The Early Edition: August 18, 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

Incendiary bombs packed with a substance similar to napalm have been used by the Syrian government in attacks on rebel-held parts of Aleppo, and Russia may also be using them, according to local council members, Syrian opposition activists and human rights groups. Unlike chemical weapons, incendiary bombs are not entirely banned, but Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons forbids their use in heavily-populated areas. Russia is a signatory to this agreement, though Syria is not, Anne Barnard reports for the New York Times.

The upcoming report of the UN “Joint Investigative Mechanism” into the use of chemical weapons in Syria is likely to put pressure on President Obama to revisit the “tricky” subject, including how to broach it with Russia. If Assad is labelled a perpetrator, UN Security Council member Russia is likely to block any effort to punish him. [POLITICO’s Nahal Toosi]

Russia’s use of an Iranian airbase to carry out airstrikes on targets in Syria does not violate a UN sanction vetoing the supply of fighter jets to Tehran, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted yesterday, in response to comments by US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner on Tuesday that Russia may be violating UN Security Council Resolution 2231. “There has been no supply, sale or transfer of combat jets to Iran,” he said. [Al Jazeera]

Iran’s politicians denied that the country has ceded territory to Russia by giving it basing rights, parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani emphasizing yesterday that the  two countries were, however, working closely together in Syria to support President Assad. The distinction illustrates the “lingering distrust of foreign interference in Iran,” suggest Asa Fitch and Aresu Eqbali at the Wall Street Journal.

The cooperation is another indication that Moscow and Tehran are consolidating their strategic ties post President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, says the Wall Street Journal editorial board, accusing Obama of standing by as a Moscow-Tehran-Damascus axis forms.

Jabhat al-Nusra has moved to ensure its indispensability and consolidate its influence over more moderate rebel groups in the battle for Aleppo, reports Hussein Ibish at the New York Times. Rebel groups have struggled to reorganize and recover from the heavy bombardment by the government backed by Russian and Iran, giving Jabhat al-Nusra – previously the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front – the opportunity to make its move. And the rebranding is nothing more than deft tactics, insists Ibish: whatever it’s called, the group retains its al-Qaeda ideology.

Top Chinese military officer Rear Adm. Guan Youfei met with Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij in Damscus on Sunday, followed the next day by a meeting with a Russian general responsible for coordinating his country’s military assistance to Assad, China’s media reported today. The meetings underscore Beijing’s support for fellow authoritarian governments and its concerns about the spread of religious militancy, suggests the AP’s Christopher Bodeen.

Turkey says it has come up with a three-step solution to end the Syrian war which will preserve the country’s territorial integrity, ensure non-sectarian governance and the return to home for Syrians. Al Jazeera reports.

Over 17,000 detainees have died in government custody in Syria over the past five years, according to a report by UK-based Amnesty International, which includes interviews with 65 survivors who report torture and inhuman conditions in security branches operated by Syrian intelligence agencies and in Saidnaya Military Prison, near Damascus. [AP]  Saidnaya Prison, Syria’s most notorious jail, has been a “black spot on the human rights map,” reports Oliver Wainwright at the Guardian. However, the Amnesty report includes an interactive digital model of the prison, constructed using “ear-witness” testimony.

“Does the US ignore its civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria?” Chris Woods at the New York Times suggests that many more noncombatants are perishing in the fight against the Islamic State than the government and its allies are prepared to admit, its tallies well below those of monitoring groups such as Airwars, Iraq Body Count and the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. 

TURKEY

Arrest warrants for 187 members of the business community were issued by Turkish police today, who also raided around 200 homes and workplaces as the post-coup crackdown continues. [Reuters]

Anti-Western sentiment in Turkey is high following the July 15 failed coup, a poll indicating that 84 per cent of Turks believe the coup-plotters had help from abroad, and over 70 per cent suspecting the US of having a hand in it. What is more, Western governments have only themselves to blame, according to the Economist. Apart from the US and Germany, many were slow to condemn the coup attempt. Even a visit to Ankara by vice-president Joe Biden was seen as too little, too late.

Turkish police have detained 10 senior members of the far-left militant group the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) in Istanbul this morning, according to a privately run media agency. [Reuters]

Three police officers were killed and 170 people injured by a car bomb at a police station in Turkey’s eastern city of Elazig this morning, Defense Minister Fikri Isik blaming the PKK. [Reuters]

Two car bombs targeting police stations in Turkey killed at least six and wounded at least 219 late yesterday, officials blaming the PKK. One attack took place in the eastern province of Van, followed by the bombing of a police headquarters in the eastern city of Elazig in the early hours of this morning. [AP]

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

The NSA has always been reluctant to disclose the undetected software flaws it relies on to breach the computers of foreign targets, despite security experts’ requests, report Ellen Nakashima and Andrea Peterson at the Washington Post. Now, with last weekend’s release of the NSA’s hacking tools and put large businesses and governments worldwide at risk.

“Even the most sophisticated intelligence agencies” can’t penetrate the encrypted messaging and hidden websites on the “dark web” used by extremist fighters returning home from abroad, potentially to carry out attacks, claims a UN report circulated yesterday, writes Edith M. Lederer at the AP.

IRAN

US officials withheld the $400 million cash payment to Iran early this year until three American prisoners had safely left Iran, the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon and Carol E. Lee report. President Obama has insisted the payment did not amount to a ransom, because the US owed money to Iran as part of a longstanding dispute over a failed arms deal from the 1970s.

Conservative group Judicial Watch has filed a lawsuit demanding the State Department release all records of how the publicly posted video of a 2013 press briefing was edited to remove an exchange with then-spokeswoman Jen Psaki about the secrecy of US nuclear talks with Iran. The deletion was discovered by Fox News reporter James Rosen earlier this year. State Department officials initially called it a “glitch,” later reporting a technician intentionally edited the video in response to a request from the State’s public affairs office. [POLITICO’s Josh Gerstein]

RUSSIA

Four suspected terrorists have been killed by Russian special forces during a raid on an apartment block in St Petersburg, reports the BBC. At last three of the men had been wanted for links to a series of terror attacks and assassination attempts, according to Russia’s counter-terrorism committee.

Ambiguity over whether Russia will proceed to full-on conflict with Ukraine works to Russia’s advantage, many analysts believe. Putin is “trying to force international leaders to concessions, starting with the easing of sanctions and forcing Ukraine to adopt the Minsk agreements according to his interpretation,” according to the former deputy head of the Ukrainian general staff. [Financial Times’ Sam Jones and Roman Olearchyk]

President Obama’s policies have done plenty to help Putin, writes the Wall Street Journal’s Sohrab Ahmari. The 2014 deep cuts to the US strategic arsenal well ahead of the 2018 New Start Treaty deadline, and without reassurance that Moscow would reciprocate. The ongoing refusal to supply Kiev with defensive weapons after Russia annexed Crimea. Finally, inaction in Syria, which created an opportunity for Moscow to outmaneuver Washington and downgrade its prestige in the Middle East.

AFGHANISTAN

A mortar attack in the capital of Afghanistan’s eastern province of Kunar, Asad Abad, killed two this morning and wounded more than 50. Crowds had gathered at a market to celebrate Afghanistan’s Independence Day. The attack appears to have been blamed on Islamic militants. [AP]

Hopes for Afghan translators who risked their lives to serve the US  during the war are dimming as the acrimonious debate over the Special Immigrant Visa Program continues,  and is now under scrutiny by law-makers with hard-line views on immigration. Ending the program would be reckless and morally reprehensible, says the New York Times editorial board.

YEMEN

A missile fired from Yemen struck a commercial district in the Saudi Arabian city of Najran Tuesday, killing seven, Saudi’s official news media confirmed yesterday, blaming the Houthis. [New York Times’ Rod Nordland]

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called again for all parties to the conflict in Yemen to immediately cease hostilities and for the Yemeni parties to return to the peace talks, which ended on August 6.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Former CIA asset Khalifa Hifter now stands in the way of peace in Libya, reports Missy Ryan at the Washington Post. The US can’t work out what to do with the Libyan general, who now commands a powerful fighting force in Libya, and refuses to support the UN-backed government struggling to gain influence there.

Japan is to develop a new tactical ballistic missile that would require China to initiate conflict before landing on the disputed Senkaku islands – known as the Diaoyu in China – in the East China Sea. The missile will be placed on Japanese Islands, with a range stretching to the edge of Japan’s territorial claims. China would have to destroy the missile before landing on the islands, effectively initiating war. The Financial Times’ Leo Lewis and Kana Inagaki report.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has ordered an independent investigation into a July 11 raid on a compound in Juba, South Sudan, which left one dead and others raped and beaten by attackers while UN personnel allegedly failed to respond. [CNN’s Briana Duggan]

The German man convicted of plotting to bomb US targets in Germany was released from prison early this week, reports Sewell Chan at the New York Times. Fritz Gelowicz, who trained in Pakistan with an offshoot of al-Qaeda, was sentenced in 2010 to 12 years in jail. He was released because he is no longer considered to be a danger.

One of Osama bin Laden’s sons has called on Saudi Arabia’s youth to join the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to gain experience to fight against the US in an undated video, terrorism-monitoring company Site Intelligence Croup has said. [AFP]

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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