The Early Edition: March 18, 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 Putin described his country’s military campaign in Syria as a success, saying the upper hand had been regained by the Assad regime. Speaking extensively for the first time since the announced withdrawal of troops from Syria, he said the Russian military would remain engaged in counterterrorism and warplanes could redeploy at any moment. [New York Times’ Neil MacFarquhar and Anne Barnard; Wall Street Journal’s Thomas Grove et al]

Secretary of State John Kerry said ISIS is committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shi’ite Muslims; his statement yesterday fell on the deadline set last year by Congress for the Obama administration to determine whether or not atrocities committed by the group constitute genocide. The determination is unlikely to impact US policy, reports Matthew Rosenberg. [New York Times]

The Economist gives its view on the chances for success at the Syria peace talks currently being held in Geneva, exploring whether the country could be put back together “under some loose federal structure.”

Peaceful rallies have taken place in opposition-held parts of Syria, against not only the Assad regime but also the Nusra Front, “another despised authority they seek to topple.” [AP]

High-ranking ISIS commander Hassan Aboud has died from wounds sustained on the battlefield close to Aleppo, Syria several weeks ago, sources say. C. J. Chivers and Karam Shoumali report. [New York Times]

A captured American ISIS defector says he made a “bad decision” by following a woman to Iraq and says he left the militant group because he does not sympathize with its views. [NBC News’ Tracy Connor]

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out two airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on March 16. Separately, partner forces conducted a further 20 strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command] 

Russia’s Syria intervention proved the country’s military capabilities, reports Andrew Roth, exploring uses to which Putin might now try and put it. [Washington Post]

SURVEILLANCE, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY 

Apple’s engineers may refuse to write software to break into the phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters if the FBI wins its court battle with the tech giant, according to more than half a dozen current and former employees. [New York Times’ John Markoff et al]

The Senate Intelligence Committee may soon publish a draft of a long-awaited encryption bill; the bill, drafted by Sens Richard Burr and Dianne Feinstein, would compel companies to provide law enforcement with encrypted data. [The Hill’s Cory Bennett]

There are still “an overwhelming amount” of things the public does not know about the NSA’s surveillance regime, even after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations almost three years ago, according to a report published by surveillance researchers and privacy advocates this week. [The Intercept’s Jenna McLaughlin]

The NSA is “not interested” in spying on US citizens, according to the agency’s internal civil liberties watchdog. [The Hill’s Julian Hattem]

IRAN

The case for imposing further sanctions against Iran is weak, according to UN Security Council diplomats discussing the country’s recent missile launches. All six members agreed that the launches did not violate the resolution adopted last July. Nevertheless, the Security Council said it may issue a “public reprimand” to Iran. [Reuters]

A group of Republican senators were due to introduce a bill yesterday to sanction Iran, dissatisfied with what they see as the US’s “posture of wilful ignorance and inaction towards Iran’s terrorist activities, illegal missile testing, funding Assad’s war, and human rights abuses.” [The Hill’s Kristina Wong]

Defense Secretary Ash Carter described Iran’s seizure of 10 US soldiers in the Persian Gulf in January as “outrageous” and suggested it may have violated international law, during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. [New York Times’ Michael S. Schmidt] 

TURKEY

Turkey’s Prime Minister is to meet with the 28 EU national leaders today to finalize a deal to return refugees from Greece to Turkey, an agreement that has been met with legal, political and moral objections. [New York Times’ James Kanter]

Turkish bomb disposal experts have disabled an explosive device found in a vehicle parked outside a government building in Hani, in the Diyarbakir province, last night. [Reuters]

YEMEN CONFLICT

Houthi rebels attended secret peace talks in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi ambassador confirmed to the UN yesterday. Following the talks there was an exchange of prisoners. [Al Jazeera]

The Saudi-led military coalition is to scale back operations against rebels in Yemen, a Saudi military spokesperson has said, though it will continue to provide air support to Yemeni forces. [BBC]

CHINA

Chinese “activity” spotted near a reef it took from the Philippines almost four years ago could be the beginning of further land reclamation in the South China Sea, the head of US naval operations, Adm. John Richardson told reporters. He confirmed that the US is currently considering how to respond. [Reuters]

China is planning to build a nuclear recycling facility which recycles nuclear fuel into plutonium, raising concerns in the US. US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz was in Beijing yesterday for talks. The worry is that “the bigger the stockpiles of plutonium, the higher the risk that some of it could be refined for use in nuclear weapons or taken by terrorists,” reports Brian Spegele. [Wall Street Journal]

NORTH KOREA

North Korea fired another ballistic missile in to the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan today, according to the South Korean military. [Reuters’ Jack Kim and Ju-Min Park; New York Times’ Choe Sang-Hun]  Following news of the launch, Secretary of State John Kerry called on North Korea to desist in taking actions which exacerbate tensions in the region and to focus on fulfilling its international commitments.

A UN investigator has delivered a 15-point plan to deal with the “systematic and appalling” human rights abuses perpetrated by Kim Jong-un’s regime in North Korea, evidence of which was unearthed during his two-year investigation. Michael Kirby, a retired Australian judge, was speaking to a London conference on North Korea. [The Guardian’s Maeve Shearlaw]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Senate Torture Report. The government’s fight to bury a report detailing torture and ill-treatment of detainees by the CIA continued yesterday, lawyers arguing before the DC District Council of Appeals that the report must not be released on procedural grounds. The executive summary of the report was released over a year ago, causing international outcry, reports Alex Emmons. [The Intercept]

The California college student who committed a terror attack at his school last November may have “self-radicalized,” the FBI said yesterday. Investigations into Faisal Mohammad, who stabbed four people before he was shot by police, have found pro-Islamic State propaganda on his computer, and evidence that he had been visiting extremist websites in the weeks leading up to the attack. [NBC’s Andrew Blankstein; The Hill’s Rebecca Savransky]

Washington’s projection of Putin is “counterproductive and largely wrong,” says Anatol Lieven, arguing that the Russian president’s international military interventions have been over-blown by policy-makers and commentators. [New York Times]

A former German intelligence agent was sentenced to eight years in prison yesterday for acting as a triple agent for the US and Russia. Markus Reichel passed on over 200 documents to the CIA. [The Guardian’s Philip Oltermann]

Turn Guantánamo Bay into a “science lab and peace park,” two university professors have proposed in an article for “Science” journal published yesterday. The idea was prompted by the fact that “wildlife has been thriving” around the detention facility, and could serve to “unite Cuba and the United States in joint management, rather than serve as a wedge between them.” [The Guardian’s Amanda Holpuch; Motherboard’s Kate Lunau]

The UN has set out five steps for the full implementation of a peace deal between South Sudan’s warring factions. The UN has expressed concern over the failure of those concerned to implement the August 2015 Agreement, and has said that it will review progress on the steps in a month’s time.

New York state resident Mufid Elfgeeh was sentenced to 22-and-a-half years for attempting to recruit fighters to join Islamic State, the longest sentence given to an American for terrorism offences in connection with Islamic State to date. [Al Jazeera]

A US military helicopter made a “hard landing” in Helmand, Afghanistan, US Army Colonel Michael Lawhorn said today, giving no further details. There were no casualties. The Taliban claim to have shot down the helicopter. [AP]

GOP presidential candidates’ foreign policy advisers. Donald Trump claims he is “speaking with myself” but has otherwise remained elusive over the issue. [NPR]  Ted Cruz’s foreign policy team has been revealed, however, and it contains “conspiracy theorists and arch-neoconservatives” that make Ted Cruz “as extreme as Donald Trump,” according to Murtaza Hussain and Zaid Jilani. [The Intercept]

President Obama will unseal records that could expose US knowledge of Argentina’s “dirty war” of the 1970s and 80s, a senior adviser said yesterday, a move aimed at removing the “shroud of secrecy” which has surrounded that period in Argentina’s history. [New York Times’ Julie Hirschfeld Davis]

Morocco has given the UN a 72-hour deadline to remove 84 members of its mission from the Western Sahara territory, as the dispute which began with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s reference to Morocco’s presence in the area as “an occupation” continues to escalate. [New York Times’ Rick Gladstone] 

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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