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
Iran played a critical role in the Iraqi military’s offensive to retake Tikrit from ISIS that began yesterday, contributing drones, heavy weaponry and ground forces to the operation while U.S. forces remained on the sidelines. [Wall Street Journal’s Tamer el-Ghobashy and Julian E. Barnes] The nature and timing of Iraq’s biggest offensive to date caught the U.S. “by surprise” according to a government official speaking to The Daily Beast, reports Nancy A. Youssef.
Iraqi military forces and Shi’ite militiamen sought to seal off ISIS fighters in Tikrit and the surrounding areas today, the second day of the offensive to push back the Islamic State in Salahuddin province. [Reuters’ Ahmed Rasheed and Dominic Evans]
Christian militants in north-eastern Syria are at the “vanguard” of a battle to protect some of the last Christian pockets of the large part of central Arabia conquered by the Islamic State, reports Martin Chulov and Kareem Shaheen. [The Guardian]
U.S.-led airstrikes continue. The U.S. military carried out two strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria on Feb. 28; separately the U.S. and partner nations conducted seven airstrikes in Iraq. [Central Command] On Mar. 1 the U.S. and coalition military forces carried out four strikes on targets in Syria, and separately conducted a further five on targets in Iraq. [Central Command]
Australia will send a further 300 soldiers to Iraq to help train forces fighting the Islamic State, an expansion of the country’s role in the coalition. [ABC News’ Louise Yaxley]
“The war against radical Islamic militancy is not our fight.” Former CIA station chief in Islamabad, Robert Grenier, writes that “ultimate victory in the fight against violent extremism inspired by Islam will require wisdom and patience of an unaccustomed sort.”[New York Times]
An increasing number of American Christians are travelling to Iraq to fight the Islamic State; Loveday Morris speaks to some of those who have made the trip and provides details of their legal standing in the fight. [Washington Post]
The Syrian conflict is linked in part to global warming, according to a new study which outlines what scientists say is one of the most detailed and strongest connections between violence and climate change caused by humans, reports the AP.
IRAN NUCLEAR TALKS
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address Congress on the Iran nuclear talks today. The prime minister said that his planned speech is “not intended to show any disrespect to Obama.” In his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee yesterday, Netanyahu said that while U.S.-Israeli ties remain strong, he feels a “moral obligation” to warn Congress against the dangers of concluding a deal with Iran. [CNN’s Alexandra Jaffe et al]
President Obama sought to defend a possible deal with Iran in an interview with Reuters a few hours after Netanyahu’s address, stating that Iran must freeze sensitive nuclear work for at least 10 years under a potential agreement. While confirming the “substantial disagreement” with Israel over the Iran nuclear issue, the president said this distraction would not be “permanently destructive” to relations between the two countries, reports Jeff Mason.
National security adviser Susan Rice also defended the administration’s approach during her AIPAC address, stating that “sound bites won’t stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon–diplomacy can.” [Haaretz’s Barak Ravid]
Secretary of State John Kerry came to Israel’s defense before the UN Human Rights Council earlier yesterday, amid continuing tensions over the Iran issue. Kerry said that the panel’s “unbalanced focus” on Israel “risks undermining the credibility of the entire organization.” [New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon]
Kerry began a second day of talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Iran’s nuclear program today in Switzerland. [Reuters]
Benjamin Netanyahu has a “long history” of warnings on Iran’s nuclear program, writes Murtaza Hussain, who notes that the Israeli prime minister is treated as a “credible voice” on the issue despite previous claims turning out to be “disastrously false.” [The Intercept]
The Democratic Party is “on the cusp” of abandoning its support for Israel, argues Brett Stephens, explaining why the approach toward the Iran negotiations is “dreadful policy for Washington.” [Wall Street Journal]
Russia’s offer to sell Iran its most advanced antiballistic missiles at a crucial phase in the nuclear negotiations is “immediately destabilizing;” John Vincour explains why. [Wall Street Journal]
UKRAINE and RUSSIA
Three Ukrainian soldiers were killed and nine wounded over the past 24 hours in the east of the country during fighting with Russian-backed separatist rebels, said a Ukrainian military source to Reuters today.
More than 840 people have been killed in fighting in eastern Ukraine since mid-January of this year, UN assistant secretary general Ivan Simonovic said yesterday. More than 6,000 people have been killed since the conflict began last April. [New York Times’ Nick Cumming-Bruce and Michael R. Gordon]
Secretary of State John Kerry has threatened Russia with further economic sanctions if the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine is not complied with; Kerry said there has so far been a “kind of cherry picking” in the application of the peace deal made last month. [Al Jazeera]
The UN-recognized government of Libya has voted to reengage with UN-brokered talks on the future of the country, one week after suspending its participation, a Libyan official has said. [Al Jazeera]
Libyan forces from the recognized government carried out airstrikes in Tripoli and Misrata today, in retaliatory attacks against rival forces controlling the country’s capital. [Reuters]
The Afghan Army lost over 20,000 members last year due to desertions, discharges and deaths in combat, according to figures collected by the U.S.-led coalition, due to be released today. The decline of almost 11% in the membership of the country’s military is an issue of deep concern to some in the U.S. military. [New York Times’ Matthew Rosenberg and Azam Ahmed]
Arguments in the case of Abid Naseer, the Pakistani man accused of plotting attacks with al-Qaeda in the U.S. and U.K., came to a close yesterday. The jury will now deliberate over whether Naseer provided support to a terrorist organization and whether he was part of a conspiracy to do so. [New York Times’ Stephanie Clifford]
The presiding military judge at the USS Cole death-penalty trial has ordered the Pentagon to remove the senior staff overseeing the process, following the ruling that a requirement for judges to live permanently at Guantanamo constituted unlawful meddling. [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]
Comments by U.S. army chief of staff General Raymond Odierno about the scale-back of the British army raise important questions about Britain’s place on the world stage. Ewen MacAskill considers it “a reasonable debate for voters [in the general election] in May to decide” whether Britain should “start behaving like the small island state it is.” [The Guardian]
A newly released video from Nigeria’s Boko Haram shows the bodies of two beheaded men accused of spying, and imitates some of the propaganda hallmarks from the Islamic State. [AP] Thomas Fessy asks whether the African regional force, to be approved by the African Union today, will succeed in rooting out the insurgency. [BBC]
An explosion in Cairo’s business district has killed two civilians; a little-known group claimed responsibility for the attacks which injured nine others outside the Egyptian High Court. [Al Jazeera]
Three Israeli citizens were arrested last month on suspicion of smuggling materials to Gaza intended for tunnel construction and to build Hamas’ military infrastructure. [Haaretz’s Shirley Siedler and Gili Cohen]
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