The Early Edition: March 5, 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.  

CORONAVIRUS

The U.S. death toll from coronavirus infections rose to 11 yesterday, with California announcing its first fatality linked to the epidemic and Washington state reporting its 10th death. New cases were also reported around New York City. Adam Taylor, Teo Armus and Rick Noack report for the Washington Post.

California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency over the virus as he announced the death of an elderly person who had taken a cruise to Mexico and the number of cases in the state shot up to 54. “The State of California is deploying every level of government to help identify cases and slow the spread of this coronavirus,” Newsom said, announcing the emergency measures that would help the state prepare “in the event it spreads more broadly.” AFP reporting.

The House yesterday passed a $8.3 billion emergency funding package to help fight the rapidly spreading disease, sending it to the Senate for final approval. The bill, which passed 415-2, would provide more than $3 billion for developing vaccines, treatment and testing of the virus and designates $2.2 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to contain the outbreak, among other measures. Andrew Duehren reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

The bill includes a provision that would require that funds are used only to combat the coronavirus and other infectious diseases, as some Democrats worried that the Trump administration could pilfer the funding and use it for other unrelated purposes. Rebecca Shabad, Frank Thorp V and Alex Moe reporting for NBC News.

More than 95,000 cases have been confirmed worldwide, with infections in more than 80 countries and territories. Jessie Yeung, James Griffiths and Adam Renton report for CNN.

South Korea recorded an additional 435 cases of coronavirus yesterday, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said, bringing the total to 5,621 confirmed cases, the largest outbreak outside of mainland China. Justine Coleman reporting for the Hill.

Coronavirus has spread to nearly all of Iran’s provinces but the nation will get through the outbreak with a “minimum” number of deaths, President Hassan Rouhani stated yesterday. Reuters reporting.

Records from medical centers in Tehran strongly indicate that the epidemic has spread throughout Iran even more than the government has acknowledged. Around a dozen hospitals in the capital city have reported 80 deaths from the coronavirus during the six days ending yesterday; the data set also shows a 17 percent rise in deaths between Tuesday and Wednesday. Erin Cunningham and Dalton Bennett report for the Washington Post.

Iraq’s health ministry confirmed late yesterday its second coronavirus death in the capital Baghdad, the state news agency reported. Reuters reporting.

Infections in Italy surged to more 3,000, while deaths shot up to 107, from 79 Tuesday. The country ordered all schools and universities to close until at least March 15 as officials work to contain the outbreak. Reuters reporting.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has announced $50 billion of emergency financing for countries hit by the coronavirus. The organization warned that the outbreak had already pushed global economic growth for 2020 below last year’s levels and said the money is aimed at helping help low- and middle-income countries with weak health systems respond to the epidemic. The U.N. News Centre reporting.

Thousands of coronavirus test kits are headed to state and local laboratories following a weekslong delay, Vice President Mike Pence said yesterday. However questions remain about when, precisely, those promised test kits will arrive and how well they will work. Erika Edwards reports for NBC News.

Several U.S. military branches are screening new recruits for the coronavirus as part of an effort to stop the virus from spreading among the armed forces. While recruits are always tested for health issues, the coronavirus is now a particular concern for the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Army who have put in place new screening procedures as the virus spreads. The move underlines comments made by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley earlier this week that the military is planning for all scenarios as it tackles the coronavirus. Paul LeBlanc reports for CNN.

“Vice President Mike Pence’s efforts [to battle the epidemic] … risk being undermined by the President’s inflammatory and inaccurate personal commentary on the virus,” CNN’s Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis, commenting that Trump’s optimism and upbeat rhetoric “hardly reflects the true state of affairs.”

Questions around the coronavirus outbreak in Washington State are answered by Karen Weise, Amy Harmon and Sheri Fink at the New York Times.

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 epidemic are available at the Washington Post.

AFGHANISTAN

Appeals judges at the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) today approved an investigation targeting the U.S., Afghan authorities and the Taliban for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan, overturning an earlier rejection of the probe. The ruling is likely to draw sharp criticism from the U.S. government, which does not recognize the global court’s jurisdiction and previously condemned the request from the court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, to scrutinize the actions of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Owen Bowcott reports for The Guardian.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said yesterday the United States has seen “mixed” results in the early days of a peace agreement with the Taliban. Esper told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that the Taliban are honoring the deal by not attacking U.S. and coalition forces, “but not in terms of sustaining the reduction in violence.” His comments to the panel come after the U.S. military carried out its first airstrike since the Trump administration signed the deal, which U.S. Forces Afghanistan said was retaliation for a Taliban attack on an Afghan military checkpoint. Rebecca Kheel reporting for the Hill.

Abdullah Abdullah, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s main political opponent, supports a Taliban request for the release of thousands of their prisoners before they will participate in peace talks with the government, his spokesperson said today. A debate over the prisoner release risks jeopardizing the U.S-led effort to bring peace to Afghanistan. Reuters reporting.

U.S. lawmakers have voiced concern that the U.S.-Taliban agreement “gives away too much for too little” and may threaten America’s national security, as a surge in Afghan violence, along with the refusal so far of the Afghan government to release thousands of Taliban prisoners, underscores the fragility of the accord. AP reporting.

An assessment of the “deeply flawed” U.S.-Taliban agreement is provided by Susan E. Rice at the New York Times, who notes that “after 14 months, the United States would be left without any military or counterterrorism capacity in Afghanistan, effectively subcontracting America’s security to the Taliban.”

TURKEY-SYRIA

Analysis of new satellite photos of Syria’s Idlib province indicates large parts of the area are now uninhabitable. A report by Harvard University, Save the Children and World Vision said nearly a third of the buildings in two towns had been damaged or destroyed in offensives by Syrian and Russian forces on the opposition’s last stronghold. Other images depicted fields filling up with camps for displaced people. Merrit Kennedy reports for NPR.

The Turkish and Russian Presidents met today to discuss the conflict in Syria, the latest opportunity to negotiate a deal that avoids further calamity in the country’s northwest. AP reporting.

Turkey demanded European Union (E.U.) assistance yesterday for its mission in Syria as the cost of resolving a new migrant crisis on its border with Greece, but rejected European claims that it was “blackmailing” the bloc, exploiting the migrant situation for political goals. Thousands of migrants have flocked to the Turkey-Greece border since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave them the go-ahead to leave for Europe last week. AFP reporting.

A fistfight broke out in the Turkish parliament yesterday during an address by an opposition legislator who earlier accused President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of “disrespecting” Turkish soldiers who were killed in Syria. Dozens of parliamentarians joined the scuffle, while others tried to end the fighting, according to video footage of the brouhaha. Al Jazeera reporting.

Washington is divided over support for Turkey in Syria’s Idlib due to Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 defense systems, U.S. envoy James Jeffrey said today. The U.S. had previously argued the missile systems are “not compatible with NATO defenses and may compromise its F-35 stealth fighter jets.” Reuters reporting.

“Creating the humanitarian disaster that has turned almost 6 million Syrians into refugees has not been a byproduct of the Russian president’s strategy in Syria … it has been one of his central goals,”  George Soros argues at the Financial Times, calling on Europe to stand up to Moscow’s Syria policy and commenting, “by focusing on the refugee crisis that Russia has created, Europe is addressing the symptom and not the cause.”

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

“After three brutal campaigns, three elections and three failed attempts at forming a government, Israel now finds itself right back where it was over a year ago: deadlocked over the fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” David M. Halbfinger reports at the New York Times after Netanyahu’s party won the most parliamentary seats in Israel’s national election on Monday but fell short of a majority, leaving no clear winner. However the outcome after Monday’s inconclusive election may be different this time, Halbfinger predicts, citing Netanyahu’s impending trial on corruption charges and the suspicion that no one in the country wants a fourth election.

Even as the Israeli right made gains in the election, Arab lawmakers garnered a record number of seats, as Arab voters, motivated by anger over a provision in the recently unveiled Trump Middle East peace plan that suggested that some of them could be deprived of their citizenship, took to the ballot box. Patrick Kingsley reports at the New York Times.

IRAN AND IRAQ

A U.S. defense department linguist was charged with espionage yesterday over allegations that she transmitted “highly classified” information to a foreign national linked to the Lebanese Islamist militant group Hezbollah, which acts as a proxy for Iran. Mariam Thompson was accused of endangering the lives of U.S. military personnel and others on “active” duty by revealing their real names. Law enforcement officials indicated that the potential loss of sensitive information was “grave” and that the prosecution was “one of the most serious” recent counterintelligence cases they had seen, Adam Goldman and Julian E. Barnes report for the New York Times.

When Iran-backed militias in Iraq named a new head to replace the Iraqi killed with Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike, it exposed the divisions in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) — a development that could aid American policy, researcher Crispin Smith writes in a piece for Just Security. 

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

The U.S.-China feud over the treatment of journalists in both nations deepened yesterday as Beijing hinted at revenge against the U.S. for its decision to cut the number of Chinese state media staff allowed in the country. The Guardian reporting.

The Saudi-led coalition battling in Yemen said yesterday that it thwarted an “imminent terrorist attack” on an oil tanker off Yemen’s coast on the Arabian Sea. The tanker was traveling 90 nautical miles southeast of Yemen’s Nishtun port towards the Gulf of Aden on Tuesday when it was targeted by four ships, with one of the remotely controlled vessels trying to detonate it, coalition spokesperson Turki al-Malki said in a statement published by state news agency SPA. Al Jazeera reporting.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, a Peruvian diplomat who brokered a historic ceasefire between Iran and Iraq in 1988, died yesterday aged 100. Reuters reporting.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court yesterday effectively banned F.B.I. officials involved in the wiretapping of a former Trump campaign adviser from appearing before it in other cases at least temporarily, the latest fallout from an internal probe into the bureau’s surveillance of Carter Page. A 19-page opinion and order by James E. Boasberg, the chief judge of the secretive court, also largely accepted amendments the F.B.I. has said it will make to its process for seeking national-security wiretaps following a damning inspector general report about serious failings in applications to monitor the aide. The New York Times reporting.

A deep dive into what the impeachment proceedings revealed about Michael Ellis’ role in the Ukraine cover-up and abuse of classification system following his recent appointment as senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council (NSC) is provided by Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman at Just Security.

The Trump administration has picked Marshall Billingslea, the current undersecretary for terrorism financing at the Treasury Department, as special envoy for nuclear talks, with the principal task of negotiating a new arms control agreement with Russia and China, according to two sources. CNN reporting.

Sean Doocey, the former chief of the White House personnel office, has been appointed to a top role at the State Department Bureau of International Organization Affairs, “putting another political appointee with little experience in multilateral affairs in the top ranks of an agency responsible for managing U.S. relations with the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and other international organizations,” Foreign Policy reports. 

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).