Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin
Monday, April 18, 2016, 2:31 PM

In a significant setback to securing peace in Syria, the mainstream Syrian opposition group called for a halt to peace talks in Geneva today, announcing a new offensive against Syrian regime forces, and accusing the United Nations of bias in favor of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Reuters reports that the coordinator of the High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition body, said that it was “unacceptable” for peace talks to continue if the government did not lift sieges and stop bombing civilian areas. One diplomat told the newswire that Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations Envoy for the Syrian conflict, “must imperatively reassure the opposition” by “putting pressure on the government.” The withdrawal from peace talks follows a Friday meeting in Geneva in which de Mistura “mentioned the idea of Assad remaining in power symbolically in exchange for the opposition’s nomination of three Syrian vice-presidents.”

Earlier today, rebel forces launched “a fierce attack against government forces in Latakia province” while also making “separate advances further east in Hama.” Reuters writes that “there were heavy government air strikes in Homs province to the south.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that schools had been evacuated and hospitals shut throughout the region.

Back in the United States, the Hill reports that the Department of State has announced plans to bring an average of 1,500 Syrian refugees per month to the United States in order to fulfill President Barack Obama’s goal of settling 10,000 in the country by September. Only 1,300 refugees have been taken in since the president set the target last September. To meet the goal, the State Department has launched a “surge operation” in Amman, Jordan, citing a lack of personnel for the delays in processing refugee applications.

President Obama leaves for Riyadh this week with damage control high on the agenda. The Gulf Cooperation Council meeting follows the president's remarks in an Atlantic magazine interview that insinuated the Saudi’s were “free riders” among other comments calling for Iran and the Saudis to “find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.” The rising tensions come at a time when the White House is seeking more help from Gulf allies in efforts to rebuild parts of Iraq. The Administration will likely look to address at least some of the Saudi worries by providing "new counterterrorism, military, missile defense, and cybersecurity capabilities.” The United States has also pledged $139 million in humanitarian aid for Yemen.

One other thing bothering the Saudis: a bill pending in Congress would allow the Saudi government to be held responsible in American courts for any role in the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times shares that while the Obama administration is quietly seeking to kill the legislation, Riyadh has said that should the bill pass, it will sell off hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of American assets.

The New York Times reports that the Obama administration is preparing to expand the U.S.’s military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria by boosting the number of Special Operator advising Syrian rebels. With the goal of accelerating the momentum of Iraqi forces, the administration is also considering “the addition of Army attack helicopters to fight against militants in Iraq.” There are now 50 special operations forces operating in Syria; under the new plan, that number could rise to 200. The plan for Iraq would include shifting trainers who are already in Iraq closer to Mosul.

Last week, President Obama announced that the United States is now conducting “cyber operations” against ISIS. Today, Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef of the Daily Beast have the rundown on what those operations entail. In short, “military hackers are disrupting ISIS’s encrypted chats, implanting viruses in terrorists’ computers, and mining the machines to launch real-world strikes.” In a sign of how prevalent and important encrypted chats have become, intelligence officers said that U.S. Cyber Command “has the capability to identify when someone is using an encrypted application and then target the communications infrastructure to make it harder, if not impossible, to use that application.”

Reuters reports that talks aimed at ending the conflict in Yemen, which were expected to begin today, have been delayed, as fighting continued throughout the country despite a ceasefire. A delegate representing Yemen’s Houthi group and the party of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh said “there’s no point in going to Kuwait if there’s no respect for the ceasefire.” Elsewhere, Reuters notes reasons for optimism regarding the talks, even though a number of potential “spoilers” loom on the horizon. Two Yemeni officials said they expected to opposing delegations to arrive by Tuesday.

Iran proudly displayed parts of its shiny, new S-300 missile defense system on Sunday at its annual Army Day Parade. The lifting of sanctions against Tehran as part of the nuclear deal allowed the sale of the system by Russia to Iran, which both Israel and the United States have protested. The Telegraph has the photos, pulled from Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency.

The Washington Post writes that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to the occupied Golan Heights on Sunday to declare that Israel will retain full control of the mountainous plateau forever and will never return the strategic highlands to neighboring Syria.” Israel seized the region during the 1967 Six-Day War, but the international community, including the United States, has never officially recognized Israel’s annexation of the territory. Syrian officials have recently signalled that they would like to include the region in Syrian peace talks.

The United Nations announced on Sunday that so far this year, fighting in Afghanistan has killed or wounded 2,000 civilians and left more than 80,000 people displaced. The death toll fell 13 percent from last year, but the number of wounded increased 11 percent over the same period. Almost one-third of civilian casualties were children. And while the report blamed the Taliban for 60 percent of the casualties, it noted that deaths from government forces were up 70 percent from the same period last year. The Times notes that “the report came as fighting raged across several provinces.” Indeed, Afghan forces repelled a Taliban assault in the city of Kunduz over the weekend. According to Afghan government estimates, 40 Taliban fighters and four Afghan forces were killed in the fighting. The Times has more on the fighting, though not much.

The Times also carries the story of two Afghan troops—thought to be dead—who resurfaced in a Taliban prison. Their reward for coming home? The Afghan government now wants the $2,300 USD paid to their families following their deaths.

In what could be the first openly acknowledged mission of its kind, the Chinese Defense Ministry on Sunday morning announced that it had dispatched a military plane to Fiery Cross Reef, a man-made island in the disputed South China Sea. Per the ministry’s statement, the plane was on patrol when it was diverted to the island in order to pick up three injured construction workers.

Russian aviators just can’t get close enough to U.S. military equipment lately. CNN reports that on Thursday of last week, a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane was operating in the Baltic Sea when a Russian Su-27 flew within 50 feet of the U.S. aircraft’s wing tip, beginning a barrel roll from the left side, going over the top, and ending on the right side of the aircraft. U.S. officials called the maneuver “unsafe and unprofessional,” but Russia’s defense ministry denied the incident occurred, saying that the reports were “not consistent with reality.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, on Friday, Apple asked U.S. District Judge Margo Brodie to “reject the Justice Department’s effort to make it help unlock an iPhone tied to a New York druge case,” a move that the Journal describes as “the latest legal volley in a continuing battle over encryption and privacy.” The latest court filing follows a February ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein that found that the government lacked the authority to compel Apple to assist agents in extracting data. The Department of Justice is appealing that ruling.

In Defense One, Patrick Tucker describes how the Burr-Feinstein encryption resembles Chinese law.

The Miami Herald reports that on Saturday, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia accepted nine Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo Bay. The transfer, expected for several weeks, leaves 80 detainees remaining at the facility. The nine men have long been cleared for release, but have been unable to go home due to a White House policy that bars the repatriation of detainees to Yemen. The Saudi government agreed to take “non-citizens from Guantanamo to its rehabilitation program set up to help Saudi jihadists transition back into society.” The transferred detainees include Tariq Ba Odah, Mansour Muhammed Ali Qatta, Ahmed Kuman, Adbul Rahman al Qyati, Mashur al Sabri, Ahmed al Hikimi, Abdul Rahman Nasir, Mohammed al Hamiri, Ali al Raimi. The New York Times has more.

Parting Shot: Call it a drone strike of a different sort. Upon approach to Heathrow Airport in London, a British Airways Airbus 320 collided with a small drone. The plane landed safely and was cleared for its next flight, but the crash—reportedly, the first of its kindcomes as aviation authorities around the world worry about the increasing prevalence of hobby drones in restricted airspace. BBC has more.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

In this weekend’s Foreign Policy Essay, C. Christine Fair, Jacob S. Goldstein, and Ali Hamza argue that Muslims with a greater knowledge of Islam are less likely to support terrorist organizations or radical interpretations of their faith.

Cody shared the latest Lawfare Podcast, which features a debate between Daniel Weitzner and Benjamin Wittes on “Going Dark and the Fallout from Apple v. FBI.”

Cody also provided The Week That Was, a roundup of Lawfare’s content from the previous week.

Sloane Speakman summarized the “surprising success of Syria’s quasi-ceasefire.”

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