News Roundup and Notes: February 18, 2015

IRAQ and SYRIA

Scores have been killed during fighting in and around Aleppo. At least 70 pro-government fighters and over 80 insurgents have been killed following the launch of a government offensive there, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The monitor group said the army was attempting to encircle the key city and cut off insurgent supply lines. [Reuters]

The UN envoy to Syria says Damascus is willing to suspend its aerial bombardment of Aleppo and engage in a six week trial ceasefire. It is unclear when this would take effect and the opposition Syrian National Council has said the government will be judged by actions rather than words. [BBC]

The US will give some moderate Syrian rebels the ability to call in airstrikes, with military officials pointing to the coordination between Kurdish forces and the coalition in Kobani as the model for the new campaign. However significant differences remain between the nature of that experience and the situations faced by US-trained rebels, report Julian E. Barnes and Adam Entous. [Wall Street Journal]

The Islamic State has immolated 45 people in the western Iraqi town of al-Baghdadi, according to the local police chief. Details of who these people were and why they were killed are not yet clear. [BBC]

The Iraqi ambassador to the UN has requested the Security Council investigate allegations that the Islamic State is harvesting organs as a means of financing its operations. The ambassador noted that in recent weeks bodies have been uncovered with surgical incisions and missing kidneys. [AP]

US-led airstrikes continue. The US and Coalition military forces carried out six airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Feb. 16. Separately, the US and partner nations conducted a further eight strikes in Iraq. [Central Command]

Canada’s military participation in the coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq may top 900,000 Canadian dollars per day, according to the country’s budget watchdog. [Wall Street Journal’s Paul Vieira]

Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans now serving in Congress are offering a unique perspective in the debate over whether President Obama should be given a broad authorization for a military campaign against the Islamic State or something much more limited. [New York Times’ Ashley Parker and Jeremy W. Peters]

LIBYA, EGYPT, and the ISLAMIC STATE

The Islamist faction in Libya’s civil conflict says it has carried out its first airstrike, an escalation of the violence currently tearing through the country. [New York Times’ David D. Kirkpatrick]

“All measures” should be considered to tackle the threat of the Islamic State in Libya, including international ground troops, said the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry ahead of an emergency UN Security Council meeting today. [Al Jazeera]

The Islamic State gained traction in Libya by coopting with local jihadists, a different tactic than that employed in Syria where the militant group has fought rival factions, report Benoit Faucon and Matt Bradley. [Wall Street Journal]

The Washington Post editorial board argues that Egypt’s response to the “horrific” murder of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by the Islamic State in Libya “offers an excellent example of what not to do,” cautioning that the UN and Western governments should not “pick sides in Libya’s civil war, or in the larger confrontation in the Sunni Muslim world.”

Italy is increasingly concerned about the threat posed by the Islamic State, as the group makes inroads in Libya. However, the government has no idea how to handle the crisis, writes Barbie Latza Nadeau. [The Daily Beast]

UKRAINE and RUSSIA

The US and other UN Security Council members directly accused Russia of breaching the ceasefire in Ukraine. A draft resolution put forward by Moscow approving the truce was nonetheless passed by the council. [The Guardian’s Alec Luhn and Oksana Grytsenko]

Vice-President Joe Biden said the “costs to Russia will rise” if it continued to act in violation of the accord, strongly condemning the violation of the ceasefire by separatist forces after speaking with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. [BBC]

A Russian drone was shot down and recovered by Ukrainian forces amid heavy fighting over the weekend. It was found near the government-controlled port city of Mariupol. [The Intercept’s Ashkold Krushelnycky]

Ukraine government forces are pulling out of Debaltseve in the east of the country following a fierce assault by Russian-backed separatists yesterday, despite a ceasefire agreement which took effect on Sunday. Rebels say the ceasefire does not apply to Debaltseve. [Reuters’ Gleb Garanich and Anton Zverev]

The EU will scale back sanctions against former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s inner circle, according to a number of diplomats, an admission of a lack of evidence to corroborate corruption allegations against some of those listed. [Wall Street Journal’s Laurence Norman]

AFGHANISTAN

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan topped 10,000 in 2014. A new report from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan indicates that 2014 was the deadliest year for civilians in Afghanistan since the agency began compiling statistics in 2009. Some 3,699 civilian deaths were recorded and another 6,849 people were wounded, a 22% increase on the previous year. [The Guardian’s Sune Engel Rasmussen]

Can Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah work together to tackle the country’s endemic corruption? “So far, the two appear unfazed by the political costs of confronting patronage and corruption,” writes Mujib Mashal in a detailed piece for Al Jazeera America.

The western Afghan province of Farah is a “prime example of Afghanistan’s nexus between Islamist military, crime, opium and Kabul’s feeble grip on power,” Jessica Donati and Mirwais Harooni describe the unstable dynamics of the Afghan “wild west.” [Reuters]

NIGERIA

Boko Haram has released a video threatening to disrupt the upcoming Nigerian elections at any cost. The 15 minute film was posted via the group’s new Twitter account, and featured the group’s leader Abubakar Shekau. [BBC]

Attacks by Boko Haram militants on two towns in northeastern Nigeria killed at least 37 people, witnesses said yesterday. One of the attacks was on a military checkpoint in the town of Biu where rebels and government forces traded fire and a bomb detonated, killing at least 19 civilians and 17 insurgents. [Wall Street Journal’s Gbenga Akingbule]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

New rules on the international export of armed drones have been issued by the Obama Administration. The new rules seek to maintain America’s position at the front of a fast-growing market, but will also likely see the proliferation of the heavily-criticized weapon in the struggle against terrorism, reports Scott Shane. [New York Times]

Poland will comply with the ECtHR ruling that the country hosted a US black site prison, the Polish foreign minister said today. Yesterday, the court refused to reconsider the decision, a ruling that will oblige Warsaw to speedily hold officials to account. [Reuters]

Relations between the US and Israel have “plunged to a new low” over negotiating a nuclear accord with Tehran. David E. Sanger explains why it appears Washington and Jerusalem are “engaging in the diplomatic equivalent of posting notes to each other on the refrigerator door.” [New York Times]

Pakistani-born defendant Abid Naseer conspired with al-Qaeda to pull off the biggest terrorist attack since 9/11, prosecutors at his high-profile terrorism trial in the US District Court in Brooklyn said yesterday. [Wall Street Journal’s Thomas MacMillan]

Gaps in French intelligence are neither readily explained nor easily solved, a situation which highlights security challenges facing other Western governments amid a proliferation of potential threats. [New York Times’ Katrin Bennhold and Eric Schmitt]

Danish intelligence services were alerted last year to the potential radicalization of the suspected gunman behind deadly attacks in Copenhagen, but said there was no indication he was planning an attack. [Wall Street Journal’s Anna Molin]

The Pentagon’s proposed spending is putting the department on course for “fiscal disaster” suggests Bill Sweetman, detailing the increased spending proposals and the lack of funding available to cover them. [The Daily Beast]

President Obama hopes to focus the world’s attention on combatting the underlying ideologies which lead to radicalization and extremist behavior during his key-note speech today at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. [AP] Opening the summit yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden highlighted the importance of integrating immigrants into the fabric of society in order to prevent the disaffectedness which can lead to extremism and radicalization. [AP]

Newer and more severe penalties have been handed down by a Tunisian court to those convicted of the 2012 attack on the US embassy in the country. [AP] Additionally, four Tunisian National Guardsmen were killed today by militants near the Algerian border. [AP]

“Indecisiveness is the predominant characteristic of how Mr. Obama executes U.S. national-security policy.” John Bolton discusses the president’s “equivocating” approach to foreign policy, and suggests that failing to act at the decisive moment “only feeds the appetites of aggressors.” [Wall Street Journal] 

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About the Author(s)

Nadia O'Mara

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security