News Roundup and Notes: October 22, 2013

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.

Drones

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have released reports on U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, respectively. [ICYMI, Just Security’s Sarah Knuckey’s post this morning provides a guide to the key issues in the reports.]

Amnesty International expresses concern that CIA drone strikes in Pakistan “have resulted in unlawful killings that may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes.” Human Rights Watch also finds that at least two of the six unacknowledged U.S. military attacks in Yemen “were in clear violation of international humanitarian law… because they struck only civilians or used indiscriminate weapons. The other four cases may have violated the laws of war because the individual attacked was not a lawful military target or the attack caused disproportionate civilian harm.”

Both reports call for U.S. practice to fall in line with international law as well as greater accountability, transparency, and investigation into civilian deaths. The New York Times (Declan Walsh and Ihsanullah Mehsud), Wall Street Journal (Siobhan Gorman), and Washington Post (Craig Whitlock) have more on the reports.

Meanwhile, The Economist reports that “a surprising number of Pakistanis are in favour of drone strikes,” although many view the strikes “as an abuse of sovereignty, a symbol of American arrogance and the cause of civilian deaths.”

Syria

The U.K. is hosting the “London 11” – the so-called Friends of Syria core group – later today, in an effort to lay the groundwork for the peace negotiations in Geneva next month [BBC]. Ahead of the meeting, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague has said that it is crucial to bolster Syria’s moderate opposition “because if they don’t have a role, then all the Syrian people have got left is a choice between Assad and extremists.”

A senior State Department official also said that the emergence of the al-Qaeda linked rebel group in Syria has complicated the chances of negotiating an end to the country’s conflict [New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon and Ben Hubbard]. The official claimed that the rebel group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,

…are in fact doing the regime’s work of limiting the advance of the moderate opposition and forcing it to divert attention and resources from the battle lines elsewhere. That has to give the regime comfort and confidence, and it will make the task of extracting concessions from the regime at the negotiating table more difficult.

The Associated Press also covers the concern of U.S. diplomats and foreign officials that the “fractured opposition” has strengthened Assad’s position.

The EU foreign ministers issued a statement yesterday, also criticizing the extremist groups in Syria [Wall Street Journal’s Naftali Bendavid]:

The EU is seriously concerned with the growing involvement of extremist and foreign nonstate actors in the fighting in Syria, which is further fueling the conflict and posing a threat to regional stability…The EU calls on all relevant parties to halt support to these groups.

Secretary of State John Kerry stated yesterday that it was for the UN and the Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to announce the date for Geneva 2, and declined to confirm the November 23 date mentioned by other officials.

In an interview with Lebanese Al Mayadeen TV, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also said a date for Geneva 2 has “not been officially set” [Reuters’ Deborah Lutterbeck]. He cast doubts over the peace process, stating that “factors are not yet in place” [Al Jazeera]. And in a worrying statement for the West, Assad claimed he saw no obstacle in running for re-election next year.

Speaking at a press conference in Paris yesterday, John Kerry said that he does not see Iran playing a constructive role in Syrian peace talks as “Iran has not accepted the implementation of Geneva 1” [Reuters’ Deborah Lutterbeck].

According to the latest mission update from the OPCW-UN Joint Mission team, inspections have now been carried out at 17 sites. “At 14 sites the inspectors carried out activities related to the destruction of critical equipment to make the facilities inoperable.”

The Wall Street Journal (Kjetil Malkenes Hovland) reports that Norway is considering a UN request to help destroy Syria’s chemical weapons components. The U.S. has offered the use of its mobile destruction units, since Norway does not have its own facilities.

The State Department has confirmed that the U.S. has provided “ten armored vehicles to the United Nations to support UN and OPCW efforts to verify and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons,” spending $1.55 million from the Department’s Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund.

Reuters’ Peter Apps notes that even without chemical weapons, Syria’s powerful conventional weapons arsenal is “fearsome.”

Meanwhile, the head of the Kurdish rebel group, Kurdistan Workers Party has claimed that Turkey is waging a proxy war against his group in Syria by assisting Islamist rebels fighting the Kurdish group [Reuters’ Isabel Coles]. While Turkey denies these claims, the group has threatened to retaliate.

Surveillance

President Obama spoke with French President Francois Hollande by phone yesterday, following revelations of NSA spying on France, according to a White House statement [The Hill’s Rebecca Shabad]. The statement claimed that some of the recent disclosures “have distorted our activities,” while some “raise legitimate questions for our friends and allies about how these capabilities are employed.”

At a news conference in Paris yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated that “Our goal is always to try to find the right balance between protecting the security and the privacy of our citizens” [Washington Post’s Anne Gearan]. While stressing the U.S.’s close relationship with France, he said that “Lots of countries are engaged in the activity of trying to protect their citizens and the world.”

A statement from Hollande’s office yesterday said he expressed “deep disapproval of these practices, which are unacceptable between friends and allies because they infringe on the privacy of French citizens” [France 24]. And in a meeting earlier this morning, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reiterated to John Kerry that France wanted an “explanation” for the latest claims.

Bruce Schneier writes in The Atlantic that the U.S. intelligence community argument that collecting data does not constitute surveillance until someone looks at the data is “deeply flawed.” Given that we know “the NSA passes data to the DEA and IRS with instructions to lie about its origins in court,” Schneier argues that it “doesn’t make sense to build systems that could facilitate a future police state.”

At the EU yesterday, members of the European Parliament’s civil liberties and justice committee overwhelmingly voted in favor of the draft data privacy rules, which would limit the transfer of data to U.S. corporations [The Guardian’s Ian Traynor]. The draft provides a framework for further negotiations with the governments of the EU.

Saudi Arabia

The Wall Street Journal (Ellen Knickmeyer) reports that Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief told European diplomats this weekend that the decision to turn down UN Security Council membership “was a message for the U.S., not the U.N.” In response, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to ease tensions with Saudi Arabia yesterday, reports Reuters (Arshad Mohammed and Sylvia Westall). According to U.S. officials, the two countries share the goals of a nuclear-free Iran, an end to the Syrian conflict and a stable Egypt.

Asharq Al-Awsat notes that in a bid to strengthen relations between Washington and Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Department of Defense has formally notified Congress of its intention to sell the countries military equipment worth $10.8 billion.

The Economist covers some of the rumored explanations for Saudi Arabia’s decision to turn down Security Council membership, including a long-standing preference for “closed-doors diplomacy” or “an opening gambit in a strategy to secure a Security Council presence for the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.”

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record came under fire yesterday before the Universal Periodic Review Working Group of the UN Human Rights Council [Al Jazeera America’s Michael Pizzi].

Iran

Speaking at a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani claimed that Israel was trying to “ruin the positive atmosphere” surrounding negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, according to Iranian press [Asharq Al-Awsat].

And in an interview with France 24 yesterday, Israeli President Shimon Peres cautioned against lifting economic sanctions against Iran and stated he was not optimistic about a deal on the nuclear issue “because there’s still a distance between the two positions.”

Other developments

The New York Times’ Thom Shanker reports that senior Defense Department officials “have been accelerating a dialogue with China, carried out through personal visits with Chinese counterparts to establish and strengthen military-to-military relationships.”

The Washington Post editorial board notes that the “gap between Pakistan and American ambitions for the country may be narrowing,” but argues that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif “must cope with powerful public hostility toward the United States as well as with military factions that continue to encourage Afghan and Kashmiri jihadists.”

The Washington Post (Abigail Hauslohner and Erin Cunningham) notes that jihadist group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has claimed responsibility for the weekend bombing in Egypt’s Ismailia, “underscoring the growing threat posed by Islamist extremists in Egypt.”

The BBC reports that China is set to defend its human rights record before the Universal Periodic Review Working Group of the UN Human Rights Council for the first time since President Xi Jinping assumed office.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Spain had unlawfully postponed the release of a convicted Basque terrorist, under a new approach that was adopted after the individual had been sentenced [Wall Street Journal’s David Román and Matt Moffett]. The decision “could clear the way for the release of dozens of other Spaniards jailed for serious crimes.”

The Wall Street Journal (Gregory White and Paul Sonne) reports that a suspected Islamist terrorist blew herself up yesterday in the Russian city of Volgograd, killing six others.

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

Former Associate Editor at Just Security Follow her on Twitter (@RParekh88).