News Roundup and Notes: August 28, 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.

Russia and Ukraine

In an escalation of hostilities, pro-Russian rebel forces, backed by Russian tanks and soldiers, are battling Ukrainian troops on multiple fronts, after opening a new front in Ukraine’s south-east. Rebels have seized control of the town of Novoazovsk and are threatening to take the city of Mariupol. Ukraine’s military condemned the developments as a “full-scale invasion,” while the country’s Prime Minister called for an immediate Security Council meeting [BBC; CNN’s Victoria Butenko et al].

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the latest reports of additional Russian tanks, rocket launchers and armored vehicles entering Ukraine “indicate a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely underway in Donetsk and Luhansk.”

U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt announced on Twitter:

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance intends to create a rapid deployment force and a “more visible” presence in Eastern Europe, in order to alleviate concerns over Russian aggression [New York Times’ Alan Cowell].

Switzerland has outlined measures to prevent Russia from using the country to evade sanctions imposed by the European Union earlier this year [Wall Street Journal’s Neil MacLucas].

The Washington Post editorial board warns that Russia, as a “hybrid aggressor,” must be “exposed on all fronts, not just in combat on the ground.”

The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization is launching programs to alert pilots about flying over conflict zones, following the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine last month [The Hill’s Keith Lang].

In a separate development, Bloomberg News (Michael Riley and Jordan Robertson) reports that the FBI is investigating whether Russian hackers are behind the infiltration in mid-August of the financial systems of JPMorgan and at least one other bank.

Iraq and Syria

The U.S. military carried out three further strikes in Iraq yesterday, “severely” damaging an Islamic State building, in addition to destroying several armored vehicles, a Humvee, and a supply truck [Central Command]. The Wall Street Journal (Dion Nissenbaum and Julian E. Barnes) notes that the strikes in Iraq have “leveled off” in recent days, as the administration considers an expanded air operation as well as further humanitarian aid missions in Iraq. This includes possible humanitarian airdrops to assist Iraq’s Shiite Turkmen in the town of Amerli [CNN’s Chelsea J. Carter and Barbara Starr].

Administration officials have signaled a push to build an international coalition to counter Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, although Reuters (Lesley Wroughton and Missy Ryan) reports that it is unclear whether the U.S. will be able to recruit partners for a joint military operation.

The Daily Beast (Josh Rogin and Eli Lake) reports that while President Obama wants to decide on a plan for Syria by the end of the week, almost all aspects of a potential air campaign in the country remain unresolved, including the required intelligence, according to administration officials. The New York Times editorial board focuses on these concerns, noting that “there are too many unanswered questions to make that decision now and there has been far too little public discussion for Mr. Obama to expect Americans to rally behind what could be another costly military commitment.”

Former intelligence officials and experts have explained that the operation in Syria is likely to play out in stages, with easy targets attacked first, and more difficult positions only pursued following weeks or even months of refined intelligence [Gordon Lubold et al., Foreign Policy’s The Cable].

Politico (Jeremy Herb and Philip Ewing) notes that a year after President Obama contemplated military action in Syria, he now finds himself in “an eerily similar” position: “worried about political support on Capitol Hill for a vote on intervention and held back by his own visceral resistance to unilateral military action.”

A number of lawmakers are calling on Congress to vote on military action against the Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria [New York Times’ Julie Hirschfeld Davis], although Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested Obama is likely to have “a lot of congressional support” [CNN]. However, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon said Congress should not grant Obama expanded authority until the administration puts forward a “comprehensive strategy” [The Hill’s Martin Matishak].

Sen. Rand Paul [Wall Street Journal] argues that American “interventionists abetted the rise of ISIS” and warns that the U.S. Middle East policy is “unhinged.”

Syrian rebels, including members of Al Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front, captured a border post between Syria and Israel yesterday, following heavy fighting with Syrian troops [Ryan Lucas, The Independent].

The administration said it was aware of reports of the death of a second American fighting alongside Islamic State in Syria, but said that the U.S. could not confirm the death [Reuters’ Mark Hosenball]. Meanwhile, the White House has confirmed that President Obama will lead a UN Security Council meeting next month on the threat posed by foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria [PTI].

CNN (Paul Cruickshank) reports on a French raid earlier this year that targeted a French national from Algeria, who was arrested on charges of having joined Islamic State forces in Syria.

The mother of American journalist Steven Sotloff, who is being held hostage in Syria by the Islamic State, has issued a video asking Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader, to release her son [Al Jazeera].

The Guardian (Spencer Ackerman et al.) reports that, based on satellite imagery and interviews with Yazidis, a humanitarian crisis continues to unfold on Mount Sinjar, which has been largely ignored by the U.S. and its allies since August 14.

The latest report from the UN-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria describes the mass atrocities taking place in the country and emphasizes that the “risks of the conflict spreading further are palpable.” [UN News Centre]. The monitoring group, the Cluster Munition Coalition, has also reported the heavy use of banned cluster bombs in Syria [New York Times’ Rick Gladstone].

The New York Times (Ben Hubbard and Eric Schmitt) covers how the Islamic State has built an “effective management structure,” drawing on former Iraqi officers from Saddam Hussein’s army.

Felicia Schwartz [Wall Street Journal] notes that the use of social media, particularly by the Islamic State, offers Western officials a powerful new way of tracking militants and potential threats.

Israel-Palestine

As the cease-fire between Hamas and Israel continues to hold, both sides have declared victory. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that the country had achieved “great military and political” success in the conflict and that Hamas had been dealt a “heavy blow” [Haaretz].

However, The Telegraph (Inna Lazareva) notes that the cease-fire has sparked a political fight in Israel, with over half of Netanyahu’s cabinet members reportedly opposed to the truce agreement.

Al Jazeera America’s Tony Karon and Ehab Zahriyeh consider that as support for Netanyahu falls at home, Hamas “appears to have fared better politically.” On the other hand, Neri Zilber [Politico Magazine] cautions that the details of the cease-fire agreement and “what it augurs for the possible future of Gaza” should worry Hamas leaders.

The Wall Street Journal (Joshua Mitnick and Asa Fitch) reports that U.S. and Israeli officials are hoping the rebuilding process in Gaza will strengthen a more moderate Palestinian leadership.

Mark Perry [Al Jazeera America] reports that a number of senior U.S. military sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, have provided harsh criticism of Israeli tactics in the Gaza conflict, particularly in the Shujaiya neighborhood of Gaza.

Other Developments

U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein has indicated he may order the Pentagon to release up to 2,000 photographs depicting the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers [Reuters’ Joseph Ax].

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein has told Attorney General Eric Holder that it would be “inappropriate” to release parts of the CIA report under a FOIA request from reporter Jason Leopold, as the committee is still negotiating with the White House over the declassification review [Politico’s Burgess Everett and Josh Gerstein].

Bloomberg News (Andrew Zajac) and Reuters cover the closing arguments in the trial of the four former Blackwater security guards, accused of killing or wounding more than 30 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

The U.K. government has been asked to investigate whether telecommunications services company BT is assisting U.S. drone strikes through a special military internet cable connecting U.S. air force facilities in the U.K. to a base in Djibouti that is used for launching drones [The Guardian’s Juliette Garside].

Steven Aftergood [Federation of American Scientists] covers the Justice Department’s opposition to in camera review of state secrets material, in relation to the constitutional challenge to the government’s “no fly” list in Gulet Mohamed v. Eric Holder.

Iran has begun to redesign its partially constructed Arak reactor to restrict the amount of plutonium that can be produced, in a move that is likely to further the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 countries [New York Times’ Rick Gladstone].

The outgoing UN envoy to Libya has warned that recent intense battles in the country have been “unprecedented in their gravity and very alarming.” In light of the deteriorating situation, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and includes sanctions against those responsible [UN News Centre].

The United Nations has significantly increased its use of peacekeeping surveillance drones, reports Al Jazeera America (Samuel Oakford).

The new militant group comprising senior commanders from the Pakistani Taliban has vowed to carry out fresh attacks in Pakistan [AFP]. In an op-ed for Al Jazeera America, Rafia Zakaria considers that that the political skills of Pakistan’s “new warriors,” including Imran Khan and Allama Tahir-ul-Qadri, “may succeed where military options have failed” against the Taliban.

The government of South Sudan has accused rebel forces of bringing down the United Nations helicopter earlier this week. The crash is being investigated by the UN [Wall Street Journal’s Heidi Vogt].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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