The Early Edition: May 28, 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.

U.S. MILITARY

President Trump called for more military spending as he wrapped up his Japan trip with Memorial Day addresses to troops on U.S. and Japanese Navy ships at a base south of Tokyo. Trump stated that the U.S. needed additional guided-missile destroyers, fast attack submarines and joint strike jet fighters, adding that the “next U.S. aircraft carrier order will require steam catapults, instead of electric,” which he claims are less costly and last longer. Vivian Salama and Alastair Galee report at the Wall Street Journal.

Japan’s military is expected to reinforce U.S. forces throughout Asia and elsewhere, according to comments made by Trump following an inspection of Japan’s largest warship, the Kaga, a helicopter carrier designed to carry submarine-hunting helicopters to distant waters. “With this extraordinary new equipment the Kaga will help our nations defend against a range of complex threats in the region and far beyond,” Trump said in a speech on the ship’s hangar deck. Reuters reports.

Trump “touted” the U.S. military power in the course of the speech. The president told service members that they were part of “the most fearsome group of American warriors this side of the Pacific,” adding that the U.S. military has no intention of losing its paramount status in the world, and insisting it will “forever remain second to none… we have equipment, missiles, rockets, tanks, planes, ships – no one in the entire world can build them like we do … it’s not even close,” the AFP reports.

“One of the key reasons the U.S. military is the best in the world is thanks to its fidelity to the rule of law – in both combat and peace,” Donald J. Guter, Rear Admiral, JAGC, USN (Ret.), John D. Hutson, Rear Admiral, JAGC, USN (Ret.) and Rachel VanLandingham, Lt Col, USAF (Ret.) comment at Just Security, arguing that “adherence to the law is essential to combat effectiveness.”

“Trump’s inclination to grant pardons to several military and contractor personnel accused or convicted of war crimes may itself be a violation of the laws of war – if not a war crime,” Gabor Rona writes in an analysis for Just Security.

The post-9/11 generation of veterans have “mixed feelings” about Trump’s plans to issue war crimes pardons, Lindsay L. Rodman writes at Just Security, revealing the results of a flash poll conducted last week in which over 1,600 member veterans and military service members responded.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump stated yesterday that he is not “personally bothered” by recent short-range missile tests by Pyongyang at a joint press conference following hours of talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “All I know is that there have been no nuclear tests … there have been no ballistic missiles going out … there have been no long-range missiles going out … and I think that someday we’ll have a deal,” Trump stated, adding that was in “no rush,” Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

Prime Minister Abe – hosting the president on a four-day state visit – publicly disagreed with Trump, commenting that that he is concerned and the missile tests were “extremely regrettable” and pose a threat to Japan’s security, the AP reports.

There is “great respect” between the U.S. and North Korea, President Trump claimed yesterday, predicting “good things,” despite the recent short-range missile tests conducted by Pyongyang. “I personally think that lots of good things will come with North Korea … I may be right, I may be wrong, but I feel that,” Trump stated at the beginning of bilateral talks with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo adding that “we’ve come a long way,” the AFP reports.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton is “more than ignorant” to argue that North Korea’s recent short-range missile tests are a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, according to a statement made by the North’s foreign ministry yesterday. The statement, made by an unnamed North Korean foreign ministry spokesperson, added that, “giving up missile tests would mean giving up the right to self-defense,” Josh Smith reports at Reuters.

Bolton was also called a “warmonger” and “defective human product” by the spokesperson. The statement came after Bolton last week claimed that there was “no doubt” that North Korea had violated the U.N. Security Council resolutions by firing short-range ballistic missile, the AP reports.

President Trump yesterday denied that North Korea had fired any ballistic missiles or violated the U.N. Security Council resolutions, praising North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a “very smart man,” Ashley Parker and Simon Denyer report at the Washington Post.

Trump and Kim “agree” in their negative assessment of former vice president Joe Biden – who was labeled a “fool of low I.Q.” last week by North Korea’s state media – according to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Sanders also defended the president’s approach to efforts to denuclearize North Korea, Maggie Haberman reports at the New York Times.

“Kim Jong-un made a statement that Joe Biden is a low I.Q. individual … he probably is … based on his record,Trump told a news conference in Tokyo, adding “I think I agree with him on that,” Reuters reports.

Trump did little to reassure Japanese leaders about North Korea during his four-day state visit. The AP provides a breakdown of the president’s recent trip.

Trump is isolating himself from allies and even his own advisers on North Korea, Anita Kumar writes at POLITICO explaining the recent events.

CHINA

Taiwan landed military aircraft on a normally busy highway today, simulating a response to a Chinese attack on its airfields, as part of annual exercise designed to display the island’s military capabilities.  Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, presiding over the exercise, commented:  “our national security has faced multiple challenges … whether it is the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s long-distance training or its fighter jets circling Taiwan, it has posed a certain degree of threat to regional peace and stability,” Johnson Lai reports at the AP.

President Trump declared another “national emergency” last week —the fifth of his presidency— purportedly over threats to U.S. technology. The move is thought to be predominantly geared toward Huawei, Andrew Boyle explains at Just Security, arguing: “should the emergency declaration … be used purely as leverage in a trade war, or as a way to avoid engaging with Congress to address security concerns, it would clearly be an abuse of the intent of emergency powers.”

U.S. lawmakers last summer enacted a bill of attainder targeting Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. The company has sued and today will file a motion for summary judgment asking the court to declare the law unconstitutional, Huawei Chief Legal Officer Song Liuping writes in an Op-Ed at the Wall Street Journal.

“Trump and his aides want to force nations to make an agonizing choice: which side of a new Berlin Wall do they want to live on?” David E. Sanger writes in an analysis at the New York Times, explaining that Washington is portraying the fight against Huawei “in Cold War terms.”

IRAN

The U.S. is not seeking “regime change” in Iran, President Trump said yesterday. Speaking at a joint press conference in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump commented that Iran “has a chance to be a great country, with the same leadership … we’re not looking for regime change, I want to make that clear … we’re looking for no nuclear weapons,” AFP reports.

“I really believe that Iran would like to make a deal … I think that’s very smart of them and I think there’s a possibility for that to happen also,” Trump added. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hit out at U.S. following Trump’s comments, sending a message on Twitter insisting that Iran was not seeking nuclear weapons. Zarif also accused the U.S. of causing regional tensions and “hurting the Iranian people” – following the expansion of U.S. military presence in the Gulf, Al Jazeera reports.

“Ayatollah (Ali) @khamenei_ir long ago said we’re not seeking nuclear weapons—by issuing a fatwa [edict] banning them,” Zarif added in the tweet. Reuters reports.          

Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard said today it does not fear a possible war with the U.S. and claimed that the U.S. has not grown in power in recent years. “The enemy is not more powerful than before,” Guards spokesperson Gen. Ramazan Sharif commented, Nasser Karimi reports at the AP.

Iran sees no prospect of negotiations with the U.S., an Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson said today. Reuters reports.

Washington’s sanctions policy threatens the security of the Middle East, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said yesterday, according to a statement on the ministry’s website. Reuters reports.

Tehran’s money changers claim that scores of Iranians see the U.S. moves in the region as posturing rather than real threats, predicting instead that the decline of the Iranian economy will eventually force Iran’s leaders to negotiate with Washington. Benoit Faucon and Aresu Eqbali report at the Wall Street Journal.

“The only major punitive measure left against Iran is war … but not even Mr Trump appears ready to go that far,” Najmeh Bozorgmehr comments at the Financial Times in an account of how Iranians have got used to the threat of sanctions.

IRAQ

An Iraqi court sentenced two French members of the Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) to death today, bringing the total number of French former militants convicted on death penalties this week to six. The men are among a group of 12 French citizens detained by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in neighboring Syria and handed over to Iraq in January; French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said earlier today that his government is working to spare the group of condemned Frenchmen from execution, the AP reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 10 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq between April 21 and May 4 [Central Command].

SYRIA

Israel has carried out a rocket attack in Syria’s Golan Heights region, according to Syrian state news and the Israeli Defense Force (I.D.F.) “An Israeli missile targeted Tel al-Shaar in Quneitra” Syrian news agency S.A.N.A. said, adding that a “military vehicle was targeted and there are wounded;” the I.D.F. confirmed the attack in a statement posted on social media yesterday, claiming that the strike had been in retaliation for anti-aircraft fire at an Israeli fighter jet earlier in the day, Al Jazeera reports.

Syrian government air raids killed at least nine people yesterday, after hitting a crowded residential area in the northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib, according to rescuers and activists.  U.K.-based monitor The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 17 killed yesterday, including nine in the town of Ariha and six others in the village of Hazareen, Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

New satellite photos show significant damage to Syrian villages and surrounding farmland as a result of the government in Idlib. The images, provided by the Colorado-based Maxar Satellites today, show fires in olive groves and orchards during harvest season around the villages of  Kfar Nabudah and Habeet; the U.N. said the fires, triggered by bombings, destroyed staple crops such as wheat and barley, the AP reports.

Russian-backed Syrian government forces will be able to advance all the way to the Turkish border if they penetrate rebel defenses in the northwest, top opposition official Fawaz Hilal – in charge of Idlib region – has stated, urging Turkey to do more to shield the area from a major attack.  “This ferocious attack is a bone-breaking battle … if the regime is able to break our defensive lines in northern Hama and southern Idlib it will not stop until it reaches the borders,” Hilal commented during an interview, Reuters reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel says it is willing to engage in U.S.-mediated talks with Lebanon to resolve a border dispute over a resource-rich sliver of the Mediterranean Sea. Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said he met yesterday with U.S. envoy David Satterfield, who has shuttled between the countries with the goal of demarcating their maritime boundary over past weeks; Steinitz “expressed Israel’s openness’” to negotiations “for the benefit of both countries’ interests in developing natural gas reserves and oil,” the AP reports.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has played “a last-minute gambit” in order to persuade lawmakers to help him form a government, threatening to call fresh elections if deadlocked negotiations do not succeed. Oliver Holmes reports at the Guardian.

“Hoping things will work out with Israel’s coalition formation and Bibi [Netanyahu] and I can continue to make the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever,” U.S. President Trump commented in message on Twitter yesterday, adding: “a lot more to do!” Owen Daugherty reports at the Hill.

AFGHANISTAN

A 14-strong Taliban delegation led by the insurgent’s chief negotiator Mullah Baradar visited Moscow today to attend a ceremony that was followed by informal talks with senior Afghan politicians on the country’s peace process, according to Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid. The meeting took place during accelerated diplomatic efforts to revive stalled talks between the two sides, following the failure of a planned session in the Qatari capital Doha last month, Reuters reports.

“The Islamic Emirate wants peace but the first step is to remove obstacles to peace and end the occupation of Afghanistan,” Baradar said following the meeting, appearing openly on television. Reuters reports.

Attacks on schools in Afghanistan in 2018 tripled compared to the previous year, partly because militants targeted schools used as polling stations in October parliamentary elections, U.N. children’s agency U.N.I.C.E.F. reported today. The number of attacks on schools increased from 68 in 2017 to 192 in 2018, marking the first time attacks on schools had increased since 2015, Rahim Faiez reports at the AP.

VENEZUELA

The U.S. today walked out of the Conference on Disarmament to protest that Venezuela has taken the chair of the U.N.-sponsored forum. “We have to try to do what we can to prevent these types of states from presiding over international bodies,” U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood told reporters after leaving the session in Geneva, adding that “a representative of Juan Guaido, the interim president, should be in this body … should be sitting in that chair right now…the former [Nicolas] Maduro regime is in essence dead,” Reuters reports.

Wood explained that “nothing that comes out of the current session would be legitimate,” insisting that “a rogue state” was taking over, shortly after Venezuelan Ambassador Jorge Valero became president of the Conference on Disarmament, the AP reports.

President Maduro yesterday promised to show “good faith” ahead of talks in Norway between representatives of his government and those of opposition leader Juan Guaido. Maduro stated in a televized address: “we are going to be showing our very best good faith … to be able to find, based on the platform the parties agreed on, peaceful, democratic solutions to help overcome Venezuela’s conflict,” the AFP reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Bouts of fighting are drawing near to the center of Libyan capital Tripoli, as Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (L.N.A.) continues its fight against militias loosely allied with a U.N.-backed government, according to L.N.A. official Saraj al-Majbri. Reuters reports.

Protesters in Sudan started a two-day general strike today to put pressure on the ruling army to transfer power to a civilian government. Al Jazeera reports.

A group of U.S. Navy pilots reported seeing unidentified flying objects while training over the East Coast in 2014 and 2015. Helene Cooper, Ralph Blumenthal and Leslie Kean report at the New York Times.

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan heads to the annual Shangri-La defence forum in Singapore today to deliver a major policy speech on the region. Shanahan is expected to lay out his vision for the Asia-Pacific, with a particular focus on China, and what specifically the Pentagon is doing to implement its National Defence Strategy in the region, Reuters reports.

President Trump is reportedly restructuring his legal team, adding litigation specialists as he shifts from dealing with special counsel Robert Mueller to contesting Democratic-led Congressional investigations, Reuters reports. 

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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).

Nat O'Connell

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow her on Twitter (@oconnellnat).