The Early Edition: January 21, 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 Israeli military claimed it carried out strikes on Iranian targets in Syria early today, after it intercepted a rocket fired from Syrian territory hours before. Syrian state news agency S.A.N.A. simultaneously claimed that its country’s air-defense systems had targeted “enemy” fire, AFP reports.

The Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) statement asserted it was “currently striking” the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force in Syria and warned Syria’s military against “attempting to harm Israeli territory or forces.” Al Jazeera reports.

The I.D.F. said its targets included munitions storage facilities, an intelligence site and a military training camp. The strikes were allegedly in response to a surface-to-surface rocket fired by Iranian forces toward Israel yesterday that was intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system over a ski resort in the Golan Heights; that strike followed an unusual Israeli daylight air raid near Damascus International Airport, the AP reports.

The I.D.F announcement marks a “rare departure” from Israel’s years-long policy of ambiguity regarding activities in the neighboring country. U.K.-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said today’s pre-dawn strikes lasted for nearly an hour and killed 11 people, including four Syrian troops, Aron Heller reports at the AP.

An explosion in a southern neighborhood of the capital Damascus yesterday morning was reported by Syrian state T.V. with the reports claiming that the blast appeared to have been a “a terrorist act.” In a separate development, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that three people were killed and nine wounded in an explosion aboard a bus in the northern Syrian town of Afrin, the AP reports.

Turkish President Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reportedly told President Trump in a phone conversation last night that Turkey is ready to take over security in the Syrian city of Manbij, where four U.S. citizens died in an Islamic State group-claimed bombing last week. Erdoğan reportedly told Trump that the bombing was a provocative act intending to derail Trump’s planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, Reuters reports.

The White House made no mention of Erdoğan’s offer to take over Manjib’s security in its description of the call, but claimed the two leaders agreed to keep pursuing a negotiated settlement for northeastern Syria that addresses both nations’ security needs. “President Trump underscored the importance of defeating terrorist elements that remain in Syria,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, Al Jazeera reports.

“I can understand the desire to withdraw … but withdrawal without a plan is chaos,” Trump ally and Senate judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said of Trump’s Syria strategy during a news briefing in Ankara, adding “it would be Iraq on steroids.” Carlotta Gall reports at the New York Times.

Syrian opposition chief negotiator at the U.N. Nasr Hariri claimed yesterday that the country has a good opportunity to reach a political solution to its conflict following ceasefires have brought calm to several areas. “I think now that we have an opportunity, because nearly in Syria we have a ceasefire now, in the northeast of Syria and the north of Syria, and the efforts of fighting terrorism has achieved good results,” Hariri told Reuters in an interview in Riyadh, following talks with the newly appointed United Nations Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen on Friday, Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 575 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Dec. 30 and Jan. 12. [Central Command]

SYRIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“Israel may be trying to convey confidence that it had controlled the threats from across its northern frontiers … and perhaps also that it would not be deterred from acting in Syria despite Russia having supplied the Syrian military with the a sophisticated S-300 ground-to-air missile system,” Mike Ives writes at the New York Times, explaining that relations between Israel and Russia have been tense since a Russian military plane was shot down over Syria in September.

An analysis of the feasibility of President Trump’s pledge to establish a “20 mile safe zone” in Syria is provided by Ryan Browne at CNN.

An update on the fallout over two of the Islamic State group ‘Beatles’ – British nationals captured in Syria and facing prosecution in the U.S. – is provided by Charlie Savage and Adam Goldman at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has said conversations between the president and his former lawyer Michael Cohen about a real-estate project in Russia probably continued through the end of the 2016 campaign – a period several months longer than any administration official or Trump associate has previously admitted. In an interview on NBC yesterday, Giuliani stated that conversations between the president and. Cohen about building a Trump Tower in Moscow “went on throughout 2016, not a lot of them, but there were conversations, can’t be sure of the exact date,” adding “probably up to, could be up to as far as October, November,” Rebecca Balhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Cohen pleaded guilty last year to lying to Congress about discussions regarding a potential real estate deal in Moscow. Cohen told lawmakers in closed-door testimony that negotiations about the deal ended in January 2016; he later said in his plea that discussions continued into June of that year, Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

“To answer your question … categorically … I can tell you [Trump’s] counsel to Michael Cohen throughout that entire period was: ‘tell the truth,’” Giuliani told host Chuck Todd, adding that he is “100 percent certain” that Trump never asked Cohen to lie to Congress. The Giuliani-Todd discussion followed a BuzzFeed report that Cohen had told investigators that Trump had ordered him to lie to Congress — and special counsel Robert Mueller’s rejection of that report as inaccurate, David Cohen reports at POLITICO.

“I appreciate the special counsel coming out with a statement last night … I think it was very appropriate that they did so,” Trump told reporters at the White House Saturday, adding: “I think that the BuzzFeed piece was a disgrace to our country … it was a disgrace to journalism.” Reuters reports.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) yesterday claimed that he would be prepared to subpoena Cohen to testify before his committee if the circumstances required. “Yes, we’ve given Michael Cohen a date that we’d like him to come in either voluntarily or, if necessary, by subpoena,” Schiff told CBS’s Margaret Brennan; Cohen is already slated to testify before the House Oversight Committee next month ahead of the start of his three-year prison sentence, Allan Smith reports at NBC.

TRUMP-RUSSIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“When — and even if — the discussions officially ended remains unclear, and Mr. Giuliani did not provide clarity,” Mark Mazzetti, Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt write in an in-depth account of the Trump Tower Moscow revelations at the New York Times, pointing out that “even after Mr. Trump secured a surprise victory in November 2016 and as evidence was mounting that the Russians had carried out a sophisticated campaign to disrupt the presidential election — Mr. Trump’s top aides took part in numerous meetings and phone conversations with Russians that have been a focus of Mr. Mueller’s investigation.”

Even if the Buzzfeed report was wrong – and Trump did not direct Cohen to lie to Congress – would mere encouragement to lie still amount to a crime? Ryan Goodman provides an analysis and compiles a series of experts’ views at Just Security.

GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN AND BORDER WALL

President Trump has attacked Democrats for rejecting his proposals to end the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, clamming that his plans were written off by before he had even presented them. Trump claimed to have offered “compromises” in exchange for funding for his proposed border wall along the Southern border, but Democrats labeled the proposals “unacceptable,” a “non-starter” and even “hostage taking,” the BBC reports.

Trump used a Saturday address from the White House to call for $5.7 billion for steel barriers on the border with Mexico, as well as funding for other border-security enhancements, in exchange for three years’ protection from deportation for some undocumented immigrants. Democrats have claimed that the government must be reopened before negotiations progress over immigration and the border wall; “the starting point of this negotiation ought to be reopening the government,” Sen. Mark Warner (D. Va.) said on NBC yesterday, Thomas M. Burton and Natalie Andrews report at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) Friday accused Donald Trump of putting U.S. troops and civilians working in Afghanistan in danger by publicizing a planned congressional trip to the war-torn country that was later canceled. “We had a report from Afghanistan … that the president outing our trip had made the scene on the ground much more dangerous because it was just a signal to the bad actors that we’re coming,” Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol; the White House has rejected Pelosi’s charge of endangering troops and civilians, Reuters reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump will meet for the second time with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un around the end of February, the White House announced Friday, after top Pyongyang diplomat Kim Yong-chol paid a rare visit to the White House. Kim met with Trump for an “unusually long” 90 minutes, AFP reports.

Kim also met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Friday to discuss progress on denuclearization commitments made at the Singapore summit last June, the U.S. State Department said in a statement. After Pompeo and Kim met, U.S. and North Korean diplomats had a “productive” meeting at the working level, the statement said, also adding that U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun will travel to Sweden this weekend for an international conference on North Korea, Reuters reports.

“The announcement suggests that both America and North Korea are keen to break the impasse that has plagued their nuclear negotiations since shortly after the summit in Singapore last June,” the Economist writes in an analysis of the developments

“Trump’s demands that South Korea take on far more costs for hosting U.S. troops is straining the alliance and potentially playing into North Korea’s hands ahead of a second summit,” Simon Denyer writes at the Washington Post, explaining that “South Korean lawmakers and experts worry that Trump is so obsessed with Seoul paying more that he could take the previously unthinkable step of withdrawing some troops if a deal is not reached.”

AFGHANISTAN

An attack by the Taliban this morning on a military base and police training center in eastern Afghanistan has killed at least 12 and wounded at least 30 people, according to an Afghan official. Al Jazeera reports.

The Afghan Taliban last week stalled peace talks with the U.S., after the American delegation demanded the insurgents announce a ceasefire and release detained U.S. academic Kevin King, four senior Taliban officials told reporters. Mushtaq Yusufzai and Saphora Smith report at NBC.

RUSSIA

Russia’s communication watchdog announced today it is opening administrative proceedings against Twitter and Facebook, with the tech giants facing scrutiny for failing to explain how they plan to comply with local data laws, according to Interfax news agency. Reuters reports.

“U.S. warships are becoming frequent visitors to the Black Sea … these visits have nothing to do with U.S. security,” prominent Russian senator Alexei Pushkov said yesterday in a message on Twitter, adding: “they flaunt their flag, send us a signal, and appease their own senators, who are demanding they send a whole military fleet to the Black Sea. They should keep away from our coastline.” Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Democratic National Committee (D.N.C.) has stated in a new court filing that it was likely targeted by Russian hackers following last year’s midterm elections. Brooke Seipel and Chris Mills Rodrigo report at the Hill.

A look at recent developments in the South China Sea is provided by Christopher Bodeen at the AP.

The U.S. military announced Saturday that it had carried out its deadliest airstrike in Somalia in months, killing 52 al-Shabab extremists after a “large group” mounted an attack on Somali forces. The AP reports.

“Since the administration won’t make human rights and democratic values central to our foreign policy … Congress must,” Mark Siegel and Morley Winograd argue in an Op-Ed at The Daily Beast. 

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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).