The Early Edition: February 28, 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.  

TURKEY-SYRIA

At least 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike in northwestern Syria yesterday, in a major escalation in the battle for control of the country’s last rebel stronghold. Dozens more soldiers were wounded and taken to Turkey for treatment, Rahmi Dogan, the local governor of the southeastern Turkish province of Hatay on the border with Idlib, said today. Turkey blamed the Syrian regime for the deaths, but evidence indicted the attack had been conducted by the Russian air force, an allegation Russia’s defense ministry denied. Bethan McKernan reporting for The Guardian.

Turkey said it responded by striking some 200 Syrian government targets, “neutralizing” 309 Syrian soldiers. The BBC reporting.

N.A.T.O. denounced the attack on Turkish troops and convened an emergency meeting of its ambassadors this morning at Turkey’s request to discuss the situation in Syria. “Allies offered their deepest condolences for the death of Turkish soldiers in last night’s bombing in Idlib and expressed full solidarity with Turkey … we call on Russia and the Assad regime to stop the attacks,” N.A.T.O. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels today after the meeting of ambassadors. Robin Dixon reporting for the Washington Post.

The attack also drew condemnation from Washington and triggered a U.N. warning on the increasing risk of escalation. “Without urgent action, the risk of even greater escalation grows by the hour,” United Nations spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said in a statement that repeated Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s call for an immediate ceasefire. A U.S. State Department spokesperson said Washington supports its N.A.T.O. ally Turkey and continues to urge “an immediate end to this despicable offensive by the Assad regime, Russia and Iranian-backed forces.” AFP reporting.

Ankara will allow Syrian refugees to transit unimpeded to Europe following yesterday’s attack, a senior Turkish official said, in an apparent shift in Turkey’s policy regarding Syrian refugees. “We have decided, effectively immediately, not to stop Syrian refugees from reaching Europe by land or sea,” the official said. “All refugees, including Syrians, are now welcome to cross into the European Union.” Reuters reporting.

“President Trump has long sought to avoid confronting the leaders of Turkey and Russia — two foreign strongmen who are facing off in civil wars in Syria and Libya … But after [yesterday’s] airstrike … Trump may be forced to pick a side,” the New York Times’ Lara Jakes and Michael Crowley write in an analysis.

It is too late to defeat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but a humanitarian intervention by the European Union (E.U.) and N.A.T.O. could mitigate the humanitarian consequences, Sinan Ulgen argues at Foreign Policy.

AFGHANISTAN

The signing of a peace deal between the Taliban and the U.S. is expected to go ahead tomorrow in Qatar, after a weeklong partial cease-fire has appeared to work. The brief truce, a prerequisite for the signing, has led to an 80 percent drop in major attacks, officials said, likely allowing American negotiators to formalize an agreement that would set the timeline for the withdrawal of American troops who have been fighting in Afghanistan for 18 years. Mujib Mashal reporting for the New York Times.

Twenty-two House Republicans have voiced “serious concerns” about the Trump administration’s plans to enter into a peace deal with the Taliban this weekend. In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the lawmakers said they are “seeking assurances that you will not place the security of the American people into the hands of the Taliban, and undermine our ally, the current government of Afghanistan.” Rebecca Kheel reporting for the Hill.

“For the moment Trump seems to understand that the only thing worse than staying in Afghanistan is leaving it completely … but he is also consistently inconsistent when it comes to foreign policy, and he could just as easily pull the plug entirely,” CNN’s Peter Bergen argues.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

A federal judge is considering civil contempt charges against a Russian firm accused of funding a Russian troll farm’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election to boost President Trump’s candidacy after prosecutors accused the St. Petersburg-based company of defying subpoenas to turn over documents. Reuters reporting.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.) has privately voiced concerns about his colleagues’ corruption probe into former Vice President Joe Biden, further revealing partitions within the G.O.P. over whether to continue pursuing an effort that led in part to Trump’s impeachment. In a Dec. 5 meeting, Burr told the leaders of the Senate Homeland Security and Finance committees — Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa), respectively — that their investigation targeting Biden could help Russian efforts to sow confusion and distrust in the U.S. political system, according to two congressional sources familiar with the meeting. Andrew Desiderio reporting for POLITICO.

“Both the plain meaning of the Constitution’s text and the historical evidence show that once a president has been impeached, he or she loses the power to pardon anyone for criminal offenses connected to the articles of impeachment — and that even after the Senate’s failure to convict the president, he or she does not regain this power,” Corey Brettschneider argues at POLITICO Magazine amid speculation that Trump might pardon his longtime ally Roger Stone.

SURVEILLANCE REFORM

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said yesterday that President Trump opposes a clean reauthorization of expiring surveillance powers, complicating the path forward for the Patriot Act ahead of a fast-approaching March 15 deadline to extend key features of the legislation. Paul said Trump backs his proposal to include reforms to prevent the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.) being used against Americans, a decision that puts him at odds with Attorney General William Barr who told G.O.P. senators that Congress should extend the three programs. Trump’s apparent support for including broader changes reflects “conservative unease over the way the Trump campaign was surveilled in 2016.” Burgess Everett reporting for POLITICO.

House Democrats’ abrupt calling off yesterday of a markup on the reauthorization bill is “the latest casualty of Democrats’ refusal to acknowledge that the F.B.I. abused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in its 2016 counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign,” Kimberley A. Strassel argues at the Wall Street Journal.

CORONAVIRUS

The U.S. and South Korea yesterday announced that they would indefinitely postpone annual joint military exercises due to the spread of the coronavirus in South Korea. The declaration comes after the U.S. military reported one its 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea tested positive for the virus. Robbie Gramer and Dan Haverty reporting for Foreign Policy.

The U.S. Navy has directed all ships that have made stops in the Pacific region to effectively self-quarantine and remain at sea for 14 days in order to observe sailors for any symptoms of coronavirus. “Out of an abundance of caution, Pacific Fleet is implementing additional mitigations to prevent Sailors from contracting COVID-19, and to monitor Sailors who have traveled to higher-risk areas,” U.S. Navy spokesperson Lt. James Adams said, using the official name for the virus. The spokesman said that “at this time, there are no indications that any U.S. Navy personnel have contracted Coronavirus Disease 2019,” but explained: “The health and welfare of our sailors, civilians and their families is paramount and our efforts are directed at detection and, if required, prevention of the spread of this illness.” Ryan Browne reporting for CNN.

IRAN

A recap of where U.S.-Iran tensions stand ahead of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s scheduled briefing to the House Foreign Affairs Committee today about the administration’s next steps, is provided by Lara Jakes, Edward Wong and Julian E. Barnes at the New York Times.

Can the killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani serve as a model for addressing the problems posed by proxy forces elsewhere in the world? Svante E. Cornell and Brenda Shaffer take a look at Foreign Policy.

Iran’s influence network in Iraq has taken a pummeling; anti-government protests and the killing of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis threaten its strategy of government capture by militias. In a piece for Just Security, Crispin Smith explains how the militias are responding and the policy implications for the U.S. and Iraq.

CHINA AND HUAWEI

The Navy said yesterday that a Chinese warship launched a military grade laser at a U.S. surveillance aircraft passing over the Pacific Ocean last week, an action the Navy called “unsafe and unprofessional.” The U.S. Pacific Fleet said such acts “violate the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (C.U.E.S.), a multilateral agreement reached at the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium to reduce the chance of an incident at sea.” Ellen Mitchell reporting for the Hill.

The Senate unanimously passed legislation yesterday that would prohibit the use of federal funds to purchase telecommunications equipment from companies deemed a national security threat, such as Chinese telecom giant Huawei. The bipartisan Secure and Trusted Telecommunications Networks Act, which the House approved in December, would require the Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.) to set up a $1 billion fund to help smaller telecom providers to abolish and replace equipment from such businesses, and to assemble a list of firms seen as posing a threat to telecom networks. Maggie Miller reporting for the Hill.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Trump administration’s Middle East proposal represents the new millennium’s version of the old South Africa’s deplorable policy of Apartheid, Alon Liel argues at Foreign Policy, noting, while “Israel has long resisted the South Africa analogy … the U.S. government’s support for annexation is making it a reality.”

Will the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) Pre-Trial Chamber (P.T.C.) address the issue of Palestinian statehood in assessing its jurisdictional reach? In a piece for Just Security, Jeremie Bracka explains why it is preferable that the P.T.C. acknowledge that the Palestine statehood issue is “simply beyond the legal and normative competence of an international criminal court.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Scotland’s first minister has been asked to use unexplained wealth orders to probe how President Trump paid for his Scottish golf resorts amid fears about possible money laundering involving some of the president’s business deals. The BBC reporting.

A federal judge in Washington state yesterday blocked the Trump administration from shifting millions of dollars in funding from a project at a base in the state to build Trump’s border wall, delivering a partial knock to the president. CNN reporting.

A look at the calamity surrounding the growing politicization of the intelligence community is provided by former director of the National Counterterrorism Center Nicholas Rasmussen at Just Security.

The ouster of Pentagon policy chief John Rood last week is part of Trump’s campaign to root out “anti-Trump” members of his administration following his impeachment acquittal.  POLITICO reporting.

Iraqi politicians failed yesterday to establish a new government, prolonging stalemate that has failed to resolve unprecedented mass unrest and has impeded the country’s recovery from years of war. Reuters reporting.

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is calling on Trump’s new top acting intelligence official to declassify sections of the report related to the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Hill reporting. 

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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).