Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Zachary Burdette, Quinta Jurecic
Wednesday, September 21, 2016, 4:26 PM

The United States is blaming Russia for the attack yesterday on an aid convoy in Syria, the BBC reports. Anonymous American officials claimed two Russian Su-24 attack aircraft were overhead when the convoy was struck. Russian officials denied responsibility, placing the blame on rebel artillery or a fire on the ground. The Russian Defense Ministry later commented that a Russian aircraft had been tracking the convoy and detected a rebel pickup truck towing a mortar accompanying the aid vehicles, suggesting that the convoy was serving as cover for rebel forces and not merely providing humanitarian aid. The Washington Post has more.

The aircraft’s video of the attack is available online. The New York Times tells us that video appears to show the rebel truck merely passing by the stationary aid convoy, providing little evidence that the convoy was affiliated with rebel forces or that the aid vehicles had become legitimate military targets.

The incident is the second major blow to the U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria, following closely behind American airstrikes inadvertently targeting Syrian government forces instead of insurgents. As more details emerge about the miscommunication between Russian and American forces surrounding the incident, it appears that the designated U.S. contact was not available when a Russian officer tried to warn the U.S. that coalition forces were targeting the Syrian regime. The Times has more on the two primary culprits behind this, and other, airstrikes gone awry: faulty intelligence and the fog of war.

A third errant airstrike last night killed five medical workers in the town of Khan Touman, southwest of Aleppo, reports the BBC. Nine rebel fighters also died in the strike on the town, which is located in rebel-held territory. It remains unclear who conducted the operation, but the death of more aid workers only a day after the attack on the convoy will likely further erode whatever cooperation may remain between the United States and Russia.

Nevertheless, the United States still appears committed to maintaining the ceasefire agreement with Russia, the Times remarks. The Washington Post’s Editorial Board argues that the desire to salvage cooperation has led to a tepid American response to the attack. The reluctance to more vigorously condemn the strike against unarmed humanitarian workers may stem largely from the White House’s extreme reluctance to expand U.S. intervention in Syria. These concerns over greater involvement leave the United States with few alternatives and many uncomfortable choices if the current approach fails.

Despite the American reluctance to jump ship from the agreement, the Post reports a growing acknowledgement within the U.S. government that there is no concrete vision for how to move forward under the current negotiated framework. In functional terms, American military officials have said that combined operations with the Russians are off the table for the foreseeable future. Failing to deconflict airspace and share intelligence means current targeting difficulties will remain vexing challenges, remarks Defense One.

The Times also notes that the White House is considering directly arming Syrian Kurds to fight the Islamic State, which it has previously been reluctant to do because of opposition from the Turkish government. The plan would equip the Kurdish forces only with small arms and ammunition, and it is part of a general effort to accelerate the timetable for launching an offensive against Raqqa before President Obama leaves office. Amid these efforts to retake territory from the Islamic State, the Post documents the growing signs of resistance in Mosul and the Islamic State’s brutal crackdowns against internal dissent.

As the caliphate continues to decay, concerns are growing about the Islamic State planting terrorist cells among Syrian refugees and migrants. German police arrested a teenage refugee from Syria with potential connections to the Islamic State, the Wall Street Journal reports. This is one of several recent German arrests of refugees allegedly connected to terrorist networks.

Whatever the U.S. Department of Justice decides on extradition of Fethullah Gulen will likely have significant implications for the American relationship with the Turkish government. President Erdogan maintains that Gulen was the mastermind behind this summer’s coup attempt, and has demanded that the United States government return the Pennsylvania-based cleric to Turkey. Erdogan’s government provided the United States with its first evidence of Gulen’s involvement in the coup last week. The Post has more.

Turkish police shot a knife-wielding man as he approached the Israeli Embassy in Ankara today, Reuters reports. There is no evidence that the attacker was affiliated with a terrorist organization.

The renewal of an expedited visa program for Afghan interpreters who have worked with U.S. military personnel to come to the United States remains in question. The program requires annual congressional reauthorization—already a difficult proposition in the current heated political climate—and this weekend’s attacks in New York and New Jersey further complicate efforts to renew the program. Foreign Policy has more.

The White House is pressuring Congress not to pass JASTA, the legislation authorizing families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia, comments Reuters. The President has threatened to veto the bill but is first trying to prevent its passage through the normal legislative process. Senate leaders including Mitch McConnell (R-KY), however, have committed to overriding a presidential veto. Politico has more on the prospects for a veto override.

Opposition to a proposed sale of arms to Saudi Arabia is growing among both parties and both houses of Congress, the Post highlights. Representatives Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) introduced a bipartisan resolution in the House yesterday, following last week’s bipartisan resolution in the Senate. These resolutions reflect concerns over the important role the United States plays in enabling the Saudi intervention in Yemen, which many human rights groups have criticized as indiscriminately targeting civilian areas. Concerns over potential Saudi misuse of U.S.-supplied white phosphorous munitions is only the most recent controversy surrounding American support for the intervention.

The United States is easing restrictions on Western firms providing airplanes to Iran as it continues to implement the international nuclear agreement with Tehran, the Times reports. The move comes after a series of problems with licensing and financing deals that have prompted the Iranian government to criticize America’s commitment to mitigating the sanctions regime. While there are signs of increased Iranian political and economic engagement with the West, hard-line elements of the Iranian government are signaling discontent with the marginally improved relations. The Revolutionary Guard has been arresting dual nationals more frequently, prompting relatives of the detained to congregate at the U.N. in an attempt to appeal to President Rouhani.

Israeli internal security forces are increasing their scrutiny of NGOs operating in Gaza out of concern that aid organizations may be collaborating with Hamas. Israel has become more conservative in issuing travel permits, transferring aid workers’ salaries to Gazan banks, and cracking down on illicit money transfers for military development. Onlookers are concerned that these actions may contribute to Gaza’s continued isolation and economic stagnation, perhaps prompting a fourth war between Israel and Hamas. Foreign Policy has more.

These tensions follow increased violence between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, the Wall Street Journal reports. Soldiers today shot an unarmed Palestinian girl after she refused to stop at the checkpoint between the West Bank and Israel and ignored warning shots. There have been six consecutive days of violence in the area, with nine separate attacks carried out on Israeli soldiers and civilians.

China reiterated its commitment to the global nonproliferation regime and to North Korean denuclearization at the United Nations today, Reuters reports. Chinese and American officials have announced their intention to increase cooperation on countering North Korean nuclear proliferation, including greater efforts to crack down on Chinese firms trading with North Korea and the possibility of a robust U.N. sanctions regime. North Korea’s repeated missile and nuclear tests, and the recent fifth nuclear test in particular, have angered its Chinese partner and seem to be contributing to a greater focus and level of cooperation on managing the regime’s activities.

In a quiet announcement that nevertheless prompted outrage from human rights advocates, Canada declared its willingness to negotiate a bilateral extradition treaty with China. Beijing has recently stepped up the pressure to negotiate extradition treaties with Western countries in order to pursue corruption investigations into Chinese nationals who have fled overseas. The United States, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand have turned down treaty negotiations on the basis of human rights concerns over the treatment of prisoners, and Australia has refused to ratify its extradition treaty with Beijing. The Times has more.

British Prime Minister Theresa May made her debut at the U.N. General Assembly today, reassuring world leaders that the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union did not represent a “vote to turn inwards or walk away from any of our partners in the world.” The U.K. will remain actively involved on the international stage, she argued, advocating for the need for global cooperation in counterterrorism operations.

Foreign Policy weighs in on the news that the Kremlin will soon overhaul Russia’s security apparatus to create a “Ministry of State Security,” which will oversee both foreign and domestic intelligence operations. “In all but name,” argues Andrei Soldatov, “we are seeing a resurrection of the Committee for State Securityotherwise known as the KGB.”

The Times takes a look at two South American nations seized by political crisis. Venezuela’s oil production is now so low that the country is now purchasing oil from its historical enemy, the United States, while Brazil’s beloved ex-president Lula da Silva will face corruption charges in the ever-widening scandal surrounding the Brazilian national oil company.

The Journal reports on the violence that has repeatedly gripped the South Sudanese capital of Juba. Though the government has recently confiscated the passports of aid workers and banned humanitarian access to war-torn areas of the country, evidence has now come to light showing that both foreign and South Sudanese aid workers were attacked and raped by government soldiers during a spasm of violence in July.

The Post examines the difficult diplomatic test faced by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he attempts to craft a response to Sunday’s terror attack on an Indian army base in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Modi faces internal pressure to respond aggressively to the attack, which many Indians believe to have been supported by Pakistan. Reuters also notes that Modi’s cabinet has cleared the way for the purchase of 36 new fighter jets in order to modernize the Indian airforce.

The Paris climate accord has now obtained the necessarily commitments by world leaders to enter into force. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is expected to announce the deal’s implementation at the U.N. General Assembly this Wednesday.

Ahmed Khan Rahami, the suspect accused of engineering the bombings last weekend in New York City and New Jersey, has now been charged with crimes including bombing a place of public use and use of a weapon of mass destruction, along with five prior charges of attempted murder of police officers. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that Rahami will be taken to New York to face the federal charges leveled against him in the state’s Southern District Court. The New York Times reports that Rahami had apparently been planning his attack since June, purchasing materials for his bombs on eBay under the username “ahmad rahimi.”

Writing in a notebook Rahami was carrying on him when arrested appears to indicate his sympathy to militant Islamism, suggesting a motive behind the attacks. The Times also examines how Rahami may have fallen through the cracks of both existing and proposed counterterrorism programs. According to Politico, House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul indicated on Tuesday that his committee may look into whether the FBI erred in in its investigation of Rahami two years ago, in which the Bureau did not identify any connection to extremism.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Herb Lin published a new Aegis Series Paper on “Attribution of Malicious Cyber Incidents.”

Timothy Edgar responded to Jack Goldsmith’s argument against a pardon for Snowden.

Paul Rosenzweig pondered the use of the word “property” in the ICANN transition.

Quinta Jurecic argued that the nature of the presidential pardoning power places limits on how productive an argument over pardoning Snowden can be.

Quinta also posted a new Congressional Research Service report on "The Advocacy of Terrorism on the Internet: Freedom of Speech Issues and Material Support Statutes.”

Ian Merritt and Kenneth M. Pollack noted the challenges that the U.S. and Iraq will likely face after the liberation of Mosul.

Elizabeth McElvein examined the GOP’s waning advantage as the party of national security.

Stewart Baker posted the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast.

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