The Early Edition: February 18, 2020

Curated summary of up-to-the-minute national security developments at home and abroad.

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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.  

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Former national security adviser John Bolton said yesterday he was fighting White House efforts to suppress his forthcoming book, explaining that his ability to speak was hampered because of the “prepublication review” of his manuscript “and threats of possible legal action.” In his first public speech since President Trump’s acquittal, Bolton declined to go into the details of the Ukraine matter that led to Trump’s impeachment, however, he frequently teased some of the information in his book. Asked whether he agreed with Trump that his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “perfect,” Bolton responded, “you’ll love chapter 14.” Karen DeYoung and Kirk Ross reporting for the Washington Post.

Bolton implied that his unpublished book contained far more disclosures than just the Ukraine pressure campaign. The former national security adviser expressed familiar hard-line views on North Korea and Iran, and said the Ukraine parts of his book are “the sprinkles on an ice cream sundae,” compared with other subjects he covers, adding, “we’ll have to see what comes out of the censorship.” Peter Baker reporting for the New York Times.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor said in an interview broadcast Sunday that no officials at the State Department ever seriously considered conspiracy theories alleging that Ukraine, and not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election. Taylor — who testified during the House impeachment investigation — told CBS’ 60 Minutes that officials at the American Embassy in Kyiv saw no merit in the rumors, which had been spread by the president and his allies. Taylor added that he was frustrated by Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s parallel Ukraine policy, Justine Coleman reporting for the Hill.

JUSTICE DEPARTMENT

More than 2,000 former Department of Justice (D.O.J.) officials have signed a statement calling on Attorney General William Barr to step down after he intervened last week to lower the D.O.J.’s sentencing recommendation for President Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone. The number of Republican and Democratic former department officials who signed the statement nearly doubled since it was initially published Sunday. Laura Jarrett reporting for CNN.

“Barr is under fire not just for the Stone case, but for fulfilling Trump’s demands to probe the roots of the Russia investigation and for accepting so-called evidence on Joe Biden from the President’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani from the caper in Ukraine that triggered Trump’s impeachment,” CNN’s Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis of the recent developments.

AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. and Taliban will sign a peace deal by the end of the month, the Taliban confirmed yesterday. Senior Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Salam Hanafi said in a video shared with journalists that “both sides have initiated the final draft of the peace agreement … now talks are concluded,” the first formal statement released by the insurgent group since the U.S. announced a peace accord Friday. Susannah George and Haq Nawaz Khan reporting for the Washington Post.

The United Nations has backed the U.S.-Taliban peace process aimed at ending 18 years of war in Afghanistan, with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres describing it as an opportunity that “cannot” be missed. Speaking at a high-level international summit in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, Guterres called on the international community to “do everything possible” to achieve peace in Afghanistan. Al Jazeera reporting.

Afghans fear another civil war, arguing that the withdrawal of troops cannot take place, and the war cannot be ended, without engaging the Afghan government in talks with the Taliban. Emran Feroz reporting for Foreign Policy.

“This time, with progress in the [peace] talks seeming so close … few are talking much about the violence that is still happening, perhaps unwilling to risk any deal that carried a hope of ending it,” Mujib Mashal, Katie Rogers, Zabihullah Ghazi and Thomas Gibbons-Neff report at the New York Times, reflecting on Trump’s abrupt calling off of the U.S.-Taliban negotiations last September after a bombing killed an American and a N.A.T.O. troop.

TURKEY-SYRIA RELATIONS

Turkey stressed the need to de-escalate tensions in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province during talks with Russian counterparts in Moscow, its foreign ministry said yesterday, adding deliberations aimed at forging a cease-fire agreement in Syria would continue today. Turkish and Russian officials discussed measures that could be taken to fully implement earlier agreements and end violations in Idlib, the ministry said. Reuters reporting.

The relief operation in northeastern Syria is being “overwhelmed” as the number of people displaced by the government offensive in Idlib rises, the U.N. said yesterday. Since early December, 900,000 people have been forced to flee violence, most of them women and children, it said. In a statement, the U.N.’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, warned that “the biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st Century” could only be avoided with a truce. The U.N. News Centre reporting.

LIBYA

European Union (E.U.) states have agreed to launch a new military mission off the Libyan coast to enforce a faltering U.N. arms embargo, a move likely to experience firm challenges given the recent arms buildup by regional powers in the North African country. The 27 European governments still have to draft a legal text for the operation, after agreeing it in principle in Brussels, but E.U. officials say they hope to have the new naval and air mission ready by the end of March. Laurence Norman and Jared Malsin reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

The threat posed by unexploded bombs is increasing “exponentially” in Libya, experts have cautioned, with the use of banned cluster weapons a source of specific concern. The U.N.’s Mine Action Service (Unmas) said that even regions  previously cleared of explosive material had been recontaminated following a rise in fighting since April last year, when renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive to capture the capital Tripoli. Kaamil Ahmed reporting for The Guardian.

The U.N humanitarian coordinator for Libya said yesterday the effect of the country’s nine-year conflict on civilians is “incalculable,” pointing to casualties soaring and almost 900,000 people now requiring assistance. AP reporting.

Libya’s warring factions resumed U.N.-brokered talks today aimed at saving a fragile truce in the country, the U.N. said in Geneva. AP reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS 

A leaked Chinese government document shows how people were monitored and selected for internment camps in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, the most powerful insight yet into China’s detention of hundreds of thousands of Muslim-majority Uyghurs. Ivan Watson and Ben Westcott reporting for CNN.

Iran sentenced eight environmental activists, including an Iranian who apparently also has British and American citizenship, to prison terms ranging from four to 10 years on allegations of spying for the U.S. and acting against Iran’s national security, the judiciary said today. AP reporting.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said yesterday he sensed a “more constructive” approach from American officials after speaking last week with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about strategic dialogue between the two nations and about arms control. Reuters reporting. 

About the Author(s)

Nat O'Connell

Associate 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).