News Roundup and Notes: March 27, 2015

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.

YEMEN

Saudi Arabia-led coalition airstrikes on Yemen continue. Warplanes continued bombing Houthi targets in the country through a second night, and a spokesperson of the coalition has said strikes would continue “as long as necessary.” [Al Jazeera]  Al Arabiya has a guide to “Operation Decisive Storm.” [Be sure to check out Nathalie Weizmann’s post at Just Security this morning on the international law implications of the Saudi-led intervention.]

Saudi Arabia kept some of the details of the planned Yemen offensive from the U.S. until the last minute, said U.S. officials, adding that despite planning action for weeks the Kingdom informed Washington of the details just before the airstrikes took place. [Reuters’ Matt Spetalnick et al]

The conflict may escalate significantly as Egypt has expressed a willingness to commit ground troops to the operation, but Arab officials hope that the strikes will render a ground offensive unnecessary to defeat the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The rebel leader declared that Yemen would become the “graveyard of the invaders” if a ground invasion took place. [The Guardian’s Kareem Shaheen and Saeed Kamali Dehghan]

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest sought to defend the administration’s foreign policy in Yemen, saying it should not be judged on the success or stability of the country’s government, noting that Yemen has long been in a “chaotic situation.” [Politico’s Nick Gass]

Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi has emerged in Saudi Arabia, a day after he fled his country as Houthi rebels moved in on his stronghold in Aden. [Wall Street Journal’s Hakim Almasmari and Asa Fitch]

AQAP may take advantage of the widening power vacuum amid the chaos in Yemen, warned Western diplomats, with many saying the Houthi takeover has allowed AQAP to gain traction in the absence of a strong central military. [Wall Street Journal’s Maria Abi-Habib and Hakim Almasmari]

Arab nations are drawing closer to achieving a joint Arab military force, with leaders meeting this weekend at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt for a summit, as Saudi Arabia and allies launch a campaign of airstrikes in Yemen. [AP’s Hamza Hendawi]

Citizens took to social media as the first airstrikes struck Yemen yesterday, offering a vivid glimpse of the conflict. Robert Mackey has compiled some of the reports and observations coming out of Yemen. [New York Times]

IRAQ and SYRIA

U.S. involvement in Tikrit changes dynamic. Thousands of Iranian-backed militia fighters have been sidelined by Iraq, who eager to capitalize on American involvement accepted a U.S. demand that the Shi’ite militias be barred from the fight. [Wall Street Journal’s Dion Nissenbaum et al]  Many other Shi’ite fighters were said to have boycotted the offensive, in protest against American involvement. [New York Times’ Rod Nordland and Helene Cooper]

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. The U.S. and coalition military forces carried out a total of 29 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria yesterday against Islamic State targets. In Iraq, the coalition conducted 17 airstrikes near Tikrit, and seven others elsewhere. In Syria, four strikes targeted close to Kobani and one hit near Raqqa. [Reuters]

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is open to talks with the U.S. In an interview for CBS’ “60 minutes,” the Syrian leader said he is open to dialogue but there can be no “pressuring of the sovereignty” of Syria.  Meanwhile, the U.S. and Syria are engaged in direct discussions as to the whereabouts of an American freelance journalist who disappeared more than two and a half years ago in Syria, said a State Department official yesterday. [New York Times’ Rick Gladstone]

The U.K. will send 75 military personnel to assist in the training of moderate Syrian rebels fighting against the Islamic State and the Assad regime; the training will take place in Turkey as part of a wider U.S.-led effort. [The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill]

The New York Times editorial board criticizes President Obama’s decision to bomb Tikrit, writing that the president has “escalated America’s involvement” in the ISIS fight “without providing a shred of evidence showing how it could advance American interests.”

“The U.S. just declared ownership over the war in Iraq.” Nancy Youssef and Jacob Siegel suggest that by taking over in the fight for Tikrit, the U.S. is assuming ownership of a widening war in Iraq. [The Daily Beast]

The tracking of U.S. weapons in Iraq is becoming increasingly difficult, as government troops fuse into a single force with Shi’ite paramilitary groups and Iran-backed militia forces. [Washington Post’s Missy Ryan]

Iraq’s three-way partition, “formal or informal,” may be the only realistic option left after “more than a decade of internecine slaughter” following the 2003 U.S. invasion, writes Yaroslav Trofimov. [Wall Street Journal]

IRAN NUCLEAR TALKS

Negotiators are aiming to reach a framework agreement by March 29, according to diplomats, as officials said progress was being made after talks over Iran’s nuclear program resumed yesterday. [Bloomberg’s Jonathan Tirone]

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took to Twitter yesterday, outlining that he had sent a letter to the P5+1 leaders explaining Iran’s position. Rouhani also reached out to the British, French, and Russian leaders via telephone calls, making a case for a nuclear deal and an end to Iran sanctions. [New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon and David E. Sanger]

Iran may be allowed to operate hundreds of centrifuges at a once-secret site, in exchange for limits on enrichment as well as research and development at other facilities, officials have told the AP.

The conflict in Yemen is likely to raise new difficulties for the nuclear diplomacy, although a State Department spokesperson said the situation in Yemen “is not having an impact” on the talks. [Wall Street Journal’s Laurence Norman and Jay Solomon]  The AP’s Bradley Klapper comments on the complicated U.S.-Iran relationship and how that is reflected in the administration’s Middle East policy.

Tehran’s non-disclosure of its previous weapons work despite assurances given to the International Atomic Energy Agency is a “reality check on Iran’s willingness to honor its promises,” warns the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

Senators unanimously approved an amendment yesterday that endorses Iran sanctions if the country violates the interim agreement or any comprehensive deal that is concluded. [The Hill’s Jordain Carney]  The measure has unanimous support because Republicans believe they finally have the support of Democrats for a sanctions bill, while Democrats view the language as offering the president enough negotiating space. [Politico’s Burgess Everett]

OBAMA’S MIDDLE EAST POLICY

The Wall Street Journal editorial board asks whether any policy has “ever been so thoroughly repudiated in so short a time” as President Obama’s strategy of reduced U.S. presence in the Middle East, arguing that the “vacuum he’s left has produced a region on fire that is becoming a broad Sunni-Shiite war.”

Recent developments in the Middle East amount “to a far cry from Obama’s optimistic vision” for America’s role in the region, and the president “looks poised” to leave an even more dangerous and unpredictable Middle East than the one he inherited in 2009, writes Michael Crowley. [Politico]

President Obama is “engaged in a juggling act,” trying to tackle the Iran nuclear negotiations, the situation in Yemen, and the fight against the Islamic State, “all without the kind of military presence or solid phalanx of loyal allies the U.S. once had at its disposal,” write Jay Solomon and Gerald F. Seib. [Wall Street Journal]

The administration finds itself trying to “sustain an ever-growing patchwork of strained alliances and multiple battlefields” in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, write Mark Mazzetti and David D. Kirkpatrick, adding that the “momentary clarity” of four years ago has been replaced with power vacuums. [New York Times]

ISRAEL and PALESTINE

The departing UN Middle East peace envoy has urged Security Council involvement in the peace process, but warned that “trust cannot be restored without the new Israeli government taking credible steps to freeze settlement activity.” [New York Times’ Somini Sengupta]

The breakdown of the Middle East peace process “was a long time in building,” argues the Washington Post editorial board, noting that President Obama’s effort to depict the Israeli leader “as a single-handed spoiler makes no sense.”

More Palestinian civilian lives were claimed in 2014 than any year since the 1967 war, according to the UN’s 2014 Humanitarian Overview report. [Al Jazeera]

SGT. BOWE BERGDAHL

The White House defended its prisoner swap to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a day after the Army announced its charges against him. Press secretary Josh Earnest told CNN that the president “will not allow a member of the United States armed forces to be left behind.”

The New York Times editorial board argues why Bergdahl should not be prosecuted, noting that “important questions” regarding why he was allowed into the Army and how the crisis could be avoided “should be addressed outside of a courtroom.”

Misbehavior before the enemy is a “rare and obscure charge;” Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Helene Cooper take a look at the ways in which Bergdahl could be found guilty of the misbehavior charge. [New York Times]

Exclusive footage of Bergdahl’s unit in Paktika province offers the last video of the soldier, just days before he walked away from his base in June 2009. [The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Pentagon envisions prosecuting up to seven more Guantanamo Bay detainees; of the 122 remaining captives at the prison, at most 17 could be accused of war crimes, reports Carol Rosenberg. [Miami Herald]

An Army National Guardsman has been arrested by federal authorities in Illinois on suspicion of trying to travel to Libya to join the Islamic State, and for helping his cousin plot an attack on a U.S. military base. [Justice Department; New York Times’ Michael S. Schmidt]

Sensitive U.S. military equipment ended up on eBay and Craigslist after the Pentagon lost track of equipment from a $750 million program to help American soldiers detect roadside bombs. [The Intercept’s Jana Winter and Sharon Weinberger]

New Zealand’s spy watchdog has launched an inquiry into the country’s surveillance program, following a series of reports from The Intercept and its partners. [The Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher]

The CIA and the FBI are both reorganizing in an effort to empower intelligence analysts, a move designed to respond to an evolving terrorist threat, cyberattacks and other challenges. [New York Times’ Scott Shane]

The Pakistani Taliban killed five police officers in a rocket attack in the southwestern Baluchistan province; the attack late Thursday targeted a vehicle carrying the officers. [AP]

The situation in Ukraine is likely to escalate, according to the predictions of Western diplomats and analysts, with unrest in cities such as Mariupol and further advances by Russian-backed rebels expected. [New York Times’ Steven Erlanger]  A year into the conflict with Moscow, Michael Birnbaum questions whether Western sanctions are having their intended effect [Washington Post].

British Muslim scholars and imans have launched a new online magazine; Haqiqah – or “the reality” – has been created with the aim of “reclaiming the internet from extremists” in a direct response to groups like the Islamic State. [BBC]

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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