Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Benjamin Bissell
Thursday, September 4, 2014, 3:58 PM

As ambassadors from NATO member countries gather in Europe to discuss crises in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, more details about a possible ceasefire in Eastern Europe are emerging. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin laid out a seven-point plan to stop the fighting between Ukraine, pro-Kremlin separatists, and their Russian patrons. Putin apparently wrote the list while flying across Siberia to a state visit in Mongolia, and drew its details from an involved telephone call with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The New York Times has a read out of Putin's proposal. Critically, Putin did not specify a mechanism to make sure all of the listed demands are carried out, nor is he yet willing to admit to Russia’s part in the instability. A piece at CBC News tells us that on his Twitter account, Poroshenko wrote that a ceasefire could be signed on Friday in Minsk.

Still, danger lurks. According to the Hill, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov warned on Thursday that any Ukrainian attempts to seek to NATO membership could derail the peace talks. The comments come a day after Putin’s plan was revealed, and shortly after President Obama made a strong speech in Estonia promising resolve in the face of further Russian advances into eastern Europe. The Atlantic characterized the speech as especially “forceful.” Air Force News quotes Obama as calling the conflict in Ukraine a “moment of testing” for the Western World. To all this, add a Hill story revealing that approximately 200 U.S. troops are set to head to Ukraine in mid-September for “peacekeeping exercises.” For his part, Putin has made a number of strong, and arguably bizarre, speeches in recent days. The Times has a list of notables.

Per the Associated Press, French President Francois Hollande announced yesterday that his country is suspending the delivery of a Mistral-class amphibious assault ship, the Vladivostok, to Russia. The vessel was originally slated for shipping for next month. The Vladivostok is the first of two ships; the second is named (ironically enough) the Sevastopol, after an important port city in Russia-annexed Crimea. France could lose over 1.1 billion euros on the deal if it is ultimately canceled. The Times reports that the ships are capable of holding up to 30 helicopters, 60 armored vehicles, 13 tanks, and 700 soldiers.

Speaking of warships, the Navy Times divulges that the destroyer USS Ross began heading into the Black Sea, allegedly to promote “peace and stability” in the region. 3 other NATO warships are set to sail into the Black Sea before September 7th, according to RT.  The latter also analyzes recent overtures by Russia to its Caucasian client states amidst efforts by the Kremlin to create a new military alliance in the former Soviet Union to counter NATO’s reach.

What if the sanctions on Russia do not arrest Putin’s advance across Europe? Jamila Trindle at Foreign Policy speculates that the sanctions may hurt the bottom line for average Russians---but not be enough to dissuade Putin. Relatedly, the Moscow Times has a poll today that shows that more than 70% of Russians would support banning foreign booze or cigarettes from Western countries in retaliation for sanctions; 77% would support blacklisting foreign hotels. However, only 43% would support banning the import of foreign cars. Importantly, the poll was conducted in mid-August, right after the latest round of sanctions against the country by the U.S. and the EU.

Vladimir Soloviev at Foreign Policy contemplates the fate of Putin’s next possible victim, Moldova, and the very low probability Europe would do anything significant to protect it.

Also on the agenda at the NATO Summit: developing a response to ISIS. Today, British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Barack Obama published an op-ed in the Times of London, saying that the two powers will not “waiver in our determination to confront ISIL.” The pair conclude that the United States and Britain “will not be cowed by barbaric killers.” Rounding out the rhetoric against ISIS, Vice President Joe Biden declared yesterday that the United States would follow ISIS “to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that Iraqi politicians are beginning to unite in urging U.S. forces to return to the war-torn country. The Journal notes that even once anti-American politicians are calling for U.S. forces to bring “an end to terrorism in Iraq.” At the same time, President Obama announced that he has approved the deployment of 350 additional U.S. troops to provide security at diplomatic facilities in Iraq. Defense One notes that this puts the number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq well north of 1,100. In fact, the figure is now four times higher than when President Obama stated in June that “American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.”

What are all those troops doing? A few days ago, we provided a report from the Daily Beast that suggested U.S. and potentially German forces were embedded in combat battalions with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. The Pentagon denied this, stating that “there are no U.S. troops on the ground in or around Zumar.” However, writing in The Week, Marc Ambinder explains all the reasons why U.S. forces probably are already on the ground fighting ISIS, despite what the Pentagon keeps saying.

Al Jazeera reports that Iraqi forces have launched a massive ground and air offensive around northern Iraqi cities, including Tikrit. Initial reports suggested that significant numbers of ISIS militants were withdrawing. It is unknown whether the air strikes were carried out by the United States; we do know that U.S. aircraft dropped leaflets warning residents of the impending strikes.

Reuters reports that Islamic State militants have kidnapped 40 men from Kirkuk, a northern province in Iraq. It remains unclear why the men were taken.

According to the Associated Press, Human Rights Watch has determined that in a horrific, mass killing in June, ISIS militants killed 770 Iraqi troops---several times more than was previously thought. The incident occurred after militants overran Camp Speicher, an Iraqi airbase near Tirkrit. The New York Times has one survivor's harrowing story. 

The BBC tells us that the British government is funding international investigators to compile evidence against Islamic State fighters who have carried out atrocities in Iraq and Syria. Apparently, documents show a “command responsibility” for the Islamic State's massacres, beheadings, kidnappings, torture, executions, and crucifixions. The report also includes an outline of the Islamic State’s command structure.

The propaganda war with ISIS looks more and more like a game of wack-a-mole, with pro-Islamic State accounts being created faster than Twitter can take them down. NBC News reports that at least 28,000 Twitter accounts supporting the Islamic State have been created since the beheading of American James Foley.

The Iraqi Defense Ministry has provided photographs that allegedly show a captured Chinese man fighting for ISIS. If true, this would be the first Chinese citizen fighting with ISIS; the group has drawn members from around the world. The New York Times has more.

Apropos of foreign jihadists in Iraq and Syria, the Associated Press covers the global drive to stop would-be militants from traveling to the two countries. The efforts include new laws that make it easier to seize passports, block finances, and close radical mosques. Private firms are also working to clean extremist content from websites, social media, and other internet forums that could serve as propaganda and recruitment channels. The Wall Street Journal details how Turkey is struggling to close the “jihadist highway,” a route that has previously allowed militants to slip across the border into Syria. However, Turkey’s ability to crack down on the militant flow is hampered by the Islamic State’s kidnapping of 49 Turkish diplomats and their families in June.

Even so, yesterday, U.S. National Counterterrorism Center Director Matt Olsen told an audience at the Brookings Institution that “ISIL is not al Qaeda pre-9/11.” He continued, saying that there is “no indication at this point of a cell of foreign fighters operating in the United States.” Lawfare covered the speech yesterday, and Shane Harris has an excellent article on Mr. Olsen’s remarks today in Foreign Policy.

Remember the North Carolina man who was arrested by U.S. officials at JFK airport in New York City a few weeks ago on a weapons charge? NBC News has a profile on him. It explains how a Catholic-born, military school student, and former law enforcement officer ended up on a path to jihad.

Team America, Assad and the Ayatollah? That seems to be what what Senator Rand Paul believes to be necessary in order to stop ISIS. The Daily Beast has coverage of the Senator's remarks.

The ongoing operations in Iraq, potential for strikes in Syria, and the brutal murder of two Americans by ISIS have pushed Congress to more directly engage the question of American military involvement in the region. Wednesday, Senator Tim Kaine repeated calls for President Obama to consult legislators, saying the Administration should “come to Congress with clear objectives and scope of mission to combat the ISIL threat, and Congress should immediately debate an authorization to use military force.” Earlier in the week, Senator Bill Nelson said that he would introduce a bill to allow the president to strike ISIS in Syria when Congress returns from recess next week.

On the other side of the aisle, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said that Congress should give the president “authority to go after ISIS where they find them.” Rogers suggested that no effort to defeat ISIS would be successful without operations inside Syria, saying “that’s where their headquarters is.” Echoing the words of his colleague, Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) announced that he will introduce legislation next week to authorize the use of military force against international terrorist groups such as ISIS, al Qaeda and affiliates, al Nusra, Ansar al Sharia, al Shabaab, and Boko Haram. Wolf’s announcement is here, and the full text of the proposed authorization here. At Just Security, Jennifer Daskal argues that the proposal shows exactly how not to authorize armed conflict.

Roll Call explains how the House and Senate are both laying the groundwork for war on ISIS, while Defense News notes that the short session before Congress leaves for midterm election campaigning could postpone any authorization of force. However, Senator John McCain told reporters yesterday that Congress should not leave before authorizing force, saying “We should stay in session until we work this issue out.”

The New York Times reports that the Taliban have attacked an intelligence base in the southeastern city of Ghazni. 14 people were killed in the offensive, including 12 Afghan security personnel. The attack on the provincial headquarters of the National Directorate of Security, the domestic intelligence entity of Afghanistan, was the second in less than a week. Elsewhere in the country, Reuters announces that Afghan security forces are currently hunting for Qari Bilal, a senior Islamist militant who was allowed to return to the country under a 2011 peace plan. But now he is leading hundreds of insurgents in Kunduz province. And struggles may be ahead for the Pakistani Taliban: according to Medium, the organization is currently losing foreign fighters to “sexier” conflicts in Syria and North Africa.

In its latest bid to quell rising inter-ethnic violence in Xinjiang, its restive province to the west, the Chinese government is pushing intermarriage between the Uighur minority group and the majority Han. According to the Times, the plan offers annual payments of approximately $1,600 for five years to couples. where one partner is a minority and one is Han, in addition to other benefits in healthcare, education, public sector jobs and housing.

The Guardian reports that South Korea is set to create an army unit with the U.S. in the event of a war with the North Korean regime. The mechanized unit will be led by a U.S. major general, and should be set up by early next year.

The Jerusalem Post announces that Israel’s fourth Dolphin-class submarine is currently on its way to Haifa from Germany after finishing final tests. The latest addition to Israel’s burgeoning naval forces is among the most capable and advanced of conventionally-powered submarines, and the largest built by Germany since World War II. The vessels reportedly can fire cruise missiles equipped with nuclear warheads from Israel’s Dimona nuclear plant. If true, the submarines would give Israel second-strike capability in the event of a war with Iran. A fifth submarine is slated to be delivered by the end of this year, with a sixth currently under construction.

The Times of Israel reports that a group of private companies has concluded a $15 billion deal to sell natural gas from Israel’s Leviathan reservoir to Jordan. The transaction, if approved by the governments of Israel and Jordan, would cement ties between the two countries as well as with Egypt, who would liquefy the gas. Foreign Policy has more on Israel’s rise as a “linchpin” in the region’s energy grid.

The New York Times reveals that Steven Sotloff, the journalist recently beheaded by ISIS militants, was Israeli-American. It analyzes why and how authorities withheld the man’s background until they could confirm his death. The Times also reports that the reconstruction in Gaza may end up costing $7.8 billion.

Foreign Policy reports a story we’ve been following for a few days now: there is growing unrest in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government.

The New York Times brings us troubling news that al Qaeda has announced a new branch on the Indian subcontinent.  Appearing on an hour-long video, Ayman al-Zawahri, the group’s leader, tells would-be sympathizers in Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad, and Kashmir that al Qaeda “did not forget you and that [it is] doing what [it] can to rescue you.” The new group represents the fifth official branch of the militant network. Some experts have suggested the video is meant to present a counter-narrative to ISIS, calling on Muslims to unite against the West instead of killing each other. The Indian Express and Vice News have more.

Foreign Policy has information on the Indian government’s response to the video, while the Washington Post explores why al-Qaeda is opening a new wing in South Asia.

In War on the Rocks, Myra MacDonald reports on the soft coup in Pakistan that has stalled, signaling what might be a watershed moment for Pakistan’s fragile democracy. In the Long War Journal, Bill Roggio examines the Pakistani military’s claim that their most recent operation in the tribal regions of North Waziristan has killed 910 terrorists. Also in War on the Rocks, Michael Kugelman asks, is Omar Khalid Khorasani as “Bad as Baghdadi?”

The BBC reports that Islamist militant group Boko Haram has reportedly taken the town of Banki in Nigeria’s northeastern state of Borno. The rebels are quickly advancing towards the state’s capital, Maiduguri. One prominent think tank, the Nigeria Security Network, warns that if the city falls, it would represent a “symbolic and strategic victory unparalleled so far in the conflict.”

Across the continent, Businessweek writes that the Somali government is currently working to identify Al-Shabaab militants killed in recent U.S. airstrikes. No word yet on whether the airstrikes ended the life of Ahmed Abdi Godane, leader of the Islamist group.

In Washington, the Hill reports that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper support a leading Senate proposal to reform certain NSA surveillance practices. Politico has a PDF of the letter sent by them to Senator Patrick Leahy, the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Suspected Al-Qaeda operative Anas al-Liby decided to stick with his defense lawyer, despite a potential conflict of interest due to the fact that the Libyan government is paying his fees. Reuters has more.

And finally, the New York Post reports that police officers today arrested a man alleged to have flown a drone outside of a U.S. Open, during a quarter-final match featuring Serena Williams and Flavia Panetta. Charges against the man, Daniel Feighery, 34, are still pending.

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