Just Security’s Early Edition: March 4, 2020

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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.

CORONAVIRUS

Several countries, including the United States, reported new coronavirus cases as the World Health Organization (WHO) warned the world was in “uncharted territory.” More than 90,000 cases have been confirmed worldwide. Al Jazeera reports.

The world’s supplies of protective gear – masks, gloves and goggles – need to be increased by an estimated 40 percent, urged WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Tuesday. “We continue to call on manufacturers to urgently increase production to meet this demand and guarantee supplies.” He said that the virus has killed 3.4 percent of those diagnosed with the illness globally — higher than what has previously been estimated. While it appears to be more deadly than the flu, Covid-19 spreads less efficiently, according to the WHO. Stephanie Nebehay and Kate Kelland report for Reuters

The U.S. Federal Reserve cut interest rates by a half percentage point on Tuesday in an emergency move designed to shield the world’s largest economy from the impact of the coronavirus. “The Fed reduced the federal-funds rate to a range between 1% and 1.25% in the first rate change in between scheduled Fed policy meetings since the 2008 financial crisis.” Nick Timiraos reports for the Wall Street Journal

Following a meeting of G7 countries, Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso stated that the G7 would “adopt all appropriate policy steps to protect the economy from downside risks posed by the coronavirus” but offered no quick fix and said the desirable policy response would vary from country to country. Reuters reports. 

The coronavirus deaths tied to the nursing center in Washington state came earlier than anyone knew. “The news that two people from the center died of coronavirus days before officials identified the emerging crisis suggested that the virus had been circulating inside the facility even longer than had been understood. That means it may have been a threat to visitors, workers and residents for days, widening the circle of people who may be at risk.” Mike Baker and Karen Weise report for the New York Times

Facing questions about why testing isn’t more widely available in the U.S., Vice President Mike Pence sought to reassure the public Tuesday, saying that any American can now be tested for the virus if a doctor deems it necessary. His comments were made during an off-camera press briefing, where no video or audio recording were allowed. 

“Pence’s comments perplexed some public health officials, as physicians already have discretion to order testing. The announcement also raised questions about whether the government can rapidly accelerate the production of testing kits, as well as how much patients will ultimately have to pay for getting tested.” Seung Min Kim, Maria Sacchetti and Brady Dennis report for the Washington Post

Defense Secretary Mark Esper reportedly urged American military commanders overseas not to make any decisions related to the coronavirus that might surprise the White House or run afoul of President Donald Trump’s messaging on the growing health challenge. The message was delivered to combatant commanders during a video conference last week. The New York Times reports. 

Iran has temporarily released more than 54,000 prisoners in an effort to combat the spread of the new coronavirus disease in crowded jails. Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili told reporters that the inmates were granted furlough after testing negative for Covid-19 and posting bail. “Security prisoners” sentenced to more than five years will not be let out, the BBC reports.

An adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has died after contracting the coronavirus. Mohammad Mirmohammadi, 71, was a member of the Expediency Council that advises Khamenei. CNN reports.

Eight percent of all members of Iran’s parliament (23 out of 290 members) have tested positive for coronavirus. CNN reports. 

Japan’s Olympic minister says the Tokyo 2020 Games could be postponed from the summer until later in the year amid fears over the coronavirus outbreak. In a response to a question in Japan’s parliament, Seiko Hashimoto said Tokyo’s contract with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) “calls for the Games to be held within 2020” adding that the contract “could be interpreted as allowing a postponement” BBC reports.

A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. is available at the New York Times.

U.S. and worldwide maps tracking the spread of the virus are available at the Washington Post.

AFGHANISTAN

Days after signing a “peace deal” with the Taliban, the United States conducted an airstrike against Taliban forces in response to their repeated attacks against Afghan troops, according to the U.S. military. “Col. Sonny Leggett, a U.S. military spokesman, said in a tweet that the ‘defensive’ strike was the first U.S. attack against the militants in 11 days. He said the attack was to counter a Taliban assault on Afghan government forces in Nahr-e Saraj in the southern Helmand province.” AP reports. 

Trump spoke to the Taliban’s chief negotiator on the phone on Tuesday. The president confirmed he spoke with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar after the Taliban announced the conversation happened. Trump told reporters on Tuesday, “I spoke to the leader of the Taliban today, we had a good conversation, we have agreed there is no violence, don’t want violence. We will see what happens. They’re dealing with Afghanistan but we will see what happens.”

Trump told reporters at a White House news conference Saturday that he would be “meeting personally with Taliban leaders in the not too distant future” following the signing of the agreement. Jennifer Hansler reports for CNN

IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), tasked with policing Iran’s nuclear deal, reported that Iran has dramatically increased its uranium stockpile. The IAEA “reported a near-tripling of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium just since November, with total holdings more than three times the 300-kilogram limit set by the nuclear accord. Iran also substantially increased the number of machines it is using to enrich uranium, the agency said, allowing it to make more of the nuclear fuel faster.” Joby Warrick reports for the Washington Post

The IAEA is also rebuking Iran for its lack of cooperation and for denying U.N. inspectors access to two sites. Reuters reports.

TURKEY-SYRIA

Turkish forces downed a third fighter jet flown by Syrian government forces since Sunday over southern Idlib on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Syrian government forces retook the key city of Saraqeb, which lies at the junction of the M4 and M5 commercial highways that connect the country’s major cities overnight following Russian air strikes in the area. Al Jazeera reports.

United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said that displaced civilians were “struggling to survive in horrific conditions” in war-torn northwest Syria. Lowcok pledged that the U.N. remains “determined to stand by” civilians across Syria’s war-torn northwest, as “a grave humanitarian crisis” continues. U.N. News reports.

A child drowned on Monday when a dinghy carrying 48 migrants capsized while trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos from the Turkish coast. The drowning was the first since the Turkish government said it would no longer stop migrants from crossing into Europe. Matina Stevis-Gridneff reports for the New York Times.

Amidst the breakdown in an immigration agreement between Turkey and Greece, “Turkey released new footage appearing to show refugees and migrants being repelled by Greek coastguards near the island of Lesbos, with vessels driving perilously close to dinghies and firing shots in the water close to them.” Dramatic videos appeared to show evidence of dramatic confrontations between migrants and Greek border patrol authorities in the Mediterranean sea. Aljazeera reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is projected to win Israel’s election, but fall short of winning a majority. Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious coalition projected to win 59 seats in the Monday election, two shy of a majority in the 120-member Parliament. David M. Halbfinger and Patrick Kingsley report for the New York Times.

Israel’s Arab parties, meanwhile, looked poised to win their largest-ever representation in parliament, propelled by what analysts say is anger toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his U.S. allies. Reuters reports.

As for the Trump administration’s “vision” for Middle East peace, “the most problematic, near-term effect … may be its diminishment of critical behind-the-scenes cooperation between the U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian security services,” writes Marc Polymeropoulos, who retired in June from the Senior Intelligence Service ranks at the CIA, for Just Security

U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS

China has promised to retaliate against the U.S. State Department’s announcement that it is “instituting a personnel cap” on five Chinese state media outlets. The new U.S. rules will force 60 Chinese journalists to leave the United States this month. But the State Department says it’s only responding to a decision by China in February to revoke the press credentials of three Wall Street Journal reporters based in Beijing as punishment for an opinion piece. Anna Fifield reports for the Washington Post

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Michael Ellis, a White House lawyer who refused to comply with a congressional subpoena during the impeachment investigation, has been named senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council. By elevating Ellis to this new role, Trump has installed yet another loyalist to a key intelligence-related leadership position. Natasha Bertrand and Daniel Lippman report for POLITICO

The publication of John Bolton’s memoir about his time working for Trump has been pushed back from March until May 12 due to the White House’s ongoing review of the manuscript. The delay revives questions about whether the government is unfairly holding up Bolton’s book for partisan political reasons, CNN reports.

IRAQ

For the first time, an Iraqi court has held the Islamic State accountable for its atrocities against the Yazidi religious minority. Ashwaq Haji Hamid Talo became the first Yazidi victim to testify against an alleged ISIS member, Mohammed Rashid Sahab. He was convicted of raping her and was sentenced to death. Alissa J. Rubin reports for the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Countries pursuing trade deals with the U.S. are taking steps to help block Africans from being able to seek asylum in the U.S. “Ecuador is closing its doors as one of the few countries in North and South America to welcome African visitors, depriving them of a starting point for their dangerous journeys north by land.” 

“Trump’s allies are blocking a path for Africans fleeing violence in their homelands as those countries face a U.S. president who has used economic leverage to get help curtailing immigration. Ecuador is pursuing a trade deal with Trump, while Mexico is trying to stay in his good graces after his threat to increase tariffs prompted its crackdown on illegal immigration last year.” Peter Orsi, Gonzalo Solano and Elliot Spagat report for the AP. 

U.N. agencies, together with the Bangladesh authorities, have appealed for $877 million to support hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, where conditions are still not conducive for their safe return, U.N. refugee agency chief Filippo Grandi said on Tuesday. U.N. News reports.

In a report to U.N. Human Rights Council, the special rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children reiterated concerns about protection gaps for children who are increasingly using the internet at a younger age, observing that child sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, and the use of children in prostitution “are a reality in all parts of the world.” U.N. News reports.

U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHRC) Michelle Bachelet informed India that her office has filed an application with the country’s Supreme Court to intervene as a third party in a petition filed by a former civil servant challenging India’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. The law makes it easier for religious minorities from three neighboring Muslim-majority countries who came to India before 2015 to get Indian citizenship, but not if they are Muslim. Al Jazeera Reports.

The accounts of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s main opposition leader and anti-corruption activist, were seized by Russian authorities, along with those of his son, wife and daughter, Daria, who is studying in the U.S. at Stanford University. Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation have come under attack by Russian authorities, which last year designated the group a foreign agent and accused it of money laundering. Robyn Dixon reports for the Washington Post.

The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee sent a letter Monday to the acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, urging him to reconsider his agency’s decision not to declassify information related to the October 2018 murder of journalist and Saudi regime critic Jamal Khashoggi. At the same time, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is moving to invoke a rarely used legislative procedure that would enable the Senate to release the requested material if it is deemed in the public interest. Ellen Nakashima reports for the Washington Post.

Haiti’s biggest celebration of the year, Carnival, has been canceled after deadly protests and gunfire interrupted the first day of festivities in Port-au-Prince, leaving at least one person dead. Haiti’s Armed Forces said protesters from the country’s National Police had attacked its headquarters, leaving one soldier dead and two others injured. Haitian police have been protesting for months, demanding better pay and conditions, but have not yet responded to claims their officers were involved in this incident. CNN reports. 

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