Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Zachary Burdette, Quinta Jurecic
Friday, September 23, 2016, 3:38 PM

Efforts to revitalize U.S.-Russian cooperation have stalled after the collapse of the Syrian ceasefire, reports the Washington Post. American officials have confirmed that, despite previous hopes, there are no plans for intelligence-sharing or military cooperation absent major changes to Russian behavior.

Both the United States and Russia continue to blame each other for the September 20th attack on the U.N. aid convoy. While Russia first pointed to alleged rebel artillery barrages or a fire on the ground, officials now seem to be pushing the narrative that a U.S.-coalition armed drone was responsible. The Wall Street Journal notes that—after U.S. officials initially blamed the Syrian forces and then Russian Su-24 attack aircraft—the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford clarified he believes that Russia is responsible but is unsure whether Russian or Syrian aircraft conducted the actual attack.

Defying American calls to ground aircraft and to abide by the ceasefire, the Syrian government has continued its offensive in Aleppo, the Post notes. Syrian airstrikes against rebel-held territory in the city have intensified, including in residential areas. Among the targets were three of the four civil defense centers run by the White Helmets, a group providing rescue and medical services to the civilian population. Reuters reports that these air and artillery strikes are likely laying the groundwork for a ground offensive by the Syrian regime.

In contrast to the renewed fighting in Aleppo, the three-year siege of Homs has ended, the Journal remarks. 300 rebels and their families evacuated the city on buses after concluding a surrender agreement with the regime. Syrian government forces now have complete control over Homs.

The AP has obtained the text of the ceasefire agreement between the United States and Russia—though Kremlin media outlet RT argues that the published text is only one of five documents constituting the agreement and claims that the United States insisted on keeping the text of the agreement private. On Thursday, the U.S. State Department provided a Fact Sheet on the agreement and related documents here. But the Journal notes that there remain classified documents related to the agreement that the State Department did not release.

The United Nations has resumed aid convoys to Syria after a two-day pause following the September 20th attack on the last convoy, Reuters reports. Humanitarian workers are appealing to the Syrian government to allow the convoys safe passage so they may distribute food and medical supplies to the civilian population.

Turkey criticized the United States for arming Kurdish forces fighting the al-Assad regime in Syria, Reuters remarks. The Turkish government views the U.S.-backed YPG Kurds operating within Syria as affiliated with the Kurdish PKK in Turkey, which Ankara considers to be a terrorist organization.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused the United States of abrogating its sanctions relief commitments under the nuclear deal, the Post notes. Rouhani argued that the United States is intentionally delaying approval for licenses and is deterring banks from financing projects in Iran with the threat that such transactions may represent violations of non-nuclear sanctions. The Iranian president’s comments follow Wednesday’s announcement that the United States approved Airbus and Boeing aircraft procurement deals with Iran, which Rouhani still criticized as taking too long to approve.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation prohibiting further U.S. government cash transfers to Iran until such a time as the White House announces Iran no longer sponsors terrorist organizations, the Hill reports. The bill was in response to three payments to Iran, totalling $1.7 billion, which the U.S. government made earlier this year to settle a long-standing dispute over an arms deal with pre-revolutionary Iran.

Saudi Arabia has offered Iran a quid pro quo on oil production, Reuters writes. In exchange for a cap on growth in Iranian oil production, the Saudis would cut their own output. The offer is part of an attempt to increase the plummeting price of oil, which is beginning to have an impact on Saudi citizens and putting pressure on the government to freeze production. But Saudi government has been reluctant to make such adjustments without also ensuring that Iran would commit to production limits. The Journal has more.

The Hill reports that Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced that she will join the growing coalition of members of Congress committed to overriding a presidential veto of JASTA, the bill that would allow family members of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi officials. President Obama has threatened to veto the bill, citing concerns over reciprocal lawsuits against U.S. officials by other countries. The president has until midnight tonight to veto the bill before it becomes law. The Post has more.

The Muslim Brotherhood earned a small but symbolically substantive number of seats in the Jordanian parliamentary elections yesterday, notes the Journal. The Brotherhood now controls an alliance of 15 out of 130 seats. While this leaves its influences relatively marginal, it represents a foothold in the legislative system that the organization lost for almost a decade.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, presented a grim depiction of the situation in Afghanistan yesterday, the Post reports. General Dunford said that the Taliban controlled around 30 percent of Afghanistan, admitted to discomfort over the quality of local Afghan forces, and described the balance as a “stalemate.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented their opposing cases on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before the United Nations yesterday. President Abbas called for a U.N. resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank, while Prime Minister Netanyahu repudiated the proposal. The Journal has more, while the Times suggests that the fiery, long-running conflict between the two leaders at the U.N. General Assembly has become so familiar that it no longer takes top billing at the international body’s annual meetings.

The international community has continued to condemn civilian casualties in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon repudiated an airstrike on Wednesday that killed 26 in a residential area, and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights made a statement claiming that Saudi coalition airstrikes have increasingly targeted civilian facilities such as hospitals, according to the AP.

An Egyptian boat illicitly transporting migrants to Italy was involved in an accident that killed 148 of the passengers, the Guardian notes. The accident is representative of a tragic pattern stemming from trackers using “barely seaworthy vessels and [overloading] them to extract the maximum money in fares from desperate migrants.” Egyptian police have arrested four of the traffickers.

Following accusations of Pakistani responsibility for a recent terrorist attack against an Indian military base in Kashmir, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears committed to a diplomatic rather than military response, according to the AP. This behavior contravenes Modi’s long-standing hard-line approach to dealing with Pakistan. Meanwhile, the prime minister has continued his efforts to modernize the Indian military, finalizing the acquisition of 36 Rafale fighters from France today. The Times has more.

The Post observes that Pakistan appears to be increasing its military readiness to deter or respond to a potential Indian attack. The Pakistani military will also hold its first joint military exercise with Russia later this month, Reuters reports—an event that epitomizes Pakistan’s degrading relationship with the United States and warming relationship with Russia post-Cold War.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), the ranking Democratic members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, released a statement yesterday accusing Russia of “making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election” through the series of recent hacks and associated leaks of information belonging to the government and major political organizations. The Post suggests that Feinstein and Schiff’s statement may be intended to push the White House to more directly confront the Kremlin, as administration and intelligence officials have stopped short of blaming Russia for the attacks.

On that note, Yahoo News writes that U.S. intelligence officials are investigating whether a foreign policy advisor to the Donald Trump campaign is communicating privately with the Kremlin regarding a possible Trump administration’s policies towards Russia, including the lifting of sanctions. The possibility of connections between Trump advisor Carter Page and the Russian government surfaced during intelligence briefings to senior members of Congress on Russian efforts to influence the election. If substantiated, the claims against Page would likely represent a violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The Times reports that a new release of hacked government information contains emails documenting the minute-by-minute details of schedules for Vice President Joe Biden, Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton, along with the personal information of Secret Service agents and government and campaign staffers. The information appears to have been obtained through the personal email of a Democratic Party operative.

Investigators indicate that the Shadow Brokers leak of NSA information may have been made possible by an NSA employee’s having mistakenly left multiple zero-day exploits available on a remote computer, where they were discovered by Russian hackers. The employee or contractor informed NSA of the mistake almost immediately, but the agency took no action to inform the relevant software manufacturers of the leaked vulnerabilities. Reuters has more.

Following Brexit, France and Germany are pushing forward with plans to establish a joint military command for the European Union—an idea first proposed in 2003 but torpedoed by American and British opposition. The Times writes that the United States is supportive of the idea, which would increase the EU’s military planning and operational capacities in the wake of the departure of Britain, previously one of the bloc’s more formidable military powers.

The AP reports on the quiet yet regular meetings between former U.S. officials and representatives of the North Korean government on Pyongyang’s nuclear program and the effect of international sanctions on the North Korean regime. In the absence of communication between the two governments, the informal discussions are a key link between Washington and Pyongyang, even if the American participants do not officially represent their government. But it’s unclear what effect, if any, the meetings have had on the strained diplomatic ties between the two nations.

More details have emerged on the 2014 hack of Yahoo, which compromised the account information of 500 million users. The company confirmed the data breach yesterday, saying that it believed the hacking had been perpetrated by an unnamed state-sponsored actor—though Financial Times notes that it is unusual for companies to indicate state involvement in cyberattacks.

The Pentagon spent almost $26,000 looking into alternative detention facilities within the United States to replace Guantanamo Bay, the Hill reports. This new information on “Guantanamo North” surfaces from a FOIA request filed by Kansas’s attorney general, who has now released a letter criticizing the Pentagon’s efforts on the grounds that any transfer of detainees into the United States is currently prohibited under federal law.

The Times takes a closer look at previous FBI investigations of Ahmad Khan Rahami, the suspect in this weekend’s bombings in New York City and New Jersey, and concludes that “no obvious lapses” occurred in the FBI’s judgment. The paper also examines how uncertain “in-betweeners” like Rahami and the Boston bombers, often children of immigrants caught between multiple cultures, can become susceptible to the pull of violence and extremism. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal tells us that Rahami’s wife has now returned to the United States from Pakistan and appears to be cooperating with the ongoing investigation.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Quinta Jurecic posted a statement from Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) on Russian hacking and attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Shane Reeves and David Wallace examined whether Turkey’s military control of portions of northern Syria constitutes belligerent occupation.

Ben Wittes announced the release of the latest Rational Security podcast.

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