The Early Edition: February 22, 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 & SYRIA

Peace negotiations. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that the US and Russia are nearing a provisional “cessation of hostilities” in Syria. However, an escalation in violence after the announcement has placed the agreement at risk. [New York Times’ David E. Sanger] Kerry said the final details would be negotiated by Presidents Obama and Putin and that the deal could go into effect within days. [Washington Post’s Carol Morello] US-led coalition members face rising concerns about the effectiveness of diplomatic efforts, with some believing the situation will end with a de facto Syrian partition. [Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon]

Nearly 130 people in Syria were killed in a series of bomb attacks by the Islamic State on Sunday near Damascus and Homs, areas loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The attacks in were carried out by suicide bombers and car bombs. [Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher; Washington Post’s Hugh Naylor]

Turkey has asserted the right to launch “any kind of operation” in Syria or wherever else “terrorist organizations” are located. Turkish President Erdogan made the statement in a speech about recent Turkish airstrikes in northern Syria against Kurdish rebels in the region. [Agence France-Presse] Turkey has stepped up its campaign in recent days in response to a suicide attack in Ankara last week. [Wall Street Journal’s Emre Peker]

The Islamic State’s hold on Fallujah and the surrounding parts of Anbar Province may be weakening. Small clashes broke out across the city over the weekend in a rare show of force against the group, which has held the city for more than two years. Food and medical supplies in the area are reportedly scarce, fueling frustrations. [Washington Post’s Loveday Morris and Mustafa Salim]

Missing radioactive material has been found in Iraq, ending concerns that it could be acquired by the Islamic State for use as a weapon. The material was stolen in November from a storage facility run by a US oilfield services company near Basra. [Reuters’ Ahmed Rasheed]

SURVEILLANCE, PRIVACY & TECHNOLOGY

Victims of the San Bernardino attack will file a legal brief in support of the government’s efforts to compel Apple to assist its efforts to unlock one of the shooters’ encrypted iPhone. [Reuters’ Dan Levine]

It’s not just issues of national security and privacy that Apple and the Justice Department cannot agree on, reports Devlin Barrett: There are differences of opinion on “basic technical issues” such as what data can be retrieved from the iPhone’s history. [Wall Street Journal]

“We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption.” FBI Director James Comey has issued a press release explaining that the FBI simply wants “the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist’s passcode.” [Washington Post’s Justin Wm. Moyer; NBC News’ Alex Johnson and Andrew Blankstein] Despite its principled rhetoric, according to L. Gordon Crovitz, Apple’s real concern in refusing the court order is that compliance would be “bad for business.” [Wall Street Journal]

The divisions in the encryption battle are “hardly so neat” as they are often framed. Damian Paletta dissects the popular view of “technology companies pushing encryption to protect customers’ privacy against government officials hoping to crack hidden messages in pursuit of wrongdoers.” [Wall Street Journal]

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden reiterated his willingness to return to the US if “they would guarantee a fair trial where I can make a public interest defense of why this was done and allow a jury to decide.” Snowden currently faces charges under the Espionage Act, which carry potential sentences of up to 30 years. [The Guardian’s Jamie Grierson]

AFGHANISTAN

US airstrikes followed by Afghan ground forces have forced Islamic State out of its stronghold in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar. Villages in the area had been living under Islamic State control for almost a year. [Wall Street Journal’s Habib Khan Totakhil and Jessica Donati]

Afghan government forces withdrew from Musa Qala last week, the second district in Helmand to be left to Taliban control, prompting questions as to the ability of the Afghan security forces to cope with the Taliban following the removal of international forces in 2014. [Reuters’ Mohammad Stanekzai]

Russia is giving the US “the cold shoulder” when it comes to Afghanistan. President Putin’s envoy to Afghanistan called potential talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government “useless events.” The talks are backed by the US, Pakistan, and China. Instead, Russia has reinforced its military base in Tajikistan, on the border of Afghanistan, and has committed to training the Tajik army. [New York Times’ Mujib Mashal and Andrew E. Kramer]

NORTH KOREA

North Korea “proposed discussing a peace treaty” to formally end the Korean war before its latest nuclear test, a State Department spokesperson has confirmed. However, North Korea refused to comply with the US’s counter-proposal that it first take steps to denuclearize itself. [Wall Street Journal’s Alastair Gale and Carol L. Lee]

North Korea conducted an artillery drill on Saturday near the border with South Korea, according to South Korean soldiers stationed close to the northwest island of Baengnyeong. Explosions and what are believed to have been flashes from shells fired from coastal guns were reported. [Reuters]

“Failed policy.” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) has criticized the Obama administration for its indifference toward North Korea and has called for a reverse on its “policy of strategic patience.” [The Hill’s Bradford Richardson]

GUANTANAMO BAY

The Periodic Review Board has approved the transfer of Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard, Majid Ahmed. The Yemeni has been recommended for resettlement in an Arabic-speaking country. This decision brings the total number of Guantánamo Bay prisoners approved for release to 35 out of 91. [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]

The Obama administration is due to present its closure plan to Congress this week. Meanwhile, the 91 prisoners who remain at Guantánamo Bay are being supervised by 2,000 guards – 18 per detainee. The prison’s Warden says this is a “worst-case scenario” measure. [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]

LIBYA

Those targeted in Friday’s airstrike were planning attacks on US interests in Libya, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook has confirmed. He did not specify whether “interests” denoted US homeland or overseas targets, and would only say that that the Islamic State members who were killed had “posed a national security threat to the United States.” [The Hill’s Kristina Wong]

Islamic State fighters in Libya have doubled their number, even as they have decreased in Iraq and Syria, according to US intelligence agencies. From its foothold in Libya, the militant Islamist group is expanding its reach across Africa, prompting “growing concern” from the US and its allies. [New York Times’ Eric Schmitt] Seating the “Government of National Accord” in Tripoli as soon as possible is the only way to wrest Libya from Islamic State control, argues Ann Marlowe. [The Daily Beast]

SOUTH CHINA SEA

The situation in the South China Sea must not be billed as a battle between the US and China, US Navy Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin has warned. In a statement to reporters, he said that he was trying to avoid provocation and focus on ensuring that all countries are able to pursue their interests lawfully in the area. He also urged other countries to conduct “freedom of navigation” naval operations in the vicinity of the contested islands. [AP; Reuters]

“Small actions, avoiding a confrontation.” The Washington Post editorial board considers China’s incremental approach to increasing its military deployment in the South China Sea, discussing the latest installation of missiles on Woody Island as “useful if China decided at some point to declare an air defense identification zone, asserting control over air traffic.”

BANGLADESH

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the beheading of a Hindu priest in northern Bangladesh. This is one of several attacks the Islamic State has claimed in the country. Even so, the government insists that the militant Islamist group is not active in Bangladesh. [BBC]

Bangladesh police have recovered at least 20 bombs and arrested two people, suspected to be members of a prohibited radical Islamist group, Ansarullah Bangla Team. Raids had been carried out on homes in Dhaka. [AP]

ISRAEL & PALESTINE

A US citizen has been killed in the West Bank. Tuvya Weisman, a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces who was off-duty at the time, was stabbed in an attack the State Department has described as “terrorism.” The attackers were shot by a bystander, one of them later dying from his injuries. [The Hill’s Julian Hattem]

The “aimless narrative of the current violence.” While Israel is clear that daily violence against Israelis by Palestinians is “terrorism,” Palestinians, including their leaders, appear “paralyzed over word choices.” Words are important, opines William Booth, because they shape the “meaning and intent” behind the attacks. [Washington Post]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The truce between the Ukraine government and Russia-backed separatists is “unraveling,” with fighting in eastern Ukraine accelerating in the past few weeks, reports Andrew E. Kramer. [New York Times]

Siamak Namazi has been denied access to his attorney, or any lawyer, by Iranian authorities. The Iranian-American businessman has been detained in Iran since last October and remains incarcerated without charge, while five other US citizens were released over a month ago. [Reuters]

In Nigeria, soldiers and civilian self-defense groups are rounding people up on suspicion of being members of Boko Haram and taking them away, either to be shot or to simply disappear forever. The extra-judicial killings have not stopped despite the fact that President Muhammadu Buhari recently declared victory over Boko Haram. [Washington Post’s Michelle Faul and Ibrahim Abdulaziz]

A “sadly familiar tale” of abduction and torture of Western-educated Arabs. Jackson Diehl talks to Amal Eldarat, whose father and brother, both US citizens, were detained by United Arab Emirates security forces in August 2014 and tortured into confessing to terror-related crimes which only came into effect after their arrests and which carry potential sentences of life imprisonment or death. Their trial, which began last month, resumes on Feb 29. [Washington Post]

South Sudan. The UN has strongly condemned “all attacks and provocations against civilians and the United Nations by armed actors” as inter-communal violence escalates, including reports that armed members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army had entered the UN Mission in South Sudan, fired on civilians and looted and burned tents. [UN News Centre]

Suspected “anti-India rebels” attacked a paramilitary convoy near Srinagar, Kashmir on Saturday, before retreating to a training institute. Students and staff were evacuated as the building was surrounded by soldiers. The standoff continues, with the “three or four militants” inside the building showering security forces with gunfire and explosions. [Reuters; BBC]

UN Peacekeepers use their training, combat experience and high salaries to “affect politics” in their home nations. This is a phenomenon which the UN needs to study, and which has “gone unanswered for too long,” say Jonathan D. Caverley and Jesse Dillon Savage. [New York Times] 

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About the Author(s)

Zoë Chapman

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

Megan Graham

Former Assistant Managing Editor and Security, Privacy, and Technology Fellow at Just Security Follow her on Twitter (@meganmcgraham).