The Early Edition: October 15, 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.  

TURKEY AND SYRIA

President Trump yesterday authorized sanctions against Turkey in response to its incursion into northern Syria and the resulting humanitarian crisis, amid sustained bipartisan criticism over his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the region to effectively make way for a Turkish operation. In a statement announcing the sanctions on Turkey’s Defense, Interior and Energy ministers and their departments, Trump said he was also ending talks on a U.S.-Turkey trade deal he valued at $100 billion and re-imposing tariffs of 50 percent of Turkish steel. The Turkish offensive, which began last week, aims to push the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) from the border region. Alan Rappeport and Michael Crowley report at the New York Times.

“The United States will aggressively use economic sanctions to target those who enable, facilitate and finance these heinous acts in Syria,” Trump declared, adding: “I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path.” “Unfortunately, Turkey does not appear to be mitigating the humanitarian effects of its invasion,” the statement continued. Evan Semones reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s sanctions are “a far cry from the economic havoc he promised” and “critics say those measures are just as likely to strengthen Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as they are to hurt him,” Keith Johnson and Elias Groll report at Foreign Policy.

Trump spoke directly with Erdoğan yesterday to demand an immediate ceasefire in Syria, Vice President Mike Pence told reporters. Pence warned that the newly announced sanctions would only get more severe unless Turkey embraced an “immediate ceasefire” and negotiations for a long-term settlement for the conflict with Kurdish forces in Syria. Pence also said Trump had tasked him and White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien to lead a delegation to Turkey to seek a resolution to the conflict. Seung Min Kim and Karen DeYoung report at the Washington Post.

Turkey pressed on with its military campaign on northern Syria today, now in its seventh day, brushing off Trump’s announcement of new sanctions to punish the country. Erdoğan said Turkish and allied Syrian opposition forces now hold around 1,000 sq. kilometers of territory in northeast Syria, the AP reports.

The Turkish president said yesterday that his troops would continue to support an invasion of parts of northern Syria, despite the return of Syrian government forces, adding that the fight would carry on until “ultimate victory” is achieved. “We are determined to continue the operation until the end, without paying attention to threats … we will absolutely finish the job we started,” Erdoğan apparently said during a speech in Baku. Reuters reports.

Syrian government troops advanced into several key towns and villages in northern Syria yesterday, setting up a possible clash with Turkish-led forces moving into the area. The Syrian army’s deployment near the Turkish border came hours after a quickly forged pact between Syrian Kurdish forces previously allied with the U.S. and the Syrian government to confront Turkey’s assault. The major shift in alliances follows Trump’s recent policy change in Syria, the AP reports.

Three top Senate Democrats —  Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) — declared in a joint statement that hitting Turkey with “strong sanctions, while good and justified,” would not be enough to undo the damage that withdrawing American forces from northern Syria had done. They called on Republicans to join them in a resolution that would force Trump to reverse his decision to withdraw American troops from Syria. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

The U.S. continued to withdraw military forces from front-line bases in northern Syria yesterday after evacuating about ten American diplomats overnight on Sunday, current and former administration officials said. U.S. defense officials said they began relocating troops from smaller front-line bases to larger ones “that are easier to defend or father from the fighting,” as part of the first steps in a pull back of about 1,000 troops that the U.S. officials estimate will take weeks. Personnel on the department’s Syria Transition Assistance Response Team reportedly moved out of Syria on Sunday to other offices in the region “where they will continue to monitor programming remotely,” Dion Nissenbaum and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

Foreign ministers from all 28 European Union (E.U.) member states agreed unanimously yesterday to stop selling arms to Turkey, but stopped short of the E.U.-wide arms embargo that France and Germany had sought, the first time the bloc has reached such a decision about a N.A.T.O. ally. In a joint statement from the foreign ministers, the bloc condemned the military action by Turkey in Syria, while E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that the incursion raised concerns in Europe about a resurgence of the Islamic State group (ISIS), and that this was a key motivation for the decision. Michael Birnbaum reports at the Washington Post.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres yesterday called for an immediate de-escalation of the fighting in northeast Syria, saying “the ongoing Turkish military incursion [there] could unintentionally lead to the release of scores of people associated with the terrorist group ISIL.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

“Turkish-backed proxy forces with ties to extremist groups are deliberately releasing detainees affiliated with the Islamic State from unguarded prisons,” two U.S. officials said yesterday. Video footage released by Turkey purportedly shows Ankara’s radical proxies executing Kurdish prisoners and killing unarmed civilians, Lara Seligman reports at Foreign Policy.

A wide range of American military personnel and defense officials have voiced frustration at the Trump administration’s refusal to support Syrian Kurds facing a Turkish military assault after they helped America in its campaign against ISIS, Ryan Browne reports at CNN.

TURKEY AND SYRIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

President Trump’s “callousness” — playing down the U.S. relationship with Syrian Kurdish fighters as “purely transactional” — is a “signature theme of his foreign policy,” Ishaan Tharoor writes in an analysis at the Washington Post.

“Trump ignored months of warnings from his advisers about what calamities likely would ensue if he followed his instincts to pull back from Syria and abandon America’s longtime allies, the Kurds,” David E. Sanger writes at the New York Times, commenting that “rarely has a presidential decision resulted so immediately in what his own party leaders have described as disastrous consequences for American allies and interests.”

“The American retreat forced our Kurdish allies … to turn toward the Kremlin and seek help from Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus that they had spent years fighting to break away from,” James Hohmann writes in an analysis at the Washington Post.

An explainer from the Kurds’ commander in chief on why his forces are finally prepared to partner with Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin is available at Foreign Policy.

“The four biggest foes of America that gain from Trump’s Syria pullout” are suggested by Rick Noack at the Washington Post.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

President Trump’s former top adviser on Russia and Europe Fiona Hill yesterday told House committees during her nine-hour private testimony that she and other White House officials alerted White House lawyer John Eisenberg of the administration’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to open certain investigations, according to people familiar with the matter. In her testimony, Hill, who served on the National Security Council and left the administration in August, recounted a July 10 meeting in Washington that she attended with senior Ukrainian and U.S. officials, including then-National Security Adviser John Bolton and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. According to the people, Hill testified that Bolton told her to notify Eisenberg about the efforts by Sondland, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney after Sondland raised the matter of investigations in the meeting, which she and others took as a reference to a probe into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Aruna Viswanatha, Rebecca Ballhaus and Natalie Andrews report at the Wall Street Journal.

Hill also testified that Bolton told her: “I am not part of whatever drug deal Rudy and Mulvaney are cooking up,” referring to Mulvaney, whom Hill believed was linked to the discussions about Ukraine. Hill apparently also said Bolton described Giuliani as “a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.” Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

The White House apparently tried to restrict what Hill could say to Congress in its impeachment inquiry, according to correspondence between her lawyers and a White House deputy counsel. While the White House did not attempt to block Hill from testifying in the letters, it did inform her lawyers of four areas that could potentially fall under executive privilege, Josh Lederman, Geoff Bennett and Phil Helsel report at NBC News.

Former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Michael McKinley is scheduled to testify behind closed doors tomorrow, two officials working on the impeachment inquiry said. McKinley’s testimony “could shed light on Pompeo’s actions and how they have affected the State Department,” Felicia Sonmez, John Wagner and Brittany Shammas report at the Washington Post.

Giuliani reportedly was paid $500,000 for his work for a firm co-founded by the Ukrainian-American businessman Lev Parnas arrested last week on campaign finance counts, Giuliani told reporters. Federal prosecutors are apparently examining Giuliani’s business dealings in Ukraine and his “interactions” with Parnas and another Giuliani associate, Igor Fruman, who was also indicted on campaign finance and conspiracy charges. Reuters reports in an exclusive. 

Giuliani has denied any wrongdoing and yesterday said he had not been made aware of such a probe, saying: “They can look at my Ukraine business all they want.” Aruna Viswanatha, Rebecca Davis O’Brien and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A personal account of how whistleblowing can be a difficult “odyssey” and what Congress can do to ease the path to government accountability is provided by Patrick Eddington at Just Security.

An analysis of four “undersold moments” in the Trump-Ukraine timeline, including the May 2018 offensive by two of President Trump’s personal lawyer Giuliani’s now-indicted associates, is provided by Aaron Blake at the Washington Post.

Federal Election Commission Chair Ellen Weintraub warned Friday that the charges brought against Giuliani’s associates “highlight the flow of dark money in the U.S. political system” and is just the “tip of the iceberg.” Jacqueline Alemany at the Washington Post analyzes Weintraub’s comments.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong yesterday repeated their calls on the U.S. to pass a Hong Kong human rights act. Activists asked U.S. senators to support the Hong Kong Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, saying the bill — which would protect human rights in Hong Kong, provide annual reviews of its economy and allow the U.S. to place sanctions on countries that threaten its independence — would be their “most powerful weapon.” Police in Hong Kong yesterday said that protests in the city had reached a “life-threatening level” after a bomb exploded and a police officer was stabbed. Reuters reports.

An analysis of the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs’ “major contribution” to international law in cyberspace is provided by leading expert Michael Schmitt at Just Security, who comments that “other states would be well-served by following the Dutch lead in this regard.”

Pakistan faces getting blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Forces, a global watchdog, for financing terrorism after a report earlier this month by the task force’s Asia Pacific Group said the country had fully implemented only one item from a list of 40 measures that the country should be taking to control terrorist financing and money laundering.  The AP 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).