The Early Edition: August 26, 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

Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov met today in Geneva to finalize a cooperation agreement on fighting the Islamic State in Syria. Diplomats are hopeful that the talks will lead to a cessation of hostilities and the restarting of discussions on political transition in Syria, reports Reuters.

Rebels in the besieged Syrian town of Daraya struck a deal with the Syrian government to surrender control of it in exchange for the evacuation of the town’s 8,000 residents. Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, was one of the first towns to stage peaceful protests against President Assad in 2011, and to face violence in response. Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad report for the New York Times.

The Obama administration is putting pressure on Assad and his Russian backers ahead of an Aug. 30 UN Security Council meeting to look at the issue of chemical weapons in Syria through a series of leaked reports from UN agencies, according to a US intelligence official. Why now, Christopher Dickey and Noah Shachtman ask at The Daily Beast? Because in 2014, the world was indifferent to reports that Assad was using chemical weapons, and so the US decided it was best to “work through the slow UN process, get the Russians to a place where they’re cornered diplomatically,” according to the same official.

Military talks due to take place today in Ankara between Russia and Turkey have been postponed to “a later date,” reports the Hürriyet Daily News. No reason for the delay has been reported.

The Turkish military incursion into Syria with US support illustrates the “complications” of American foreign affairs, says the New York Times editorial board. While the US shares Turkey’s goal of ousting the Islamic State, Turkey also wants to keep Syrian Kurds – the US’s most reliable allies in Syria – away from its borders. That said, Obama is right to focus on combating the Islamic State and on trying to improve relations with Turkey, says the board.

Turkey’s operation in Syria, so soon after its failed coup, highlights how President Erdoğan has secured more operational control of the military, and – contrary to Western fears that a post-coup Turkey would be unable or unwilling to be a partner in the fight against the Islamic State – has finally been able to realise his ambitions in Syria, including stopping Kurdish militias from seizing more territory there. [New York Times’ Time Arango]

Turkey’s intervention in Syria was opposed by military officers who later participated in the July 15 coup attempt, delaying it for more than a year, report Erin Cunningham and Liz Sly at the Washington Post.

 “As if the war in Syria did not have enough combatants,” Turkey has “entered the fray.” The Economist unravels the chaos of shifting alliances in Syria, in the midst of which America risks being drawn away from its narrow mission of defeating the Islamic State and into the wider conflict.

Syria has been Obama’s worst mistake, Roger Cohen writes at the New York Times, and within that mistake the worst error was the last –minute “red line” wobble  in 2013, when Obama resisted “immediate pressures” and decided not to react militarily to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, which has “undermined America’s word, emboldened Putin and empowered Assad.”

Iraq’s parliament sacked its defense minister yesterday, ahead of the biggest fight against the Islamic State so far, in Mosul, highlighting the country’s serious political instability as it tries to oust the terror group from its remaining strongholds. [Washington Post’s Loveday Morris]

The Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was held in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the US military now says, a fact not previously known and which provides another potential key to the leader’s biography and the role US detention facilities played in the rise of the terrorist organization, reports Joshua Eaton at The Intercept

TURKEY

A car bomb attack on a police checkpoint in Cizre in the mainly Kurdish Sirnak province on Turkey’s border with Syria has left at least 11 police officers dead and 78 wounded this morning, reports the AP.

Turkey’s Prime Minister has declared “total war” against terrorism today following the attack, which has been attributed to the PKK. [Hürriyet Daily News]

Kurdish rebels opened fire on a convoy carrying Turkey’s main opposition party leader in Artvin province, yesterday, killing a soldier and wounding two others, according to officials. [AP’s Suzan Fraser]

Turkey is fighting on too many fronts at once, and it still on a collision course with the west, David Gardner writes at the Financial Times, the Gulenists, the Islamic State and the Kurds all its enemies. Meanwhile, President Erdoğan continues to demand the extradition of US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, saying last week that the US must choose between Turkey and the cleric. At the same time, the EU’s outrage at the post-coup crackdown as opposed to the coup itself – in fact a “brutal assault on a democratic republic” – has caused indignation in Turkey. And in Syria, Turkey is joining with Assad patrons Russia and Iran.

YEMEN

Secretary of State John Kerry unveiled a new initiative aimed at ending Yemen’s current conflict yesterday after meeting with UN and Persian Gulf officials in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. “We agreed on a renewed approach to negotiate with both a security and political track simultaneously, working in order to provide a comprehensive settlement,” he said afterwards. Ahmed Al Omran and Asa Fitch report at the Wall Street Journal.

Kerry also called for a unity government in Yemen yesterday, and reported that the Saudis had agreed that there is “work to do” to avoid civilian casualties there. [The Hill’s Rebecca Kheel]

Houthi rebels were offered participation in the unity government in exchange for transfer of their heavy weapons to a third party, reports Al Jazeera. Following the meeting the UN envoy to Yemen is to begin a series of consultations with both sides in the fighting to push for renewed peace talks.

The talks between the “quad” of the US, UK, UAE and Saudi Arabia are “more likely to be an exercise in public hand-wringing than a serious effort to end the war and prevent further loss of life,” writes CNN’s Peter Salisbury, doubtful that official’s – from four of the foreign countries most deeply embroiled in the conflict – discussed, for example, the recent decision of Doctors without Borders to withdraw its staff from hospitals in northern Yemen.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

Little-known Israeli startup NSO Group Technologies Ltd exploited bugs in Apple’s smartphone software to provide surveillance technology to foreign governments wishing to spy on their citizens, according to security researchers. This sheds new light on the capabilities of private security companies to produce sophisticated software for state-sponsored spying, reports Robert McMillan at the Wall Street Journal. A botched attempt to use this technology to break into the iPhone of an Arab activist has prompted Apple to implement a global upgrade of its mobile operating system, researchers said yesterday. [AP’s Raphael Satter and Daniella Cheslow]

The leak of documents from French naval submarine builder Scorpene detailing designs for Indian naval submarines did not pose any security compromise as sensitive information had been redacted, India confirmed on Wednesday. [AP’s Ashok Sharma]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

“My hope and expectation” is that Obama will close Guantánamo Bay, Vice President Joe Biden said at a press conference in Sweden yesterday, a comment which comes days following the revelation by his spokesperson that Obama still intends to close down the detention center before his last day in office, Jan. 20. [Miami Herald’s John T. Bennett]

A US coastal patrol ship fired warning shots at an Iranian ship in the Persian Gulf Wednesday when it approached within several hundred meters, the incident occurring the day after Iranian ships made provocative maneuvers close to a US destroyer in the Strait of Hormuz, Missy Ryan and Thomas Gibbons-Neff report at the Washington Post.  It was unclear whether the confrontations were intended to send a hostile message about US naval activity, reports Rick Gladstone at the New York Times, though they underscored the risk of an armed clash between the US and Iran in a tense region.

US military forces are accompanying Afghan special operations forces “every night or every other night” and are involved in about 10-percent of their missions, spokesperson Army Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland said yesterday. [The Hill’s Kristina Wong]

Islamic militants attacked a restaurant in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu late last night, leaving 10 dead, according to police. The attackers used a car bomb which was followed by a gun fight with security forces that lasted for several hours. [Reuters]  Al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for the attack. [New York Times’ Hussein Mohamed]

President Obama should resist the temptation to cancel the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) nuclear weapon as part of his sweeping changes to US nuclear policy, suggests Matthew R. Costlow at the Wall Street Journal. The air-launched cruise missile is crucial to America’s nuclear deterrent and future negotiating leverage, and its removal would ultimately make Obama’s vision of a “nuclear free world” even less plausible.

The peace treaty between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels marks a milestone for peace in the Americas and the world: it was the last armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere, meaning that from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, war has disappeared, report Steven Pinker and Juan Manuel Santos at the New York Times.

The idea that Saudi Arabia’s export of the form of Islam known as Wahhabism has fueled global extremism and contributed to terrorism has become commonplace, but is the world today a more dangerous place because of Saudi Arabia? Or is Saudi Arabia a scapegoat for extremism, which has many complex causes, including the US’s own actions? Scott Shane discusses this issue at the New York Times. 

Filed under:
About the Author(s)

Zoë Chapman

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