Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Zachary Burdette, Quinta Jurecic
Thursday, September 22, 2016, 4:03 PM

The U.S.-Russian ceasefire agreement in Syria has collapsed, reports the Financial Times. Diplomats may still nominally seek to salvage the political agreement, but fighting has erupted again in Aleppo. Russian and Syrian forces launched an intensive overnight campaign to strike rebel forces with artillery barrages and barrel bombs.

Both sides have blamed each other for the ceasefire’s precipitous—although not unexpected—demise. Russia and Syria point to an errant American airstrike on September 17th that killed 62 Syrian government soldiers. In an interview with the AP, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he believed the strike “was definitely intentional,” though the United States has maintained that the attack was a targeting error and a miscommunication.

Americans point to the subsequent attack on September 20th against a U.N. aid convoy that killed 20 civilians, arguing that the attack represented Russian retribution for the mistaken airstrike on Syrian troops. Russia and Syria have denied involvement on the attack, claiming variously that it was the result of a fire on the ground, rebel artillery fire, or—most recently—a U.S.-coalition drone launched from Incirlik air base in Turkey. The United States remains firm in its conviction that Russia was behind the attack on the convoy, with the Times reporting that the information on the attack comes from both satellite and signals intelligence.

In spite of the functional end to the ceasefire and the renewal of open hostilities, Secretary Kerry still appears committed to resurrecting a diplomatic solution, calling for the grounding of all military aircraft over key combat areas in Syria. Russian officials have rebuffed Secretary Kerry’s proposal, the Wall Street Journal notes. The overnight Russian and Syrian airstrikes against Aleppo—the worst the city has seen in months—not only signaled Russia’s refusal to comply but also ended any lingering hope of saving the ceasefire, reports Reuters.

The United States has few appealing options moving forward. The administration has thus far refused to deepen its intervention in Syria, relying on the ceasefire agreement as the only game in town. Secretary Kerry’s call to ground military aircraft has not gained traction, and if Russia does not voluntarily comply, the United States is unwilling to risk confrontation by enforcing a no-fly zone, the New York Times remarks.

In spite of these failures and the recent attack on an aid convoy, the Washington Post reports that the United Nations is considering sending more humanitarian convoys to Syria. The U.N. had announced that would halt humanitarian convoys following the airstrike, but now indicates that it will evaluate the feasibility of sending further convoys as time goes on. A convoy is already scheduled to deliver aid south of Damascus.

In contrast to the renewed conflict in Aleppo, rebels began a planned evacuation from Homs today, the Times observes. The evacuation is one of a number of local agreements that Syrian government forces have made with rebels, offering safe passage in return for assurances that rebel troops will leave contested areas.

Islamic State fighters, on the other hand, appear prepared to vigorously contest the U.S.-led coalition offensive on Mosul, Defense One comments. The group has been laying booby traps, digging tunnels, and preparing to create a “river of fire” around its stronghold in northern Iraq.

The U.S.-led coalition has continued to make slow progress toward expelling the Islamic State from Mosul. Its latest success was recapturing the northern town of Shirqat, 60 miles south of Mosul, the AP reports. The operation follows the standard blueprint of an Iraqi lead offensive of both government and paramilitary forces with coalition air support. Iraqi forces claim that they now have complete control over the town.

The U.S. military has asked the White House to authorize a deployment of an additional 500 military personnel to Iraq to prepare for the Mosul offensive, the Journal notes. The United States currently has 4,400 deployed forces in Iraq, as well as 1,500 troops considered in rotational deployment. The new troops would join the 400 sent earlier this month to aid in the advise-and-assist mission.

The request for more troops comes amid troubling reports that the Islamic State launched mortar and rocket shells packed with chemical weapons at American forces working out of an airbase 40 miles south of Mosul. The chemical agent was a powdered mustard compound, which some analysts believe the Islamic State is manufacturing. There were no reported deaths or injuries.

Meanwhile, the Afghan government has agreed to a draft peace agreement with the infamous Afghani warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Times tells us. The deal is controversial due to Hekmatyar’s U.S. designation as a “global terrorist,” his reputation for breaking agreements, and the already precarious political situation in the Afghan coalition government. Given the decreased significance of Hekmatyar’s insurgent faction, Hezb-i-Islami, the agreement will likely not decisively change the situation in Afghanistan, but officials hope it will entice other “disgruntled commanders to reach their own deals with the government.” The Journal has more.

The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia is coming under “unprecedented scrutiny,” writes the Washington Post, as the debate over a bill that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi Arabian government casts a shadow over Washington’s ties with Riyadh. The Times outlines how the debate has intensified in the face of President Obama’s threat to veto the legislation, named JASTA, on the grounds that the bill would undermine sovereign immunity and set a precedent that would make U.S. officials vulnerable to similar lawsuits from other states. Politico notes that a presidential veto could have negative repercussions for Democrats in the upcoming elections, especially given JASTA’s popularity.

JASTA is not the only cloud on the horizon for Saudi Arabia. Yesterday, Senators Paul (R-KY) and Murphy (D-CT) led an attempt in the Senate to block an upcoming arms sale to Saudi Arabia over concerns about the Kingdom’s conduct in its intervention in Yemen. The legislation was defeated in a 71 to 27 vote, Reuters reports.

Yesterday, a Saudi-led coalition airstrike hit a residential area in Yemen, killing 26 people, Reuters observed. Paul and Murphy have voiced concerns that American support for Saudi Arabia, such as aerial refueling, provides a vital enabling role to support these and other indiscriminate operations.

An advisor to the European Court of Justice indicated that the court should remove Hamas and the Tamil Tigers from the EU’s list of terrorist organizations, arguing that the groups’ initial inclusion on the list was due to a mistaken procedure. A 2014 decision by a lower EU court, which is now under review by the ECJ on appeal, held that both Hamas and the Tigers should be delisted for similar reasons. The ECJ usually, but not always, adheres to its advisors’ formal opinions.

Hackers attempted to access computer systems belonging to multiple German political parties this summer, though it is unclear whether any data was stolen, the Journal writes. German officials indicated that the Russian hacking group APT28 was behind the attack, though Russia has dismissed the accusations. The hackers attempted to phish lawmakers by sending emails that appeared to be from NATO.

Yahoo announced on Thursday that at least 500 million Yahoo accounts were compromised in a 2014 cyberattack, which the company believes to be the work of an unidentified “state-sponsored actor.” The stolen data appears to include names, email addresses, phone numbers, and passwords, among other information. The Times has more.

The Journal examines the contrasting positions of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on the North Korean nuclear program as voiced at the U.N. General Assembly this week. While Abe advocated for world leaders to “concentrate our strengths and thwart North Korea’s plans,” Li mentioned North Korea only briefly and called for “dialogue-based solutions.” Tensions have been high in the region following a series of missile tests by the isolated regime, and the United States has pushed for stronger U.N. sanctions in response.

The Chinese government has sentenced human rights lawyer Xia Lin to 12 years in prison on a fraud conviction, the Post writes. Xia has been detained for two years on what human rights advocates say are fabricated charges. Critics say the unusually harsh 12-year sentence is intended to chill other rights activists in an ongoing government crackdown on the Chinese legal community.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari would be willing to accept U.N. assistance in mediating talks with Boko Haram to free the roughly 200 schoolgirls kidnapped from Chibok over two years ago, Reuters tells us. Despite repeated negotiation attempts, the Nigerian government has been unsuccessful in securing the girls’ release from the terrorist group.

Meanwhile, the Times takes a look at the devastation that Boko Haram has wreaked across Nigeria. The conflict, which has now gone on for seven years, has fallen out of public consciousness in the West even as even as the violence continues.

The Financial Times reports on what may be a looming political crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights voiced concerns that the government’s “extremely confrontational position” may lead to violence unless President Joseph Kabila, whom many believe is manipulating the country’s electoral system in order to remain in power past the constitutional term limit, engages with the country’s political opposition.

The Post examines the strange end of the long-running war between the FARC guerrilla group and the Colombian government. In the runup to a national referendum on the government peace deal with FARC, the movements leaders’ prepared a strange conference that resembled “something like a Marxist-Leninist version of a USO show.”

According to Uruguay’s president, the demands of resettled former Guantanamo detainee Abu Wa’el Dhiab to leave the country and be reunited with his family in Turkey or elsewhere are beyond the Uruguayan government’s ability to arrange. Dhiab has been on a hunger strike for over a month to express his unhappiness at his situation in Uruguay. The Post has more.

Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald writes that three Guantanamo detainees formerly held at CIA black sites have been deemed too dangerous to release by the detention center’s Periodic Review Board. With this decision, 23 of the remaining 61 Guantanamo detainees now fall under the category of “forever prisoners,” whose detention has been approved by the review board. Twenty more detainees have been approved for transfer.

More details have emerged in the case of Ahmad Khan Rahami, the suspect charged with engineering the bombings in New York and New Jersey last weekend. The New York Times reports that Rahami was flagged twice by the FBI in 2014, once after returning from a yearlong trip to Pakistan and once when his father called him a “terrorist” after a domestic dispute in which Rahami stabbed his brother. Rahami also traveled to Ankara and Afghanistan for extended periods of time. Authorities speculate that he may have been frustrated in his attempts to reach Syria, though his journal makes no mention of ISIS.

75 senior career diplomats have signed an open letter declaring Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump “entirely unqualified to serve as President and Commander-in-Chief,” the Washington Post tells us. Though it is highly unusual for career diplomats to publicly endorse or criticize a presidential candidate, this letter is only one of several such documents released by government officials rejecting Trump’s candidacy.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Nora Ellingsen took a look at an unusual counterterrorism prosecution.

J. Dana Stuster provided the most recent edition of the Middle East Ticker.

Kenneth Anderson noted a new paper by Rebecca Ingber on co-belligerency under international law and the AUMF.

Bobby Chesney reviewed what we know about interrogation of Ahmad Rahami.

Nora updated us on the charges leveled against Rahami.

David Bosco reviewed the ICC’s cooperation with national prosecutors.

Ben Wittes responded to critics of the Washington Post editorial page’s opposition to a Snowden pardon.

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