News Roundup and Notes: February 3, 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.

Iran

Secretary of State John Kerry met Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif yesterday on the margins of the Munich Security Conference, during which he “reiterated the importance of both sides negotiating in good faith”  [New York Times’ Steven Erlanger]. A State Department official said that Kerry told Zarif that the U.S. will continue enforcing existing sanctions while nuclear negotiations continue [Washington Post’s Anne Gearan].

Following the meeting, Zarif told reporters that the countries were at a “historical crossroads” and stated that Iran “will go to the negotiations with the political will and good faith” to reach a comprehensive agreement [AP]. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told the Wall Street Journal (Laurence Norman) that the P5+1 and Iran will take the time they need to achieve the “extremely difficult” accord, even if that means negotiating beyond the six-month goal.

In a letter written to Sen. Carl Levin, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes clear that she supports President Obama’s call to hold off on further sanctions and allow diplomacy to succeed [Politico’s Maggie Haberman]. Clinton wrote, “Now that serious negotiations are finally under way, we should do everything we can to test whether they can advance a permanent solution.”

The Hill (Julian Pecquet and Jeremy Herb) notes that proponents of new Iran sanctions have “all but abandoned their search for a highly symbolic 60th co-sponsor who would give their bill a filibuster-proof majority and reverse the push against immediate action.”

Iran received the first installment of its $4.2 billion in frozen assets this weekend, amounting to $550 million, according to Iranian state media [CNN’s Holly Yan and Schams Elwazer].

Israel-Palestine

Israeli leaders criticized Secretary of State Kerry for his comments at the Munich conference, warning Israel that the risk of boycotts would increase if the peace deal with the Palestinians failed [Wall Street Journal’s Joshua Mitnick]. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki issued a response, stating, “[Kerry’s] only reference to a boycott was a description of actions undertaken by others that he has always opposed.” She added, “Secretary Kerry has always expected opposition and difficult moments in the process, but he also expects all parties to accurately portray his record and statements.”

In an interview with the New York Times (Jodi Rudoren), Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he has proposed that an American-led NATO force patrol a future Palestinian state indefinitely. Abbas also said that Israeli soldiers could remain in the West Bank for up to five years, with Jewish settlements to be phased out of the new Palestinian state within a similar timetable.

Syria

Despite concerns over the delays in removing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told CBS’s Face the Nation (Bob Schieffer) that the deal is “not falling apart.” He added that the U.S. is “pushing the issue” and “would like to see it proceed much more quickly than it is.”

The Obama administration has denied claims by the Syrian Foreign Minister that U.S. officials had sought to negotiate directly with their Syrian counterparts during last week’s peace conference. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said the U.S. had offered to connect with Syrian officials “on a staff level” through the UN, but had made no offer to negotiate directly [Reuters].

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that about 90 people, largely civilians, were killed this weekend in Aleppo by barrel bombs dropped by Syrian government helicopters [BBC]. Amid rebel infighting, fighters from al-Qaeda-linked group ISIL have killed the leader of rival Islamic group, Tawheed Brigades [AP]. And at least four people were killed in a car-bomb attack in eastern Lebanon on Saturday, as “violence continues to spill over from the conflict in Syria” [Al Jazeera America].

Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s presidential election campaign officially started yesterday, “in a contest already plagued by violence” as two campaign team members were assassinated over the weekend [The Guardian’s  Emma Graham-Harrison].

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated on Saturday that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is unlikely to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S., and is likely to leave the choice for his successor [Reuters’ Adrian Croft].

In an interview with The Sunday Times (Christina Lamb et al.), Karzai described the Taliban as “brothers” and America as “rivals” as he criticized the record of the West during the 12-year war. And The Economist covers how Karzai’s “vilification of America is risking his country’s security.”

Surveillance

The New York Times editorial board argues that the new rules, allowing companies to reveal some details about government requests for user data, “will not appreciably improve the public’s understanding of the surveillance system or its ability to push back.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Ken Dilanian reports how several cyber security initiatives were lost after the Snowden leaks and consequently, “U.S. officials have struggled to respond to the daily onslaught of attacks from Russia, China and elsewhere, a vulnerability that U.S. intelligence agencies now rank as a greater threat to national security than terrorism.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Siobhan Gorman covers how the day before President Obama’s speech on the NSA reforms, White House officials “rushed to include” further surveillance restrictions to address concerns of privacy groups and members of Obama’s review panel, according to those familiar with the process.

Other developments

The Obama administration has refused to reveal how much was spent to build the secret prison facility at Guantánamo, which houses the accused 9/11 co-conspirators, and has asked a federal court to dismiss the related lawsuit brought by Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg [McClatchy Washington Bureau’s Mark Seibel].

The New York Times (Eric Schmitt) covers how the U.S. and Libya have worked together to “discreetly destroy” the last remnants of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s chemical arms in the past three months.

Foreign Policy (Dan Lamothe) reports that an investigation into whether senior Marine Corps officers attempted to conceal their own misconduct when prosecuting war crimes in Afghanistan “has suddenly roared back to life.”

A leaked Pakistani government document details over 300 U.S. drone strikes dating between 2006 and September 2013, and contradicts several of the U.S. statements on drone strikes in the country [The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Alice K. Ross].

An independent group of experts set up by the Pentagon to address the issue of sexual assaults in the military has recommended that commanders should not be stripped of their power to launch courts-martial in sexual assault cases [Stars and Stripes’ Jon Harper].

The White House has issued a Presidential Memorandum certifying that U.S. troops in Mali  are without risk of criminal prosecution under the ICC, as Mali has entered into an Article 98 (Rome Statute) agreement with the U.S.

The Iraqi Defense Ministry announced yesterday that its forces had killed dozens of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters in Ramadi, while the army denied that it had set a date to launch an offensive against militants in Fallujah [Asharq al-Awsat’s Hamza Mustafa].

Katherine Zimmerman explores the problems with the “new definition” for al-Qaeda, noting that “the United States can neither disrupt nor defend itself from an enemy it cannot define” [Washington Post].

In the wake of a series of investigations into military conduct, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey has said that the U.S. military is working on initiatives that will place a renewed focus on ethics [Wall Street Journal’s Julian E. Barnes].

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said that Ankara has not yet decided which missile defense system it would buy and that it was open to bids from other companies, besides the Chinese frontrunner, provided they guaranteed joint production [Reuters].

Western diplomats told Haaretz (Barak Ravid) that Israel has offered Turkey $20 million in compensation for the families of the Turkish nationals killed and to those wounded during the 2010 flotilla raid.

The Pakistani Taliban have named a five-person team, including politician Imran Khan, to represent the group’s position in peace talks with the government [BBC].

The U.S. and EU are discussing a short-term aids package to Ukraine in an effort to “sway the outcome” of the political crisis in the country, reports the Wall Street Journal (Laurence Norman et al.).

An Egyptian court has acquitted more than 60 protestors who were arrested last year for protesting in support of ousted President Mohammed Morsi [BBC].The court also acquitted the cameraman working for Al Jazeera.

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

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