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
Syria peace talks. Negotiations aimed at stabilizing the fragile ceasefire agreement and resuming peace talks began today in Vienna; Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov co-chairing a meeting of the International Syria Support Group. The 17-member group includes the UK, France, the EU and the Arab League, as well as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. [The Guardian’s Ian Black]
The meeting is not “expected to substantially advance efforts to find peace,” reports the AP, adding that no statement arising from the session is likely to tackle the future of President Bashar al-Assad.
Speaking on the talks, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that the intention is the improve “the conditions for the ceasefire and humanitarian aid so as to win the opposition over to negotiate with the regime in Geneva.” [Reuters’ John Irish and Lesley Wroughton]
Russia is building an army base in Palmyra, Syria, within the protected zone around the UNESCO world heritage-listed site, damaged by Islamic State before they were ousted by Syrian troops backed by Russian airstrikes in March. [AP]
Baghdad has been hit by two bomb attacks today, killing at least 44 people, say Iraqi police and medical sources. A suicide bombing in a marketplace in the district of al-Shaab killed 38 people while a car bomb in the neighborhood of al-Rasheed killed six. More than 90 have been wounded in both attacks. There was no immediate claim of responsibility though the attacks bear the hallmarks of Islamic State. [Reuters]
Fears are mounting among rebels and officials in the besieged Syrian town of Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, that government forces are planning an assault after the stopped an aid convoy from entering the town last week. [Reuters’ Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Lisa Barrington]
Congress is guilty of a “shameful abdication of responsibility” in failing to vote on the war against the Islamic State, charged Sen Tim Kaine (D-Va); Kaine has been the chief advocate for Congress to take on an ISIS-specific piece of war legislation. [The Hill’s Jordain Carney]
US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out six airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on May 15. Separately, partner forces conducted a further eight strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]
“Rarely in the past century have the shifting borders established by the agreement looked blurrier, and the effort to maintain them shakier.” David E. Sanger discusses the legacy of the Sykes-Picot agreement, at the New York Times.
Around 40% of the 25,000 Afghan troops listed as based in Helmand do not actually exist, a recent investigation by Helmand’s provincial council has found, with lists of the enlisted featuring made-up names and the names of dead men. Meanwhile, the Afghan border patrol has been left to fill the void. [The Guardian’s Sune Engel Rasmussen]
US funding for “reformed, deradicalized Islamist militants” in Afghanistan is drying up, report Tim Craig and Mohammad Sharif. Former Taliban fighters who handed over their weapons to US intelligence agents and moved into safe houses are being paid by the US to work with local officials to try to tempt other militants to change sides. There are fears that, if they are no longer paid, they will look elsewhere for money, and the efforts made so far will fail. [Washington Post]
Thousands of Afghan translators and others who risked their lives alongside US forces in Afghanistan are still waiting for visas that were approved by Congress in 2009. The Washington Post editorial board warns that the annual defense bill, recently sent to the floor of each chamber, contains a provision that will limit eligibility for new applications, and calls for the legislation to be amended.
The US and 20 nations are open to arming the UN-backed unity government in Libya to assist it as it struggles against the mounting threat posed by the Islamic State in that country. The move requires an exemption from a UN arms embargo; the Libyan government will have to submit a detailed list of weapons and equipment to the UN Security Council for approval. [BBC; Wall Street Journal’s Valentina Pop]
The Government of National Accord is the “only entity that can unify the country and address the economic crisis and humanitarian suffering,” commented Secretary of State John Kerry as he announced the decision. [Financial Times’ Geoff Dyer and James Politi]
CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY
SIDtoday. The Intercept is releasing copies of the NSA’s Signal Intelligence Directorate’s internal newsletter published since 2003, originally provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, and which it says explains “a surprising amount about what they were doing, how they were doing it, and why.” The first batch is available here.
The NSA worked with the military, the CIA, and other government agencies on interrogating detainees at Guantánamo Bay, the documents reveal. [The Intercept]
The newsletters, the first edition of which was released 11 days into the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, also show how the NSA “paved the way for the Iraq War with diplomatic intelligence” and “supported the targeting of specific enemies in Iraq.” [The Intercept]
US consumer tech products are being subjected to security reviews by Chinese authorities, which other countries usually reserve for technology that is to be used by the military and certain government departments. The covert nature of the reviews has fueled fears among the US government and technology companies that they are being used as a way of extracting tech knowledge as well. [New York Times’ Paul Mozur and Jane Perlez]
The CIA inspector general’s only electronic and hard disk copies of a Senate report on the CIA’s history of “brutal interrogation techniques” has been accidentally deleted. The CIA itself retains a copy of the report. [The Hill’s Julian Hattem]
Iran’s parliament has passed a bill requiring its government to demand compensation from the US for alleged damages caused by US policies, listing episodes such as US support for a 1953 military coup in Iran, the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s and confiscation of Iranian funds abroad via international sanctions. [AP]
Unarmed UK police in rural areas would be “sitting ducks” if terrorists attacked, according to a Police Federation chairman, referring to areas where power plants and other potential terrorist targets are located. The number of armed UK police has declined in the last few years due to funding cuts and, it is claimed, fears among police officers that they would be treated as criminal suspects if they used their weapons in the line of duty. [The Guardian’s Jamie Grierson] The Independent Police Complaints Commission has rejected the claims that it is responsible for putting off police officers from volunteering to carry a weapon. Vikram Dodd provides the details at the Guardian.
“What would Donald Trump mean for the US-UK special relationship?” Following Trump’s speculations during an interview on Monday that his relationship with UK Prime Minister David Cameron would not be a very good one, Sebastian Payne considers how Trump will deal with the “many tricky foreign policy issues” that the two nations’ relationship entails if he becomes the next US President, and whether he will choose to visit the UK – as many presidential candidates have done before – to “flaunt” US “foreign policy wares.” [Financial Times]
The remains of 13 killed when a truck carrying explosives blew up in mainly-Kurdish southeast Turkey on May 12 have been identified by Turkish authorities. The death toll following the blast is now at 16. [Reuters’ Seyhmus Cakan et al]
Almost one fifth of the bombers used by Boko Haram is a child, the UN has reported, a tenfold increase over the last year.
Former senator Bob Graham is on a “mission” to get the last 28-pages of a congressional 9/11 investigation report released, and his biggest obstacle so far has been the FBI, whom Graham, the co-chair of the investigation, has accused of “aggressive deception” over its treatment of the pages. [The Daily Beast’s Eleanor Clift]
US national security depends on “expanding economic opportunities” as well as its military capabilities, writes Robert B Zoellick, who consequently urges the US not to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which “draws together these two strands of strategy.” [Wall Street Journal]
An Islamist militant has been arrested for the hacking to death of an English professor at Rajshahi University by police in Bangladesh. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, which took place last month. [Reuters’ Ruma Paul]
Hours after Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed on the need for a peaceful end to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, soldiers on both sides were killed in the separatist region. [Reuters’ Lesley Wroughton and Michael Shields]