The Early Edition: April 22, 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

Fierce clashes broke out between Syrian government forces and Kurdish militias yesterday in Syria’s northeastern tip, the latest violence as renewed fighting spreads across Syria, reports Anne Barnard. Before this fighting, forces loyal to Assad and the Kurds had largely avoided direct conflict, the Kurds focused on pushing back ISIS. [New York Times]  Wladimir Van Wilgenburg provides insights from the front lines of this new “sideshow conflict.” [The Daily Beast]

Moscow has deployed troops to fight alongside Kurdish forces in the northwest of Syria and is providing weapons to Kurds in Iraq, part of efforts to maintain a foothold in the region and potentially threatening the long-standing US alliance with Kurdish groups. Thomas Grove and Ben Kesling provide the details. [Wall Street Journal]

Russia has also deployed artillery close to Aleppo, deepening US concerns about the Kremlin’s agenda in Syria, and whether President Vladimir Putin really backs the UN-brokered peace process or whether it is a mask for continued support of the Assad regime. [Reuters’ Jonathan Landay and Phil Stewart]

The partial Syrian ceasefire – President Obama’s “most tangible success” in the intractable Syrian conflict – is quickly unraveling, comments Nahal Toosi, writing that the Obama administration is facing “I told you so” criticisms from bipartisan lawmakers. [Politico]

Iraq’s parliament is in “turmoil,” writes Erika Solomon, discussing a row over attempted reforms of the “government’s deeply corrupt patronage system.” [Financial Times]

Iraqi forces based south of Baghdad are prepared to fight ISIS in Mosul, but are waiting for the government to provide the heavy weapons needed. Missy Ryan discusses a visit paid by Gen Joseph F. Dunford Jr, the chief US military officer, who was reviewing training efforts at the base at Besmaya yesterday. [Washington Post]

US-led airstrikes continue. The US and coalition nations carried out three strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on April 20. Separately, partner forces conducted a further 21 strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

SAUDI ARABIA

President Obama in Saudi Arabia. At the end of a two-day summit on security, President Obama said that he intends to continue to strengthen security cooperation with US allies in the Persian Gulf, while also encouraging the Arab nations to conduct domestic reforms and develop their ability to defend themselves. [New York Times’ Michael D. Shear and Ben Hubbard]  Obama added that the US and its Gulf allies share a “common vision” for the Middle East, while differing on tactical issues. [Wall Street Journal’s Colleen McCain Nelson et al]  Full statement available here.

Sen Chris Murphy has expressed skepticism over Saudi Arabia’s commitment to fighting groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, warning that the war in Yemen is distracting Riyadh from fighting extremists. Zaid Jilani and Alex Emmons report. [The Intercept]

The Economist comments on the brevity of President Obama’s trip to Riyadh, noting that the president did little to reassure America’s Arab allies, who “in turn can’t wait to see him go.”

“The 28 pages should be released immediately.” The New York Times editorial board argues for the full declassification of the Congressional investigation into the 9/11 attacks, even should it implicate Riyadh and Saudi citizens in the terrorist attack.

“A nation’s immunity from lawsuits in the courts of another nation is a fundamental tenet of international law.” Curtis Bradley and Jack Goldsmith make the case for why Congress should not pass a bill exposing Saudi Arabia to lawsuits in American courts over purported links to 9/11. [New York Times]

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

The FBI paid the group that helped it hack into the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers “at least $1.3 million,” or more than Director James Comey will earn over the remainder of his time in the job, he admitted at a technology conference in London yesterday. [New York Times’ Eric Lichtblau and Katie Benner; Financial Times’ Murad Ahmed]

Edward Snowden has asked a Norwegian court for a ruling that the espionage charges filed against him by the US will not constitute grounds for extradition. The former NSA contractor, who has been charged with leaking classified documents to the media, is hoping to travel from Russia to Norway to collect a free-speech prize. [Wall Street Journal’s Kjetil Malkenes Hovland]

IRAN

“The ruling has mocked [international] law.” A spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry reacted angrily to Thursday’s US Supreme Court ruling that Iran’s central bank must pay almost $2 billion to US victims of terror attacks, stating that it “amounts to appropriation of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s money.” [New York Times’ Rick Gladstone]

US sanctions are undermining one of the main goals of the nuclear deal: “to draw Iran out of its international isolation,” Europeans say, because they are preventing them from doing business with Iran. They also blame US visa restrictions, which make it harder for them to enter the US if they have previously traveled to Iran, for making it virtually impossible to reach agreements with Iranian businesses . [New York Times’ Thomas Erdbrink]

ISRAEL and PALESTINE

The teenager accused of detonating a bomb on a bus in Jerusalem this week does not fit the profile of a Hamas operative, reports William Booth, who has been speaking to Abdel Hamid Abu Srour’s family, who are well-to-do merchants. [Washington Post]

France intends to arrange a meeting of European, US, Middle Eastern and Asian foreign ministers to lay the groundwork for renewed peace talks between Israel and Palestine at the end of May. If the meeting is a success, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said, he will then host an international conference including Israeli and Palestinian leaders later this year during which peace talks will begin. [Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Dalton]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The UK will be “more effective” at fighting terrorism if it remains part of the EU, according to President Obama, who landed in the UK last night for a three-day visit during which he is expected to voice his support for the UK’s continued membership of the EU ahead of the June 23 referendum. [BBC]  Obama’s “undemocratic” intervention has caused outrage among those politicians campaigning to exit. [Wall Street Journal’s Colleen McCain Nelson and Jenny Gross]

“Here in Europe, reassurance is good but what we really need to focus on is deterrence.” US Air Force officials met with French counterparts in Paris this week to discuss increased military exercises and an assessment of recent drills to improve their ability to deter increasing Russian aggression. [Wall Street Journal’s Julian E Barnes]

The 2003 invasion of Iraq “undoubtedly increased the threat” of terrorist attacks in the UK, then-head of MI5 Lady Manningham-Buller said in evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, whose report has finally been delivered to the Cabinet Office after years of delay, reports Richard Norton-Taylor. [The Guardian]

CIA Director John Brennan arrived unannounced in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina to speak to officials from the country’s anti-terrorism group, today. [AP]

Islamic State has “left” Derma, a key city in eastern Libya, rival group Hafeth al-Dabaa has said. Derma has been the site of a three-way conflict between the two militant groups and Libyan eastern government forces. [BBC]

A long-running lawsuit seeking access to details of US drone operations was dismissed yesterday, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit citing “national security” as justification for the government’s continued withholding of the information. [Washington Post’s Ann E Marimow]

An Islamic State operative instructed a US citizen to kill Pamela Geller, organizer of a “Muhammad cartoon contest” in Texas, last year, the Justice Department revealed yesterday. Usaamah Abdullah Rahim and two others had been in contact with Junaid Hussain, a British Islamic State militant, and had agreed to behead Geller. Rahim later changed his mind and attacked a police officer instead, at which point he was shot and killed. [Washington Post’s Adam Goldman]

Nicholas Rovinski, a surviving plotter, operated from inside jail, having met Rahim and the third man, David Wright, online. [NBC News’ Pete Williams]

World leaders are “scared” of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, according to US officials, who say that Trump is the first topic of conversation at government-to-government meetings, foreign leaders desperate to know what Trump’s winning would mean for US foreign policy. [Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere and Bryan Bender]

Genuinely better relations driven by trade and economics between the US and Cuba may be “a question of ‘when,’ rather than ‘if’,” suggests John Culhane, despite Fidel Castro’s speech over the weekend urging Cubans to remain “alert, today more than ever.” [Politico] 

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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