News Roundup and Notes: February 4, 2016

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

Syria peace talks. The UN has temporarily suspended negotiations intended at finding a political solution to the civil conflict, special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura announced, saying that: [New York Times’ Nick Cumming-Bruce and Somini Sengupta]

“I have concluded, frankly, that after the first week of preparatory talks there is more work to be done, not only by us but by the stakeholders.”

The “temporary pause” in the talks will continue until at least February 25. The need for the delay arose due to differences between the Assad regime and the opposition over the priority of humanitarian issues, the Syrian government expressing the need for some procedural issues to be resolved first. [UN News Centre]

The State Department said that the suspension is “in part” the result of ongoing Russian airstrikes around Aleppo, spokesperson John Kirby observing that it is:

“difficult in the extreme to see how strikes against civilian targets contribute in any way to the peace process now being explored.”

A senior UN official confirmed this interpretation, saying that Mr de Mistura had suspended the talks because the Russian airstrikes were undermining the negotiating process. [Reuters]

The Syrian military expects to completely encircle Aleppo soon, a source said today, as the army pushes forward with the offensive that saw the rebels’ most important supply route from Turkey cut off. [Reuters]

Moscow is confident that its campaign in Syria is “paying off,” reports Andrew Roth, citing analysts and Russian officials who say that Russia believes it has achieved a great amount at a relatively low cost. [Washington Post]

A Russian officer has been killed in Syria, the Kremlin confirmed today. It is the first time that Moscow has admitted to the death of one of its service members on the ground in that country since it began its intervention four months ago. [Financial Times’ Erika Solomon and Kathrin Hille]

Global leaders will convene in London today for a donor conference aimed at raising $9bn for those impacted by the war in Syria. Some 70 leaders are expected to attend the conference which will be hosted under tight security near the British Parliament. [AP; BBC]  The UK will commit £1.2bn ($1.75bn) in humanitarian aid to Syria over the next four years, a doubling of its existing commitment. [Wall Street Journal’s Nicholas Winning]  In an op-ed on the Guardian, UK Prime Minister David Cameron describes the donor conference as a “radical attempt to refocus the efforts of the international community on saving lives in Syria, and preventing refugees from risking their lives in despair.”  Live updates are available here.

Iraq is attempting to pull ISIS offline, urging satellite firms to stop providing Internet services to areas under the control of the militant group. [Reuters]

The Iraqi government has begun construction of a wall and a trench surrounding Baghdad, an attempt to prevent militant attacks and reduce the need for such a high number of checkpoints around the city, the Interior Ministry saying that building began this week. [AP]

New drone footage by a Russian cameraman shows the virtual destruction of Homs, Syria. The “images evoke scenes from a post-apocalyptic video game,” reports Mike McPhate. [New York Times]

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition military forces carried out 11 strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Feb. 2. Separately, partner forces conducted a further 20 strikes on targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

SURVEILLANCE, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

The White House is committed to preventing “controversial proposals” concerning the sale of spy software from impacting the legitimate use of cybersecurity tools, according to a letter from the National Security Council. [Motherboard]

American investigators have uncovered evidence confirming what is thought to have been an unprecedented cyberwarfare attack on a power grid which resulted in a loss of power for hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in December. While there are indications that Russia was behind the attack, the US is not in a position to attribute it to the government. [CNN’s Evan Perez]

Google is piloting a program in which anti-extremism messages from non-governmental organizations pop up in AdWords slots, it was revealed by Dr Anthony House, the head of public policy strategy for Google in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. [NBC News’ Matthew Deluca]

Skeptics of the new “Safe Harbor” deal say final judgment should be held back until the agreement is formally put to paper, which could take weeks or even months, reports Jenna McLaughlin. [The Intercept]

ISRAEL and PALESTINE

An Israeli border policewoman was killed and another seriously injured during a shooting and stabbing attack in East Jerusalem yesterday. Three Palestinian attackers were shot dead by police. [Haaretz’s Nir Hasson et al]

The attackers were found to be carrying explosives and had intended to carry out a larger scale attack, Israeli authorities said. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. [Wall Street Journal’s Rory Jones]

LIBYA

A factious Libya is struggling to effectively tackle militant attacks from the Islamic State, report Benoît Faucon and Tamer El-Ghobashy, adding to the significance of the work towards a national unity government for the country. [Wall Street Journal]

Top commanders from the Islamic State are “taking refuge” in Libya, according to a senior Libyan intelligence official. [BBC]

“Control and crucifixions.” The BBC’s Dominic Bailey and Abdirahim Saeed provide a comprehensive insight into life under the Islamic State in Libya.

“A tough call on Libya that still haunts.” Kevin Sullivan reflects on former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s decision to bomb Libya, a decision described as “smart power” by the Democratic presidential candidate, but criticized as a failure to learn from Iraq by opponents. [Washington Post]

JULIAN ASSANGE INVESTIGATION

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been “arbitrarily detained,” the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has concluded. Assange, who was granted asylum by Ecuador in 2012 after the UK Supreme Court held that his extradition to Sweden to face prosecution for sexual assault could go ahead, and who has been residing in the country’s embassy in London, had been prepared to leave the embassy and face arrest if the UN found against him. [BBC; Reuters]

Assange has remained in the embassy over fears that, if arrested, he would be extradited to the US to face charges over the publication of the Afghan war diary and US diplomatic cables. [The Guardian’s Liam Stack]

IRAN

A former BBC journalist was arrested in Iran yesterday, according to activists outside the country. Dual British-Iranian citizen, Bahman Daroshafaei was taken into custody for undisclosed reasons in Tehran. [New York Times’ Rick Gladstone]

“Of all Iranian entities still under US sanctions, Mahan is arguably the most significant.” Emanuele Ottolenghi comments on the Iranian passenger airline which is regularly relied on by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who use it to transfer weapons and personnel to Syria. [Wall Street Journal]

RUSSIA

If Russia decided to invade the Baltic States “NATO forces would be overrun in under three days,” notes Dan De Luce, citing research by the Rand Corp.

The New York Times editorial board comments on the Pentagon’s decision to put Russia as its top threat to national security, opining that the decision to quadruple military spending in Europe in 2017 “seems excessive and raises questions about whether other immediate threats, like the Islamic State, are getting short shrift.”

NORTH KOREA

“Activity” has been spotted at a North Korean missile launch station, South Korea’s defense ministry and Japanese media reported. [BBC; Reuters]  According to Japan’s news broadcaster, NHK, a mobile missile launcher was moving and carrying a ballistic missile, though these specifics were not confirmed by South Korea. [Al Jazeera]  A US website, 38 North, has captured satellite images of the launch station showing an increased number of vehicles around the building where rockets are assembled. [New York Times’ Choe Sang-Hun]

The Senate will vote next week on legislation to impose sanctions on those involved with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and other activities. The legislation, proposed by Sens Bob Corker and Ben Cardin, is a “very important piece of legislation” that the whole Senate is expected to vote on and pass. [The Hill’s Jordain Carney]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos is meeting with President Obama today in order to: “say thank you, to the American people, to the American government” on the 15th anniversary of “Plan Colombia.” [Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung]  They will also discuss plans to boost aid to Colombia, as the long-awaited peace agreement with leftist FARC rebels is implemented. [Financial Times’ Andres Schipani and Geoff Dyer]

A twenty-one year old man has pleaded guilty to plotting to explode a car bomb on a military base. Justice Department Assistant Attorney General for National Security, John Carlin, stated that the man “admitted that he intended to kill US military personnel on American soil in the name of ISIL [Islamic State].” [NBC News’ Phil Helsel]

The Saudi-led military coalition has bombed a factory north of Sana’a, killing 15 people, including civilians. [New York Times’ Shuaib Almosawa and Kareem Fahim]

Police in Berlin, Germany have arrested three Algerian nationals on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks. The two men and one woman are believed to have links to Islamic State, and are three of four individuals being investigated by German authorities. [AP]

France has extended its state of emergency for a further three months. The state of emergency was declared the day after the Paris attacks on November 13 last year, and gives increased power to French authorities to carry out raids and impose house arrest without judicial authorization. [New York Times’ Aurelien Breeden]

“One American family.” President Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore on Wednesday to deliver a speech in praise of US Muslims and to call for a rejection of “a politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias.” [New York Times’ Gardiner Harris]

US officials have said that the explosion on board a plane in Somalia was likely caused by a bomb, though there is no evidence to confirm this. One person was killed in the explosion, feared to have been orchestrated by Al-Shabaab. [New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman; Wall Street Journal’s Heidi Vogt]

A missing student’s body has been discovered in Egypt, bearing signs of torture. The Cambridge University student went missing in Cairo on the anniversary of the Arab Spring, January 25. Authorities have launched an investigation. [Reuters]

The terrorist threat in Europe is “as high as it’s ever been,” a US official has stated. Latest estimates indicate that almost 2000 individuals have returned home having traveled to join Islamic State and other militant Islamist groups. [CNN’s Barbara Starr]

The beginning of “a tide of violence that has left thousands of people dead.” Andrew Walker traces the origins of the war between Boko Haram and the Nigerian state. [The Guardian]

 “Fighting not over territory but on behalf of God.” Mustafa Akyol examines the coalescence of politics and religion in international conflicts which “poisons” Islam, sidelining the religion’s “emphasis on humility and compassion.” [New York Times]

Pressure groups in New Hampshire are working with a television news network to urge presidential candidates to take a more “aggressive” position on military intervention. Groups such as Americans for Peace, Prosperity and Security are working with the network, which is owned by a former Republican candidate for Senate. [The Intercept’s Lee Fang] 

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About the Author(s)

Nadia O'Mara

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security