News Roundup and Notes: January 22, 2014

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.

Syria

The UN-led international peace conference on Syria is now underway in Montreux. The meeting of officials from around 40 countries is “designed to give international support to the efforts to resolve the deadly conflict,” which will be followed by talks in Geneva on Friday between the two Syrian delegations and UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi [UN News Centre].

The New York Times (Michael R. Gordon et al.) covers the “sharp divisions between the United States and Russia, and especially among the Syrian participants themselves,” which “immediately came to the fore” this morning.

The Wall Street Journal (Stacy Meichtry and Maria Abi-Habib) notes that the absence of some powerful parties to the conflict, including the coalition of Islamist rebels, has “fueled doubts that the negotiations would have any real impact on the battlefield.” The Guardian (Ian Black) writes that “[p]rospects for progress depend on co-operation between the US and Russia.” And Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has stated that there is little hope of success for the peace talks as some of the attending countries “are behind instability” in Syria [AP].

The New York Times editorial board notes that “[f]ew peace conferences have been set up amid the unrelenting pessimism that surrounds the [Syria] talks.” The editorial argues that the conference “can still produce useful results” and that “early goals should include a cease-fire and the delivery of humanitarian assistance to millions of desperate civilians.”

Iran has placed blame on the U.S. for blocking its role in the Syria talks [Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian]. Allaedin Boroujerdi, head of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of Iran’s parliament, stated yesterday:

“The U.S. put pressure on [U.N. Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon, and he was forced to cancel this invitation, which shows this international body is still under the influence of big powers, headed by the U.S.”

The New York Times (Somini Sengupta) and Reuters (Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols) provide more details on the “dance of diplomacy” over Iran’s invitation.

CNN (Michael Martinez) covers how the report on alleged mass torture in Syria is complicating the peace negotiations. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told CNN that the most recent images “illustrate apparent actions that would be serious international crimes.” Meanwhile, the Syrian Justice Ministry has dismissed the pictures as “fake” [CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark].

International bodies and aid agencies have told The Guardian (Martin Chulov) that yesterday’s report detailing evidence of alleged “systematic killing” by the Syrian regime may only be the tip of the iceberg. However, the Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy writes why the Qatar-funded report warrants a “careful read,” even though the claims are credible.

The Wall Street Journal (Sam Dagher and Nour Malas) covers how both sides in the conflict, and especially the regime, have used access to food and medicine as a weapon.

Afghanistan

U.S. military leaders have presented the White House with a plan that would keep 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan at the end of this year, and would then draw down to nearly zero by the end of Barak Obama’s term [Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes]. According to senior officials involved in the discussions, a troop smaller than 10,000 would not offer adequate protection to U.S. personnel.

Former U.S. Afghan commander Gen Stanley McChrystal has told the BBC that a civil war is the greatest danger facing the country when U.S. troops withdraw. McChrystal also commented on the increasing use of drones, noting that while they were “effective tools,” they could also “create a tremendous amount of resentment” among the population.

NSA Surveillance

U.S. officials are deeply concerned that there may be no quick way to revamp the NSA mass surveillance program and transfer control of the records database away from the agency, reports the Washington Post (Sari Horwitz and Ellen Nakashima). In last week’s speech, President Obama put the Justice Department and the ODNI in charge of developing a plan to transfer control by March 28.

A report by the Defense Science Board recommends increased U.S. surveillance capabilities, citing the need to track nuclear proliferation, and has pointed to NSA programs as a model [Wall Street Journal’s Siobhan Gorman]. Pentagon officials are “thoroughly reviewing” the report, but the department spokesperson declined to comment on specific recommendations.

In an interview with The New Yorker (Jane Mayer), Edward Snowden has denied as “absurd” the allegations made by some lawmakers, including House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers, that he may have been acting for Russia as a spy.

In an interview with The Guardian (Charles Arthur) yesterday, Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt emphasized he had no knowledge of the NSA tapping into the company’s data, and that he and other companies had “complained at great length” to the U.S. government over the intrusion.

Writing in the Washington Post, Joe Davidson considers whether better whistleblower protections would have prevented the Snowden leaks, noting that without better protections for workers, “the government itself is less protected from unauthorized disclosures than it needs to be.”

Russia counter-terrorism

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov yesterday, during which Gerasimov expressed interest in American technology for countering improvised explosive devices [DoD News]. Dempsey has indicated that the U.S. would be willing to share the technical information, provided it is compatible with Russian equipment, in time for the Winter Olympic Games. The New York Times (Thom Shanker) has more details.

NBC News (Albina Kovalyova et al.) reports that Russian security is on the hunt for two more “black widow” terror suspects, who they believe are planning to attack during the Olympic torch relay. Police have killed a senior Islamist militant in the Russia’s North Caucasus [Reuters].

And Russian security officials confirmed yesterday that two Islamists who issued a video claiming responsibility for the December suicide attacks in Volgograd appeared to have been the actual bombers [Wall Street Journal’s Alan Cullison].

Iraq

The BBC reports that Iraq has executed 26 people convicted of “terrorism” offences, “despite international criticism of the country’s increasing use of capital punishment.”

Meanwhile, in Fallujah, the actions of the militant group ISIS have pushed the government closer to an all-out attack to recapture the city, according to tribal leaders and residents [Wall Street Journal’s Matt Bradley and Ali A. Nabhan].

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with the speaker of Iraq’s Council of Representatives, Osama al-Nujaifi, during which he provided an update on “U.S. efforts to accelerate delivery of critical defense equipment to resupply the Iraqi security forces conducting missions in Anbar province” [DoD News].

Other developments

The Wall Street Journal (Julian E. Barnes) reports that a proposal to shrink the U.S. military’s helicopter fleet “has touched off a fight between the Army and the National Guard, in a new outbreak of tensions brought on by budget cuts.”

According to a Senate aide, Senators could consider a proposal to restore the $6 billion cuts to military veteran pensions as early as next week [The Hill’s Kristina Wong].

The Associated Press reports that minutes before the fatal shooting at the Los Angeles International Airport terminal last fall, two armed officers assigned to the area left for breaks without informing a dispatcher as required.

The House Appropriations Committee is attaching conditions to the $33 million in aid to Pakistan, making the funds contingent on releasing the doctor who helped the CIA track Osama bin Laden [Fox News’ Sib Kaifee].

The Washington Post editorial board calls upon Western governments to do more to prevent Ukraine from becoming “an autocratic Kremlin colony,” including preparing sanctions against the Ukrainian president. The editorial argues that “Washington also ought to recognize Mr. Putin’s role in attempting to impose his autocratic model on a country that has been struggling to become a genuine democracy — and hold him accountable for it.” Reuters (Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets) covers the latest developments on the ground.

Continuing clashes in South Sudan suggest that cease-fire talks between the rival parties are unlikely to make progress [Wall Street Journal’s Nicholas Bariyo].

Yesterday, the UN welcomed the conclusion of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference as a “historic moment” for a country that was on the brink of civil war [UN News Centre].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

Former Associate Editor at Just Security Follow her on Twitter (@RParekh88).