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Today’s Headlines and Commentary

By and
Tuesday, August 26, 2014 at 2:42 PM

ISIS continues to dominate headlines today as debate sharpens around expanded U.S. intervention in the crisis.

The New York Times reports that President Obama has authorized surveillance flights over Syria, a move that could be a precursor for airstrikes in the country. The Defense Department said the military would conduct the flights using a combination of drones and U2 spy planes. In an attempt to avoid inadvertently assisting the Assad regime, the Pentagon is preparing options that would strike ISIS along the Syria-Iraq border, instead of more deeply inside of Syria itself. The Wall Street Journal has more.

According to the Associated Press, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told reporters that Syria is ready “to cooperate and coordinate,” but suggested that “any strike which is not coordinated with the government will be considered as aggression.”  The statement is a sign that the Assad government is eager to capitalize on how much the international, and specifically American posture, has changed over the last year. However, the White House made clear that it has no plans to notify or collaborate with Assad.

The folks at the Washington Post have compiled a list of everything that the United States has already hit with airstrikes in Iraq. Yet ABC News  is quoting an unnamed U.S. Special Ops source saying, “these guys aren’t bugging out, they’re tactically withdrawing. [They’re] very professional, well trained, motivated and equipped.” The New York Post cites footage from a new propaganda video released by the group that shows ISIS fighters even used a drone to help plan their recent capture of a key Syrian air base. That level of sophistication is backed by “an ability to self-finance on a staggering scale” says Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg, who reports that ISIS now resembles the Taliban, but with oil fields that raise more than $2 million a day, instead of opium poppy.

The Times of London is reporting that British intelligence officials in MI5 and MI6 have identified the British fighter suspected of murdering American journalist James Foley. While sources did not confirm the identity, the Times notes that a key suspect is Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, who left London and recently tweeted a picture of himself holding a severed head. USA Today notes that American officials have yet to confirm the killer’s identity. Foreign Policy has a profile of Bary, in which Elias Groll examines the angry music of the former west London-based rapper.

In a shed of good news, Jane told us yesterday that Syrian rebels had released Peter Theo Curtis, an American journalist who had been held hostage for almost two years. Today, the Washington Post has more information on how Qatar helped broker the release of Curtis, while Reuters reports that the country is currently working to help free four other Americans who are held hostage in Syria by various rebel and militant groups.

Violence continued to rock the Iraqi capital of Baghdad today, as two explosions killed at least 11 people and injured 20 others, Al Jazeera reports. The death toll from Monday night’s double car bombing in another Shia neighborhood has risen to 19. In total, sectarian violence has killed at least 78 people across Iraq in the last 24 hours.

Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, confirmed that ISIS militants “are systematically targeting men, women and children based on their ethnic, religious or sectarian affiliation, and are ruthlessly carrying out widespread ethnic and religious cleansing in the areas under their control.” The New York Times has more on the statement, which puts many previously reported atrocities on official record.  At the same time, Reuters reports how ISIS is now carrying out a bloody wave of repression throughout its newly conquered territory in Syria.

The Washington Post editorial board writes that any serious attempt to uproot ISIS “will need boots on the ground.” Writing in Foreign Policy, Aaron David Miller outlines five reasons a mission in Syria won’t work, and why it is going to happen anyway.

And with talk of an expanded mission in Iraq and Syria, you know that debate around Congressional authorization is not far behind. Last week, Lawfare covered the debate and weighed in hereherehere, and here. This week, it looks like everyone is coming to the table too.

Molly O’Toole of Defense One has a long read on the brewing debate between and within the legislative and executive branches. However, the White House on Monday refused to commit to asking Congress for authority to strike within Syriareports The Hill.

If not a new AUMF, then how might the President claim authority to strike ISIS in Syria? We’re not sure, but a few days ago, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said, “We are reviewing the applicability of the 2001 AUMF to this situation, which would be in addition to the president’s constitutional authority.” Ryan Goodman at Just Security outlines what he thinks is the Administration’s theory for how the 2001 AUMF could apply to ISIS.

Whatever the possible theory, Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), long a proponent of reforming the 2001 AUMF and War Powers Resolution, released a statement on Monday saying:

I do not believe that our expanded military operations against ISIL are covered under existing authorizations from Congress. The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force does not apply, and the Administration has testified that the 2002 Iraq war authorization is obsolete and should be repealed. Under Article II, the President has authority to defend against imminent threats to U.S. national security interests and personnel, but I have reservations regarding whether our military actions against ISIL all meet this test.

Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn) agreed, saying, “for the American people’s sake, Congress should weigh in. Congress should be a part of this.” However, Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee, suggested that President Obama should not seek congressional authorization because doing so would be a “circus.”

Writing in Lawfare, Ashley Deeks examines the possible international legal theories that might underpin U.S. strikes in Syria.

Violence continued to escalate in Libya as the New York Times reports that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have launched airstrikes against Islamist militias twice in the last week.  U.S. officials claimed the attacks had been caught them by surprise. The United States, along with European allies France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom issued a statement condemning the strikes, and warning that “outside interference in Libya exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya’s democratic transition.” However, Foreign Policy’s The Cable says there is no way that the United States did not know about the airstrikes.

In Yemen, the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group, has presented new demands to the government in order to stop their protests, reports the New York Times.

According to the Washington Post, Ukraine today announced that it detained 10 Russian paratroopers who crossed the border into eastern Ukraine in the Donetsk Region.This comes hours after the Ukrainian government reported that Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers infiltrated the country near Novoazovsk, which, if true, would be one of the first incursions of Russian troops into Ukraine outside of friendly rebel territory.

Reuters reports on the talks being held amidst the hostilities between the leaders of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia in Minsk today, where a speedy resolution to the five-month long conflict seems remote. Russian NTV has comments made by Russian President Vladimir Putin at that summit, who reportedly called for greater economic integration between Ukraine and Russia but warned Russia will take “defensive measures” if Ukraine and the EU reach a sustainable agreement:

Russia cannot be inactive in this situation. We simply will have to, and I want to emphasize this, will have to retaliate to protect our market. In full accordance with the provisions of the CIS agreement regarding the free trade zone and in line with the norms of the WTO, we will be forced to cancel preferences for imports from Ukraine.

Amid stagnant growth and increasingly severe Western sanctions, Statista reveals that food prices in Russia have increased 10% since the beginning of this year, with the price of potatoes up 72 percent and those of chicken and pork up 25.8 percent and 23.5 percent, respectively.

Reuters reports that Hamas and Israel have reached a ceasefire deal. Hamas corroborated the story, while Israel’s political echelons remained largely silent. According to Ynet, the ceasefire deal will expand the permitted fishing area in Gaza to 6 nautical miles. Haaretz has live updates.

Still, uncertainty abounds. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal announced that Israel evacuated hundreds of families from areas around Gaza in response to the death of 4-year-old Daniel Tragerman from a mortar attack last Friday.

From the UN News Center: the UN Human Rights Council announced on Monday the last of three appointees to its probe of purported human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since the most recent conflict in Gaza began on June 13th. Mary McGowan Davis of the United States joins Doudou Diene of Senegal and William Schabas of Canada, the latter of which received strong criticism from the Israeli government for past comments that are allegedly anti-Israel. The Times of Israel has details.

In the West Bank, the New York Times reports that President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority is seeking to reassert his relevance and bypass American-led negotiations in an effort to achieve statehood. If unable to do so through the UN, he vowed to bring Israel before the ICC.

Finally, according to Mako, Israeli Minister of Public Security Yitzhak Aharonovitch of Yisrael Beiteinu today called for cabinet ministers to undergo polygraph tests. The demand comes amidst a series of high-profile security leaks that seem to stem from sources close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In Asia-Pacific, Reuters discloses that U.S. and Chinese military officials will hold talks on “rules of behavior” at the Pentagon today and Wednesday. The consultations come after the intercept last Tuesday of a U.S. P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine and reconnaissance plane by a Chinese J-11 fighter jet in international airspace over the South China Sea. Over at the Wall Street Journal, analysts wonder whether this incident indicates a lack of discipline by Chinese pilots, or, even more importantly, a disconnect between the country’s military and political leadership.

At Japan’s Yokosuka Naval Base, the Washington Post reports that the recent arrival of a Virginia-class nuclear submarine, the USS Hawaii, is meant to reassure skeptical Asian allies of the U.S.’s commitment to their security. Conversely, a prominent Chinese news broadcast making the rounds on Sina Video characterized recent similar moves by the United States to increase its aircraft carrier contingent in the region as indicative of the country’s “timid” nature and “lack of confidence.”

According to the New York Times, Chinese authorities arrested on Sunday the man who allegedly killed the imam of the nation’s largest mosque. The arrest of the 18-year-old, an ethnic Uighur named Aini Aishan, near the Uighur-majority city of Kashgar is just the latest in a series of increasingly-violent incidents plaguing the region. The imam who was killed, Jume Tahir, had been criticized by some as being too pro-government.

The Guardian divulges that the Chinese government plans to replace foreign desktop and mobile software with homegrown alternatives as tensions over cyber warfare rise worldwide. The desktop software, created by the Chinese Academy of Engineering, is due to debut in October.

Foreign Policy drew attention to the newly-opened WeChat account of the Chinese Communist Party, the most recent attempt by the ruling party to figure into the country’s vibrant social networking scene.

In Africa, the BBC writes that Nigerian troops crossed the border with Cameroon as clashes with Boko Haram escalate. This action comes shortly after the militant group declared a caliphate centering around northeastern Nigeria.

Australia has announced a $60 million initiative to counter domestic violent extremism and radicalization, according to the New York Times. The measures will include community engagement programs and new inter-agency investigation teams to target foreign fighters and their supporters.

The United Kingdom is also debating strengthening its counterterrorism laws following the murder of James Foley, reports the Wall Street Journal. Some politicians have called for the restoration of “control orders,” a controversial program that allowed the indefinite house arrest of terrorism suspects without trial or court order. However, Richard Barrett, the former director of counterterrorism at MI6, has criticized the suggestion, saying that the “fundamental tenet of British justice should not be changed even in a minor way for this unproven threat.”

The Intercept has a new report that claims the NSA is secretly funneling data to nearly two dozen U.S. government agencies. The Intercept says that according to classified documents, the “Google-like” search engine is built to share more than 850 billion records containing information on phone calls, emails, cell phone locations, and internet chats.

A Texas court rejected an order by the central government of Iraq to seize a $100-million crude oil shipment from Iraqi Kurdistan, paving the way for its delivery to U.S. shores. In a decision likely to raise rancor in Washington and Baghdad, Judge Gray Miller asserted that the delivery may violate Iraqi law, but does not breach U.S. maritime regulations. The Wall Street Journal has more.

Tragically, a soldier at Fort Lee, south of Richmond, fatally shot herself after her arrival with a gun prompted an hour-long lock down of the facility. As the Richmond Times-Dispatch reveals, this is at least the fourth time since 2011 a Fort Lee soldier has publicly committed suicide.

Finally, FP reminds us of the many “Forgotten Missions” around the world, where the U.S. military continues to engage in efforts that fail to make it into headlines.

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