Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Benjamin Bissell
Tuesday, September 2, 2014, 3:19 PM

Breaking News: ISIS has released a video that shows the murder of American journalist Steven Sotloff, the New York Times reports. In a previous video of the murder of American James Foley, ISIS had threatened to execute Mr. Sotloff if the United States did not end its bombing campaign in Iraq against the terrorist group. The Times notes that the same executioner appears beside Mr. Sotloff in the video, saying, “I’m back, Obama, and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State.” The SITE Intelligence Group said that ISIS has threatened to kill a third captive, a Briton identified as David Cawthorne Haines, if the attacks do not stop.

The video appears as the militant group confronts mounting pressure from American airstrikes and recent gains by both Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Yesterday, Jane told us that American airstrikes and Iraqi forces had broken the siege of Amerli. British fighter jets also escorted French and Australian humanitarian airdrops, which were meant to aid the city's trapped civilians. And, in a sign of the strange bedfellows ISIS has united, the New York Times details how American warplanes and militias backed by Iran worked in tandem in Amerli against ISIS.

Elsewhere, Al-Jazeera reports that Kurdish forces and Shia armed volunteers have retaken the town of Sulaiman Bek, killing Mussab Mamoud, the town’s ISIS head, and Mazen Zaki, the military wing commander, along with more than 20 other Sunni rebel fighters.

And yesterday, President Obama sent a letter notifying Congress of the operation in Amerli, in which he described the attacks as “targeted” strikes that would be “limited in their scope and duration.” Writing today in Lawfare, Jack asks whether the President’s repeated and frequent War Powers Resolution letters are a new tactic to avoid the Resolution’s time limits on operations.

Amid eyewitness accounts that U.S. Special Operations Forces are currently engaged in direct support of Kurdish fighters, the Daily Beast asks, “Are American troops already fighting on the front lines in Iraq?” Perhaps more startling if true, the report suggests that German forces are on the ground as well. In the Wall Street Journal, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier defends his country’s decision to arm Kurdish forces, but says that the move does not represent a fundamental change in German foreign policy.

In the New York Times, Julien Barnes-Dacey and Daniel Levy argue that to defeat ISIS, the West will have to move beyond the “false dichotomy” of supporting the Assad government or continuing a “halfhearted” policy of supporting Sunni opposition. They propose an anti-ISIS front that draws on both regime and opposition elements and encourages them to “train their guns on ISIS rather than each other.”

On Thursday, ISIS militants released yet another videotape showing militants decapitating a captive, this time a soldier from the Kurdish peshmerga. The Washington Post analyzes why the group chooses to clothe their victims in orange jumpsuits reminiscent of Guantanamo uniforms.

Human Rights Watch on Monday added a new entry to the steadily-growing list of alleged atrocities committed by ISIS, claiming the group is using cluster bombs to attack its enemies. The NGO asserts that over the last two months, ISIS militants used the bombs, which inflict damage indiscriminately, to push back Kurdish forces in Syria’s Aleppo Province. The New York Times has details.

The New York Times also reports that in response to information suggesting British citizens are actively fighting for ISIS in Mideast hotspots, UK Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday proposed legislation that would give police officers the right to seize passports of UK nationals suspected of traveling abroad to fight for radical militant groups. UK officials say over 500 citizens have gone to Iraq or Syria to fight, and half may have returned since then. The decision comes as the UK recently raised its terrorism threat level to “severe,” indicating a terrorist attack is “highly likely.”

Alarmingly, the reach of ISIS may be expanding to the east. The BBC writes that Commander Mirwais of Hizb-e Islami, a militant Islamist group in Afghanistan, said recently that his group may seek to link up with ISIS. Mirwais commended ISIS’s fighters, promising that if ISIS proved to be a true Islamic caliphate, they would seek to join forces with it.

ISIS may also be making inroads towards the south: Al-Jazeera reports that while the threat of an external attack by ISIS against Jordan, a key U.S. ally, is minimal, the Jordanian regime nevertheless is struggling to contain growing domestic support for the group. The article claims that ISIS' success in the last few months is capturing the attention of young Jordanians, and stoking fears of an Islamist threat to the country’s moderate rulers.

Another day, another bombshell quote from Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to the Guardian, in a Friday phone call to outgoing European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Putin claimed that Russian military forces "could conquer Kiev in two weeks." Barroso relayed this at an EU summit on Saturday, regarding the crisis in Ukraine; Putin's provocative claim then leaked to Italian paper La Republica.

The Kremlin’s response? NTV reports that in remarks on Tuesday, Yuri Ushakov, a Russian foreign policy spokesman, did not deny Putin had uttered the words in question. Instead Ushakov asserted that leaking a quote made in confidence does not befit a serious statesman, and further that that Putin's quote had been out of context---though Ushakov did not make clear how.

Putin's gambit comes as the Wall Street Journal reports that in Ukraine, Russian forces routed Ukrainian troops in the strategic town of Ilovaisk. The drubbing comes just a month after Ukrainian forces retook the city from pro-Russia rebels, and represents the latest victory for Russia as it advances deeper into Ukrainian territory.

The statement also figures in the context of increasing tensions between NATO members and Russia. The leader of one NATO member situated on Russia’s western flank, Estonia, made a request on Tuesday for a clear and visible NATO presence in his country. Reuters reveals that in an interview, Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas called on the alliance to make sure that its “deterrence is strong enough so it will become unthinkable for Russia to go beyond (Ukraine).” The Prime Minister spoke on the eve of a visit by U.S. President Obama to the country. Estonia, along with the two other Baltic states, Latvia and Lithuania, is seen as especially vulnerable to Russian intervention. This is due not just to its reliance on Russian energy imports, but also to its demographic makeup. According to its 2011 census, Estonia is a country of roughly 1.3 million people, 25.2% of whom are ethnic Russians.

In response to NATO decisions to station crisis response forces in several Eastern European NATO member states, a top Russian official announced that Russia will “alter [its] military strategy towards NATO." Mikhail Popov, a Kremlin adviser, criticized the alliance’s enlargement, and said the Kremlin views NATO’s actions in Eastern Europe as one of Russia’s key “external threats.” The nature of Russia's forthcoming strategic changes remains unclear. The BBC has more.

The BBC also reports that the newly designated foreign affairs chief of the European Union, Federica Mogherini of Italy, said recently that NATO countries bordering Russia “need to be sure that Article 5 is not just a written text.” (Article 5 commits all NATO countries to defend another member that is attacked.) The comments come as Mogherini, who has only been foreign minister of Italy since February, faces criticism for perceived softness vis-a-vis the Kremlin. In an opinion piece written just a few days before her appointment, Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution argued against choosing her for the job, pointing to her lack of experience and her history of allegedly pro-Russian language.

U.S. President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron are set to call for NATO members to increase their defense expenditures at this week’s NATO summit, the Telegraph reports. The two leaders will urge all 28 members to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense. At the present moment, only 4 members currently reach that target.

Perhaps more importantly, NATO leaders are set to ratify a new addition to the defense treaty’s jurisdiction: cyberwarfare. The New York Times analyzes the change, which will stipulate that a cyberattack on any NATO member will be considered an attack on all.

China has come out against further EU sanctions on Russia. Reuters reports that Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said that new sanctions against the Russian Federation for its role in the conflict in Ukraine would only complicate the crisis further. His comments come as U.S.-Russian tensions over the issue spilled out during an APEC meeting in Beijing on Tuesday. The Wall Street Journal writes that Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak and U.S. Deputy Energy Minister Daniel Poneman sparred over the implications of energy sanctions in the closed-door meeting, an argument that represented a “change in the usual atmosphere” of technical APEC conferences.

Speaking of energy, RBC reports that Slovakian energy company Eustream officially began exporting natural gas to Ukraine on Tuesday, a link that could ultimately satisfy 20% of the country’s annual consumption. According to a report provided by Reuters, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico announced at a press conference that gas imports from Slovakia, Hungary and Poland should be enough to cover Ukraine’s midterm needs. In 2013, Russia supplied half of the gas Ukraine used, but Russian energy company Gazprom cut the imports in the wake of arguments over pricing and the instability in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

If you are having trouble visualizing the continuously-evolving conflict in Eastern Europe, the BBC has an article chronicling the conflagration in maps. Foreign Policy also provides a piece examining the cost of the instability for civilians in the city of Luhansk.

The Times of Israel references a poll conducted in the wake of the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, showing the latter’s popularity among Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank has skyrocketed. A full 79% of respondents believe Hamas won the conflict, which caused over 2,000 fatalities on the Palestinian side and more than 70 in Israel. In related news, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced a new plan to achieve a Palestinian state, complete with a full IDF pullout, within three years. Failing that, Abbas threatened unilateral moves, such as bringing Israel to the International Criminal Court, and ending security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank.

Last Friday, the Obama administration enacted new sanctions against Iran amidst concerns that Iran’s military is resisting international attempts to gain further access to the country’s nuclear program, the New York Times reports. The Times also notes in reaction to these measures and attacks from hardliners inside Iran, President Hassan Rouhani has toughened talk against the United States. Rouhani's rhetoric suggested that the U.S. may be responsible for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, even as the two governments attempt to battle it back. Speaking of the new sanctions, the Washington Post quotes Rouhani as saying, “Sanctions are an invasion of the Iranian nation.” Still, Rouhani suggested that the sanctions “don’t damage the talks,” instead insisting that they merely “damage trust.”

The Washington Post reports that President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi of Yemen has dismissed the country’s cabinet and altered earlier promises on fuel subsidies made in an effort to reach an agreement with Shiite rebels holding protests across the country.

In Nigeria, the BBC divulges that Boko Haram recently seized the northeastern town of Bama, the second biggest town in Borno state.

Farther east, the New York Times reports that the U.S. military recently launched exercises against Al-Shabaab, a leading Islamist militant group operating in Somalia. For those looking to brush up on the history of the group and its aims, the Council on Foreign Relations provides a thorough summary. Bobby has a post on drone strikes in Somalia here.

In response to growing instability in North and West Africa at the hands of Islamist militants, the Washington Post announced yesterday that the Pentagon concluded deals with the government of Niger to open a second drone base in the city of Agadez. The installation is the United States' second in Niger and third in the region.

Speaking of Islamist insurgencies, the New York Times writes that Islamist militias seized control of the Libyan capital Monday.

Pivoting to South Asia: Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution provides a rundown of the first 100 days of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy.

The Washington Post writes that in Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif clings to power, with protesters ramping up their assaults on government buildings. The three-week-long protests have led to increasing fears that the government of the nuclear-armed power could collapse. However, after the protests spread from Islamabad to other Pakistani cities, Pakistan’s parliament offered support to Sharif. Opposition leader Imran Khan has also signaled that he may be willing to meet with a conservative politician who has offered to mediate between Khan and the Sharif government. Reuters has more on the ongoing crisis.

China: the New York Times reports that democracy backers in Hong Kong are pondering how to carry out their threat of widespread protests in the wake of Beijing’s decision to restrict the list of candidates that can run for office in the territory. Beijing made the announcement on Sunday that Hong Kong would have to follow its directives for any possible election or keep the current system in place where the city’s executive is not popularly elected. In related news, a pro-democracy leader and prominent hedge fund manager claimed today that a leading business newspaper, the Hong Kong Economic Journal, canceled his weekly column at the behest of the central government in Beijing. If true, this would be just the latest episode in the continuing fight over media freedoms in the semi-autonomous city.

In the New York Times, Charlie Savage provides an in-depth look into the remaining inmates imprisoned in Guantanamo, and speculates on the future of the facility there.

Finally, the Wall Street Journal reports on today's argument before the Second Circuit, regarding the NSA’s bulk collection of telephony metadata. The ACLU filed the lawsuit against the agency in June of last year, just days after news reports revealed the program using the leaks by Edward Snowden.

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