News Roundup and Notes: May 8, 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

U.S. Special Ops forces have begun training Syrian opposition rebels in Jordan, the aim being to create a politically moderate and militarily competent force capable of tackling the Islamic State. [New York Times’ Matthew Rosenberg]  Defense Secretary Ash Carter made the announcement yesterday that 90 fighters from Syrian forces will take part in the first program. The small group will be paid a stipend and provided some support upon returning to the battlefield. [DoD News]

Interventionist lawmakers criticized the program as inadequate, Sen. John McCain expressing no confidence “whatsoever” in the training process. Sen. Lindsey Graham described it as “fatally flawed,” highlighting the challenge in isolating the Islamic State as the only permissible target. [The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs and Sabrina Siddiqui]

Clashes around an Iraqi oil refinery at Baiji are ongoing, the Islamic State launching a fresh offensive to gain control of the complex early yesterday. Control of the refinery is considered a critical step toward reclaiming the militant’s stronghold at Mosul. [Al Jazeera]

Defense Secretary Ash Carter criticized congressional efforts to directly arm Iraqi Kurds and Sunni tribal fighters in the battle against the Islamic State, emphasizing the importance of a unified Iraq. [The Hill’s Kristina Wong]

An AUMF against the Islamic State would not “change one iota of activities on the ground,” said Sen. Bob Corker yesterday, acknowledging the uphill battle to draft legislation satisfactory to lawmakers on both sides as well as the Obama administration, reports Jordain Carney. [The Hill]  Other lawmakers criticized the delay, with Sen. Tim Kaine describing the time lag between military action and authorization as creating a “horrible precedent.” [Buzzfeed News’ Kate Nocera]

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are moving forward with a joint strategy to topple the Assad regime in Syria, the “strategic alliance” arising out of mutual frustration with “American indecision,” writes Desmond Butler. [AP]

New suspected chemical weapon attacks were reported in Syria’s Idlib province yesterday by local activists and a medical professional; several dozen people are said to have suffered from asphyxiation. [AP’s Sarah El Deeb]

Three fighters from Hezbollah have been killed in border clashes with Islamist militants along the Syria-Lebanon frontier this week. [AP]

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. The U.S. and coalition military forces carried out four airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between 8am May 6 and 8am May 7. Separately, military forces conducted a further 14 strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

YEMEN

Saudi Arabia has proposed a five-day humanitarian pause in hostilities in Yemen, contingent upon Houthi rebels’ acceptance of the deal. The Saudi foreign minister made the announcement at a news conference with Secretary of State John Kerry in Riyadh yesterday. The ceasefire would apply to the whole country. [Wall Street Journal’s Ahmed Al Omran and Hakim Almasmari]

A U.S. drone strike has killed Nasser al-Ansi, a top AQAP militant who featured in a video claiming responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris earlier this year. Site Intelligence cites a statement from the group saying Ansi was killed last month; there has been no U.S. confirmation. [BBC]

The coalition promised a “harsh response” to cross-border shelling this week which the Saudi’s blame on Houthi rebels. A Saudi defense spokesman said the rebel group has “crossed the red line” and would be dealt with differently from this point on. [Al Arabiya News]

Saudi-led forces carried out a number of airstrikes in Saada province yesterday; the area is a Houthi stronghold. [Reuters]

SURVEILLANCE, TECHNOLOGY, and PRIVACY

A federal appeals court has ruled that the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone metadata is not authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The three judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York chose not to order the end of the NSA program, allowing Congress an opportunity to debate the issue ahead of the June 1 sunset of Section 215. The court did not address the constitutional question, including whether the program violated the Fourth Amendment. [New York Times’ Charlie Savage and Jonathan Weisman; Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima]  The Wall Street Journal’s Ashby Jones offers five takeaways on the NSA ruling.

The decision is impacting the “already rancorous debate” among lawmakers over NSA reform. Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid exchanged heated words following the ruling, and remained divided on extending or reforming the Patriot Act provisions. [Politico’s Alex Byers and Kate Tummarello]  The decision also highlighted the sharp differences between the Republican presidential candidates on the issue, reports Lesley Clark. [McClatchy DC]  And Hillary Clinton has ended her silence on the NSA’s practices, expressing support for the passage of the reform bill, the USA Freedom Act. [The Hill’s Julian Hattem]

The ruling is “the most important rebuke yet of the government’s abuses” under the Patriot Act, writes the New York Times editorial board.  Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal editorial board calls it “vainglorious judging,” explaining what the Second Circuit gets wrong.

The decision is being viewed as vindicating Edward Snowden by those in support of the former NSA agent, who argue he was right to disclose the NSA’s surveillance practices. [Politico’s Nahal Toosi and Josh Gerstein]

Germany has reduced its intelligence sharing with the U.S., following reports that intelligence services assisted the NSA in spying on European allies, according to German officials. [Wall Street Journal’s Anton Troianovski]

IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL

The Senate easily passed an Iran bill that would allow congressional review of a final nuclear deal with Tehran, with the 98-1 vote preserving the bipartisan compromise that was being threatened by GOP amendments earlier in the week.  [Politico’s Burgess Everett]

A majority of House Democrats are supporting the nuclear diplomacy; 150 Democratic lawmakers have written to President Obama urging him to “exhaust every avenue” in his diplomatic efforts with Tehran.  [The Hill’s Mike Lillis]

Saudi Arabia is weighing developing nuclear weapons to match Iran’s ambitions, which is likely to trigger a dangerous arms race in the “world’s most volatile region,” writes Yaroslav Trofimov. [Wall Street Journal]

GUANTANAMO BAY

Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr has been released on bail by an appeal court in Alberta, Canada. The Canadian government vigorously protested a lower court’s decision to grant bail to Khadr—a former child solider captured in Afghanistan in 2002—while he appeals his conviction by a U.S. military tribunal. [New York Times’ Ian Austen]

Khadr is an “extreme case study in modern military justice,” his confession reportedly extracted following torture, and his initial capture taking place at such a young age, writes Joseph Brean. [National Post]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

France has launched a formal criminal investigation into allegations of sexual assault on children by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. [The Guardian’s Kim Willsher and Sandra Laville]  French prosecutors said the UN stalled an investigation into the allegations, refusing to make an employee available for questioning due to immunity considerations. [Wall Street Journal’s Nadya Masidlover and Joe Lauria]

FBI agents were aware that one of the gunmen in this weekend’s Texas attack had expressed interest in going to the Muhammad drawings contest, though there was no intelligence indicating he was planning an attack. [Washington Post’s Adam Goldman]

Reforms aimed at protecting service members from sexual assault are “clearly not sufficient,” writes the Washington Post editorial board, expressing hope that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s efforts to “correct a major defect in how these crimes are investigated … gains traction in Congress.”

Two New York women pleaded not guilty to terrorism related charges yesterday in a Brooklyn federal court. The women were arrested last month on a charge of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction. [Reuters’ Nate Raymond]

North Korea has expanded its nuclear arsenal considerably over recent years, while all eyes have been on Iran’s nuclear program. David E. Sanger explores the current situation and potential threat posed. [New York Times]  North Korea warned of “unannounced targeted strikes” against the South’s navy today, accusing South Korea of violating its territorial waters. [Reuters]

The killing never stopped on the front lines of the Ukrainian conflict, regardless of the Minsk agreement, writes Anna Nemtsova, noting the shortage of weapons and transport within Ukrainian units. [The Daily Beast]  Two Americans, Michael Pillsbury and Gordon Humphrey, are using their “Cold War playbook” to try and secure U.S. military support to counter Russian advances in Ukraine. Adam Entous provides more details. [Wall Street Journal]

Mali’s Tuareg separatist rebels have escalated violent attacks in the country, a possible attempt to gain ground ahead of signing a peace agreement on May 15. [AP’s Carley Petesch]

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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