The Early Edition: August 2, 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.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

The U.S. formally withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (I.N.F.) Treaty today, after determining that Moscow violated the accord by deploying a new form of cruise missile, claims which the Kremlin has denied. The move leaves only one, soon-to-expire, arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, raising concerns about the potential for a new arms race, David E. Sanger and Edward Wong report at the New York Times.

“Russia is solely responsible for the treaty’s demise,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement today, adding “with the full support of our N.A.T.O. allies, the United States has determined Russia to be in material breach of the treaty, and has subsequently suspended our obligations under the treaty.” Russia’s foreign ministry confirmed the I.N.F. treaty is “formally dead” in a statement reported by state-run Ria Novosti news agency, the BBC reports.

The U.S. will no longer be banned from having ground-launched intermediate-range missiles once it pulls out of the Treaty, but officials have warned that funds to test and develop the missiles may soon run out, Reuters reports.

U.N. secretary general António Guterres has cautioned that the world has lost “an invaluable brake on nuclear war” with the expiry of the I.N.F. treaty today. “This will likely heighten, not reduce, the threat posed by ballistic missiles,” Guterres told reporters, voicing concern over heightened tensions between nuclear-armed states, Julian Borger and Dan Sabbagh report at the Guardian.

N.A.T.O. “has agreed ways to deter Russia from launching a new medium-range missile capable of a nuclear strike on Europe,” the alliance declared today, Reuters reports.

President Trump yesterday signed an executive order imposing new sanctions on Russia for its use of chemical weapons in the poisoning of former intelligence operative Sergei Skripal in the western English town of Salisbury last year. The sanctions were in response to growing pressure from Congress to further punish Moscow for the attack; leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) sent a bipartisan letter to the White House earlier this week, stating: the Chemical and Biological Weapons and Warfare Elimination Act “mandated the second round of sanctions to be imposed within three months, yet well over a year has passed since the attack … therefore, we urge you to take immediate action to hold Russia fully accountable for its blatant use of a chemical weapon in Europe,” Eliana Johnson reports at POLITICO.

An explainer on “why Russia keeps poisoning people” is fielded by Amy MacKinnon at Foreign Policy.

An analysis of the potential for a new arms race following expiry of the 1987 Treaty is provided by Ishaan Tharoor at the Washington Post, who comments that “the end of the I.N.F. Treaty … paves the way for a broader unravelling.”

The KOREAN PENINSULA 

North Korea today twice launched what appeared to be short-range ballistic missiles into the sea in its third round of weapons tests in just over a week, according to South Korea’s military and presidential office. Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (J.C.S.) stated that the launches were conducted at 2:59 a.m. and 3:23 a.m. from an eastern coastal area, and said the projectiles flew 137 miles on an apogee of 15 miles, and at a max speed of Mach 6.9, Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the AP. 

North Korean state media did not have immediate comment on today’s launch, although for the previous launch Wednesday Pyongyang’s state media reported that the country’s leader Kim Jong-un had personally guided the launch of a new “large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system.” The tests have been widely interpreted as a method of pressuring the U.S. into offering concessions when nuclear talks resume, including easing economic sanctions and relaxing disarmament demands, Dasl Yoon and Andrew Jeong report at the Wall Street Journal. 

U.S. President Trump yesterday described Wednesday’s launches as a short-range missiles test with which he had “no problem.” “[The tests] are very standard,” Trump told reporters, adding that he never made an agreement with Kim prohibiting the testing of short-range missiles, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Edward Wong report at the New York Times. 

“The firing of these missiles don’t violate the pledge that Kim Jong-un made to the president about intercontinental-range ballistic missiles,” U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said yesterday in an interview with Fox Business Network, although he added that “you have to ask when the real diplomacy is going to begin, when the working-level discussions on denuclearization will begin,” Reuters reports. 

Conversations with the North are “going on even as we speak,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented from Bangkok, where he is currently attending a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (A.S.E.A.N.,) Reuters reports. 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday told reporters that the Wednesday launch was “no threat to Japanese national security,” while the nation’s defense minister suggested that it did not get close to the islands. Chris Mills Rodrigo reports at the Hill. 

Pyongyang’s recent short-range missile tests are anything but “very standard,” with experts claiming that the new weapon “represents an important advance in North Korea’s ability to deliver a nuclear weapon and evade American missile defenses.” Elias Groll explains at Foreign Policy.  

The missile launches might be geared to take advantage of strained Washington-Seoul-Tokyo relations, Gavin Blair comments at the Guardian. 

CHINA AND HONG KONG 

The Hong Kong garrison of the People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) –China’s army – has released a video showing troops practicing firing on demonstrators.  The three-minute promotional video includes a warning from a P.L.A. soldier shouting in the local Cantonese language, “all consequences are at your own risk” and depicts Chinese soldiers demolishing a car with a rocket and firing gas canisters at a group of civilians, Natasha Khan reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Commander of the P.L.A. garrison in Hong Kong Maj. Gen. Chen Daoxiang described the recent violent demonstrations as “absolutely intolerable,” making the remarks in a threatening speech that coincides with the release of the video. “We resolutely support the action to maintain Hong Kong’s rule of law by the people who love the nation and the city, and we are determined to protect national sovereignty, security, stability and the prosperity of Hong Kong,” Chan added; the speech and the video appear to warn pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong that China is becoming increasingly willing to use force to subdue the demonstrations in the region, Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

The U.S. and other Western nations have been accused of “fanning the flames” of street protests in Hong Kong that “aim to undermine the semi-autonomous region’s prosperity, stability and security” by China’s top diplomat State Councilor Yang Jiechi’s in remarks carried by the official Xinhua News Agency. The AP reports.

The founder of banned Hong Kong independence party the Hong Kong National party – Andy Chan – was arrested yesterday along with seven other individuals in a raid where weapons and petrol bombs were reportedly found, according to a senior police source. In a statement released today, police said that eight people were detained at an industrial building in the district of Sha Tin on charges of possession of an offensive weapon and possession of explosives without a licence, AFP reports.

The F.B.I. have started questioning American graduates of China’s prestige Yenching Academy about the time they spent in China. In the past two years, at least five Yenching graduates were approached by agents to collect intelligence on the program and to determine whether they have been recruited by Chinese espionage efforts, Emily Feng reports at NPR.

IRAN

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani yesterday ridiculed a U.S. decision to impose sanctions on his country’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, claiming that the move showed Washington was “afraid” of Zarif. “It is completely clear that the foundations of the White House have been shaken by the words and logic of an informed, devoted and diplomatic individual,” Rouhani added, AFP reports. 

Rouhani said that Tehran is ready for the worst in the struggle to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers abandoned by the U.S., but that he was sure Iran would eventually prevail. “We are not acting on the assumption we will get results through talks and accords,” Rouhani said, in a reference to European attempts to salvage the deal, Reuters reports. 

Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is working in close coordination with senior Trump administration officials who focus on Middle East policy to find an alternative to the 2015 nuclear deal, according to four people with knowledge of the discussions.  Graham’s involvement comes at a time when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.,) is also reportedly working to influence the administration’s policy toward the Islamic Republic, Erin Banco and Asawin Suebsaeng report at The Daily Beast. 

Japan will not send warships to join a U.S.-led maritime force to guard oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, although it may send patrol aircraft, according to Mainichi newspaper – citing unidentified government sources. “We are closely monitoring the situation and continue to collect information while working closely with the United States and other countries,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga commented when asked about the report, Reuters reports. 

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM 

The death toll from attacks in Yemen’s government-held second city of Aden yesterday stands at 49, with several newly trained police cadets among the casualties. The first of two attacks was a suicide car bombing carried out by jihadists on a police station, while the second involved a drone and missile strike on a military parade, thought to have been carried out by the country’s Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels, AFP reports.  

The strike on the parade marks the deadliest assault on the Saudi-backed coalition forces and their territory since the major drawdown of troops by main coalition partner United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) announced last month. Saeed AL-Batati and David D. Kirkpatrick report at the New York Times. 

Islamic State group have claimed responsibility for the strike on the military parade. Updates at the AP. 

Al-Qaeda militants last night targeted a military camp in Yemen’s southern Abyan province, killing at least 20 troops and setting off hours-long clashes that lasted into early morning today, according to Yemeni officials and tribal leaders, Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP. 

Tech giant Facebook has suspended more than 350 accounts and pages with about 1.4 million followers after it claimed that individuals connected to the Saudi government have run a network of fake accounts and pages to promote state propaganda and target regional rivals. The latest takedown is part of a continuing push to fight “coordinated inauthentic behavior” on the social network, and marks the first such activity the organization has linked to the Saudi government, Al Jazeera reports. 

SYRIA

Syria’s government has reportedly agreed to a conditional cease-fire in northwestern Syria that went into effect midnight yesterday – halting airstrikes, according to state media S.A.N.A.. The truce is conditional on the rebel’s retreat 20 kilometers away from demilitarized areas around the stronghold, the AP reports.

Delegations from the Syrian government and the opposition met in Kazakhstan’s capital of Nur-Sultan for talks on the rebel-held province of Idlib. The two-day Astana talks – named after the previous name of the Kazakh capital – are sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran with Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as the U.N., attending as observers, Al Jazeera reports.

Israel launched a missile attack yesterday in southwestern Syria, causing material damage, according to Syrian state-run media. The official news agency reported that the missile hit Tal Breiqa – a town in Quneitra on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the AP reports.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has authorized an investigation into Russian and Syrian airstrikes against hospitals and clinics in northwestern Syria amid fears that Russia is using U.N.-supplied data to purposely target medical facilities. Guterres ordered the inquiry yesterday following petitions from U.N. Security Council members and human rights groups to do more to ascertain why health facilities and other civilian infrastructure are being hit repeatedly in the recent fighting, Liz Sly reports at the Washington Post.

AFGHANISTAN

The Trump administration is preparing to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan in return for concessions from the Taliban, including a ceasefire and a denouncing of al-Qaeda, as part of an initial deal to end the country’s nearly 18-year-old war, according to U.S. officials. The agreement, which would also require the militants to begin negotiating a larger peace deal directly with the Afghan government, could reduce the number of U.S. troops in the country from around 14,000 to between 8,000 and 9,000, the officials added, Dan Lamothe, John Hudson and Pamela Constable report at the Washington Post.  
Officials reportedly said a final agreement could be struck before the country’s September elections but that challenges remain.
“I would say that they are 80 or 90 per cent of the way there,” one official told the Post, adding “there is still a long way to go on that last 10 or 20 per cent,” Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill. 

Afghan officials say the Taliban have today targeted a police checkpoint in the central Day Kundi province, killing at least 10 policemen there. The provincial governor, Anwar Rahmati, also says that 15 policemen were wounded in today’s attack in the district of Patu, the AP reports. 

AL QAEDA 

The death of the son of former Al Quaeda leader Osama bin Laden –Hamza bin Laden –represents a blow to the militant group, “whose ranks were hollowed out by relentless American attacks and by the rise of the Islamic State [group.]” Rukimi Callimachi provides an analysis at the New York Times. 

“The death of the group’s heir apparent will be a devastating blow to the organization’s brand … and thus its ability to compete with the Islamic State for recruits and notoriety,” Colin P. Clarke comments at Foreign Policy. 

Hamza was being groomed as a future leader of the militant group, although he “had very limited experience as an organiser, propagandist, strategist and fighter … all roles that the head of al-Qaida might be expected to fulfil,” Jason Burke explains at the Guardian.  

Current Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is reportedly suffering from a potentially debilitating heart condition, according to a senior U.S. counterterrorism official. The official cautioned that it was unclear how al-Zawahiri’s condition would affect the militant group’s leadership, John Bowden reports at the Hill. 

SUDAN 

At least four people were short dead yesterday at a demonstration in Omdurman – the twin city of Sudan’s capital Khartoum, as thousands of demonstrators gathered to protest the killing of four school children during Monday’s rally in the south-central city of El-Obeid, Nada Rashwan reports at the New York Times.

Nine soldiers from the Rapid Support Forces (R.S.F.) have been dismissed and arrested in connection with recent violence in Omdurman and El-Obeid, Sudan’s military council spokesperson Lieutenant General Shams El Din Kabbashi said today. Kabbashi added that the governor of North Kordofan state and its security council “will be held accountable” for the death of six people in the state capital El-Obeid earlier this week, Reuters reports.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Federal Judge Carl Nichols has temporarily blocked New York from handing over Trump’s tax returns in the event they are requested by Congress. Judge Nichols yesterday sided with the president’s lawyers, who argued that if they “waited to take legal action until after the tax returns were turned over, it would be too late to challenge the state law because the tax documents would have already been made public,” Pete Williams reports at NBC.

Senior Justice Department officials have decided not to charge former F.B.I. director James Comey over his handling of memos documenting conversations with President Trump; an individual speaking on the condition of anonymity said the conclusion was “not a close call,” Devlin Barrett reports at the New York Times.

Trump’s pick to serve as the director of national intelligence Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) continues to be scrutinized for “embellishing his record.” Ratcliffe’s claim that “as a U.S. Attorney, I arrested over 300 illegal immigrants on a single day,” appears to be at odds with the court record and the recollections of others who took part in the operation, Robert O’Harrow Jr. and Shawn Boburg report at the Washington Post.

Vice Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) stated that it would be “clearly disqualifying” if it transpires that Ratcliffe exaggerated his biography. “I want to give Mr. Ratcliffe a chance to explain himself — but for an individual that’s got less actual intelligence experience than anyone that’s been put forward for any senior position in the intelligence community, that this guy has even had to take that very thin résumé and pad it, that would be clearly disqualifying,” Warner told reporters, Alexander Bolton and Morgan Chalfant report at the Hill.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

President Trump yesterday claimed that he did not raise the issue of election meddling with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a recent phone conversation. “We didn’t talk about that,” Trump said when asked by reporters at the White House whether he addressed Putin on the topic when the two spoke Wednesday, Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill. 
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) yesterday forecasted that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will bring up election security legislation in the fall after a sustained pressure campaign. “I do want to make one prediction: I predict that the pressure will continue to mount on Republican senators, especially Leader McConnell, and they will be forced to join us in taking meaningful action on election security this fall,” Schumer told reporters during a pre-recess press conference, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Washington D.C. Judge Amy Berman Jackson yesterday denied longtime Trump confidant and self-professed “dirty trickster” Roger Stone’s request to dismiss the charges against him, finding that Stone “has not identified any legal ground” for doing so. Jackson also rejected an attempt by Stone to investigate “selective prosecution” by former special counsel Robert Mueller, who indicted Stone as part of his investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign, Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill. 

More than half of House Democrats now claim that they would vote to launch impeachment proceedings against the president, marking a “crucial” threshold that backers say will require Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to reconsider her opposition to the idea. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO. 

U.S. MILITARY 

Newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is reviewing the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (J.E.D.I.) multi-year cloud-computing contract, according to Pentagon spokesperson Elissa Smith, who stated that said “no decision” would be made on the contract until Esper had “completed his examination.” The deal, which could be worth up to $10 billion for services rendered over as many as 10 years, is set to go to either Amazon or Microsoft, Aime Williams and Shannon Bond report at the Financial Times. 

The Senate yesterday gave final passage to a budget agreement approved by the House last week that would increase military spending limits and suspend the debt ceiling through mid-2021. President Trump is expected to sign the measure, which passed the Senate 67-28, Rebecca Shabad and Frank Thorp V report at NBC

The Senate yesterday confirmed Adm. Michael Gilday to be the next chief of naval operations. Gilday was confirmed by voice vote as the Senate wrapped up work before its August recess, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Top U.S. Navy S.E.A.L. Rear Adm. Collin Green has sent a “blistering” letter to the force, writing in boldface that “we have a problem,” following several high profile incidents of alleged misbehavior by the Navy’s elite service members. Green has given commanders until August 7 to detail the problems they see and provide recommendations on how they will ensure troops are engaging in ethical and professional conduct, Barbara Starr reports at CNN.

A Navy fighter pilot who crashed his F/A-18E Super Hornet Wednesday in California has died, the Navy confirmed yesterday. The pilot was flying a routine training mission when he crashed in Death Valley National Park; “the Navy mourns the loss of one of our own and our hearts go out to the family and friends affected by this tragedy,” the Navy responded in a statement, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill. 

The F.B.I.  

The F.B.I. has identified fringe conspiracy theories as a domestic terrorist threat, according to a previously unpublicized document obtained by Yahoo News. The bureau’s intelligence bulletin dated May 30, 2019, describes “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists,” as a rising threat, and notes that it is the first such report to do so, Jana Winter reports at Yahoo News. 

The memo specifically cites QAnon – a group that believes there is a “deep state” working against President Trump – as a group whose messages could lead to “violent acts.” Also cited is Pizzagate – the conspiracy theory that claims that Trump’s former presidential opponent Hillary Clinton and other top Democratic figures are running a child sex-trafficking ring beneath a pizza shop in Washington, D.C., Zack Budryk reports at the Hill. 

The threat of conspiracy-related violence might well be partially attributed to President Trump’s “endorsement and amplification of conspiracy theories and theorists such as QAnon,” Justin Hendrix comments at Just Security, providing an explainer on the QAnon narrative, the president’s support for the fringe theory and how we might respond. 

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

At least four people were wounded after at least six small bombs exploded today in the Thai capital Bangkok, as it hosted a regional summit attended by top diplomats, Al Jazeera reports.

President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner promoted his Middle East peace plan during meetings this week in Israel and Arab countries in an effort to garner support amid suggestions from administration officials that the plan would not guarantee full statehood for Palestinians, Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. President Trump declared yesterday he was weighing a quarantine or blockade of Venezuela, as the U.S. ramps up pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to surrender power, Reuters reports.

Acting U.S. homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan headed to Guatemala this week in an effort to promote the major new asylum agreement between Trump officials and the Guatemalan government five days after signing it, Nick Miroff reports at the Washington Post.

Manhattan state prosecutors have subpoenaed the Trump Organization seeking documents connected to hush-money payments made to adult film star Stormy Daniels, Rebecca Ballhaus and Michael Rothfeld report at the Wall Street Journal. 

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About the Author(s)

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).

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).