News Roundup and Notes: December 18, 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. 

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

The U.S. and Cuba have agreed to restore diplomatic ties, severed since January 1961, and the U.S. will reestablish an embassy in Havana, President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced yesterday. The landmark announcement comes after 18 months of secret talks, leading to Cuba’s release of detained American aid worker Alan Gross. The White House also returned three imprisoned Cuban agents in a swap for a U.S. intelligence agent who had been jailed for nearly two decades. [New York Times’ Peter Baker; Wall Street Journal’s Carol E. Lee et al; Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung]  John Kerry said he “look[s] forward” to being the first Secretary of State to visit Cuba in 60 years, adding that the risk involved in normalizing relations is lower than that of “remaining stuck in an ideological cement of our own making.” [The Hill’s Peter Sullivan]

The secret diplomacy, which involved Canada and a personal appeal from Pope Francis, is detailed by Politico’s Michael Crowley and the New York Times’ Mark Landler and Michael R. Gordon. The AP also reports on the secret journey, which mirrors the “surprisingly similar” efforts with Iran.  Adam Goldman has more information on the American spy, identified as Rolando Sarraf Trujillo, and who was described as one of the most important agents in Cuba. [Washington Post]  And Frances Robles and Julie Hirschfeld Davis profile the “Cuban Five” spy ring, the last of whom were released by the U.S. yesterday. [New York Times]

Lawmakers are split over the development, with critics vowing to block the administration’s plans to lift the embargo on Cuba and withhold funding for a new embassy. [The Hill’s Peter Sullivan; Wall Street Journal’s Michael R. Crittenden]  In an op-ed at the Wall Street Journal, Sen. Marco Rubio argued that the policy is “bad news for the Cuban people” and “sends a dangerous message to the world.”  Gov. Jeb Bush called the move Obama’s “latest foreign policy misstep.”  Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton spoke out in support of the president’s decision. [The Hill’s Peter Sullivan]

Global praise followed the announcement. The diplomatic breakthrough was strongly welcomed by the European Union as well as Latin American leaders. Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz called it “the beginning of the end of the Cold War in the Americas.” [BBC] Cubans in Havana are also celebrating the announcement, report Carrie Gibson and Jonathan Watts. [The Guardian]

The media weighs in. The New York Times editorial board welcomes the “bold move that ends one of the most misguided chapters in American foreign policy.”  The Wall Street Journal editorial board notes that while limited aspects of the development are defensible, it is “striking … how little Cuba had to do for such a major shift in U.S. policy.”  And the Washington Post editorial board argues why the policy shift offers the Castro regime “an undeserved bailout.”

The status of the Guantánamo detention center will not be impacted by the changes announced yesterday, a spokesperson for the National Security Council has confirmed. [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]

The political landscape in the “vital battleground” of Florida—with its strong Cuban-American population—is likely to be shaken up in the wake of this breakthrough, reports Reuters’ Zachary Fagenson and David Adams. 

ISRAEL and PALESTINE

Jordan submitted a draft Security Council resolution on the Israel-Palestine conflict yesterday, following a day of “intense lobbying” during which the Palestinians convinced fellow Arab states to support the draft. The resolution lays out targets for Palestinian sovereignty, setting a one-year deadline for negotiations, and is aimed at the “full and phased withdrawal of Israeli forces” by the end of 2017. Palestinian ambassador to the UN, Riyad Mansour, recognized the risk in calling for such strict deadlines and indicated flexibility so “that perhaps we can succeed in having something adopted by the Security Council.” [New York Times’ Somini Sengupta]

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman described the submission of the draft as tantamount to an act of aggression, adding that the resolution was a “gimmick.” [Haaretz’s Barak Ravid]

Israel has been called upon to fully respect the Fourth Geneva Convention by representatives at an international conference in Geneva, who expressed “deep concern” over the continued occupation of Palestinian territory. [Wall Street Journal’s John Revill]

The Wall Street Journal editorial board discusses the decision of the European Court of Justice revoking the terrorist status of Hamas, describing the verdict as “astonishing” and accusing the ECJ of “jeopardiz[ing]” the ability of European officials to set security policy.

IRAQ and SYRIA

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and partner nations conducted six airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria from Dec. 15-17. Separately, the U.S. and partner nations carried out 61 airstrikes in Iraq during the same time frame. [Central Command]

U.S. allies are increasingly absent from the air war in Syria, with nearly 97% of strikes during December being carried out by the U.S. alone. [Reuters’ Phil Stewart and Yara Bayoumy]

The U.S. has penalized five people and six companies for defying U.S. sanctions by supplying fuel and oil to the Assad regime. [New York Times’ Julie Hirschfeld Davis]

Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces have launched a major offensive against the Islamic State aimed at retaking areas close to the Syrian border currently held by the terrorist group, including the Sinjar area which was home to many from the Yazidi minority. [AFP]

The German cabinet has agreed to send 100 soldiers to northern Iraq to assist in the training of Kurdish peshmerga forces fighting the Islamic State. German lawmakers will debate and vote on the proposal in January. [Deutsche Welle]

A mass grave containing 230 bodies has been uncovered in eastern Syria; those killed were thought to be members of anti-Islamic State Shuayat tribe in Deir al-Zour Province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. [Reuters]

SONY and NORTH KOREA

North Korea was “centrally involved” in the Sony cyberattack, American officials have concluded, but the White House is weighing whether to publicly accuse the country. [New York Times’ David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth] Aarti Shahani writes that the Sony hack demonstrates the shift of such attacks from “quiet to overt.” [NPR]

Sony Pictures has cancelled its planned release of “The Interview”—a comedy about the assassination of the North Korean leader—after hackers threatened attacks on theatres showing the film, in what amounts to “an unprecedented victory for Pyongyang.” [Reuters’ Eric Kelsey et al] 

RUSSIA and UKRAINE 

Sanctions against Russia over Ukraine will remain unavoidable until Moscow respects Ukrainian sovereignty, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said. [Reuters]

Economic turmoil in Russia may force the Kremlin to seek compromise in the situation in Ukraine, however Western leaders a wary given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s erratic behavior in recent months, reports Alison Smale. [New York Times]

Putin’s year of “defiance” and “miscalculation” has resulted in broad sanctions which have “choked off” Russian access to Western markets, driving the economy toward recession. [Wall Street Journal’s Gregory L. White and Anton Troianovski] 

PAKISTAN SCHOOL ATTACK

Pakistani officials have requested the assistance of the Afghan government and U.S.-led coalition in an “unusual meeting,” in tackling the leadership behind the Taliban attack in Peshawar, report Saeed Shah and Margherita Stancati. [Wall Street Journal]

The Pakistani Taliban attack was “motivated by hatred of the U.S.” and the real goal of the group is to target America itself, suggest Sami Yousafzai and Christopher Dickey. [The Daily Beast]

It is time that Pakistan “dispense[s] with delusions of threats from “foreign forces.” The government does not need to “talk” with the Taliban, it needs to prosecute them, argue Mira Sethi and Shehrbano Taseer in an op-ed at the New York Times. 

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

If the Obama administration continues “to rule out prosecuting CIA torturers,” the International Criminal Court could take action, on the basis of a Dec. 2 report from the ICC prosecutor’s office, writes Michael Pizzi. [Al Jazeera America]

FARC, the Colombian Marxist rebel group, announced a unilateral, indefinite ceasefire in a statement on its website, expressing the hope that the ceasefire will “transform into an armistice,” potentially ending the war that has been ongoing since 1964. [Vox’s Amanda Taub]

Boko Haram militants killed at least 32 people and abducted scores of others during an attack on a village in the northeast of Nigeria today. [Al Jazeera]  A Nigerian court martial has given 54 soldiers the death penalty on charges relating to refusing to fight Boko Haram. [BBC]

A suicide bomber killed a police officer and injured three others in Kabul early today after he detonated his vehicle which was being followed by police. [Al Jazeera]

Prosecutors do not know when the 9/11 trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will begin, following another delay in the pre-trial proceedings which have “drag[ged] on” for three years, reports Tim Mak. [The Daily Beast]

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been urged not to use the deadly siege in Sydney this week as a pretext for cracking down on refugees by human rights groups and politicians today, after Abbott declined to rule out harsher immigration laws. [Reuters]

U.S. Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco described the nature of lone wolf terrorist attacks as changing, describing radicalization as becoming “less [of a] passive process.” [The Hill’s David McCabe]

Arab activists are trying to “revive an enfeebled movement,” according to Elizabeth Dickinson, who asks “what happened to Arab liberalism?” [Politico Magazine]

UN peacekeepers along with the Congolese army have launched a military operation against rebels in the east of the country following a series of attacks in recent months which have killed over 250 civilians. [AP]

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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

Nadia O'Mara

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security