The Early Edition: August 16, 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.  

IRAN

The authorities in Britain’s Mediterranean territory Gibraltar yesterday decided to release an Iranian oil tanker detained on Jul. 4 on suspicion of smuggling oil to Syria in breach of European Union (E.U.) sanctions — despite a last-minute plea by the U.S. to hold it. The ship’s crew were also released from detention, Erin Cunningham and Adam Taylor report at the Washington Post.

Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo decided to lift the detention order following formal written assurances from Tehran that the ship would not discharge its 2.1 million barrels of oil in Syria. “In light of the assurances we have received, there are no longer any reasonable grounds for the continued legal detention of the Grace 1 in order to ensure compliance with the E.U. Sanctions Regulation,” Picardo said, adding that he had met with Iranian officials in London last month in an effort to de-escalate the crisis, Andrew England, Daniel Dombey and Aime Williams report at the Financial Times.

Gibraltar officials did not immediately indicate when or if the ship would sail free after the U.S. Department of Justice (D.O.J.) launched a legal bid to hold it. Asked about the U.S. request on BBC Radio, Picardo said: “those will be determinations made purely objectively and independently by those authorities and then subject to once again the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Gibraltar,” adding “it could go back to the court absolutely,” Reuters reports.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif yesterday accused the U.S. of attempted piracy over its efforts to block Gibraltar’s release of the Iranian tanker. “The U.S. attempted to abuse the legal system to steal our property on the high seas,” Zarif stated in a message sent on Twitter, which continued: “this piracy attempt is indicative of Trump admin’s contempt for the law,” Benoit Faucon and Sune Engel Rasmussen report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. is participating in below-the-radar talks between the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and Israel to address threats posed by Iran, according to a foreign official familiar with the diplomacy. The three-sided talks are intended to “broaden cooperation for military and intelligence sharing between the U.A.E. and Israel;” the three allies have met twice since a February conference in Warsaw that was advertised as a Middle East security forum, Lara Jakes and Edward Wong report at the New York Times.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea launched two projectiles into the sea off its east coast today, in the sixth such test in less than a month, the South Korean military said, further complicating attempts to resume dialogue between U.S. and North Korean negotiators over the future of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the AP.

The launches came shortly after Pyongyang described South Korean President Moon Jae-in as “impudent” and vowed that inter-Korean diplomacy was over. The North said its decision to reject any further talks with the South was “completely the fault of South Korea’s actions,” criticizing Moon for continuing to hold joint military exercises with the U.S., the BBC reports.

Moon yesterday said a “momentum for dialogue” remains alive despite the series of “worrying actions taken by North Korea recently,” making the comments in a televised speech marking Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule. He called for Pyongyang to choose “economic prosperity over its nuclear program” and outlined a goal of “achieving peace and unification by 2045,” Joshua Berlinger, Jake Kwon and Yoonjung Seo report at CNN.

Japan’s defense ministry today said it did not see any imminent threat to the country’s security from North Korea’s latest projectile launch. In a statement, the ministry said the missiles did not cross into the country’s territory or its exclusive economic zone, Reuters reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel yesterday announced it would bar Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) from entering the country ahead of a planned trip to the occupied West Bank, in a move that came shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump said it would “show great weakness” to allow them in. Both Omar and Tlaib have voiced support for the boycott movement against Israel, but Israeli law allows backers of the campaign to be banned from visiting; the pair were due to visit the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem next week, Sarah Ferris, John Bresnahan and Heather Caygle report at POLITICO.

Trump earlier had taken to Twitter to demand that the two lawmakers be blocked from visiting. “They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds … they are a disgrace!” the president stated in a message sent on Twitter. Speaking to reporters later on Thursday, Trump said, “I can’t imagine why Israel would let them in,” Vanessa Romo reports at NPR.

Omar blasted Israel’s move — describing it as “an insult to democratic values and a chilling response to a visit by government officials from an allied nation.” “It is an affront that Israeli Prime Minster Netanyahu, under pressure from President Trump, would deny entry to representatives of the U.S. government,” Omar said in a statement shared on Twitter, adding: “Trump’s Muslim ban is what Israel is implementing, this time against two duly elected Members of Congress … denying entry into Israel not only limits our ability to learn from Israelis, but also to enter the Palestinian territories,” Oren Liebermann, Abeer Salman and Michael Schwartz report at CNN.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted “there is no country in the world that respects the U.S. and the American Congress more than Israel” and defended the decision, saying: “as a free and vibrant democracy, Israel is open to critics and criticism, with one exception: Israeli law prohibits the entry into Israel of those who call for, and work to impose, boycotts on Israel.” The statement continued: “Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar are leading activists in promoting the legislation of boycotts against Israel in the American Congress … only a few days ago, we received their itinerary for their visit in Israel, which revealed that they planned a visit whose sole objective is to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel’s legitimacy,” Isabel Kershner, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Peter Baker report at the New York Times.

Israel’s decision drew widespread criticism from top Democrats, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) saying “I pray that the Government of Israel will reverse that denial,” and calling the move “a sign of weakness, and beneath the dignity of the great State of Israel,” Rebecca Shabad and Alex Moe report at NBC.

Israel today granted a request by Tlaib to enter the Israeli-occupied West Bank to visit family on humanitarian grounds, Reuters reports.

“Trump’s Israel power play puts political goals over America’s interests,” Stephen Collins argues at CNN, writing that “there is no sign that Trump considered whether his latest targeting of … Omar or … Tlaib conflicts with U.S. foreign policy goals, reflects American values, benefits Israel in the long-term or is in keeping with the principles of two rigorous democracies.”

“That a U.S. president would lend support and credence to such a policy — at the expense of democratically elected members of Congress — is fundamentally un-American,” the Washington Post editorial board argues, commenting that Tump’s intervention yesterday — calling on Israel to deny entry to Omar and Tlaib — is “a disgrace to both countries.”

CHINA, HONG KONG AND TAIWAN

The Trump administration is moving ahead with its plans to sell F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan worth $8 billion — the largest and most significant sale of weaponry to the self-governing island in years   notwithstanding strong objections from China. The administration reportedly informed Congress late yesterday that it would submit the package for informal review, according to a U.S. official and others familiar with the deal, Ellen Nakashima and Anne Gearan report at the Washington Post.

U.S. President Trump said yesterday that Chinese President Xi Jinping should meet with the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, amid increasingly violent clashes that have raised fears of a military crackdown. “If President Xi would meet directly and personally with the protesters, there would be a happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem,” Trump stated in a message sent on Twitter, adding “I have no doubt!” the AFP reports. 

The U.S. president said he is confident China can “humanely solve the problem in Hong Kong,” adding that he has a call scheduled in the near future with Xi, making the comments yesterday to reporters in New Jersey before departing for a rally in New Hampshire. Andrew Restuccia reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump “should use his leverage to save Hong Kong,” Marc A. Thiessen comments at the Washington Post, proposing “Trump should make clear that the cost of military intervention will be capital flight, brain drain and the end of Hong Kong’s preferential trade status, as well as any hopes of a trade deal.”

SYRIA

At least three humanitarian workers were killed in an attack in the south of Syria’s Idlib province Wednesday, according to Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis Mark Cutts. “The civilian death toll is rising every day as the fighting continues in Idleb and northern Hama,” Cutts stated, adding: “yesterday a series of airstrikes in the Ma’arat Humeh area in southern Idleb resulted in the death of … a paramedic and an ambulance driver … their ambulance was totally destroyed and a rescue worker was also killed;” the U.N. has documented more than 500 civilian fatalities in the country over the past three and a half months alone, the U.N. News Centre reports.

Syrian air defenses responded to a “hostile target” and destroyed the incoming missile before it reached Masyaf — a central Syrian town in Hama province, Syria’s state-run media reported. The S.A.N.A. news agency today said that the projectile had entered the Syrian airspace overnight from Lebanon’s airspace, and suggested, without saying outright, that the missile was fired by Israel, the AP reports.

Syrian troops gained more ground from insurgents in the country’s northwest yesterday, moving closer to the key rebel-held town a day after militants shot down a government warplane in the area, Bassem Mroue reports at the AP.

AFGHANISTAN

At least nine pro-government forces and 11 civilians were killed during the last week of fighting in Afghanistan, Fahim Abed reports in a casualty report at the New York Times.

Western intermediaries are reportedly trying to persuade Iran and the U.S. to collaborate on boosting security in Afghanistan as U.S. President Trump seeks to withdraw America from its longest war, according to three sources with knowledge of the efforts, who claim “the intermediaries secretly have been relaying messages between Washington and Tehran for months in hopes of getting the sides talking at a time of heightened hostility on a range of issues,” Reuters reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

House Judiciary Committee ChairJerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) yesterday subpoenaed former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and former top White House aid Rick Dearborn, as part of Democrats’ latest efforts to receive testimony from key figures in the Mueller report. Nadler said he is seeking the public testimony on Sept. 17 from Lewandowski and Dearborn about their knowledge of actions taken by the president that could constitute obstruction of justice, Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

A federal judge yesterday ordered Georgia to rollout new voting machines across the state by the 2020 primary election in March or have plans to provide voters with paper ballots. U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg ruled that the state of Georgia may not use direct-recording electronic (D.R.E.) voting machines in any election after 2019, Cameron McWhirter reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The secretaries of state for Connecticut and Louisiana yesterday asked Congress for more funding to boost election security heading into 2020. Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin (R) and Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill (D) said additional federal funding is “the best way Congress can help states shore up election security and ward off cyberattacks,” making the plea at a forum hosted by the Election Assistance Commission (E.A.C.), Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Yesterday marked Dan Coats’s last day as director of national intelligence (D.N.I.), ending one of the last links between President Trump’s cabinet and the Republican national security establishment and fueling concerns in Congress as the president “increasingly surrounds himself with personal loyalists or career government officials limited to temporary appointments,” William Roberts reports at Al Jazeera.

“In the past several years … what once seemed like relatively clear divisions between more ‘active’ and less active battlefields have largely blurred … such that across theaters of operations we now find ourselves in a muddy middle where the nature of the threat … the operating environment … and U.S. operations look increasingly similar,” Luke Hartig and Stephen Tankel write at Just Security, in the first of three articles on the disappearing lines in U.S. military operating procedures and how the executive branch and Congress might better govern operations going forward.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo yesterday proposed a new state law to specifically punish domestic terrorism, a response to what he called “inaction” on the part of federal officials. During a speech in Manhattan, Cuomo said the legislation would create a new charge for “any person who kills in a mass attack on the basis of race, religion, creed or sexual orientation,” Jimmy Vielkind reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Federal immigration officials believe that the companies targeted in massive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) raids across Mississippi poultry factories last week knowingly hired undocumented immigrants, a violation of federal law, according to affidavits filed by federal agents supporting the raids, Mihir Zaveri and Christine Hauser report at the New York Times.

A detailed look at how recent data privacy laws may offer an answer in limiting how social media uses personal information to micro-target content is fielded by Alex Campbell at Just Security.

More than 37 attacks have targeted medical workers and health facilities in Libya since the self-styled Libyan National Army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter launched an offensive in early April to capture the capital of Tripoli, the U.N. said yesterday. The U.N. political mission in Libya reported that the “deplorable attacks” had affected at least 19 hospitals and 19 civilian and military ambulances, resulting in 11 deaths and over 33 injuries, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The trial of Sudan’s former president Omar al-Bashir will be a “sham” — but Sudan’s revolution is “alive and well, Nesrine Malik argues at the Guardian, noting that the “uprising has unleashed huge political energy.” 

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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).