Over the last 24 hours, the situation in eastern Ukraine has rapidly deteriorated. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko canceled a visit to Turkey after declaring that Russian soldiers are officially operating within Ukraine. Official Russian sources continue to deny reports as bearing “no relation to reality,” putting the earlier capture of 10 Russian paratroopers in Ukraine down to them getting lost and entering Ukraine accidentally. Separatist leaders have made similar pronouncements, asserting that active-duty Russian troops are operating in Ukraine, but only those who are on leave and who feel personally compelled to fight.
However, a Reuters report quotes a NATO military officer saying: “We assess well over 1,000 Russian troops are now operating inside Ukraine.”
Some Russian media sources are also beginning to challenge the official Russian narrative, using the Russian equivalents of “invasion” (vtorzhenie) and “war” (voina). Others continue to use the word for “incursion.”
The BBC first picked up on this trend a few hours ago, pointing to the change in language on the websites of liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy and popular daily Moskovskiy Komsomolets. Vedomosti asks: “Are we fighting a war?” Famous blogger Andrei Malgin is more direct, writing, “it is war.”
Reuters informs us that pro-Russian separatists have taken the city of Novoazovsk, reportedly with significant support from Russian forces. Ukrainian forces have pulled back and dug in around the vital city of Mariupol, Ukraine’s 10th-largest. Alexander Zakharchenko, a pro-Russia separatist leader, estimates 3-4,000 Russian soldiers are currently operating in Ukraine.
A Putin critic, exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, hours ago posted the following message on his website: “We are at war with Ukraine. For real. We are sending soldiers and technical equipment there. Ukrainians are fighting well, but retreating. The sides’ strength is, of course, unequal.”
Separatist leaders do seem emboldened. In an interview with Russian news outfit Gazeta today, separatist leader Borodai predicted that rebel forces will soon return to Slaviansk, a town which was taken by Ukrainian forces from the rebels on July 5th.
NATO is attempting to consolidate in reaction to these developments, and plans to have ambassadors from 28 NATO members and Ukraine meet on Friday to formulate a response. The UN Security Council and the EU are also scheduled to meet. The BBC has more. Leaders from several European countries have slammed Russia, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying she will discuss the possibility of further sanctions with Russia at an EU summit on Saturday.
NATO has already promised to send troops to new bases in Eastern Europe. Foreign Policy has details.
Reuters has live updates on the unfolding crisis.
The New York Times reports on possible reasons behind the latest hostilities, suggesting Putin is loathe to face the prospect of separatist defeat in eastern Ukraine and the resulting domestic backlash. Moscow may also be eager to open up a new corridor to Crimea, a territory it annexed earlier this year.
At the Washington Post, commentators are calling this conflict a “hybrid war,” but said onlookers should not be fooled by the Kremlin’s tactics.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Switzerland is extending new requirements on Russian banks in order to better enforce Western sanctions.
Finally, Bloomberg reveals that the FBI is currently probing whether or not Russian hackers were to blame for the theft of data from at least two U.S. banks earlier this month.
At this point, it is hard to even track the volume of news, commentary, and analysis surrounding ISIS and the possibility of expanded American and allied intervention in Iraq and Syria.
President Obama will meet with his national security team this afternoon at 4 pm to discuss the ongoing crisis in Iraq and Syria, reports the Hill. The President is considering expanded airstrikes into Syria as well as an operation to aid Turkmen currently under siege in the small town of Amirli.
Writing in the Daily Beast, Josh Rogin and Eli Lake suggest that the President is searching for a new war plan to battle ISIS on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. Yet while Mr. Obama wants to make a decision about additional strikes by the end of this week, administration officials have said that everything from the goals, to on-the-ground intelligence, to overall strategy remain in flux. One administration official working on Syria policy perhaps surmised the situation best when he said the purpose of the meetings on Tuesday was “to convince one man, Barack Obama” that widened action was necessary to destroy ISIS.
The complexities and unknowns of such an operation remain a major theme of current debate. Foreign Policy notes that as the mission progresses, it will take shape in stages, but that target selection would likely become more difficult and the consequences more complex as they progress. Initially, they write, the U.S. would most likely hit “low-hanging fruit” such as armored vehicles and other easily identified targets. Another possibility is that U.S. forces would create a “no-drive” zone between Iraq and Syria in order to prevent ISIS from crossing the border. More critically, it remains unknown whether the Assad government would employ the Syrian air defense system against U.S. aircraft, even if they are targeting his enemy.
In Iraq, the United States continued airstrikes against ISIS forces near Irbil and the Mosul Dam, according to a release from U.S. Central Command. The strikes yesterday brought the total number of airstrikes across Iraq to 101. However, the Wall Street Journal reports that the air campaign has leveled off in recent days as President Obama considers plans for a broader mission. The lull in strikes may also be a reflection of the success of the initial campaign coupled with renewed strength of Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters. U.S. officials were quoted as saying, “If they can clean the underbrush, we do not need to come in with a bulldozer.” However, for this to remain true, the Iraqi government will have to form a coalition to face the threat. In Foreign Policy, John Hudson has a profile on the man Iraqis have chosen to do just that – new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
The Guardian reports that hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqis remain on Mount Sinjar. The British outlet provides interactive satellite images from the firm ImageSat International that it claims shows a still ongoing humanitarian emergency atop the mountain.
Yesterday, the mother of American journalist Steven Sotloff issued a plea to ISIS to release her son. Steven Sotloff had been missing in Syria for over a year before ISIS militants threatened to kill him if the United States does not stop airstrikes against the group. The New York Times has more on the heart wrenching story.
While U.S. airstrikes may have halted the advance of the Islamic State in Iraq, it has done little to slow the march of its forces in Syria. The Long War Journal has a graphic collection of photographs that the Islamic State took while overrunning the Tabqa air force base earlier this week. The photographs document both the military hardware ISIS collected as well as the gruesome punishment they inflicted on the Syrian security forces they captured. In line with those photos, the New York Times reports that the United Nations has determined that beheadings, public executions, and other harsh punishments are now a “common spectacle” in parts of Syria under the rule of Islamic militants.
How to get smart about ISIS fast: The Associated Press has an excellent primer on the Islamic State militants in Syria, including a look at the scope and size of the area they control, the city of Raqqa, governing structure, and military strength. Elsewhere, Jihadology has a new post on the Islamic State’s public administration is the small city of Manbij, Syria.
William McCants, fellow with The Brookings Institution, corrects five popular myths about ISIS, while the New York Times has an incredible series of maps, photos, and video on the ongoing crisis in Iraq and Syria. In the Atlantic, Kathy Gilsinan explains the many ways to map the Islamic “State,” and how it is more accurate to describe the land ISIS controls as a “network of roads.” The New York Times also explains how an army infused with an extremist zeal has gained the combination of military skills and terrorist techniques that fueled ISIS’s remarkable success.
Has the Washington echo chamber resulted in a dramatic inflation of the threat ISIS presents? Wayne White, former Deputy Director of the State Department’s Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office seems to think so. He argues that the United States should keep ISIS in perspective, and that there are clear “vulnerabilities to be exploited.” In the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf writes that we need to look “squarely at what war in Syria would mean.” He suggests that either the United States will empower Sunni extremists or the Assad government, and the tradeoff is something “Americans ought to confront with open eyes.”
The New York Times editorial board also weighs in on the pending intervention, saying “there are too many unanswered questions to make a decision now.” The Times continues: “If Mr. Obama seeks any further escalation of military action, he will have to explain how airstrikes against ISIS in Syria fit into a broader strategy, how they could be successful, what success means and how they might be done without benefiting Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, who is under attack by ISIS and other Sunni opposition forces.”
In the Wall Street Journal, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) writes, “Our Middle Eastern policy is unhinged, flailing about to see who to act against next, with little thought to the consequences. This is not a foreign policy.”
In Lawfare, Jack outlines a politically palatable authorization to use force against ISIS. The key: make it narrow, ISIS specific, and include a sunset clause. Along the same theme, Robert Golan-Vilella has a long piece in the National Interest, entitled “A Tale of Two AUMFs.” The piece’s postscript explains why Congress should vote on any action against ISIS in Syria, and how the new crisis in Iraq and Obama’s handling of it will affect the future of war powers.
Elsewhere, Reuters reports that 43 peacekeepers from the U.N. have been detained by militants fighting the Syrian army in the Golan Heights.
Ynetnews, via Jordanian paper Al-Ghad, reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met secretly before the latest ceasefire deal was reached between Israel and Hamas. No further details about the topics discussed are available.
Israeli news outfit Mako divulges that the Israeli Shin Bet just arrested four Arab-Israelis suspected of working for Hezbollah. The agency accuses the four of being part of a drug smuggling ring that also brought weapons to Israel intended for use in terrorist activities. The Times of Israel has more details.
Reuters reports that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the most powerful leader modern Turkish history, will be sworn in today as the country’s president. In a speech to supporters, he vowed to continue Turkey’s economic and geopolitical ascent, and to crush the forces of his former ally, the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.
The BBC carried today comments from French President Francois Hollande, who urged “exceptional support” for Libya. His exhortation for outside intervention comes as the security situation in the north African country continues to collapse amidst infighting between Islamists and anti-Islamist military forces. Frederic Wehrey, David Bishop, and Ala’ Alrababa’h at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace analyze the worsening situation as well as the attempts by Egypt and the UAE in recent days to support the anti-Islamists through targeted airstrikes.
Speaking of Egypt, the Washington Post today reports that the military government there has initiated a new investigation into whether or not ousted president Mohammed Morsi sent secret documents to Qatar via Al-Jazeera. If it progresses, this will be the fourth case underway against the former head of state.
Chinese President Xi Jinping met on Wednesday with special envoy from Vietnam Le Hong Anh in an attempt to restore the two countries’ relations following spats over the South China Sea. While some point to the meeting as a clear sign of rapprochement, others worry fundamental disagreements between the two over extraterritorial rights in the area will preclude long-lasting stability. The Wall Street Journal has more.
Similarly, the Economist has a daily chart of all the territorial disputes China currently has with its neighbors. Spoiler: there’s a lot of them.
According to Fox News, China today dismissed U.S. accusations that its fighter pilots acted recklessly in recent intercepts with U.S. aircraft near its coast, with Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun calling for the United States to end such flights altogether.
The New York Times reports on the growing feeling of war along the India-Pakistan border in Kashmir where nightly skirmishes have killed two Indian and four Pakistani civilians. The AP tells us that 2,000 residents of Kashmir stayed in shelters last night.
In Islamabad, political instability is pushing the government to the brink, writes Shuja Nawaz. Even so, the crisis caused by large protests against the Sharif government has not spread elsewhere and remains contained to the capital. Reuters notes that Pakistani politician Imran Khan now appears to be isolated in his efforts to unseat the current government, as Tahir ul-Qadri, another protest leader, announced that he would tell thousands of his demonstrators to go home. It remains unclear whether the crisis is abating and if Khan will also withdraw his protest.
It appears that the declassification of the Senate report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation methods, scheduled for August 29th, will be delayed again by a month or more. Politico writes that the decision comes at the behest of both President Obama as well as Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein. Senate Democrats have been resisting efforts by the administration to redact significant parts of the document, which is alleged to cover topics including overseas prisons and waterboarding techniques.
According to Reuters, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein of New York indicated yesterday that he may order the federal government to release thousands of photos regarding the treatment of prisoners by U.S. authorities at Abu Ghraib prison and other sites.
Laura Pitter at Foreign Policy criticizes the “list of government perversions” that have kept the trial of five men accused of plotting 9/11 “languishing in limbo” and castigates the prosecution of terrorism cases in military commissions.
Closing arguments in a case involving four former Blackwater security guards continued on Wednesday. The case investigates the shootings at Nisur Square in 2007, where 14 Iraqi civilians were killed. The four guards are accused of shooting the people in the back as they ran away. The jury is expected to begin deliberations within a week. Al-Arabiya has more.
The Somali Current writes that the Somali Army and AMISOM have driven Al-Shabaab militants out of several towns formerly under the group’s control in the southern portion of the country.
Businessweek is reporting that in addition to Humvees and body armor, U.S. domestic police forces apparently have access to another “military-grade” technology: a sophisticated surveillance system codenamed “Stingray.” According to the report, the Department of Homeland Security provided grants allowing the police force in Tacoma, Washington to buy and secretly use the equipment, which can collect all text messages, telephone calls, and data transfers within a half-mile radius, for the past six years. In addition, more than 40 other law enforcement agencies in 17 states use similar equipment.
According to the Guardian, BT supplied a multi-million dollar high-speed fiber-optic cable to facilitate U.S. drone strikes on targets in Yemen and Somalia. In Yemen, approximately 71 people have been killed in drone strikes this year alone.
And since crises around the world appear to be in overdrive, here’s a tip for getting through your day: drink coffee before you take your nap. Seriously. The folks over at Vox explain why.
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