News Roundup and Notes: February 17, 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

Syrian Kurds. US-backed Kurdish fighters gained control of new territory in the north of Syria yesterday, an offensive which is heading towards areas held by the Islamic State. Turkey sought to halt their progress by firing artillery across the border, adding to disagreements between Ankara and Washington over the fight against ISIS. [Wall Street Journal’s Dion Nissenbaum and Sam Dagher]  Turkey’s US Ambassador said that America’s support for the Kurds “is a big strategic mistake … it will be regretted, but it will be too late,” reports Karen DeYoung. [Washington Post]

Turkey wants a 10km (6.2 mile) deep secure strip on the Syrian side of the border, designed to prevent attempts to “change the diplomatic structure” of the region, a Turkey official said today. Turkey has accused the Kurds of pursuing “demographic change.” [Reuters]

Russia described Turkey’s artillery strikes across the border into northern Syria as “absolute lawlessness,” the RIA state news agency reported. [Reuters]

The Syrian government has agreed to allow the access for humanitarian convoys to five towns which have been blocked by sieges for months, UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura announced. Eighty trucks are hoped to begin delivering food and medicine by the end of today, the UN said. [New York Times’ Somini Sengupta and Ceylan Yeginsu]  The AP considers the use of sieges as a tool of warfare, noting that the US has accused the Assad regime of violating war law with its policy of “surrender or starve.”

“The operation to recapture Aleppo marks the boldest role for Iran and its proxies since the start of the conflict in Syria nearly five years ago,” reports Sam Dagher. [Wall Street Journal]

“Given Assad’s previous documented use of barrel bombs, chemical weapons, airstrikes and heavy artillery against civilian areas,” Russia’s alleged tactics hardly seem new.” Simon Tisdall reports on Russia’s alleged use of increased refugee exoduses from its airstrikes as a weapon of war. [The Guardian]

Defense Secretary Ash Carter is “gratified” by offers from numerous members of the global coalition against ISIS to step up their contributions, said Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook yesterday. [DoD News]

Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep Mac Thornberry, has lambasted the Obama administration for failing to present a counter-ISIS strategy for this week’s deadline. Rebecca Kheel reports. [The Hill]  And House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has criticized the White House for failing to take a stronger line following revelations that the Islamic State used chemical weapons against the US-allied Kurds. [The Hill’s Kristina Wong]

Three US citizens reported missing in January have been safely released, the result of efforts by the Iraqi government, the State Department has announced. No clear details on the circumstances of their kidnap or the group responsible were provided. [Wall Street Journal’s Safa Majeed]

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition military forces carried out 10 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Feb. 15. Separately, partner forces conducted a further 20 strikes on targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

Reports on Islamic State were “skewed and manipulated by their bosses,” and US military analysts at US Central Command reportedly informed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the top intelligence official, that this was the case. The analysts said that their reports were changed in order to correlate with the Obama administration’s public statements about the progress of the US-led campaign against the militant group. [The Daily Beast’s Shane Harris and Nancy A Youssef]

“In considering the American legacy here, Iraqis weigh the benefits of being relieved of a cruel dictator against the seemingly unending costs.” Tim Arango discusses the 25th anniversary of the destruction of the Amiriya bomb shelter in 1991, the “deadliest episode of civilian casualties in the painful history … of the United States in Iraq.” [New York Times]

SURVEILLANCE, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

A California judge has ordered Apple to assist the FBI to unlock the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. The order potentially constitutes a significant victory for law enforcement that has spent years in a protracted battle with tech firms over government access to encrypted data, reports Eric Lichtblau. [New York Times]  Apple has rejected the order and will contest it, chief executive Tim Cook saying that the ruling constitutes an “unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers.” [BBC]

It has become apparent that the NSA has been receiving less data from Americans’ international Internet communications than privacy advocates had suspected, writes Charlie Savage, citing a newly declassified report by the NSA’s inspector general. [New York Times]

The United States designed a complex plan for a cyberattack on Iran, during the early years of this administration, in case diplomatic efforts to reduce its nuclear program failed and resulted in a military confrontation. David E Sanger and Mark Mazzetti provide the details at the New York Times.

GUANTANAMO BAY

The military has refused to transfer Guantánamo Bay detainees to the US while the law continues to prohibit such an action, Lieutenant General William Mayville said in a letter to a member of the House Intelligence Committee earlier this year. [The Hill’s Kristina Wong]

The 9/11 pre-trial hearings at Camp Justice have been “derailed” following an attempt by detainee Walid bin Attash to fire his legal team. Bin Attash told the judge that his team have “become the enemy.” [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]

“We learned a significant amount.” Retired Army Major Jay Hood, who ran Guantánamo Bay from 2004 to 2006, has defended the prison as an opportunity to gain intelligence. [Miami Herald’s Howard Altman]

The Periodic Review Board, that has been conducting reviews of dozens of Guantánamo Bay prisoners with the aim of deciding whether they can be released, has found that Yemeni detainee, Ayyub Murshid Ali Salih, was a low-level militant when he was captured in 2002 and not a member of an al-Qaida terrorist cell, as was thought. [AP]

CHINA

China has deployed surface-to-air missiles on an island in the South China Sea, Woody Island, according to the Taiwan government and senior US military officials. At a press conference today, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi did not confirm or deny the deployment.  [The Washington Post’s Simon Denyer; Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Lubold et al]  The move signals a stepping up of China’s “militarization” of the South China Sea which, according to Euan Graham, may make the US “think twice” about future overflight operations in the area. [The Guardian]

China’s foreign minister has called on Australia to “take into consideration the feelings of Asian countries” as it considers the purchase of a fleet of submarines from Japan, referring to Japan’s role in the Second World War. Washington, on the other hand, has been encouraging closer cooperation between Australia and Japan on security matters. [Reuters]

RUSSIA

The world has stumbled into “a new cold war.” Lamberto Zannier, secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has said that the “structure of agreed pattern of behaviors” which keeps the relationship between NATO and Russia in check is breaking apart. [Financial Times’ Sam Jones]

The Obama administration’s fiscal 2017 summary marks a shift toward viewing Russia as a serious threat and aims to send “a strong message of deterrence” in the face of Russia’s new aggressiveness, an attitude the Washington Post editorial board welcomes.

Iran’s defense minister met with Russia’s President Putin, yesterday, to discuss the delivery of an S-300 air defense system, despite a UN resolution banning Iran from making arms sales for the next five years. [Fox News’ Lucas Tomlinson]

Russia will send its first air defense missile system to Iran tomorrow, under the terms of an earlier contract. [Reuters]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A suicide attack has killed at least 10 people at a Yemeni army camp, used to train recruits by the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in Aden. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. [Reuters]

The US journalist and her three crew members who were arrested in Bahrain have been charged, released and allowed to leave the country. The US Embassy in Manama is believed to have intervened. [AP]

The US has flown four F-22 stealth jets over the US military air base in Osan in Gyeonggi province, which borders North Korea. [BBC]  And the Department of State has said that Deputy Secretary Antony Blinken will receive South Korea’s Deputy National Security Advisor Cho Tae-yong in Washington tomorrow in order to discuss, among other things, the international community’s reaction to the North Korea missile launc

UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon has confirmed that Britain intends to continue to defend the Falkland Islands, speaking during what was the first visit by a UK defense secretary to the Islands in over ten years. [BBC]

Raids in northern Germany involving more than 200 police officers have resulted in the confiscation of several computers and cellphones. The raids were aimed at a Salafist group which has been linked to another, previously outlawed group responsible for sending at least 15 people to join Islamic State in Syria. [New York Times’ Alison Smale]

Belgian police have charged three people with terrorist offences following raids on homes in Brussels. Those arrested were not involved in the Paris attacks, a spokesperson has confirmed. [New York Times’ Milan Schreuer]

Israeli authorities have issued a “statement of regret” after detaining the Washington Post’s bureau chief and a Palestinian contract reporter on suspicion of “inciting Palestinians.” The pair were released after about 40 minutes. [New York Times’ Isabel Kershner and Sewell Chan]

Kenya is to build a new, separate prison for “violent and extremist” offenders, in an attempt to stop them from influencing other prisoners, President Uhuru Kenyatta has announced. No timelines for the building of the prison have been announced. [Reuters]

Islamic State is determined to prove its strength by perpetrating further attacks in EU countries, US and EU intelligence officials believe. The next attack is “likely to be bigger” than the Paris attacks last November, a former French intelligence official, who heads the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, has advised. [Politico]

A new email released by conservative group Judicial Watch on Monday has revealed that the State Department unofficially requested that Hillary Clinton hand over copies of her work emails as early as July 2014. This is earlier than the October 2014 date Clinton has been referring to until now. [Politico’s Rachael Bade]

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former UN Secretary-General, has died at the age of 93. He was responsible for guiding the international organization through the “chaotic” 1990s and for helping to shape its response to the Cold War. [New York Times’ Robert D McFadden; UN News Centre]  And as the end of the current UN secretary general’s tenure approaches, Mark Seddon considers the possible front-runners to replace him, including Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. [New York Times]

Al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for the explosion on board an airplane in Somalia on Feb 2, “retribution for the crimes committed by the coalition of Western crusaders.” This is one of numerous factors indicating that Islamism is “wreaking havoc in Africa,” with militant groups controlling territory from the Horn of Africa to the Mediterranean coast, to Nigeria. [Wall Street Journal]

“National security efforts rest on the assumption that home-grown terrorists can be detected.” While this may not be untrue, US tactics rely too heavily on racial profiling and the assumption that normative values such as marriage and employment shield individuals from extremist ideologies. Instead, writes Morwari Zafar, authorities need to recognise radicalization as the result of “an explosive mix of very human experiences and frustrations that lack outlets for self-expression” and approach the issue accordingly. [Al Jazeera]

The removal of the last MX Peacekeeper ballistic missile in 2005, which went largely unnoticed, has left the US’ nuclear arsenal with a “targeting deficiency,” reports Elaine M Grossman. [The Daily Beast] 

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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