The Early Edition: June 3, 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

The Syrian army backed by Russian airstrikes has advanced toward the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa, Syria, a local monitoring group has reported. At the same time, US-backed militias including the Kurdish YPG are engaged in a separate attack against Islamic State in Raqqa and nearby Aleppo province, a part of which was the push toward Manbij city this week. [Reuters’ Tom Perry] Russia has increased its attacks in northern and western Syria over the last week, but the US has doubts that it is targeting terrorists, as it claims. A US intelligence official tells journalists that it has instead been joining the Assad regime in targeting “the moderate opposition.” [The Daily Beasts’ Nancy A Youssef] Splits among the parties fighting the Islamic State threaten to undermine potential gains to be made in assaults against its strongholds, reports Martin Chulov in the Guardian.

Meanwhile, Iraqi forces are making slow progress in retaking Fallujah from the Islamic State, slowed down by a lack of supporting air strikes, on which they are “heavily dependent,” but which have been held back due to the number of civilians remaining in the city. [AP’s Qassim Abdul-Zahra]

The Islamic State is creating an “alternative narrative” about the Iraqi government’s Fallujah offensive: that it is a “Shia-based action which will wipe out Sunnis,” writes Janine di Giovanni in The Guardian. There is a risk that the marginalized Sunni population in Fallujah and throughout Iraq, already alienated from the Iraqi state, will become further disenfranchised. This, says di Giovanni, plays right into Islamic State’s “master plan” of making Sunnis believe they are their “protectors.”

The “most influential commander” in Iraq’s “parallel army” the largely Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces – or PMF – is “an Iran-trained jihadist the US wants far from the battlefield.” Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes is listed as a terrorist by the US, whom it believes “threatens to destabilize Iraq” with his close ties to Iran, his pro-Shiite agenda, and his rapidly expanding influence. [Wall Street Journal’s Nour Malas] 

Top adviser to President Bashar al-Assad, Bouthaina Shaaban appeared via videolink at an antiterrorism news conference held in Washington yesterday. She reportedly defended Assad’s government “defiantly,” attacked Obama for a lack of commitment in tackling Islamic State, and blamed Western media for creating a “false narrative” about Syria and its president. Julie Hirschfeld Davis calls her performance “a direct challenge to the approach the Obama administration has taken in Syria” where it has been backing rebel factions and overseeing international peace talks aimed at political transition in Syria. [New York Times]

The UN has confirmed it has no plans to deliver air drops of aid to Syria, despite the fact that the deadline imposed on Syria’s government by the International Syria Support Group – which includes the US, Russia and the UN – to allow humanitarian access expired on Wednesday. [New York Times’ Nick Cumming-Bruce and Rick Gladstone] Syrian activists suspect that the UN is reluctant to antagonize the Russians, which it regards as the only party with enough influence to be able to persuade the Syrian government to allow humanitarian access, reports Patrick Wintour for the Guardian.

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out 15 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on June 1. Separately, partner forces conducted 17 strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

GUANTANAMO BAY

Mohamedou Ould Slahi, writer of the best-selling Guantánamo Diary,” appeared before Guantánamo Bay’s Periodic Review Board yesterday. Abu Zubaydah – whom the CIA is known to have subjected to waterboarding – was also due to make his first public appearance since his capture in 2002, but his parole hearing was abruptly postponed. [New York Times’ Matthew Rosenberg and Charlie Savage; Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg] The review boards, or PRBs, evaluate whether certain detainees still pose enough of a threat to the US to warrant indefinite detention.

Separately, a 9/11 pretrial hearing was convened at Camp 7, with focus on the evidence of Hassan Guleed that he and other inmates at the notorious prison have been subject to “mental torture” in the form of sounds and vibrations. His testimony was intended to support allegations by 9/11 defendant Ramzi Binalshibh that he has been intentionally sleep deprived – interfering with his ability to participate in his defense. [AP’s Ben Fox]

ISRAEL and PALESTINE

France-led talks aimed at reviving the peace process between Israel and Palestine began in Paris today, officials from the Middle East Quartet, the UN, the Arab League and other countries also attending. Israel and Palestine, however, are not participating. Ahead of the conference, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said negotiations between Israel and Palestine do not work because “the way is blocked.” The aim of today’s talks is to lay the foundations for a fully-fledged conference at the end of the year. [BBC]  Secretary of State John Kerry will attend the talks “to learn and listen,” but not to lead. [Washington Post’s William Booth and Carol Morello]

In an “apparent snub” to the talks, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has voiced his support for an existing, 14-year-old Arab peace plan. He rejected the French talks as soon as they were announced. [France 24]  Israel has been pushing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to mediate in an attempt to revive the Arab states-led initiative to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. [Wall Street Journal’s Rory Jones and Tamer el-Ghobashy]

Palestinians are supportive of the talks, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat writing recently that the old method of bilateral talks had failed and that it was time to move to a “multilateral framework.” [Reuters’ Dan Williams and Yeganeh Torbati]  Palestine has also approached the Egyptian President, but with an invitation to play a key role in the French initiative. [Wall Street Journal’s Rory Jones and Tamer el-Ghobashy]

AFGHANISTAN

New tactics are winning the Taliban ground in southern Afghanistan: first, they storm a checkpoint on a road leading to a remote village, kill the police officers, seize their weapons and effectively take control of the road, planting bombs. Then, they wait. Eventually, as food supplies run out, the villages are forced to leave, and the Taliban are free to move in. [AP’s Mirwais Khan and Lynne O’Donnell]

The Afghan government is “indirectly but knowingly” funding the Taliban via its marble industry, reports Sune Engel Rasmussen. Large marble reserves in Helmand are under Taliban control. The government, determined to maintain the marble business, purchases it from private companies, which then pay the Taliban taxes and for extraction rights. [The Guardian]

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

The FBI is “still demanding” warrantless access to customers’ email records despite being told it didn’t have the authority to do so by the Justice Department in 2008, according to national security letters disclosed publicly by Yahoo on Wednesday. [The Intercept’s Jenna McLaughlin]

The Botnet Protection Act, a stand-alone bill that would grant the US government new authorities to hack computers has attracted the criticism of tech advocacy groups. Fourteen advocacy groups wrote a letter to lawmakers on Wednesday saying the bill, introduced last month, “could result in severe collateral damage, and would give users no recourse if their systems are harmed.” The letter also questions whether the provisions might lead to more government surveillance.  [The Hill’s Joe Uchill]

EUROPE

German police have charged four Syrians in connection with a plot to commit a terrorist attack in Düsseldorf on behalf of Islamic State. At least two of the men arrived in Germany as refugees. One, charged with supporting the plot, is in custody in France. [New York Times’ Melissa Eddy]  German police are currently investigating 180 terror suspects who have either returned from Syria or who have links to militant groups in the country, it’s Justice Ministry said today. [Reuters’ Michael Nienaber and Joseph Nasr]

Belgium’s interior minister visited New York police officials and counterterrorism experts yesterday as part of a “growing collaboration” in the face of the threat of terrorism. [New York Times’ Rick Gladstone]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Global terror attacks were down by 13% in 2015, according to the US State Department, which announced the release of the Country Reports on Terrorism yesterday. It attributed the drop to fewer attacks in Iraq, Pakistand and Nigeria. [BBC]

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said that Tehran has no intention of cooperating on regional issues with the US or the UK, its main enemies. He also accused the US of a lack of commitment to the nuclear deal reached in 2015. [Reuters]

Classified nondisclosure agreements signed by two of Hillary Clinton’s State Department aides, in which they promised to protect classified information, were released by the Republican National Committee yesterday. [The Hill’s Julian Hattem].  A federal judge ordered the Obama administration to release new emails connected to Hillary Clinton on Wednesday, following a FOIA request by the Republican National Committee. [The Hill’s Julian Hattem]  The Obama administration attempted to stop the lawsuit, arguing that the FOI request was “excessively broad” and would require them to go through 1.5 million pages of files. [The Hill’s Julian Hattem]

North Korea’s recent, unsuccessful, missile launches were part of a “frantic drive” by leader Kim Jong-un to increase his political standing in the lead up to a visit to Beijing by his confidante Ri Su-yong yesterday, analysts believe. [New York Times’ Choe Sang-Hun]

China’s warships are to join large-scale US-hosted naval drill the Rim of the Pacific exercise this summer, despite ongoing tensions between the two nations over the South China Sea. [Reuters’ Ben Blanchard]

The US need a “serious and credible response” if Chine flouts an adverse ruling on the legality of its efforts to dominate the South China Sea by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, says the Wall Street Journal editorial board. The judgment is expected within weeks, though the Court does not have power to settle sovereignty claims. 

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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