The Early Edition: August 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.  

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles off the country’s east coast early Saturday — the fifth such launch in a little over two weeks from North Korea — Seoul officials said, just hours after U.S. President Trump expressed optimism about future nuclear talks that remain gridlocked. The test-firings were overseen by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who reportedly expressed “great satisfaction” over the weapons launch, Chloe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

The two projectiles were a new type of missile, North Korean state media K.C.N.A. reported yesterday. The report did not provide any technical specifications but said the projectiles were a “new weapon” developed to suit the country’s “terrain condition,” AFP reports.

Trump said on Friday he received a “beautiful” three-page letter from Kim and indicated that the pair would meet soon again to discuss denuclearization. “I think we’ll have another meeting … he really wrote a beautiful, three-page — I mean great from top to bottom — a really beautiful letter,” Trump told reporters at the White House; the president repeated that he was not troubled by the flurry of short-range weapons launched by Kim despite the growing threat they pose to U.S. allies in the region, saying Pyongyang has never broken its promise to put a break on nuclear tests, Rishika Dugyala reports at POLITICO.

Trump added that Kim apologized for testing short range missiles and claimed the country would start negotiations and stop missile testing as soon as U.S.-South Korea military exercises end, making the comments in a pair of messages sent on Twitter. “It was a long letter, much of it complaining about the ridiculous and expensive exercises,” Trump stated, adding: “I look forward to seeing Kim Jong Un in the not too distant future! a nuclear free North Korea will lead to one of the most successful countries in the world!” Simon Denyer and David Nakamura report at the Washington Post.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry yesterday in a separate statement slammed South Korea for continuing to host military exercises with the U.S.. Director-general for American affairs at Pyongyang’s foreign ministry Kwon Jong Gun warned that there will not be inter-Korean talks unless South Korea and the U.S. conclude joint military drills that set North Korea as an “enemy,” making the comments in a statement carried by K.C.N.A., Reuters reports.

AFGHANISTAN

The latest round of peace talks between the Taliban and the U.S. on an agreement to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Afghanistan concluded early today, with both sides now expected to consult with their leaders on the next steps, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said today in a statement. Mujahid described the eighth round of talks, which took place in the Gulf Arab nation of Qatar, as “long and useful,” without commenting on their outcome, Kathy Gannon and Cara Anna report at the AP.

The talks appeared to have ended without a deal: “We prolonged our meeting with the hope of reaching a peace agreement but it could not happen,” a member of the Taliban negotiating team in Qatar who declined to be identified stated today, adding: “we discussed a number of issues and developed consensus on some of them but couldn’t reach a conclusion.” Reuters reports.

“The kind of U.S. withdrawal that was inadvisable in Iraq eight years ago would be indefensible for Afghanistan today,” David Petraeus and Vance Serchuk argue at the Wall Street Journal, commenting that the Trump administration “should apply the lessons of that tragic experience to the present situation in South Asia.”

SYRIA

Syrian government forces captured a key village in the northwestern province of Idlib yesterday after intense fighting with al-Qaeda-linked militants, drawing close to a main town in the last rebel stronghold in the country, state media and opposition activists said. The AP reports.

Airstrikes and shelling hit multiple targets on Friday in the northwestern province of Idlib, a week after Syria’s government agreed to a cease-fire, humanitarian workers reported. “We are really at a desperate point not knowing where it’s going again,” the U.N. official coordinating humanitarian aid for Syria Panos Moumtzis said in an interview, adding: “we keep on raising the alarm … we’re running out of words to describe … what’s happening on the ground, and that’s why there’s a sense of desperation,” Nick Cumming-Bruce reports at the New York Times.

A new report released by the Department of Defense (D.O.D.) this week revealed that the partial removal of U.S. troops from Syria and policy shifts in Iraq has led to a surge in the Islamic State group (I.S.I.S..) The report details how the scaling back of U.S. forces has forced the Trump administration to rely on third-party monitoring of the security of some areas, including a refugee camp set up by U.S.-backed forces; the report also explains how the drawdown of American troops has enabled I.S.I.S. forces in the area to “recruit new members and grow their forces without U.S. interference,” John Bowden reports at the Hill.

IRAN

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif today accused the U.S. of transforming the Gulf region into a “matchbox ready to blow up.” The Gulf waterway “is narrow, it will become less safe as foreign [navy] vessels increase their presence in it,” Zarif stated in an exclusive with Al Jazeera, adding: “the region has become a matchbox ready to ignite because America and its allies are flooding it with weapons,” Al Jazeera reports.

U.S. President Trump’s “maximum pressure” foreign policy has yielded minimum results and seen some dramatic failures, Julian Borger argues at the Guardian, commenting that Trump is heading into the 2020 elections with “a string of looming crises around the world that could undermine his bid for re-election.”

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Yemen’s southern separatists agreed yesterday to the Saudi-led coalition’s calls for an immediate ceasefire in the strategic port city of Aden, the seat of the internationally recognized government, the Southern Transitional Council (S.T.C.) said in a statement. The S.T.C. accepted the truce and an offer for talks in Riyadh, European representative for the group Ahmed bin Fareed said, adding: “we want the international community and the coalition to understand the national case [for self-determination] for millions of people in the south … we want this to be resolved peacefully, and we need to be part of the political process,” Sune Engel Rasmussen and Saleh al-Batati report at the Wall Street Journal.

The separatists — who want to split from the north and are backed by the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) —  effectively seized Aden by taking over the government’s military bases on Saturday after days of fighting with troops loyal to the internationally backed government. The Riyadh-backed Yemeni government condemned the move as a U.A.E.-supported “coup,” Ben Hubbard and Saeed Al-Batati report at the New York Times.

The U.N. said yesterday that as many as 40 people were killed and 260 others injured in Aden since Aug. 8, when the latest round of fighting, which threatens to exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, broke out, Sudarsan Raghavan, Kareem Fahim and Ali Al-Mujahed report at the Washington Post.

The U.A.E. — one of America’s unswerving allies in the Middle East and a driving force behind U.S. President Trump’s hard-line approach to Iran — appears to be breaking away from the U.S., Liz Sly writes at the Washington Post, noting that in the weeks since Washington dispatched naval reinforcements to the Persian Gulf to deter Iranian threats to shipping, “the U.A.E. government has sent a coast guard delegation to Tehran to discuss maritime security, putting it at odds with Washington’s goal of isolating Iran.”

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli forces killed four heavily-armed Palestinians as they attempted to cross the Gaza border on Saturday, Israel’s military said. The men were armed with assault rifles, anti-tank missiles and hand grenades, according to the military, which released images of the weapons laid out on the ground. Military spokesperson Jonathan Conricus told reporters the men’s mission was “unclear” but that a “large-scale attack against soldiers or civilians had been prevented,” Reuters reports.

“A large terror attack was thwarted,” Israeli army spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said, accusing the Palestinian territory’s ruler Hamas of not preventing what it called a potential mass-casualty attack, after four heavily armed militants from Gaza attempted to cross into Israel over the weekend.  The army said that the militants launched one grenade at Israeli soldiers but did not injure anyone, Doc Lieber reports at the Wall Street Journal.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Hong Kong International Airport — one of the world’s busiest airports — has canceled all flights after thousands of pro-democracy protesters gathered in the main terminal today. In a statement, the airport said that the demonstration “seriously disrupted” airport operations, Yanan Wang reports at the AP.

Hong Kong riot police fired tear gas at demonstrators and made dozens of arrests yesterday, as petrol bombs exploded in the downtown district of Wan Chai as clashes as part of a tenth weekend of protests in the region intensified. The city’s mass demonstrations and unrest showed no sign of stopping, over two months after they were triggered by a controversial extradition bill, the BBC reports.

Key questions and answers to Hong Kong’s protests are fielded by Siobhán O’Grady at the Washington Post.

PAKISTAN-INDIA RELATIONS

Protests erupted in India’s portion of the disputed Kashmir region over the weekend as residents gathered in greater numbers, emerging from their homes for the first time in almost a week. The area is under a military lockdown after India removed its semiautonomous status last week, Bill Spindle reports at the Wall Street Journal.

India’s main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi on Saturday demanded a statement from Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the situation in Kashmir following reports of violence and people dying, the AP reports.

RUSSIA

Russia’s nuclear agency Rosatom said Saturday that five of its employees were killed in an accidental blast at a military test site in northern Russia, bringing the number of deaths to seven. The explosion, which took place on Thursday near Severodvinsk while the workers were “testing a liquid jet propulsion system,” was followed by a brief spike in radiation levels in the atmosphere, raising questions over the severity of the blast, David E. Sanger and Andrew E. Kramer report at the New York Times.

Tens of thousands of people demanding free elections rallied in the Russian capital of Moscow Saturday, in one of the country’s largest political protests in recent years. Protesters gathered at the central Prospekt Andreya Sakharova street for their fourth consecutive weekend demonstration over the exclusion of opposition and independent candidates from the Moscow city council ballot, Thomas Grove reports at the Wall Street Journal.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

The F.B.I. last Thursday released the bureau’s notes from its Russia investigation interviews with Department of Justice (D.O.J.) official Bruce Ohr, who faced scrutiny for his connections to British intelligence agent Christopher Steele and the Steele dossier. The heavily redacted 34 pages “reveal how Ohr and Steele came to form a relationship in which Steele began sharing intelligence he collected with the D.O.J. official, including early contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russia,” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton on Friday dismissed a request to fast track a review of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s records for potential public release. Walton sided with Justice Department lawyers who had asked him to follow the normal schedule for Freedom of Information Act cases as he considers a lawsuit seeking a broad range of materials linked to Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the 2016 Trump campaign, Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

The election security bill — Securing America’s Federal Elections Act (the Safe act) —“isn’t a good-faith try at getting something done,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board argues, commenting that Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) “is trying to win elections, not safeguard them.”

The U.S. MILITARY

A U.S. service member was killed on Saturday during a combat mission with Iraqi security forces in the northern Nineveh province, the U.S.-led international coalition fighting Islamic State said in a statement. “One U.S. service member died today during an Iraqi Security Force mission in Ninewah province, Iraq, while advising and accompanying the [Iraqi security forces] during a planned operation, the statement said; the identity of the service member will be withheld until next of kin have been notified, Reuters reports.

An explainer to how the Army and Marine Corps’ new ‘Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Land Warfare’ guides land forces in conducting military operations in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict is provided by Michael W. Meier at Just Security.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) filed a petition on Friday asking the Federal Labor Relations Authority to determine whether the National Association of Immigration Judges should have its certification revoked because its members are considered “management officials” ineligible to collectively organize, a D.O.J. spokesperson said, a move that could stifle an organization whose members have previously openly criticized the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement agenda, Christina Goldbaum reports at the New York Times. 

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said yesterday President Nicolas Maduro’s government is “preparing to dissolve the opposition-run legislature and call new legislative elections,” a move that would likely escalate Venezuela’s political crisis, Reuters reports.

A man arrested over a foiled attack on a mosque near Oslo this weekend was “inspired” by alleged white supremacist shooters in Christchurch, New Zealand and El Paso, Texas, according to media reports. Emma Anderson reports at POLITICO.

A car bomb attack on Saturday killed three U.N. staff in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, the stronghold for the self-styled Libyan National Army (L.N.A.,) the U.N. News Centre reports. 

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).