Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Rishabh Bhandari
Tuesday, August 23, 2016, 2:21 PM

The Pentagon has warned the Syrian regime to not deploy Syrian air force in areas in northern Syria where U.S. forces are also operating. Peter Cook, a Defense Department spokesman, said, “we’re going to defend our forces where they are. We advise them to steer clear of where we’re operating.” The U.S. message was relayed to the Syrian regime via Russia. Last week, the U.S. scrambled two F-22s after Syrian air forces dropped bombs in Hasaka, where U.S. special operations forces are operating with Kurdish YPG fighters against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It was the first time Syrian jets have bombed an area where American troops are present, despite the United States' past warnings. The Hill has more.

U.S.-backed Kurdish forces now have militias aligned with Syrian President Bashar al Assad under siege in the city of Hasakah. The battle over Hasakah has raised the possibility that the United States may be drawn into a direct clash with Syrian regime troops. The Daily Beast reports that the Kurds may be unwilling to relinquish oil-rich Hasakah, instead aiming to incorporate the city into a politically autonomous Kurdish region after the end of the civil war.

The Wall Street Journal writes that the Syrian regime has come to view the Kurds as a serious threat, targeting Kurdish forces more aggressively and echoing the Turkish government’s anti-PKK rhetoric. While the regime’s shift comes on the heels of a rapprochement between its Russian backers and Turkey, it is also a reaction to the Kurds’ growing military capabilities and the fight for Hasakah Turkey views Kurdish successes in northern Syria as a threat to its own territorial integrity, and cooperation between Turkey and Syria in quashing Kurdish territorial ambitions could further complicate Syria’s already convoluted war.

The Associated Press tells us that Turkish artillery has attacked a U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia from across the border. The Turkish army also hit Islamic State positions as well. The attacks targeted positions north of the town of Manbij, which Kurdish-led forces recently captured from the Islamic State. Turkish state media also reported that Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters are preparing to attack Jarablus, an ISIS-held town near the Turkish-Syrian border. The BBC has more.

Stephen O’Brien, the top aid official at the United Nations, proffered a gloomy assessment of the Syria relief effort on Monday and described the suffering in Aleppo as the “apex of horror.”O’Brien, the UN’s under secretary general of humanitarian affairs, praised Russia’s recent support for a 48-hour cease-fire in Aleppo and called on other parties to follow Moscow’s lead. No humanitarian convoys have been able to reach the contested city this month.

The New York Times reports that Iran’s sudden decision to reverse the permission it granted Russia to use its air base for airstrikes in Syria is an indication of Tehran’s deep-seated suspicion of Moscow. Russian state media had trumpeted the development as a sign of Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East, but Iranian officials interpreted Russia’s public statements as an unacceptable sign of arrogance about the privilege. Analysts said the partnership likely would have survived if Russia had not leaked the news without consideration for how the news would play with the Iranian public.    

CNN reveals that Iraqi security forces and associated militia forces are inching towards Mosul, the Islamic State’s largest stronghold in Iraq. Iraq’s government aims to recapture Mosul by the end of the year. Soldiers said the Islamic State appears more reliant on local fighters, a sign that the so-called caliphate is growing weaker and unable to recruit enough foreigners to hold onto the city. But a humanitarian crisis is also looming, as roughly one million civilians live in Mosul.

The Washington Post examines the Islamic State’s turn to child bombers as the terrorist organization hemorrhages fighters and territory. The United States estimates the Islamic State has lost 45,000 fighters since an air campaign began two years ago. Analysts add that the Islamic State’s indoctrination campaign is also reaping benefits as captured children become inculcated with the organization’s perverse brand of Islam. A child suicide bomber affiliated with the so-called caliphate killed more than 50 people in Turkey this weekend.

The Post also tells us that after nearly a month of airstrikes against the Islamic State fighters dug in around the Libyan city of Sirte, U.S. helicopter gunships have been dispatched to help root out fighters from some of the denser parts of the city. According to a U.S. Africa Command release, the U.S. military launched nine strikes from Friday to Sunday targeting Islamic State positions. Some U.S. special forces are already on the ground in Libya.

A U.S. service member was killed in Afghanistan’s Helmand province by a roadside bomb, while another American soldier and six Afghan soldiers were also wounded. Helmand province has been the site of heavy fighting in recent weeks as Taliban forces have used the summer months to launch multiple offensives across the country. The group is estimated to control well over 50 percent of Helmand, and its pressure on the capital has forced U.S. and NATO troops to shuttle resources to help prop up the embattled Afghan security forces.

Turkey has criticized Israeli airstrikes in Gaza as a “disproportionate” response to Sunday’s Palestinian rocket attack on an Israeli village, the Associated Press reports. In response, Israel called Turkey’s criticism “baseless.” The two countries have only recently reconciled a six-year break in relations following an Israeli naval raid on a Turkish aid ship attempting breach Israel’s blockade of Gaza, in which ten Turkish activists were killed.

Turkey’s deal with the European Union to stem the flow of migration into Europe might collapse under the country’s post-coup crackdown, the Post writes. Both Turkish and European leaders are threatening to pull the deal. Ankara has accused European bureaucrats of failing to fulfill a promise to drop visa restrictions for Turkish nationals, giving the EU until October to fulfill the pledge. European leaders, however, said they are growing concerned about widespread human rights abuses in Turkey.

The New York Times fills us in on the rare period of unity that has emerged in Turkey after the failed coup attempt in mid-July. Liberals and secularists have supported President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, despite his government’s harsh crackdown over the past month and concerns on the part of some that Erdogan is on the path to turning Turkey into a one-party state.

The Post’s editorial board urges Vice President Joe Biden to be candid and stern when he meets with Erdogan in Ankara this week. Biden should reiterate the United States’ mutual interests with Turkey, the board argues, but should also counsel Erdogan that his authoritarian impulses will only weaken Turkey in the long run.

Before meeting with Erdogan, Biden stopped in Latvia to reassure Baltic nations that the United States will uphold its NATO treaty obligations in the face of Russian hostility. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has recently rattled the Baltics by suggesting that the United States may not honor its Article 5 obligation to come to their aid if Russia invaded.  

The United States is also nearing a military defense cooperation agreement with Finland, which has taken steps to augment its security in the face of Russian aggression in the region. Finland signed a similar deal with the United Kingdom in July while Sweden, the only other Nordic country not in NATO, signed a defense cooperation agreement with the United States in June. The Guardian has more.  

Hackers affiliated with the Russian government may have attacked reporters at the New York Times and other US media organizations along with Democratic Party institutions, CNN reports. The FBI is now investigating the possible hack. Neither the FBI nor the Times has confirmed CNN’s story.

During a meeting with her Italian and French counterparts, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for Europe’s intelligence agencies to share more information across the European Union “in the face of Islamist terror and the civil war in Syria.” Merkel also indicated the European Union has reached a critical juncture after Britain’s recent decision to leave, saying and that the organization must begin to consider what shape its future will take.

The European Union’s spymasters are lobbying for new measures to limit the use of encrypted communications across the continent. Europe has been rocked by a series of high-profile attacks in the last year, and intelligence agencies are troubled by the number of terrorists who use platforms with end-to-end encryption such as WhatsApp or Telegram to communicate and launch attacks. The Financial Times has more on the ongoing debate between Europe’s vociferous digital privacy lobby and the EU’s intelligence and law enforcement community.

The Nigerian military said on Tuesday that its airstrikes had killed several top Boko Haram commanders in the country’s northeast, where militants have been hiding for months. A military spokesman said Abubakar Shekau, the group’s leader since 2009, was among the wounded. But the military has claimed to have killed Shekau before. The Nigerian military has recently stepped up its offensive against Boko Haram even as the group appears to be fracturing.

The FBI has launched a federal terrorism investigation into a stabbing attack last weekend in Roanoke, Virginia. According to ABC News, the Bureau is looking at whether the attacker may have been trying to behead his victim in an Islamic State-inspired assault. The alleged attacker, Wasil Farooqui, is reported to have injured a man and woman at an apartment complex in Roanoke, yelling "Allahu akbar" as he attacked them with a knife on Saturday. Authorities believe he may have been trying to behead the male victim, who was likely picked at random.  

Abu Zubaydah, a long-time Guantanamo detainee who became notorious for his subjection to torture and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” at the detention center, appeared for the first time in a public hearing at Guantanamo this morning. The Times writes that Zubaydah announced that he “has no desire or intent to harm the United States or any other country” and should be released from detention.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

James Kraska pointed out gaps in the otherwise legally correct Philippines-China international tribunal award.

Bruce Riedel noted that Algeria is building the third largest mosque in the world, arguing that this a sign of the country’s move away from secularism.

Daniel J. Rosenthal made the case that foreign intelligence gathering under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is categorically exempt from disclosures under FOIA.

Charlie Dunlap argued that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump share a desire to pursue more aggressive material support legislation to combat terrorism.

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