Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Wednesday, February 10, 2016, 3:08 PM

Referring to his own remarks as a “litany of doom,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper addressed the Senate Intelligence Committee in a hearing on worldwide threats yesterday. During the hearing, Clapper said that “unpredictable instability has become the new normal.” More specifically, Clapper told the SSCI that “homegrown” Islamist extremists pose an imminent threat to U.S. security; he also warned about threats posed by cyber attacks, which he suggested “could lead to widespread vulnerabilities in civilian infrastructures and U.S. government systems.” Outlining other threats facing the United States, Clapper discussed the Islamic State, Russia, North Korea, and the ongoing global refugee crisis. Foreign Policy provides a topic-by-topic summary of Clapper’s remarks which, they suggest, indicate that “the world is pretty much going to hell.”

DIA Director Vincent Stewart and FBI Director James Comey also testified before the SSCI. The former said that Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict had “changed the calculus completely.” Adding fuel to the fire in the encryption debate, Comey argued that encryption has hindered the FBI's investigation of the couple behind the San Bernardino attacks, preventing agents from accessing a cellphone belonging to the suspects. You can find the full hearing here.

The Department of Defense yesterday shared President Barack Obama's final budget request, which would aim to ensure U.S. security and prepare for new threats by “funding a high state of military readiness and ground force strength; strengthening combat capabilities of America's Armed Forces; developing the capabilities to deter and defeat future threats to the Nation's security; and improving the quality of life for servicemembers and their families.” Defense News provides an overview of the budget request here, including which programs and branches are winners and losers.

As Syrian government forces close in on Aleppo, the Washington Post writes that Syria, “already a catastrophe, seems on the verge of an uncontrollable disaster.” Amid dwindling aid, thousands are fleeing the city. Russian air strikes have already cut off opposition supply lines and have paved the way for government forces to surround the city. Up to 300,000 civilians could be trapped without access to aid as government forces prepare to encircle the city.

In addition to exacerbating an already dire humanitarian crisis, the fall of Aleppo to government forces would represent a turning point in the conflict with recent government gains expected to have significant consequences on future takls aimed at bringing the conflict to an end. In what the Post suggests would be a "policy disaster for the West," an Assad victory in Aleppo could bolster the regime's narrative that the Syrian conflict is a fight between a legitimate government and extremist forces. The Institute for the Study of War writes that "battlefield realities rather than great power politics will determine the ultimate terms of a settlement to end the Syrian Civil War.”

Meanwhile the United States and Russia are aiming to revive peace talks after the break down of last week’s discussions between government and opposition forces in Geneva. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are expected to meet on Thursday as the International Syria Support Group convenes in Munich to discuss plans for a ceasefire and the provision of humanitarian relief. Ahead of talks, Syrian rebels are calling for the United States to do more to stop Russian air strikes and bombardments. With the Russian-backed government forces making significant gains, opposition groups have sensed U.S. support diminishing, illustrating what the Times describes as a perceived “mismatch between tough American rhetoric against the Syrian government and comparatively modest efforts to aid some of its opponents.”

But Syrian opposition groups are not the only ones questioning U.S. commitment in Syria. The Times writes that U.S. allies “sharply criticized the Obama administration’s Syria policy on Wednesday, when the outgoing foreign minister of France called it ‘ambiguous’ and the president of Turkey said American inaction had allowed the region to descend into a blood bath.” Turkey has also expressed anger over the U.S. refusal to designate Syrian Kurds as terrorists. Following Saudi Arabia’s offer to send troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State, the Wall Street Journal writes that Riyadh’s offer could be a move to “reaffirm its leadership role in the region” and pressure the United States to increase its role in resolving the Syrian conflict.

Amid floundering efforts to resolve the conflict, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for its first car bombing inside of Damascus. The attack left several dead and dozens wounded.

Hoping to demonstrate U.S. initiatives to accelerate the campaign against ISIS, Defense Secretary Ash Carter will address NATO defense chiefs on Thursday. Carter is urging allies to contribute more to the fight against ISIS.

Meanwhile in Iraq, Iraqi forces are focusing on recapturing Mosul after their victory over the Islamic State in Ramadi. Marine Corps Lieutenant General and DIA head Vincent Stewart countered Iraqi optimism yesterday by suggesting that the Iraqi army was unlikely that Mosul would be retaken in 2016.

The Post reports that the number of migrants that have arrived in Europe since the beginning of 2016 has already surpassed the total number of arrivals from 2015, and the number of migrants estimated to have arrived in Europe through Feb. 7 is "more than six times larger than the number who traveled that same route by the end of February last year.” Turkey has accused the United Nations of being ineffective in dealing with the crisis after the latter requested that Turkey open its borders to thousands more Syrian refugees as the crisis in Aleppo continues to add to Syria’s displaced population. Turkey houses some 3 million refugees, with 2.5 million of those coming from Syria. As Turkish leaders warn that continued Russian airstrikes could prompt a new influx of refugees, NATO is expected to discuss Turkish requests for aid in dealing with the refugee crisis.

In what the New York Times tells us is “the largest deployment of American troops outside major bases in Afghanistan since the end of the NATO combat mission in 2014,” U.S. forces will deploy hundreds of soldiers to Afghanistan's Helmand province where beleaguered Afghan government fighters are struggling to deal with gains made by Taliban insurgents. An army spokesman said that the troops would protect American special forces already in the province, and added that the U.S. mission “remains the same: to train, advise, and assist our Afghan counterparts, and not to participate in combat operations.”

Iran is expected to purchase Russian Sukhoi-30 fighter jets in an effort to update its outdated air force. The Times notes that “Iran's acquisition is significant given its role as a regional power in the volatile Middle East, where it is backing opposite sides in conflicts in Yemen and Syria to its longtime rival Saudi Arabia.” Meanwhile, the Post tells us that, just months after the the United States signed a nuclear agreement with Tehran, U.S. lawmakers are “seeking to punish the Iranian regime for everything from recent ballistic missile tests to pervasive human rights abuses.”

Israeli security personnel shot and killed a 15-year-old Palestinian boy who was part of a group of youths throwing stones at vehicles along a highway in Hebron. Reuters writes that 27 Israelis and 157 Palestinians have been killed in the wave of violence that has gripped Israel since early October. In his announcement of new Israeli initiatives to keep Hamas and other infiltrators out of the country, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to "surround all of Israel with a fence" to protect the country from "wild beasts.”

As Fatah and Hamas engage in a new reconciliation process, the internationally recognized Palestinian government has offered to step down to make way for a new unity government. Agence France-Presse reports that the declaration followed two days of talks between the two groups in Doha and “was not the first time the government has proposed such a move." For its part, Hamas has suggested that it is "ready to form a new unity government without preconditions.”

Reuters tells us that U.S. and Indian officials are considering conducting joint naval patrols that could include the South China Sea. Washington continues to urge local allies to “take a more united stance against China over the South China Sea,” and officials said that they hoped to begin patrols within the year.

In response to North Korea’s latest nuclear and rocket testings, South Korea shut down an industrial zone in the DMZ in which North Koreans were employed in South Korean-owned factories. The Post writes that, “in an unusually harshly worded statement, Seoul flatly accused the North of using money earned from inter-Korean projects for its nuclear and missile programs.” According to the Post, the zone “was opened during a period of engagement and was originally championed as a way to improve the North’s economy — with a long-range goal of minimizing the gap between the countries if they are eventually reunified.”

Proceedings in the case against U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl have been brought to a halt as the military court considers the defense’s ability to access some 300,000 pages of classified documents. The complications follow last week’s order for the prosecution to turn over the classified information to the defense.

Parting Shot: According to the Times, “the United Arab Emirates announced on Tuesday that it would create a new cabinet level job: minister of happiness,” which the Times notes is ironic considering “the country’s record on human rights and gender equality.” The Times has more on what they consider to be “odd names for offbeat ministries.”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Stephan Haggard shared thoughts on North Korea’s nuclear test and satellite launch.

Stewart Baker posted the 100th Episode of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast which focuses on section 702 intelligence.

Bobby asked whether ISIS member Umm Sayyaf will face charges for her role in the abuse and death of American hostage Kayla Mueller.

Cody and Alex linked to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearing on worldwide threats.

In response to the hearing, Paul Rosenzweig took a look at Norway’s threat assessment in an attempt to determine if “what we see is what others see.”

Paul highlighted parts of President Obama's plan to address cybersecurity.

Susan responded to Ross Schulman's piece on the NSA's recently announced shakeup.

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