Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Wednesday, March 16, 2016, 3:38 PM

President Obama announced his nomination of Judge Merrick B. Garland as the nation’s 113th Supreme Court justice, the New York Times reports. Noting that Judge Garland was on Obama's shortlist for a Supreme Court nomination due to "his position, disposition and bipartisan popularity,” the Times writes that Judge Garland "is described as brilliant and, at 63, is somewhat aged for a Supreme Court nominee." Judge Garland was confirmed in 1997 as a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and is well known for his work in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case.

In his address, the president suggested that he came to his decision after considering the opinions of politicians on both sides of the aisle as well as those of legal associations and advocacy groups in “a rigorous and comprehensive process.” He added that Judge Garland “is widely recognized not only as one of America’s sharpest legal minds, but someone who brings to his work a spirit of decency, modesty, integrity, even-handedness and excellence.” The president announced his choice in an address from the the White House Rose Garden earlier this morning.

Following the announcement, several GOP leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, voiced their intentions to block the nomination in what they suggest is a matter of principle.

In Lawfare, both Ben Wittes and Tim Edgar outline why blocking Judge Garland's nomination may not be such a good idea. In Ben's view, Garland "is quite simply one of the very finest judges in the United States" with "extensive national security experience." Edgar argues that Republicans should consider that Garland may be the best they'll get anytime soon, as a President Clinton would likely nominate a "younger, more liberal candidate." 

Turning to Syria: just days after the Kremlin’s unexpected announcement that Russia would withdraw the “main parts” of its forces from Syria, the Washington Post writes that the decision “rearranged the lines of the grinding conflict and solidified Moscow’s influence not only on the battlefield but also at the negotiating table.” The move was reportedly made without consulting the Assad regime, and experts suggest that “Russia’s pullout will put significant pressure on Assad to work out a power-sharing agreement with the opposition.” As the conflict marks its fifth anniversary, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura suggested that the Russian withdrawal “will have an actual impact on the talks” and that negotiations currently being held in Geneva have “new momentum.”  

In addition to catching the White House off-guard, the Russian decision has caught nearly every party involved in the country by surprise, leaving diplomats and officials to question just what Russian intentions are and what impact the move will have on the conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Moscow next week to discuss the Russian withdrawal and the possibilities of a political transition in Syria, the Post reports. Reuters has more.

Russia will maintain a reduced number of personnel at its naval and airbases in the country; it will also keep in place its S-400 air defense missile systems, which will enable Moscow to exert continued influence in the region. Reuters tells us that “just under half of Russia's fixed-wing strike force based in Syria has flown out of the country in the past two days.” According to the Guardian, Russian airstrikes have been responsible for some 2,000 civilian deaths since they began nearly six months ago. The Guardian writes that “[Russian] jets appear to have intentionally bombed civilian areas, in a campaign to spread fear and clear areas where government ground troops were planning to advance.” In considering the Kremlin’s announcement, the Daily Beast suggests tha—having bolstered the Assad regime by bringing “a real turnabout in the fight against the terrorists in Syria,” as the Kremlin puts itRussian President Vladimir Putin “may well be winding down a short intervention because he’s accomplished exactly what he set out to do.”

Meanwhile, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) announced its intention to declare a federal region in northern Syria, a notion immediately rejected by Syrian and Turkish officials at the Geneva peace talks. The Associated Press reports that the PYD “is not lobbying for a Kurdish region but an all-inclusive area with representation for Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds in northern Syria.” Despite serious gains made by Syrian Kurds in northern Syria in recent years, the PYD and the group’s military arm have been excluded from talks in Geneva as Turkey considers the group a terrorist organization.

The Iraqi army, backed by Kurdish Peshmerga forces and an Iran-supported Shia militia, is set to launch an offensive to push ISIS militants away from the northern oil region of Kirkuk, Reuters reports.

The Daily Beast tells us that the Obama administration is launching “a stealth anti-Islamic State messaging campaign, delivered by proxies and targeted to individual would-be extremists.” The establishment of the Center for Global Engagement was announced on Monday by the “new anti-ISIS message czar” Michael Lumpkin as a replacement of “previous less-than-successful efforts.” Lumpkin told the Daily Beast that “you need a network to defeat a network, so we’re going to take a network approach to our messaging.” The new messaging approach “is not going to be focused on U.S. messages with a government stamp on them, but rather amplifying moderate credible voices in the region and throughout civil society,” as White House counter-terrorism advisor Lisa Monaco phrased it in her address last week at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Algerian national Mohamed Belkaid was shot dead during a raid on a Belgian apartment in a Brussels suburb after two occupants opened fire on police. Two suspects in the Paris attacks managed to escape. Belkaid was shot dead by snipers as he attempted to fire at police from a window, but the BBC says that Belkaid “was not known to the authorities except for one case of robbery.” The BBC added that an Islamic State “flag was recovered from the apartment raided on Tuesday, along with Salafist (ultra-conservative Islamic) literature and Kalashnikov ammunition.”

Some 47 suspects have been detained in Turkey’s anti-terror operations following Sunday’s suicide bombing in Ankara. According to the Post, the raids followed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declaration that Turkey would “redefine” terrorism in order to allow the country to take legal action against any supporter of terrorism, “including legislators, academics and journalists.” No group has yet claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack which killed 37.

A bomb targeting a bus carrying Pakistani civil servants left at least 15 dead in Peshawar. At least 50 others were injured in the attack. While no group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, the Pakistani Taliban has frequently targeted the northwestern city, the BBC tells us.  

In neighboring Afghanistan, Taliban militants seized a fifth district in Helmand province yesterday. The New York Times reports that the Khan Neshin District fell to insurgents after Taliban fighters attacked a government center, causing officials to flee. As security in Helmand looks increasingly tenuous, the Post writes that “the Taliban’s apparent gains in the district [...] comes just weeks after government forces withdrew from two other districts in the province, effectively ceding control to insurgents.” In recent months, hundreds of U.S. special operations forces have been deployed to the region.

Amid Taliban gains, NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg met with the country’s leaders and predicted another difficult year as insurgents continue their fight against Kabul. He confirmed that NATO would continue to support the Afghan army but said that NATO troops would not resume combat operations. Currently, NATO has some 3,000 troops in the country, with half of the additional 9,800 U.S. personnel expected to withdraw from the country at the end of the year.

A Saudi airstrike in the primarily Houthi-controlled Haja province in northwestern Yemen killed at least 41 civilians yesterday. A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said that Saudi Arabia was looking into the reports. Saudi Arabia has come under fire for causing civilian deaths in Yemen as the United Nations estimates that “more than 6,000 people, half of them civilians, have been killed in Yemen's conflict since the Saudi-led intervention began in March 2015.”

Two female suicide bombers left at least 22 worshipers dead in a Nigerian mosque in Maiduguri. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the incident resembles other Boko Haram attacks which frequently use women and children to carry out suicide bombings. The BBC writes that “Maiduguri is the birthplace of Islamist group Boko Haram's insurgency which has killed 20,000 people since 2009.”

Reflecting on the recent attack in the Ivory Coast, the New York Times writes that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is ”making a lethal come back” despite French efforts to crush the group. The authors note that the group’s “recent assaults on three enclaves for expatriates and African elites — in Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Mali — seem to be patterned after the kind of big, shocking terrorist attacks carried out by rival extremist groups like the Islamic State,” adding that “Western-friendly capitals known for religious tolerance are now especially fearful, wondering who will be next.”

Citing a report from state news agency Xinhua, Reuters tells us that China is seeking greater counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States. According to the report, Chinese Public Security Minister Guo Shengkun met with FBI Director James Comey in Beijing and sought to "deepen law enforcement and security cooperation in the fields of internet security and counter-terrorism.”

University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea after he allegedly stole a political propaganda poster during a tourist visit in Pyongyang. According to a report from the Korean Central News Agency, Warmbier “confessed to the serious offense against the DPRK he had committed, pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy toward it, in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist.”

Parting Shot: The fourth World Happiness Report is out, and Denmark “has reclaimed its place as the world’s happiest country,” according to the Times. Perhaps something is not so rotten in the state of Denmark, after all. Meanwhile, the United States placed 13th.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Cody shared “Apple's reply to the government's opposition to Apple's motion to vacate.”

Ammar Abdulhamid wrote that Putin's announcement to withdraw Russian forces from Syria is unexpected but not surprising.

Ben anticipated the opening up of a new front in the Second Crypto War.

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