Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Rishabh Bhandari
Wednesday, September 14, 2016, 4:11 PM

The Syrian ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia remains largely intact as residents of the embattled city of Aleppo await an expected aid shipment. Insurgent groups had expressed deep reservation about the ceasefire when it was announced on Friday night, claiming it favored the Syrian regime. The truce also permitted U.S. and Russian forces to strike Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, al-Qaeda’s former Syrian franchise. But the Russian military said U.S.-backed rebels have repeatedly violated the truce, with six people killed and 10 wounded in Aleppo since the truce began. Both the Associated Press and Al Jazeera have more. The Associated Press also has a profile of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s reaction to the deal and the group’s effort at rallying other rebel groups to break the ceasefire.

Secretary of State John Kerry told NPR that the new U.S.-Russia ceasefire was the best of all the available options in Syria. He added that the United States remains committed to enforcing the ceasefire even though pockets of the country were still witnessing isolated incidents of violence. But Kerry also noted that even if Washington and Moscow coordinate in striking the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al Sham, a political solution must be reached between the rebels and Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

The New York Times reports that Kerry’s negotiation of the ceasefire agreement with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has widened the divide between the State Department and the Department of Defense. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has deep reservations about the plan for American and Russian forces to jointly target terrorist groups. Kerry views a peaceful resolution to the Syrian civil war as a major achievement for both his and President Barack Obama’s legacies, but Pentagon officials refuse to even confirm that they will uphold their side of the bargain if Russia and the United States can maintain the peace for the full seven days.

Saudi Arabia endorsed the peace deal on Tuesday evening and urged all parties, including the Syrian regime, to uphold its conditions. In a statement relayed by state media, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said it hopes for the resumption of talks aimed at ensuring a peaceful political transition in accordance with U.N resolutions. Riyadh—which has backed the rebels in this fight—has maintained from the outset of the crisis that any political settlement must be accompanied by Bashar al Assad’s departure.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Steffan de Mistura said if the ceasefire holds, some 20 countries trying to end the Syrian conflict may convene a meeting next week at the United Nations. De Mistura said the meeting of the International Syria Support Group—which includes regional and world powers and Syria’s neighbors—may be held before a ministerial meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Syria on September 21. But he warned that such a meeting would require the political process be on the horizon. The Associated Press has more.

The Wall Street Journal writes that the Syrian government is pressing a systematic effort to alter the country’s demographics and tighten President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power. The regime is pushing to seal deals for the surrender or evacuation of rebel strongholds despite the U.S.- and Russia-sponsored truce. Damascus has used sieges to force local populations to either surrender or evacuate their homes. Leading representatives from the regime’s opposition warn that the demographic and social engineering could lead to ethnic cleansing.

The U.S. bombarded an Islamic State chemical weapons plant housed in a converted Iraqi pharmaceutical factory, according to CNN. The strike follows a United Nations-backed report issued last month that found that both Assad’s government and the Islamic State have used chemical weapons in the five-year-long war that has ripped the country apart.

The BBC observes that U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces may begin their long-anticipated assault on Mosul, the Islamic State’s largest stronghold in Iraq, next month. The northern city was seized by the Islamic State two years ago, and authorities vow that its liberation will mark the end of the so-called caliphate’s territorial ambitions in Iraq. But some analysts speculate that the victory’s aftermath will also usher in a new period of intense factional infighting, as Kurdish forces are unlikely to willingly surrender the relatively autonomous territory they have gained across northern Iraq during the battle with ISIS.

Khalifa Hifter, the Libyan general whose forces oppose the country’s fragile but internationally-recognized Government of National Accord, has seized a fourth oil port. Hifter’s forces now control the country’s “oil crescent’ along the northern coast. The takeover of the oil port of Brega came just hours after the United States and its major European allies—which back the GNA—condemned Hifter’s offensive. Al Jazeera has more on what the powerful general’s string of successes means for Libya’s messy politics.

The Associated Press adds that Libya’s state oil company says it hopes to resume exports from three terminals seized this week by forces loyal to Hifter. But the United States and other Western nations have called on Hifter’s forces to withdraw from the terminals, saying the Tripoli-based government is the “sole steward” of Libya’s natural resources. Libyan state oil officials estimated that the country could start exporting up to 600,000 barrels per day within a month and up to 900,000 barrels a day by the year’s end.

A scathing parliamentary report argues that former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s intervention in Libya was carried out with no proper intelligence analysis, drifted into an unannounced goal of regime change, and shirked its moral responsibility to help reconstruct the country following Muammar Qaddafi’s ousting. The report posits that these failures account for why Libya has become a failed state on the verge of a civil war between forces aligned with Hifter in the east and the GNA.

The Washington Post reports that fighters from the the Islamic State—which exploited Libya’s political vacuum after Qaddafi’s downfall—came within 45 miles of the country’s sole chemical weapons site. The Islamic State’s encroachment on an installation outside the remote oasis town of Waddan, where 500 metric tons of ­chemical-weapon precursor materials were stored, set off a hurried chain of events culminating in a disarmament operation involving the United States, European countries and the United Nations.

In a New York Times op-ed, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif calls on the international community to partner with Tehran in defeating Wahhabism, the ultraconservative brand of Islam that has influenced Islamist extremist groups. Zarif blames Saudi Arabia, Iran’s major regional rival, for funding Wahhabist groups that have exported the ideology across the globe. But lest we think that Zarif is merely using the editorial page of the Gray Lady to attack his rivals in Riyadh, he magnanimously “invite[s] Saudi rulers to put aside the rhetoric of blame and fear, and join hands with the rest of the community of nations.”

Israel and the United States will sign a ten-year $38 billion military aid deal today at a State Department function. The package represents a major commitment to Israel’s security in the waning months of President Barack Obama’s presidency. Both sides see the deal as an important boost to U.S.-Israeli relations after Obama and his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, openly clashed on key issues such as the Iran nuclear deal.

Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine have announced a unilateral ceasefire starting at midnight Wednesday. The move, which could be a major step in solving a conflict that has raged for more than two years, was announced in a recorded statement aired on Russian television on Tuesday by rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko. Although a peace deal was signed between the two sides and Russia in 2015, frequent clashes have continued to claim lives and the accord’s political dimensions have not been implemented. But Zakharchenko maintained that Kiev must uphold its end of the Minsk deal for peace to be finalized.

The Wall Street Journal fills us in on a new EU initiative to push increased defense cooperation among European Union governments. Eventually, the initiative could lead to the development of an EU crisis response force that would allow the international body to respond to security challenges without American assistance. The shift is a sign that the European Union wishes to play a larger and more assertive role on the global stage despite the pending loss of Great Britain, its member with the most robust military power.

Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea on Sunday to discuss how the three allies should respond to North Korea’s latest nuclear test. The countries are pushing the U.N. Security Council to impose more sanctions on the Hermit Kingdom, despite Chinese recalcitrance. Beijing has linked Pyongyang’s latest act of provocation to Washington and Seoul’s recent decision to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system in South Korea, which China and Russia view as targeting their own capabilities as well as Pyongyang’s.

Reuters reports that North Korea will have enough material for roughly 20 nuclear bombs by the end of this year. Weapons experts said Pyongyang had evaded a decade of U.N. sanctions to develop the uranium enrichment process, enabling it to run a self-sufficient nuclear program. But they also acknowledged that it is impossible to understand the extent of North Korea’s program because of the regime’s opacity.

The Wall Street Journal writes that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is pivoting his country towards China at the expense of the Philippines’ relationship with the United States. Duterte has ordered his defense minister to purchase equipment from Russia and China to fight drug traffickers and insurgents and has declared that Philippines will stop patrolling the South China Sea with the United States to avoid upsetting Beijing. The United States and the Philippines have both expressed uneasiness over China’s increasingly assertive actions in the region’s contested waters. The New York Times has more on Duterte’s call for U.S. special forces to withdraw from the Philippines.

The Hill tells us that the White House is threatening to veto a House bill prohibiting all transfers out of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. The White House’s posture reinforces the administration’s stance that the continued operation of a detention facility at Guantanamo Bay constitutes a threat to U.S. national security. The Republican drive to block Guantanamo transfers accelerated after the administration transferred 15 detainees last month, Obama’s largest single transfer to date. There are now 61 detainees left at the facility, 20 of whom have been cleared for transfer.

Majid Khan, a U.S.-educated al Qaeda operative, returned to the Guantanamo war court on Wednesday for the first time since 2012 for a brief hearing with a new judge and prosecutor and expanded defense team. Khan, who was held for three years in CIA black sites, is awaiting sentencing on a guilty plea for joining al Qaeda and serving as a courier of $50,000 linked to a 2003 terrorist bombing of a Marriott hotel in Indonesia and agreeing to be a suicide bomber in an unrealized plot to murder former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

With the release of the new Oliver Stone film Snowden, Edward Snowden has embarked on a campaign to obtain a presidential pardon before President Obama leaves office in January. The ACLU and Amnesty International are spearheading the campaign, which argues that the Snowden revelations have benefited American citizens. At The Guardian, Ewan MacAskill talks to Snowden about the pardon campaign.

The Washington Post reports that Russian intelligence agents are suspected of hacking and leaking emails belonging to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. In these emails, Powell excoriated both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The leak is the latest in the string of incidents in which Russia has been appeared to interfere with the U.S. election, beginning with the hacking and leaking of information from the Democratic National Committee.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

J. Dana Stuster posted a new edition of Middle East Ticker, in which he gave a roundup of what’s going on in the region.

Frederica Fasanotti offered a brief glimpse into Russia’s relationship with Libya.

Helen Klein Murrillo continued Lawfare’s coverage of the pre-trial military hearings for Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

Bruce Schneier warned us that an unknown but sophisticated actor is probing around the internet to learn how to dismantle its critical infrastructure.

Bobby Chesney flagged the upcoming law conference hosted by CYBERCOM.

Stephanie Leutert examined why tens of thousands of Central Americans are still entering the United States every year.

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