The Early Edition: October 21, 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

Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria yesterday withdrew from the key border town of Ras al-Ain as part of a U.S.-brokered ceasefire deal with Turkey. Spokesperson for the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) Kino Gabriel said in a statement that the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led group had no fighters left in Ras al-Ain following yesterday’s evacuation. The deal reached last Thursday between Ankara and Washington commits Turkey to suspending its military incursion into Kurdish-held areas for five days in exchange for a U.S. pledge to “facilitate” a pullback of Syrian Kurds from an area Turkey has defined as a safe zone along the two nations’ borders. Michael Safi reports at the Guardian.

Both sides have accused each other of violating the temporary truce, as clashes were reported over the weekend between Turkish-allied forces and Kurdish fighters in the border area. The S.D.F. accused Turkey of violating the ceasefire and failing to create a safe corridor for the evacuation of civilians and wounded people from Ras al-Ain, while Turkish officials said Kurdish fighters had carried out 16 attacks. Sune Engel Rasmussen, Isabel Coles and David Gauthier-Villars report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Turkish defense ministry also said yesterday a soldier had been killed and another wounded in an attack by Syrian Kurdish forces in the Tal Abyad border area. The army returned fire in self-defense, the ministry added. The BBC reports.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has confirmed that under current plans all U.S. troops withdrawing from northern Syria are expected to be relocated to western Iraq and the military will continue to conduct operations against ISIS to prevent its resurgence, a move that conflicts with Trump’s repeated calls to bring forces home. Speaking to reporters traveling with him to the Middle East, Esper did not dismiss the idea that U.S. forces would conduct counterterrorism missions from Iraq into Syria — but he said those details would be “worked out over time.” The AP reports.

U.S. troops were reportedly seen crossing into Iraq from Syria this morning, through the Sahela border crossing in the northern province of Dohuk. Reuters reports.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) led a surprise congressional visit to Afghanistan and Jordan over the weekend to discuss the fallout from President Trump’s decision to remove U.S. troops from northern Syria and Turkey’s subsequent offensive on Kurdish-held territory. “With the deepening crisis in Syria after Turkey’s incursion, our delegation has engaged in vital discussions about the impact to regional stability, increased flow of refugees, and the dangerous opening that has been provided to [the Islamic State group] ISIS, Iran and Russia,” Pelosi said in a statement yesterday night, adding that the nine-member congressional delegation met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman and also received briefings from Ambassador John Bass and other top diplomats on reconciliation efforts with the Taliban. The trip briefly overlapped with one by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Steve Hendrix reports at the Washington Post.

Trump is reportedly considering a new plan floated by top generals that would leave a small force of roughly 200 U.S. troops in eastern Syria. The residual force would have a dual-purpose mission: to prevent the resurgence of ISIS following Turkey’s invasion in the region and to help the Kurds keep control of oil production facilities in the region. Eric Schmitt and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

A detailed look at President Erdogan’s previously stated ambition for nuclear weapons, in light of Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish areas in Syria, is provided by David E. Sanger and William J. Broad at the New York Times.

AFGHANISTAN

At least 73 people were killed by a blast inside an Afghan mosque in the eastern province of Nangarha during Friday prayers last week, a day after the U.N. reported that violence in the country had reached “unacceptable” levels with civilian casualties at a record high in the year’s third quarter. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack the year’s second most deadly to date. Zabihullah Ghazi, Mujib Mashal and Fahim Abed report at the New York Times.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper arrived in Afghanistan yesterday in a bid to revive peace talks with the Taliban after President Trump abruptly called off negotiations last month seeking to end the United States’ longest war. Esper told reporters traveling with him that the U.S. could nearly halve its forces in Afghanistan, reducing American personnel in the country to 8,600, without hurting the counterterrorism fight against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group (ISIS). However, Esper stressed that any withdrawal would be contingent on a peace agreement with the Taliban: “the aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, a political agreement … that is the best way forward,” Esper told reporters. Al Jazeera reports.

A detailed look at national security developments at the U.N. last week, including the violence in Afghanistan and the U.S.-brokered ceasefire agreement with Turkey, is fielded by Emily Shire at Just Security.

IRAN

An Iranian hacking group codenamed Oilrig widely linked to the Iranian government was itself hacked by a Russian group called Turla to spy on multiple countries, a two-year joint investigation by British and U.S. intelligence agencies has revealed. “The Iranian group is most likely unaware that its hacking methods have been hacked and deployed by another cyber espionage team,” according to security officials involved in the investigation, Helen Warrell and Henry Foy report at the Financial Times.

Iran’s foreign ministry has sent the U.S. a list of names it is demanding in a prisoner swap with the U.S. and other Western nations proposed by Tehran, Ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi said today. The AP reports.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney continued yesterday to back off assertions he made to reporters last week that the Trump administration leveraged military aid to Ukraine for an investigation that could politically benefit President Trump. During an interview with “Fox News Sunday,” Mulvaney claimed his words had been misreported, stating he had not acknowledged a quid pro quo, but now citing only two reasons for the delay: “rampant corruption in Ukraine” and “whether or not other nations, specifically European nations, were helping with foreign aid to the Ukraine;” Mulvaney had listed three during his Thursday news briefing at the White House. The existence of a quid pro quo between Trump and Ukraine is at the centre of an impeachment inquiry led by House Democrats, Karoun Demirjian reports at the Washington Post.

George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine, told congressional investigators last week that he raised concerns with a senior White House official in 2015 about Hunter Biden’s position with a Ukrainian gas company — a warning that was not acted on, it was reported Friday. Kent apparently warned that the son of then-Vice President Joe Biden holding a position on the board “could look like a conflict of interest,” given his father’s role, and “would complicate American efforts to encourage Ukraine to clean up corruption.” Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

The Department of Energy (D.O.E.) notified Congress Friday that it would not comply with a subpoena to provide documents Democrats want to review relating to the impeachment investigation of Trump. In a letter to the committees involved in the inquiry, assistant Energy secretary for congressional and intergovernmental affairs Melissa Burnison wrote that “even if the inquiry was validly authorized, much of the information sought in the subpoena appears to consist of confidential Executive Branch communications that are potentially protected by executive privilege and would require careful review to ensure that no such information is improperly disclosed.” Therefore, the official explained, the D.O.E. is “unable to comply with [the] request for documents and communications at this time.” Anthony Adragna and Ben Lefebvre report at POLITICO.

The Justice Department distanced itself yesterday from Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy, declaring that department officials would not have met with Giuliani earlier this summer to discuss one of his clients had they known that federal prosecutors in New York were investigating two of his associates who were indicted this month on campaign finance charges. Evan Perez reports at CNN.

Reps. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) and Will Hurd (R-Texas) on the House Intelligence Committee repeated calls yesterday for Giuliani to testify before Congress, days after he refused to comply with the House’s impeachment inquiry. Marianne Levine reports at POLITICO.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Federal prosecutors investigating the origins of the government’s Russia probe have apparently interviewed about two dozen people, suggesting that the inquiry is further along than previously known. Adam Goldman and William K. Rashbaum report at the New York Times.

The Supreme Court agreed Friday to consider whether asylum seekers who enter the U.S. illegally are able to challenge government efforts to quickly deport them. Brent Kendall and Jess Bravin report at the Wall Street Journal.

Lawmakers from the Judiciary Committee on Friday focused their antitrust investigation on “how the market power of major tech platforms could hurt consumer privacy.” House lawmakers heard testimony that tech giants such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon have collected large quantities of data that give them an advantage over rivals, and that their dominance allows them to “get away with more aggressive data collection.” The  David McCabe reports at the New York Times.

President Trump on Saturday scrapped plans to host next year’s G-7 summit at his private golf resort in Florida after he faced accusations he was using the office for personal gain, claims which he denied. Philip Rucker and David A. Fahrenthold report at the Washington Post.

Assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs Kevin Moley will retire from his post on Nov. 29. Moley, a top State Department official at the center of an internal department watchdog report on mismanagement, made no mention in his note of the controversy surrounding him, Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer report at Foreign Policy.

An analysis of what Congress and the courts should do to address F.B.I. violations of the rules intended to limit the Bureau’s access to vast databases of Americans’ private communications is provided by Jennifer Stisa Granick and Ashley Gorski at Just Security.

Hong Kong C.E.O. Carrie Lam apologized to the city’s Islamic leaders today after police fired a water cannon at a major mosque yesterday night while trying to contain pro-democracy protests. Reuters reports.

“Venezuela won a contested election for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council on Thursday despite a campaign by over 50 organizations and many countries opposed to Nicolas Maduro’s government and its rights record,” Al Jazeera reported Friday. 

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).