News Roundup and Notes: April 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. 

IRAQ and SYRIA

A suspected chemical attack in the Syrian province of Idlib was reported yesterday by activist groups; the Syrian Network for Human Rights tweeted that a dozen people were “suffocating,” though the reports could not be independently verified. [AP’s Cara Anna and Zeina Karam]

Iraq is prepared to deploy Iran-backed Shi’ite militias to fight the Islamic State in Sunni tribal areas west of Baghdad, a move which may be necessary to defeat the group but which could spark further sectarian violence. [Reuters]

The U.S.-led coalition is debating whether to expand the fight against the Islamic State as the group deepens its efforts to establish a presence beyond Iraq and Syria. [New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt]

American allies in the Middle East are ramping up support for Syrian rebels fighting against government forces, a potential gap in strategy between the Obama administration and its coalition partners, report Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly. [Washington Post]

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition military forces carried out eight airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between 8am April 28 and 8am April 29. Separately, military forces conducted a further 16 strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

Overland trade from Jordan has significantly diminished due to recent militant attacks along the country’s frontiers with Syria and Iraq. [AP]

IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL

Senators rejected an amendment to the Iran bill requiring a final accord to be tied to Tehran’s support of terrorism. [The Hill’s Jordain Carney]  Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio is refusing to back away from his proposed amendments to the bill, which include requiring Tehran to recognize Israel’s statehood. [Politico’s Burgess Everett]

The U.S. “will risk isolating itself” globally if it seeks to nullify a comprehensive nuclear deal, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said yesterday, adding that the U.S. is “bound by international law, whether some senators like it or not.” [Washington Post’s Carol Morello]  Sen. Tom Cotton took to Twitter to challenge Zarif to a public debate, after the foreign minister referenced the U.S. senator during his speech. [The Hill’s Mark Hensch]

The U.K. has told a UN sanctions panel about an “active Iranian nuclear procurement network” linked to two firms under sanctions, according to a confidential report of the panel. [Reuters’ Louis Charbonneau] 

Iranian officials tried to downplay the seizure of the cargo ship on Tuesday, saying that the Marshall Islands-flagged vessel was owned by a defendant in a civil legal case in Iran. [New York Times’ Rick Gladstone]  Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said yesterday that he did not expect the recent naval moves by Iran to influence the Iran bill allowing congressional review of a final nuclear deal. [The Hill’s Jordain Carney]

Tehran “must pay a price” for imprisoning reporter Jason Rezaian, writes the Washington Post editorial board, noting that the case is a “showcase for Iran’s ruthless internal power struggles and the politicization of its judicial system.”

YEMEN

Besieged Yemeni port city, Aden, has seen its worst fighting yet as Saudi-led coalition airstrikes and artillery fire shook the city, and fighters on both sides fought for control of the main airport. [Reuters]

Saudi royal shakeup. The Saudi king’s reshuffling of power has promoted his son to second in line to the throne. Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the “face of the Yemen war,” and the shakeup comes as Salman “pursues the most assertive foreign policy in recent Saudi history,” writes Bruce Riedel. [The Daily Beast] Nahal Toosi reports that the elevation of Salman, little known to U.S. officials, “injects an unpredictable element” into an already strained relationship. [Politico]

U.S. HOSTAGE POLICY

The FBI helped facilitate a ransom payment to al-Qaeda in 2012 from the family of kidnapped aid worker Warren Weinstein, in an unsuccessful attempt to secure his release, according to senior U.S. officials. Weinstein was killed in a U.S. drone strike in January. [Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous and Devlin Barrett]  The White House has repeatedly denied any government payment of ransoms, statements which are “at best, half truths,” writes Shane Harris, citing a veteran FBI hostage negotiator who says the agency has “always supported and assisted families with ransom payments.” [The Daily Beast]

AFGHANISTAN

U.S.-led coalition jets flew overhead Kunduz province in Afghanistan, where Afghan troops staged a ground offensive to push back Taliban insurgents yesterday. Afghan commandos were being advised by U.S. Special Operations forces, but the coalition said no bombs were dropped by the jets. [Wall Street Journal’s Margherita Stancati and Nathan Hodge]

Despite the conclusion of the combat mission, the U.S. military is heavily engaged in a range of operations against the Taliban. Regular airstrikes and Special Operations raids are continuing under the justification of “training and advising,” report Azam Ahmed and Joseph Goldstein. [New York Times]

SURVEILLANCE

British spy agency GCHQ must destroy legally privileged communication that was unlawfully collected from a Libyan who was subject to a joint U.K.-U.S. rendition operation in 2004, a U.K. tribunal has ruled. [The Guardian’s Alan Travis]

Germany’s intelligence agency assisted the NSA to spy on top French officials and others, including at the European Commission, according to German media. [France 24]

Ted Cruz is taking the middle ground on the issue of NSA surveillance, adopting a more moderate approach than fellow Republican candidate nominees, “hawkish Marco Rubio and the libertarian-leaning Rand Paul,” reports Manu Raju. [Politico]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The USS Cole death penalty trial judge has denied a defense counsel request for the full Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA torture program, saying that it is for the prosecutors to decide what the defense counsel are allowed to see. [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]

Critics of the investigation into the CIA torture program are “orchestrating a quiet campaign” to stall the nomination of Alissa Starzak as general counsel to the Army. Starzak played a “critical and controversial role” as lead investigator for the Senate report. [Huffington Post’s Ali Watkins]

Pakistan has dropped a case against a former CIA station chief and former agency lawyer regarding a 2009 drone strike that left two people dead. The case was dropped because the strike did not occur in the jurisdiction where the complaint was filed. [AP]

Jeff Prescott has taken over as the National Security Council senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and Gulf states. Prescott has served as Vice President Joe Biden’s deputy national security adviser since 2013. [Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen] 

France has confirmed an investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse by its troops during peacekeeping operations in the Central African Republic, allegations that came to light following the leak of a UN inquiry. [France 24’s Tony Todd]  The leak has sparked uproar, with the senior UN aid worker responsible for the disclosure being suspended. [The Guardian’s Sandra Laville]

The U.S. and others are asking France to delay its efforts to obtain a UN Security Council resolution on the Israel-Palestine issue, saying it would interfere with nuclear negotiations with Iran. [Haaretz’s Barak Ravid]

The U.S. has extended its emergency defense spending to assist France in the fight against terrorist groups in northwest Africa; Obama yesterday ordered the release of up to $35 million in defense services in Mali, Niger and Chad. [AP] France has committed to boost its military spending and will dedicate 7,000 soldiers to homeland security on a permanent basis to counter the country’s terror threat. [Wall Street Journal’s William Horobin]

Libya’s “fledgling” government has hired a top-end Washington PR firm to represent its interests in the U.S., despite the country’s status as a failed state with little financial means, reports Shane Harris. [The Daily Beast]  Ahmed Elumami discusses the chaos gripping Benghazi, a city divided into areas controlled by each of the rival governments as well as Islamist militants led by the group responsible for the 2012 U.S. embassy attack. [Reuters]

The Chibok schoolgirls were not among some 300 girls and women rescued by the Nigerian military from Boko Haram earlier this week. [Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff]

Satellite images indicate that a North Korean nuclear reactor may once again be in operation, albeit at low power or intermittently, U.S. experts said yesterday. [Reuters’ David Brunnstrom]

The International Rescue Committee office in eastern Ukraine has been shut down by pro-Russian rebels who accused the aid organization of spying. [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