The Early Edition: February 5, 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.

VENEZUELA

International calls for snap elections in Venezuela intensified yesterday as European powers recognized opposition chief Juan Guaidó as interim leader, after incumbent president Nicolas Maduro rejected an ultimatum to call fresh polls. Spain, France and the U.K. were among 16 EU nations to side with Guaidó, following the example of the U.S. which has refused to rule out a military intervention in the Latin American country, AFP reports

Maduro slammed what he described as the European nations’ “cowardly” and “disastrous” decisions, telling a military rally in the northern state of Aragua that he is the target of a “gringo” plot to overthrow the Bolivarian revolution he inherited from his political mentor Hugo Chávez. “I, Nicolás Maduro Moros, the legitimate and constitutional president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, swear … that I will defend with my very own life this homeland of Venezuela,” he vowed, adding “I will carry on governing, together with the people, for the six years I have the right to govern for,” Tom Phillips reports at the Guardian.

Guaidó has dismissed warnings from Maduro that the country’s political crisis could spark civil war. Maduro gave an interview Sunday on Spanish television in which he answered a question as to whether the fallout could lead to civil war by stating that “no-one could answer that question with certainty;” Guaidó commented yesterday “there is no possibility of a civil war in Venezuela, it is a Maduro invention,” the BBC reports.

“If Mr. Guaidó’s gambit succeeds … he and allied opposition leaders will have pulled off an astonishing feat … presiding over a peaceful transition to democracy,” Ernesto Londoño writes in an account of Guaidó’s efforts to shore up support and make political inroads at the New York Times.

The European Union’s difficulty in coordinating a response to the Venezuelan fallout showcased its “disarray” on foreign policy, David M. Herszenhorn comments at POLITICO Magazine.

AFGHANISTAN

The Afghan government has complained about talks in Russia between the Taliban militants and opposition figures, apparently including former president Hamid Karzai. The discussions starting today in Moscow come 10 days after peace negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban in Qatar concluded with signs of progress towards the withdrawal of thousands of foreign troops from Afghanistan and an end to more than 17 years of conflict, Al Jazeera reports.

U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad is striving to accomplish a peace deal for the country that would allow the U.S. to withdraw its troops, but the way ahead is “littered with obstacles,” Kathy Gannon writes in an explainer on the negotiations at the AP.

U.S. forces “have fought bravely in Afghanistan … it’s time to bring them home,” the New York Times editorial board comments.

SYRIA

Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria (I.S.I.S.) is likely to characterize the U.S. withdrawal from Syria as a “victory,” U.S. Central Command has told an inspector general, according to a report released yesterday. “I.S.I.S. may conduct opportunistic attacks on U.S. personnel as they withdraw but will leverage the event as a ‘victory’ in its media,” the report warns, also noting that “I.S.I.S. remains an active insurgent group in both Iraq and Syria … [and although the group] is regenerating key functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than in Syria … I.S.I.S. could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory in the [Middle Euphrates River Valley],” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The U.S. State Department yesterday called on international partners to take in foreign fighters captured by the U.S.’ Kurdish allies in Syria, two days ahead of a meeting in Washington of several coalition partners fighting Islamic State group to discuss the way forward in Syria. Department spokesperson Robert Palladino did not say how many prisoners had been detained by the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.,) but did say that “the S.D.F. has demonstrated a clear commitment to detain these individuals securely and humanely,” Reuters reports.

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is now re-establishing its authority through bureaucracy, having recaptured most of the country’s rebel-held areas. Raja Abdulrahim provides an analysis at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 645 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Jan. 13 and Jan. 26. [Central Command]

IRAQ

Iraqi President Barham Salih hit back at President Trump yesterday for saying U.S. troops should stay in Iraq to keep an eye on neighboring Iran, claiming that the U.S. president did not ask for Iraq’s permission to do so. Trump’s comments have reportedly fuelled concerns in the country regarding the U.S.’ long-term intentions, particularly following its withdrawal of troops from Syria; “we find these comments strange,” Salih commented at a forum in Baghdad. Qassim Abdul-Zahra reports at the AP.

An incident in Syria two years ago involving the transport of an Iranian port-a-potty nearly led to a confrontation between American and Iranian forces, and illustrates how U.S. mission creep in Syria and Iraq could lead to war with Tehran. Lara Seligman explains at Foreign Policy.

YEMEN

The release of prisoners by Yemen’s warring parties is “hanging in the balance” due to differences over the lists submitted by the government in exile and its Saudi-led coalition partners and rival Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, a senior Red Cross official said yesterday. Operations Director of the International Committee of the Red Cross Dominik Stillhart said a central outstanding issue is that each side submitted a list with 8,000 names, but the other side says they are holding a “significantly lower” number, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

“War cannot create anything but misery, weapons bring nothing but death … I am thinking in particular of Yemen … Syria … Iraq and Libya,” Pope Francis commented yesterday, speaking on his first-ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula. Al Jazeera reports.

An in-depth account of how U.S. arms sold to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen have landed up in the hands of al Qaeda and Iran is provided by Nima Elbagir, Salma Abdelaziz, Mohamed Abo El Gheit and Laura Smith-Spark at CNN.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

U.S. special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun will head to Pyongyang tomorrow for talks ahead of the “much-anticipated second summit” between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the State Department said yesterday. In addition to preparations for the summit, Biegun’s meetings with North Korean official Kim Hyok-chol will “advance further progress on the commitments the president and Chairman Kim made in Singapore: complete denuclearization, transforming U.S.-[North Korean] relations and building a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula,” a statement read, AFP reports.

Biegun arrived in Seoul on Sunday. South Korea’s Presidential Blue House did not say specifically what was discussed during yesterday’s talks but announced that national security adviser Chung Eui-yong had told Biegun that Seoul hopes the planning talks between the U.S. and North Korea will pave the way for a successful summit. Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the AP.

The U.S. and South Korea have reached a preliminary agreement on the cost of keeping nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea, two State Department officials said yesterday, assuaging concerns among Trump’s advisers that he could move to pull out U.S. troops during his upcoming summit Kim. Under the revised Special Measures Agreement, South Korea would boost its financial contribution to nearly $1 billion, according to a State Department official and South Korean media, Kylie Atwood, Jeremy Diamond and Kevin Liptak report at CNN.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has agreed to testify before the House Homeland Security Committee on March 6 after weeks of “contentious” negotiations with Democrats. The plan comes after Committee Chair Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) threatened last week to issue a subpoena to compel Nielsen to testify;  “she should be ready to defend the Administration’s border security actions and its plans to improve its border security agenda going forward … I remain committed to the charge that securing the country should be based on intelligence and facts, and not pursuant to a campaign agenda” Thompson said in a statement. Andrew Desidero reports at POLITICO.

President Trump has announced that he is nominating “Washington veteran” David Bernhardt to replace Ryan Zinke as Head of the Interior Department. Zinke resigned in December amid ethics investigations; Trump sent a message on Twitter yesterday claiming that Bernhardt – who has lobbying ties to U.S. energy companies – “has done a fantastic job [as acting Head of Interior] from the day he arrived,” Laura Strickler reports at NBC.

“Suddenly … a man once seen by Washington’s foreign policy elites as a dangerous enabler of the president’s worse impulses had taken on a surprising new identity: the adult in the room,” Elise Labott writes in an in-depth piece on U.S. national security adviser John Bolton at POLITICO Magazine.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) troops have killed a suspected Palestinian attacker and wounded another at a northern checkpoint in the occupied West Bank. The I.D.F. announced yesterday that two Palestinian individuals threw an explosive device at the troops, who then opened fire; Palestinian medics say a 21-year-old Palestinian died from gunshot wounds and a second was hospitalized with moderate wounds, the AP reports.

U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson yesterday delayed by a week former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s sentencing date, while she considers allegations that the Manafort lied to special counsel Robert Mueller’s office and a grand jury in violation of the terms of his guilty plea. In a one-paragraph order, Jackson rearranged Manafort’s sentencing for March 13, giving Mueller and Manafort’s legal teams more time to negotiate over charges that Manafort repeatedly broke the terms of his cooperation agreement with federal prosecutors, Darren Samuelssohn reports at POLITICO.

“As global threats grow … the U.S. needs space-based sensors,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments.

The world must do more to tackle mercenary activities undermining stability in Africa, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the Council yesterday. The U.N. News Centre reports. 

About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Associate 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).