News Roundup and Notes: August 29, 2014

The News Roundup will be back on Tuesday morning, after Labor Day. Here’s today’s news.

Russia and Ukraine

NATO is holding an emergency meeting this morning to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine. Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen accused Moscow of a “blatant violation” of Ukraine’s sovereignty and dismissed Russia’s “hollow denials” [BBC].  Yesterday, the alliance released satellite imagery showing Russian combat troops inside Ukrainian territory and said that at least 1,000 Russian troops had entered the country [Associated Press]. Amid the escalation of hostilities in the east, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk announced he will seek NATO membership [BBC].

The UN Security Council also held emergency talks on the situation yesterday [UN News Centre]. In a strong statement to the Council, U.S. ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said that Russia has “outright lied,” but that in the last 48 hours, the “mask is coming off.” Power said Russia’s actions are “a deliberate effort to support, and now fight alongside, illegal separatists in another sovereign country.”

President Obama similarly accused Russia of “deliberately and repeatedly violat[ing] the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” However, Obama emphasized:

“We are not taking military action to solve the Ukrainian problem.  What we’re doing is to mobilize the international community to apply pressure on Russia.”

Obama also said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in agreement with the U.S. that “Russia is responsible for the violence in eastern Ukraine.” The two leaders further agreed to consider additional sanctions [White House].

The New York Times (Peter Baker) has more details on the President’s comments. The Hill (Justin Sink) notes that Obama “sidestepped” the question of whether Russia’s actions amounted to an “invasion,” prompting calls from House Republicans to clarify the administration’s position [The Hill’s Kristina Wong and Justin Sink]. The State Department similarly refrained from the terminology of “invasion,” referring instead to Russia’s “escalating aggression.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been quoted as saying, “It is clear that the rebellion has achieved some serious successes in stopping the armed operation by Kiev.” However, Putin also called on “militia forces to open a humanitarian corridor for encircled Ukraine servicemen in order to avoid pointless victims,” which pro-Russian rebel forces have agreed to this morning [Reuters].

The editorial boards of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post offer their views on the latest developments and suggest how the West should respond to Russia. Former U.S. ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker and Erik Brattberg [Washington Post] outline how NATO should counter Putin’s moves.

And the Associated Press covers the “frivolous” Twitter exchange between Russia and Canada over the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Iraq and Syria

At a White House news conference yesterday, President Obama said: “We don’t have a strategy yet” on U.S. action in Syria. Obama said he has asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to prepare a “range of options” on countering the Islamic State (ISIL), while Secretary of State John Kerry has been asked to “travel to the region to continue to build the coalition that’s needed to meet this threat.” CNN (Chelsea J. Carter and Catherine E. Shoichet) and the Wall Street Journal (Michael R. Crittenden and Sam Dagher) have more details.

President Obama also met with his National Security Council yesterday to discuss developments in Iraq and the administration’s “comprehensive strategy to counter the threat posed by ISIL” [White House].

Josh Gerstein [Politico] notes that the President’s “inartful phrase” on “strategy,” which was arguably an attempt to get “a bit more political space,” quickly attracted criticism from Republican leaders. The White House went into immediate “damage control,” with press secretary Josh Earnest stressing that Obama’s “strategy” comment was only in relation to a “specific question about what approach he was going to pursue about possible military action in Syria” [The Hill’s Justin Sink].

U.S. lawmakers have stepped up calls for the administration to detail its plans in Iraq and Syria [Wall Street Journal’s Michael R. Crittenden]. House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi also agreed that Congress “should be debating the issue” [Politico’s Lauren French].

The Daily Beast (Josh Rogin and Eli Lake) reports that the reason Obama signaled a step back from an expanded U.S. mission is that his national security team was unable to agree on a plan for American strikes in Syria.

Armed rebel forces in Syria have detained 43 UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, while another 91 have been trapped in the region [UN News Centre]. Rick Noack [Washington Post] covers the “long, grim history” of UN peacekeepers caught in conflict.

Activists say Islamic State militants have executed more than 150 Syrian troops in north-eastern Syria [Associated Press].

The Washington Post (Adam Goldman and Julie Tate) reports that at least four hostages held by the group, including American journalist James Foley, were waterboarded multiple times earlier on in their captivity. And in a video released by Islamic State fighters yesterday, depicting the execution of a Kurdish soldier, Dan Lamothe [Washington Post] notes that the soldier is wearing a “Guantanamo-inspired” orange jumpsuit.

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have identified a number of Americans who have joined militant groups in Syria, including the Islamic State, reports the New York Times (Michael S. Schmidt and Eric Schmitt).

Dutch police have arrested two men, one in The Hague and the other in Germany, suspected of recruiting fighters in Iraq and Syria [Associated Press].

Foreign Policy (Harald Doornbos and Jenan Moussa) reports on the contents of an Islamic State laptop, obtained by members of a moderate Syrian rebel group, which turned out to be “a treasure trove of documents,” including “lessons for making bubonic plague bombs and missives on using weapons of mass destruction.”

Jacob Silverman [Politico Magazine] explores whether the Islamic State’s “aggressive Internet strategy” is likely to expose the group to investigators.

Reuters notes that African Islamists may be encouraged by gains made by the Islamic State, according to African intelligence officials.

The UN Refugee Agency said that the number of Syrian refugees registered in neighboring countries has surpassed three million, making the crisis “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era” [Reuters’ Stephanie Nebehay].

Karen Elliott House, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, argues that it is now time for the Saudis to “stand up” against ISIL, noting that the royal Al Saud family “are the biggest regional target” of the terrorist group. In the Washington Post, David Ignatius similarly questions whether Saudi Arabia can “help combat” the Islamic State.

Israel-Palestine

Zvi Bar’el [Haaretz] argues that it was necessary for the countries in the Middle East “to get the Gaza crisis out of the way so the region, and the world” could address the greater threat posed by the expansion of the Islamic State.

The Economist comments on the cease-fire and states that “[k]eeping the calm between Palestinians for a month before real negotiations are supposed to begin will prove hard,” noting the visible strains within the Hamas-Fatah unity government.

The Guardian (Harriet Sherwood) covers the “political turbulence” facing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with political observers predicting an election next year owing to this week’s cease-fire agreement that “gave no clearly definable gains to either side.”

The New York Times (Jodi Rudoren) reports on the free “Red Alert” smartphone app, used by more than one million people, especially Israelis, to track the rockets coming into Israel from Gaza during the conflict.

Other Developments

Military officials have confirmed the death of the pilot of the F-15 jet, which crashed earlier this week in Virginia. There is an ongoing investigation into the crash [Associated Press].

According to a new Pew Research Center poll, 54% of Americans say that Obama’s foreign policy approach is “not tough enough,” indicating a shift in the public’s views on global threats.

Carol Rosenberg [Miami Herald] reports that while no decision has yet been taken on whether the Navy will court-martial the nurse who refused to force-feed Guantánamo detainees, the case is likely to “put a spotlight on both Guantánamo’s hunger-strike policy and how the military manages medical-ethics issues.”

The ACLU has identified at least 43 police departments that use the “Stingray” surveillance system, which can collect all records of cellphone calls, messages and data transfers within a half-mile radius [Al Jazeera America].

A Syrian man, arrested in 2011 and accused of making detonators for use in attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq, made his first court appearance in Arizona yesterday [Reuters’ Steve Gorman].

Ten survivors of U.S. rendition have written an open letter to President Obama calling for the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA as a “necessary part of correcting America’s own history” [The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman].

Reuters (Emily Flitter) reports that the U.S. is contemplating using privilege under state secrets statutes to halt the private defamation lawsuit against the “United Against a Nuclear Iran” group, according to a source familiar with the litigation.

President Obama has announced that he will nominate P. Michael McKinley, who currently serves as deputy ambassador to Afghanistan, to be the next U.S. ambassador to the country [Wall Street Journal’s Felicia Schwartz].

The UN said that a recount of Afghanistan’s presidential election ballot will take an additional two weeks, with delays likely to create further instability in the country, reports Tim Craig [Washington Post].

China has rejected U.S. claims that it intercepted an American patrol plane last week, warning instead that the U.S. should end its “close surveillance” flights near Chinese territory [NPR’s Scott Neuman].

Dawn (Baqir Sajjad Syed and Irfan Haider) reports on the Pakistani Army chief’s intervention in the country’s two-week-long political crisis and comments on the “capitulation of the political class” to the Pakistan army.

The Libyan government has resigned to allow for a new government to be formed based on elections held earlier this year [Al Jazeera].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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