News Roundup and Notes: April 30, 2014

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.

Syria

According to scientific analysis conducted by The Telegraph, the Syrian regime continues to use banned chemical weapons against civilians. According to the report, soil samples tested from the location of three recent attacks show “sizeable, unambiguous traces of chlorine and ammonia, both banned by the international Chemical Weapons Convention,” while “toxins came from barrels that were dropped from helicopters, which the opposition do not possess.”

Meanwhile, the Director General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has announced the creation of “an OPCW mission to establish facts surrounding allegations of use of chlorine in Syria.” The Syrian government has agreed to accept the mission and has pledged to provide security in areas that it controls.

The UN has rejected calls from leading international lawyers to deliver cross-border aid into Syria without the consent of the Syrian government [Reuters’ Michelle Nichols]. A UN spokesperson said such an operation would only be possible “where the Security Council has adopted a binding resolution under Chapter 7 of the [UN] Charter, authorizing the organization to act without the government’s consent.”

More than 50 people were killed in attacks in government-controlled areas of Syria yesterday, which came a day after President Bashar al-Assad formally announced his plans to run in the presidential elections [Washington Post’s Anne Barnard and Nick Cumming-Bruce].

According to a UN official, Jordan is opening a new refugee camp expected to accommodate up to 130,000 Syrian refugees [Associated Press].

Ukraine

Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia to “[l]eave Ukraine in peace” yesterday, while emphasizing the U.S.’s commitment to defending NATO territory. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted that “there are no Russian instructors [in Eastern Ukraine], nor any special forces there, nor troops” [BBC].

In an interview, Kerry also said the U.S. is “inches away” from imposing sectoral sanctions on Russia [Wall Street Journal’s Gerald F. Seib]. The State Department (Richard Stengel) has commented on “Russia Today’s disinformation campaign,” which “tries to paint a dangerous and false picture of Ukraine’s legitimate government.” And Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “has stepped up his consultations with Eastern European NATO allies.”

The Daily Beast (Josh Rogin and Eli Lake) reports that John Kerry claimed in a closed-door meeting on Friday that the U.S. has taped conversations proving that the Russian government in Moscow is running a network of intelligence operatives in Eastern Ukraine.

The International Monetary Fund has announced Russia is “experiencing recession now” because of damage caused by the crisis in Ukraine [BBC].

The New York Times editorial board writes that the latest round of sanctions “are not likely to change Russia’s behavior,” while “the sort that would — coordinated United States-European Union sanctions on financial institutions, the energy sector or defense industries — have proved very difficult to construct, largely because of the substantial difference between American and European exposure to Russia’s economy.”

The Washington Post (Karen DeYoung and Anthony Faiola) also reports on how the U.S. and Europe continue to diverge on Russia, “despite trying to present a united front.” And the potential for further sanctions against Russia is likely to “top the agenda” for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s trip to the White House this week [Wall Street Journal’s Anton Troianovski and Carol E. Lee].

Meanwhile, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said today that “security forces are unable to quickly take the situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions under control,” and “some of those units are either helping or cooperating with terrorist organizations” [Associated Press].

CNN’s Tom Lister writes that while the world sees Ukraine in turmoil, the reality is different with only one town “truly held” by pro-Russian separatists. Lister reports that “most people go about their lives almost oblivious to the upheaval.”

And a new WSJ/NBC poll finds that “nearly half of those surveyed want the U.S. to be less active on the global stage, with fewer than one-fifth calling for more active engagement,” even as the crisis in Ukraine unfolds [Wall Street Journal’s Janet Hook].

Surveillance, Privacy, & Technology

During oral arguments in the joint cases of Riley v. California and U.S. v. Wurie yesterday, the Supreme Court “seemed willing” to restrict the ability of police officers to search, without a warrant, cellphones seized during an arrest [The Hill’s Julian Hattem]. Politico (Josh Gerstein and Tal Koplan) also provides details, noting that while a majority “seem inclined” to provide protection against such warrantless searches, “there was no clear agreement among the justices about when and how those added safeguards should apply.”

Israel-Palestine

The Washington Post (William Booth and Ruth Eglash) explores how “the Obama administration’s marquee diplomatic effort to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians ended Tuesday with neither a whimper nor much of a bang.”

Reuters (David Rohde) notes that “instead of admitting failure, aides said [Secretary of State John] Kerry would continue his Mideast negotiations after a pause of several months.”

The New York Times (Jodi Rudoren) reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked his cabinet to consider alternative approaches to the conflict, “which are likely to include annexing parts of the West Bank or withdrawing from some settlements and shoring up others.”

A Palestinian official has said the Palestine Liberation Organization will seek to join 63 international agencies and treaties, following the collapse of the peace talks, reports the Wall Street Journal (Joe Lauria). However, a senior official with the party denied that any such move was being taken.

The UN Envoy on the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry told the UN Security Council that a “joint reflection is in order on how the current impasse [in the negotiations] came about and ways to overcome it” [UN News Centre]. Serry warned that “[i]naction could see this turn into a crisis.”

And in the U.S., Sen. Rand Paul has introduced his bill that would make any aid to Palestine “conditional upon the new unity government putting itself on the record recognizing the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state and agreeing to a lasting peace” [The Hill’s Ramsey Cox].

Iraq

Al Jazeera (Barry Malone) reports that as the country’s first parliamentary elections since U.S. withdrawal kicks off, violence across the country “soars close to its worst levels.”

According to the New York Times (Tim Arango and Michael R. Gordon), “it is far from certain that [Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] will be able to … lock down another term.” And the Wall Street Journal (Matt Bradley) reports that Maliki’s critics have accused him of taking control of state television and other agencies to secure his third term.

Other developments

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government has accused the U.S. and British military of operating six secret detention centres in Afghanistan “in clear contradiction” of the law preventing foreigners from holding Afghan detainees or running prisons [Washington Post’s Sayed Salahuddin].

According to a Government Accountability Office report, the Air Force has acknowledged that many of its drones pilots are “less skilled,” with overseeing officers “less competent,” owing to a “stigma” surrounding its drone program [ABC News’ Lee Ferran].

The Defense Department has come under strong criticism from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand for contracting out a sex-assault survey on the basis that it will complicate measuring improvements in the military’s work place environment [Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn].

The New York Times (Benjamin Weiser) reports that at a hearing in a Federal District Court yesterday, the government took a “milder view” of terrorist suspect Ahmed Abassi. The government has made an offer to Abassi to plead guilty to two accounts that do not involve terrorism, and indicated that they might not pursue a special terrorism enhancement under the sentencing guidelines.

Reuters reports that Afghan troops, with the backing of Western air power, killed at least 60 militants near the Pakistan border, marking one of the largest assaults on the Taliban-linked Haqqani network.

Judicial Watch reports that according to a new set of documents it has obtained, the White House was behind the shaping of the misleading political narrative following the 2012 Benghazi terror attack.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate subcommittee that controls foreign aid, said he is “not prepared to sign off on the delivery of additional aid for the Egyptian military … until we see convincing evidence the government is committed to the rule of law” [John Hudson at Foreign Policy’s The Cable]. The announcement, which came after this week’s mass death sentencing trial in Egypt, “complicates the Obama administration’s efforts to shore up its ties with Cairo.”

Mark Landler [New York Times] and Andrew Browne [Wall Street Journal] provide further coverage of President Obama’s Asia tour. And Reuters reports that the Philippine’s Foreign Minister said today that the U.S. has a treaty obligation to assist his country in the case of an attack, “disputing criticism of [the new U.S.-Philippines] security pact.”

The State Department will release its annual Country Reports on Terrorism at 12:00pm today.

The Treasury Department has announced new sanctions against individuals and entities “for aiding Iranian ballistic missile procurement and for support to the Government of Iran in evading oil sector sanctions” [CNN’s Evan Perez]. The State Department is also awarding a  $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Li Fangwei, who has been sanctioned for “his alleged role as a principal supplier to Iran’s ballistic missile program.”

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Richard N. Haass covers how the Obama administration’s foreign policy is “flirting with chaos,” noting that “[t]he most egregious case of fecklessness has been on Syria.

The Washington Post’s Christian Davenport reports on the Pentagon’s “‘unfunded priorities list,’ an inventory of what the Pentagon would like to buy if it had several extra billion dollars to spend.”

Yemeni officials said that a ground offensive aimed at removing al-Qaeda militants from southern Yemen has led to the death of 20 people, mostly Yemeni soldiers [New York Times’ Saeed Al Batati].

Gunmen stormed the Libyan parliament yesterday, forcing members to delay a vote on a new prime minister [BBC].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

Former Associate Editor at Just Security Follow her on Twitter (@RParekh88).