The Early Edition: May 31, 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

Syria peace talks. Chief Syrian opposition negotiator Mohammad Alloush resigned from the UN-backed peace talks on Sunday, citing the international community’s failure to progress toward ending the conflict in Syria, and ongoing hostilities on the part of the regime. The move does not bode well for the success of the talks, report Dana Ballout and Raja Abdulrahim. [Wall Street Journal]

Retaking Fallujah. Iraqi ground forces backed by US-led military aircraft are meeting stiff resistance in their attempt to drive the Islamic State from the Iraqi city of Fallujah that kicked off yesterday. Islamic State fighters used tunnels, car bombs, and snipers to engage Iraqi troops in a four-hour battle this morning, according to the AP. For the past week, Iraqi forces have been reclaiming districts on the outskirts of the city, creating a “ring of steel” around the Islamic State fighters who retain control of the city itself, according to the most recent reports. [Wall Street Journal’s Nour Malas; The Guardian’s Kareem Shaheen; BBC]

Regaining Fallujah would be a “psychological boost” for Iraq’s so-far unproven military, writes Rebecca Collard in the Financial Times. There are reportedly fewer than a thousand Islamic State fighters in the city, while Iraqi soldiers and their allies surrounding them number in the thousands. Even so, the battle “will not be easy:” The Islamic State has an advantageous position, and there are tens of thousands of civilians still within the city.

The composition of the forces – militias bound to the Shia regime and close to its allies in Damascus – fighting Islamic State in Fallujah and in Raqqa, Syria, both Sunni cities, is “intensifying sectarian and ethnic tensions” risks helping the Islamic State “gain legitimacy as a defender of Sunnis,” suggests Hassan Hassan. [Financial Times]

Russia has reportedly drafted a constitution for Syria, with the “blessing” of the US. Leaked extracts indicate that the constitution promises a future that is “molded out of the will and interests of the Syrian regime and its allies” and does little to “disincentivize violence” or “create the basis for a post-conflict political system that enjoys the support of and legitimacy by Syrians,” reports Al Jazeera‘s Samer Abboud. The Syrian presidency denies the existence of the constitution.

Russian airstrikes on the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib Monday evening have caused mass casualties and have sparked fresh violence. This was the heaviest attack since a cessation of hostilities was agreed in February. [AP’s Bassem Mroue; Reuters’ Tom Perry]

The Kurdish offensive against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq is being supported by elite US soldiers. But how far will the Kurds go, and with what consequences, asks Florian Neuhof in The Daily Beast. The long-term goal, he reports, is to carve out a larger Kurdistan from a “disintegrating Iraq.”

PAKISTAN, AFGHANISTAN and THE TALIBAN

The Taliban captured almost 200 bus and vehicle passengers near Kunduz city, Afghanistan, this morning, though the precise details vary from source to source. It appears that the militants abducted the travelers at a checkpoint set up to stop the vehicles. The fate of the hostages remains unclear. [Khaama Press]

Over 50 Afghan police officers have been killed in and around Helmand over the weekend and on Monday, as the Taliban embarked on its first major offensive since the accession of new leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada. [Al Jazeera]

The brother of a Pakistani man killed alongside ex-Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in a US drone strike is seeking a police investigation into his brother’s death. Muhammed Azam was driving Mansour in Pakistan’s Noshki district on May 21 when a US drone strike killed them. Azam’s brother claims he was simply a taxi driver with no connection to the Taliban. [Washington Post]

GUANTANAMO BAY

The Pentagon’s top two officials issued a statement supporting the independence of Guantánamo Bay’s war court on Friday, a response to the 9/11 trial judge’s ruling that a ban on physical contact between female guards and detainees would be extended to October 28 in light of several instances of apparent “unlawful influence” over the court by the officials, and his invitation to “take appropriate action to absolve any taint” caused by their criticism of the temporary restraining order. [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]

Claims that Guantánamo Bay’s notorious Camp 7 is falling apart were a “big mistake,” according to the detention center’s current commander. Billions of dollars were requested to refurbish the prison, following a report which officials are now saying was “not based on sound engineering analysis.” Camp 7 houses prisoners currently involved in the 9/11 pretrial hearings, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed. [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]

ISRAEL and PALESTINE

Hamas executed three Palestinians at dawn this morning who were sentenced to death for the murder of Israelis. The killings have been condemned by local and international human rights groups. [Reuters]

A 17-year-old Palestinian has been arrested after stabbing and lightly wounding an Israeli soldier in central Tel Aviv yesterday. [AP]

EUROPE

The French jihadists who allegedly groomed one of the November Paris attackers went on trial yesterday. The seven defendants are part of a 10-person network, the leader of which was killed in the Bataclan concert hall on the night of the attacks. [AP’s Lori Hinnant]

Spanish police have arrested a man on suspicion of promoting Islamist militancy via social media, Spain’s Interior Ministry have stated. The man is from Pakistan. [Reuters’ Paul Day]

NORTH KOREA

North Korea made a failed attempt to launch a missile this morning, according to South Korean officials. [AP; The Guardian’s Justin McCurry]

Uganda has agreed to cut military and police ties with North Korea, depriving it of a crucial base for arms exports in Africa. The move is the result of UN sanctions, Uganda’s foreign minister said. [New York Times’ Choe Sang-Hun]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden performed a “public service” when he engineered “one of the biggest document leaks in American history” in June 2013, because it sparked a debate over government surveillance techniques, former US attorney general Eric Holder has told “The Axe Files” host David Axelrod. He insisted that Snowden should still be punished, however. [The Guardian’s Amanda Holpuch]

NATO will increase its defensive and deterrent presence in Poland during an upcoming “landmark summit,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed yesterday, though no decision as to the number of troops has been made. [AP]

Saudi Arabia intercepted a ballistic missile fired from Yemen by Houthi rebels, the Saudi-led military coalition confirmed last night. It added that the move may force it to rethink the truce that has been in place since April. [AP’s Ahmed Al-Haj]

Libyan forces loyal to the UN-brokered government have captured the town of Ben Jawad from Islamic State. Fighting continues for the nearby town of Nawfiliyah. [Al Jazeera]

A distress signal was received from EgyptAir Flight 804 before it crashed on May 19, Egyptian authorities have confirmed. The signal was picked up by satellites minutes after the plane disappeared from radar, and the coordinates are now being used to narrow down the search area. [The Guardian]

Hissène Habré, former dictator of Chad, was found guilty of crimes against humanity, summary execution, torture and rape yesterday following a “landmark” trial in Senegal, which marked the culmination of an over 20-year campaign to hold him accountable for the suffering and death he inflicted while controlling Chad between 1982 and 1990. [New York Times’ Dionne Searcey; The Guardian’s Ruth MacLean]

Two men have been found guilty of masterminding February’s bombing of an airliner in Mogadishu, Somalia, forcing it to make an emergency landing with a hole in its fuselage. The attack was claimed by al-Shaabab, and killed one passenger. [AP]

A Virginia cabbie has handed up to 48 years in prison for providing support for terrorists after he drove a would-be Islamic State fighter to the airport. The taxi driver was never actually in contact with Islamic State, only three informants who helped to catch him and his passenger. The case raises questions over the government’s use of informants, suggests Murtaza Hussain. [The Intercept] 

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About the Author(s)

Zoë Chapman

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security, Legal Researcher at UK-based human rights organization, JUSTICE