Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Rishabh Bhandari, David Hopen
Tuesday, June 21, 2016, 3:41 PM

In June, 2014, the Islamic State stunned the world when the terrorist organization seized the city of Mosul from Iraqi soldiers who dropped their weapons and fled. Just two years later, the would-be caliphate is under siege from all directions as the organization stands to lose Fallujah, the first city it controlled. The New York Times runs a multimedia feature documenting that the Islamic State has lost about 45 percent of its territory in Syria and 20 percent in Iraq. But the Islamic State remains a threat with an economic base that brings in $23 million a month through oil and gas revenue.

Yet while the group is down, it’s too early to count it out. Headlines today echo this point, as ISIS launched multiple counterattacks yesterday, clawing back some territory it recently lost. In Manbij, the Islamic State launched a counterattack against U.S.-backed Syrian fighters seeking to capture the northern city. Syrian Democratic Forces were preparing to enter Manbij nearly three weeks after a major offensive began with the backing of U.S. airpower and special forces. According to Reuters, the Islamic State won back three villages and inflicted heavy casualties on the SDF. Still, SDF soldiers said they were confident of liberating Manbij. Sharfan Darwish, a spokesman of the Syrian Democratic Forces-allied Manbij Military Council, said “the situation is under control...we are at the four gates of the city.”

Elsewhere in Syria the Associated Press tells us that the Islamic State has retaken swathes of territory in the northern Syrian province of Raqqa that the so-called caliphate initially lost when government forces, backed by Russian airpower, began a renewed offensive on June 2nd. The Syrian Army had come within four miles of the Tabqa air base near Raqqa city, the de facto capital of the Islamic State. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, 93 soldiers and 126 Islamic State fighters have been killed since the offensive began.

Agence France-Presse cites a report from the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria that claims more than 700 doctors and medical workers have been killed since the Syrian war broke out five years ago. U.N. Commissioner Paul Pinheiro, while presenting the report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, said the targeted attacks on medical facilities have made it almost impossible for many Syrians to access health care as the war rages on. He also added that the Islamic State continues to perpetrate genocide against the Yazidi populations of Iraq and Syria.

Patrick Tucker of Defense One notes that Michele Flournoy, a former top-ranking official in the Pentagon under President Barack Obama and a likely contender to be Secretary of Defense in a potential Hillary Clinton administration, has called for more U.S. troops to fight the Islamic State and the Syrian regime. At the annual Center for New American Security conference, Flournoy said the United States should aim to remove Syrian President Bashar al Assad from power even if that meant “using limited military coercion.” This revelation comes on the heels of a much-publicized dissent letter signed by 51 State Department diplomats that excoriates the White House for not deploying air strikes against the Assad regime.

The Kremlin called on Tuesday for a resumption of stalled peace talks to end the bloodshed in Syria, claiming that a political settlement was the only way to cease “massive violations” of human rights that have characterized the war. Moscow has been a determined supporter of Assad and Russia’s military footprint in the region has expanded in recent weeks contrary to an earlier announcement by President Vladimir Putin that his country would be exiting the conflict. Russia called for a political settlement in which some Syrian opposition figures would join a unity government, a move that Moscow believes would safeguard Russia’s interests in Syria by propping up Assad’s regime. The New York Times has more.

Six Jordanian security officials were killed in a car bomb near the country’s border with Syria on Tuesday. The attack took place near a refugee camp in Rukban where roughly 60,000 people live. Fourteen others were wounded, but no group has taken credit yet for the attack. Though terrorist attacks in Jordan are rare, this is the second attack in June to take place near a refugee camp. The first attack, which took place in a Palestinian refugee camp near Amman, claimed five lives including three members of Jordan’s prestigious General Intelligence Directorate. In response to Tuesday’s car bombing, King Abdullah II vowed to hit back with an “iron fist.”

A Saudi-led military coalition intercepted a missile fired from Yemen, the latest in the unraveling of a civil war ceasefire. The news comes after reports that a Saudi-led air strike targeting advancing Houthi forces killed 8 civilians. Though peace talks between the government and Houthis have resulted in little progress, a ceasefire has calmed the fighting.

In a move to counter Hamas’s tunnels, Israel is allegedly constructing a deep underground wall around the Gaza Strip, according to the Washington Post. At least 3 tunnels have been detected over the past year. Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, said that the construction of an underground wall would “minimize the probability of another attack.” The New York Times, meanwhile, details the smuggling industry in the West Bank that illegally brings Palestinian workers into Israel and increases the risk of attackers sneaking across the border.

In the twilight of the Afghan war, the Wall Street Journal examines U.S. soldiers’ attempts to navigate the complex legal and political dimensions faced by the prospect of killing members of the Taliban, with whom the U.S. is not technically at war. In related news, Richard Olson, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said yesterday that the U.S. will provide more than $3 billion annually to Afghan national security forces through 2020.

The International Criminal Court sentenced Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba to 18 years in prison for war crimes in Central African Republic. A former Democratic Republic of Congo vice-president, Bemba directed troops from the Movement for the Liberation of Congo in their rampage of rape and murder through Central African Republic over the course of 2002 and 2003. According to Reuters, Bemba is the first person held responsible by the ICC for the actions of subordinates.

Reuters also tells us that Nigeria has agreed to a one-month ceasefire with the Delta militants responsible for recent attacks on oil facilities. The militants have been demanding a greater share of Nigeria’s oil wealth be allocated to the impoverished Delta region, considering a vast majority of the country's oil comes from its southern swampland. Attacks by the militants have caused Nigeria, an OPEC member and a top African oil producer, to falter in its output, resulting in a recent rally in global oil prices. Also in the region, Foreign Policy profiles how factions within Boko Haram have weakened since defecting to the Islamic State, how al Qaeda may return these factions to its orbit and why such changes would further cripple the Islamic State’s withering attempt at global expansion.

The Daily Beast reports that President Obama is expected to issue an executive order calling for the U.S. to disclose the number of civilians killed annually in airstrikes against terrorists. Since 2009, the Obama administration estimates, approximately 100 civilians have been killed in various airstrikes in Yemen, Pakistan, Libya and Somalia, a figure many consider too small to be credible. The order, which is intended to shed light on the U.S. effort to minimize civilian casualties, may reignite debate over the usage of drone strikes.

The first study of Chinese hacking since the U.S.-China cyberespionage agreement reports a significant decrease in intellectual property raids on Silicon valley firms, commercial targets and military contractors. The study, conducted by the iSight intelligence unit of FireEye, concluded that the drop-off in raids actually began before President Obama and President Xi agreed to a crackdown on cyberespionage, and is the result of President Xi’s effort to bring the Chinese military, a prominent sponsor of the attacks, under his control.

A Dartmouth college researcher and a nonprofit group have created a technology to help Internet companies instantly detect and remove terrorist-generated content. The White House, which recently suggested that extremist information spread online inspired the shooting in Orlando, welcomed the help of the new technology. A number of major social media companies, however, are wary that online material may be removed wrongfully, considering there is currently no clear consensus as to what constitutes a terrorist image, and that the creation of a central database for terrorism images would cause problems with other governments.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch is opposing a White House-backed proposal to allow Guantanamo Bay prisoners to plead guilty to terrorism charges in federal court via video conference. The plan, if enacted into law, would help Obama’s administration work towards closing the prison and sidestep the Congressional ban on transferring detainees to the U.S. that has left dozens of prisoners stuck in Guantanamo.

After facing backlash for redacting the transcript of Orlando gunman’s phone conversation with law enforcement, the FBI released a partial transcript, included in which is the gunman’s admission that he was inspired at least partly by the Islamic State. The Justice Department initially redacted any reference to the Islamic State so as not to “provide the killer or terrorist organizations with a publicity platform for hateful propaganda.”

Four measures put forward after the Orlando shooting aimed at curbing gun sales were rejected by the Senate yesterday, writes the Times. The measures, which included amendments to block anyone on the federal terrorism watch list from buying guns and strip suspected terrorists of passports, failed to pass amid party line deadlocks. The Times notes that Further action toward reform in these issues seems unlikely to pass before the fall election.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Carrie Cordero reflected on ways by which legislation could expand the lone wolf provision of FISA in order to provide an additional investigative option for ISIS “inspired” American-would-be-terrorists.

Nora Ellingsen examined the FBI’s options when encountering someone who likely supports a terrorist group but has not yet committed a violent act.

Julian Ku rebutted China’s recent efforts to undermine the legitimacy of UNCLOS.

Clara Spera offered a roundup of the various gun-control proposals on which the Senate voted yesterday.

Ashley Deeks and Marty Lederman analyzed the legality and efficacy of potential airstrikes against the Assad regime.

Cody Poplin compiled The Week That Will Be, summarizing Lawfare’s upcoming event announcements.

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