The Early Edition: January 8, 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

President Trump called reports about his decision to withdraw troops from Syria “very inaccurate” in a message on Twitter yesterday, responding to claims that his national security adviser John Bolton had contradicted his timetable for withdrawal during a trip to Israel at the weekend. Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s initial plan was for a quick withdrawal, but Bolton told reporters that certain conditions would have to be met before such a move, including the protection of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia – whom Turkey deem to be a terrorist organization. Missy Ryan and Karen DeYoung report at the Washington Post.

The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group “has an approved framework for the withdrawal of forces from Syria, and is now engaged in executing that withdrawal,” the Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Sean Robertson said in a statement yesterday, adding that the framework “is conditions-based and will not subject troop withdrawal to an arbitrary timeline.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Bolton has arrived in Turkey for talks about U.S. military involvement in Syria. Today’s visit comes amid U.S.-Turkey tensions over the position of the Syrian Kurds, Carol E. Lee reports at NBC News.

“President Trump made the right call to withdraw from Syria,” the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan writes in the New York Times, stating that Turkey has the right approach to terrorists in Syria and that Turkey has “no argument” with the Syrian Kurds.

President Erdogan today denounced Bolton’s comments about the need to protect the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. fighters, stating that the Y.P.G. are a “terror organization” that “do not represent my Kurdish brothers.” Al Jazeera reports.

President Erdogan will not hold a joint meeting with Bolton in an apparent snub over their differing approach to Kurdish fighters, the AP reports.

President Erdogan said today that Turkey will offer “no concession” in its push to rid Syria of terror groups, stating shortly afterwards that his country’s preparations for a new military operation against terror groups were “to a large extent” complete. Zeke Miller reports at the AP.

The claim about the Y.P.G.’s fight against the Islamic State group is “a huge lie,” Erdogan said today. Reuters reports.

A top Syrian Kurdish official has said that his fighters are ready should Turkey launch an offensive against them in northeast Syria. The AP reports.

“We have not been formally or directly notified, all what we heard were media statements,” the Syrian Kurdish official, Badran Ciya Kurd, said yesterday, stating that the Kurds are awaiting clarification over the U.S. plan to withdraw troops from Syria. Bassem Mroue reports at the AP.

Turkey is expected to request that U.S. officials hand over U.S. military bases in Syria to Ankara or destroy them, according to the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper. Steve Holland and Orhan Coskun report at Reuters.

Islamic State group fighters launched a counterattack against Syrian Kurdish fighters in eastern Syria near the Euphrates River Valley, killing 23 members of the Kurdish-led U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.). The AFP reports.

The U.S.-led coalition is carrying out airstrikes against an Islamic State group-held village in eastern Syria, the AP reports.

The disarray over Syria policy and Trump’s sudden announcement on withdrawal is at least partly down to Bolton because of the national security adviser’s failure to engage in internal debates. Mark Landler and Helene Cooper explain at the New York Times.

An explanation of Trump’s Syria troop withdrawal is provided by Adam Taylor 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]

GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN

President Trump will today address the nation from the Oval Office to defend the partial government shutdown over funding for the proposed border wall with Mexico. Jordan Fabian and Alexander Bolton report at the Hill.

Trump will seek to persuade the public by claiming a “humanitarian and security crisis” on the southern border. Michael Tackett and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

The Trump administration has laid the groundwork for Trump to declare national emergency by labeling the situation a crisis. Robert Costa and Philip Rucker report at the Washington Post.

There is no national security emergency, Peter Bergen writes at CNN, calling the Trump administration’s language “a barrel of bunkum and balderdash served with generous helpings of hogwash.”

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un today made an unannounced visit to China, with the visit – at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping – coming amid reports that discussions are being held to set up a second summit meeting between Kim and President Trump. The BBC reports.

Kim’s China trip comes days after he warned that North Korea could take an alternative path if the U.S. does not ease sanctions and pressure on his country. Se Young Lee and Christian Shepherd report at Reuters.

Kim has visited China four times in the last year and the latest trip is expected to last four days. Lily Kuo and agencies report at the Guardian.

The recent defection of North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy could derail the Trump-Kim summit. Donald Kirk and Barbie Latza Nadeau explain at The Daily Beast.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION MIDDLE EAST POLICY

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has begun a tour of Middle Eastern countries to discuss increasing pressure on Iran, starting with a visit to Jordan today. The AP reports.

Pompeo will make a speech in Egypt that will repudiate former President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy approach, according to sources, including strong criticism of Obama’s engagement with Iran. Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO.

An overview of the Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East and what the one thing the president “gets right” is provided by Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky at CNN.

IRAN

Plans between Iran and the European Union (E.U.) to circumvent U.S. sanctions are moving more slowly than expected, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said today, telling reporters that Iran continues to work with its traditional partners like India, China and Russia to advance the interest of the Iranian people. Reuters reports.

The E.U. has agreed to put Iran’s Intelligence Ministry’s internal security section on its terror list after alleged Iranian plots to kill opposition activists in Denmark and France, the Danish Foreign Minister said today, adding that E.U. government ministers “agreed to enact sanctions.” The AP reports.

The top security adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said yesterday that he rejected U.S. offers for talks last month because the U.S. has violated a number of international agreements, “so there is no point negotiating with them.” Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. Navy veteran Michael R. White has been detained in Iran since late July on unspecified charges, White’s mother said yesterday. Rick Gladstone reports at the New York Times.

AFGHANISTAN

A bomb blast in Afghanistan’s eastern Khost province has killed two civilians and injured 23, according to provincial officials. There has been no immediate claim of responsibility, the AP reports.

The Taliban representatives will hold two days of peace talks with American officials in Qatar on Wednesday, but has refused to engage in talks with the Afghan government. Jibran Ahmad reports at Reuters.

YEMEN

The U.N. agreement for a peace deal in the key Yemeni port city of Hodeidah is “too vague,” the British charity Oxfam has said, claiming that the lack of detail on the deal agreed between the Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government “is an issue.” James Reinl reports at Al Jazeera.

U.S. Central Command conducted 36 airstrikes in Yemen last year, Central Command reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich yesterday strongly criticized the U.S.-based attorney representing the Russian Concord Management and Consulting company for his attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. The company was indicted by Mueller in February, accused of financing and overseeing a social media operation to disrupt the election, Spencer S. Hsu reports at the Washington Post.

A bill to protect Mueller from being fired will be reintroduced this week by a bi-partisan group of senators. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Air Force Col. Shelley Schools – who was to preside over the U.S.S. Cole tribunal at Guantánamo – has found a new job in an immigration court, marking another setback to the resumption of the tribunal. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

The Palestinian Authority has pulled staff from the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, explaining that the decision was because of harassment of employees by the militant Palestinian Hamas group, which controls Gaza. Hamas has called the effective closure of the crossing as tantamount to “additional sanctions” against Gazans by the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, the BBC reports.

A U.S. airstrike in Somalia on Sunday killed six Islamist militants, the U.S. Africa Command said yesterday. Reuters reports.

President Trump is having trouble replacing former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Eliana Johnson and Daniel Lippman explain at POLITICO.

There is a possibility that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and such a meeting would be the result of efforts by the Trump administration, Karen Elliott House writes at the Wall Street Journal.

A feature on an American military commander’s tour of Baghdad’s neighborhoods is provided by Jane Arraf at NPR. 

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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