News Roundup and Notes: August 26, 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.

Iraq and Syria

The Pentagon is preparing to carry out surveillance flights over Syria in order to gather intelligence on the Islamic State (IS/ISIL), according to senior U.S. officials, thus “laying the groundwork” for potential U.S. airstrikes beyond Iraq [New York Times’ Mark Landler and Helene Cooper; Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous et al.].

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem has said his country is “ready to cooperate and coordinate on the regional and international level in the war on terror,” but warned that any airstrikes conducted without Syria’s consent would be viewed as “aggression” [Associated Press].

The White House has declined to commit to seeking congressional authority for strikes in Syria. Spokesperson Josh Earnest said yesterday that President Obama is “committed to coordinating and consulting with Congress,” but said he “will not hesitate to use his authority” to keep Americans safe. Earnest also sought to distinguish the strikes currently being contemplated against Islamic State positions from those considered last summer against the Assad regime [The Hill’s Justin Sink]. However, Senate Democrat Tim Kaine has called for a congressional vote, stating he “do[es] not believe that our expanded military operations against ISIL are covered under existing authorizations from Congress.”

The Washington Post editorial board argues that the Obama administration “must put boots on the ground to stop the Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq, but states that it should seek congressional authorization for an expanded U.S. mission.

The Economist argues that while U.S. strikes have helped push back the Islamic State, “it will take much more to quash the threat of it across the wider region,” noting the importance of support from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Iran.

U.S. special operations sources have warned that IS militants are “incredible fighters” and said that they “operate like a state with a military” [James Gordon Meek, ABC News]. Military analysts argue that while IS has used “surprise” and “mobility” to its advantage in capturing territory across Syria and Iraq, the group’s “Achilles’ heel is defending what it has won” [CNN’s Tom Lister].

Bloomberg News (Indira A.R. Lakshmanan) reports that the Islamic State could be raising more than $2 million a day, through a local revenue stream including oil sales and extortion, according to U.S. intelligence officials and anti-terrorism finance experts.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has condemned the systematic and grave human rights violations being committed by IS and associated armed organizations, stating that the “widespread ethnic and religious cleansing in the areas under their control …would amount to crimes against humanity.”

As IS continues to recruit foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, Australia has announced it will spend $60 million on countering domestic extremism and radicalization [Associated Press]. While Britain is also contemplating new laws to tackle homegrown extremism, a former intelligence chief warned that the “fundamental tenet of British justice should not be changed even in a minor way” for what he described as an “unproven threat at the moment” [The Guardian’s Josh Holiday and Andrew Sparrow].

In Iraq, a car bomb in Baghdad’s Shia neighborhood killed at least seven people earlier today [Al Jazeera]. Meanwhile, the prime minister-designate, Haider al-Abadi, is negotiating with the political factions until September 11, when he must submit a list of potential ministers for Iraq’s new unity government [New York Times’ Ben Hubbard]. However, the Wall Street Journal (Nour Malas) explores how the Islamic State insurgency is further dividing the nation along ethnic and religious lines, based on accounts of Iraqi and Kurdish officials. And Michael Knights, writing in the Washington Post, outlines why the Iraqi town of Amerli “desperately needs U.S. help.”

The Washington Post (Adam Goldman and Karen DeYoung) describes Qatar’s role in facilitating the release of American journalist Peter Theo Curtis, who was held for almost two years by Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra. Administration officials stressed that Qatar had been told not to pay a ransom for Curtis, and stated yesterday that the U.S. role was limited to “facilitat[ing] a conversation between Mr. Curtis’s family and the Qatari government” [New York Times’ Peter Baker].

Reuters (Amena Baker) reports that Qatar is working to help free four further Americans held by armed groups in Syria, according to a Gulf source familiar with the matter.

Two U.S. officials have told CNN (Steve Almasy and Nick Paton Walsh) that experts are still unable to identify the militant responsible for the execution of photojournalist James Foley, although a forensic expert has raised the possibility of two militants in the video released by IS.

Gerald F. Seib [Wall Street Journal] takes a look at whether the “specter of a new, different and frightening kind of Islamic extremism [has] changed the American public’s deep reluctance to engage anew in the Middle East.”

Libya

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have secretly carried out a series of airstrikes against Islamist militias in Libya. Senior American officials said that the U.S. was caught by surprise by the operations, which involved UAE’s pilots and military aircraft, while Egypt provided its bases for launching the airstrikes. The strikes have “so far, proved counterproductive,” reports the New York Times (David D. Kirkpatrick and Eric Schmitt).

The U.S., France, Germany and the U.K. issued a joint statement yesterday condemning the escalating violence in the country, explicitly stating:

“We believe outside interference in Libya exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya’s democratic transition.”

Surveillance, Privacy, and Technology

The Intercept (Ryan Gallagher) reports that the NSA is “secretly providing data to nearly two dozen U.S. government agencies with a ‘Google-like’ search engine built to share more than 850 billion records” of private communications. The classified documents, which refer to the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration as key partners, offer the first “definitive evidence” that the NSA is making surveillance data directly available to domestic law enforcement. Just Security’s Jennifer Granick offers an analysis of The Intercept report.

Israel-Palestine

Israeli air strikes launched early this morning killed two Palestinians and destroyed much of one of Gaza’s high-rises, wounding several more people [Reuters’ Nidal Al-Mughrabi and Allyn Fisher-Ilan]. A barrage of rockets targeted Israel this morning, including two fired from Lebanon, which Israel responded to with artillery fire [Haaretz].

Amid continuing hostilities and unclear prospects for a long-term solution, Israel has evacuated hundreds of families from border towns along the Gaza Strip [Wall Street Journal’s Joshua Mitnick and Asa Fitch].

An Israeli official said that the American arms shipment to Israel, which was halted two weeks ago, will depart for Israel soon, owing to progress in Israel’s discussions with the Obama administration [Haaretz’s Gili Cohen].

The United Nations has announced the appointment of the final member – a former New York judge – to the three-person panel that will investigate alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since the conflict began on June 13.

The New York Times (Jodi Rudoren) reports that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has new plans to “cast himself as the leader of all Palestinians.” According to sources, Abbas intends to call for an international solution to the Middle East crisis, sidestepping the failed U.S.-brokered negotiations.

Russia and Ukraine

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is due to take part in talks with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Belarus today [BBC]. Ahead of the talks, President Poroshenko dissolved the country’s parliament, citing the collapse of Ukraine’s coalition government over the weekend, and called for fresh elections on October 26 [Krishnadev Calamur,NPR].

Reuters (Alexei Anishchuk) considers that the talks in Belarus offer a “slim chance of progress” amid the deepening political crisis between the two countries.

Earlier today, Ukraine claimed that its forces captured 10 Russian soldiers in the Donetsk region [Associated Press’ Jim Heintz]. Yesterday, Moscow indicated it would send a second humanitarian convoy into Ukraine despite the international condemnation sparked by the first convoy [Washington Post’s Annie Gowen and Karoun Demirjian]. And the New York Times (Andrew E. Kramer and Andrew Roth) covers how rebels in the east are publicly humiliating prisoners.

Carl Schreck [RFE/RL] talks to international law experts about whether the forced march of prisoners by pro-Russian separatists over the weekend constituted a war crime.

Other Developments

A soldier at Fort Lee fatally shot herself yesterday, shortly after her arrival with a gun prompted a temporary lockdown at the army base [John Ramsey, Richmond Times-Dispatch].

In the wake of the Ferguson shooting, members of the Congressional Black Caucus have called on President Obama to reform local law enforcement structures, urging the appointment of a federal czar to oversee local police departments [Politico’s Lucy McCalmont]. Politico’s Allie Grasgreen covers how the militarization of local police departments has extended to college campuses.

In light of the “ever deepening security and political crises” facing Afghanistan, the New York Times editorial board calls on the rival presidential candidates to co-operate and “quickly form a functioning government that reflects the country’s diversity.”

Politico (Austin Wright and Leigh Munsil) reports on the “incredible shrinking defense industry,” noting that the number of employees at the five biggest American defense firms has fallen 14 percent from the peak in 2008.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will meet Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Brussels next Monday to set the ground for a new round of nuclear negotiations, scheduled to take place at the time of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York [Wall Street Journal’s Vanessa Mock].

An investigation by the Department of Veterans Affairs watchdog has been unable to confirm allegations that 40 veterans may have died because of delays at the Phoenix medical center [New York Times’ Richard A. Oppel Jr.].

A group of 141 African and international organizations have called on African countries to reject immunity for sitting leaders for serious crimes before the African Court for Justice and Human Rights.

U.S. and Chinese military officials will meet at the Pentagon on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss rules of behavior, following the interception of a U.S. Navy patrol plane by a Chinese jet, which was denounced by the U.S. as “dangerous” [Reuters’ Phil Stewart and David Brunnstrom]. The Wall Street Journal (Josh Chin) takes a look at whether “rogue pilots or realpolitik” lie behind Chinese intercepts.

The Washington Post (Anna Fifield) notes that the U.S. is attempting to reassure its allies in Asia by showing off its $2 billion nuclear submarine, the USS Hawaii, at a naval base in Japan.

Rival sides in South Sudan’s conflict have signed a new cease-fire agreement to end more than eight months of fighting, with mediators threatening sanctions if the deal collapses again [Al Jazeera America].

The Associated Press reports that the Shiite rebel group in Yemen presented the government with a list of new demands, potentially “prolonging a standoff” in the Yemeni capital of Sana.

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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