Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Friday, May 6, 2016, 3:58 PM

Yesterday, airstrikes struck a refugee camp in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, killing more than 30 people. The New York Times reports that “video images from the Kamuna camp in Idlib showed smoke billowing from rows of tattered and blackened tents as well as a pickup truck packed with wounded people moaning and crying. Women and children appeared to be among the victims.” The Wall Street Journal adds that, according to a witness, “the dead were ‘mostly in shreds, they can’t be considered bodies.’” The State Department has not confirmed who was responsible for the airstrike on the camp.

Russian and Syrian officials were quick to deny that their aircraft were responsible for the deadly assault on the refugee camp. But the denials come as “a coalition of rebels and militants, including Syria’s al Qaeda branch, seized a strategic village from pro-government forces near the contested city of Aleppo.” The Associated Press reports that “some 73 fighters - 43 on the opposition side and 30 pro-government troops - have died since Thursday afternoon in the battle for the village of Khan Touman. The advance signals a reemergence of a powerful, ultraconservative coalition on the opposition’s side in the Syria conflict.”

“The fate of Syria’s moderate rebels is critical to American efforts in the region. If rebels quit the fight or join forces with Islamist extremist groups fighting the regime, the U.S. will lose leverage to shape the war’s outcome - and potential allies against Islamic State.” Sam Dagher of the Wall Street Journal shares how Syrian rebels are torn between giving up or joining Islamic extremists.

Speaking of Syrian rebels, some lawmakers in Congress are urging President Obama not to supply shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to rebels fighting President Bashar al Assad. The Hill tells us that “Obama has long opposed sending the missiles - Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems, or MANPADS - to Syrian rebels. The fear is that the weapons could easily fall into the hands of terrorists and be used against civilian aircraft.”

Yesterday, the Pentagon spokesperson revealed that the Islamic State attack against Kurdish forces in northern Iraq that resulted in the death of U.S. Navy SEAL Charles Keating came as a surprise attack. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters that the incident may have turned out differently had the U.S. forces known of the impending assault. The Associated Press has more here.

Meanwhile, a new poll finds that Americans’ perceptions of the United States’ fight against the Islamic State are becoming more positive. However, a majority still views the effort as going badly. You can read more on the poll here from CNN.

Al Qaeda could be preparing to declare its own “Islamic State” in northern Syria. The Jabhat al Nusra group has quietly been gathering strength in the shadows of the international campaign against the Islamic State. Read more from Foreign Policy and the Independent.

Speaking of al Qaeda, a spokesman for the U.S.-NATO mission in Afghanistan said that al Qaeda is working more closely with the Afghan Taliban. The Associated Press writes that the two groups renewed relationship is “raising concerns that the militant group could bolster the fight against Afghan government forces.” During a video conference with Pentagon reporters, Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, a spokesman for the U.S.-NATO mission, stated, “by themselves, we don’t think they pose a real threat, a real significant threat, to the government of Afghanistan. But because we think that al Qaeda is beginning to work more with Taliban, they can present a bit of an accelerant for the Taliban. They can provide capabilities and skills and those types of things.”

After the raid that resulted in Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011, the CIA’s top official in Pakistan was pulled out of the country due to health concerns and his strained relationship with Islamabad. However, according to some U.S. officials, the CIA station chief left Pakistan because he “was so violently ill that he was often doubled over in pain.” The Washington Post shares that the station chief and the Agency began to suspect that he was poisoned by the ISI. Check out that story here.

Over in Yemen, negotiations aimed at bringing an end to the 13 month devastating war entered their third week yesterday. The talks resumed on Wednesday following the three day interruption after the government delegation walked out to protest the rebels’ seizure of an army camp. However, Al Jazeera reports that despite entering the third week, there has yet to be a breakthrough, with delegations trading accusations of violating the ceasefire that took effect on April 11.” As negotiations continue, Reuters shares that “seven people were killed and more than 15 wounded by a bomb on Friday in the Yemeni city of Marib, east of the capital Sanaa.” However, there has been no claim of responsibility for that attack.

Israel’s military uncovered another tunnel burrowing from Gaza into Israel yesterday. The New York Times shares that “the Israeli effort to find tunnels from Gaza, which Hamas considers a strategic asset, had led to a flare-up in violence along the border for the first time since a ceasefire brokered by Egypt ended 50 days of fierce fighting in the summer of 2014.” Amid the resurgent violence, a Palestinian woman was killed by Israeli tank fire in the Gaza strip. Reuters tells us that “the woman was killed and another person was injured in the Khan Yunis area, southern Gaza, local medics said.”

Today, North Korea opened its first congress in 36 years. The New York Times reports that North Korean state news media “hailed the North’s ‘powerful nuclear deterrent’ as the biggest achievement of its leader, Kim Jong Un, who plans to use this rare political gathering to consolidate his power.” The Washington Post tells us that “the congress, which opened in Pyongyang, was an extravagant spectacle that lauded Kim’s leadership, showing huge pictures of the 33-year-old leader in a variety of military settings and featuring multiple rounds of choreographed cheering.” The Post also shares that Kim Jong Un boasted “unprecedented accomplishments” in nuclear missile tests this year as he convened over the congress. Not sure what a congress would look like in North Korea? The Times writes that “under North Korea’s one-party system, the congress is where the country’s most important elections and policy decisions take place, at least in theory.”

China is seeking global support for its South China Sea policies, but it's getting mixed results. The Associated Press reports that “China is seeing mixed results in its efforts to enlist friendly states in its push to exclude the U.S. and its allies from the festering South China Sea dispute, underscoring the limits of Chinese diplomacy despite its massive economic clout.” Last month, China won a major endorsement for its policies from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when he said that actors outside of the region should not get involved in the South China Sea. But more recent nations supporting China drew strong criticism from Singapore accusing China of trying to split the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Yet, more criticism of China’s South China Sea plans “will rebound like a coiled spring.” So says China’s director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs, Ouyan Yujing. According to Reuters, during a news briefing, Ouyang indicated that “of course we’re willing to take on board constructive comments and criticism by the relevant countries. But if they are aimed at putting pressure on China or blackening its name, then you can view it like a spring, which has an applied force and counterforce. The more the pressure, the greater the reaction.”

Meanwhile, U.S. ships have returned to the Philippines’ Subic Bay nearly 25 years after Filipino politicians fought to remove all U.S. forces stationed there. The Washington Post writes that this “means American and Chinese ships sailing in close proximity, deepening an already tense and dangerous standoff. For the Philippines, it raises questions about how the next administration should balance big powers while protecting Philippine sovereignty and fragile economic gains.”

In the Huffington Post, Scott Malcomson details how Russia and China are “cooperating to dismantle America’s dominance of the Internet.” As both countries look to assert their sovereignty over not only their citizens’ data, but also the information their citizens receive from abroad, the two partners are increasing their joint efforts to establish “complete national control of electronic media and the elimination of foreign influence from the national information space.”

NATO’s European missile defense system went live yesterday. The New York Times shares that “the decision by the United States and its allies in Eastern Europe to proceed with ballistic missile defense in the face of increasingly loud Russian criticism is an important stage in the alliance’s new stance toward Moscow.” Today, Poland is scheduled to break ground on its NATO missile defense base, and later this spring, NATO is set to hold major military exercises in Poland and the Baltics with significant U.S. participation.

The Daily Beast has the latest on the U.S. Navy sailor who was charged with espionage. Lt. Cmdr. Edward Lin did not provide any military to secrets to any foreign governments. Instead, he provided military secrets to an FBI informant posing as a Taiwanese official.

Speaking of spies and espionage, the Intercept reports that “foreign intelligence services had been extensively spying on the 2008 political campaigns.” In light of campaign season, read the rest of the story here.

Now onto the 2016 election cycle. Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for President of the United States this week. Yesterday, the White House said that it expects Mr. Trump to receive classified intelligence briefings once he formally becomes the nominee in July, but also says that the president would leave it up to intelligence officials to decide what to share with Trump. More on that here.

Speaking of the Republican nominee-to-be, “alarmed by Donald J. Trump’s grip on the Republican presidential nomination, world leaders are wrestling with the possibility that, even if he loses the general election, his ascent reflects a strain of American public opinion that could profoundly reshape the way the United States addresses security alliances and trade.” The New York Times has more.

On the Democratic side, Politico tells us that “top aides to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have been interviewed by the FBI as part of an ongoing investigation into Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server when she was secretary of state.” Clinton herself has stated that she is willing to be interviewed by the Bureau but has not yet been approached for any questioning. However, amid the questioning, prosecutors and FBI agents have so far found little evidence that Mrs. Clinton broke any classification rules. The Washington Post writes that the officials “are still probing the case aggressively with an eye on interviewing Clinton herself.”

The hacker who exposed Hillary Clinton’s private email server made new claims earlier this week. The hacker known as “Guccifer” says that breaking into the server was easy. Kimberly Strassel, of the Wall Street Journal, says that if it was so easy, then it was easy for China to hack too.

Your recommended weekend long read: David Samuels of the New York Times Magazine profiles Ben Rhodes, the man Samuels says “rewrote the rules of diplomacy for the digital age.”

Parting Shot: Meet Syria’s monument men—the brave men and women, led by Chief of Antiquities Maamoun Abdulkarim, working to save Syria’s heritage from all sides in the civil war.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Heather Brandon questioned if President Obama’s targeted killing policy will indicate what “areas of active hostilities” means.

Benjamin Wittes released the newest Rational Security, the “Never Say Never Trump Again” edition.

Laura Donohue commented on the public v. private collection debate and observed that in the end, it all comes down to power.

Bruce Ackerman highlighted some key points in Captain Nathan Smith’s lawsuit against President Obama’s war against the Islamic State.

Ben Wittes also provided an update on Twitter, ISIS, civil liability, and immunity.

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