The Early Edition: March 11, 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 U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) yesterday recommenced their attack on the final Islamic State Group (I.S.I.S.) redoubt in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz, aiming to destroy the last vestige of the militants’ self-declared “caliphate.” The S.D.F. launched the offensive around 6pm, with the fighting resuming after a deadline for the I.S.I.S. armed men to surrender expired, Al Jazeera reports.

The S.D.F. reportedly has been poised to advance into the enclave for weeks but has held back to allow for the evacuation of civilians, many of whom are wives and children of I.S.I.S. fighters. S.D.F. official Mustafa Bali claimed that no further civilians had emerged from the enclave since Saturday and the S.D.F. had not observed any more civilians in the area, prompting the decision to attack, Reuters reports.

“The military operations have started … our forces are now clashing with the terrorists and the attack started,” Bali commented. Earlier yesterday, Bali had sent a message on Twitter stating that “the timeline … for I.S.I.S. to surrender themselves is over” and that S.D.F forces were set to “finish what is left in I.S.I.S. hands,” Ben Wedeman and Jay Croft report at CNN.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton yesterday warned that the threat of I.S.I.S. will continue, and that the militants maintain a dispersed presence in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Making the comments at A.B.C.’s “This Week,” Bolton defended Trump’s assessment of the terrorist group including the president’s past insistence that it had been defeated; “the president has been, I think, as clear as clear can be when he talks about the defeat of the I.S.I.S.  … he has never said that the elimination of the territorial caliphate means the end of I.S.I.S. in total” Bolton said, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) yesterday would not say whether Syrian President Bashar Assad is a war criminal, and did not clarify whether she would trust her own intelligence community if elected. “I think that the evidence needs to be gathered, and as I have said before, if there is evidence that he has committed war crimes, he should be prosecuted as such,” Gabbard told C.N.N. host Dana Bash during a town hall event in Austin, Texas, Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

The baby of U.K. teenager Shamima Begum –  who joined I.S.I.S. and has sought to return home – has died in a detention camp in Syria, according to a spokesperson for the group currently holding Begum. Rukmini Callimachi reports at the New York Times.

An account of the final remaining I.S.I.S. militants holding out against the S.D.F. at Baghouz is provided at Reuters.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 211 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Feb. 10 and Feb. 23. [Central Command]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The Trump administration is attempting to find a response to reports that Pyongyang is preparing to launch a missile soon, with the U.S. having already called off two large-scale spring military drills with South Korea in an attempt to accelerate denuclearization talks with the North. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton yesterday claimed that President Trump would be “pretty disappointed” should North Korea carry out a nuclear test or a missile launch, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Bolton added that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “has a very clear idea” as to Trump’s position on missile tests. “I’d rather not get into specifics on that,” Bolton remarked during an appearance on A.B.C.’s “This Week,” when asked about new images indicating activity at a North Korean missile site, Kyle Balluck reports at the Hill.

Indonesian woman Siti Aisyah – detained for two years on suspicion of killing Kim’s half-brother – was freed from custody today after Malaysian prosecutors unexpectedly dropped the murder charge against her, with the Indonesian government having lobbied repeatedly for her release. The trial in the matter is set to resume Thursday, when prosecutors are expected to reply to a request from the legal team of Aisyah’s Vietnamese co-defendant Doan Thi Huong – for the government to withdraw the charges against her too, Eileen Ng reports at the AP.

The North has reportedly found ways of getting round U.N. sanctions aimed at forcing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear-weapons programs and long-range missiles.  Kim’s administration has accelerated its import of petroleum products through secret ship-to-ship transfers, also defying sanctions by selling small arms and other military equipment to the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and to Libya and Sudan, according to a report to the U.N. Security Council by a panel of international experts expected to be issued this week, Michael R. Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

NATIONAL EMERGENCY AND BORDER WALL

President Trump will ask Congress for another $8.6 billion to complete a 722-mile wall along the Southern border, according to a senior administration official yesterday.  The president will make the request today as part of his broader proposal for the upcoming fiscal year; the sum demanded — markedly greater than the $5.7 billion border-security demand that precipitated the 35-day government shutdown — looks set to divide spending negotiators again this year, “likely resulting in static funding levels for much of the rest of the government or another lapse,” Jennifer Scholtes and Caitlin Emma report at POLITICO.

Trump’s ask will consist of $5 billion in funding for the Department of Homeland Security to continue building sections of a wall, in addition to  $3.6 billion for the Defense Department’s military construction budget to erect more sections of a wall, Damian Paletta and Erica Werner report at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

It would be “a mistake” for special counsel Robert Mueller not to obtain in-person testimony from President Trump, House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) stated yesterday, making the remarks on N.B.C’s “Meet the Press.” “I think it is a mistake,” Schiff replied when asked by anchor Chuck Todd whether it would be a misstep for Mueller –investigating Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign – not to interview the president; “I’ve said all along that I don’t think Bob Mueller should rely on written answers … when you get written answers from a witness, it’s really the lawyers’ answers as much as the client’s answer … and here you need to be able to ask follow-up questions in real time,” Schiff argued, Allan Smith reports at NBC.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) is reportedly interested in talking to the president’s lawyers Sheri Dillon and Stefan Passantino, who are responsible for the president’s ethics and financial disclosures. The two attorneys could prove central to determining whether Trump committed crimes by making “hush-money” payments to adult entertainer Stormy Daniels, Heidi Przybyla reports at NBC.

Oversight panel member Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) commented yesterday that she expects that Cummings will eventually refer Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to the Department of Justice for alleged perjury related to his testimony late last month. During an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” Hill stated that she is unsure whether Cohen lied to lawmakers when he claimed he “never asked for, nor would I accept, a pardon from” Trump, despite reports that his former attorney raised the idea with the president’s lawyers last year, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Former F.B.I. Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said yesterday morning that he was surprised by the “incredibly lenient” sentence received by former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort. District Judge T.S. Elliot last week sentenced Manafort to 47 months in prison for tax and bank fraud — a punishment significantly below the 19½-24½years that Manafort might have received under sentencing guidelines; “I think it’s an incredibly lenient sentence in light not just of the offenses he was convicted for but for the additional offenses that he has pled guilty to in D.C. and the offenses he’s acknowledged essentially in the sentencing process in Virginia that he is responsible for,” McCabe told C.B.S.’ Margaret Brennan on “Face the Nation,” Aubree Eliza Weaver reports at POLITICO.

An analysis of the broader reaction to Manafort’s sentence is provided by Sharon LaFraniere and Adam Blinder at the New York Times.

When Mueller’s report is finally completed “the question will quickly become how to identify any smoking guns,” Quinta Jurecic writes at the New York Times, identifying: the ‘Moscow Project;’ ‘Dirt’ on Trump’s 2016 Democratic rival Hillary Clinton; longtime Trump associate Roger Stone and Wikileaks; national security adviser Michael Flynn’s promises to Moscow; Russian influence operations; and obstruction of justice as the topics to look out for

“Robert Mueller may be the least of the president’s worries,” Jefcoate O’Donnell writes at Foreign Policy in an explainer and flow-chart illustrating the myriad legal faced by the president.

VENEZUELA

At least 15 people died over the weekend as a result of a massive electricity outage striking Venezuela. Power returned sporadically to parts of the country after electricity first went out on Thursday afternoon; however, another massive outage on Saturday plunged the capital Caracas back into darkness,  with the failure to restore power putting hundreds of patients dependent on medical equipment at risk, Ryan Dube and Maolis Castro report at the Wall Street Journal.

Opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó yesterday alleged that those who died during the outage had been “murdered” by the government of President Nicolás Maduro, also claiming that the country’s private sector had lost at least $400 million from power outages, Patrick Oppmann, Stefano Pozzebon and Susannah Cullinane report at CNN.

 “The sabotage accusations against the United States lack any semblance of credibility … Venezuela’s power grid has been in gradual decline for over a decade,” Francisco Torro comments in an Op-Ed at the Washington Post.

AFGHANISTAN

At least 13 civilians including several children were killed in U.S. airstrikes in eastern Afghanistan launched in support of an Afghan-led operation against the Taliban, according to local officials and tribal elders yesterday. Members of a C.I.A.-sponsored Afghan strike force requested air support after coming under fire on Saturday as they attacked Taliban fighters in Nangarhar Province, Zabihullah Ghazi and Fahim Abed report at the New York Times.

The Taliban’s “elusive” leader Mullah Omar lived within walking distance of U.S. bases in Afghanistan for years, according to a new biography. Emma Graham-Harrison provides an account at the Guardian.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

An account of the effects of the Trump administration’s attempt to ban transgender troops from serving is provided by Dave Philips at the New York Times.

An analysis of how President Trump has moved to secure his legacy through the appointment of conservative judges is provided by Tom McCarthy at the Guardian.

The granting of a security clearance to the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner may have been “permissible,” but “is it OK? no, not even close,” Chuck Roesnburg argues at NBC. 

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).