The Early Edition: February 24, 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. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford, and CIA Director John Brennan have all expressed doubts that Russia will abide by the terms of the ceasefire in Syria, which is scheduled to begin this weekend. [Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous] Turkey is likewise not optimistic about the agreement’s chances of success. [Al Jazeera] But some commentators have taken a more hopeful stance on the deal. [The Guardian’s Mary Dejevsky]

Shoring up the deal. Syrian President Assad told Russian President Putin that his government will assist in implementing the ceasefire. [Reuters] But a spokesman for a Saudi-backed alliance of Syrian opposition groups says there are “major concerns” that Russia and the Syrian government will continue to strike at mainstream rebels during the truce. [Associated Press] Meanwhile, the US government is drumming up support among rebel groups and working to ensure humanitarian aid is available to besieged areas. [US State Department]

There is a paradox that is hobbling peace negotiations in Syria: the same countries pushing for peace are the ones fueling the war, according to the head of the UN-backed Independent Syria Commission. [Wall Street Journal’s Farnaz Fassihi] The New York Times Editorial Board argues that much of the deal hinges on Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he has not proven to be reliable in peace efforts so far.

“Plan B” for peace in Syria involves a partition of the country. US Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he will move towards that plan if the cessation of hostilities falls through or if there is no genuine shift to a transitional government in the coming months. [The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour]

Russia holds the cards to peace in Aleppo, argue Julien Barnes-Dacy and Jeremy Shapiro. [Politico] But Russia’s endgame in the region is still not entirely clear. [New York Times’ Neil MacFarquhar]

Kurdish forces in Syria may have access to advanced US-made anti-tank missiles according to a photo posted to social media yesterday. The fighters were posing with an FGM-148 Javelin in northern Syria. If confirmed, it could signal a marked escalation in US material being funneled to local rebel groups. [Washington Post’s Thomas Gibbons Neff]

Islamic State attacks are on the rise in Syria despite intensifying Russian airstrikes in the country. [NBC News’ Corky Siemaszko]

Kurdish special forces rescued a 16-year-old Swedish girl in Iraq. She left her home last summer to travel to Syria with her boyfriend to join the Islamic State, but eventually wound up in Mosul, Iraq. [Washington Post’s Loveday Morris; New York Times’ Tim Arango]

SURVEILLANCE, PRIVACY & TECHNOLOGY

Apple v. FBI. San Bernardino County prosecutors have contacted family members of the victims of the attack about joining the case against Apple. [Reuters’ Dan Levine and Rory Carroll]. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has requested that Apple assist it in unlocking a further nine iPhones. A lawyer for Apple has confirmed that it is resisting the requests in at least seven cases. [New York Times’ Eric Lichtblau and Joseph Goldstein]

The Senate Intelligence Committee is considering legislation that would oblige companies to unlock phones if ordered to do so by a court. The discussions were part of an ongoing effort to produce a bill that gives law enforcement improved access to encrypted data. [The Hill’s Cory Bennett]

“We should all take a deep breath and talk to each other, rather than use a lawsuit to circumvent the critical and necessary police discussions.” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) has urged FBI Director James Comey to withdraw the order against Apple. [The Hill’s Cory Bennett]

Has encryption gone too far? The latest versions of the iPhone and other devices use encryption methods that the developers themselves cannot unlock. Security expert Bruce Schneier and Denise Zheng from the Center for Strategic and International Studies debate whether this level of security is actually needed. [New York Times] Daisuke Wakabayashi describes how Apple’s stance on data privacy has evolved over the past five years. [Wall Street Journal]

Italy’s foreign minister has asked for “clarifications” over the NSA’s secret monitoring of conversations between the Italian and Israeli prime ministers in 2010 and 2011. The US Ambassador to Italy has promised to address Italy’s concerns “immediately.” [The Hill’s Julian Hattem]

Former NSA director Michael Hayden’s memoir provides a fresh perspective on Stellarwind, the intelligence program that warrantlessly collected details of citizens’ communications. Hayden, who created the program in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, says previous accounts have been “over-dramatized” and that the program was both “lawful and useful.” [The Daily Beast’s Shane Harris]

“It could keep people out who are not a threat.” Concerns have been raised over tools being developed by the Department of Homeland Security that more robustly analyze the social media accounts of those applying for refugee status or seeking asylum in the US. The fear is that legitimate criticism of US foreign policy, or even having friends who are sympathetic toward terrorists, could expose applicants to “unwarranted scrutiny.” [New York Times’ Ron Nixon]

GUANTANAMO BAY

President Obama sent his plan to close Guantánamo Bay to Congress on Tuesday. President Obama said that keeping the facility open “is contrary to our values” and “undermines our standing in the world.” [New York Times’ Charlie Savage and Julie Hirschfeld Davis; Miami Herald’s James Rosen] He now faces the challenge of trying to persuade Congress to support the plan by the end of the year, a task the New York Times editorial board considers feasible, despite the “reflexive and thoughtless” opposition of Republican lawmakers.

Those in favor. Democrat lawmakers called the plan “practical,” with Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) stating that “Congress must now work with the administration in good faith to effectuate closure.” [The Hill’s Rebecca Kheel] Hillary Clinton has backed the plan, calling it “a sign of strength and resolve.” [The Hill’s Ben Kamisar] UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein also released a statement welcoming the plan, but added that it is important that it does not result in any prisoners remaining in indefinite detention without charge. [UN News Centre]

Those against. Almost as soon as the plan was submitted, Republican leaders began to denounce it, with Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) going so far as to crush the plan and throw it in the trash. [The Hill’s Jordan Fabian and Christina Wong] Human rights groups have also criticized the plan, despite supporting the intention behind it, calling the proposal to move detainees to the mainland to continue their detention without charge “reckless and ill-advised.” [The Hill’s Rebecca Kheel] Americans are largely against the closure of a detention center that “plays an important role in keeping America safe” and Obama will not succeed in closing it if he follows the law, argues the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.

A resolution that would authorize a lawsuit against the Obama administration if it follows through on plans to transfer Guantánamo Bay detainees to the US has been introduced by House Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC). [The Hill’s Christina Marcos]

A former Guantánamo Bay detainee was among those arrested on suspicion of recruiting for Islamic State by Spanish authorities yesterday. He was described as “a leader who was trained in handling weapons, explosives and in military tactics.” [Associated Press]

AFGHANISTAN

US airstrikes have assisted in breaking the deadlock between the Afghan military and the Taliban north of Kabul, allowing repair crews to access the area and restore electricity supplies that have been disrupted for the past three weeks. [New York Times’ David Jolly]

The planned US withdrawal from Afghanistan is increasing the threat of terrorist attacks, the commander of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan has warned. His comments coincide with the findings of a UN report. [Wall Street Journal’s Husain Haqqani]

The UN has urged all sides involved in the fighting to avoid targeting hospitals, following two incidents in the last week. [UN News Centre]

SOUTH CHINA SEA

China has deployed fighter jets to Woody Island as part of its escalating “militarization” of the South China Sea. A spokesperson for US Pacific Command commented that fighter-jet deployment is “not a surprise and has been going on for the last few years,” although it is “still part of a disturbing trend.” [Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Lubold and Chun Han Wong; CNN’s Barbara Starr and Ray Shanchez]

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Secretary of State John Kerry discussed “the importance of reducing tensions and maintaining the space necessary for diplomatic solutions to the competing claims in the South China Sea” during a meeting yesterday. [US State Department]

LIBYA

Western powers must “move carefully” if a unity government is formed in Libya, the UN has warned. Any new government will be “weak” to begin with, and members will have “very intense” anti-foreigner feelings, and should not be forced to immediately back foreign strikes. [Wall Street Journal’s Laurence Norman]

Forces loyal to the Libyan government have wrested a “key central neighborhood” of Benghazi from militant groups, including the Islamic State, according to their own reports. [Al Jazeera]

Libya is “fast becoming the new frontier of the western war against Islamic State,” as demonstrated by recent airstrikes carried out by the US. [The Guardian]

NORTH KOREA

The US and China have made “important progress” on agreeing to a UN sanctions resolution against North Korea. Both countries agree that the goal of the resolution is to persuade North Korea to restart discussions on ending its nuclear program and rejoining the international community. [Agence France-Press; BBC]

Meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said that he “would use WMD” if he “thought his regime were challenged.” Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that tensions on the Korean Peninsula are at their highest level in 20 years. [CNN’s Ryan Browne]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

“Human machine teams” and other “exotic weapons” are the best way to combat Russian and Chinese militaries, the Pentagon is saying. Using revolutionary weapons systems to “inject enough uncertainty in the minds of the Russians and the Chinese” is the “definition of conventional deterrence,” explained Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work. [Washington Post’s David Ignatius]

The US has resettled just 841 Syrian refugees since September 2015 when President Obama said 10,000 would be welcomed during the fiscal year. While the number is expected to rise significantly, the administration will likely struggle to meet its stated goal. [The Nation’s John Knefel]

Israeli interrogators are “systematically” subjecting Palestinian detainees to “degrading” and “inhuman” treatment both in the field and at the Shikma detention facility in Ashkelon, a report from HaMoked and B’T selem, Israeli human rights groups, has found. [Al Jazeera’s Allison Deger]

A Canadian is one of four arrested on suspicion of violating trade sanctions with Iran by sending technical equipment there, some of which ended up in the hands of the Iranian military. The offenses date back to the period of 2007-2011. [Associated Press]

“A dangerous precedent for upholding international law.” A former UN official has warned that the UK’s dismissal of a UN report on Julian Assange as “ridiculous” and “flawed” will “cost life and human suffering.” [The Guardian’s Owen Bowcott]

“If we do not act to prevent it, it is only a matter of time” before the Islamic State launches a drone attack on a major sporting event. Experts have advised that cheap and accessible drone technology is an opportunity the militant group has already identified. [The Daily Beast’s Clive Irving]

“Why bother to investigate if the militants are already dead?” FBI agents training West African security forces to combat jihadists are discovering there’s a steep learning curve. [Reuters]

A federal judge has ordered that State Department officials and aids to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are to be questioned under oath in relation to the use of a private email server during Clinton’s tenure. [Washington Post’s Spencer S. Hsu; The Hill’s Julian Hattem]

There are signs that longstanding extremist militant groups in Pakistan are changing allegiance to the Islamic State. A senior official has said that they are “trying to nip this in the bud.” [Wall Street Journal’s Saeed Shah]

The UN has apologized for failing to protect those killed during the attack on the UN Mission in South Sudan on February 17. [NPR’s Merrit Kennedy]

President Obama’s call for nuclear “modernization” is really about Russia. Alex Emmons opines that the $1 trillion nuclear weapons program that is part of Obama’s defense budget request for 2017 represents “a return to Cold War-era rivalry” with Russia. [The Intercept]

Turkey “misreads” the Kurds, refusing to acknowledge the differences between the PKK, considered a terrorist group by the US and Turkey, and the Syrian Kurds, which the US sees as a “highly effective adversary” of the Islamic State. The result is that Turkey risks being drawn further into the Syrian war and direct conflict with Russia, says the New York Times editorial board. 

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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).