Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Rishabh Bhandari
Friday, September 9, 2016, 2:14 PM

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have resumed negotiations on a Syrian ceasefire plan. State Department officials downplayed talks when speaking to reporters and warned that the talks must have a deadline, saying that while “steady progress” has been made in recent weeks, Washington and Moscow remain at odds on some important and technical issues. This is the third meeting between Lavrov and Kerry in two weeks over a potential ceasefire. Reuters has more.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the United States has sent 400 additional troops to Iraq to assist in an offensive to reclaim the city of Mosul from Islamic State. Iraqi forces will likely begin the long-delayed battle in October. U.S. troops are mainly assisting Iraqi troops in the city of Qayyarah, where the forces that will take Mosul are currently congregated. The commander of the coalition forces allied against ISIS, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, said that the fight for Mosul will likely become a difficult siege. Townsend added that plans for a simultaneous U.S.-backed assault on Raqqa, the Syrian capital of the Islamic State, were on hold due to tensions between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces.

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Turkish airstrikes destroyed four stationary targets in northern Syria on Friday as Ankara continues to launch attack attacks against militants in the region. Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield last month with the intention of clearing Islamic State operatives and Syrian Kurdish fighters from its borders.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey is conducting the largest military operations in its history against Kurdish fighters in the southeast of the country, while the government suspended thousands of teachers over suspected links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Erdogan said in a speech to provincial governors that the operations targeting civil servants with links to the PKK was a key element of the fight against the armed group. The Turkish military said 186 PKK members have been killed over the past few days, and the country’s education ministry reported that more than 11,000 teachers “linked to a separatist-terrorist organization” have been suspended.

The Guardian reports that more than 70 charities and aid organizations have suspended collaboration with the United Nations in Syria and have demanded an immediate and transparent investigation into its operations in the country. There are growing concerns within the international community that the Syrian president Bashar al Assad has gained “significant and substantial” influence over the relief efforts. The 73 groups delivered a letter to the United Nations explaining that they could no longer tolerate the “manipulation of humanitarian relief efforts by the political interests of the Syrian government that deprives other Syrians in besieged areas from the services of those programmes.” This news comes a week after The Guardian revealed the UN had awarded contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to people closely associated with the Assad regime.

Reuters writes that a top military commander for the militant group Jabhat Fateh al Sham, al Qaeda’s former franchise in Syria, was killed in an airstrike targeting a meeting of the group’s leaders. According to an announcement by the group, which has played a leading role in the fight against the Syrian regime and Shiite militias in Aleppo, Abu Hajer al Homsi was “martyred” in an airstrike in a rural area of the Aleppo province. It is unclear which nation conducted the airstrike, though U.S. involvement is suspected.

The Associated Press tells us that Afghan security forces have successfully repelled a Taliban attack in Tirin Kot, the capital of the Uruzgan province in southern Afghanistan. The insurgency had nearly captured the city on Thursday before Kabul sent both Afghan commandos and reinforcements, including U.S. airstrikes, to push back the Taliban after a heavy day of fighting. A government spokesman said more than 80 Taliban fighters had been killed over the past 24 hours.

The New York Times reports that U.S. Navy SEALs led an unsuccessful effort last month to free an American university professor and his Australian colleague held captive by the Taliban. The SEALs engaged in a fierce battle with dozens of insurgents at a remote compound in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan but U.S. military officials said the special forces missed the two prisoners by hours. The Pentagon said no U.S. personnel had been killed but “a number” of insurgents died in the shootout.

North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear underground nuclear test since 2006 and its second of the calendar year on Friday. These tests have come in clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and despite threats by the United States and other regional powers to expand the sanctions regime already imposed on the Hermit Kingdom. The latest test, according to South Korean officials, produced a more powerful explosive yield than the North’s previous detonations, indicating that the country was making progress in its efforts to build a functional nuclear warhead.

International leaders from across the globe issued unequivocal condemnations of Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test. President Barack Obama said North Korea’s actions constituted a “grave threat to regional stability.” South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye said this proved the “fanatical recklessness of the Kim Jong-un regime” while Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the test “simply cannot be justified.” Abe also instructed his intelligence and security officials to share as much information as possible on North Korea’s nuclear program with Russia, China, South Korea, and the United States. The UN Security Council is expected to hold an emergency meeting behind closed doors on Friday to discuss Pyongyang’s latest act of provocation. Both the Financial Times and the New York Times have more on the international community’s reactions.

The Associated Press adds that China’s Foreign Ministry will formally protest North Korea’s nuclear test with Pyongyang’s ambassador in Beijing. A Chinese ministry spokeswoman tied North Korea’s nuclear test with the United States’ decision to deploy an advanced defense missile system in South Korea as two similarly destabilizing and unnecessary moves. Chinese state media urged “all sides” to stop “adding oil to the flames.”

The Guardian writes that some analysts believe that North Korea is now capable of putting a nuclear warhead on a short or medium-range missile that could hit Japan or South Korea. Many warn that North Korea’s move could trigger a regional escalation if South Korea responds by launching its own nuclear program or Japan enhances its offensive capabilities. The Washington Post added that the timing and location of the nuclear test—three missiles were launched in the space of a minute from trucks parked within the heart of Pyongyang—suggests North Korea could be building its nuclear weapons program to ensure the regime’s survival and deter any foreign invasion.

Ukrainian officials and Russian-backed separatists say a tenuous ceasefire has held for a week along the front lines in eastern Ukraine, after months of intense combat over the summer. Government and separatist leaders began the deal on September 1 to coincide with the beginning of the school year. But both sides have accused each other, even during the truce, of frequent violations while exchanges of fire continue at contested points. Recent Russian military exercises across the border with Ukraine have heightened tensions between Kiev and Moscow. The Journal has more.

Russia’s foreign minister said Israeli and Palestinian leaders have agreed “in principle” to meet in Moscow to relaunch Middle East peace talks, though discussions about an exact date are still in the works. It has been more than two years since the sides last met to discuss a political settlement. Both Egypt and France have sought to restart peace talks to no avail earlier this year. Al Jazeera has more.

The Wall Street Journal reports that a French police officer was stabbed and a suspect shot as authorities detained three women in connection with a terrorism investigation into a car found Sunday near Notre Dame Cathedral that was loaded with cooking gas canisters. One of the three women stabbed the police officer before she was shot and severely wounded. France’s Interior Minister said the women were all radicalized and preparing to launch violent attacks. Reuters adds that the women were preparing to attack Gare de Lyon, a major train station less than two miles from Notre Dame in central Paris, and the Associated Press tells us that four more people have been arrested in connection to this plot. France has been on high alert after a spate of terror attacks that have killed more than 200 people over the past year.

The Journal also reports that British police charged four men with planning to carry out acts of terrorism nearly two weeks after the suspects were arrested in a series of raids that led police to dispatch a bomb-disposal unit to the city center of Birmingham. Birmingham, England’s second-largest city, is home to many of the British fighters who have joined the Islamic State. In April, three Birmingham residents were arrested for arranging to provide thousands of pounds in cash to a key suspect behind the Paris and Brussels attacks.

The Washington Post reminds us that the United States conducted airstrikes in six countries over the Labor Day weekend, a sign of the diffuse terrorist threats that have persisted into the final days of President Barack Obama’s tenure in office. Counterterrorism analysts said that the U.S. military’s expanded footprint is a new normal, with the White House looking to calibrate the United States’ involvement with the country’s national security interests in each battlefield.

During his trip to Laos, President Barack Obama said that his administration is not ready to concede that the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay will remain open after he leaves office. Obama said the costs per detainee will only grow as the prison population shrinks and warned that “Guantanamo is a recruitment tool for terrorist organizations, that it clouds and sours some of the counter-terrorism cooperation we need to engage in.”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Sarah Tate Chambers offered the first round of Lawfare’s new Cybercrime Roundup, a series that will track the latest cybercrimes going through the federal judicial system.

Yishai Schwartz flagged another court case that restricted the ability of terrorism victims to collect compensation.

Benjamin Wittes uploaded the “Commander in Chief Forum” video in which Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spoke on NBC about national security issues in front of an audience of veterans.

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