The Early Edition: October 8, 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.  

SYRIA

Both Democrats and Republicans sharply criticized U.S. President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from northeast Syria in advance of an expected Turkish military offensive, marking the latest break within the party over foreign policy. The policy shift, announced Sunday night in a White House statement, prompted outrage among G.O.P. lawmakers, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who called Trump’s move “shortsighted” and “irresponsible,” adding that abandonment of the Kurds would be “a disaster in the making” and “a stain on America’s honor.” Graham also warned of a Senate resolution seeking reversal of the administration’s decision. Toluse Olorunnipa and Seung Min Kim report at the Washington Post.

In a rare rebuke, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cautioned that a “precipitous” withdrawal of U.S. forces from Turkey’s border with Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus, which is responsible for thousands of civilian deaths, while increasing the risk of the Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) regrouping. “I urge the President to exercise American leadership to keep together our multinational coalition to defeat I.S.I.S. and prevent significant conflict between our N.A.T.O. ally Turkey and our local Syrian counterterrorism partners,” McConnell said in a statement. Lindsay Wise reports at the Wall Street Journal.

McConnell also recognized in his statement that the majority of the Senate voted in January for an amendment expressing bipartisan concern about the persistent threat posed by Islamic militant groups in Syria and support for a continued military presence. “The conditions that produced that bipartisan vote still exist today,” he stated. Reuters reports.

The Pentagon pushed back on suggestions that the White House statement endorses Turkish military action, despite the withdrawal of American forces from the area. “The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey — as did the president — that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in northern Syria … the U.S. Armed Forces will not support, or be involved in any such operation,” chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Trump defended his decision and insisted that he had been elected on a promise to bring U.S. troops home from “ridiculous endless wars,” adding that the move to scale down U.S. military operations overseas could always be reversed. “We will be focused on the big picture, knowing we can always go back & BLAST!” Trump wrote in a message sent on Twitter. Reuters reports.

In the wake of the backlash, Trump pivoted and said he would restrain Turkey. In a message sent on Twitter, the president issued a warning for N.A.T.O. member Turkey not to overstep “anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits,” adding otherwise, “I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).” Audrey McNamara reports at The Daily Beast.

Trump also said he warned Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan of “big trouble” if any U.S. service members in the area of Syria that Turkey has threatened to invade get hurt. “I’ve told Turkey that if they do anything outside what we would think is humane … they could suffer the wrath of an extremely decimated economy,” Trump said. The president also tried to play down the abruptness of his policy change, saying he “consulted with everybody,” while a senior administration official insisted that Trump had discussed the issues “with his senior advisers in the defense, diplomatic and folks, staff here at the White House,” despite the fact that Washington’s European allies – Britain, France and Germany – were not given advance notice of the announcement. Jennifer Hansler and Alex Rogers report at CNN.

The White House announcement leaves uncertain the fate of tens of thousands of I.S.I.S. detainees and their families currently held by the Turks’ targets, U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds, as Kurdish forces in Syria brace for an imminent Turkish incursion. A U.S. official assured yesterday that the drawdown from the safe zone on the border would involve only a small number of troops — around 50 to 100 — saying that the troops would be repositioned elsewhere in Syria, however it remains unclear how extensive the U.S. troop pullback or a Turkish attack will be. Julian Borger, Martin Chulov and Bethan McKernan report at the Guardian.

Commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces General Mazloum Kobani Abdi said yesterday that watching over the I.S.I.S. prisoners detained in Syria is a “second priority” now that the U.S. has given the green light for a Turkish offensive likely targeting the mostly Kurdish forces along the border. Mazloum explained that fighters who were previously tasked with securing the detention centers, which hold 12,000 suspected terrorists swept up during the U.S.-led campaign against I.S.I.S. fighters in the region, are now readying for battle with the Turkish army. Courtney Kube and Mosheh Gains report at NBC News.

Syria’s deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad today urged the country’s Kurds to “rejoin the government side” after reportedly being abandoned by their U.S. allies. Mekdad called on the Syrian Kurds to “return to the government” rather than “plunge into the abyss” — a reference to the expected Turkish offensive on Syrian Kurdish militias there. The AP reports.

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday called for administration officials to testify before Congress about Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops from northern Syria. Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said in a joint statement that administration officials must come before the Foreign Relations panel in the wake of the announcement. “The president’s decision to abandon our Kurdish allies in Northern Syria in the face of an assault by Turkey is a betrayal that will have grave humanitarian and national security consequences … we will be working with committee leadership to assure that the administration appears before the committee as soon as possible,” Murphy and Romney said. Burgess Everett reports at POLITICO.

SYRIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“Caught between furious Kurdish allies who see Trump’s announcement as abandonment, an authoritarian Turkish leader who may take Trump’s words as tacit permission to move against Kurds in northern Syria, and an American president who has made clear he wants out of the region,” the Pentagon is “struggling to put their already piecemeal Syria military strategy back together again,” Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt write in an analysis at the New York Times.

“What distinguishes the current moment of Kurdish betrayal from earlier eras is perhaps its seeming strategic incoherence,” Ishaan Tharoor writes in an analysis at the Washington Post, commenting that “Trump predictably justified his actions not with a strategic vision for a troubled region, but campaign talking points.”

A look at the likely consequences of U.S. troop withdrawal in Syria is provided by Ben Hubbard at the New York Times.

Trump’s abrupt policy shift raises “a host of issues,” Charlie Savage comments at the New York Times, noting that while “Trump insisted that Turkey must assume responsibility for the captured I.S.I.S. fighters and their families … it is far from clear what will happen to them.”

“Betrayed by the United States and forced to fight a potentially bloody conflict with Turkey, the Kurdish-led forces could quickly abandon any further effort to control the Islamic State,” the Washington Post editorial board warns, commenting that the forces “might well set free the tens of thousands of former militants and family members held in S.D.F.-controlled camps.”

This is not the first time the Trump administration has sent conflicting messages about American objectives in Syria, the New York Times editorial board points out.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

House Democrats yesterday issued subpoenas to the Department of Defense and Office of Management and Budget as part of their impeachment inquiry, requesting documents related to U.S. President Trump’s decision to withhold $391 million in military assistance for Ukraine and his efforts to push Ukraine to investigate his Democratic rival Joe Biden. In a pair of subpoenas, the House intelligence committee said Defense Secretary Mark Esper and acting White House budget director Russell Vought must turn over the documents by Oct. 15. Audrey McNamara reports at The Daily Beast.

“The enclosed subpoena demands documents that are necessary for the Committees to examine this sequence of these events and the reasons behind the White House’s decision to withhold critical military assistance to Ukraine that was appropriated by Congress to counter Russian aggression,” Chairs of the House committees on Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, and Foreign Affairs — Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Ca.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) — wrote in letters to Esper and Vough yesterday. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Ex-Trump officials apparently met with campaign advisers for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at Trump International Hotel months before the July phone call between the two leaders that is now at the center of a whistleblower complaint. Zelensky’s campaign advisers had dinner on April 16 — just a week before Zelensky won Ukraine’s presidential election — with former Trump campaign adviser and former representative in the Department of Health and Human Services Mike Rubino and former State Department member Matt Mowers, it was reported yesterday. Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer also made a brief appearance. Justine Coleman reports at the Hill.

A dozen House Democrats are calling on U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland to resign amid the developing Ukraine controversy. The calls come as Sondland is reportedly set to give a deposition to House investigators today. Josh Lederman reports at NBC News.

U.S. authorities have taken security precautions to protect a U.S. intelligence official who filed a whistleblower complaint that triggered an impeachment inquiry against Trump, after the whistleblower’s lawyers voiced concern in a Sept. 28 letter to the Acting Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) Joseph Maguire that their client’s safety could be at risk following suggestions from the president that he was a “spy” who had committed “treason.” Reuters reports. 

An open letter on how responsible whistleblowers make America safer — and deserve protection — has now been now signed by more than 100 former national security officials from Democratic and Republican administrations. Tess Bridgeman reports at Just Security.

“An overwhelming percentage of the whistleblower’s complaint in Ukrainegate has been confirmed by U.S. government documents, witness statements, and independent investigative reports,” Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman and John T. Nelson write at Just Security, highlighting all the key portions of the complaint that have been confirmed or corroborated, and helpfully providing links to the sources confirming or corroborating the information.

A detailed look at how Energy Secretary Rick Perry became entangled in the Ukraine controversy is provided by Kenneth P. Vogel, Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Andrew E. Kramer at the New York Times.

TRUMP TAXES

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit yesterday granted President Trump a last-minute temporary reprieve in his effort to prevent New York prosecutors from obtaining his tax records as part of a criminal investigation into his business dealings. The president’s lawyers filed an emergency appeal minutes after a federal judge earlier yesterday ordered Trump to turn over eight years of tax returns to Manhattan prosecutors, rejecting the president’s argument that he was immune from criminal investigations while in office; the appeals court said the stay on enforcement of the subpoena would remain in effect until it hears arguments in the case, which are expected as early as the week of Oct. 21. Corinne Ramey reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Earlier yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Victor Marrero called the immunity claim “repugnant to the nation’s governmental structure and constitutional values,” and said he could not “square a vision of presidential immunity that would place the President above the law.” “This Court cannot endorse such a categorical and limitless assertion of presidential immunity from judicial process,” the judge wrote in his 75-page ruling. David A. Fahrenthold and Ann E. Marimow report at the Washington Post.

Judge Marrero’s decision yesterday was a “major loss” to Trump but was “not unexpected to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the law,” Jennifer Rodgers argues at CNN, commenting that “Trump’s position is breathtaking in its audacity.”

5 key takeaways from Judge Marrero’s ruling on Trump’s tax returns are provided by Benjamin Weiser and William K. Rashbaum at the New York Times, who note that “the case raises constitutional issues that could end up in the Supreme Court.”

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Hong Kong’s C.E.O. Carrie Lam warned today that she would not rule out calling upon the Chinese government for help in putting down the long-running pro-democracy protests “if the situation becomes so bad” — but reiterated the government still hopes to resolve the crisis itself. Lam said she had no plans at the moment to use sweeping emergency powers to bring in further laws, after a controversial anti-mask ban inflamed tensions across the city and sparked four days of street protests. AFP reports.

U.S. President Trump yesterday appealed to Chinese President Xi Jinping to ensure a “humane solution” in Hong Kong. Trump cautioned that any “bad” outcome could harm trade talks ahead of negotiations in Washington schedule for Thursday. The AP reports.

The Trump administration added 28 Chinese entities to an export blacklist for their alleged involvement in rights violations and abuses targeting Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang region, the commerce department announced yesterday. The blacklisted firms included video-surveillance giant Hikvision, as well as artificial intelligence companies Megvii Technology and SenseTime. Josh Zumbrun, Kate O’Keeffe and William Mauldin report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S “cannot and will not tolerate the brutal suppression of ethnic minorities within China,” Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said in a statement, announcing the move, which bars the named entities from purchasing U.S. products. Ana Swanson and Paul Mozur report at the New York Times.

The Chinese foreign ministry declared today China had “no intention” of meddling in U.S. domestic affairs, responding to questions about Trump’s remarks last week that Beijing might investigate his Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son. Reuters reports. 

IRAQ

Iraqi President Barham Salih called yesterday for a “halt to escalation” and asked security forces to protect the rights of all Iraqis after days of widespread protests against corruption, unemployment and poor public services, including an overnight rally in east Baghdad in which the military admitted using “excessive force.” More than 100 people have been killed and 6,000 wounded since last Tuesday. Al Jazeera reports.

An account of Iraqi protestors’ demands, including new government and even military rule, is provided by Pesha Magid at Foreign Policy.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS   

At least ten people including a child were killed yesterday in a bomb attack targeting a minibus carrying new army recruits in Afghanistan’s east. At least 27 others were wounded, according to a provincial official. No one immediately claimed the attack. The AP reports.

A bomb exploded yesterday night in Yemen near the flashpoint port city of Hodeida — killing at least four children. The AP reports.

Iran plans to begin using a new array of advanced centrifuges for enriching uranium “in the coming weeks,” the country’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi warned yesterday. Salehi told Iranian state T.V. that “an array of 30 IR-6 centrifuges will be inaugurated in the coming weeks,” in a move likely to increase pressure on Europe to salvage Tehran’s collapsing 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, from which the U.S. unilaterally withdrew over a year ago. The AP reports.

North Korea cautioned Western powers including the U.S., Britain, France and Germany yesterday against bringing up the nation’s recent missile tests at the U.N. Security Council, saying it would “further urge our desire to defend our sovereignty.” The Security Council is set to meet today behind closed doors following Pyongyang’s announcement that it tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile last week. Reuters reports.

“Sudan has received half of $3 billion in aid promised by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in April and expects the remainder to be paid by the end of next year,” Sudan’s Finance Minister Ibrahim Elbadawi said late yesterday. Reuters reports.

Kurt Volker has resigned as executive director of the McCain Institute, a little over a week after he stepped down from his role as Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine. Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

America is “unprepared for—and highly vulnerable to—a nuclear attack from Russia,” George Bee argues at POLITICO, advising that managing and containing the U.S.-Russian relationship requires a “dispassionate balance [of] firmness with accommodation, military readiness with diplomatic outreach—all without skewing too far toward either concession or confrontation.”

An overview of the anti-kleptocracy legislation currently pushing through Congress and policymakers’ likely next steps to combat the threats that modern kleptocracy poses to the U.S. is provided by Casey Michel at Just Security. 

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).