The Early Edition: March 6, 2020

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

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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 fifteen people were killed today after fighting broke out between Syrian government forces and jihadist insurgents in southern Idlib province, hours after a Russian-Turkish ceasefire went into effect, a war monitor said. Reuters reporting.

The ceasefire deal was signed in Moscow yesterday by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after a six-hour meeting. The pact aims to end intense fighting in Idlib between Turkish-backed rebels and Syrian forces supported by Russia that has sparked a humanitarian disaster and brought the nuclear power and the NATO member closer to direct war. The agreement will also establish a security corridor along the strategic M4 highway in northern Syria, where Turkish and Russian forces will launch joint patrols from March 15. Andrew Higgins reports for the New York Times.

Before the truce took effect, Turkey said two of its soldiers had been killed in clashes with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Turkey said it had killed 21 Syrian troops and destroyed artillery pieces and missile launchers. The Guardian reporting.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “hopes that this agreement will lead to an immediate and lasting cessation of hostilities that ensures the protection of civilians in northwest Syria,” his spokesperson said in a statement yesterday. The U.N. News Centre reporting.

A look at the militant groups fighting in Syria’s civil war and their options as the conflict reaches an endgame in Idlib is provided by AP.

AFGHANISTAN

At least 27 people were killed and tens of others were wounded after gunmen opened fire in Afghanistan’s capital today at a remembrance ceremony for a minority Shiite leader, officials said. Several well-known political leaders escaped the ceremony unharmed, including the opposition leader, Abdullah Abdullah. Najim Rahim and Mujib Mashal report for the New York Times.

Afghan President Mohammed Ashraf Ghani called the armed attack “a crime against humanity and against the national unity of Afghanistan.” U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ross Wilson on his Twitter page condemned the incident and thanked the Afghan security forces for their speedy response. The BBC reporting.

The United States is seeking U.N. Security Council support for the peace deal it signed with the Taliban aimed at ending America’s longest war and withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. A U.S. draft resolution, obtained yesterday evening by The Associated Press, would hail the Feb. 28 announcement of the agreement and coax “the sustained support” of the United Nations and global partners for efforts toward peace, including the convening of “intra-Afghan negotiations in order to achieve a political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.” AP reporting.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday called a surge in violence in Afghanistan this week “unacceptable” and urged both the Taliban and the Afghan government to “stop posturing” ahead of intra-Afghan peace talks. Reuters reporting.

A new network of Special Operations forces will act as the foundation of a smaller U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, pursuing Islamic State (ISIS) fighters as the United States withdraws and providing “firepower” against the Taliban if a peace agreement with the group falls apart, military officials said. The network was created as Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, prepared to cut the number of U.S. troops last summer while the Trump administration negotiated a U.S. troop withdrawal deal with the Taliban. The idea was to boost coordination between coalition and Afghan forces in a way that would still be possible if the number of U.S. service members reduces, relying on WhatsApp to share information. Dan Lamothe reports for the Washington Post.

Some Afghan war veterans question whether the Taliban will keep their pledges under the peace deal once the U.S. has fully withdrawn. “It could be very easy for the Taliban to say all the things that we want to hear in order to get us down to a zero or a very low troop presence,” said Jeremy Butler, a former Navy officer who runs the veterans service organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (I.A.V.A.). “Probably with the assumption that the U.S. and the president would be not particularly inclined to reinvest servicemen and women back into the country.” John Ismay reports for the New York Times.

The U.S. has denounced a ruling by the International Criminal Court that its chief prosecutor could probe alleged war crimes in Afghanistan that may have been committed by U.S. and other forces, intensifying a clash with the Trump administration. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed yesterday’s decision as “a truly breathtaking action by an unaccountable political institution masquerading as a legal body,” adding, the timing, days after the U.S. government and the Taliban formalized an agreement designed to lead to a lasting peace, is “all the more reckless.” Washington, which does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction, has long opposed the prosecutor’s pursuit of an investigation. James Marson and Courtney McBride report for the Wall Street Journal.

At least 88 pro-government forces and 13 civilians were killed during the last week of fighting in Afghanistan, Fahim Abed reports in a casualty report at the New York Times.

IRAN

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday urged all nations to hold Iran accountable for its nuclear commitments and said Tehran’s omission to report nuclear material was a clear breach of safeguard agreements. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which is regulating Iran’s troubled nuclear deal with major powers, sounded an alarm on Tuesday over a lack of Iranian cooperation in clearing up what the I.A.E.A. believes are undeclared activities and materials dating back to the early 2000s. Reuters reporting.

Long-hidden papers, retrieved from Iran two years ago by Israeli spies, offer fresh insight into how far Tehran had already come in acquiring other critical components needed to build a nuclear weapon, according to summary reports provided to The Washington Post. The newly released records prove the depth and scale of Iran’s past nuclear research, showing the country’s scientists racing to overcome key technical challenges. Joby Warrick reports for the Washington Post.

The U.S. special representative for Iran warned yesterday that the Islamic Republic must “immediately” ensure inspectors have access to sites that possess traces of nuclear material or activity. The discovery was made public in a report this week by the international nuclear watchdog, which said Iran is denying access. AP reporting.

CORONAVIRUS

The U.S. death toll from coronavirus infections rose to 12 yesterday, while Britain announced its first fatality linked to the epidemic. Another cruise ship carrying some 2,500 passengers was tested for infection off the coast of California, and cases in New York doubled. Adam Taylor and Teo Armus report for the Washington Post.

The director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) has cautioned governments that the continued international spread of the novel coronavirus is “not a drill” and will require serious action if public health authorities are to contain the deadly outbreak. The call to action comes as the global number of people infected by the virus nears 100,000, with more than 3,300 deaths in at least 15 countries. Joshua Berlinger reports for CNN.

The Senate yesterday passed and sent to President Trump an $8.3 billion funding bill to help combat the spreading coronavirus, as public health experts try to accelerate testing for the disease. The Senate approved the legislation in a 96-1 vote a day after it passed the House overwhelmingly. The majority of the funding will go to state and local public health agencies nationwide, hospitals and medical facilities and will support the development of a vaccine and new treatments. Trump, who has said he would accept whatever bill Congress approved, is set to sign the agreement that far exceeds his administration’s initial request for $2.5 billion to fight the virus.Rebecca Shabad reports for NBC News.

U.S. health officials said yesterday they anticipate to be able to get enough coronavirus tests to public laboratories this week to test about 400,000 people, and recognized the challenge for doctors seeking to get patients screened for the disease. Officials expect to distribute additional test kits to cover between 1.5 and 1.7 million Americans by the end of next week, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters. Reuters reporting.

Health advocates around the U.S. fear that Trump’s restrictive immigration policies could deter people from seeking health services as communities work to contain the spread of the epidemic. Many undocumented migrants tend to largely avoid hospitals “out of fear that their information might be released to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] I.C.E. even though emergency rooms here are known for being welcoming,” Ismael Castro, a project manager at Building Healthy Communities in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, said. The medical director at Clínica Romero, which runs two clinics providing health services for underserved communities in the Los Angeles area, told reporters he was mostly worried with the unforeseen effects of the Trump administration’s “public charge” rule. Nicole Acevedo and Carmen Sesin report for NBC News.

As Trump attempts to calm anxieties about coronavirus, public health experts say he may be spreading confusion in the process. Catherine Lucey reports on the government’s mixed messages at the Wall Street Journal.

A look at the gap between Trump’s comments on the virus and what health officials and experts say is fielded by Lauren Egan and Mansee Khurana at NBC News, who note, the President “has a long history of distrusting experts, most notably his own intelligence community and government scientists, and he frequently claims to know more than his career experts on a wide range of subjects.”

“The shifting White House leadership structure for the coronavirus response is both atypical and ad hoc, leaping from an interagency health security process run by the National Security Council (N.S.C.) staff to a cabinet-level process then to one led by the vice president,”  Michael Miller comments at Foreign Policy, highlighting the need for strong governance and policies to combat the epidemic.

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.

ELECTION SECURITY

Social media accounts tied to the Russian Internet Research Agency (I.R.A.) began spreading “brazen” misinformation connected to the 2020 election last year, while Russia’s trolls have evolved their agitation techniques to become subtler and tougher to track, New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice said in a report released yesterday. “[The I.R.A.-linked groups] tried to sow division by targeting both the left and right with posts to foment outrage, fear, and hostility …  much of their activity seemed designed to discourage certain people from voting … and they focused on swing states,” Brennan Center-affiliated Professor Young Mie Kim wrote of data that was removed by Facebook from its platform and from Instagram in October. The report comes weeks after U.S. intelligence officials privately briefed lawmakers on Russian efforts to meddle in U.S. politics and undermine public confidence in this year’s presidential election. Maggie Miller reports for the Hill.

The U.S. needs a comprehensive approach to countering foreign disinformation and interference in elections.” In a piece for Just Security, Brett Holmgren and Benjamin Haas argue for a national center akin to the National Counterterrorism Center (N.C.T.C.) and measures to help ensure the American public is aware of threats.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

A federal judge in Washington yesterday sharply criticized Attorney General William Barr’s disclosure of the Mueller report last year, calling early public statements about the special counsel’s findings about Russian interference in the 2016 election“distorted” and “misleading.” Judge Reggie Walton said the discrepancies between the report and Barr’s description of it caused him “to seriously question whether Attorney General Barr made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse about the Mueller report in favor of President Trump.” Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times.

The ripple of events surrounding the sentencing of Roger Stone show that, “though the president is now kicking out against the guardians of rule of law, those custodians of our democracy are kicking back harder than ever.” In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Norman Eisen, who served as special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment of President Trump, argues five reasons that the work of Congress to hold the president accountable has “left democracy and the nation stronger.”

If allowed to stand, the D.C. Circuit’s ruling last week that it could not order former White House counsel Donald McGahn to appear before the House Judiciary Committee “would shred Congress’s ability to oversee the executive branch,” the Washington Post editorial board argues, commenting on the role of judges when considering subpoenas that Congress issues against executive branch officials.

IMMIGRATION

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) is intensifying its enforcement efforts in so-called sanctuary cities across the country, redeploying 500 special agents to increase surveillance and arrest undocumented migrants. These highly trained officers, who typically conduct long-term investigations, have been reassigned by I.C.E. leadership to assist in the operation, in cities that refuse to assist in federal immigration enforcement, including New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Caitlin Dickerson, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Annie Correal report for the New York Times.

The Justice Department is trying to redefine protected personal speech as unprotected official speech to keep immigration judges from speaking publicly about their work. Stephanie Krent explains the “unconstitutional” policy in a piece for Just Security.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

“President Trump’s company charged the Secret Service $157,000 more than was previously known — billing taxpayers for rooms at his clubs at rates far higher than his company has claimed,” according to a new cache of receipts and billing documents released by the Secret Service. “The payments show Trump has an unprecedented — and still partially hidden — business relationship with his own government,” the Washington Post reports.

Social media giant Facebook has removed more than 2,000 misleading adverts from the Trump campaign promoting “the Official 2020 Congressional District Census,” saying they violated a company policy aimed at preventing disinformation and other interference with the nationwide 2020 census, which goes online next week. The Financial Times reporting.

“Telegram’s new cryptocurrency has the potential to offer terrorists and other criminal actors a way to circumvent the international financial regulation regime.” Andrew Mines explains what is at stake at Just Security.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres yesterday urged nations meeting in New York next month to evaluate progress on nuclear non-proliferation to use the opportunity to bolster global peace and security.  The U.N. News Centre reporting.

“If he leads the next government, [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] is likely to annex much of the West Bank and deepen attacks on judicial independence.” Dahlia Scheindlin suggests why a Netanyahu victory would be “bad news for peace and the rule of law” at Foreign Policy. 

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).