News Roundup and Notes: March 30, 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

Arab nations form joint-military force. With Yemen “on the brink of the abyss,” Arab states agreed to assemble a unified military force at an Arab League summit in Egypt’s Sharm al-Sheikh on Sunday. The force—involving 40,000 personnel and based out of Cairo or Riyadh—would be deployed to counter threats anywhere in the region from Libya to Yemen. The primary aims include countering Iranian influence and Islamist extremism, and follows the start of a significant Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, supported by many of the states present at the summit. [The Guardian’s Martin Chulov; New York Times’ David D. Kirkpatrick]

The creation of the joint-force has been described as “a defining moment for the Saudis” by analysts, as it has long been an ambition of the Arab League but has until now proven unattainable. [LA Times’ Christina Boyle and Zaid al-Alayaa]

Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said the offensive into Yemen will continue until the Houthi rebel force “withdraws and surrenders its weapons,” speaking on Sunday. [AFP]

Warplanes hit Sana’a overnight and this morning, the fifth day of a Saudi-led campaign against Houthi rebels opposed to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The Houthi controlled Health Ministry said yesterday that strikes killed 35 people and wounded 88 overnight on Saturday. [Reuters]  Houthis are continuing their push south despite the strikes, with reports of fierce fighting in Aden; nearly 100 people are said to have been killed during fighting there in recent days. [Al Jazeera]

Strikes over the weekend targeted military bases, crippling the air force and reportedly leaving Houthis without any planes and without command and control around the air bases. [Wall Street Journal’s Hakim Almasmari and Maria Abi-Habib]

Ishaan Tharoor explains that “Yemen was once Egypt’s Vietnam,” entering into a “long, costly quagmire” there in the 1960s, noting that the possibility of Egyptian ground troops once again would have that country “treading on terrain haunted by the past.” [Washington Post]

IRAN NUCLEAR TALKS

Negotiations have resumed in Lausanne, ahead of Tuesday’s deadline for a framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran and the P5+1 are intensifying talks in an effort to end the deadlock after almost 18 months of negotiations. [BBC]

Iran has backed away from a key element of a proposed deal, saying it is no longer willing to export enriched uranium stocks, but Western officials maintain they have other means of dealing with the issue. [New York Times’ David E. Sanger and Michael R. Gordon]

The White House is bolstering its campaign to win support for a nuclear deal, most notably by indicating a willingness to accept legislation that would allow some congressional oversight of an agreement with Tehran. [Wall Street Journal’s Carol E. Lee and Jay Solomon]

A nuclear deal is “doable,” Iran’s chief negotiator said yesterday, and added that “all” sanctions would have to be lifted “under a precise program” under a potential accord. [AFP]  The foreign ministers involved in the talks expressed cautious optimism after yesterday’s discussions, while acknowledging the possibility of further difficulties. [Al Jazeera]

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest expressed optimism over reaching an agreement by the March 31 deadline, but said it is ultimately “time for the Iranians to send a clear signal to the international community” about their willingness to “make the serious commitments required.” [ABC’s “This Week”]  Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner pledged fresh sanctions targeting Iran if the administration failed to conclude an agreement with Iran, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ramped up his warnings against a deal, stating that it “paves Iran’s way to the bomb,” even as “Iran progress[es] with its aggression to conquer Yemen.” Netanyahu also expressed his apprehensions directly to U.S. Senate leaders over the weekend. [Politico’s Burgess Everett]

Iran’s slow economy could entice Tehran’s leaders to reach compromise on a nuclear accord, which would bring an end to the international sanctions regime. [Washington Post’s Steven Mufson]

Does Iran have a secret nuclear program in North Korea? Gordon G. Chang explores the implications of a weapons program outside Iran’s borders for the monitoring of any final deal with Tehran. [The Daily Beast]

Six key areas of concern are being watched closely by negotiators and critics; Politico’s Michael Crowley outlines the core issues in the potential deal. The Hill’s Jordan Fabian also takes a closer look at some of the key issues that could unravel a nuclear deal.

IRAQ and SYRIA

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s appearance on CBS’s “60 Minutes” aired yesterday. Assad stated that despite U.S. airstrikes targeting ISIS in Syria, the group has in fact expanded since the beginning of the campaign, gaining higher levels of recruits. The Syrian president also dismissed claims that his regime is using chlorine gas and barrel bombs, describing reports as “malicious propaganda.”

Russia is supplying weapons to Damascus under contracts signed since 2011 when the Syrian conflict began, President Assad told a Russian government newspaper in an interview published today. The remarks contradict statements by Moscow which indicated that any Russian arms supplied to Syria were provided under contracts agreed before the start of the conflict. [Reuters]

Turkey has taken steps to close all border gates with Syria, shutting out refugees amid concerns of a potential terrorist attack. [New York Times’ Ceylan Yeginsu and Karam Shoumali]

Iraqi forces have warned that the battle to retake Tikrit will take time, as both the city and surrounding areas are “littered with bombs and booby-traps.” [Al Jazeera]  Loveday Morris discusses the gamble being made by Iraqi forces in calling in U.S. airstrikes, as Shi’ite militia draw back from the fight, “drastically” reducing the manpower of pro-government forces. [Washington Post]  Matt Bradley and Raja Abdulrahim provide further details of the situation on the ground with Shi’ite militia forces, emphasizing the importance of an “effective ground force.” [Wall Street Journal]

UN Secretary General Bank Ki-moon will meet with Iraqi leaders today in Baghdad to discuss political and security developments in the country. [Reuters]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Former Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. Gen Michael Flynn described as “willful ignorance” the president’s Middle East policy, calling for a clearer strategy to deal with emerging conflicts in the region on “Fox News Sunday.”  Joe Scarborough questions how U.S. foreign policy has ended up in such “disarray,” considering the events leading up to the current situation and arguing that “Bush and Obama were both clearly overmatched by the events of their day.” [Politico]

The chief suspect in the Tunis museum attacks has been killed in antiterrorist operations, the Tunisian prime minister said yesterday. Khaled Chaieb–a prominent member of al-Qaeda’s North African branch–was reportedly killed close to the Algerian border overnight on Saturday. [AP]

The administration believes it is up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to mend the rift between the two leaders, a rift which White House officials insist is only about the peace process, as opposed to the larger commitment to Israel, reports Edward-Isaac Dovere. [Politico]

The New York Times editorial board explores Afghanistan’s next chapter, in light of President Obama’s decision to slow the withdrawal of troops through 2015, noting that President Ashraf Ghani has “big visions” which are “still based mostly on hope.”

One Ukrainian soldier was killed and three wounded over the past 24 hours in clashes between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists, according to the Kiev military. [Reuters]

Boko Haram’s strong base in Gwoza has reportedly been recaptured by the Nigerian military, but local residents are concerned that the military is not being completely honest about its claims and the jihadist group may not remain gone for long. [The Daily Beast’s Philip Obaji Jr.]

More than 500 American troops are touring across six European countries, in an operation known as Operation Dragoon Ride, with the aim of reassuring U.S. allies that the American military presence is “more than a rumor,” writes Rick Lyman. [New York Times]

Defense Secretary Ash Carter is looking at easing some military enlistment standards as part of a wider effort to attract and hold onto quality individuals across the Department of Defense. [AP’s Lolita C. Baldor]

Intelligence Squared is holding a debate in partnership with the National Constitutional Center and Columbia Law School. The motion is “The President Has Exceeded His Constitutional Authority by Waging War Without Congressional Authorization,” and will take place on Tues, March 31 at 6.45pm at Columbia University. More information available here.

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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