Early Edition: October 19, 2020

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

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A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours. Here’s today’s news.

US RELATIONS

Chinese officials have repeatedly warned US officials that they may detain US nationals in China over the Justice Department’s prosecution of Chinese military-linked scholars, a number of people familiar with the matter told the Wall Street Journal. The message has been passed through multiple sources, including the U.S. Embassy in China; it was a clear message: if the United States does not stop with its action against Chinese scholars in the courts, China will ramp up its target of US nationals. A State Department spokesperson did not directly address the threats but did warn “U.S. citizens traveling to China about the arbitrary enforcement of local laws, in particular, the exit bans imposed on U.S. citizen,” further warning “that business disputes, court orders to pay a settlement, or government investigations into both criminal and civil issues may result in an exit ban which will prohibit your departure from China until the issue is resolved.” Celine Castronuovo reports for The Hill.

Kash Patel, Trump’s deputy assistant and the senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council (NSC), earlier this year met with the Assad regime in Damascus, Syria – the first high-level diplomatic meet between the countries in over a decade – in an effort to secure the safe the release of US prisoners believed to be held in the country, a number of President Trump officials have revealed. The White House, State Department, and Syrian mission to the United Nations have not responded to request for further details, and it remains unclear who exactly Patel met with during his trip. Lebanon’s security chief, Abbas Ibrahim, last week met with White House national security advisor Robert O’Brien at the White House to discuss the Americans held in Syria, according to people involved in the discussions. Dion Nissenbaum and Jared Malsin report for the Wall Street Journal.

The Pentagon on Friday strongly condemned Turkey over reports that it had tested its Russian-made S-400 air defense system, a move that the US has long-opposed and said “risks serious consequences” for the countries’ relationship. “We have been clear: an operational S-400 system is not consistent with Turkey’s commitments as a U.S. and NATO Ally,” top Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement. Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

55 Democratic lawmakers have urged Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to release those “unjustly detained for exercising their fundamental rights,” including activists, journalists, lawyers, prisoners of conscience. A letter released today, led by democratic lawmakers Ro Khanna (CA), Jim McGovern (MA) and Sherrod Brown (OH), raises particular concerns about Covid-19: “We are deeply disturbed that in the middle of a pandemic, the Egyptian government continues to wrongfully hold these political prisoners in overcrowded prisons – places where we know COVID-19 can spread like wildfire and cause severe illness and death,” McGovern said. Al Jazeera reporting.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 8.15 million and now killed over 219,700 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there has been over 40.06 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.11 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) yesterday indicated that the White House has less than two days to agree a new coronavirus economic relief package with Democrats if either side want a deal to be struck before Election Day. Pelosi did, however, stress that she believes a deal is possible before Nov. 3, and is expected to further speak with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin today. Sarah Ferris and Allie Bice report for POLITICO.

Social media giant Twitter has removed a tweet from President Trump’s top Covid-19 adviser, Scott Atlas, which falsely claimed that face masks were of little help preventing the spread of virus. The tweet was removed yesterday and replaced with a note stating “this tweet is no longer available”, with a hyperlink to Twitter’s rules and policies on sharing false or misleading information about the virus that could lead to harm. Atlas’ posts read: “Masks work? NO”, adding, “That means the right policy is @realDonaldTrump guideline: use masks for their intended purpose — when close to others, especially hi risk. Otherwise, social distance. No widespread mandates.” AP reporting.

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

US and worldwide maps tracking the spread of the pandemic are available at the Washington Post.

A state-by-state guide to lockdown measures and reopenings is provided by the New York Times.

Latest updates on the pandemic at The Guardian.

USAFGHAN GOVERNMENTTALIBAN RELATIONS

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy to Afghanistan, today warned that ongoing peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban is under threat by “distressingly high” levels of violence, particularly in the growing conflict in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province. The Taliban had agreed a temporary ceasefire Friday; but yesterday saw a suicide car bombing in Ghor province that killed at least 13 people and injured over 120, which many have blamed the group for. “Violence has stalked Afghans for far too long. It has robbed far too many Afghans of their loved ones,” Khalilzad wrote on Twitter, “The tragedy in Ghor today is the most recent example.” He added: “The belief that says violence must escalate to win concessions at the negotiating table is very risky. Such an approach can undermine the peace process and repeats past miscalculations by Afghan leaders.” AP reporting.

In a statement yesterday, the Taliban denounced the US military for violating their February accord by carrying out “excessive” attacks and bombings over the last few days, despite the Taliban’s recent attacks on Helmand’s provincial capital that has seen thousands displaced. “All contents of the U.S.-Islamic Emirate accord are unambiguous, but the other side has violated its commitments on numerous occasions, engaging in provocative actions and bombing noncombat zones,” Taliban spokesperson Qari Yousef Ahmadi said in a statement. “All responsibility and consequences . . . shall fall squarely on the American side.” Pamela Constable reports for the Washington Post.

Col. Sonny Leggett, spokesperson for US forces in Afghanistan, yesterday defended US military airstrikes that the Taliban said violated their accord: “We categorically reject the Taliban’s claim the United States has violated the U.S.-Taliban Agreement. U.S. airstrikes in Helmand and Farah have been and continue to be solely in defense,” Leggett said in a post on Twitter, adding that the strikes were consistent with the U.S.-Taliban agreement and the Joint Declaration between the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States. Reuters reporting.

Afghan female warlord Bibi Ayesha, who has long-fought to defend her land in northern Afghanistan against the Taliban, has surrendered, along with her men, the Taliban declared Thursday. “The Taliban spent the night at Commander Kaftar’s [Ayesha’s] house, they ate there,” Mohammad Hanif Kohgadai, a member of Baghlan provincial council representing Commander Kaftar’s district, said in an interview Friday, adding, “Today, they left the house and took with them 13 weapons and other military gear.” The surrender is said to be another propaganda victory for the Taliban, although it is believed that it will make little difference to the Taliban’s military strength. Mujib Mashal Najim Rahim and Fatima Faizi report for the New York Times.

IRAN ARMS EMBARGO

The UN arms embargo on Iran yesterday expired, despite the US maintaining the ban remains in place under a “snapback” provision it claimed to have invoked – a claim that U.N. Security Council members have strongly rejected. Iran has said that it doesn’t plan on a “buying spree” of arms from countries, but did herald the embargo’s expiration as “a momentous day for the international community … in defiance of the U.S. regime’s effort. Today’s normalization of Iran’s defense cooperation with the world is a win for the cause of multilateralism and peace and security in our region,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter. AP reporting.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday rejected the embargo’s expiration and warned that any arms sales to Iran will lead to sanctions: “The United States is prepared to use its domestic authorities to sanction any individual or entity that materially contributes to the supply, sale, or transfer of conventional arms to or from Iran, as well as those who provide technical training, financial support and services, and other assistance related to these arms,” said in statement. Zack Budryk reports for The Hill.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH CONFLICT

A Russia-brokered ceasefire was agreed this weekend between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the growing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and took effect Sunday morning – however, the ceasefire was short-lived after both sides accused the other of violating agreement just hours after it was reached.The Azeri defense ministry alleged yesterday that Armenian forces were shelling the Aghdam region, which borders Nagorno-Karabakh; however, Armenia denied the accusation and said that it was Azeri forces who had twice fired overnight and was refusing to allow the removal of wounded Armenian troops from the battlefield. Azerbaijan rejected those charged. AP reporting.

Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are expected to meet this month as the conflict in Nagorno-Karabahk intensifies. “We’re working on the preparation of the foreign minister’s visit to Washington,” said Varuzhan Nersesyan, Armenian representative in Washington. Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

The defense ministry of the Nagorno-Karabakh region confirmed yesterday that there has been a further 37 casualties among its military, upping the military death toll to 710 since the conflict between Armenian and Azeri forces broke out Sept. 27, Interfax news agency reported. Reuters reporting.

A US-diplomatic presence in the growing conflict has been absent and risks a “wider war,” writes Timur R. Sersesov for Just Security. If the conflict remains free of U.S. diplomacy, “the war cascade into being the biggest single reversal of the post-World War II international order and the most serious threat to global security since the end of the Cold War,” he adds.

How Turkey’s high-level role in the conflict reflects Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s approach to the region is explored by Dror Zeevi for Just Security.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Israel and Bahrain on Saturday signed an agreement to formalize ties, with US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin accompanying the Israeli delegation to Manama, Bahrain’s capital. Al Jazeera reporting.

International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda met with Sudanese officials this weekend to discuss next steps for bringing to trial those accused of committing war crimes and genocide in the country’s Darfur conflict. Bensouda is expected to stay in the country until Wednesday, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdallla Hamdok’s office said in a statement. AP reporting.

North Korean detainees are treated “less than animals,” an 88-page report by U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has found. The report said that systemic torture, humiliation, coerced confessions and hunger were “fundamental characteristics” of the North Korean pre-trial detention system. Paula Hancocks and Jake Kwon report for CNN. 

About the Author(s)

Siven Watt

Associate News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK. Follow him on Twitter (@SivenWatt)