News Roundup and Notes: August 25

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.

Iraq and Syria

American freelance journalist Peter Theo Curtis was released on Sunday after being held for almost two years in a prison by Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra. The New York Times‘ Rukmini Callimachi reported that the exchange was mediated by Qatar and did not involve a ransom payment. Callimachi writes that Curtis’s release is “likely to raise further questions about what, if any, concessions should be made to militant groups holding Western nationals.” The United Nations confirmed the release and provided additional details. Curtis had been abducted in October 2012 near the border between Syria and Turkey [White House Statement, State Department Statement].

The United States carried out four airstrikes around the Mosul Dam in support of Iraqi Security Force operations, three on Friday and one on Saturday. The strikes destroyed IS vehicles and a machine gun emplacement. On Sunday, the United States conducted two more strikes in the vicinity of the dam and the city of Irbil, destroying an IS humvee and an armed vehicle. The missions raised the total number of American airstrikes against targets in Iraq since August 8 to 96 [U.S. Central Command Statements: August 22, August 23, August 24].

On Sunday, IS forces seized the Taqba air base in Syria from forces of the Assad government [The New York Times, Ben Hubbard]. Hubbard reports that the move gives IS “effective control” over Raqqa Province near the border with Turkey. The Wall Street Journal (Sam Dagher) and the BBC have additional reporting.

Al Jazeera reported on Saturday that Iran had sent “hundreds” of soldiers into Iraq to engage in a joint operation with Kurdish forces fighting against IS. According to an official Kurdish source, the operation focused on the city of Jalawla in the province of Diyala, less than 30km from the Iraq-Iran border. The soldiers reportedly entered Iraq on Friday and returned back across the border to Iran on Saturday.

The New York Times (Scott Shane) reports that the United Kingdom is “close to identifying the young militant with a British accent” who carried out the execution of journalist James Foley, according to comments made Sunday by the British Ambassador to the United States in an interview with CNN. Shane writes that “[i]f Mr. Foley’s killer is identified, it might give intelligence officials insight into the ISIS kidnapping cell still holding another American reporter, Steven J. Sotloff, and other hostages, and could lead to criminal charges.” NBC News reports that the United Kingdom has in fact identified the militant, according to U.K. security forces, though his name has not been released or confirmed.

Eliot Higgins at Bellingcat on Saturday assessed the location of the execution of journalist James Foley by examining information contained in the video of his execution. Higgins argues that the execution likely took place in the hills south of Raqqa, Syria.

Greg Miller of The Washington Post reports that operations against IS in Syria would be hindered by significant intelligence gaps. Miller writes that senior U.S. intelligence and military officials believe “American spy agencies have not yet assembled the capabilities that would be needed to target Islamic State leaders and provide reliable-enough intelligence to sustain a campaign of strikes.”

Josh Rogin of The Daily Beast reported today that the Free Syrian Army is “not impressed” with the potential impact of American airstrikes on IS forces in the absence of a more comprehensive strategy. Rogin discusses criticisms by FSA spokesperson Hussam Al Marie as well as “leaders and representatives” from the FSA, the Syrian Military Council, and the Syrian Opposition Coalition.

In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Vice President Joe Biden discussed the importance of Iraqi unity in the midst of the threat posed by IS. Condemning the group’s “cruelty” and “fanaticism,” Biden went on to argue that “even if there were no ISIL, Iraq’s survival would still depend on the ability of Iraqis to set aside their differences and unite in a common effort. Iraq’s security would still depend on addressing the alienation that fuels extremist movements and convincing Iraqis that their needs can be met through the political process rather than through violence.”

Special Representative Nickolay Mladenov, the UN envoy for Iraq, called on Saturday for immediate action to avert a potential massacre in Ameril, a city in northern Iraq that has been besieged by IS and has suffered shortages of food and water [UN News Centre].

On Friday, in the National Review, Tom Rogan criticized the Obama Administration for the disclosure of an attempt earlier in the year to rescue Foley and other hostages.

Writing in Politico Magazine on Sunday, Thomas Ricks argued against recent calls to reconsider the current U.S. policy of not paying ransoms for kidnapped journalists. Ricks says that refusing to pay ransoms provides significant protection for journalists because “[i]f insurgents, extremists and criminals knew that kidnapping American reporters is not lucrative, that reduces the incentive to grab one.”

The New York Times Editorial Board on Sunday said that the United States “cannot go it alone” and argued that “defeating ISIS will require an organized, longer-term response involving a broad coalition of nations, including other Muslim countries, and addressing not only the military threat but political and religious issues.”

Afghanistan

Abdullah Abdullah, a candidate in Afghanistan’s runoff election for president, has alleged a conspiracy involving candidate Ashraf Ghani, current President Hamid Karzai, and others, plunging the country into a serious political crisis. Carlotta Gall of The New York Times reports on the allegations’ credibility, and concludes that “interviews with Afghan and international officials support some of the most serious of Mr. Abdullah’s claims, offering new details of a broad effort to push the runoff to Mr. Ghani, including a pressure campaign by election and palace officials and ballot-box stuffing orchestrated by an ally of Mr. Karzai.”

President Karzai has reaffirmed his intention to step down from power on September 2, adding pressure to Abdullah and Ghani to find a solution to the election dispute [Tim Craig and Sayed Salahuddin, The Washington Post].

Israel-Palestine

Nidal Al-Mughrabi reported in Reuters that Hamas gave permission to the Palestinian government to pursue membership in the International Criminal Court. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had sought Hamas’s consent for any such move, which “could open up both Israel and the militant group to war crime probes over the fighting in Gaza.”

AFP reported that an Israeli strike on Saturday killed a family of five Palestinians in Gaza. The Israeli military carried out over 20 strikes on that day.

The IDF has introduced a policy of targeting any Palestinian homes from which rockets are launched, according to a report in Haaretz by Gili Cohen. Cohen writes that “[s]o far, the IDF has been targeting houses from which fire at army forces was spotted, or houses used as command centers or arms stashes, but from now on will also strike civilian homes from which mortar shells are fired.” An Israeli army officer said the policy was in response to “hundreds of instances in which civilian homes were used” for attacks on Israel.

A 17-year-old Palestinian shared details of his confinement by Israeli security forces over five days last month with The New York Times (Fares Akram and Jodi Rudoren), making claims of soldiers “forcing him to sleep blindfolded and handcuffed in his underwear and to search and dig for tunnels in Khuza’a, his village near Gaza’s eastern border,” as well as being threatened by a dog. The Times notes that the alleged treatment would violate both international law and a 2005 ruling of the Israeli Supreme Court, but that the claims “could not be independently corroborated.”

Russia and Ukraine

Today, Ukranian forces exchanged fire with an armored column in southeastern Ukraine, 6 miles from the border with Russia, according to Reuters. A report from the The Washington Post (Annie Gowen and Karoun Demirjian) includes Ukranian government claims that the forces crossed over the border from Russia and had “violated the state border of Ukraine.” The action took place near the city of Novoazovsk.

On Sunday, rebels in Donetsk, Ukraine “paraded” dozens of captured Ukranian soldiers through the streets in front of a pro-Russian group of bystanders. An Associated Press report, by Peter Leonard and Laura Mills, contrasted the scene in Donetsk with military parades in Kiev, where the Ukranian government celebrated the 23rd anniversary of the nation’s independence.

The New York Times (Andrew Higgins, Michael R. Gordon) reported on Friday that Russia has sent more than 200 trucks into eastern Ukraine over the objections of Ukraine’s central government, and has been “conducting military operations” in Ukranian territory. According to NATO, Russia has further begun to use artillery on Ukranian territory to fire at Ukranian forces. The United States condemned Russian actions in a statement from National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden [NSC Statement].

Other Developments

The Libyan capital of Tripoli is under the control of Islamist forces, according to The Guardian (Chris Stephen and Anne Penketh). Stephen and Penketh reported that “Operation Dawn, a coalition of Islamist and Misrata forces, captured the airport on Saturday in fierce fighting against pro-government militias after a five-week siege that battered parts of the capital,” providing decisive control for the coalition. David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times on Sunday reported that the struggle over the airport in Tripoli “has now drawn the country’s fractious militias, tribes and towns into a single national conflagration that threatens to become a prolonged civil war.”

In response to ongoing concern about police conduct and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, “President Obama has ordered a review of federal programs that supply local law enforcement agencies with military weapons and equipment” [Scott Neuman and Steve Mullis, NPR].

Iran’s state media claimed on Sunday that it had “shot down an Israeli spy drone that was heading for its Natanz nuclear enrichment site” [Mehrdad Balali and Michelle Moghtader, Reuters]. Iran claimed to have shot down the drone using a ground-to-air missile. Balali and Moghtader note that “Israel has always declined comment on such accusations and on Sunday its military said it did not comment on foreign reports.” The New York Times (Thomas Erdbrink) has additional details.

Ty McCormick reports in The Washington Post that a civil war-induced famine in South Sudan is growing so serious as to threaten a “large-scale humanitarian disaster,” including the possible deaths of 50,000 children.

The Washington Post (Craig Timberg) reported that new systems being offered for sale to governments worldwide offer “the ability to track the movements of almost anybody who carries a cellphone, whether they are blocks away or on another continent.” Timberg notes that though “[i]t is unclear which governments have acquired these tracking systems,” according to one industry official, “dozens of countries have bought or leased such technology in recent years.”

The United States Department of the Treasury on Friday announced new sanctions against two financiers of Al Qaeda and the Al-Nusra front in Syria, in connection with UN Security Council Resolution 2170, passed on August 15. Treasury stated that “Abdul Mohsen Abdullah Ibrahim al-Sharikh and Hamid Hamad Hamid Al-‘Ali have been designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT) pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13224.” Both men were included in the Annex to Resolution 2170.

On Friday, the Miami Herald‘s Carol Rosenberg reported that an unidentified Navy nurse who had refused to force-feed hunger-striking detainees has been “sent back” to the United States. The nurse has not been charged thus far with any violations, but there has also been “no resolution of his case.”

The Ivory Coast has closed its land borders as part of a response to Africa’s ongoing Ebola outbreak, as reported by the BBC, following “similar measures” by Gabon, Senegal, Cameroon and South Africa. The World Health Organization criticized the measure as counterproductive; the current death toll from the outbreak, as of Saturday, stands at 1,427. The BBC also reported that the Philippines has pulled 115 peacekeepers from Liberia because of the outbreak.

On Friday Amnesty International covered a video making the rounds in social media showing a public execution in a football stadium in Derna, a city in eastern Libya. The Shura Council of Islamic Youth appears to have carried out the execution, with the victim an Egyptian man. Amnesty condemned the action as evidence of “authorities’ failure to prevent parts of the country from descending into violence and lawlessness.” The Washington Post (Ishaan Tharoor) has additional details.

The militant group Boko Haram has declared an “Islamic state” in northeastern Nigeria, in video remarks of group leader Abubakar Shekau [BBC].

The Intercept featured a long essay by Natasha Vargas-Cooper about the history behind the current crisis at the border between the United States and Mexico, beginning with President Clinton’s “Operation Gatekeeper” initiative in 1994.

On Friday, Rear Admiral John Kirby, the press secretary for the Department of Defense, disclosed that the United States had filed a complaint with China over an incident on Tuesday in which a Chinese fighter jet purportedly made a “dangerous intercept” of a United States Navy Poseidon P-8 patrol aircraft flying in international airspace [Craig Whitlock, Washington Post]. The Pentagon said the Chinese J-11 fighter came within 20 feet of the American aircraft and took several provocative actions. On Saturday, China called these criticisms “completely baseless,” according to Reuters. The New York Times (Chris Buckley) has additional reporting.

Britain’s nuclear program could be negatively affected by an upcoming Scottish vote on independence, which could render the United Kingdom’s four Vanguard-class submarines, and their 160 Trident missiles, without a suitable base [Griff Witte, The Washington Post]. [Note: This story was later corrected to reflect that the UK possesses “58 Trident missiles and 160 deployed nuclear warheads.”]

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About the Author(s)

Eric Messinger

Former Assistant Managing Editor of Just Security Follow him on Twitter (@egmessinger).