The five-day truce that began in Yemen last night seems to have largely held thus far, despite reports of some violations. Reuters writes that residents have reported heavy fighting between Houthi militias and local fighters accompanied by Saudi-led airstrikes in the southern provinces of Shabwa and Lahj. The Saudi-led coalition also reportedly hit the city of Abyan after Houthi rebels seized ground there after the truce’s 11 p.m. start time.
While the truce was designed to allow for the provision of humanitarian aid to suffering Yemenis, one aid shipment threatens to upset the precarious status quo. The New York Times notes that an Iranian ship purportedly carrying emergency relief supplies is approaching Yemen despite a Saudi-led naval blockade. Reuters adds that Iran has said that Saudi-led forces will not be allowed to inspect the ship, which is traveling with an Iranian military escort.
As the Iranian aid shipment raised fears of further heightened tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, President Obama tried to reassure Saudi Arabia and other squeamish Gulf allies of the United States’s commitment to the region. In the run-up to meetings with Gulf officials both in the White House and at Camp David, President Obama gave an interview to Asharq Al-Awsat, the Saudi-owned Arabic language newspaper. In it, he affirmed that Gulf nations are right to be concerned with Iran’s actions in the Middle East, and that “the United States is prepared to use all elements of our power to secure” U.S. interests in the region.
In Syria, ISIS militants have gained ground in the center of the country, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Associated Press writes that the group is pushing west from its territory east of Homs. The push has triggered intense clashes with government forces; fighting has thus far left around 30 government soldiers and 20 militants dead, with hundreds more wounded.
In the Qalamoun Mountains near the country’s western border with Lebanon, things are going better for government forces. Aided by Hezbollah militants, the Assad regime has made significant gains against insurgent forces that include militants from Al Nusra Front, according to Hezbollah and Syrian state media. Reuters notes that the pro-government troops have reportedly seized the highest point in the mountains in an area just 30 miles north of Damascus.
Amid growing reports of chemical attacks by the Syrian government, international inspectors have now found traces of banned toxic chemicals in at least three Syrian military installations across the country, the Times reveals. The revelations, reported by four diplomats and officials from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, come just two years after the Syrian government agreed to a Russian- and U.S.-brokered deal to destroy its chemical weapon stockpile. Another western diplomat noted that while the traces do not provide clear evidence of new use or production of banned chemicals, the finding indicates “bad faith from the beginning” on Syria’s part.
Reports of nefarious chemical activity in Syria come as an international investigative commission reports that it has gathered enough evidence to indict Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and 24 senior officials in his government, according to the Guardian. Over three years, 50 Syrian investigators have smuggled regime documents out of the country on behalf of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. The Commission’s officials have used the documents to prepare prosecution cases against the regime’s leaders in anticipation of the formation of a Syrian war crimes tribunal.
On a visit to Afghanistan, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif strongly condemned the Afghan Taliban’s renewed offensive against Afghan security forces, saying that “Afghanistan’s enemies will be treated as Pakistan’s enemies and Pakistan’s enemies will be treated as Afghanistan’s enemies.” The Wall Street Journal explains that the unusually strong tone toward the Taliban indicates the strengthening of ties between the two countries, and raises hopes that Pakistan could use its acknowledged influence over the the Afghan Taliban to push it to the negotiating table.
In the meantime, however, the Taliban’s offensive in Afghanistan continues. Reuters reports that gunmen attacked a meeting of Muslim clerics in Helmand province, killing seven people. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which targeted the Ulemma Council, a highly influential religious authority in Afghanistan that has repeatedly voiced support for Afghan security forces fighting radical Islamists.
Across the border in Pakistan, gunmen opened fire on a bus in Karachi, killing at least 43 people. The Times writes that the attack targeted members of a minority sect of Shiite Islam, and was claimed by Jundullah, a Sunni Pakistani Taliban splinter group. The Wall Street Journal adds that officials claimed that pamphlets purporting to be from the Islamic State were found on the bus, which could mean that the attack is the first large-scale assault carried out by the Islamic State in Pakistan. ISIS, however, has yet to claim responsibility for the attack.
And, in Nepal, the BBC brings us news that a U.S. Marine helicopter, which had on board six U.S. marines and two Nepali soldiers, has gone missing while on a mission to deliver aid to earthquake victims. A “rigorous” air search is now underway.
In Russia, a four-hour meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin produced no diplomatic breakthroughs on issues including Ukraine, Iran, and Syria, the Washington Post reports. However, while both sides acknowledged the meeting’s lack of progress, they also underscored the positive effect of the talks on U.S.-Russian relations. Secretary Kerry said that “We rarely get to speak as honestly as we did today. This was an important visit at an important time.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who also met with the Secretary yesterday, added “We did not come to common ground on all issues, but today’s meeting helped us get a better understanding of each other.”
Also yesterday, members of the Russian opposition released a report describing the deaths of 220 Russian soldiers in Ukraine. The report was compiled from documents left behind by Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition figure assassinated in February under suspicious circumstances. The Times explains that the report details the secretive conditions under which Russian soldiers were sent to the front in Ukraine, as well as the Kremlin’s shifting descriptions of Russian involvement in Ukraine.
The U.S. military is considering the use of military aircraft and ships to maintain freedom of the seas in the hotly contested South China Sea. Reuters reports that Defense Secretary Ash Carter yesterday requested options that include flying surveillance aircraft over the Spratly Islands, an island chain that China has been dramatically expanding through its land-reclamation efforts; the options could also include sending naval ships to within 12 nautical miles of the islands. The Wall Street Journal notes that these moves would signal to the Chinese that the United States won’t accept Chinese claims to the man-made islands in what the United States considers to be international waters.
China responded with swift condemnation of the Pentagon’s proposals. The Wall Street Journal reports that earlier today a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said that “We are severely concerned about relevant remarks made by the American side. We believe the American side needs to make clarification on that.” On the other hand, the Philippines, which has adopted the most aggressive response to Chinese claims in the South China Sea, welcomed the news. Other nations in the area remained silent.
In North Korea, another top official in Kim Jong-un’s regime has been purged, according to South Korean intelligence. Reuters reports that the Hermit Kingdom’s defense chief, Hyon Yong Chol, was executed by an anti-aircraft gun for treason, disobeying Kim, and falling asleep at a military event. This execution was preceded by 15 others ordered by Kim this year; since taking power in 2011, around 70 officials have reportedly been purged. North Korea analysts appear unsure if this string of executions portends instability in the country, however.
Israel is warning that the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has placed much of its military infrastructure in Shiite villages in southern Lebanon. In the face of a likely future conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, Israeli officials explain, this move amounts to Hezbollah using Lebanese civilians as human shields. Israeli officials bluntly add that the move will not deter Israel from striking Hezbollah military targets. The Times writes, “Effectively, the Israelis are warning that in the event of another conflict with Hezbollah, many Lebanese civilians will probably be killed, and that it should not be considered Israel’s fault.”
After a vote barring any amendments to the proposed USA Freedom Act, The Hill reports, the U.S. House of Representatives is set to take up, and likely pass, that legislation today. A similar version of the bill, which would among other things limit the NSA’s surveillance capabilities and reform three expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act, was passed by the House last year by a vote of 303-121, and lawmakers expect a similar tally for this year’s version. The White House said yesterday that it “strongly supports” the bill, echoing the support expressed by Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the Post notes.
The House Republican leadership may also decide to block any amendments to the Iran Review bill, Politico reports. This tactic would head off attempts by conservatives in the House to add provisions that would almost certainly sink the bill, which passed out of the Senate by a 98-1 vote. The bill appears headed for a vote on Thursday.
A defector from Pakistani intelligence aided the United States in its hunt for Osama bin Laden, according to two former senior Pakistani military officials. However, while a recent story by Seymour Hersh claimed that a “walk-in” member of Pakistani intelligence offered to lead the CIA to bin Laden, one Pakistani military source told Agence France-Presse that the “walk-in” was not aware that his target was bin Laden. Instead, he was tasked with an operation that would verify bin Laden’s identity. The source said, “This guy was inducted at a much later stage only to carry out the ground confirmation. The US needed a ground confirmation which they couldn’t have done without relying on a responsible person.” AFP has more.
In War on the Rocks, Maj. Gen. Charlie Dunlap (Ret.) discusses the perils of targeting policy that goes above and beyond the requirements of international humanitarian law, specifically looking at the U.S. Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities released by the White House in May 2013. Dunlap concludes, “restrictive policies should not be put in place out of some naïve hope that most of the critics will somehow be satiated and pacified” and that it “is far better (and vastly more realistic) to scrupulously adhere to the law — which is typically the product of hard experience in actual conflicts —and strike out at those who are responsible for far more civilian deaths than drones or airstrikes.”
Three Somali men have pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to conspiring to provide material support to al-Shabaab, the Wall Street Journal reports. Under the plea deal, the three men, who were detained while trying to cross into Somalia in 2012, now face a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison; had they been found guilty by a jury, they would have faced a minimum of 30 years.
Politico details the case of Abu Zubaydah, the Guantanamo detainee who was picked up in Pakistan in 2002 and has seen his legal challenge to his detention languish in the D.C. Circuit since 2008 for undisclosed reasons. Those reasons, Raymond Bonner posits, may have something to do with the CIA’s determination during Zubaydah’s detention at a CIA black site that he “will never be placed in a situation where he has any significant contact with others and/or has the opportunity to be released.”
Parting Shot: Millennials don’t really know what they think about privacy, and that could be good for tech firms and the NSA.
ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare
Ingrid Weurth and Ganesh Sitaraman linked to their new article in the Harvard Law Review, “The Normalization of Foreign Relations Law.”
Jack posted the text of his recent speech at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s Legal Conference.
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