Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Wednesday, February 24, 2016, 5:20 PM

Following the agreement between Russia and the United States over the terms of a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, the Syrian government and a major opposition group have said that “they will observe a conditional pause in fighting set to begin Saturday, but they also made clear that they expected the exercise to make little difference in the civil war.” Despite their "acceptance of international efforts for a cessation of hostilities," the opposition groups represented by the High Negotiations Committee have yet to agree to halt fighting, citing concerns that Russia will not cease its airstrikes targeting rebel positions. The New York Times tells us that “the plan to halt the fighting does not include the Islamic State, which holds large swaths of territory in the northeast, nor will it apply to the Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, whose fighters are among rebel groups in many parts of the north.”

Top U.S. military officials are dubious that Russia will abide by the terms of the planned cease-fire as they push “for ways to increase pressure on Moscow, including expanding covert military assistance for some rebels now taking a pounding from Russian airstrikes.” Ankara has expressed concern that the cease-fire could prove strategically beneficial the Assad regime. For Moscow’s part, the Washington Post reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin has gone on a “diplomatic blitz” in order “to place himself in the center of efforts to secure a Syrian cease-fire, speaking by phone to the leaders of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran and drawing promises of cooperation, according to the Kremlin.”

As officials remain tentative over the prospects for the cessation of hostilities, the BBC notes that “the various parties will each expect others to renege at the slightest provocation, and may even use the fragility of this state of affairs to their advantage.” The Associated Press has the latest on the proposed cease-fire.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal adds to the optimism, telling us that “as world powers struggle to agree on a solution to Syria’s war, a United Nations report points to a paradox it says is hindering peace plans: the same countries pushing for peace are the ones fueling the war.”

Syrian forces and Islamic State militants clashed to the northeast of Aleppo near the critical town of Khanaser. As ISIS continues to step up attacks in the region, Reuters tells us that the latest Islamic State attack “cut a main army supply route to parts of Aleppo where the Syrian army, backed by Russian warplanes, Iran's Revolutionary Guards and Lebanon's Hezbollah, has been gaining ground.”

Over in Iraq, U.S. commanders have identified “between eight and twelve” Iraqi army brigades that could mount an attack on Mosul. The Military Times writes that “Iraqi commanders and their U.S. advisers are also debating whether the primary invasion force for the Islamic State group’s stronghold should come from the Iraqi-controlled south or from the Kurdish region in the north and east — or maybe both.” A top U.S. general in Iraq said that, either way, those brigades could require U.S. support.

Libyan forces retook Benghazi from Islamic extremists after nearly two years of fighting. Libyan officials suggested that French forces are fighting alongside Libyan troops as they battle against the Islamic State, while Reuters reports that “French special forces and intelligence commandos are engaged in covert operations against Islamic State militants in Libya in conjunction with the United States and Britain.” French newspaper Le Monde has more on what it calls “France’s secret war in Libya.” In the latest on ISIS in Libya, AP tells us that “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) affiliates in Libya briefly took over the security headquarters in the western city of Sabratha, killing and beheading 12 security officers before being driven out early Wednesday morning, two city security officials said.”

Meanwhile, U.S. forces are training African police to fight groups like Boko Haram and AQIM. A U.S. officer commented on the initiative, stating that “if we continue to invest in the development of regional platforms, it will pay huge dividends over the next year, but it cannot be done without a comprehensive approach.”

The Washington Post writes that Yemeni rebels are posing an increasing threat to the southern area of Saudi Arabia as “thousands of mortars and crude rockets have slammed into schools, mosques and homes in Najran, a city of several hundred thousand people only a few miles from the mountains of northern Yemen.”

In the latest from Afghanistan, the Times tells us that U.S. airstrikes have broken “a bloody impasse between Afghan troops and Taliban militants north of Kabul, allowing repair crews to reach downed power lines and restore electricity to the capital after more than three weeks of disruption.” Taliban forces have denied that they were involved in cutting off the transmission lines that supplied Kabul with electricity.

As fighting continues across the country, Afghan security forces have abandoned three bases in the Helmand province in efforts to bolster security in other parts of the province. The Washington Post writes that “the Afghan military has always invested a large portion of its combat power into checkpoints and fixed positions, a strategy that has severely limited its ability to mount offensive operations.”

A police raid in Karachi left 12 militants dead after a shootout broke out. The Associated Press reports that “seven of the slain men belonged to Pakistan's anti-Shiite Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militant group while five were from al-Qaida's branch in the Indian subcontinent.”

Ahead of Friday’s parliamentary elections in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called upon voters to unite in opposition to the West. Reiterating that the recently agreed upon nuclear deal was an American plot to “infiltrate” Iran, Khamenei said that “the nation will vote for a parliament that puts Iran's dignity and independence first, and stands up to foreign powers whose influence on Iran has been removed.” This election will largely pit centrist candidates against hardline conservatives who are increasingly concerned about recent signs of cooperation with the West.

An Israeli national was killed after security personnel opened fire on a Palestinian assailant who was attacking him. The assailant was wounded in the gunfire. This latest casualty in what Reuters calls a “five-month-old surge in street violence” brings the total number of Israelis killed to 28, while “Israeli security forces have killed at least 168 Palestinians, 111 of whom Israel says were assailants.”

In the latest escalation in the South China Sea, China once again deployed jets to a disputed island. Almost ten fighter planes were spotted on the Chinese-claimed Woody Island “where earlier this month [China] redeployed surface-to-air missiles." Beijing also "appears to be building a sophisticated radar system” on the island. According to Voice of America, such a high frequency radar system “would bolster Beijing's ability to monitor surface and air traffic in the tense waters,” and analysts at CSIS suggest that the ongoing build up of capabilities in the region “speak to a long-term anti-access strategy by China – one that would see it establish effective control over the sea and airspace throughout the South China Sea." A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry did not confirm or deny reports of the deployment or radar system and called upon journalists to be “objective and impartial,” suggesting that the media did not consider other countries’ deployments of advanced weaponry in the region.

The debate between Apple and the FBI rages on. The Los Angeles Times writes that “where the government wants reasonable paths into phones and databases for criminal investigations, it is instead being met with stiffer barriers,” with increased support for privacy and encryption spreading throughout Silicon Valley. The New York Times tells us that the Department of Justice “is demanding Apple’s help in unlocking at least nine iPhones nationwide in addition to the phone used by one of the San Bernardino” suspects, which, the Times suggests, appears to “buttress the company’s concerns that the dispute could pose a threat to encryption safeguards that goes well beyond the single California case.” Reuters adds that the Justice Department has sought data from 15 iPhones over the last four months.

As the debate continues, the Associated Press reports that Apple “will tell a federal judge this week in legal papers that its fight with the FBI over accessing a locked and encrypted iPhone should be kicked to Congress, rather than decided by courts.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was joined by Senate Republicans in agreeing to not hold confirmation hearings for any justice nominated by the President to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. Following the signed pledge from the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the New York Times notes that the decision has moved “the Senate into unprecedented territory: Senators meet with high-court nominees as matters of courtesy and cordiality, but even that tradition has been rejected.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest responded to the Senate Republicans’ announcement by saying that their decision “would be a historic and unprecedented acceleration of politicizing a branch of government that’s supposed to be insulated from politics.” For his part, President Obama authored an opinion on SCOTUSblog in which he announced his intention to fulfill his Constitutional responsibility to appoint a judge “in the weeks ahead.” He added that, “as Senators prepare to fulfill their constitutional responsibility to consider the person I appoint, I hope they’ll move quickly to debate and then confirm this nominee so that the Court can continue to serve the American people at full strength.”

Addressing a group of graduating Georgetown law students, Justice Samuel Alito noted that the Supreme Court had existed with an even number of justices in the past. Justice Alito also said that “there’s nothing in the Constitution that specifies the size of the Supreme Court.”

According to the Associated Press, Spanish and Moroccan law enforcement “arrested four suspected members of a jihadi cell that sought to recruit fighters for the Islamic State group.” Among those arrested, one suspect was described “as a former Guantanamo detainee who once fought with militants in Afghanistan.” Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz said that the suspect was detained in 2002 and released back to Spain in 2004.

Politico writes that “virtually no one is impressed with President Barack Obama’s latest plan to close Guantanamo Bay — though its lack of specifics might be a relief to the Democrats running to replace him.” The Times’ Charlie Savage and Julie Hirschfeld Davis note that while Republicans have almost outright rejected the plan, Democrats are skeptical as “the blueprint offered few specifics [and refrains] from mentioning any of the potential replacement facilities the Pentagon had visited in preparing it.” Defense One takes a look at what’s new in the President’s plan and highlights its flaws.

Parting shot: Ever gotten the sense that the 2016 presidential candidates might not really know what’s going on in the Middle East? Confused about why Ben Carson was discussing hummus in a foreign policy context? Foreign Policy tells us what precisely the candidates have wrong about the region, which in a nutshell, FP suggests, is everything.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Cody posted President Obama’s plan to close Guantánamo Bay and his corresponding statement.

Ben shared his notes on the president’s plan.

Bobby examined the four arguments presented in the president’s plan.

Helen Klein took a look at Jawad v. Gates in which a “former Guantánamo detainee seeks redress under the Alien Tort Statute.”

Herb Lin argued that while Apple's letters to the public are somewhat disingenuous, they represent the right outcome for now.

Susan and Ben entered the lion’s den and invited us to watch as they participated in a “frank exchange of views” with Redditors on the Apple versus FBI debate.

Andrew Keane Woods considered the viability of Apple's using a First Amendment argument in fighting the FBI’s demands.

Amy Zegart suggested that the debate between Apple and the FBI highlights the security vs. security dilemma.

Daniel Severson took a look at the French Constitutional Council's latest decision to strike down a provision allowing the police to copy data when conducting warrantless searches.

Stewart Baker shared the latest episode of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, which features audio from the Second Annual Triple Entente Beer Summit.

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