Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Friday, April 22, 2016, 2:46 PM

Russia’s latest military movements in Syria have renewed concerns at the White House regarding the country's intentions. Reuters reports that the latest movements by the Russian military “have sharpened divisions within the U.S. administration over whether Russian President Vladimir Putin genuinely backs a U.N.-backed initiative to end the civil war or is using the negotiations to mask renewed military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.” Russia continues move artillery near the disputed city of Aleppo.

Russia has also sent troops to fight alongside of Kurdish forces in northwestern Syria. The Wall Street Journal writes that Putin is also “providing weapons to Iraqi Kurds in a tactic that could upstage a long-standing U.S. alliance with the stateless ethnic group and increase Moscow’s influence in the region.” According to the Journal, “the Kremlin intends to keep a foothold in the area by cultivating ties with some Kurdish groups through weapons, ammunition and oil deals, building on its presence established through its relationship with Syrian leader Bashar al Assad’s regime.”

More from the war room:

Reuters shares that “Russian forces in Syria have fired at least twice on Israeli military aircraft, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek improved operational coordination with Moscow.” After a meeting with Putin in Moscow yesterday, Netanyahu stated, “I have come here with the sole concrete objective of strengthening the coordination between our countries in the security arena, so as to avoid mistakes, misunderstandings, or incidents.” Defense News has more on the meeting here.

Yesterday, clashes broke out between Kurdish militias and Syrian government forces. The New York Times writes that the skirmish between the Kurds and the Syrian government forces could potentially open “a new front in the already complex conflict.” Additionally, the Times indicates that “the new fighting added to a sense that Syria risked slipping back into all-out war, as a partial truce and an effort at political talks collapsed in tandem. The opposition negotiators walked out of talks in Geneva this week, saying they refused to continue while the government was committing ‘massacres,’ and the warring parties showed signs of preparing for new battles.”

Following the opposition negotiating team’s walk out from Geneva, the U.N. special envoy for Syria vowed to take the fragile peace talks into next week. Reuters tells us that “Staffan de Mistura, who dismissed the opposition’s departure as ‘diplomatic posturing,’ expected the delegation to return to the negotiating table.” De Mistura was insistent on the continuation of the talks, saying “we cannot let this drop. We have to renew the ceasefire, we have to accelerate humanitarian aid and we are going to ask the countries which are the co-sponsors to meet.”

Politico shares that while efforts to resuscitate the peace talks continue, some lawmakers in Washington are telling President Obama "I told you so," as the president potentially watches another foreign policy goal crumble in Syria.

An Islamic State suicide bomber killed at least nine people today at a Shiite mosque in southwestern Baghdad. Reuters reports that a second suicide bomber was shot and killed by security forces before he could set off his explosives. After the mosque attack, another bomb went off in the district of Abu Ghraib, killing two people and wounding nine others. There has been no claim of responsibility for the second attack.

Meanwhile, readers are likely aware that the Islamic State is facing some difficulties as it tries to fund its “war machines” due to its shrinking territory and its crippled oil business, but CNN now has the numbers. According to the news network, the Islamic States’s “monthly revenue has fallen by 30% in recent months, according to information and analysis firm IHS. In March, the group collected only $56 million, a significant reduction from estimated monthly revenue of $80 million in mid-2015.” As the group struggles to fund its reign of terror, USA Today shares that the U.S.-led coalition obliterated $500 million in Islamic State cash. Read more here.

The Hill shares that the cost of the United States's war against the Islamic State has surpassed $7 billion, according to an estimate released by the Pentagon yesterday. According to the Hill, “the figure spans the total spent from when the U.S. began its air campaign in Iraq on August 8, 2014 through March 31, 2016,” and “the average daily cost over 602 days of operation is $11.6 million.”

Over in Libya, militants belonging to the Islamic State have been pushed out of the eastern city of Derna. The BBC reports that, according to a rival Islamist group in the region, the Islamic State “have all left Derna - they have no presence here anymore.” The BBC has more here.

Closing up his trip to Saudi Arabia yesterday, President Obama reassured Persian Gulf allies that the United States would continue to enhance security cooperation in the region. According to the New York Times, the president’s two-day summit meeting was intended to reassure Gulf allies that the United States remains committed to their security, even as it pursues rapprochement with Iran. Additionally, the Times writes that “the meeting came amid growing concerns among Saudi Arabia and its closest allies that the United States is limiting its engagement in the Middle East at a time when Iran has taken advantage of regional turmoil to spread its influence.” The Wall Street Journal tells us that President Obama said that the United States and Gulf Arab allies share a “broad common vision,” but still hold differences over tactical issues. Read more on that story here.

While the president visited Saudi Arabia, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) questioned the Saudis commitment to fighting al Qaeda and the Islamic State in light of the war in Yemen. Senator Murphy argued that the Yemen conflict is distracting Saudi Arabia from operations against extremists. You can read more of the report from the Intercept here. Additionally, Lawfare highlights Senator Murphy’s event on the U.S.-Saudi partnership at Brookings here.

The Economist comments on President Obama’s brief trip to Saudi Arabia and the state of the United States’ “awkward” relationship with the Kingdom. The presidential visit comes amid a renewed debate over whether to release the classified 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission Report, which may confirm Saudi Arabia’s role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Tthe Economist indicates that the Saudis are eager to see President Obama’s back, as he has less than a year left in office, and look forward to a potential “fresh start” with the new U.S. president.

Foreign Policy agrees, noting that “the growing chasm between Washington and the oil-rich Sunni monarchy - inflamed by a fresh wave of criticism from lawmakers of both parties - overshadowed the summit’s scripted displays of camaraderie and unity.” Read the rest from Foreign Policy here.

Speaking of the 9/11 Commission Report’s missing 28 pages, the New York Times’ editorial board argues today that the documents should be released. The documents have been kept secret since 2002 amid “suspicions that what they contain could implicate the Saudi government and Saudi citizens in the terrorist strike.” Check out the editorial board’s opinion here.

One other thing annoying the Saudis? There's currently a bill floating around Capitol Hill that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi officials in U.S. courts for any role they may have played in the attacks. Curtis Bradley and Lawfare's Jack Goldsmith argue against the bill, asserting that any erosion of state sovereign immunity privileges would be bad news for the United States, and that the proposed legislation “extends far beyond bilateral relations with one ally. It would also violate a core principle of international law, and it would jeopardize the effectiveness of American foreign aid and the legitimacy of the United States’ actions in the war on terrorism.” Read the rest here.

Iran is not too happy about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that Iran’s central bank must pay nearly $2 billion to American victims of terrorist attacks. The New York Times shares that Iran “reacted furiously” and called the ruling “thievery and a new threat to any improvement in relations.” According to a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, the court’s ruling “was a mockery of international law and amounts to appropriation of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s property.”

In a bit more state sovereign immunity news, the Telegraph reports that the family of murdered American journalist Steven Sotloff has filed a lawsuit against the Assad government accusing it of providing material support for the Islamic State. The complaint, which you can read here, alleges that the Islamic State, “with the material support of the Syrian Arab Republic, carried out the abduction, torture and extrajudicial killing of Steven Sotloff.” The family is seeking $80 million for pain and suffering and another $240 million in punitive damages.

Here's an unexpected headline: in Afghanistan, a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner is leading the fight against the Islamic State. The Diplomat features a piece detailing Haji Ghalib Mujahid, the Achin District’s governor, and his attempts at stopping the Islamic State’s advances in Afghanistan. The piece even dives into his his attempt to stop an old GMTO cell mate.

Yesterday, it was reported that 19-year-old Abdel Hamid Abu Srour carried out the deadly bombing in Jerusalem. Hamas later claimed that one of its affiliates was responsible for the attack. However, the Washington Post indicates that Abu Srour does not fit the profile of a Hamas operative, and it is worrying the Israelis. The Post writes that Abu Srour’s family described him as “more of a Palestinian preppy, the scion of a well-to-do and well-known clan of eight prosperous brothers, who own and operate a string of furniture outlets and are rich enough to take their young sons for holidays in Jordan and to set them up with their own shops selling clothes.” The attack has shattered the hopes on both sides that the six months of violence was ending.

In other Israel-Palestine news, France is reportedly planning to convene an international meeting set to revive the peace talks between Israel and Palestine. The Wall Street Journal reports that “French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said he is inviting foreign ministers from Europe, the U.S., the Middle East, and Asia to Paris on May 30 to lay the groundwork for a new round of peace talks” with the goal to “forge a common strategy for the negotiations without the presence of either Israeli or Palestinian officials.”

According the the New York Times, much of Europe is unhappy with the United States regarding its regulations against Iran. The Times shares that three months after lifting of most sanctions against Iran, “there is a growing frustration among European politicians, diplomats, and businesspeople over the inability to complete dozens of energy, aviation, and construction deals” with Tehran due to new sanctions imposed by Washington related to Iran’s missile program and sponsorship of terrorism. Some European officials have suggested that the sanctions are causing European banks to refuse to finance deals with Iran, undermining one of the main goals of the nuclear accord, “which was to draw Iran out of its international isolation.”

Yet Jay Solomon of the Wall Street Journal reports that the Obama administration plans to assist the implementation of the deal in at least one area: by buying “32 tons of heavy water, a key component in atomic-weapons development, from Iran in an effort to safeguard its landmark nuclear agreement with the country.” The nuclear accord struck between Iran and six other world powers requires that it keep its stores of heavy water under 130 tons during the initial years of the agreement. So far, Tehran has found few willing buyers on the international market, raising concerns in the White House that Iran’s stockpile could rise above the maximum level set by the deal. The $8.6 million deal is expected to be signed today in Vienna. Officials hope that the United States’ initial purchase will give confidence to other global buyers to purchase Iran’s stocks in the future.

Reuters reports that China is allegedly getting closer to constructing maritime nuclear power platforms that could potentially be utilized for projects within the South China Sea. According to a state-run newspaper, the nuclear power platforms could “sail” to remote areas and provide a stable power supply, though the Chinese foreign ministry indicated that they had not heard of the plans.

Yesterday, FBI Director James Comey indicated that his agency had spent an upwards of $1.3 million to hack the infamous San Bernardino iPhone. When asked how much the Bureau had spent to unlock the iPhone, Director Comey stated, “a lot. More than I will make in the remainder of this job, which is seven years and four months for sure. But it was, in my view, worth it.” The Washington Examiner tells us that “Forbes calculated that value to be at least $1.3 million, based on Comey’s salary of $183,000 per year.”

A federal appeals court has dismissed a lawsuit seeking to access details about the U.S. government’s lethal drone operations. The Washington Post reports that “in a brief order, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the government can continue to withhold certain information about the strikes because such details ‘could reasonably be expected to damage national security.’” The three-judge panel deemed that the Central Intelligence Agency’s reasoning for why the drone program’s records are still classified is both “logical” and “plausible.” The American Civil Liberties Union has long pressed the CIA for the specific statistics regarding the drone program.

The Department of Justice signaled yesterday that it will not invoke the state secrets privilege in an attempt to block a lawsuit against two Air Force psychologists for their role in constructing the CIA's enhanced interrogation program. The case is against James E. Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, who designed the enhanced interrogation program employed by the CIA in the years following 9/11 and accuses them of “endorsing and teaching torture tactics under the guise of science.” In its filing, the Justice Department said that the 2014 release of the Senate torture report “had the effect of disclosing a significant amount of information concerning the detention and interrogation program.” Justice did not rule out potentially moving to invoke the state secrets privilege later in the case in order to prevent the disclosure of certain classified information.

Motherboard reports that Judge William G. Young of the District of Massachusetts issued an order throwing out evidence obtained from a piece of FBI malware—called a network investigative technique (NIT)used to determine the IP addresses of U.S.-based and foreign users of the child pornography site Playpen. Judge Young wrote that “based on the foregoing analysis, the Court concludes that the NIT warrant was issued without jurisdiction and thus was void ab initio.” Accordingly, “the resulting search was conducted as though there were no warrant at all.”

According to the Hill, the Central Intelligence Agency will grant death benefits to the family of CIA contractor Glen Doherty. Doherty was killed alongside of three other Americans when the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi came under attack. The Agency will grant Doherty’s family $400,000 because of a recent policy change. The previous policy deemed Doherty’s family ineligible to receive life insurance because he did not have a spouse or dependents.

CIA Director John Brennan made an unannounced visit to Bosnia today. Director Brennan arrived in Sarajevo for anti-terrorism talks with the country’s counterterrorism officials. The Washington Post has more.

Parting Shot: Vacationing to Mexico this summer? Why drive or fly when you can take the tunnel? A newly found drug smuggling tunnel along the California-Mexico border is the longest one ever. Federal authorities uncovered the nine-football fields long tunnel equipped with lights, ventilation, a rail system, and a motorized freight elevator capable of carrying up to 10 people. Read the rest of the report from the Washington Examiner.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Daniel Byman analyzed what it means to sponsor terrorism.

Ben released the “How Many Saudis Would You Sue if You Could Sue Saudis?” edition of Rational Security.

Stewart Baker issued the latest edition of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, featuring an interview with Eric Jensen.

Susan Hennessey commented on the encryption legislation and noted that critics blinded by outrage are also blinded to the lessons.

Helen Klein flagged the Pentagon’s proposals to amend the Military Commissions Act.

Cody shared Brookings’ event with Senator Chris Murphy on the United States-Saudi Arabia partnership.

Jack Goldsmith featured a piece recently written by Juliette Kayyem in the Washington Post. It highlights the importance of resiliency to any effective counterterrorism strategy, one of the central themes in Kayyem’s new book Security Mom, which we will feature at the next Hoover Book Soiree.

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