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
Deadline for ceasefire agreement. The “vast majority” of eligible armed groups in the Syrian conflict have indicated that they will participate in the ceasefire agreement. [Reuters] The main opposition bloc, the High Negotiations Committee, has released a statement confirming the agreement. [Reuters] The UN had set today as the deadline for parties to the Syrian conflict to accept a cessation of hostilities agreement, scheduled to take effect on Saturday. The framework deal will include details on how to implement the ceasefire and what happens in the event that the truce is violated, according to Khawla Mattar, head of the Syrian envoy’s office in Damascus. [Wall Street Journal’s Dana Ballout and Thomas Grove]
Moscow is “continuing its operation in Syria” against “terrorist organizations” ahead of the ceasefire agreement due to come into effect later today. [BBC]
President Obama said that the next few weeks will be “critical” to the future of Syria, commenting that the potential ceasefire agreement could mark the first step toward ending the conflict ravaging the country. [BBC] The president added that the US will expand its campaign against the Islamic State “on all fronts.” [NBC News’ Daniella Silva]
The UN Security Council is expected to endorse the proposal for a cessation of hostilities, the US and Russia circulating a draft resolution yesterday, with council diplomats saying they hoped to adopt it at the earliest possible moment. [Reuters]
In a “logistical, military and political nightmare,” the United States and Russia are expected to agree on the coordinates of legitimate targets following the passing of today’s midday deadline. [The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour]
The exclusion of the Nusra Front from the cessation of hostilities agreement will make it challenging to maintain peace between the Assad regime and US-backed rebel groups, reports Raja Abdulrahim and Sam Dagher at the Wall Street Journal.
International peace negotiations to resume. A Russian Foreign Ministry official said today that peace talks on the Syria conflict may resume in Geneva on March 7. [Reuters]
An Islamic State suicide attack targeted a Shi’ite religious building and a military checkpoint in Baghdad yesterday, killing 15 people and wounding 48, local security officials said. [AP]
Secretary of State John Kerry is weighing whether to accuse ISIS of genocide amid what is reported to be a tense debate within the administration about what such an accusation would mean for the American strategy against the group. [Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff]
Medical facilities are the direct target of the Syrian government and Russian allies, say Syrian medical workers in rebel-held parts of the country. Anne Barnard reports that according to MSF, there were 94 attacks on 67 hospitals and clinics last year alone. In 2016 there have been 17 such attacks, targeting facilities including six supported by the organization. [New York Times]
US-led airstrikes continue. The US and coalition military forces carried out seven strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Feb. 24. Separately, partner forces conducted a further 15 strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]
Tunisia is the “largest source” of foreign fighters joining Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Between 6,000 and 7,000 people from the “freest Arab democracy” have left to join the extremist militant group, and many more have been prevented from going. The “exodus” defies “conventional wisdom that has long sought to explain terrorism by evoking “root causes” such as political repression by dictatorial regimes,” suggests Yaroslav Trofimov. [Wall Street Journal]
SURVEILLANCE, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY
The White House is about to permit the National Security Agency to share more of the private data it intercepts with other US intelligence agencies, without first being required to apply any privacy protections to the communications. Charlie Savage provides the details at the New York Times.
Apple v. FBI. Apple’s legal team are accusing the FBI of an “unprecedented” request in violation of US constitutional protections of free speech, in a 36-page legal brief submitted yesterday. It is Apple’s first formal rebuttal to the court order demanding that it write software capable of breaking into the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft will all join a supporting brief. [The Guardian’s Danny Yadron et al] In the briefing Apple states:
This is not a case about one isolated iPhone. Rather, this case is about the Department of Justice and the FBI seeking through the courts a dangerous power that Congress and the American people have withheld: the ability to force companies like Apple to undermine the basic security and privacy interests of hundreds of millions of individuals around the globe.
“If the FBI wants to hack an iPhone, why doesn’t it just ask the NSA?” Joshua Kopstein comments on Apple’s legal brief, noting the tech giant’s observation that the “government has failed to demonstrate that the requested order was absolutely necessary to effectuate the search warrant.” [Motherboard]
FBI Director James Comey told lawmakers that encryption is the “hardest question I’ve seen in government.” In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee yesterday, Comey called on Congress to take action on data privacy, saying that the “largest question is not going to be answered in the courts and shouldn’t be.” [The Hill’s Katie Bo Williams]
GOP presidential candidates sided with the FBI during yesterday’s debate in Houston, with Senator Marco Rubio accusing Apple of failing to comply with the court order “because they think it hurts their brand,” adding: “Well let me tell you their brand isn’t superior to the national security of America.” [The Guardian’s Tom McCarthy]
“What it means if Apple makes an iPhone it ‘can’t hack,’” from Joshua Kopstein at Motherboard.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter has denied that the Obama administration intends to give Guantánamo Bay Naval base back to Cuba, in response to accusations from Republicans in Congress. He was speaking in the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, yesterday. [The Hill’s Kristina Wong]
“It seems to me they just decided to throw up something and see if anything can come of it.” Senator John McCain, one of the few Republicans counted on to support the plan to close Guantánamo Bay, has expressed disappointment with it, calling it a “Chinese menu” that leaves many questions unanswered. [The Hill’s Kristina Wong]
A letter signed by 19 ex-generals and admirals in support of closure has been distributed by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The letter states that the closure is “consistent with US values and weakens our enemies,” and also “sends a strong signal to our allies that we have a credible detention policy.” While some of those who signed the letter have ties to the detention center that are tenuous at best, and have in any case been retired for some time, there are others who have been very closely involved, reports Molly O’Toole. [Foreign Policy]
The US intends to send Special Operations advisers to support Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram, military officials have said. If the deployment is approved, as expected, the advisers would not be directly involved in combat. Special Operations forces have been widely used in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Afghanistan. [New York Times’ Eric Schmitt and Dionne Searcey] Meanwhile, Boko Haram fighters are travelling to Somalia to train at al-Shabaab camps, according to Somalia’s national security chief. [CNN’s Stephanie Busari]
The US drone base in Garoua, Nigeria, “represents the newest expansion of America’s stealth war against jihad in Africa.” Its existence was announced by President Obama last October. Joshua Hammer, the first Western journalist to visit the place since Obama’s announcement, reports on what’s going on. [The Intercept]
The “wide ranging views among the political spectrum in Libya” are making it harder for the US to root out Islamic State there. Representative Adam Schiff raised the point on Thursday that Islamic State may become “so firmly entrenched that we have to embark in [sic] the same multi-year process that we are undertaking in Iraq and Syria,” in response to which intelligence leaders reiterated that the goal was to combat Islamic State while also supporting the formation of an effective central government. [The Hill’s Julian Hattem]
“In war, you can’t declare premature victory and go home.” President Obama is making the same mistake in Libya as he made in Iraq and Aghanistan, where US troops remain despite declarations that the wars there are over, suggests the Wall Street Journal editorial board.
Russia “wants to rewrite” the “agreed rules of international order,” General Philip Breedlove, the top US Commander in Europe has said. He was speaking to the House Armed Services Committee, yesterday, in support of the quadrupled funding request for the European Reassurance Initiative included in the Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal 2017, which is geared toward deterring Russian aggression. [The Hill’s Rebecca Kheel]
Meanwhile, NATO is warning of a “lack of progress” in the alliance’s plan to reinforce itself against Russian aggression. Members of the alliance are hampered by “chronic underfunding” and “deficiencies” in their militaries, according to a report produced by the Atlantic Council of six defense experts. [Financial Times’ Sam Jones]
The UN Security Council met yesterday to discuss the draft resolution submitted by the US and China imposing new sanctions on North Korea. US Ambassador Samantha Power called it “the strongest set of sanctions in two decades.” The resolution is expected to be adopted this weekend, according to US officials. [Wall Street Journal’s Farnaz Fassihi; BBC]
The US has test-fired its second ballistic missile in a week, intending, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, to send a reminder to rivals such as Russia and North Korea of the US’ nuclear arms capabilities. The unarmed Minuteman III missile was launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California last night. [Reuters’ David Alexander]
UK Prime Minister David Cameron “boasted” of successful exports of Eurofighter Typhoon military planes and other “brilliant things” to Saudi Arabia, yesterday, just as the European Parliament voted in favor of an EU-wide ban on selling arms to that country. Compliance with the ban is not compulsory, however. [The Guardian’s Rowena Mason]
America’s use of armed drones remains “one of the least understood aspects of American security policy.” No progress has been made in terms of making the program more transparent and accountable following recommendations by a bipartisan panel of military and intelligence experts in mid-2014, according to the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank charged with measuring progress on the implementation of the recommendations. [New York Times’ Carol Giacomo]
Words are not enough. Charles Krauthammer is deeply critical of President Obama’s response to international crises, arguing the President is too focused on his intended “legacy” of “climate change, Gitmo and Cuba.” [Washington Post] Roger Cohen is almost as critical of what he calls Obama’s “implicit” foreign policy, which has been far too restrained. [New York Times]
No-one is thinking about Israel and Palestine any more, despite the numerous attacks by individual Palestinians against Israelis, say Dennis Ross and David Makovsky. The ongoing problems have been overshadowed by the threat from Islamic State and other international conflicts, yet they are not going to go away. [Washington Post]
“Extreme cruelty and viciousness” is the stance Burundi security forces are increasingly taking against those whom they suspect oppose the government, according to a report from Human Rights Watch. People are being beaten and abducted, and victims have been buried in mass graves. [New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman]