace plan in a way “that gives it the best chance of getting a good reception,” the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said yesterday when explaining the decision to delay its unveiling. Reuters, Noa Landau and Amir Tibon report at Haaretz.

Israel conducted airstrikes early this morning on Palestinian Hamas sites in the Gaza Strip, the AP reports.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban yesterday carried out an assault on security posts in Afghanistan’s western Baghdis province killing 21 police and pro-government militia members, provincial officials said today. Reuters reports.

The Taliban has been resisting Saudi Arabia’s push for the Afghan government to be included in planned peace talks with the U.S., stating that it wants to change the venue of the talks from Riyadh to Qatar. Jibran Ahmad reports at Reuters.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The Pentagon chief of staff Kevin Sweeney resigned on Saturday, stating that he has decided “the time is right to return to the private sector.” Sweeney’s departure follows the resignation of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Faith Karimi reporting at CNN.

“I like acting. It gives me more flexibility,” President Trump said yesterday when asked about the current composition of his Cabinet and the fact that six members are serving in an acting capacity. Amanda Becker reports at Reuters.

Trump denied that he is considering former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) to be his next Defense Secretary, Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The Washington-based grand jury impaneled by special counsel Robert Mueller has been extended and can continue to sit. Mueller has been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Lydia Wheeler and Morgan Chalfant report at the Hill.

The House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said yesterday that he wants to work with Mueller and that he would share transcripts of congressional testimony with the special counsel to identify possible instances of perjury. Victoria Guida reports at POLITICO.

SOUTH CHINA SEA

The U.S.S. McCampbell guided-missile destroyer today patrolled in the disputed South China Sea in order to send a message to China and “preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” according to a statement by a spokesperson for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Gordon Lubold and Jeremy Page report at the Wall Street Journal.

Chinas has made “stern representations” to the U.S. over the U.S.S. McCampbell’s movements, the foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said today. Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The legality of a possible decision by President Trump to declare a “national emergency” to bypass Congress and fund the construction of a border wall with Mexico has been questioned. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Russia’s deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Saturday that any discussion of an exchange of the American citizen Paul Whelan and the Russian citizen Maria Butina is premature because Whelan – who has been detained on suspicion of spying – has not been formally charged. Jim Heintz reports at the AP.

U.S. State Department officials and their North Korean counterparts recently met multiple times in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, a South Korean newspaper reported today, leading to speculation that Vietnam could host a second summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Reuters reports.

The U.S. military is planning to change its policy in Somalia, according to two senior U.S. officials, who claim that the Pentagon’s involvement would be scaled back and responsibility for airstrikes against the Islamist al-Shabab insurgent group would be shifted to the C.I.A.. Dan De Luce and Courtney Kube report at NBC News.

The Venezuelan Supreme Court judge Christian Zerpa has fled to the U.S. and yesterday criticized Venezuela’s 2018 vote, the BBC reports. 

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About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK