The Early Edition: August 17, 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

Russia has launched airstrikes in Syria from an Iranian airbase for the second day in a row today, rejecting US suggestions its cooperation with Tehran might violate a UN resolution. [Reuters]  Russia’s foreign minister has insisted that there are no grounds to suggest UN Security Council resolution 2231 has been violated. [Reuters]

Russia’s use of an Iranian airbase to launch its bombers heading for Syria underscores Russia’s ambitions for greater influence in the Middle East and the two countries’ – both staunch allies of President Assad – advancing military ties, suggest Erin Cunningham and Karen DeYoung at the Washington Post.

A convoy carrying as many as 200 Islamic State fighters out of Manbij escaped US and Syrian airstrikes over concerns for civilian casualties, Army Col. Chris Garver, spokesperson for the coalition, said yesterday. He said the convoy traveled north, and was still being tracked. [The Hill’s Kristina Wong]

Hezbollah’s use of cheap commercial drones to bomb Syrian rebels in Aleppo should serve as a warning to the US that such weapons could soon be seen above battlefields worldwide, suggests David Axe at The Daily Beast. The drones are cheap – $200 – easy to procure, and simple to operate. The Pentagon agrees: “I personally believe that the unmanned platform is going to be one of the most important weapons of our age,” US Navy Capt. Vincent Martinez said last year.

The recapture of Manbij will serve as a model for future US-backed operations in Syria, reports the Washington Post’s Missy Ryan. US officials said the Manbij offensive demonstrated the value of the small force of American Special Operations troops currently on the ground in Syria, coordinating airstrikes and advising Syrian forces during the urban fighting.

The time has come for NATO to invoke its self-defense clause against the Islamic State, Dianne Feinstein writes in the Wall Street Journal. As the Islamic State shifts its strategy toward attacking Western countries via suicide bombings and other attacks, NATO allies should create a “rapid-reaction force” to counterattack. Currently, only seven of the US’s 27 NATO allies have joined it in directly attacking the group.

President Obama has reneged on his pledge to stand by the Syrian people as they were being “subjected to unspeakable violence” at the hands of the Syrian government and its Russian allies, accuses the Washington Post editorial board, referring to a 2012 speech Obama made in which he said that preventing mass atrocities is a core national security and moral responsibility of the US.

Iraqi Kurdish forces have retaken the village of Qarqashah, east of Islamic State-held Mosul, in an operation completed Monday. Qarqashah is one of several villages surrounding Mosul retaken this week in operations aimed at setting the scene for an advance on the Islamic State stronghold. Susannah George and Balint Szlanko at the AP report on the current situation in Iraq. 

TURKEY

Over 2,000 police officers have been dismissed by two decrees issued by Turkey’s government under the state of emergency following last month’s attempted coup. Also included in the decrees was a decision to close the Telecommunications Directorate, and the decision that the president will appoint the head of the armed forces. [Hürriyet Daily News]

Turkey is to release around 38,000 prisoners, a move apparently made to make room for the thousands of people arrested as part of the post-failed coup purge, reports the AP. A decree ordering their release was issued under the three-month state of emergency declared following the coup, and allows the release of inmates who have two or less years to serve and makes convicts who have served half their terms eligible for parole. Those convicted of particularly serious violent crimes are excluded.

German authorities are concerned that the association of Turkish mosques in Germany are attempting to drum up support for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Following the coup attempt, the association published a sermon praising “our noble nation” for rising up against “a wretched network” – alluding to followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen – that had “sown seeds of sedition, rebellion and hostility.” The sermon was supplied to Turkish mosques at home and abroad by the Ankara-based Presidency of Religious Affairs, report the Wall Street Journal’s Marcus Walker and Ruth Bender.

GUANTANAMO BAY

The Guantánamo parole board has approved the indefinite detention of “forever prisoner” Ismael Ali Faraj Ali Bakush, its decision stating he played a “significant role” in al-Qaeda operations. Bakush has been at Guantánamo Bay since August 5, 2002, and has never been charged. [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]

President Obama will likely fall short of his plan to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility before he leaves office, according to NBC News’ Courtney Kube and Halimah Abdullah. Reasons include congressional opposition to transferring ex-detainees to US soil and difficulties finding other countries to host the roughly 20 prisoners currently eligible for transfer. The administration has said it hopes to transfer the “irreducible minimum” of detainees that cannot be released to a maximum security facility in the US.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

The apparent hack of NSA computer codes by group the “Shadow Brokers” could pose serious consequences for the agency’s operations and the security of government and corporate computers, warns Ellen Nakashima at the Washington Post. The released information includes several “exploits” – in this case, tools for taking control of firewalls in order to control networks – and was probably taken back in 2013, experts have said. The top-secret NSA computer codes used by the agency to break into the networks of foreign governments appeared to have been released on websites Monday by a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers. Most experts have reportedly said the posts contained what appear to be genuine, if outdated, samples of the code used to produce the NSA’s custom-built malware, reports David E. Sanger at the New York Times. In the wake of the Shadow Brokers’ claim to be auctioning off the source code, WikiLeaks tweeted that it “had already obtained the archive of NSA cyber weapons released earlier today and will release our own pristine copy in due course.” [The Hill’s Joe Urchill]

The release of the NSA software is probably a message from Moscow, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden said yesterday via Twitter, suggesting Russians were behind the attack, which could be an attempt to head off US retaliation following allegations that the Kremlin is interfering in the US electoral process. [AP’s Raphael Satter]

If the US or any other country has a legal case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange it should no longer be held up by a procedural dispute, says the New York Times editorial board, now that Ecuador and Sweden have finally agreed that Swedish prosecutors can question him inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he has lived since 2012. Even if Assange is still reluctant to leave the Embassy after questioning, at least the focus of this “curious saga” will finally move toward the “serious legal, ethical and security issues at its core.”

YEMEN

An airstrike on a residential area of Yemen’s capital Sanaa killed 17 civilians yesterday, residents saying that Saudi-led coalition warplanes were responsible. [New York Times’ Rod Nordland]

The Houthis have condemned Tuesday’s airstrikes on a hospital in the northern Yemeni town of Abs as one of the many attacks on civilians carried out by Saudi “aggressors.” Saudi Arabian authorities, in turn, accused the Houthis of firing a missile from Yemen into Saudi’s southern border region, killing seven. [AP’s Ahmed Al-Haj]  The Houthi missile targeted a crowd at an industrial area of Najran, close to the Yemeni border, according to the Riyadh-based government-operated Ekhbariya television channel. [Al Jazeera]

The US is complicit in the bombing of Yemen while it sells arms to the Saudis, says the New York Times editorial board, which calls on Congress to put the sales on hold and President Obama to insist that the US will withdraw its assistance unless the Saudis stop targeting civilians and agree to help negotiate a peace.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

China and the ASEAN group of Southeast Asian nations intend to complete a framework code of conduct for the disputed South China Sea by the middle of next year, Chinese state media reported today. [Reuters]

UK-based radical Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary has been convicted of inviting others to support the Islamic State after UK counterterrorism chiefs spent almost 20 years trying to bring him to trial. The verdict was delivered on July 28 but can only be reported now that a separate trial has been concluded, says the BBC.  Choudary and his groups are believed to have convinced almost 100 people from the US to pursue terrorism, reports Vikram Dodd in the Guardian.

US-backed Somali forces killed several members of al-Shabaab in an attack on one of the group’s checkpoints in remote outpost Saakow last Wednesday, a US military spokesperson said yesterday. [New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman]

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power is disputing accounts that the US Embassy in South Sudan failed to react while South Sudanese forces allegedly raped, beat and robbed foreign aid workers, including US citizens, last month. Erik Ortiz reports for NBC News.

The FBI handed over the Congress its classified records from the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state yesterday, report Rachael Bade and Josh Gerstein at POLITICO. Among the material was a summary of the 3.5 hour interview with Clinton at FBI headquarters last month. The State Department has said it will release all of the work-related emails the FBI recovered from Clinton’s private server, reports Julian Hattem at the Hill.

The Islamic State is expanding into Southeast Asia, reports Paul Ehrlich at POLITICO. Organizations inspired by the Islamic State are already gaining ground in the region, including Indonesia and the Philippines, and a large number of Southeast Asians have returned to the region after fighting in Iraq and Syria.

Washington will not abandon diplomatic efforts to instigate a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, Daniel Baer, US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, writes in the Wall Street Journal. The latest effort has involved trying to secure a disengagement – a pullback of soldiers and weapons – in several hotspots on the front line, hopefully followed by a pullback along the entire line.

Military threats from Russia and China are driving a new arms race, writes David Ignatius at the Washington Post. The question of how to deal with Russian and Chinese military advances “deserves a careful look,” he writes, even though it hasn’t grabbed headlines and hasn’t received any attention in the 2016 presidential campaign, and strengthening US conventional forces might be the only way to avoid escalation to nuclear weapons if war ensues.

North Korea says it has resumed plutonium production by reprocessing spent fuel rods, and has no plans to stop nuclear tests while the US remains a threat, according to Japanese media. [Reuters]

Nicaragua says Russia has given it a number of 50 T-72 tanks free of charge as part of a security agreement between the two nations. [AP]

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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