Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Rishabh Bhandari
Monday, September 12, 2016, 4:15 PM

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov successfully hammered out a Syrian ceasefire deal in Geneva on Friday. At sunset on Monday, hostilities formally ceased for seven days following a weekend of airstrikes. The week-long truce will be followed by an air campaign against Islamist extremist groups that will be coordinated between Washington and the Kremlin. Syrian state media reported that President Bashar al-Assad welcomed the news of the deal, though he vowed to “recover every area from the terrorists.” Both the BBC and Reuters have more.

But the Guardian writes that there were some signs that the ceasefire was struggling to take effect after sundown in Syria on Monday, with news of attacks across the country. Secretary Kerry acknowledged reports of initial violence but stated that it is “far too early to draw definitive conclusions.” The New York Times has more details.

The Associated Press adds that U.S.-backed Syrian rebels wrote to Washington expressing their concern that the ceasefire would largely benefit the regime. One leader of a U.S.-backed faction went as far as to label the deal a “trap.” But a senior official inside the Islamist rebel coalition Ahrar al-Sham said rebels would nevertheless abide by the cease-fire in order to regroup after a punishing conflict with pro-government forces over Aleppo.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, al Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria, is lobbying rebel groups to continue fighting the Syrian regime despite the U.S.-Russia truce. Washington and Moscow both view Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, as a terrorist organization, and have warned other rebel groups that they will be targeted if they continue working with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham after the temporary truce ends.

Russian and Syrian government airstrikes on rebel-held parts of Syria intensified after the deal was struck on Friday. At least 91 people were killed and scores more wounded in two days of attacks on rebel-held areas around the country, mainly in Idlib and in the divided city of Aleppo. Rebel groups also attacked government-held locations with mortar shells. The New York Times has more.

The Guardian’s Mary Dejevsky takes an optimistic view of the ceasefire deal, writing that the agreement has a good chance of succeeding due to the large strategic stake held by both the U.S. and Russia in ensuring the deal’s fruition and a resolution to this crisis. But on the glass-half-empty side, Samer Abboud argues in Al Jazeera that the deal likely won’t trigger an end to hostilities because it fails to engineer any mechanism of political change. In his view, the plan’s narrow military focus fails to account for how various rebel groups will enhance their cooperation as foreign support recedes.

Turkey aims to send more than 30 trucks of food, children's clothes and toys to Aleppo after the ceasefire begins. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the news to local journalists after attending Eid al Adha prayers. He added that Turkey would also send aid convoys to the northern towns of Jarablus and al-Rai.

In a sign of Turkey’s deepening involvement in the Syrian conflict, Turkish warplanes killed 20 Islamic State fighters in an attack on targets in northern Syria. According to a statement by the Turkish military, Ankara had launched airstrikes against three buildings that belonged to the Islamic State. Erdogan pledged in a conference on Sunday that his government had a moral duty to destroy the Islamic State and its capability of launching strikes within Turkey. The Associated Press has more.

The Hill reports that Iran has stepped up its harassment of U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf. Since the international nuclear deal with Iran was implemented in early January, the number of incidents involving U.S. and Iranian ships in the Gulf has approximately doubled.

Iran’s harassment and selective confrontation of U.S. vessels has helped convince Republican lawmakers to propose more anti-Iran legislation. Earlier this week, a group of Republican senators introduced legislation that would ban any further U.S. government payments to Iran from a Treasury Department fund, until Iran returned $1.7 billion the administration sent to Iran earlier this year to settle a dispute over an aborted 1970s arms deal. But according to the Wall Street Journal, the Iranian government dismissed U.S. complaints as both an exaggeration and an indicator that Washington fears Tehran’s growing power.

Reuters tells us that suspected Kurdish militants detonated a car bomb near local government offices in the southeastern Turkish city of Van on Monday. The attack, which wounded roughly 50 people, came a day after the Turkish government removed two dozen mayors of Kurdish-run municipalities from office. Southeastern Turkey has suffered numerous bombings since the abandonment of a unilateral ceasefire in 2015 by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group that both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist organization.

A well-known Afghan police chief, General Zarawar Zahid, was killed in a Taliban bomb attack in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar. Zahid was inspecting an outpost in Nangarhar when a bomb near the outpost detonated. Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan, has faced mounting security perils over the past couple of years, with new Islamic State affiliates complicating the threat from the Taliban. The attack came a week after a Taliban bombing of the Afghan Ministry of Defense killed more than 40 people. The New York Times has more.

Reuters reports that two gunmen stormed a hospital in Kandahar that specializes in treating veterans from the army and police. Both men were killed in a shootout with law enforcement along with a security guard. The province’s vice governor was slated to visit the hospital and a government spokesman said he was the assailants’ intended target.

The Wall Street Journal updates us on the ongoing investigation in France following law enforcement officials’ discovery of a car with five canisters of cooking gas parked near the heart of Paris’s tourist district. French authorities said the women arrested all had close links to the Islamic State, which appears to have directed the women’s actions, along with connections to ISIS-inspired assailants who previously launched fatal attacks in France. The authorities’ report suggests that a network of ISIS-linked extremists may have emerged across France.

France’s prime minister Manuel Valls said the country's security services are foiling terror plots and dismantling militant networks "every day.” He said authorities are monitoring 15,000 people in France for radicalization as the country continues to fight Islamic terrorism. Valls’ remarks came after a 15-year old boy was arrested on Saturday on suspicion of planning an attack this weekend. Investigators said he had been under surveillance since April and he had communicated with a French member of the Islamic State. Roughly 6,000 to 7,000 French soldiers have been deployed across the country to protect schools, synagogues, department stores, and other soft targets.

The Washington Post reports that clashes have erupted in Libya’s oil-rich provinces as fighters loyal to General Khalifa Hifter, a powerful eastern military commander, battle a rival militia aligned with the U.N.-backed unity government for control of the nation’s petroleum facilities. A spokesman for Hifter said his forces had seized control of Ras Lanuf and Sidra, among Libya’s largest oil ports, and were fighting for control for Zuwaytinah. The battles have stoked tensions over whether Libya, which has the world’s ninth largest oil reserves, can stabilize and restart its oil production.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Australian police have charged a suspect with committing a terrorist act and attempted murder after he allegedly stabbed a man multiple times in Sydney on Saturday. The attack was allegedly inspired by the Islamic State and came just days after the so-called caliphate urged followers to stab, shoot, poison, and run over Australians at iconic locations, including the Sydney Opera House.

The Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council condemned a law passed by the United States Congress last week that would allow the families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to sue the KSA for damages. The GCC said the bill was “contrary to the foundations and principles of relations between states and the principle of sovereign immunity enjoyed by states.” The White House has threatened to veto the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, JASTA, out of concern that the Act will encourage other countries to pass similar legislation aimed at U.S. personnel and the U.S. government.

Josh Rogin writes in the Washington Post that a landmark U.S. military assistance package to Israel has been held up by Congress. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has led the opposition to the bill, which would raise Israel’s annual package of military aid from $3.1 billion to $3.3 billion but caps the amount the U.S. can provide Israel going forward.

Ross Douthat asks in the New York Times what we should make about Russia’s prominent role in the 2016 presidential elections and the lessons we can take from the Kremlin’s renewed relevance to American politics. Douthat notes that the ideological spectrum has reversed when it comes to determining Washington’s posture towards Moscow.

China and Russia are hosting joint naval exercises in the South China Sea, according to the Associated Press. The war games are a sign of the rising trust and cooperation between Moscow and Beijing at a time when both countries’ relationships with the United States has soured over territorial disputes. Russia has been the only nation to speak out on China’s behalf after an international tribunal declared that Beijing had violated international law by claiming virtually the entire South China Sea for itself. China has rejected the ruling and pledges to continue developing its man-made islands and conducting aerial patrols over the strategically valuable waters.

South Korean officials fear that North Korea could conduct another nuclear test at any time. A defence ministry spokesman said there was still an unused tunnel at the Punggye-ri test site which could be used for a sixth explosion at any time. North Korea ratcheted up regional tensions after its fifth nuclear test on Thursday took the international community by surprise, worrying onlookers and provoking warnings from the U.N. Security Council that the international community could tighten its sanctions regime. Pyongyang has dismissed these threats as “laughable.” The BBC has more.

China squarely placed the blame for North Korea’s nuclear program on the United States, saying that the United States had sowed the first seeds of instability in the region by implementing a high-altitude missile defense system in South Korea. Beijing fears that the new missile defense system is pointed in its direction as much as Pyongyang’s. Though U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has urged China to take a harder line with the Hermit Kingdom, the New York Times reports that China fears a hardline approach to Pyongyang could inadvertently trigger the collapse of Kim Jong Un’s regime and unify the Korean peninsula under a U.S. defense treaty.

Reuters writes that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called for the withdrawal of U.S. military from the country’s restive southern island, fearing an American troop presence could complicate offensives against Islamist militants notorious for beheading Westerners. Duterte warned that the special forces offered an attractive target for terrorists who could try and kill or kidnap them. His remarks further confuse the question of whether the Phillipines is tipping toward China or the United States, following the souring of relations between Manila and Washington soured after Duterte described President Barack Obama with a curse word in a bizarre tirade last week.

The Washington Post tells us that three women armed with a gasoline bomb were shot dead in a Kenyan police station. The women had walked into the station under the pretext of reporting a stolen phone and had concealed a knife and a bomb in their clothing. One woman drew the knife while another threw the bomb as the perpetrators shouted “Allahu Akbar.” Two officers were taken to the hospital with injuries.

For the Miami Herald, Carol Rosenberg recaps the first pretrial military hearings in 18 months in the USS Cole case. The defense team for Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the USS Cole bombing in 2000, posed a number of challenges to the war court system that remain unresolved while a trial date has yet to be determined. Defense lawyers said a Pentagon manual erred when it gave the senior official overseeing the war court both judicial and prosecutorial duties, and invoked a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that upended a verdict for a similar reason.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Bobby Chesney and Steve Slick announced the three winners of the “Bobby R. Inman Award” for student research and writing on intelligence, a competition that is hosted by the University of Texas-Austin.

Taylor Dibbert called on the United States and other countries to demand justice for Sri Lanka’s political prisoners.

Rishabh Bhandari continued Lawfare’s coverage of the pre-trial military commission hearings for the ongoing case against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged orchestrator of the 2000 USS Cole attack.

Quinta Jurecic posted the latest episode of the Lawfare Podcast, which features an ISIS recruitment event at Brookings.

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