The Early Edition: February 12, 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.

GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN AND BORDER WALL

Congressional negotiators last night declared an “agreement in principle” on a spending bill they hope will satisfy President Trump’s demands for additional border security measures and avoid another government shutdown at the end of the week. The compromise represents a striking about-turn for negotiators and was achieved just hours after lawmakers on both sides said the talks were on the brink of collapse, Tom McCarthy reports at the Guardian.

The deal includes $1.375 billion for 55 miles of fences along the border, as opposed to the $5.7 billion Trump had sought for more than 200 miles of walls. The deal also omits a strict new cap Democrats had sought on immigrants detained within the U.S. — as opposed to at the border, also limiting overall levels of detention beds maintained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, Erica Werner, Damian Paletta and Sean Sullivan report at the Washington Post.

“We reached an agreement in principle between us on all the homeland security and the other six bills,” lead Republican negotiator and Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) stated, adding “the White House has been consulted all along.” Shelby noted that he has been given “latitude” to negotiate on behalf of the administration, Sarah Ferris, Heather Caygle and Burgess Everett report at POLITICO.

“We need the wall … and it has to be built,” Trump declared last night during a rally in El Paso, adding, “today we started building the big beautiful wall right on the Rio Grande.” Trump was challenged by potential Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who told supporters within earshot of Trump’s rally “we are not safe because of walls but in spite of walls … we have so much to give, so much to show the rest of the country,” Mark Landler and Simon Romero write in an account of the two events at the New York Times.

“It was not clear what will happen next,” Stephen Collinson writes of Trump’s departure from El Paso in an analysis of the developments at CNN, adding “Conservative media coverage of the deal will most certainly be a crucial factor … if the reviews stink, the President could be emboldened to go ahead with a third way forward – flexing executive power to fund the wall.”

“The image and prestige of the U.S. itself would be further battered as people around the world took in the spectacle of a nation incapable of fulfilling basic functions of governance,” the Washington Post editorial board comments on the prospect of the possible government shutdown.

“If there isn’t truly a crisis on the border … do the Democrats continue to invoke the need for more ‘border security’?” Daniel Denvir comments at the New York Times, arguing that the Democrats must adopt a new approach to immigration based on greater openness of borders.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

Top Saudi official Saud al-Qahtani continues to serve the kingdom as an informal royal adviser, despite having been fired after being accused of playing a role in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The U.S. is reportedly pressing the kingdom behind the scenes to hold Qahatani accountable, but Riyadh has apparently resisted U.S. pressure to take decisive action against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s former right-hand man, Dion Nissenbaum and Warren P. Strobel report at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that the U.S. is still investigating the Khashoggi’s murder, claiming that “America is not covering up for a murder,” and adding that the U.S. would take action to hold to account those responsible for the killing. Pompeo’s comments come after Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) accused the Trump administration of “aiding in the cover up” of Khashoggi’s slaying in a statement on Saturday, after the administration missed a Friday deadline to provide Congress with a report on the death, Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

SYRIA

The U.S.-led coalition fighting in Syria has claimed that yesterday it struck a mosque used by the Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) as a command and control center in eastern Syria. The coalition said today that it launched the strike in support of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.), fighting to drive the I.S.I.S. militants from their last holdout near the Iraqi border, the AP reports.

Israel has bombarded the southern Syrian province of Quneitra, causing material damage but no casualties, according to Syrian state media. S.A.N.A. news agency reported that Israeli troops fired several shells on Quneitra’s abandoned hospital and a nearby observation post, the AP reports.

Russia and Turkey have agreed to stabilize Syria’s northwestern Idlib using “decisive measures” as fighters continue to seize control of the province along the Turkish border. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar announced the intention after meetings in Ankara yesterday; however, a joint statement did not detail what military moves would be taken or what the timescale might be, Al Jazeera reports.

I.S.I.S. remains a global threat, according to a new U.N. report to the Security Council released yesterday. “Despite the more concealed or locally embedded activities of [I.S.I.S.] cells, its central leadership retains an influence and maintains an intent to generate internationally-directed attacks and thereby still plays an important role in advancing the group’s objectives,” Head of U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism (U.N.O.C.T.) Vladimir Voronkov explained, the U.N. News Centre reports.

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]

IRAN                                                                                       

Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani yesterday claimed that “enemy” plots against his country would fail, as vast crowds congregated to mark 40 years since the Islamic revolution, at a time of escalating tensions with the U.S. “The presence of people today on the streets all over Islamic Iran… means that the enemy will never reach its evil objectives,” Rouhani told crowds at Tehran’s Azadi Square, launching a broadside against a “conspiracy” involving Washington. AFP reports.

“We will not let America become victorious… Iranian people have and will have some economic difficulties but we will overcome the problems by helping each other,” Rouhani continued. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill

President Trump had a message of his own for Iran yesterday, sending a message on Twitter in Persian lambasting Iran’s leadership. “40 years of corruption … 40 years of repression. 40 years of terror … the regime in Iran has produced only #40YearsofFailure … the long-suffering Iranian people deserve a much brighter future,” the president wrote, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

AFGHANISTAN

U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan yesterday assured Afghanistan’s government that the U.S. would not desert the country’s security forces, according to the Afghan Defense Ministry. In his first overseas trip in the role, Shanahan met senior U.S. military officers and top Afghan officials, including President Ashraf Ghani, whose government has been left out of the latest round of peace talks with the Taliban insurgents, who regard the Kabul administration as illegitimate, Craig Nelson and Ehsanullah Amiri report at the Wall Street Journal.

Ghani yesterday said that the Taliban are welcome to set up a political office in Kabul but that his government must be included in any peace talks. In the course of a speech, Ghani rejected the idea of an interim government, which has been welcomed by the Taliban and some opposition figures, vowing that elections will he held as planned later this year, the AP reports.

YEMEN

The Trump administration yesterday threatened to block an effort in the U.S. Congress to end U.S. military backing for the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemeni conflict, continuing an impasse with lawmakers over policy toward the kingdom. Lawmakers from both parties two weeks ago re-introduced the war powers resolution as a way to send a strong message to Riyadh about the humanitarian situation in Yemen and the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi; the administration has labeled the resolution inappropriate because U.S. forces had provided aircraft refueling and other support in the Yemen conflict rather than combat troops, also claiming that the measure would harm relationships in the region and damage the U.S.’ capacity to prevent the spread of extremism. Reuters reports.

The U.N. has appealed to the warring parties in Yemen to allow access to a vast store of grain that is desperately needed in the country – which is on the brink of famine. Aid workers have been unable to reach the Red Sea Mills on the frontlines in the port of Hodeidah for five months; the mills hold enough grain to feed 3.7 million people for a month, but the U.N. claims that the grain is now “at risk of rotting,” the BBC reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea has reportedly continued to produce bomb fuel while in denuclearization talks with the U.S. and may have produced enough in the past year to add as many as seven nuclear weapons to its arsenal, according to a study by Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, released just weeks before a planned second summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Nonetheless, the report found that the North’s freeze in nuclear and missile testing since 2017 mean that Pyongyang’s weapons program probably poses less of a threat than it did at the end of that year, Reuters reports.

“The real test of … Kim’s intentions is whether he is prepared … in exchange for an easing and eventual removal of sanctions … to offer a detailed and transparent accounting of the country’s nuclear assets,” the Financial Times editorial board comments, arguing that “such a process would offer a powerful signal that North Korea does indeed want to rejoin the community of nations.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A new Defense Intelligence Agency report warns that both China and Russia are investing in weapons that could attack U.S. satellites and assets in space, and that both nations are now readying themselves to use space as a battlefield. The agency last month released a report about China’s military capabilities, cautioning that Beijing was making advances in counter-space technology that could threaten U.S. satellites; the new report – “Challenges to Security in Space” – warns that both China and Russia are making advances in space technology and that both are likely to turn to space in the early stages of any major military conflict, Courtney Kube reports at NBC.

Government prosecutors yesterday filed an update in a criminal case stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral inteference — but the filing was made under seal so the details remain shrouded. The case allegedly involves Republican consultant Sam Patten – a one-time associate of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

The U.S. Defense Department is planning to ask Congress for a “massive” hike to a “controversial” war account often labeled a “slush fund,” in order to circumvent mandatory spending limits, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the discussions. Lara Seligman explains at Foreign Policy. 

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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).