News Roundup and Notes: February 16, 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

Two schools and five hospitals were hit by airstrikes in Aleppo and Idlib provinces yesterday. Up to 50 civilians were killed, including children. France and Russia have called the strikes “war crimes.” [Al Jazeera] Blaming the Assad regime and its allies, State Department spokesperson John Kirby said that the airstrikes, which targeted an MSF hospital in Azaz city among others, “fly in the face of the unanimous calls” for a ceasefire.

The airstrikes mark an intensification in fighting, which is “complicating the challenge of getting humanitarian aid” to civilians trapped in besieged areas. [Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher et al]

Kurdish fighters and Arab allies continued to push forward approaching Azaz, an important border town. Turkey continued to shell the Kurdish advancing forces, trying to avoid more Kurdish-controlled territory emerging along the border. [New York Times’ Anne Bernard] Martin Chulov comments that the Kurds have succeeded in carving “out a new reality in northern Syria,” at the Guardian.

UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura is in Damascus to discuss the implementation of a cessation in hostilities. [BBC]

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a statement yesterday saying that any ceasefire agreement “doesn’t mean that each party will stop using weapons,” but rather the purpose of a truce was to stop “terrorists from strengthening their positions” by gaining territory. [The Guardian’s Kareem Shaheen]

Iran won’t let a cessation of hostilities in Syria enable opposition to the Assad regime to “regroup,” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in Brussels yesterday. [Wall Street Journal’s Laurence Norman]

Presidents Obama and Putin agreed to intensify diplomatic efforts to bring about a ceasefire agreement and the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria, the Kremlin announced on Sunday. [Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung] During the phone call between the leaders, President Obama urged Putin to end Moscow’s air campaign against Syrian rebels, the White House said. [The Hill’s Bradford Richardson]

“If the Syria ceasefire fails, ISIS will be the least of the west’s problems,” cautions Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. [The Guardian]

Turkey has committed ground troops to the anti-Islamic State coalition in Syria, and will permit Saudi airstrike missions from its air bases, the country’s foreign minister said Sunday. [Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung] “Saudi troops to Syria? Whoa. Bad idea!” warns Alexander Decina at The Daily Beast.

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition military forces carried out four strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Feb. 14. Separately, partner forces conducted a further 14 airstrikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

The Islamic State used mustard gas against Kurdish opponents in Iraq last year, a diplomat has said, in light of tests conducted by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. [Reuters]

SURVEILLANCE, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY 

An Islamic State attack on US soil is “inevitable,” CIA Director John Brennan said on Sunday. He claimed that US intelligence has already prevented “numerous” attacks, but warned that those involved in potential attacks are able to “take advantage of the newly available means of communication that are – that are walled off from law enforcement officials,” in a reference to encryption technology. [The Hill’s Bradford Richardson]

The White House tried to dismiss suggestions that it is playing a “shell game” with a number of intelligence powers, Julian Hattem reports. [The Hill]

A British national has been arrested on suspicion of involvement with a hacking group responsible for breaking into the private email accounts of senior US intelligence officials; the 16 year old was arrested by UK authorities last week. [Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky and Ellen Nakashima]

The Federal Communications Commission is expected to put together regulations over the coming months on how broadband providers handle sensitive customer data. David McCabe provides the details. [The Hill]

GUANTÁNAMO BAY

Pre-trial hearings for those allegedly involved in the 9/11 attacks are due to resume today at Guantánamo Bay’s war court, Camp Justice. Items on the agenda include arguments over how prosecutors will provide pre-trial evidence in relation to the time the accused spent in CIA custody. [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]

After 15 years and repeated calls to close it, Guantánamo Bay is still open and still holds dozens of prisoners without charge. David Smith provides a summary of its history. [The Guardian]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Libya’s Presidential Council has announced the formation of a revised national unity government. The list of 13 ministers and 5 ministers of state was sent to Libya’s eastern parliament for approval on Sunday. [Al Jazeera] The UN envoy overseeing the process has welcomed the announcement. [UN News Centre]

Defense Secretary Ash Carter has encouraged Britain to renew its Trident nuclear weapons program. In comments published on Saturday, Carter said that replacing the fleet of submarines which carry nuclear warheads must be done so that Britain can sustain its “outsized” role in world affairs. [Reuters]

A US journalist and three members of her crew have been arrested in Bahrain accused of failing to register properly with authorities on entering the country and participating in “an unlawful gathering.” Freelance journalist, Anna Day, and her colleagues were covering a demonstration marking the fifth anniversary of the political opposition uprising in the Gulf monarchy. Reporters Without Borders, a journalists’ rights group, has called for their release. [Wall Street Journal’s Asa Fitch; The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade]

US Green Berets and Dutch Marines have been training a handpicked Senegalese commando squad created in an effort to combat terrorist smuggling networks along the Senegal River. [New York Times’ Eric Schmitt]

Al-Shabaab claim to have seized an armed, unmarked drone which crashed in the Buuraaha Sanda’ar region of southern Somalia. No country has claimed the drone. [Al Jazeera’s Hamza Mohamed]

The investigation into the torture and death of Italian student, Guilio Regeni, in Cairo almost two weeks ago has failed to produce any leads, so far. Italy has pressed Egyptian authorities to expedite their investigation into the death which has “chilled Italian-Egyptian relations.” [Wall Street Journal’s Dahlia Kholaif and Giada Zampano]

Antonin Scalia, Justice on the Supreme Court, died on Saturday. He was 79. Adam Liptak describes the life and times of “the most influential justice of the last quarter-century.” [New York Times]

The UN has encouraged Nigeria to ensure that areas liberated from the control of Boko Haram forces are restored to true safety before it allows displaced persons to return to their homes. [UN News Centre]

A man in Florida has pleaded guilty to a hate crime for threatening to firebomb two mosques in the Middle District of Florida, and to shoot their congregants. [DoJ News]

“What happens when these folks start getting out?” The prospect of some of those convicted of terrorism offences in the US being released as soon as 2017 raises questions about how to reintegrate them back into their communities. [Wall Street Journal’s Nicole Hong]

“Depleting our Treasury and wasting valuable lives.” Joseph Blady discusses the situation in Afghanistan and the Senate Armed Services Committee’s “stunning” decision to continue to keep US troops in Afghanistan and to funnel billions more US dollars into the country’s recovery. [The Hill]

Russian NATO ambassador, Alexander Grushko answers Julian E Barnes’ questions on Russia’s views on the presence of Western troops in Poland and the Baltic, Russian violence in Ukraine, and other matters. [Wall Street Journal]

The US Navy has been testing an electromagnetic railgun and is considering installing it on future USS Lyndon B Johnson. A final decision has yet to be made. [AP]

South Korea will take “stronger and more effective” measures against North Korea from now on, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye said in “uncharacteristically blunt terms” in a televised parliamentary address yesterday. [AP; Washington Post’s Anna Fifield] A UN human rights investigator has produced a report recommending that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, should face trial for crimes such as murder, torture, enslavement and persecution, and that an expert panel should be created, tasked with identifying how to prosecute him. [New York Times’ Nick Cumming-Bruce] Meanwhile, new sanctions against North Korea were cleared by the House on Friday and are waiting President Obama’s signature. The White House has indicated that he will sign the legislation. [The Hill’s Christina Marcos] 

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About the Author(s)

Nadia O'Mara

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security

Zoë Chapman

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security, Legal Researcher at UK-based human rights organization, JUSTICE