The Early Edition: August 19, 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

Syrian Kurdish militia have taken several positions in the city of Hasaka from government forces, an official said today. [Reuters]

Assad regime warplanes conducted airstrikes on Kurdish forces – some US-backed – in northeastern Syria yesterday, a significant escalation in violence between the two parties, report Raja Abdulrahim and Noam Raydan at the Wall Street Journal. If the fighting continues, it may precipitate a new front on Syria’s already complex battlefield.

Russia has said it would support a 48-hour ceasefire in Aleppo next week, a change of heart welcomed cautiously by Western diplomats, who stressed that the UN must be in charge of a sustained aid operation. [Al Jazeera]

The UN will “count on” Russia to help ensure Assad’s forces hold to the pause, UN Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura said yesterday. [AP]  Earlier yesterday, de Mistura cut short a regular international humanitarian taskforce meeting in Geneva after less than eight minutes, saying it made “no sense” to continue unless there is a pause in the fighting to allow aid convoys to enter the city. [UN News Centre]

Aerial photos have been released showing the Islamic State using civilians as shields to escape Syria’s Manbij in a convoy of hundreds of vehicles, reports the BBC. Civilians were placed in each vehicle in the convoy, US-led coalition spokesperson Col. Chris Garver said yesterday.

Iranian-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah is almost exclusively fighting “fellow jihadists” in Syria nowadays, providing indispensable support to the Syrian government, whereas it previously commanded widespread admiration in the region for fighting Israel. Hezbollah portrays both fights as part of the same war, describing the Islamic State as the creation of Israel and the US, part of a conspiracy designed to weaken Islamic unity. Yaroslav Trofimov reports for the Wall Street Journal.

US allies in Iraq will turn against each other if the US does not show stronger leadership, writes Aziz Ahmad, assistant to the chancellor of the Kurdistan Regional Security Council, in the Wall Street Journal. Iraqi Kurdistan has long been a reliable ally of the US, he points out, but is now trapped between other US allies opposed to Kurdish independence and their increasing ties with the US military.

The “widespread” and “systematic” atrocities committed by the Islamic State against the Yezidi and other ethnic and religious communities in Iraq have been exposed in a new report issued by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. [UN News Centre]

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out 14 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on August 17. Separately, partner forces conducted five strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command

IRAN

The State Department admitted that it delayed making a $400 million payment to Iran back in January “to retain maximum leverage” to ensure US prisoners were released the same day, yesterday. The Obama administration has, until now, maintained that the payment did not amount to a “ransom” for the release of the Americans, reports the New York Times’ David E. Sanger.  Asked to explain how the transaction differed from a ransom payment, State Department Spokesperson John Kirby said Iran was “going to get the money anyway” and the US was simply holding it back.

“Why did the Obama administration persist with such an obviously preposterous cover story?” One reason is obviously that, as Obama has said, if the US paid a ransom it would “start encouraging Americans to be targeted.” But, according to the Wall Street Journal editorial board, there’s another reason. Obama did not want to spoil what he clearly considers “the crowning foreign-policy achievement of his Presidency,” the Iran nuclear deal.

TURKEY

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on the US not to delay the extradition of cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Turkey of orchestrating last month’s failed coup, yesterday, during an address to a group of Islamic civil society members. He said that the US should “not make things hard for its strategic partner.” [AP]

Turkey has made an official request for the extradition of eight military officers who fled to Greece in the wake of the July 15 failed coup, stressing in the request that the soldiers had tried to overthrow the government, an accusation the soldiers deny. [Al Jazeera]

Authorities in Turkey detained 29 bank regulatory inspectors from the BDDK banking watchdog today, local media reported. Turkey has so far detained around 40,000 people in its investigation into the alleged perpetrators behind the coup attempt. [Reuters]

The European Union’s weak response to the most serious attack against democracy in any candidate country was disappointing for an institution which portrays itself as a guardian of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, Ibrahim Kalin writes at POLITICO.

RUSSIA and UKRAINE

Russia continues to bolster its military presence on its border with Ukraine, report James Marson and Thomas Grove at the Wall Street Journal. Military analysts are suggesting that the deployment may be an effort to build a more permanent and robust military presence around Ukraine.

The Russian army and navy are carrying out logistics training in Crimea, Russia’s RIA news agency said today, citing the Russian defense ministry. [Reuters]

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a gun and axe attack on Russian traffic cops near Moscow on Wednesday. The attack left two officers injured, and both attackers dead. Adam Taylor reports for the Washington Post.

YEMEN

Doctors Without Borders is to evacuate its staff from six hospital in northern Yemen after it failed to get assurances from the Saudi-led coalition that its hospitals will not be bombed again, report Shuaib Almosawa and Rod Nordland at the New York Times. The Saudi-led coalition said it “regrets” the decision by Doctors Without Borders, and was trying to set up “urgent meetings” to “find a way on how to jointly find a solution to this situation,” asserting that it is committed to respecting international humanitarian law in its operations in Yemen. [Reuters]

CHINA

China and ASEAN agreed to conclude a framework for a maritime code of conduct by the middle of next year at the 13th Senior Officials’ Meeting on the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea on August 16, according to Beijing. However, on closer inspection, there is little reason to hope for a “new era of maritime harmony and compromise,” says the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

China’s navy has carried out drills in the Sea of Japan, according to the military’s official newspaper. The exercises were described as routine and done in accordance with international law and practice. [Reuters]

THE FBI HILLARY FILES

Former secretary of state Colin Powell suggested that his successor Hillary Clinton use a personal email account, Clinton told the FBI, according to notes the FBI delivered to Congress Tuesday including details of Clinton’s three-hour interview over her use of a private email server while secretary of state. [Reuters] 

The FBI has provided just one copy of its “Hillary files” to be accessed by both the majority and minority members of the House Oversight, Appropriations and Judiciary committees. The files are being held in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility underneath the Capitol, and viewing is by appointment only. This represents a “double standard” – one for the Clintons, one for everyone else – writes Kimberley A. Strassel at the Wall Street Journal: it’s fine for Clinton to use a private email server for classified information, whereas the Clinton files are being guarded “at a level that brings to mind the Vatican Secret Archives.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Guantánamo Bay detainee Encep Nurjamin – better known as Hambali – was seen in public for the first time since his capture in August 2003 yesterday when he appeared at a Periodic Review Board hearing, the outcome of which will not be known for 30 days. Hambali, a leader of the Southeast Asia-based extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah, considered responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing that killed 202, was kept in the CIA’s overseas prisons for three years before being transferred to Guantánamo Bay. [AP’s Robert Burns]

Worldwide research points to the Russians’ involvement in the hacking of 20,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee, says Mark Galeotti of the Institute for International Relations in Prague. However, mercenary hackers may have done the actual dirty work, giving the Russian government a way to deny involvement in the actual theft, with Moscow taking over once the material had been stolen. [NPR’s Corey Flintoff]

A car bomber prematurely detonated his weapon during a high-speed chase in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, last night, according to police. No casualties were reported. [AP]

Japan intends to develop a prototype drone fighter jet over the next two decades, with help from the private sector, according to a document seen by Reuters. The plan is to be unveiled this month when the Defense Ministry reveals its budget request for fiscal 2017 – this time for a record 5.16 trillion yen ($51 billion).

North Korea uses the biannual joint military exercises between the US and South Korea to bolster domestic support for leader Kim Jong-un’s regime and to put pressure on the US to withdraw from the peninsula through missile tests and threats, a new study by the Washington-based think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies shows. Four days of joint military exercises are due to start next Monday, reports Alastair Gale at the Wall Street Journal.

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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