Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Benjamin Bissell
Thursday, September 18, 2014, 2:30 PM

It’s decision day in Scotland. Over 4 million eligible voters have the chance today to vote on breaking the 307-year union with the United Kingdom and going it alone as an independent country. The latest polls seem to have given the “no” camp a narrow lead, but it’s anybody’s guess now. The BBC has pictures of Scotland residents going to the polls, and the New York Times reports on the conflicting feelings of pride and pragmatism inherent to many voters’ calculations. The Guardian has a live feed of the vote as it evolves throughout the day and a map of referendum declaration times by constituency.

ISIS released a new video today that is startlingly different from others. In this clip, a captive British journalist, John Cantlie, stares calmly into the camera and explains the group’s message while simultaneously castigating Western countries for heading into an unwinnable war. The Times has more.

The Times also writes that in Australia, police have thwarted beheading attempts by ISIS supporters in Sydney. Officers raided more than a dozen properties and have taken six people into custody, in addition to identifying a suspected ringleader. The planned target(s) of the beheading plot remain unclear, but could have simply been random people.

In Washington, the House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to authorize aid to Syrian rebels locked in a fight against ISIS. According to the Times, the 273-to-156 vote authorized the training and arming of 5000 “moderate” Syrian rebels in its first year at sites in Saudi Arabia. The vote was a rare bipartisan initiative that came in the wake of a personal appeals by President Obama for its passage. Still, the Washington Post writes that the proposal found detractors on both sides of the aisle: Democrats, more than 40% of whom opposed the proposal, worried it would lead to new military campaigns in the region without a clear strategy, while Republicans fretted that the proposal was too limited. The Senate is expected to vote on it today, where Foreign Policy reports it may find a skeptical audience.

That skepticism appears reflected in the general public; according to a new New York Times/CBS poll released today, for the first time since he was elected president, more Americans disapprove of President Obama’s management of terrorism than approve of it. While 71% and 69% favor airstrikes against ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria, respectively, only 39% approve of how President Obama is handling the situation there, while 48% disapprove.

In an effort to stave off conflicting stories and simplify the message, the White House published a press release of 5 things to know about the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, in addition to linking to the speech President Obama gave on the subject yesterday in Tampa, Florida.

In an article at Politico, Philip Ewing writes that ever since the rise of ISIS, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has had to renounce his earlier caution towards intervening in Syria in favor of selling a new war on Capitol Hill. Needless to say, his term at the DOD “has not turned out the way most people expected.”

In the latest instance of the White House and the Pentagon talking past each other over the necessity of ground forces in the battle against ISIS, Gen. Ray Odierno warned Wednesday that victory over ISIS would only succeed “with the use of ground forces.” According to the Times, his comments came a day after Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “American ground troops might be needed in Iraq.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that the President Obama plans to exert a high degree of control over airstrikes against ISIS militants in Syria, and may go so far as “to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory.” The requirements for the campaign in Syria are far more restrictive than those for the one in Iraq, and are meant to reduce the possibility that the US is drawn deeper into the Syrian civil war.

Muslim groups across the UK are calling for the release of British hostage Alan Henning. According to Reuters, more than 100 Muslim leaders signed the letter, which was sent to the Independent newspaper. The Times writes that the UK is having to second-guess its participation in an attack on ISIS abroad because of the impacts such a campaign might have on extremist Muslims at home. Up to 500 Britons have joined militant Islamist groups in Syria so far.

In Iraq, a series of bombings have killed at least 15 around Baghdad. According to the Times, no group has claimed responsibility, but the attacks come as ISIS seeks to increase its territorial holdings around the capital.

The same newspaper also writes that ISIS seized 21 villages in northern Syria and encircled a Kurdish city, prompting a commander to request help from other Kurdish forces in the area. The Guardian has more on the advance of ISIS from its strongholds in Raqqa and Deir al-Zour provinces towards Kobani. Additionally, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Thursday that a surveillance drone was observed for the first time over ISIS-controlled territory near Aleppo. The operator of the drone remains unclear.

The Times has news that the Syrian army under Bashar al-Assad is stepping up air attacks and assassinations against ISIS and other anti-government rebels. Reuters reports that the Syrian army is spread thin, but is still powerful and successfully repelling rebels and Islamist militants in some areas. Still, the situation remains tense; just this week, insurgents pushed into an area of Damascus that had been free of attacks for over a year and half.

In Politico, commentators ask: “is this a new war on terror?” Opinions vary, but Lawfare contributor John Bellinger suggests that, “as a matter of international law, both administrations have treated the U.S. confrontation with al-Qaeda and associated groups as an “armed conflict,” and the Obama administration is very likely to do the same with ISIL.”

At the National Security Network, Bill French and J. Dana Stuster released a policy brief entitled, “Navigating an AUMF for the Islamic State: Toward a High-Standard Authorization.” They offer the following advice for constructing a new AUMF: “First, Congress should ensure that the Administration meets it burden of justifying an escalation of conflict and demonstrates the soundness of its developing, but incomplete, strategy...Second, if the Administration can meet its burden, any AUMF against the Islamic State should be constructed to take into account American interests relevant to the appropriate scope of the conflict."

According to the Guardian, local clerics in Saudi Arabia have declared ISIS terrorism a “heinous crime” under sharia law. The fatwa by the country’s senior clerical leadership comes amid a continuing crackdown by state authorities against extremist groups.

Turkey is reportedly mulling an anti-ISIS buffer zone along its border with Syria and Iraq. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who announced the news, gave no further indication as to when or how the zone would be constructed. The BBC has more. In a report entitled, “Turks and Arabs,” Tarek Osman of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs examines the Turkish-Arab relationship vis-a-vis the viability of the anti-ISIS coalition the US is seeking to construct. Over at Reuters, Andrew Finkel claims that Turkey won’t, and maybe can’t, help against ISIS.

More tragic news out of insurgent-held northern Syria: as many as 50 children are reportedly dead after a medical mix-up or sabotage tainted a measles vaccine. The Times has more.

The Iran nuclear negotiations resume in New York this week, although analysts are not expecting any breakthroughs. On the eve of the talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Sharif claimed that the US was “obsessed” with sanctions on Iran.

The Post reports that Shiite rebels have reached Shamlan, a suburb of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. The rebels are currently besieging Iman University, an institution run by Sunni radicals in the area.

In Afghanistan, militants murdered the 7th journalist this year. Palwasha Tokhi, a reporter at Bayan Radio, received a knock on her door from someone claiming to have a wedding invitation for her. Once she stepped outside, she was stabbed fatally. 2014 is by far the deadliest year on record for journalists since the Taliban were ousted from the country. The Times has more.

Somini Sengupta, also at the Times, argues that while airstrikes in Iraq may be an easy sell internationally, similar actions in Syria are bound to invite controversy and rancor. Russia has already promised that if the UN Security Council does not sign off on airstrikes within Syria, actions taken there would be illegal under international law.

Speaking of Russia, prominent Russian writer Mikhail Shishkin writes in the Guardian that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a “black hole” for Europe and is leading towards a “pre-war” state. For his part, Putin today alleged that Western sanctions against Russia run contrary to the principles of the World Trade Organization, and that Russia would develop its domestic market in response. Reuters has more.

President Obama is meeting with Ukrainian President Poroshenko today in Washington. In a rare address before a joint session of Congress, President Poroshenko said that the Ukrainians were fighting a “war for the free world” against Russian aggression. He urged the US government to provide both non-lethal and lethal arms, but BBC reports the administration is unlikely to approve the latter. There are preliminary reports that President Obama will announce a $46 million security assistance package for Ukraine, but will “stop short of providing lethal aid.” Steven Pifer and Strobe Talbott of the Brookings Institution argue why President Obama should give Ukraine defensive weapons.

In response to Ebola’s continuing spread across West Africa, United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon announced on Wednesday that the UN would establish a new mission in the region to coordinate groups against the deadly virus. The Times has details. Fox News reports that a French staff working in the region with Doctors Without Borders contracted the disease today, and will reportedly be evacuated to France.

The Times of Israel reports that the future of the UNDOF force is in doubt as Syria continues to disintegrate. In the words of one ex-liasion officer: “their mandate is just not relevant anymore.” Late Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman assured US Secretary of State John Kerry that Israel will support US efforts against ISIS, but will also be conscious of sensitivities among coalition members regarding its participation.

A top US cybersecurity official is in Tel Aviv to speak at the Fourth Annual International Cybersecurity Conference at Tel Aviv University. Christopher Painter, Coordinator for Cyber Issues, is attending the four-day conference focusing on evolving cyber technologies. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the keynote address.

According to the Times of Israel, Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar declared today that Hamas will not break the ceasefire in Gaza after the September 26th deadline for talks, saying the “ceasefire continues and is not one month long.” He also criticized political leader Khaled Mashaal for relocating to Qatar instead of Lebanon. Indirect talks on a long-term truce are slated to begin within a week between Palestinians and Israel. Also on Thursday, Ynet reports that Saudi Arabia agreed to transfer $500 million for reconstruction in Gaza. Finally, the New York Times quotes jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti as saying that the Gaza war was a victory for Palestinians, and that the resistance’s focus should turn towards boycotts that make Israel’s occupation of the West Bank too costly.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to New Delhi appears to be bearing fruit. The two leaders announced a raft of trade deals in recent days, including Chinese promises to cooperate in developing India’s civilian nuclear energy sector and to invest $20 billion over the next five years into Indian infrastructure projects. That number, while substantial, is less than some analysts had been expecting. While bilateral trade is growing rapidly, hitting $70 billion last year, the two countries share mutual suspicion of each other, and have had a tense standoff near their disputed border in the Himalayas. Just last week, Indian officials asserted that hundreds of Chinese troops crossed the frontier between the two countries. In addition, Indian officials are also concerned about the country’s growing trade deficit with China. The Guardian has more.

In China, moderate Uyghur leader Ilham Tohti goes on trial on charges of separatism, where he could receive life in prison, or even the death penalty. The New YorkTimes has more details.

And in Pakistan, liberal professor Mohammad Shakil Auj, famous for his liberal views on religion, was shot dead in Karachi on his way to an Iranian cultural center.

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