Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Wednesday, April 6, 2016, 3:59 PM

The cessation of hostilities in Syria is looking increasingly unstable. In what Reuters described as "the fiercest government assault in the area" since the cessation of hostilities began last month, the Syrian army has launched a major attack on insurgents south of Aleppo. Reuters writes that the “fighting south of Aleppo in recent days has put further strain on the already widely violated ceasefire deal brokered by the United States and Russia with the aim of launching a diplomatic process towards ending the five-year-long war.”

Following yesterday’s shooting down of a Syrian warplane in the same region, the Wall Street Journal writes that “Syria’s five-week truce was left in tatters as Islamist rebels shot down a government warplane and captured its pilot near Aleppo while the regime and its allies vowed to launch a new offensive to drive all opposition fighters from the northern city.” The recent violence and violations of the ceasefire agreement are expected to cast a pall on the next round of peace talks between the government and opposition parties scheduled to begin next week in Geneva.

Today's long read: the Atlantic Council released a report on Russia’s military support of the Assad regime, writing that “Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria was built upon deception.” The authors, in no uncertain terms, state that “Russia launched air strikes on hospitals, water treatment plants, and mosques. Russia used cluster bombs. Russia almost exclusively targeted non-ISIS targets.” In their forward, the authors write that they “used the power of digital forensics to expose the details of Russia’s aerial and ground attacks in Syria using information entirely from open sources, available to be viewed and verified by anyone.” Responding to the publication, Russia claims that the report is “inaccurate on grand scale.” The Guardian has more.

The al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front confirmed that their spokesman, Abu Firas al-Suri, was killed in a U.S. airstrike on Sunday. As the Nusra Front faces increasing challenges in Syria, the Daily Beast writes that "tensions between Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the mainstream opposition in Syria’s rebel north are at an all-time high." The ongoing standoff between the two groups in Idlib province has "highlighted splits between opposition Syrians—between those who want a free, democratic Syria and those who want justice through the rule of Islamic law."

As the Syrian army makes gains against the Islamic State, ISIS militants are striking Syrian government-held areas near Damascus. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, "Islamic State attackers, using five bomb-laden cars, also struck military positions near the Dumeir military airport 40 km (25 miles) northeast of Damascus, killing 12 soldiers."

Over in Iraq, Islamic State fighters are fending off Iraqi forces, whose progress against the militants has been impeded by the now familiar tactics of "hundreds of roadside bombs, car bombs and heavy mortar fire.” On Monday, Iraqi forces entered the small, strategic town of Hit which connects Islamic State supply lines between Syria and Iraq. Further progress has been thwarted, however, by fierce resistance and poor weather as thousands of civilians remain trapped by the fighting.

CNN writes that “President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he was looking for ways to scale up the battle against militants in Iraq and Syria ahead of a White House meeting with top U.S. military brass.” Meanwhile, Senator John McCain has suggested that the U.S. effort against ISIS is “another slow, grinding failure” like the Vietnam War. The Senator wrote that conversations with military commanders “have led me to the disturbing, yet unavoidable conclusion that they have been reduced from considering what it will take to win to what they will be allowed to do by this administration.”

CNN also reports that the Obama administration is considering withdrawing U.S. forces from a base in the Sinai Peninsula amid mounting ISIS threats. The move would affect some 700 U.S. troops who are monitoring compliance with the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Libya’s self-declared National Salvation Government announced that it would step down, paving the way for the U.N.-backed unity government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), to take control, the BBC reports. Allaying international concerns that the GNA’s arrival in Tripoli might be sabotaged by the rival government, the National Salvation government said that it was backing down in order to avoid further bloodshed, saying in an official statement that "we are stopping our work as an executive power, as the presidency and ministers of the government.” The National Salvation government has been one of the two competing governments vying for power since 2014, with the other rival administration based in the eastern city of Tobruk.  

After the GNA arrived in Tripoli last week, Agence France-Presse writes that the "UN-backed unity government moved to cement control over the country's finances and institutions [...] after the rival administration in Tripoli ceded power in a boost to efforts to end years of chaos.” According to AFP, the unity government ordered the Central Bank and the Audit Bureau to freeze state accounts except to issue salaries for government workers.  Despite these developments, the GNA continues to face opposition from a rival administration in Tobruk, which is still backed by the country’s internationally recognized parliament, Voice of America tells us. VOA adds that the “GNA is meant to be sharing power with the two rivals under a political deal brokered by the U.N. and Western powers.” The U.N. brokered unity administration faces numerous challenges as it attempts to gain control of the country’s government, not least of which include gaining legitimacy from the country’s own House of Representatives.

A State Department official told lawmakers that “the Obama administration is not planning to allow Iran access to the U.S. financial system or use of the U.S. dollar for transactions,” Reuters writes. In an effort to allay lawmakers’ concerns about recent reports that Iran could have access to the U.S. financial system and other concerns related to the nuclear deal, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon addressed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday.

According to the Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan proposed new terrorism laws which would strip suspected terrorist supporters of their Turkish citizenship. Amid the uptick in terrorist attacks across Turkey, Reuters tells us that “rights advocates fear that anti-terrorism laws, already used to detain academics and opposition journalists, will now be used in courts to further stifle discussion of issues such as the Kurdish conflict.”

After four days of fighting, parties on both sides of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict agreed to a ceasefire yesterday, a move which, the New York Times suggests, "[puts] to rest, at least for now, fears that the outbreak of ethnic strife might spiral into a wider war." The Times tells us that “mediators, including the United States, France and Russia, issued statements commending the halt in clashes along the line of contact of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.” Throughout the four days, the Azerbaijani military reported that 16 of its soldiers were killed in the fighting and the Karabakh army claimed to have lost 29 soldiers. An additional 101 soldiers have been reported as injured with another 28 missing. The Times notes that the conflict “appeared to end as it had begun,” with no real final settlement in sight. Reuters adds that residents in the region fear a renewal of fighting despite the truce.

In Afghanistan, Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour appointed the brother and the son of deceased Taliban founder Mullah Muhammad Omar to leadership positions, in a move “expected to help bring other dissenters into line right as the Taliban’s annual offensive is expected to pick up momentum in Afghanistan.” In his efforts to consolidate power and unify the Taliban, Mansour has “brutally quashed breakaway groups and sought to buy the support of other skeptical commanders, all while maintaining a publicity campaign that has portrayed the Taliban as united under his command,” the Times writes.

A special anti-terrorism court in Mumbai sentenced Muzammil Ansari, the mastermind behind a series of attacks in Mumbai between 2002 and 2003, to life in prison. Ansari was convicted along with nine others for the blasts which left 12 people dead while seriously injuring 27 others.

According to the Washington Post, South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo warned that North Korea has developed "a large-caliber multiple launch rocket system and could use it to strike South Korea as soon as this year." Han cited North Korea’s recent testing of 300-millimeter rockets as evidence of the country’s advancement n developing multiple launch rocket systems. The concerns follow a statement from South Korean officials suggesting they now believe that their northern neighbors have developed the ability to “mount a nuclear warhead on a medium-range missile” as well as yesterday’s reports of “suspicious activity” coming from a North Korean nuclear facility.

Foreign Policy reports that "Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, the prime minister of Iceland, resigned as public anger mounted over revelations that, rather than disclosing his stake in an offshore shell company, he had sold it to his wife for $1,” noting that “the head of Iceland’s government is the first public figure to face the consequences of the exposé from Panama.” Reuters has more on the aftermath of the leak.

Ramon Fonseca, a partner at Mossack Fonseca, declared that the company was the victim of a hack. The law firm has fled a complaint with the Panamanian attorney general. Meanwhile, the Hill notes that the Panama Papers are a win for encryption supporters, writing that “privacy advocates are touting the so-called Panama Papers as a key example of how encryption can protect courageous whistleblowers and other vulnerable individuals.”

The State Department has designated Salah Abdeslam, a suspect in the Paris attacks, as a terrorist, barring Americans from dealing with him and enabling the government to block any of his assets under U.S. jurisdiction. Abdeslam was captured in Brussels last month and currently awaits extradition to France.

Investigators have now cracked the iPhone of Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino suspects. But the FBI has yet to say if federal investigators discovered any new information on the device. Yesterday, FBI lawyer James A. Baker said that the FBI had uncovered the data and was analyzing it but did not disclose whether the information uncovered by the phone was “useful.”

The popular messaging app Whatsapp announced yesterday that it is now fully encrypted across all platforms. The feature allows only the sender and the recipient of a message to view its content. The Post writes that despite being "good news for users who care about security and privacy, including journalists and dissidents," the move"represents the intensification of a trend toward ubiquitous encryption that has posed challenges for law enforcement in the United States and around the world."

Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain (R-AZ) is looking to make the U.S. Cyber Command a standalone organization, elevating Cyber Command to its own combatant command center, Bloomberg News reports. Senator McCain told reporters that, "if you look at the dimensions of threat, it certainly deserves to have the highest level of attention and coordination in government." The Senate Armed Services Committee will consider the proposal to split CyberCom from the National Security Agency. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced a Pentagon proposal to increase to dedicate $35 billion in cyber investments over the next five years.

Republican Senators are once again looking to place more restrictions on President Obama's ability to transfer Guantánamo Bay detainees. According to the Hill, Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) introduced a proposal to bar permanent closure of the detention center by making "permanent a current ban on bringing detainees into the United States" and blocking "the White House from releasing detainees to other countries through September 2017." Ayotte has been joined by other Republican lawmakers who have signed on to her proposal.

The Associated Press reports that Senegal has agreed to accept two former Guantánamo detainees for humanitarian reasons. The two former detainees, Salem Abdu Salam Ghereby and Omar Khalif Mohammed Abu Baker Mahjour, were held for almost 14 years without charge and were formerly members of the Libya Islamic Fighting Group.

AP also tells us that former Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has called the conduct of six former Guantánamo detainees "abysmal," suggesting that their behavior has discouraged other countries in the region from accepting former detainees of the facility. The AP writes that "they have frequently complained about not getting enough state help while refusing to work" and that "two of the men married local women only to quickly separate amid domestic abuse allegations."

Parting Shot: The Post writes that despite terror attacks and crime syndicates that have shaken the Pakistani city of Peshawar, “if asked their greatest fear, many residents cite one of the world’s other menaces: rats.” Peshawar has been plagued with giant rats in recent years, likely stemming from the overcrowded nature of the city, where open sewage drains run through packed neighborhoods. It's no laughing matter though, and residents claim that eight children have been killed by rats in the past year. In efforts to combat the menace, the city has set a 25 rupees bounty for each dead rat.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ben posted an epic battle between a Finnish chainsaw drone and the "high-tech" weapon which took it down.

Ammar Abdulhamid asked how the attempt by Syrian Alawites to distance themselves from the regime affects the conflict.

Cody noted that two more Guantánamo detainees have been released.

Cody also shared NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers' testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the future of CyberCom.

Paul Rosenzweig alerted us to a hack that appears to reveal the personal information of every Turkish citizen.

Soli Ozel and Sezin Oney argued that the refugee deal between the EU and Turkey exposes the EU's insincerity with respect to its own values and principles.

Carrie Cordero considered the value-add of the proposed McCaul-Warner Digital Commission.

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