The Early Edition: March 15, 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

Russia to withdraw from Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the “main part” of his country’s troops to start withdrawing from Syria yesterday. The announcement came after a phone call between Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The move surprised the US, the Kremlin saying that it had achieved most of its objectives in the conflict-ridden country. [Wall Street Journal’s Nathan Hodge and Nour Malas; New York Times’ Neil MacFarquhar and Anne Barnard]

The first group of homebound Russian planes left Hmeymim airbase near Latakia today, the Russian defense ministry has announced. [The Guardian’s Shaun Walker and Patrick Wintour]

President Obama spoke with Putin about the “partial withdrawal” of troops yesterday, discussing the “next steps required to fully implement the cessation of hostilities,” according to a White House statement.

Iran has called Russia’s decision to withdraw a “positive sign,” though Foreign Minister Javad Zarif added that it was too early to gauge whether the start of peace negotiations suggests the war has turned a corner. [Wall Street Journal’s Rob Taylor]

The media weighs in. The New York Times editorial board observes that “one hopeful interpretation of Mr Putin’s decision is that it reflected a growing weariness with protracted engagement.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board suggests that Putin’s goal in Syria was to show Russia stands by its allies and to acquire new standing in the Middle East, concluding that “any more such quagmires and he’ll be back sipping cocktails at the next G-8 summit.” And Shaun Walker surveys the situation, noting that many commentators are unsure even whether to believe the withdrawal is for real. [The Guardian]

Syria peace talks. Peace negotiations in Geneva began yesterday with a meeting between government representatives and the UN special envoy to Syria. The meeting, which mainly discussed procedural issues was “positive and constructive,” according to Syria’s envoy. [Wall Street Journal’s Nour Malas]

The White House is considering the supply of emergency aid to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq; the KRG’s budget has been at breaking point due to low oil prices and the high cost of taking in people displaced by the fighting, among other factors. [Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous]

The House of Representatives adopted a resolution condemning ISIS for genocide and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for war crimes, measures which both put pressure on President Obama to take action. [Politico’s Nahal Toosi]

Top ISIS commander, Omar the Chechen, has died from wounds sustained in a US-led coalition airstrike in northeastern Syria, the Pentagon has confirmed. [AFP] 

Authorities in Sweden have filed criminal charges against a Syrian man accused of participating in the 2012 mass killing of Syrian soldiers; Hasam Omar Sakhanh traveled to Sweden in June 2013 and applied for asylum. [New York Times’ C. J. Chivers]

An American man has surrendered to Kurdish forces in northern Iraq; little is known of the man, including his identity, and there has been no indication that US authorities were aware of his presence there. [New York Times’ Kamil Kakol and Nicholas Fandos] He has been arrested by Kurdish forces for possible ties to ISIS. [Wall Street Journal’s Tamer El-Ghobashy and Ghassan Adnan]

US-led airstrikes continue. The US and coalition military forces carried out four strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on March 13. Separately, partner forces conducted a further 11 strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

ANKARA BOMB ATTACK

Turkey is “almost certain” that the PKK was responsible for Sunday’s car bombing attack in Ankara, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said yesterday. No group has claimed responsibility. [New York Times’ Ceylan Yeginsu and Tim Arango]

At least 45 Kurdish rebels were killed by Turkish airstrikes targeting Kurdish strongholds in Iraq, the military said today. [AP]

Turkey’s president has suggested that terrorism should be redefined to include those who provide support for terrorist acts. [BBC]

Ankara is facing threats on multiple fronts, reports Mehul Srivastava, commenting on the proliferation of security threats affecting the country. [Financial Times]

COTE D’IVOIRE ATTACK

Sunday’s attack in Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast, resulted in the deaths of 18 people including the three attackers and has left locals and tourists fearful. [AFP’s Evelyne Aka]

“The guys who were still outside started shooting and the two seated at the table yelled: ‘Allahu Akbar’ and flipped over a table.” Details of Sunday’s raid, the first al-Qaeda attack the Ivory Coast has experienced, are beginning to emerge via witness accounts. [Reuters]

An attack in one of West Africa’s “most flourishing states” marks a turning point in al-Qaeda’s focus, writes Drew Hinshaw. The group has previously focused on the region’s “weakest and poorest” states. The attack was not, however, a surprise for Ivorian officials, who have acknowledged that they had been warned by French officials for months that al-Qaeda was planning such an attack. [Wall Street Journal]

IRAN

Meeting yesterday, the UN Security Council was critical of Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests, but decided it need more technical information before deciding whether Iran’s actions are a violation of the resolution approved last year. [Wall Street Journal’s Farnaz Fassihi and Laurence Norman] Iran’s missile testing “merits a council response,” US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said following the Security Council meeting. [The Hill’s Rebecca Kheel]

Israel has also called on the UN to punish Iran, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon telling reporters that “Iran’s interests can no longer be hidden” and displaying a photo of an Iranian missile apparently inscribed with the phrase “Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth” in Persian and Hebrew. [New York Times’ Rick Gladstone]

Iran has the capability to launch a three-stage rocket carrying a satellite “at any minute,” a US official has told reporters. If such a launch were to go ahead, it would be Iran’s first of this configuration. [CNN’s Barbara Starr]

The Obama administration is due to indict the Iranian hackers responsible for infiltrating a New York dam in 2013, in what will be the first public step toward restraining Iran’s “rapidly developing” cyber program. [The Hill’s Cory Bennett]

NORTH KOREA

North Korea will soon conduct its fifth nuclear test, flight-testing ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, leader Kim Jong-un declared on the country’s state run news media this morning. He said the tests will be done to “further enhance the reliance of nuclear attack capability.” [New York Times’ Choe Sang-Hun; BBC]

China has reiterated its commitment to implementing UN sanctions against North Korea, calling for a “two track solution” involving pushing for nuclear disarmament while also engaging in peace talks with Pyongyang. [AP]

US soldiers practiced dealing with chemical weapons sites as part of the US-South Korea military exercises that began this weekend. [Washington Post’s Anna Fifield]

SURVEILLANCE, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

The Department of Justice demanded that Apple hand out the “source code” and “signing key” of its products and software, in last week’s court filing, a “carefully calibrated threat” which would give the government the ability to develop its own surveillance software. Joseph Menn explains at Reuters.

Fewer than 10% of the world’s Android phones are estimated to be encrypted, a situation Google is not satisfied with, reports Jack Nicas. [Wall Street Journal]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The international fight against terrorism is “eroding limits on presidential war-making powers.” Charlie Savage reports that the Obama administration considers that the Authorization for Use of Military Force against the 9/11 attackers, enacted by Congress in 2001, applied to the US airstrike on the al-Shabaab training camp in Somalia last week. It has also used the 15-year-old authorization to justify military actions against numerous other groups which it deems to be “sufficiently linked” to al-Qaeda. [New York Times]

Interviews with analysts have exposed a “toxic” and “hostile” climate at CENTCOM headquarters, some analysts claiming that they were “bullied” into reaching “conclusions that were favored by their bosses,” reports Nancy A Youssef. The disclosures come amid the long-running dispute over possible political influence on intelligence analysts’ assessments of the strength of Islamic State and the effects of US-led efforts to combat the group. [The Daily Beast]

US General John F Campbell has proposed a resumption of strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan, breaking with standard military procedure by forwarding his comments directly to the White House without informing Defense Secretary Ash Carter, senior Pentagon officials have revealed, marking the incident as an example of the “rift between the military and senior administration officials over the US role in the war in Afghanistan.” [Washington Post’s Missy Ryan and Greg Jaffe]

The US and Israel have agreed to increase cooperation to enhance both nations’ cyber defense capabilities following a meeting between Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon at the Pentagon yesterday, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook has announced.

A British vote to leave the EU could harm NATO, the head of the US army in Europe, Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges, has warned, speaking to the BBC.

Snooper’s Charter. The Investigatory Powers Bill, due to go before British Members of Parliament today, has been condemned by over 200 senior lawyers in a letter to the Guardian, reports Owen Bowcott. One of the key contentions is the issue of bulk interception warrants, which critics say compromise “the essence of the fundamental right to privacy and may be illegal.” [The Guardian]

France is due to face a “uniquely dangerous” terrorist threat when it hosts UEFA Euro 2016 (a European soccer tournament) this June, according to Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who is in charge of France’s police forces. [Wall Street Journal’s John Vinocur]

Terrorism is a possible motive behind a non-fatal stabbing attack on two Canadian Forces members at a recruitment center in Toronto yesterday, according to Toronto police. A 27-year-old man has been arrested. [National Post‘s Tristin Hopper]

The other Jihadis. While Western security agencies have been focusing on Islamic State, Al-Shabaab is “experiencing some of the most successful months of its recent history” in Somalia, reports Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens. [The Daily Beast]

A State Department IT official who has refused to answer Senate Republicans’ questions about former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server is being threatened with legal action by the leaders of the Senate Judiciary and Homeland Security committees, whose March 4 letter to the official’s lawyer was made public yesterday. [The Hill’s Julian Hattem]

China wants to increase internet security and anti-terrorism cooperation with the US, China’s public security minister told FBI Director James Comey at a meeting in Beijing yesterday. No further details of the conversation have been provided. [Reuters] 

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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