The Early Edition: February 25, 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

Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken on a personal role in organizing for a Syria ceasefire to come to fruition this weekend, calling world leaders by phone and ordering a reduction in Russian airstrikes over recent days. Patrick Wintour reports for the Guardian.  According to Moscow, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad committed to the ceasefire as an “important step toward a political settlement.” [Wall Street Journal’s Nathan Hodge and Sam Dagher]

Syria’s opposition bloc, the High Negotiations Committee will support a temporary cessation in hostilities for two weeks, to test the seriousness of the other side to the plan. [Al Jazeera]

Details on how the ceasefire will be implemented and monitored remain unclear, reports Karen DeYoung, with one defense official saying that the discussions are still at the “conceptual stage.” [Washington Post]

The UN will announce the date on which fighting factions in Syria will recommence negotiations tomorrow. The original talks were stopped by the UN Syria envoy on February 3. [Reuters’ Tom Miles]

Forces loyal to the Syrian government have retaken a town near to Aleppo that had been captured by ISIS two days ago, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, noting that the Syrian army was backed by heavy Russian air support. [Reuters]

The town of Shadadi, Syria is expected to soon be liberated from ISIS, according to a Pentagon spokesman; rebel group, the Syrian Democratic Forces, have encircled the town with US air support. [DoD News]

The Islamic State may be losing its grip on its de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa, even as the militant group pushes forward into new territory, reports Nancy A. Youssef, noting that some in the Pentagon are now asking whether the group is in its “last throes,” at The Daily Beast.

“Does Obama want to carve up Syria?” asks Michael Weiss, citing testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from Secretary of State John Kerry in which he commented that he would not “vouch for” the diplomatic process, “an interesting verbal construction to parse.” [The Daily Beast]

While Kerry posits that there is no military solution to the war in Syria, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corp, Seth G. Jones argues that “history shows a more-nuanced reality. Over two-thirds of insurgencies ended with a military victory. Nearly one-third ended through peaceful means, typically after the conflict settled into a military stalemate.”

US-led airstrikes continue. The US and coalition military forces carried out 14 strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Feb. 23. Separately, partner forces conducted a further four strikes on targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

“Are Kurds allies or obstacles in Syria?” The New York Times “Room for Debate” considers how the Turkish-Kurdish conflict can be prevented from undermining the fight against the Islamic State.

SURVEILLANCE, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook gave an interview with ABC News’ David Muir, saying that for the tech giant to comply with a court order demanding that Apple help the FBI to break into the phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters would be “bad for America,” adding that what the government is asking for was the “software equivalent of cancer.” Full interview available here. [Reuters’ Dustin Volz]

Attorney General Loretta Lynch stood firm however, standing by the FBI’s efforts to compel Apple to provide access to the phone, and suggesting that Congress need not get involved as Apple has requested. [Fox News]

Apple is working on tougher security measures. Engineers at the tech giant are reportedly developing new security features that would make it impossible for the government to break into a locked iPhone. Success in this endeavor will pose a serious technical challenge for law enforcement, a situation which could only be avoided by Congress getting involved, experts say. [New York Times’ Matt Apuzzo and Katie Benner]

Bipartisan lawmakers, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul and Sen Mark Warner predicted widespread support for an upcoming bill aimed at establishing a national commission tasked with exploring how law enforcement can access encrypted data without endangering US citizens’ privacy. [The Hill’s Cory Bennett]

The Economist explains why Apple is fighting with US law enforcement, observing that “Apple may not have picked the right case over which to grandstand.”

CIA director John Brennan gave an interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, commenting on a range of topics including the FBI/Apple dispute.

The White House is bringing together tech giants to assist in the online battle against the Islamic State, including Apple, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, MTV and Buzzfeed. [CNN’s Jim Acosta]  And the Islamic State has released a video threatening Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey for their efforts to suspend accounts promoting terrorism. Vocativ’s Gilad Shiloach reports.

“Applying the Wassenaar export control agreement to cyber technologies puts the country at risk,” argue Reps Will Hurd and John Ratcliffe, describing its application as “Obama’s big mistake” on cybersecurity. [Politico]

“Why the CIA likes, and dislikes, social media,” from Philip Ewing at NPR.

GUANTANAMO BAY

“These detainees cannot come to American soil.” Republican lawmakers are preparing a legal challenge of President Obama’s plan to close Guantánamo Bay, House Speaker Paul Ryan has said. [AP’s Andrew Tailor]  Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that Republicans should ask the Obama administration to produce a more specific plan before they commit to a position. [The Hill’s Rebecca Kheel]

Attorney General Loretta Lynch has reiterated her long-standing view that transferring detainees to the US is illegal. [The Hill’s Julian Hattem]

Defense Secretary Ash Carter overruled then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to approve the transfer of ex-detainee Shaker Aamer to the UK. However, when the transfer was announced in October last year, the Pentagon stated that Aamer had been “unanimously approved for transfer.” [The Hill’s Kristina Wong]

“They make all my life … upside down.” A detainee accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks has testified that someone at Guantánamo Bay has been making noises and causing vibrations that have been depriving him of sleep for years. [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]

Two ex-detainees transferred to Ghana at the beginning of the year have precipitated a political crisis in one of West Africa’s “most peaceful and least controversial nations,” its government struggling to contain the growing outrage at their presence. [The Daily Beast’s Philip Obaji Jr]

AFGHANISTAN

A cargo of 10,000 Russian AK-47s was flown to Afghanistan yesterday, the first delivery in a significant Russian military aid package that will also include helicopters and heavy weapons. The aid is intended to help Afghanistan contain an insurgency uprising. [NBC News’ Fazul Rahim]

The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan is insisting on an independent investigation into the raid on a hospital in Afghanistan last week, believed to have been perpetrated by US-led NATO and Afghan military forces, which resulted in the deaths of three people. The Swedish charity said those allegedly involved should supply “a detailed explanation of the incident.” [New York Times’ David Jolly]

LIBYA

Affiliates of Islamic State took over the security headquarters in Sabratha for around three hours, yesterday. In that short time they beheaded 12 security officers, using their bodies to block the roads leading to the headquarters. [AP]

An “information leak” has revealed that French special forces are among those supporting the fight against Islamic State in Libya, say local sources. According to reports, they have been there for several months and coordinated the US airstrike in Derna in November which killed the country’s most senior Islamic State leader. [The Guardian’s Chris Stephen and Kim Willsher]

The UN has called for an “immediate step” to formally approve the national unity Government in Libya, citing its formation as an important step toward peace. [UN News Centre]

There is “no credible information” to indicate that two Serbian hostages were killed by US airstrikes on an Islamic State training camp last week, a Pentagon spokesperson has said.

A UN report released today has disclosed “thousands of cases of beheadings, arbitrary detention and torture” in Libya, with all parties involved believed to have perpetrated human rights law violations. [AP; BBC]

A radical suggestion to quell violent turmoil in Libya. Libyan “closet royalists” have tabled the idea that the monarchy should be restored, to “let Libyans rally behind a respected father figure and begin to rebuild their splintered nation.” [New York Times’ Declan Walsh]  Declan Walsh assesses the current situation in Libya now that there has been a “breakthrough” in its civil war. [New York Times]

NORTH KOREA

The US and China have agreed to a UN resolution to impose new sanctions on North Korea. Following discussions between diplomats at the UN Security Council, a draft resolution will be presented to the full Council over the next few days. [Wall Street Journal’s Farnaz Fassihi; Reuters]  “If only it were that simple,” says Emily Rauhala: “another, tougher round of sanctions is far from the cure-all that some politicians imagine.” [Washington Post]

South Korea has told China to stay out of talks with the US on THAAD, the missile-defense system the US is intending to install in South Korea. China has warned that any installation would “destroy in an instant” its relationship with South Korea. [New York Times’ Choe Sang-Hun]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

At least 180 Kenyan troops were killed in an attack on their base by al-Shabaab last month, according to Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Kenya has yet to provide figures. [BBC]

The US will increase freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea in order to demonstrate to China “that that water space and the air above it is international,” the head of the US Navy’s Pacific Command has said. [Reuters]

Saudi Arabian representatives have been trying to persuade MEPs not to vote in favour of an EU-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia in response to allegations that it perpetrated “serious breaches of international humanitarian law” in Yemen. [The  Guardian’s Ewen McAskill]

The father of Iranian-American businessman, Siamak Namazi, who has been detained in Iran since last fall, has himself been arrested in Tehran. Baquer Namazi, 80, is also an American citizen. The US State Department has confirmed that it is aware of the matter. [New York Times’ Eli Rosenberg; BBC]

“Russia is the number one threat to the United States.” Army Chief General Mark Milley has recommended that US troops remain stationed in Alaska because of the threat posed by Russia. [The Hill’s Kristina Wong]

An inventory showing that hundreds of badges, firearms and cell phones were “lost or stolen” from the Department of Homeland Security between 2012 and 2015 has been cited as “deeply troubling” by House Republicans, who have called for answers. [Fox News]

Israeli soldiers accidentally killed one of their own officers while attempting to prevent a Palestinian attacker from stabbing him. The incident took place in the West Bank, yesterday. The Palestinian man was injured. [New York Times’ Isabel Kershner]

“What was the intention of the person who downed the plan? Just to hit tourism? No. Also to hit relations with Russia.” Months after a Russian passenger jet was brought down over the Sinai Peninsula, killing 224 people, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi has declared that terrorists were responsible for the attack. A local Islamic State affiliate claimed responsibility for the attack in its immediate aftermath, yet Egypt has been reluctant to concede that terrorists had been able to undermine its security infrastructure until now. [New York Times’ Nour Youssef; Wall Street Journal’s Tamer El-Ghobashy]

Australia will double the size of its naval fleet and strengthen ties with the US in response to China’s militarization of trade routes in the South China Sea. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has released a defense white paper detailing the intended additions. [Wall Street Journal’s Rob Taylor; New York Times’ Jane Perlez]

Australia has warned of “recent indications” that a terrorist attack is being planned in Indonesia, part of an ongoing threat which manifested itself in the January 14 attacks in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta. [AP]

Attorney General Loretta Lynch has reassured House lawmakers that any review of possible criminal charges in relation to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified emails will be “independent” and uninfluenced by politics. She declined to respond to Rep John Carter’s request for further details on the investigation. [The Hill’s Julian Hattem; Politico’s Josh Gerstein]

 “The world has never seemed as dangerous and leaderless as it does now.” Joseph I Lieberman argues that passivity on the part of the US is encouraging “expansionist powers” such as Iran, Russia and China, and terrorist groups such as Islamic State, to “seize the initiative.” [Washington Post] 

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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