The Early Edition: August 26, 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.

G-7 SUMMIT

Leaders of the G-7 industrialized nations met in the French resort town of Biarritz at the weekend for a summit that exposed key policy differences between President Trump and other nations, including the U.S.-China trade war, how to approach Iran, whether Russia should be re-admitted to the group, North Korea’s missile testing, and climate change. Rebecca Ballhaus, Noemie Bisserbe and Max Colchester report at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump was caught off-guard by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s visit to Biarritz to meet French President Emmanuel Macron and other senior French officials at the sidelines of the summit. Zarif’s trip yesterday comes amid deteriorating relations between Iran and the U.S. which have been damaged by Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and to pursue a strategy of “maximum pressure” against Tehran; while Iran has made increasingly aggressive moves in the Strait of Hormuz. Michael Birnbaum and Toluse Olorunnipa report at the Washington Post.

French officials say that Trump was informed of the meeting with Zarif during an impromptu lunch between Macron and the U.S. President on Saturday, though other G-7 leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were apparently not made aware of the visit. Rym Momtaz and David M. Herszenhorn report at POLITICO.

Trump today denied reports that he was surprised by Zarif’s visit and claimed that Macron asked for his approval. The U.S. President added that he did not consider the invitation to be disrespectful and also claimed that he is not looking for regime change in Iran, but that his focus is on Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Carol E. Lee and Hallie Jackson report at NBC News.

Zarif said the talks with Macron and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian were “constructive,” though Trump appeared to dismiss the prospect of the diplomatic efforts leading eased tensions stating: “We’ll do our own outreach, but, you know, I can’t stop people from talking.” The BBC reports.

“We have to negotiate, we have to find a solution, and we have to solve the problem,” the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a televised speech today, defending Zarif’s visit to the G-7 summit which was aimed at finding a way to salvage the nuclear deal. The AP reports.

Trump claimed today that there had been “great unity” on how to deal with Iran and the G-7 leaders had “more or less” come to a conclusion. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel differed in her assessment and said there was still a long way to go, Reuters reports.

Senior Trump administration accused Macron of turning the focus of the summit on “niche issues” to boost the French President’s popularity with his domestic audience, rather than the global economic challenges facing the G-7. Michael D. Shear reports at the New York Times.

Trump’s call for Russia to be re-admitted to the G-7 led to a row at a dinner on Saturday night, according to a diplomatic source, who added that most of the leaders “insisted on this being a family, a club, a community of liberal democracies and for that reason they said you cannot allow [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin – who does not represent that – back in.” Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

Live updates on the final day of the summit are provided by Ivana Kottasová at CNN.

G-7 SUMMIT: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

The G-7 summit exposed divisions over a number of key issues. The AFP provides an overview.

Macron’s decision to invite Zarif caused confusion and there were mixed signals – including from Trump and Macron – over whether the G-7 nations had agreed a joint communication on their approach to Iran. Nic Robertson explains at CNN.

An analysis of the seven ways to view President Trump’s weekend in Biarritz is provided by Ishaan Tharoor at the Washington Post.

The Iranian foreign minister’s visit to Biarritz might “calm the situation and buy some time” amid escalating U.S.-Iran tensions and the increasing risk of a wider conflict in the Middle East. Christopher Dickey writes at The Daily Beast.

ISRAEL-IRAN TENSIONS

Israel’s army targeted Iranian forces and their proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq over the weekend in what appears to be an intensified mission against Iranian expansionism in the Middle East. Liz Sly and James McAuley report at the Washington Post.

Israel hit a military site in Syria on Saturday to prevent an Iranian attempt to carry out an armed-drone attack against targets in northern Israel, the Israeli military has said, with spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus stating that the “killer drones are capable of striking targets with significant accuracy.” Felicia Schwartz and Nazih Osseiran report at the Wall Street Journal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the strike against the military site in Syria as a “major operational effort” and said in a message on Twitter: “I reiterate: Iran has no immunity anywhere. Our forces operate in every sector against the Iranian aggression.” The BBC reports.

The leader of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militant group, Hassan Nasrallah, yesterday vowed to shoot down any Israeli drones that enter Lebanese airspace following a reported crash between two Israeli drones in the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital of Beirut. Nasrallah also spoke about the Israeli strike in Syria and promised retaliation, Andrew Carey reports at CNN.

“We are in a new stage,” Nasrallah said yesterday, describing the incident in Beirut as a “very, very, very dangerous development” that marked “the first clear, big, dangerous, breach of the rules of engagement drawn up in 2006” that were established following the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Laila Bassam and Lisa Barrington report at Reuters.

“The new aggression … constitutes a threat to regional stability and an attempt to push the situation towards further tension,” the office of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said in a statement yesterday in response to the Israeli drone crash in the Hezbollah-dominated suburbs of Beirut. Al Jazeera reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “expressed support for Israel’s right to defend itself from threats posed” by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.), according to a statement from the State Department yesterday issued after Pompeo spoke with Netanyahu regarding the strike in Syria. Pompeo also spoke Hariri and emphasized the “need to avoid any escalation….” Amir Tibon reports at Haaretz.

“These insane operations are absolutely last struggles of the Zionist Regime,” the head of Iran’s elite Quds force, Qassem Soleimani, said yesterday in a message on Twitter in response to the Israeli strike in Syria. Reuters reports.

An Iraqi parliamentary bloc has called for U.S. troops to withdraw from the country in response to a series of apparent Israeli airstrikes against Iraqi-based Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia groups in recent weeks. The AP reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli army carried out a series of strikes against the Palestinian Hamas militant group positions this morning after Hamas launched three rockets into southern Israel last night. The AP reports.

Fuel transfers to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip have been cut in half in response to the rocket attacks, following an order by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Aron Heller reports at the AP.

The Israeli air force today carried out three strikes against a Syrian-backed Palestinian faction in eastern Lebanon, according to Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency. The faction, known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -General Command (P.F.L.P.-G.C.) is an ally of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group, Al Jazeera reports.

An official with the P.F.L.P.-G.C. said the Israeli strike was carried out by a drone and did not cause any casualties, but said the group’s “alternatives are open in confronting the Zionist enemy.” Bassem Mroue reports at the AP.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

The Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthi revels said in a statement yesterday that they had fired 10 ballistic missiles at the Jizan airport in southwest Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-led coalition spokesperson Col. Turki Al-Malki said their forces had intercepted and destroyed at least six of the missiles and stated that the Houthi militias’ “continued targeting of civilians … is an act of aggression and terrorism and a war crime according to international human law.” Al Jazeera reports.

The Houthis claimed today to have carried out an armed drone attack against a “military target” in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Reuters reports.

A Saudi Arabia-U.A.E. joint communiqué today pledged that the countries would maintain their commitment to the coalition fighting the Houthi rebels, the statement coming after rifts were exposed due to U.A.E.’s decision to withdraw ground troops and continue backing southern Yemeni separatists who have been in conflict with Saudi-backed Yemeni government forces. Jon Gambrell reports at the AP.

SYRIA

Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan today said that his ground troops would enter a planned safe zone in northern Syria “very soon”. The comments follow the establishment of a joint U.S.-Turkey operation center along Syria’s northeastern border. Reuters reports.

Syrian government forces have hit a village in the rebel-held northwestern province in Idlib, killing three civilians, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The AP reports.

AFGHANISTAN

Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has vowed to hold presidential elections in five weeks in spite of the rush by the U.S. and the Taliban to finalize a peace deal. The Afghan government is not involved in the U.S.-Taliban talks and Ghani said last week that there would be no postponement to the scheduled elections; even if the Taliban were to announce a ceasefire. Pamela Constable reports at the Washington Post.

A U.S.-Taliban deal will not mean the end of fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan government, a Taliban commander said today, adding that the militants would not agree to negotiations with Ghani. Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Jibran Ahmed report at Reuters.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) yesterday warned President Trump not to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan below 8,600, saying it would be a risk to the American homeland. Kamram Rahman reports at POLITICO.

CHINA and HONG KONG

Protests in Hong Kong yesterday increased in violence as police clashed with demonstrators and a police officer fired a warning shot into the air. The escalation follows 12 weeks of protests that were triggered by a now-suspended bill allowing the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China, Shibani Mahtani reports at the Washington Post.

China appears to be losing patience with the protests in Hong Kong, with commentary from state-run media stating that Beijing has the “authority” and “responsibility” to intervene and stop the spread of riots. Jessie Yeung, Sandi Sidhu and Rebecca Wright report at CNN.

Hong Kong police said they arrested 86 people over the weekend in response to the increased violence. Verna Yu and Erin Hale provide an overview of the developments at the Guardian.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump said yesterday at the G-7 summit that he is “not happy” about North Korea’s continued testing of short-range missiles but said Pyongyang’s actions were “not in violation of an agreement.” Trump’s assessment contradicts Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s claim that the tests violate U.N. Security Council resolutions. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

South Korea yesterday began two-day military exercises to demonstrate control over territory disputed with Japan. The drills are likely to further damage relations between the two countries, which have been deteriorating in recent months and led last week to South Korea terminating a military intelligence-sharing deal with Japan – a move that threatens cooperation over the threat posed by North Korea. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Trump administration national security adviser John Bolton has been working to obstruct the Chinese acquisition of a Ukrainian aerospace company, with a senior administration official stating that Bolton’s efforts are driven by the “national-security strategy and the national-defense strategy.” Brett Forrest reports at the Wall Street Journal.

An Iranian government spokesperson said today that oil aboard a previously seized Iranian tanker has been sold and the vessel’s owner will decide on its next destination. The tanker – which was detained by Gibraltar over claims that it was carrying oil to Syria in violation European Union sanctions – has been at the center of increased tensions between the West and Iran, Reuters reports.

The new Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said yesterday that he intends to shed Sudan’s label as a “pariah state” and that he has spoken to U.S. officials about removing the country from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Justin Lynch reports at the AP.

Radioactive isotopes have been found in test samples after an accident at a Russian military site, Russia’s state weather agency said today. U.S.-backed nuclear experts believe the mysterious incident was caused by the testing of a nuclear-powered cruise missile. Maria Kiselyova and Tom Balmforth report at Reuters. 

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About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK