Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Tuesday, February 16, 2016, 5:50 PM

Over the weekend, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was found dead at a Texas resort. His unexpected death sparked immediate political tension as President Obama vowed to fill the vacancy over GOP objections. Just hours after the news broke, GOP candidates responded to his death in their latest debate. Lawfare's Ben Wittes shared his thoughts on Scalia's passing over a series of tweets, documented here. And his former law clerk, Adam Klein, shares Justice Scalia's national security legacy as well.

Following Friday’s agreement among world powers to work towards a ceasefire that will allow the delivery of humanitarian aid, U.N. special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura arrived in Syria this morning. The Washington Post reports that de Mistura met with the Syrian foreign minister “to discuss ‘unhindered’ humanitarian access to besieged populations.” The Syrian government approved U.N. delivery of aid to several besieged areas. The special envoy’s visit will also “include discussion of the resumption of peace talks set for Geneva on February 25,” Reuters writes.

Yet as ceasefire talks stall, fighting intensified on Monday as four hospitals and a school were struck by airstrikes. The strikes left at least 50 dead in the rebel-held regions of Aleppo and Idlib provinces, the New York Times reports. Two of the hospitals hit were in the town of Azaz, “a major prize in the fierce battles unfolding in Aleppo Province.” U.S. officials have condemned Syrian and Russian forces for the attacks. State Department spokesman John Kirby declared that the targeting of civilians “casts doubt on Russia’s willingness and/or ability to help bring to a stop the continued brutality of the Assad regime against its own people.”

For his part, Syrian President Bashar al Assad rejected calls for a cessation of hostilities against rebel forces, and instead maintained that “everyone bearing arms against the state and the Syrian people is a terrorist”—a position he said was “nonnegotiable.” As regime forces push closer to Aleppo, the Associated Press tells us that “Russia hopes to use its air power to dictate the terms of a cease-fire and prospective peace talks.” Both the AP and the Washington Post have more on what’s at stake in the battle for Aleppo.

Meanwhile, Turkey has announced that it will send ground forces to fight against the Islamic State in Syria and will authorize Saudi forces to launch strikes from Turkish air bases. The AP reports that while Turkey would not act unilaterally, “the country is pushing the case for ground operations in Syria, hoping for the involvement of the U.S. and other allies in an international coalition against the Islamic State group.” As Saudi forces arrive in Turkey, the Daily Beast writes that “Riyadh’s offer of support is most likely a bluff, since Saudi Arabia already is stretched thin on both military and economic fronts,” and adds that any genuine Saudi commitment of force “will be an incredibly risky move that will prolong the civil war.”

As Turkey looks to step up military involvement in Syria, Turkish forces struck Kurdish targets after Russian-backed YPG militants advanced on the border town of Azaz, pushing back rebel fighters. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu demanded that YPG forces withdraw from the area and promised the “harshest reaction” should the YPG take Azaz. Turkey has maintained that the YPG is a terrorist group affiliated with the PKK. Russia has asked the U.N. Security Council to investigate Turkish shelling within Syrian territory.

Despite what it describes as dwindling Saudi participation in the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State, CNN tells us that Saudi Arabia has launched a military exercise with forces from 20 Arab and Muslim countries. A Saudi news agency said that the “drills represent a clear message that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its brothers and friends of the participating countries stand united to confront all challenges and maintain peace and stability in the region.” The drills are likely designed to signal the Sunni country still has the capability to muster significant military resources, even as it battles Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The Islamic State is facing serious money shortages and has been forced to slash salaries of militants and civil services at all levels. Describing the inflation and electricity rationing that has struck the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, the AP points out that, “having built up loyalty among militants with good salaries and honeymoon and baby bonuses, the group has stopped providing even the smaller perks: free energy drinks and Snickers bars.”

Reuters tells us that tests have confirmed that ISIS used mustard gas during a fight with Kurdish fighters near Erbil last year. With officials uncertain of how the militant group could have obtained chemical weapons, some have suggested that Syria’s stockpile as a possible source of the gas used by the group in Iraq.

Turning to Afghanistan, a report from the U.N. revealed that the country faced a record number of civilian casualties in 2015 with 3,545 killed and 7,457 injured. A U.N. official said that the report did not reflect the full scale of the devastation inflicted upon the civilian population by fighting between government and insurgent forces as well as Taliban attacks.

Israeli authorities detained the Washington Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief as he conducted interviews near Damascus Gate. According to the Times, Israel’s “Foreign Ministry later issued a statement calling the episode ‘regrettable’ and praising Mr. Booth’s work, and the Government Press Office called the episode ‘an unfortunate misunderstanding.’”

Ten people were detained after a series of raids connected to separate terrorism cases in Belgium and Germany.

As the ASEAN summit heads into its second day, President Obama and regional allies will discuss the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea. Reuters writes that U.S. officials hope to “produce a statement calling for China to follow international law and handle disputes peacefully.” In his opening remarks at the Summit, President Obama sought to advance a “shared vision of a regional order where international rules and norms, including freedom of navigation, are upheld and where disputes are resolved through peaceful, legal means.” Meanwhile, Bloomberg tells us that “China’s increased reliance on non-naval ships to assert its claims in the South China Sea is complicating U.S. efforts to avoid a clash in the disputed waters.”

After a U.S. hellfire missile accidentally ended up in Cuba, U.S. officials have confirmed that “the inert training missile has been returned with the cooperation of the Cuban government.” CNN tells us that the “missile was misrouted by the cargo-shipping firm as it traveled from Madrid for its flight back to Florida.”

The New York Times reports that flights between the United States and Cuba are set to resume this year with President Obama expected to complete an agreement that would allow U.S. carriers to operate a total of 30 flights to the island nation. This agreement would mark the first time commercial flights are permitted between the United States and Cuba in some 50 years.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced that the department is expanding its social media presence in response to growing fears of online radicalization. The Washington Post writes that “the department is now monitoring the social media use of people who apply for various immigration benefits, along with those seeking asylum.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, Abdul Malik Abdul Kareem goes on trial today, “in what is believed to be the first time the U.S. government has put a person on trial on terror charges related to” the Islamic State. Kareem was arrested in connection with an attempted attack on a Texas cartoon drawing contest of Prophet Muhammad.

Meanwhile in Guantánamo, 9/11 pretrial hearings are set to recommence after proceedings recessed on December 11. Defense attorneys are still pushing for access to some 6.3 million documents on CIA black sites as family members of 9/11 victims express frustration over the delays in beginning the trial. It remains unclear when the actual trials will commence, but one lawyer suggested that the trial could begin as late as 2021 if defense lawyers were not granted access to classified evidence.

Parting Shot: Following intense squabbles at Saturday night’s GOP debate, former Vice President Dick Cheney has accused Donald Trump of being a “liberal Democrat,” after the GOP candidate spoke out against the policies of George W. Bush.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Cody alerted us to upcoming events in The Week That Will Be while Alex highlighted last week’s posts in The Week that Was.

Scott Roehm responded to Gordon England's challenge of Ash Carter's Guantánamo transfers.

Ben and Zoe Bedell took a look at tweeting terrorists. They asked whether it was illegal for Twitter to let terrorists operate accounts and how Twitter would defend itself against a material support prosecution.

Nadwa Dawsari wrote about lessons learned from counterterrorism in Yemen in this week's Foreign Policy Essay.

Cody shared this week's Lawfare Podcast, in which Daniel Placek discussed the hacker website Darkode.

Paul Rosenzweig asks how concerned we should be over vulnerability posed by the Internet of Things.

Paul also linked us to a survey of the worldwide distribution of cryptograpic systems.

Alex summarized last week’s worldwide threat assessment from the U.S. Intelligence Community.

Laura Dean took a look into the lucrative human smuggling business which continues to profit from the plight of refugees.

Ben highlighted recent Brookings’ events related to Syria.

Ben also posted the "Things Could Possibly Get Much Worse Edition" of Rational Security which took a look at the ongoings in Syria.

Matthew Waxman shared the news that Steve Bellovin was appointed as the first Technology Scholar of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

Lawfare staff shed light on this week’s U.S.-ASEAN summit in Water Wars.

Daniel Severson addressed the French National Assembly’s vote in favor of an amendment that would enshrine the state of emergency in the French Constitution.

John Bellinger shared the news of the Senate's confirmation of NSC Legal Adviser Brian Egan to be Legal Adviser of the State Department.

Doron Hindin looked at Israeli export controls and asked whether such controls can tame cyber technology.

Email the Roundup Team noteworthy law and security-related articles to include, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for additional commentary on these issues. Sign up to receive Lawfare in your inbox. Visit our Events Calendar to learn about upcoming national security events, and check out relevant job openings on our Job Board.