Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Monday, April 11, 2016, 1:47 PM

The Wall Street Journal reports that “the Syrian regime, emboldened by battlefield victories, is pushing a political solution to end the war that keeps President Bashar al-Assad in power, in defiance of the agenda supported by Russia, his vital ally.” The move comes despite what, a Kremlin advisor suggested, was Russia’s attempt “to wield its leverage over Mr. Assad and get him to take the peace negotiations more seriously by announcing last month it was pulling out some of its troops from Syria.”

Alongside the Syrian parliamentary elections scheduled for Wednesday, Assad’s representatives will likely push for a resolution to the conflict on the president’s terms at the peace talks in Geneva expected to begin on the same day. With the Assad regime opposing the notion of a transitional government, the regime’s political solution “is a nonstarter for the mainstay opposition and contravenes the road map to end the war outlined in a United Nations Security Council resolution passed in December with Russia’s support.”

Meanwhile, Russia and Syria are preparing joint efforts to retake Aleppo from rebel forces as the cessation of hostilities looks increasingly tenuous. Reuters writes that February ceasefire agreement “brokered by Russia and the United States came under new strain as government and rebel forces fought near Aleppo.”

Days after the Islamic State abducted 300 cement workers near Damascus, the militant group released most of the workers but killed four among them who were reportedly members of the minority Druze sect and continue to hold 20 pro-government gunmen. The Associated Press reports that “the IS-affiliated Aamaq news agency said most of the 300 were released after questioning to determine their religion and whether they support the government.”

After intense fighting, Islamic State militants retook the border town of al Rai from Turkish-backed rebels who had captured it on Thursday. The director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that “the fact that the rebels could not hold on to al-Rai shows that it is impossible to maintain an advance against IS without adequate air cover.” Elsewhere in Syria, according to the BBC, 21 Syrian Christians were killed by the Islamic State in the town of al Qaryatain which was retaken by Syrian and allied forces last week.

Iraqi security forces pushed the Islamic State out of Hit, a western city in the Anbar province. As part of a wider effort to uproot jihadist militants from their strongholds in the western part of the province, government forces have been fighting to liberate the town since it was captured by the Islamic State in October 2014. Meanwhile, in his first visit to the country in two years, Secretary of State John Kerry made an unannounced stop in Baghdad on Friday during which he promised continued U.S. support in the fight against the Islamic State and expressed support for the country’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. According to the New York Times, Secretary Kerry “made a point of praising Mr. Abadi, saying the prime minister had showed ‘critical leadership’ despite grave difficulties” and “called for sectarian and political unity behind the government, saying it was critical to rolling back the Islamic State.”

Over in Yemen, the cessation of hostilities which began at midnight local time on Monday morning has been marred by fighting in the besieged southwest city of Taiz as well as sporadic gunfire elsewhere in the country. According to Reuters, “the [Yemeni] government accused Houthis of using heavy artillery within moments of the start of the truce, while the Houthis said coalition warplanes staged three strikes on the city.” Reuters adds that United Nations special envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed “welcomed the start of a tentative truce in the country's year-old conflict on Monday and said peace talks due to start later this month would require difficult compromises for all sides.” He expressed hope that the cessation of hostilities would allow those affected by the conflict to receive humanitarian access and an opportunity to build confidence on both sides of the conflict ahead of peace talks set to begin in Kuwait next week.

A suicide bomb left at least 12 Afghan army recruits dead in the country's Nangarhar Province. A bus carrying recruits was travelling to Kabul from Jalalabad. The New York Times writes that "While no group has taken responsibility for Monday’s attack, the targeting of the recruitment centers has long been a Taliban strategy."

During another unannounced visit, John Kerry expressed confidence in Afghanistan's unity government, saying that “there is no end to this agreement at the end of two years or in six months from now.” The power-sharing government has faced continued challenges since the heavily contested elections between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. According to the Times, “President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, who serves as the government’s chief executive, have failed to put aside their hard feelings, even as the Taliban have seized more territory and a bleak economic outlook has prompted an exodus” of young migrants en route to Europe. Kerry urged leaders of the unity government to put aside “factional divisions,” arguing that “democracy requires credible institutions” and, more specifically, “people from different political, ethnic and geographic factions to be able to come together and work toward a common good.” In his first visit to the country since 2014, Kerry also suggested that the country’s government needed to demonstrate its ability ahead of conferences which will determine future levels of international support to Afghanistan, and the Associated Press writes that “NATO and international donor summits could define long-term security and aid commitments critical to the Afghan government's survival.”

Over the weekend, Belgium revealed that the terrorists behind the March 22 attacks in Brussels had initially planned to attack France instead. Citing the Belgian federal prosecutor, the Washington Post tells us that members of the Islamic State-affiliated terrorist cell behind the Paris attacks “were apparently ‘surprised by the speed of the progress in the ongoing investigation’ and decided to attack locally instead.” The Times reports that the revelation has “only heightened the concern among police and intelligence agencies that shadowy Islamic State networks could unleash new attacks at any time, not only in France and Belgium but in other European capitals.” Despite battlefield victories against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, U.S. and European officials are increasingly concerned about threats posed by the group across Europe. The Times writes that “the scale of the Islamic State’s operations in Europe are still not known, but they appear to be larger and more layered than investigators at first realized” and suggests that “if the Paris and Brussels attacks are any model, the plotters will rely on local criminal networks in addition to committed extremists.” The Times also sheds light on Khalid Zerkani, a so-called mentor to aspiring jihadis in Brussels. According to the Belgian Federal Prosecutor, “Mr. Zerkani has perverted an entire generation of youngsters, particularly in the Molenbeek neighborhood.”

Reuters reports that “Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has quietly established a constitutional court that analysts say concentrates more power in his hands and may allow him to sideline the Islamist group Hamas in the event of a succession struggle.” The nine-member court was established last week and will have supremacy over all lower courts. Critics worry that the court could deepen political divisions across Palestine, suggesting that the court “is packed with jurists from Abbas's Fatah party,” while Fatah maintains that the court is independent of the president. Reuters adds that “Abbas's decision comes at a time of worsening splits between Fatah and Hamas and as questions are raised about what will happen when the president steps down or if he were to die in office without a successor.”

Iran says that Russia has delivered the first part of the S-300 surface-to-air defense system. After the initial Russian sale was blocked in 2010 over international pressure related to Iran’s nuclear program, Russia decided to go ahead with the deal in April 2015 when the interim agreement that paved the way for July's full nuclear deal was signed.

Five people were killed when a bomb exploded outside of a restaurant in Mogadishu in an attack claimed by al Shabab. Earlier in the day, Hassan Hanafi Haji, an al Shabab media liaison, was executed in the Somali capital for his role in the killing of five journalists.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Department of Justice continues to seek a court order to force Apple “to help unlock an iPhone seized as part of a New York drug investigation,” in what is yet “another sign the fight between Washington and Silicon Valley over encryption is far from over.” Apple’s lawyers are less than impressed over the demand and have “fired back that they intend to press the federal prosecutors to explain exactly why they can’t get into the iPhone on their own and want the names of any companies that are helping with the effort,” pointing to the FBI’s recent success in unlocking the iPhone connected to the San Bernardino investigation.

A Navy Officer, Lt. Cmdr. Edward C. Lin, is facing "charges of espionage, attempted espionage and prostitution," according to the Post. Lin, a Taiwanese-born, naturalized U.S. citizen, has been accused of passing classified information to China or Taiwan. The Post writes that “a heavily redacted charge sheet released by the Navy states that the officer faces two specifications of espionage and three specifications of attempted espionage” and has been accused of “communicating secret information ‘with intent or reason to believe it would be used to the advantage of a foreign nation,’” in addition to “hiring a prostitute for sex, committing adultery by having sex with a woman who was not his wife, not disclosing foreign travel to the U.S. government as required, and lying about it after the fact.” ABC News adds that “Lin was arrested eight months ago but his case did not become public until a pre-trial hearing this past Friday that will determine whether he will face a court martial.”

Speaking in an interview with NBC News, CIA Director John Brennan said that the CIA would not utilize waterboarding even under presidential orders. Brennan claimed that “I will not agree to carry out some of these tactics and techniques I’ve heard bandied about because this institution needs to endure,” rebuking suggestions made by GOP frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz that they would be in favor of using the interrogation method. On the campaign trail, Trump has suggested that he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” while Cruz has promised to “use whatever enhanced interrogation methods we could to keep this country safe.” Trump fired back, calling Brennan's vow against waterboarding "ridiculous."

In an interview with Fox News, President Obama suggested that “failing to prepare for the aftermath of the ousting of Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi was the worst mistake of his presidency,” according to the BBC. When asked about his worst mistake in office, the President said that it was “probably failing to plan for the day after, what I think was the right thing to do, in intervening in Libya.”

The Hill tells us that the White House is considering declassifying documents, known as the "28 pages," which could reveal "a Saudi support network for the hijackers involved in the 9/11 terror attacks." The documents show the network of individuals who supported the 9/11 hijackers during their time in the United States, according to former Senator Bob Graham who spoke on a 60 Minutes segment about the “28 pages.”

The Hill reports that Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) has filed an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill “that would prohibit using U.S. airspace to fly a Guantanamo Bay detainee from the Cuban facility into the United States.” Gardner cites “grave concerns” on the part of his constituents over the possibility of transferring detainees to U.S. soil.

Parting Shot: In a fascinating long-read, Ben Taub takes us into how war-crimes investigators from the Commission for International Justice and Accountability obtained top-secret documents linking the Assad regime to “to mass torture and killings.” As the Assad regime continues to resist calls for a transitional government in peace talks to end the Syrian civil war, Taub writes that the work of CIJA has “culminated in a four-hundred-page legal brief that links the systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians to a written policy approved by President Bashar al-Assad.”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Joshua Rovner and Caitlin Talmadge argued that defeating the Islamic State in Mosul will not solve the U.S. problem in Iraq.

Ben posted this week's Lawfare Podcast, which features Eric Schwartz in a discussion on refugee policy and the Syrian civil war.

Alex wrote The Week That Was.

Daniel Severson took a look at French President François Hollande's decision to drop a constitutional amendment.

Ben shared a video of Jack's interview of Adam Segal from the Hoover Book Soiree.

Julian Ku asked if a "face-saving compromise" is possible between the United States and China in the South China Sea.

Ben posted the “What's App with That?” Edition of the Rational Security Podcast.

Susan shared the draft of the highly anticipated Feinstein-Burr encryption bill.

Ben provided us with the video and transcript of State Department legal advisor Brian Egan's ASIL speech. Rita Siemion and Heather Brandon gave us their thoughts on Egan's speech.

Also related to Egan's speech, Jack responded to Daniel Bethlehem's critique of his position on Obama’s embrace of the Bush preemption principle.

Chris Mirasola wrote the latest edition of Water Wars, noting the continued tension between Vietnam and China over territorial waters.

Robert Chesney and Steve Slick shared UT-Austin's “Intelligence in American Society” conference which featured Lisa Monaco. Ben provided the text of her remarks at the conference.

Elena Chachko considered the power of dissent in Israel, following the recent decisions concerning the government’s use of home demolitions for counterterrorism purpose.

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