Early Edition: May 24, 2021
Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here. A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the weekend. Here’s today’s news.
BELARUS Belarus president Aleksander Lukashenko sent a fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair flight carrying an opposition journalist. The plane, which was traveling through Belarus’s airspace, was forced to land in the country’s capital Minsk and the journalist Roman Protasevich was arrested upon landing. The move “underscored that with the support of President Vladimir V.
Putin of Russia, Mr. Lukashenko is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to repress dissent,” Anton Troianovski and Ivan Nechepurenko report for the New York Times reports. The Belarus authorities originally cited that there was evidence of explosives onboard the plane, however the “state news agency later reported that no explosives had been found, and it seems certain that the incident was invented purely as a way of arresting the journalist,” the Economist reports.
The act has resulted in fierce outcry from the U.S., the U.N. and European Countries. Al Jazeera reports on the latest statements on the events. European leaders are demanding an explanation. “Lithuania’s president said the Belarusian ‘regime is behind the abhorrent action’ and called on NATO and the European Union to respond, while Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, ‘We demand all passengers’ immediate release.’ Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the incident a ‘hijacking’ and called for immediate sanctions on Belarus,” Kat Lonsdorf reports for NPR. The U.S. has joined the global outcry against the forced landing of the flight and arrest of the opposition journalist, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling it a “shocking act” that “endangered the lives” of the passengers. Blinken vowed that the U.S. would respond with its allies in the region, and called for the “immediate release” of Protasevich.
John Bowden reports for The Hill. The display of autocratic power is a new test for President Biden. “Since coming to office, the Biden administration renewed sanctions on Belarus, including blocking transactions with nine major Belarus oil and petrochemical companies. It also placed sanctions on 109 government officials linked to its campaigns of repression.
But events over the weekend may mean it will face pressure to get considerably tougher,” Ishaan Tharoor provides analysis for the Washington Post. Ryanair’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, has said that he believes that agents of the Belarusian KGB were travelling on the plane. “It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion … we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well,” O’Leary said in an interview. Andrew Roth reports for the Guardian.
ISRAEL-PALESTINE Secretary of State Antony Blinken is today making his way to the Middle East where he will travel to Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo and Amman through Thursday and meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and King Abdullah II of Jordan, the State Department said. Reuters reporting A Palestinian man stabbed and wounded two Israelis, including a soldier, on Monday near a flashpoint area of East Jerusalem, medics said, with police saying officers shot the assailant. Reuters reporting.
Although Iran has not shied away from publicly praising the damage caused by Hamas to its long-running rival Israel, it played no actual role in the conflict, with Hamas independently making its decisions, according to Israeli intelligence assessments. Farnaz Fassihi reports for the New York Times. The U.S. remains “committed to giving Israel the means to defend itself, especially when it comes to these indiscriminate rocket attacks against civilians,” Blinken said yesterday on ABC News’s “This Week.” Sabrina Siddiqui reports for the Wall Street Journal.
President Biden remains “committed to a two-state solution” between Israel and Palestine, Blinken also said yesterday. Allan Smith reports for NBC News. The United Arab Emirates “is ready to work with all parties to maintain the ceasefire and explore new paths to reduce escalation and achieve peace,” state news agency WAM cited Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahya as saying. Reuters reporters.
72% of Israelis said that they did not agree with the ceasefire reached, according to a poll published last week by Channel 12. “The ‘unconditional’ ceasefire did not address Israel’s initial demands, which included the return of the remains of two civilians and two soldiers that are believed to be held by Hamas, or the broader goal of stopping Hamas from raining rockets down on Israeli citizens. It did not address the border blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt that sharply limits the movement of the 2 million people who live in Gaza,” reports Shira Rubin for the Washington Post. Yehiyeh Sinwar, Hamas’ top leader in Gaza, made his first public appearance Saturday, paying his respects at a mourning tent for Bassem Issa, a senior commander who was killed during clashes.
Jordan Williams reports for The Hill. The U.N. Security Council on Saturday made its first press statement on the conflict, calling for a “full adherence to the ceasefire.” UN News Centre reporting. U.N. human rights experts on Friday called for an investigation by the International Criminal Court into “acts by all parties which violate the Rome Statute, especially war crimes, including targeting of civilians, the massive and indiscriminate violations of the right to adequate housing, and to investigate acts and policies that have taken place during the conflict, or have contributed to it, that may amount to the crime of apartheid and crimes against humanity,” according to statement released through the U.N.
Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. UN News Centre reporting. As yesterday saw the third day of calm since the agreed ceasefire, Lynn Hastings, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for the Palestinian territories, said the U.N. would launch an appeal to repair the damage caused in Gaza, where there is a particular threat of Covid-19 spreading. Reuters reporting.
International relief efforts to rebuild Gaza are conscious not to channel funds through Hamas after the militant group suggested that “the reconstruction of Gaza will be directed from the countries to our channels directly.” “Officials in Israel say they want to prevent the rebuilding effort from aiding Hamas’s drive to rearm itself following the latest round of fighting. Israeli officials accuse Hamas of siphoning off reconstruction funds from past conflicts to build rockets and dig tunnels underneath the Gaza Strip and into Israel,” Felicia Schwartz and Dov Lieber report for the Wall Street Journal. In 2020, the U.S. gave £3.8 billion in aid to Israel, almost all of which was for military assistant, part of a long-term, yearly commitment made under the Obama administration which pledged an overall package of £38 billion in military aid between 2017-2028. BBC News reporting.
The ceasefire doesn’t mean peace as “the grievances that sparked the unrest are far from resolved,” writes Rebecca Collard reports for the Foreign Policy. U.S. RELATIONS
The U.S. has announced restrictions on economic and security assistance to Ethiopia over human rights violations committed during the six-month-old war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the State Department said yesterday. Visa restrictions have also been imposed on Ethiopian and Eritrean officials accused of being responsible for the crisis, saying those involved had “taken no meaningful steps to end hostilities.” Reuters reporting. The leader of Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement has dismissed U.S. sanctions on military officials and has warned of expanded attacks on “aggressor countries.” The statements came “after Washington urged the group to engage seriously in peace efforts,” Reuters reports.
Russia is drafting proposals for the agenda of a possible summit meeting between President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s foreign minister was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying on Monday. Reuters reporting. U.S. Central Command’s Gen.
Frank McKenzie met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi on Thursday. “The leaders discussed the enduring defeat of ISIS, implementing security sector reforms and other dynamics that impact the regional stability,” read a CENTCOM statement. “The Middle East writ broadly is an area of intense competition between the great powers. And I think that as we [the U.S.] adjust our posture in the region, Russia and China will be looking very closely to see if a vacuum opens that they can exploit,” Gen.
McKenzie told reporters, according to AP. “The best chance we have to achieve the objective of total denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is to engage diplomatically with North Korea,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. Reuters reporting. “I don’t think there’s going to be grand bargain where this gets resolved in one fell swoop …
It’s got to be clearly calibrated diplomacy, clear steps from the North Koreans, and it moves forward in that way,” Blinken opined. Joseph Choi reports for The Hill. The U.S. considered using nuclear weapons against mainland China during the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis, reveal newly leaked documents by Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who in 1971 leaked the Pentagon Papers that detailed the U.S. government’s deceit in its handling of the Vietnam War. “American military leaders pushed for a first-use nuclear strike on China, accepting the risk that the Soviet Union would retaliate in kind on behalf of its ally and millions of people would die, dozens of pages from a classified 1966 study of the confrontation show.
The government censored those pages when it declassified the study for public release,” Charlie Savage reports for the New York Times. AFGHANISTAN The Biden administration referred to polling data, including some from a once Trump-allied group, when making its decision on a withdrawal from Afghanistan. “According to the sources with knowledge of the situation, some of the polling that had been shared among Biden administration officials prior to the official withdrawal announcement included a survey conducted by Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), a Koch-backed organization pushing for a full drawdown of American troops from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
CVA had also amassed considerable clout with the preceding administration, and had regularly shared similar data on withdrawal support with its allies in the Trump White House, as then-President Donald Trump frequently stalled on his pledges to pull U.S. forces out of overseas conflicts. The group was previously fronted by Pete Hegseth, an Iraq War vet and Fox News host who privately advised then-President Trump on several policy areas,” report Asawin Suebsaeng and Scott Bixby for the Daily Beast. Forty advocacy groups from across the political spectrum sent a letter Friday to the leaders of the House and Senate defense appropriations subcommittees arguing that the Afghanistan withdrawal “offers an opportunity to re-examine the nation’s extremely large commitments to the Pentagon budget.” “We are dismayed that the administration’s initial budget blueprint to Congress did not reflect a corresponding reduction in war funds, and instead included a gargantuan request of £753 billion for the Pentagon and affiliated spending,” the letter read.
Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill. IMMIGRATION The Department of Homeland Security announced Saturday that it will re-designate Haiti under the Temporary Protected Status program for 18 months, which grants deportation relief and work permits to immigrants who cannot safely return to their home countries and will cover about 150,000 Haitians living in the United States.
Eileen Sullivan reports for the New York Times. Migrant children held in U.S. detention facilities tell of cold temperatures, sickness, neglect, headlice and filthy living conditions, a BBC News investigation reveals. BBC News reporting. DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS
Biden vowed Friday that his administration would never seize journalists’ records after it was revealed that the Trump-era Justice Department secretly obtained records of CNN and Washington Post reporters. Kaitlan Collins and Donald Judd report for CNN. Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed (D-RI) yesterday expressed his support for changing the role of military commanders in the prosecution of sexual assault. Olafimihan Oshin reports for The Hill. The National Guard is ending its deployment to Washington, D.C., after the troops were originally called to the district to protect the capital following the Jan.
6 attack on the Capitol. The spokesperson for the D.C. National Guard said that operations will “return to normal” and that the “National Guard troops will return to their home bases this week, after the Department of Defense did not request that the force extend its mission to help protect the nation’s capital past Sunday,” Michael Schnell reports for The Hill.
A former Republican senator and member of Trump’s administration has said that he thinks former President Trump “bears responsibility” for the Jan 6. attack and that “his presidency was diminished as a result.” The comments were made to CNN by former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who served as Trump’s ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa. Devan Cole reports for CNN.
Republicans have clashed in the Senate over the need for an independent commission to investigate the Jan.
6 attack, “with one lawmaker warning that failure to create the panel could plague the party’s election prospects in 2022 and beyond,” Reuters reports. Matt Gaetz (R-FL)’s ex-girlfriend will cooperate with federal authorities investigating alleged sex trafficking by the Republican lawmaker, according to people familiar with the matter. Paula Reid, David Shortell and Gloria Borger report for CNN. IRAN
Iran has ended the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s access to surveillance images of nuclear sites. Iran’s parliament speaker said that inspectors from the IAEA, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, would “have no access to data collected by cameras inside the nuclear facilities” following the end of a three-month monitoring deal between Tehran and the IAEA. Joseph Choi reports for The Hill.
The U.S. has not seen any signs yet that Iran will move to comply with its nuclear commitments in order to have sanctions removed, says Blinken, despite progress having been made in ongoing indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran. Reuters reports. There has been a major explosion at a complex that houses a factory that makes Iranian drones. The blast, which injured at least nine workers, follows claims from Israel that Iran was providing drones to Hamas in Gaza.
Iran has not provided any information on the cause of the incident. Patrick Wintour reports for the Guardian. MYANMAR
Myanmar’s disposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi has appeared in court today for the first time since the military coup. The hearing lasted 30 minutes and Kyi looked in good health. Reuters reports. Kyi has been held under house arrest in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw and faces criminal charges including for breaching coronavirus restrictions during last year’s election campaign, possessing unlicensed walkie-talkies and violating a state secrets law. Al Jazeera reports.
Dozens of Myanmar security force members have been killed in fighting, according to the People’s Defense Force (PDF), a civilian anti-junta movement. In one battled, PDF “said at least 20 police had died and a police station had been seized in the town of Moebyel in Shan state in the country’s eastern fringe,” the Guardian reports. GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS
The Black Lives Matter activist Sasha Johnson is in critical condition after being shot in the head in London. Her affiliated group, Taking the Initiative party, announced on social media that the incident followed “numerous death threats” against Johnson. Edna Mohamed reports for the Guardian.
The first woman elected prime minister of Samoa has been locked out of her own swearing-in ceremony after the caretaker government in Samoa refused to convene parliament to allow a transition of power. Instead, prime minister-elect Fiame Naomi Mata’afa took the oath of office in a tent. The events occurred “more than a month after a knife-edge election, which has been followed by legal challenges, the calling of a second vote, and intense constitutional maneuvering,” Lagipoiva Jackson reports for the Guardian.
Mata’afa has described the efforts to keep her from office as “an illegal takeover of government,” adding that “because it’s a bloodless coup, people aren’t so concerned or disturbed by it.” The drama could also have broader geopolitical ramifications and Mata’afa has pledged to stop a £100 million China-backed port development. However, New Zealand and Australia have so far “appeared reticent to take sides,” Michael Miller reports for the Washington Post. Nepal’s parliament has been dissolved for the second time in five months. The events have deepened the political crisis in Nepal as it struggles with a devastating Covid-19 outbreak.
Over the past weeks Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli and various opposition groups have been unable to form a government, however “opposition politicians expressed surprise, apparently daunted by the prospect of planning for an election while the coronavirus is wreaking havoc,” Bhadra Sharma reports for Reuters. Libya’s ceasefire agreement, the release of prisoners and the parliamentary elections scheduled for 24 Dec., 2021 offer hope for the country, according to the U.N.
Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Libya Jan Kubis. Kubis however, “called for all parties to redouble their commitment to Libya’s peace process and stay the course ahead of critical elections in December,” UN News Centre reports. The E.U. has denounced the Myanmar junta’s electoral body’s plan to dissolve Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, which won the general election in November. Reuters reports.
More than 125,000 school teachers in Myanmar have been suspended for supporting the coup. The teachers were “suspended by the military authorities for joining a civil disobedience movement to oppose the military coup in February, an official of the Myanmar Teachers’ Federation said,” Reuters reports. People of Myanmar descent in the U.S. are protesting against the military coup and are demanding firmer action from the U.S. and others against the Myanmar military leaders, including recognition of the civilian National Unity Government – a government in exile – as the legitimate government of Myanmar. Al Jazeera reports. CORONAVIRUS
The novel coronavirus has infected over 33.1 million and now killed over 589,800 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 167.18 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 3.46 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN. Rep.
Majorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) has compared “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to continue to require members of the House to wear masks on the chamber floor to steps the Nazis took to control the Jewish population during the Holocaust,” Ryan Noble reports for CNN. The comments were made during an interview on a conservative podcast, where Greene also called Pelosi “mentally ill.” Greene’s comments have prompted a broad backlash, including from several current and former Republican lawmakers. Rep.
Denver Riggleman (R-VA) described the comparison as a “a grotesque idiocy mixed with a neurotic lack of self awareness,” and Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) described Greene as “a troubled person who is unfit to serve in Congress,” Tal Axelrod reports for The Hill. Rep.
Peter Meijer (R-MI) described the comments as “reprehensible.” Chandelis Duster reports for CNN. There are increasing calls for a reduction in governors’ emergency executive powers as states move to reopen amid a drop in new cases. “Legislators have been asking about the current need for restrictions, and just how much sweeping authority governors need to have during a public health emergency,” Adeel Hassan reports for the New York Times. Intelligence on sick staff at a research laboratory in Wuhan has increased the calls for a probe into whether the Covid-19 virus escaped the lab. According to a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report, three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care.
The details of the report “go beyond a State Department fact sheet, issued during the final days of the Trump administration, which said that several researchers at the lab, a center for the study of coronaviruses and other pathogens, became sick in autumn 2019 ‘with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illness,'” Michael R. Gordon, Warren P. Strobel and Drew Hinshaw report for the Wall Street Journal.
A map and analysis of the vaccine roll out across the U.S. is available 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 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.