Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Monday, March 21, 2016, 4:44 PM

Today, President Obama met with Cuban President Raul Castro as part of an historic visit to Cuba as the two countries revitalize diplomatic relations. President Obama arrived in Havana yesterday, becoming the first U.S. president to visit the neighboring country in nearly nine decades. The New York Times writes that Obama pledged to interact with the Cuban people directly and accelerate engagements between both nations. However, just hours before the president arrived, Castro government forces arrested dozens of protesters at the weekly Ladies in White march organized to demand the release of political prisoners in Cuba. The Times tells us that “the protest was widely seen as a test of Cuba’s tolerance for dissent during the presidential trip, and the arrests confirmed that Cuba was maintaining its long history of repressive tactics, if not intensifying their reach.”

Last Friday, Salah Abdeslam, the last remaining fugitive from the November 13 Paris terrorist attack, was captured in Belgium. According to the Wall Street JournalAbdeslam has yielded critical information on how he used local networks to hide in Belgium’s capital since the attacks in November and also admitted that he was preparing more attacks. The New York Times reports that Abdeslam indicated that he wanted to detonate his suicide vest alongside of three other terrorists outside of the Stade de France soccer stadium. However, Abdeslam “backed out” at the last minute. Belgian security officials have also released the name of an assailant believed to be one of Abdeslam’s accomplices. The Times tells us that “Najim Laachraoui, 24, was one of the two men using fake Belgian identity cards who were with Abdeslam in a Mercedes on September 9 as they passed through a checkpoint between Hungary and Austria.”

Yesterday, the Pentagon identified Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin as the U.S. Marine who was killed in an Islamic State attack in northern Iraq over the weekend. The attack took place on a compound near Makhmour, about 70 miles from the Islamic State-controlled city of Mosul. The Wall Street Journal shares that Sgt. Cardin’s death was the second combat fatality in the United States’ fight against the Islamic State. Military.com categorizes Sgt. Cardin’s death as highlighting the difficulty of the military’s “accelerated” campaign to take back Mosul and Raqqa from the pseudo-state.

Following the announcement of Sgt. Cardin’s death, the United States revealed that it will deploy more troops to IraqAl Jazeera reports that although it was unclear of how many troops would be deployed, the move “was made to bolster security at a coalition base near Makhmur on the frontlines with ISIS in northern Iraq.”

President Obama wants the Islamic State defeated by the end of his term, the Hill reports. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said that President Obama told him and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford to “get this done as soon as possible. I’d like to not leave this to my successor.” Although the Obama administration has only nine months left in office, Secretary Carter remains optimistic and commented that he was “confident that we’ll do it.” The Hill has more.

In other Islamic State news, the New York Times shares that a Turkish member of ISIS carried out a suicide bombing that killed four people in one of Turkey’s most popular shopping outlets and tourist hot spots over the weekend. Turkish citizen Mehmet Ozturk was identified as the suicide attacker who struck Istanbul’s central Istiklal Avenue on Saturday. Three Israeli citizens and an Iranian were killed and dozens of others were injured in the assault. Two of the Israeli victims held dual Israeli-American citizenship. The Times writes that “the bombing was the fourth such attack in Turkey this year, and it underscores the country’s growing vulnerability as it fights in conflicts on two fronts,” one against the Islamic State and the other against Kurdish insurgents.

Speaking of Kurdish insurgents in Turkey, three Turkish soldiers were killed in a bomb attack on their military vehicle in the southeastern town of Nusaybin near the Syrian border. Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, Reuters reports that the town has suffered from repeated clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants.

Over in Geneva, the Syrian peace talks continue. Reuters tells us that Syrian government negotiators are coming under increased pressure to discuss the fate of President Bashar al Assad. Yet, they are doing their best to avoid the topic. Arguments over President Assad’s fate were the main causes of failure in previous peace efforts in 2012 and 2014. Reuters writes that “the main opposition, along with the United States and other Western nations, has long insisted any peace deal must include his departure from power, while the Syrian government and Russia have said there is no such clause in the international agreements that underwrite the peace process.”

Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition will assess at the end of the week whether they will continue the peace talks with the Syrian government. According the Guardian, the opposition’s chief negotiator said that the Syrian government is “refusing to engage in detailed negotiations and instead continuing to starve Syria into submission.” Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. Syrian special envoy, is due to pause the peace process on Thursday and continues to face difficulties trying to persuade the Syrian government to engage in a detailed discussion about a transitional body to run Syria and President Assad’s role. De Mistura had admitted that there are large gaps that will need to be addressed.

As the opposition party debates their participation in the peace process, the United States has rejected Russia’s call for an urgent meeting regarding violations of Syria’s three-week “cessation of hostilities.” Reuters reports that earlier today, “Russia’s general staff of the armed forces proposed to hold an urgent meeting with U.S. representatives to agree on the mechanism of controlling the ceasefire in Syria, saying it would act unilaterally starting from March 22 if it gets no response.” However, a U.S. official told Reuters that “we have seen the media reports on alleged Russian concerns over ceasefire violations. Whoever is making such statements must be misinformed, because these issues have been discussed at length already, and continue to be discussed in a constructive manner.”

In Afghanistan, American drones and fighter jets have dropped 251 bombs and missiles in January and February as part of President Obama’s widening war against the Islamic State. The New York Times shares that this number is more than three times the strikes in the same period last year, according to data from the Air Force. Read more from the Times here.

Yesterday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that the United States is still “fundamentally hostile to Iran and its policies have undermined the benefits of sanctions relief.” Reuters reports that while speaking at a rally on Sunday celebrating Iran’s new year, Khamenei said fear of U.S. regulations was keeping foreign companies, specifically within the financial sector, away from Iran and further warned Iranians not to trust their old enemy. Reuters has more.

Yemen rebels and the internationally recognized government have agreed to a ceasefire for a week or two before the next round of negotiations expected to resume in April. The Associated Press reports that the “Shiite rebels in Yemen known as the Houthis have agreed to implement a U.N. security council resolution which requires them to hand over their weapons and withdraw from territory they occupy, including Sanaa.” Additionally, officials representing Yemen’s recognized government also agreed to the ceasefire as a “first step for the warring sides to show their good intentions,” as the AP writes.

Reuters reports that Pyongyang fired five short-range unidentified projectiles south of the city of Hamhung which traveled about 120 miles before landing in waters east of North Korea. The launchings come just days after the Hermit Kingdom test fired two mid-range ballistic missiles into the sea in defiance of new U.N. and U.S. sanctions.

Yet, as the North continues to defy sanctions and heighten tensions, some in South Korea are calling for the country to develop their own nuclear weapons. Read that report from the Washington Post here.

The Wall Street Journal shares that U.S. forces will soon have access to five Philippine military bases following plans that will station American troops in the Philippines for the first time in almost a quarter-century. Some of the military bases are strategically located within the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The Journal writes that “after two days of high-level talks in Washington, the Philippine Embassy there announced that four Philippine air bases and one army camp will be opened up to the U.S. under the terms of a defense pact signed in 2014.” The new agreement to deploy troops back to the Philippines is part of the Obama administration’s strategy increasing attention to the Asia-Pacific region.

However, China is not too happy with the proposed plan. Reuters tells us that China has said that the plan between the Philippines and the United States raises questions about militarization in the South China Sea. During a press conference earlier today, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying pointed out that “recently the U.S. military likes to talk about the militarization of the South China Sea” when speaking about the joint U.S.-Philippine proposal. She then added, “Can they then explain, isn’t this kind of continued strengthening of military deployments in the South China Sea and areas surrounding it considered militarization?”

Speaking of militarization, the Washington Post reports that Australia is planning an extensive arms buildup that could potentially shift the balance of power in the Pacific region. The Post writes that Australia’s decision “is an example of how China’s economic and military rise is forcing allies that have long relied on U.S. defense spending to re-evaluate” their own plans.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found a bug in Apple’s encryption that would allow a highly skilled attacker to decrypt photos and videos sent as secure instant messages. The Washington Post quotes Matthew Green, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins who led the research team, saying that “this specific flaw in Apple’s iMessage platform probably would not have helped the FBI pull data from an iPhone recovered in December’s San Bernardino, California terrorist attack, but it shatters the notion that strong commercial encryption has left no opening for law enforcement and hackers.”

Johns Hopkins’ discovery comes during a time of intense debate between Apple and the FBI. The New York Times provides some thoughts on how the FBI vs. Apple case could play out. Check that out here.

GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has finally unveiled the team advising him on foreign affairs. During a meeting with the Washington Post’s editorial board today, Trump announced that Keith Kellogg, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Walid Phares, and Joseph E. Schmitz are all part of his foreign policy team, which is chaired by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL). Read more on Trump’s team from the Washington Post here.

Parting Shot“In my role as a civilian contractor for the Department of Defense, I spent the first three months of 2004 torturing Iraqi prisoners...We humiliated and degraded them, and ourselves.” That is what Eric Fair had to say about his time in Iraq. You can read more on his “owning up to torture” in the New York Times here.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Alex shared the Week That Was summing up all of Lawfare’s posts from last week.

Cody released the latest Lawfare Podcast featuring last week’s Hoover Book Soiree with General Michael Hayden.

In Sunday’s Foreign Policy Essay, Adam Saxton argued that autonomous weapons do pose ethical issues in the conduct of warfare, but often the arguments for or against them caricature the weapons and misunderstand their actual use.

Paul Rosenzweig warned us to proceed with caution in regards to ICANN and the IANA transition.

Stewart Baker issued a bonus episode of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast highlighting an interview with Phil Reitinger.

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