The Early Edition: March 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

President Trump yesterday claimed that Islamic State Group (I.S.I.S.) would be “gone by tonight,” holding up to reporters a pair of maps that he claimed illustrates the dramatic reduction of I.S.I.S.’ presence in the country since his election in 2016. The president revealed the maps in response to a question regarding whether he had reversed his Syria policy, Kate Galioto reports at POLITICO.

“When I took over … it was a mess,” Trump commented, indicating red areas on the map controlled by I.S.I.S. “Now, at bottom … there is no red … in fact, there’s actually a tiny spot which will be gone by tonight,” the president added, Reuters reports.

Trump’s claim marked the second time in the last month that the president has been prepared to declare the liberation of the militant’s self-proclaimed ‘caliphate,’ that had formerly covered an area roughly the size of Britain across Iraq and Syria. However, in Syria, officials with the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) close to the final remaining I.S.I.S. enclave claimed that a group of I.S.I.S. fighters still control a strip of land along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, where they are holed up with women and children, Katie Rogers and Ben Hubard report at the New York Times.

Islamic State Group’s territorial demise will not end their influence in the region, according to experts on the region. Farah Najjar provides an analysis at Al Jazeera.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 99 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Feb. 24 and March 9 [Central Command]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday appealed to the U.S. to recognize Israeli governance of most of the occupied Golan Heights during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Netanyahu’s attempts seemed to highlight growing awareness that the Trump administration may change U.S. stance on the territory: a recently published annual human rights report by the State Department used the phrase “Israeli-controlled” rather than “Israeli-occupied” to describe the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza, marking in a departure from tradition, Edward Wong reports at the New York Times.

Pompeo’s visit has given Netanyahu a “welcome boost” at the climactic moments of a tightly fought re-election campaign. Pompeo appeared alongside Netanyahu in Jerusalem yesterday, praising the close links between their countries and reserving stern remarks for mutual enemy Iran; Netanyahu praised the U.S. stance against Iran and said he expects to discuss ways to take even tougher action against Tehran during his talks with President Trump next week, the AP reports.

Pompeo is today scheduled to hold talks with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and is expected to ask him to make greater efforts to shield Lebanese policies from Iranian influence – while knowing that that may be hard to achieve since the Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group has three appointees in Hariri’s cabinet, Al Jazeera reports.

Two Palestinian men have been killed in clashes with Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) soldiers in the occupied West Bank. The I.D.F. announced that explosive devices were thrown from a car at troops guarding Jewish worshippers at Joseph’s Tomb in the city of Nablus, adding that the troops opened fire, killing two assailants, the BBC reports.

AFGHANISTAN

A series of explosives were detonated near a Shi’ite shrine and cemetery in the Afghan capital of Kabul this morning to mark the holiday of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, leaving at least five dead and as many as 20 wounded, according to Afghan officials. The police’s initial investigation indicated that three explosive devises had been remotely detonated, setting off the successive blasts, according to the Interior Ministry’s spokesperson Nasrat Rahim, Amir Shah reports at the AP.

U.S. special representative for Afghanistan – Zalmay Khalilzad – will today meet with counterparts from China and Russia as well as European Union diplomats to discuss Afghanistan, as part of his attempt to forge a peace deal with the Taliban and bring a close to the U.S.’ longest war. “Discussion topics include international support for the Afghan peace process, the role each party can play in bringing an end to the war, and progress to date in peace talks,” the State Department said in a statement, Reuters reports.

NEW ZEALAND MOSQUE ATTACK

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern today announced a national ban on all military-style semiautomatic weapons, all high-capacity ammunition magazines and all parts that allow weapons to be modified into the type of guns used to kill 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch last week. “What we’re banning today are the things used in last Friday’s attack,” Ardern said, adding, it’s about all of us, it’s in the national interest and it’s about safety,” Damien Cave and Charlotte Graham-McLay report at the New York Times.

New Zealand reportedly plans to confront Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after he said last week’s terrorist attack was part of a broader plot against his country and threatened to send New Zealanders and Australians home in coffins. Rob Taylor and David Gauthier-Villiers report at the Wall Street Journal.

An analysis of Tech giant Facebook’s response to last week’s attack following the broadcast of the violence across social media is provided by Joshua Geltzer at Just Security. “Much of the commentary over the past week has lumped together the real-time broadcast of the violence in Christchurch with the continued availability and indeed spread of recordings of that violence after the attack was over,” Geltzer comments, arguing that “those are, of course, related challenges insofar as they involve the same basic content, but they’re distinguishable in key ways … and conflating them muddies rather than clarifies the problem and its potential solutions.”

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump yesterday told reporters he does not understand why special counsel Robert Mueller is writing a report, but that he wants the general public to see it in any cae. “I have no idea when it’s going to be released” the president said of the long-awaited report, which Mueller will submit to Attorney General William Barr at the conclusion of his investigation into Russian election interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign; “it’s interesting that a man gets appointed by a deputy, he writes a report, uh, you know, never figured that one out,” Trump added, also asking reporters on the White House South Lawn to “explain” why Mueller gets to write a report “because my voters don’t get it and I don’t get it,” Alan Smith reports at NBC.

The possible implications of Trump’s legal team choosing to executive privilege on the release of the Mueller report are explored by Elie Honig at CNN, who poses the following questions: 1.will Barr show Trump the report in advance?; 2. if Trump asserts executive privilege, will Barr accept or reject it?; and 3. if the dispute goes to the courts, who will prevail?

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Department of Defense Office of Inspector General – which serves as a watchdog to the Pentagon – is launching an investigation into whether acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan violated ethics rules and promoted his former employer Boeing while working in government. “The Department of Defense Office of Inspector General has decided to investigate complaints we recently received that Acting Secretary Patrick Shanahan allegedly took actions to promote his former employer, Boeing, and disparage its competitors, allegedly in violation of ethics rules,” spokesperson Dwrena Allen announced in a statement yesterday, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet yesterday commented on the “magnitude and gravity of the human rights impact” of Venezuela’s current political crisis, also stating that the country had become “a worrying destabilizing factor in the region.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

Momentum is reportedly building among deputies in the Iraqi parliament to oust U.S. troops entirely from the nation—a development that would “leave Iraq’s political future in the hands of neighboring Iran and leave its citizens more vulnerable to the Islamic State [group,]” Geneive Abdo explains at Foreign Policy.

The “civil war” within the Republican party is exemplified by the marriage of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway and conservative lawyer and Trump critic George Conway. Courtney Weaver provides an analysis at the Financial Times. 

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).