Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Caitlin Gilligan, Cody M. Poplin
Tuesday, May 17, 2016, 4:07 PM

The international community is looking to up the pressure on ISIS in Libya, and its turning to the newly minted Government of National Accord to do so. Yesterday, the United States along with 24 other nations and international organizations released a joint communiqué supporting measures to help Libya under Prime Minister Fayez Serraj and his new unity government. 

According to the Washington Post, these measures include arming and training the new unity government in Libya so it can fight the spread of terrorist groups in the country and counter the smuggling of migrants to Europe.” The move would also include exempting Libya from a five-year-old U.N. embargo, intended to keep arms out of the hands of Islamist extremists. The Post writes that “the West is desperately seeking ways to provide more support to the government of national accord in Tripoli so that it can direct its efforts toward the Islamic State extremists, who have doubled in number over the past year and are now an estimated 6,000 strong.”

But it is important to remmeber the new unity government is only one of three governments competing for control in Libya. Speaking to reporters in late April, Director of National Intelligence James Clappter said “we’re very hopeful about the latest version of the government in Libya, the government of national accord.” Yet as Patrick Tucker writes in Defense One, the United States has to “be careful not to appear to slight the eastern-based Tobruk Parliament as it doles out gear to the Unity Government,” as it could further the regional divide in Libya and hinder progress in the country. Prime Minister Serraj, you’ll remember, only arrived in Libya six weeks ago on a boat accompanied by his allies.

While ISIS in Libya has doubled over the last year, Defense One claims that of the 6,000 ISIS members in Libya, more and more are increasingly foreigners from southern Africa, who have begun to annoy the locals due in part to “ethnic prejudice against sub-Saharan Africans as a regular fact of life in Libya.” The need to recruit from outside of Libya may actually be proof that “ISIS has popularity problems” in the country. Patrick Tucker has more on what a war with ISIS in Libya would look like.

Where the war rolls on:

Yesterday, bombings in Iraq continued for the sixth day in a row. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack in Baghdad’s northeastern Shaab neighborhood, where a roadside bomb exploded and a suicide bomber blew up himself and others who had “gathered to help the victims of the first explosion,” leaving 34 dead and 75 wounded. Other Shiite dominated areas including Sadr City, Habibiya, and Dora faced deadly attacks on Tuesday as well, bringing the death toll to 69 for the day. The Associated Press reports that ISIS continues its efforts to “undermine Iraqi government efforts to maintain security inside the capital.”

Despite the spike in attacks, the Pentagon says there is no need for additional U.S. forces in Iraq. “Remember, this is the Iraqis' fight,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said. The Military Times explains Iraq’s Prime Minister Abadi has not yet used much of what the United States’ has offered in support against ISIS, partially because “the American-led military mission is deeply unpopular in Iraq and many factions of his Shiite-led government forcefully oppose it.”

Even so, the Islamic State has lost nearly half of the territory it once controlled in Iraq, and roughly 20 percent of what it once held in Syria, according to Agence France-Presse. The Islamic State has most recently lost control of Ramadi and Hit, but still controls Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq, and maintains control of Raqqa in Syria.

Yesterday in Vienna, major powers met to discuss humanitarian aid efforts and the reimposition of a ceasefire in Syria, the Associated Press reports. A truce created by Russia and the United States was somewhat successful in March, but has since eroded, leading Secretary of State John Kerry to warn that “those involved in this conflict with competing agendas are going to have to prioritize peace.” The parties involved in the peace process are split on the future role of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, with the United States and Germany pushing for a political transition while Russia and Iran support Assad and his government. Reuters reports that while Moscow opposes a political transition, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday, “We don’t support Assad. We support the fight against terrorism.”

As diplomats seek a ceasefire in Vienna, the conditions in Syria continue to worsen and “several hundred civilians have been killed in air strikes and rebel bombardments in Aleppo province alone, while fighting has taken place in other parts of Syria, including Idlib, Deir al-Zor and around Damascus.” According to the Wall Street Journal, the conflict has already left more than 400,000 dead and produced 4.8 million refugees.

Multiple Shiites encountered in Syria by James Harkin of Foreign Policy openly admitted their loyalties to Hezbollah, which has given them “training and logistical expertise to defend themselves from jihadists hell-bent on destroying the state.” According to Harkin, the Lebanese group “is making friends, influencing militias, and developing a new model of asymmetric warfare.” These tiny Hezbollahs—we prefer the term “teacup Hezbollahs”—have migrated to places like Sayyida Zaynab, Zahraa, and Salamiyah—all hubs for hatred of the Islamist insurgents.

But it isn’t just Shiite militias that are benefitting from contacts with Hezbollah. One Druze woman in Damascus referred to the Sunni Islamist insurgency in Syria as the “‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card,” allowing Syrian minorities, such as Druze, Syriac Christians, and Alawites to flaunt their status, build up their own paramilitary organizations, and defend their beliefs. According to Harkin, Hezbollah’s “organizational model is helping to provide services that President Bashar al-Assad’s overstretched state may not be able to. And perhaps most importantly, it is inspiring a new generation of decentralized, autonomous militias forged in its image.”

It’s the “withdrawal that wasn’t,” indeed. According to the Associated Press, “the Russian military is constructing a new army base in the central Syrian town of Palmyra, within the protected zone that holds the archaeological site listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site and without asking for permission from relevant authorities.” The American School of Oriental Research’s Cultural Heritage Initiative has satellite photos of the new installation. However, an anonymous UNESCO official told the AP that the base appears to be a “temporary base” in the “middle of nothing.” And Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of the Antiquities and Museums Department in Damascus, said that while he was not asked for permission to build the base, the presence of Russian and Syrian troops was important to ensure ISIS does not recapture the site.

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secretive agreement between Britain and France that carved out “spheres of influence” and ultimately arranged the borders of the modern Middle East. The Times writes that with Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts from Europe, the Arab States and Iran gathering in Vienna, “rarely in the past century have the shifting borders established by the agreement looked blurrier, and the effort to maintain them shakier.” The Times has more on the agreement. For more on its history and contemporary significance, see this analysis by Lawfare’s Cody Poplin and Ben Bissell.

The Washington Post reports that two months ago, the United States and other partners effectively suspended the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration program, a six-year effort that essentially paid former militants to lay down their arms and try to convince other militants to leave the fight. According to the Post, the suspension comes as officials in Washington, after years of continued war, review whether the deradicalization efforts have been effective, and whether the hardened Taliban fighters who remain can ever be deradicalized. 11,077 militants have entered the program, but officials say there is no way to be sure how many have remained loyal to the government. Even so, Afghan leaders on the ground worry that as the funds dry up, former militants are likely to be forced to resume fighting. The Post has more.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, CBS News reports that as a resurgent Taliban launches assaults across the country, Afghan forces are struggling to maintain the front lines, in part because many of the troops on the official rolls simply don’t exist. In Helmand province, the head of the provincial council, Karim Atal, estimates that 40 percent of registered forces are actually “ghost soldiers”—forces that never existed, are deceased, or have deserted. Corrupt leaders keep these soldiers on the books, pocketing their salaries without replacing them, and opening up the remaining forces to greater risk. Atal told CBS that in areas where there should be 20 soldiers, “there are only eight or 10.”

Following a controversial decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bank Markazi v. Peterson, which allowed the families of victims killed in a 1983 barracks bombing in Lebanon to collect $2 billion of Iran’s frozen funds, Iran has passed legislation “requiring the government demand payment from the United States as compensation for alleged damages Tehran suffered as a result of American policies over past decades.” These damages include “U.S. support fora 1953 military coup in Iran, the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s and confiscation of Iranian funds abroad during international sanctions.”

Tim Cook was in China yesterday on what the Wall Street Journal calls a “charm offensive aimed at both Chinese regulators and investors.” Today, the New York Times shares that “Chinese authorities are quietly scrutinizing technology products sold in China by Apple and other big foreign companies, focusing on whether they pose potential security threats to the country and its consumers.” In recent weeks, Apple has come under renewed fire regarding what access and technical information it provides to Chinese authorities. The Times writes that the security reviews, which have taken place with increased frequency over the last few months, “target encryption and data storage of tech products” and they have required “executives or employees of the foreign tech companies to answer questions about the products in person.” Previously in Lawfare, Samm Sacks discussed what exactly Beijing asks of technology companies.

The BBC reveals today that Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam posted the flag of ISIS on his Facebook page three weeks before the attacks. According to Belgian website RTBF, Belgian authorities were aware of the flag, but they took no action and were unable to connect Abdeslam and his brother to attack ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud. Belgian authorities have already admitted to a number of other key missed signs and blunders.

Today from the future of violence: French authorities plan to deploy anti-drone technology to protect the European soccer championships this summer. The Associated Press reports that Euro 2016 security chief Ziad Khoury said that “no-fly zones will be declared over all 10 stadiums as well as training grounds.” Officials worry that drones could be used to spread toxic chemicals in a terrorist attack.

The White House threatened yesterday to veto the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act passed by the House Armed Services Committee over its use of special war funds for day-to-day military programs. According to Reuters, the $602 billion House version of the NDAA “would shift $18 billion of wartime Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO, funds to avoid automatic budget cuts to military programs.” The Obama administration also objected to several policy measures in the bill, including provisions that will make it harder to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

The White House is telling the ‘blob’ “thanks, but no thanks” after House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) invited Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes to testify on the Hill regarding his role in the selling of the Iran deal. The request follows a controversial profile of Rhodes in the New York Times Magazine. In his response, White House Counsel W. Neil Eggleston suggested that the request poses “separation of powers” issues that raise “significant constitutional concerns” and “threatens the independence and autonomy of the president, as well as his ability to receive candid advice and counsel.”

Parting Shot: Whatever North Korea’s new ad-men tell you, it’s probably best to hold off on that trip to “Pyonghattan.” That’s the advice coming from the State Department today, which released a statement yesterday strongly urging “U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to North Korea due to the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement, which imposes unduly harsh sentences, including for actions that in the United States would not be considered crimes.”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Adam Klein provided a few thoughts on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Spokeo v. Robins.

In the latest dispatch of Syria Displaced, Laura Dean travels to “big, bad ‘Molenbeekistan.’”

David Bosco highlighted a debate between Harold Koh and Claus Kreß clarifying the state of play regarding the crime of aggression.

Chris Mirasola outlined China’s new foreign NGO law and explained that its real purpose is to protect Chinese security interests.

Cody posted The Week That Will Be, Lawfare’s weekly roundup of event and employment announcements.

Email the Roundup Team noteworthy law and security-related articles to include, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for additional commentary on these issues. Sign up to receive Lawfare in your inbox. Visit our Events Calendar to learn about upcoming national security events, and check out relevant job openings on our Job Board.