The Early Edition: September 8, 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 will meet his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva over the next 48 hours to try again to reach a ceasefire deal for Syria, Kerry said yesterday. They had been hoping to announce a deal at the G20 summit in China Monday, but the agreement collapsed after the US accused Russia of going back on its previous commitments. [The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour]

While a deal might result from the Kerry Lavrov meeting, “no one should expect a durable peace,” warns the Wall Street Journal editorial board: the problem is that the Obama administration has “little leverage and less credibility,” most of the progress in Syria so far having been achieved by Kurdish and now Turkish fighters.

Syrian Kurdish fighters fired on a Turkish border post yesterday, with Turkish soldiers returning fire, reports Reuters.

An Iraqi Shi’ite militia has dispatched over 1,000 fighters to the frontline in Syria, it said yesterday, adding more foreign involvement to the battle for Aleppo, report Angus McDowall and Ahmed Rasheed for Reuters, citing Turkish military officials.

Israel has conducted air strikes on Syrian Armed Forces mortar launchers after a projectile hit the Israel-controlled part of the Golan Heights, the Israeli military said today. [AP]

The Oranization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will investigate the suspected chlorine gas attack on an opposition-held area of Aleppo, Syria, yesterday, it said today. The UN Security Council is due to discuss a report by the watchdog and the UN, which blames the Syrian government for the attacks. Reuters’ Ju-min Park reports.

Who killed Islamic State “spokesman” Abu Muhammad al-Adnani? Most agree it was the Obama administration, but could it have been Russia, or a rival within the Islamic State? News of the Islamic State operative’s death last week has given rise to several conspiracy theories, Roula Khalif writes at the Financial Times.

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out five airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on September 6. Separately, partner forces conducted twelve strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command

IRAN

Sen. James Lankford laid out a set of 13 questions for President Obama pertaining to cash payments delivered to the Iranian government in a letter sent to the White House today, reports Louis Nelson at POLITICO.

Why do the US and Iran keep facing off in the Persian Gulf? John Gambrell answers this question at the AP.

Iran has never been held responsible for its “enabling” role in 9/11, even though the 9/11 Commission found “strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al-Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers,” Joseph I. Lieberman, chairman of United Against Nuclear Iran, writes at the Wall Street Journal.

SAUDI ARABIA

The House will vote on a bill allowing families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in US courts Friday, reports Katie Bo Williams at the Hill.

Staunch attempts to water down the draft report of the UK’s Committee on Arms Export Controls calling for the halt of arms exports to Saudi Arabia were made by Members of Parliament yesterday, with over 130 amendments being tabled – including removing the call for a suspension of arms sales. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister defended his country’s conduct in Yemen at a lengthy private session with Members of Parliament, reports Patrick Wintour at the Guardian.

CHINA

President Obama put the South China Sea dispute back on the agenda at the ASEAN summit in Laos today as it became apparent that the other leaders present were willing to let China off with a mild rebuke over its territorial expansion, report Vijay Joshi and Jim Gomez at the AP.

Beijing wants to work with other countries to “dispel interference” from non-regional countries in the contested South China Sea, China’s premier Li Keqiang said, Martin Farrer at the Guardian calling the comment a “coded warning” to the US to stay out of the region.

The lukewarm rebuke of China by the other Southeast Asia nations at the ASEAN summit in a “carefully worded” draft statement is a reflection of its military clout, suggests Al Jazeera.

Attempts to change the status quo in the South and East China Seas have “been continuing for the past few months,” Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said today, an apparent criticism of China, reports Reuters.

There is “cautious optimism” that a code of conduct can be agreed in the South China Sea, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said before a meeting with the Chinese premier today. [The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy]

China is refusing to send a delegation to this week’s Seoul Defense Dialogue amid an ongoing row over South Korea’s decision to deploy a US THAAD missile defense system, the AP reports.

There is “significant unfinished business in Mr. Obama’s Asia policy,” argues to the New York Times editorial board, including the apparently gridlocked 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. However, Obama has made headway in reassuring Asian nations that the US will remain a “stabilizing presence” in the region and a counterweight to China’s growing power.

RUSSIA

A Russian fighter plane flew within around 10 feet of a US reconnaissance aircraft operating over the Black Sea yesterday, the Pentagon said, describing the maneuver as “dangerous and unprofessional.” [BBC]

Defense Secretary Ash Carter accused the Russian government of demonstrating a “clear ambition to erode” international order and warned Russia to stay out of US elections yesterday, Helene Cooper reports at the New York Times.

The relevant question is whether President Obama is willing to do anything to punish Russia for its hacks or deter them in the future, and its response to China and North Korean hacks in the past has been “tepid,” says the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban entered the capital of Afghanistan’s southern Uruzgan province today, triggering fierce fighting and sending government officials fleeing from the city, according to an Afghan official. [AP’s Mirwais Khan]

The recent spate of Taliban attacks on Afghan capital Kabul seem to mark a leap into urban warfare by the terrorist group, suggest Sayed Salahuddin and Pamela Constable at the Washington Post.

Mullah Sheerin Akhond, the Taliban leader believed to be responsible for the Kabul attacks, believes that it is permissible to kill  “anyone who lives in areas controlled by the Afghan government” because, in his view, “they are supporting the Afghan government,” reports Sami Yousafzai at The Daily Beast, quoting an Afghan Taliban source.

FRANCE

November Paris terror attack suspect Saleh Abdeslam has invoked his right to silence for a third time today in protest against the 24-hour video surveillance of his prison cell, refusing to respond to a judge’s repeated questions. [AP’s Philippe Sotto]

Two couples have now been arrested in connection with the seven gas canisters found in an abandoned car near to Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, and French police have established that the car also contained three jerry cans of diesel fuel. [Reuters]

French police are seeking a 19-year-old woman in connection with the car, Reuters reports. She is reported to be the daughter of the car’s owner, who was arrested and then released because he had gone to police Sunday to report that his daughter had disappeared with his car.

GUANTANAMO BAY

The 100-cell maximum security prison at Guantánamo Bay, Camp 5, has been shut down, reports Carol Rosenberg at the Miami Herald.  The plan is to convert it to a new clinic and psychiatric ward, the military said yesterday.

Uruguay is searching for a country to take former Guantánamo Bay detainee Abu Wa-el Dhiab who is threatening to kill himself by hunger strike if he is not allowed to reunite with his family abroad, the AP’s Leonardo Haberkorn reports.

HILLARY CLINTON EMAIL INVESTIGATION

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell sent Hillary Clinton a detailed explanation of how he bypassed some of the State Department’s security measures in a 2009 email exchange that has become a part of the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server, reports the Hill’s Harper Neidig.  The email exchange, in which Clinton sought advice from Powell as to how she could continue to use a Blackberry in the executive suite at the State Department,  was made public yesterday by a top House Democrat, reports Josh Gerstein at POLITICO.

The FBI’s decision not to charge Clinton for her use of a private email server was “not a cliff-hanger” and there “really wasn’t a prosecutable case,” Director James Comey said in a memo to the FBI’s employees. [Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky]

The FBI’s report on its investigation into Clinton shows it did not pursue evidence of potential false statements, obstruction of justice and destruction of evidence, leaving the Wall Street Journal editorial board wondering whether Director James Comey “always intended to let her off the hook.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The US has hardly made any net gains against the brand of radical extremism that inspires al-Qaeda and other groups in the almost 15 years since 9/11, the co-chairmen of the 9/11 Commission said yesterday. [The Hill’s Julian Hattem]

Decisions made during the Vietnam War, including the US’s intense bombing over neighboring Laos, didn’t necessarily serve America’s interests, President Obama said during his historic visit to Laos yesterday. The AP is providing updates on the visit.

Acknowledging the US’s “unsavory history” in a country he was visiting has become “practically routine” for President Obama, points out Max Fisher at the New York Times. As well as Laos, Obama has confronted American “misdeeds” – decades old but still sensitive – in Cuba, Argentina, Vietnam and Japan this year. 

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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