The Early Edition: February 23, 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

Cessation of hostilities in Syria. The Syrian government accepted the terms of a cessation of hostilities deal brokered the United States and Russia. [Agence France-Presse; BBC] The agreement will go into effect on Saturday, and does not cover the Islamic State, the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda, or affiliated groups, raising concerns about how long it will last. [Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon; New York Times’ Mark Landler] President Assad accepted the deal, but only with conditions, including the right to attack factions he considers “terrorists.” [NPR’s Lauren Frayer] UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon welcomed the deal. [UN News Centre] US Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks on the agreement can be found here.

Syria is “on the brink of collapse” after years of civil war, with civilians bearing the brunt of hostilities in the country. A newly released UN report found that “[f]lagrant violations of human rights and international humanitarian law continue unabated.” [Reuters] The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria also found that government planes had intentionally targeted hospitals in rebel-held towns. [New York Times’ Somini Sengupta]

Airstrikes targeted one of the last roads into opposition-held areas of Aleppo on Tuesday. UK-based NGO Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strikes were believed to be carried out by Russian jets. [Reuters]

Russia launched twice as many airstrikes as the US-led coalition last week, raising concerns about Moscow’s ongoing and escalating bombing campaign in the country. [Daily Beast’s David Axe]

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is keeping Iran at arms length in fighting the Islamic State in an attempt to avoid inflaming ethnic tensions. [Reuters]

The Islamic State has released the last of the 230 Assyrian Christians abducted in Syria last year after millions of dollars were paid in ransoms. [Associated Press]

A UN-backed investigation will start its in-depth inquiry into Syria’s use of chemical weapons next month. The group is tasked with identifying perpetrators and has already started preliminary work on seven potential cases. [UN News Centre]

Former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden said US intelligence agencies were to blame for concluding Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the Iraq War, not the White House. [NPR]

“Why the Arabs don’t want us in Syria.” Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. opines on the root causes of the violent reaction to US’s interventions in the Middle East. [Politico]

SURVEILLANCE, PRIVACY & TECHNOLOGY 

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has spoken publicly about the spat between Apple and the FBI, telling delegates at a mobile congress in Barcelona that he was “sympathetic” to Apple’s position, but added that Facebook has “a really big responsibility” to help prevent terrorism. [The Guardian] Bill Gates has also spoken up, responding to Apple’s argument that this case will set a wider precedent by insisting that “this is a specific case.” [Financial Times’ Stephen Foley and Tim Bradshaw] Two recent polls have found that the American public is split roughly 50-50 over the issue. [The Hill’s Cory Bennett]

Apple has called for a “commission or other panel of experts on intelligence, technology and civil liberties to discuss the implications for law enforcement, national security, privacy and personal freedoms.” [Financial Times’ Tim Bradshaw; Reuters’ Dustin Volz and Abhirup Roy]

“Beyond the legal case, there is an ethics issue unfolding here.” The NYPD’s William Bratton and John Miller argue that Apple is morally obligated to comply with the “constitutionally legal court order” as one of “two companies whose operating systems handle more than 90 percent of mobile communications worldwide.” [New York Times]

On the flipside, the San Bernardino litigation “could have a significant impact” criminal investigations. Jenna McLaughlin reports that, contrary to the FBI’s public reassurances, a precedent will be set and it will have “a huge impact” on how the FBI conducts its business. [The Intercept]

Apple is not the only company locked in a fight with the Justice Department: Microsoft and Twitter have also become part of the “broader tension” between the government and Silicon Valley, partly as a result of the revelations of NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, and the increased public scrutiny they have engendered. [NBC News’ Josh Lipton; The Guardian’s Yochai Benkler]

The chief information officer at the Office of Personnel Management has retired. Donna Seymour oversaw the two government databases that were breached in 2014, resulting in the theft of the personal information of over 22 million people. The Obama administration had repeatedly resisted calls to fire her. [Washington Post’s Eric Yoder]

The NSA spied on a 2010 discussion between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi about ways in which Israel could improve its relationship with the US, newly published classified documents have revealed. [The Intercept’s Nicky Hager]

GUANTANAMO BAY

The Pentagon intends to submit a plan to close Guantánamo Bay today. The administration still intends to transfer as many prisoners as possible to third countries, and to bring the rest of the 91 remaining prisoners to maximum-security prisons in the US. [Reuters’ Yeganeh Torbati and Matt Spetalnick; The Hill’s Kristina Wong] GOP senators are ready to oppose any attempts by the Obama administration to relocate prisoners to their states. [The Hill’s Kristina Wong] The cooperation of Republican-controlled Congress will almost certainly be required to shut down the detention facility, say Austin Wright and Jeremy Herb, at least within the time Obama has left in office. [Politico]

“After-the-utterance redaction.” Chief prosecutor Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins argued for the continued redaction of a transcript of an open-court hearing that involved testimony from two guards at Guantánamo Bay’s Camp 7, in opposition to requests by attorneys for alleged 9/11 orchestrators and news agencies yesterday that the transcript be made public. [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]

AFGHANISTAN

A date may be set soon for face-to-face talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban, according to reports from broader peace negotiations between Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the US. [Associated Press]

The Pentagon is conducting a “full assessment” of an alleged policy that prevented US troops reporting instances of sexual assault of children by Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. [The Hill’s Rebecca Kheel]

A suicide attack has killed 13 people, most of them civilians, in Afghanistan’s northern Parwan province. The attack was aimed at a police commander, who was among the injured. [Al Jazeera]

The decision was “wrong, irresponsible and would lead to further losses in surrounding districts.” The head of the local provincial council, Mohammad Karim, has expressed his anger over the decision to withdraw Afghan troops from parts of Helmand province. [CNN’s Masoud Popalzai and Archith Seshadri]

SOUTH CHINA SEA

China appears to be installing radar facilities on islands in the South China Sea, according to new satellite imagery. The move that could “significantly change the operational landscape in the South China Sea” according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. [Wall Street Journal’s Chun Han Wong]

China’s military deployments are “no different from US deployments on Hawaii.” China has struck a “combative tone” as Foreign Minister Wang Yi prepares to visit the US today to discuss topics including the international response to North Korea and cyber security. [The Guardian; Reuters’ Ben Blanchard and David Brunnstrom]

ISRAEL & PALESTINE

The US and Israel have commenced a week-long ballistic missile defense exercise, a Pentagon spokesperson said today. A similar exercise is performed every two years, the aim being to “improve cohesion and interoperability between the two nations.”

Qabatiya residents’ permission to work in Israel has been revoked after the lifting of a blockade that was imposed in response to attacks by Palestinians on Israeli police officers. Homes belonging to the families of those who perpetrated the attacks have also been marked for “punitive demolition.” [Al Jazeera]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russia made a request yesterday to fly surveillance planes equipped with digital cameras over the US under the Open Skies Treaty. The aim of approved flights is to encourage transparency over military activities, but senior US intelligence and military officials say that Russia’s intentions are to spy on infrastructure such as power plants and communications networks. [New York Times’ Eric Schmitt and Michael R. Gordon; Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe]

US armed drones will soon be able to take off from Italy under a deal negotiated by the two countries. However, the drones can only be used defensively to protect coalition forces in Libya, and permission for take off will have to be requested on a case-by-case basis. [Associated Press; Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Lubold and Julian E. Barnes]

The State Department was heavily involved in approving weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, according to a string of emails, part of a batch of emails from Hillary Clinton’s private server that was disclosed following a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit last week. The deals included the sale of F-15 jet fighters, which have since been used by Saudi Arabia during bombings of Yemeni civilians that some human rights observers have labeled “war crimes.” [The Intercept’s Lee Fang]

A US drone strike has hit three homes in Pakistan’s Kurram tribal region, killing four suspected militants and injuring three, according to local residents. A local government official has anonymously stated that no one was killed and only one person was injured. [NBC News’ Mushtaq Yusufzai]

The UN has warned that nations must agree to adhere to the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material so that it can enter into force and provide protection from terrorist attacks on nuclear power plants and reduce terrorists’ capability to detonate dirty bombs. [Associated Press]

The beheading of a Hindu priest in Bangladesh. Three men have been arrested in connection with the killing on Sunday. Two are involved with a banned militant group, Jama’atul Mujahedeen Bangladesh, and the third with the student wing of Bangladesh’s largest Islamic political party, Jamaat-e-Islami, according to the local police. [New York Times’ Julfikar Ali Manik]

Singapore has deported four Indonesian nationals suspected of planning to join Islamic State in Syria. [Associated Press]

A 14-year-old British boy has been charged with inciting a terrorist beheading and terrorist attack in Australia. He is one of the youngest individuals ever charged under terrorism legislation in the UK. [The Guardian’s Vikram Dodd]

“Red Alert: the Growing Threat to US Aircraft Carriers.” A report released by the Center for New American Security has warned that the US’s aircraft carriers, previously “an almost untouchable deterrent,” are at risk of being undermined by a strategy known as “anti-access/area denial,” which prevents the enemy from navigating the battlefield. [Washington Post’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff] 

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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).