The Early Edition: August 14, 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.  

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Democrats yesterday slated U.S. President Trump over his blasé response to the recent unrest in Hong Kong — saying he should have more forcefully backed the protesters. In comments to reporters as he left New Jersey, Trump took a relatively neutral tone to the crisis, saying: “it’s a very tough situation … we’ll see what happens … I think it’ll work out … and I hope it works out for liberty … I hope it works out for everybody, including China … I hope it works out peacefully … I hope nobody gets hurts … I hope nobody gets killed,” Nahal Toosi, Eliana Johnson and Maya King report at POLITICO.

“These answers show that Trump doesn’t know about the situation in Hong Kong and doesn’t care … he sounds like he got cold-called to talk about homework he didn’t do … America’s commander in chief is asleep at the wheel and the whole world is worse for it,” Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.,) and other lawmakers, responded to the president’s hands-off approach in a message sent on Twitter, Dareh Gregorian reports at NBC.

Trump yesterday claimed China’s government was moving troops to its border with Hong Kong, citing U.S. intelligence, and called for calm as clashes continued between demonstrators and authorities in the city: “our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong … everyone should be calm and safe!” the president said in a message sent on Twitter. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) responded with one line in a message saying, “this is not foreign policy;” it was unclear whether Trump was reporting new movements or movements near the border already reported in the media, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

China’s foreign ministry yesterday asked the U.S. to stay out of its internal affairs after U.S. lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, criticized what they described as acts of violence by police against protesters in Hong Kong. “They have disregarded the facts, turned what’s black into white, and characterized violent crimes as a beautiful fight for human rights and freedom,” China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in a statement, adding: “you should take care of your own business … HK is not a matter that needs your worrying,” Reuters reports.

“The inability or unwillingness of Washington to help defuse the flash points is one of the clearest signs yet of the erosion of American power and global influence under Trump,” Edward Wong writes in an analysis at the New York Times.

The prospect of a Chinese “invasion” akin to that in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago is — for now — still distant, Ishaan Tharoor argues at the Washington Post, commenting that for the time being, authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong are trying other tactics. 

Beijing “wants to encourage Chinese citizens to view the unrest in Hong Kong not as the result of the Communist Party’s unwillingness to embrace much-needed political reform … but rather as the product of Western — particularly American — machinations,” Thomas Kellogg writes at Foreign Policy, commenting that “Chinese propagandists are throwing around wild allegations in Hong Kong — but the leadership may really believe them.”

RUSSIA

A Russian fighter jet yesterday chased off an F-18 N.A.T.O. warplane after it approached a plane carrying Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu over neutral waters in the Baltic Sea, the Russian T.A.S.S. news agency reported. The N.A.T.O. military aircraft reportedly flew close Shoigu’s plane over international airspace over the Baltic Sea en route to Moscow before two Russian Sukhoi-27 fighters that were escorting the official’s aircraft saw off the F-18, the AP reports.

A N.A.T.O. official told reporters that aircrafts approached the Russian plane in order to identify it. “Jets from N.A.T.O.’s Baltic Air Policing mission scrambled to identify the aircraft, which flew close to Allied airspace,” the official said, explaining “once identification of the aircraft had taken place, the N.A.T.O. jets returned to base,” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Russia yesterday boasted it was “winning the race” to develop new far-flying nuclear arms notwithstanding an accidental explosion last Thursday during a failed missile test at a military facility that killed five people and injured three others. Russia vowed to continue developing new weapons despite the blast and insisted Moscow is ahead of other nations in developing such arms: “our president has repeatedly said that Russian engineering in this sector significantly outstrips the level that other countries have managed to reach for the moment, and it is fairly unique,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Russian weather agency Rosgidromet yesterday reported that radiation levels in the city of Severodvinsk were 16 times higher than normal after last week’s accidental blast. The weather service’s finding that levels spiked by four to 16 times contradict earlier reports from Severodvinsk officials; the Russian defense military initially said background radiation had remained normal, the BBC reports.

Russian authorities yesterday advised residents of Nyonoksa — the village closest to the site of the accidental blast — to temporarily evacuate today while clear-up work is being carried out nearby, days after a missile carrying nuclear materials exploded on a platform on the White Sea. A military spokesperson later told the Interfax news agency that an unspecified “event” scheduled for today had been called off, eliminating the need for the evacuation, Will Englund reports at the Washington Post.

The U.S. believes last week’s deadly explosion in Russia was connected to the Kremlin’s hypersonic cruise missile program, a senior Trump administration official said yesterday, Reuters reports.

The recent explosion “indicates Moscow could be pursuing dangerous technology in an attempt to beat U.S. missile defenses,” Alexander Smith writes at NBC, commenting on expert reports.

Moscow court yesterday reversed a ruling by a district electoral commission to bar Russian opposition candidate Sergei Mitrokhin from next month’s municipal election, in a “rare concession” to protesters after weeks of rallies in the Russian capital of Moscow, Georgi Kantchev reports at the Wall Street Journal.

IMMIGRATION

San Francisco and Santa Clara County in California filed a lawsuit yesterday to bar the Trump administration from implementing a new “public charge” regulation issued Monday that would deny permanent residency to legal immigrants if they are deemed likely to use government benefit programs like food stamps or subsidized housing. “This illegal rule is yet another attempt to vilify immigrants,” San Francisco’s city attorney Dennis Herrera said in a statement yesterday, adding: “it makes it easier to unfairly target hard-working, lawful immigrants while sowing fear and confusion in our communities;” in the lawsuit, the counties allege the rule would have a “chilling effect” and would discourage people from accessing necessary federal health care programs that also protect communities against disease, such as the Zika virus, Mihir Zaveri and Mariel Padilla report at the New York Times.

Several shots fired yesterday at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) offices in Texas were a “targeted attack” against federal staff, Head of the F.B.I.’s San Antonio operations Christopher Combs has said, explaining that those responsible for firing the bullets “did some research” because they “knew what floors I.C.E. was on, and they hit those.” In a statement, I.C.E. linked the shootings to “political rhetoric” and “misinformation” about the Trump administration’s detention policies, which have been criticized for the way they treat undocumented immigrants held at detention centers near the U.S.-Mexico border, the BBC reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) yesterday accused House Democrats of seeking out a favorable federal judge in their campaign to force former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify about potential obstruction of justice by President Trump. In a new court filing, the D.O.J. slated the House Judiciary Committee for “attempting to game the system” in its efforts to formally link its McGahn suit to a separate endeavor to obtain former special counsel Robert Mueller’s grand jury evidence, Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio report at POLITICO.

Trump yesterday said Congress should not review any “final agreement” on election security that does not include provisions requiring voters to show identification while casting ballots. “No debate on Election Security should go forward without first agreeing that Voter I.D. (Identification) must play a very strong part in any final agreement … without Voter I.D., it is all so meaningless!” the president  stated in a message sent on Twitter, Til Axelrod reports at the Hill.

In a world where indicting a sitting president is not possible and prosecuting him after he leaves office raises practical and prudential concerns … impeachment could very well be the only way for our polity to express repugnance for the president’s actions,” Conor Shaw writes at Just Security in an analysis of the likelihood of Trump being indicted after leaving office. 

SYRIA

Syrian government forces captured two villages — Tel Aas and Kfar Eyn — in the country’s northwest early today, moving closer toward the key rebel-controlled town of Khan Sheikhoun, a war monitor and state media reported, Bassem Mroue reports at the AP.

Hospital workers in Idlib have accused Russia and Syria of “systematically targeting” air strikes on healthcare facilities, two weeks after U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres authorized an inquiry into attacks on civilian infrastructure including hospitals and clinics, Anchal Vohra reports at Al Jazeera.

AFGHANISTAN

A look at the most likely facets of a deal between the U.S. and the Taliban, drawn from weeks of reporting at the venue of the talks in Qatar as well as in Washington and Kabul, is fielded by Mujib Mashal at the New York Times, who sets out a possible timetable for withdrawing troops and assurances on keeping Afghan territory from aiding terrorist attacks as cornerstones of the political settlement to the conflict.

A guide to the U.S.-Taliban talks — including what has been agreed so far and what could cause a peace deal to collapse, is provided by Shereena Qazi at Al Jazeera.

IRAN

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani today declared Iran and other Gulf states could guard the region’s security and foreign forces were not necessary, state TV reported, reiterating a longstanding rejection of a U.S. maritime security mission in the Gulf region backed by Britain, Reuters reports.

The British territory of Gibraltar will not yet release an Iranian oil tanker captured by Royal Marines in the Mediterranean despite an Iranian report yesterday that it could do so, an official Gibraltar source said. Reuters reports.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei yesterday urged support for Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels against a Saudi-led coalition that he claims is attempting to “disintegrate” the country, the semi-official Fars news agency reported. During a meeting in Tehran with chief negotiator of the Houthi group Mohammad Abdul Salam, Khamenei also called for “strong resistance against the Saudi-led plots to divide Yemen,” saying  Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and their supporters seek to break up Yemen, “which must stand firm against this conspiracy,” the AP reports.

“I declare my support for the resistance of Yemen’s believing men and women … Yemen’s people … will establish a strong government,” Khamenei said in comments carried by state T.V.  “A unified and coherent Yemen with sovereign integrity should be endorsed … given Yemen’s religious and ethnic diversity, protecting Yemen’s integrity requires domestic dialogue,” Khamenei added, Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Pakistan yesterday requested an urgent meeting with the U.N. Security Council “in view of the dangerous implications” of India’s move to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. “Pakistan will not provoke a conflict … but India should not mistake our restraint for weakness,” Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi wrote in a letter to the Security Council, adding “if India chooses to resort again to the use of force, Pakistan will be obliged to respond, in self defense, with all its capabilities,” Reuters reports.

Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) yesterday proposed investing billions of dollars in aid to Israel to persuade the country to change some of its policies. Sanders explained the leverage could be used to change Israeli policies and devise a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is “amenable to both parties,” Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

Fighting around Libya’s capital of Tripoli continued overnight following a two-day cease-fire — proposed by the U.N. — that was observed during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, Libyan officials said yesterday, Samy Magdy reports at the AP.

An account of the growing abuse of military officers in Venezuela who represent a real threat for President Nicolás Maduro’s government is provided by Anatoly Kurmanaev and Isayen Herrera at the New York Times, who note there are now reportedly 217 active and retired officers being held in Venezuelan jails, including 12 generals.

A Guatemalan immigration deal signed with the Trump administration “will not work” because the Central American nation “does not have the resources,” the country’s new president-elect Alejandro Giammattei has said. Sonia Perez D. reports at the AP.

A look at Joint Chiefs chair Joseph Dunford’s “under-the-radar accomplishments” ahead of his retirement in September — including influencing President Trump’s turnaround to striking Iran in June, when Tehran downed an American drone, and restarting military-to-military talks with Dunford’s Russian counterpart Gen. Valery Gerasimov in 2017 after a three-year hiatus, is fielded by Mark Perry at Foreign Policy. 

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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).