Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Benjamin Bissell
Thursday, October 2, 2014, 3:53 PM

Protests in Hong Kong continue to dominate headlines as the battle between security forces and students spirals into another day. According to the Washington Post, a high-stakes confrontation between protesters and the local government/Beijing could reach a head today and tomorrow. Protesters have vowed to occupy more government buildings, while Chinese authorities ominously threatened “unimaginable” consequences unless demonstrators go home.

Demonstrators face a tough decision: continue pressing their demands or scale down the protests. While there were some reports that pro-democracy lawmakers were meeting with local government officials, the atmosphere in the semi-autonomous territory remains tense. The BBC provides a profile of one of the leaders of the student protests, 17-year-old Joshua Wong.

The dispute is exacerbating tensions between the PRC and the US, with top officials from both countries publicly airing differences of opinion over the protests and their legality. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met yesterday with US Secretary of State John Kerry, where he said that, “the Chinese government has very firmly and clearly stated its position. Hong Kong affairs are China’s internal affairs.” A similar point was made by Chinese Embassy spokesman Geng Shuang, who responded to a letter sent by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez that expressed concern about Hong Kong’s “democratic unrest.” Shuang told “some countries” to “refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Hong Kong in any way,” to “not support the illegal activities such as ‘Occupy Central,’” and to “not send any wrong signals.” Foreign Policy has more.

The New York Times reports that Mainland Chinese tourists to Hong Kong have gotten a glimpse of democratic insurrection, with some saying confidentially that the movement is an “inspiration.”

Now to Iraq: In an interview with CNN, General John Allen, Obama’s emissary to the coalition against ISIS, said that he envisions an end game with a “territorially intact and sovereign Iraq, governed by the government in Baghdad, that governs all Iraqis, not just one sect, not just one confession.  And in Syria, we’re seeking to create the capacity within the Syrian – the Free Syrian elements and the Syrian opposition so that, first of all, they can defend themselves from the Assad regime and from the other al Qaeda-oriented organizations in the battlespace. So they can defend themselves, they can build out their capabilities, they can become politically unified, and ultimately become that voice that is so important to the political outcome – a political outcome that is one that is a political outcome for the Syrian people, an outcome that does not envisage the presence of Assad.”

You can read the full interview here.

Yesterday, in the continuing effort to “degrade” and “destroy” ISIS, the United States conducted three more airstrikes in Syria, and the U.S. and one other allied state executed five airstrikes in Iraq. Even so, Foreign Policy notes that in Syria, some moderate rebels just wish the U.S. would take its planes and go home if it is not prepared to support on-the-ground brigades more directly.

Part of this brewing resentment is also due to a growing sense that civilian casualties from the strikes are inevitable, as ISIS burrows into Syria’s cities. And while Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby ensured reporters that the U.S. takes “extreme caution and care in the conduct of these missions,” the Associated Press reports that the standard of “near-certainty” that no civilians will be harmed in an attack does not apply to U.S. airstrikes against ISIS and Khorasan. White House spokesman Caitlin Hayden said that the near-certainty standard was only intended to apply “when we take direct action outside areas of active hostilities.”

Are we seeing the beginning of a shift by ISIS back towards Al-Qaeda in Iraq-style tactics? Asharq Al Awsat reports that security in Iraq has deteriorated greatly in the last few days, with a surge in car bombs and mortar attacks rocking Baghdad and other central and southwestern cities. Iraqi military officials have suggested that the increase in attacks on civilians was a result of ISIS’s inability to respond directly to U.S. and allied airstrikes.

The report also notes that Iraq’s Interior Minister has suggested that the U.S. should focus more of its targeting on close air support near the front lines of areas witnessing fighting, instead of targeting military camps and depots.

Across the porous border in Syria, ISIS has taken yet another village in the vicinity of the Kurdish city of Kobani, near Turkey. The New York Times reports that this latest victory puts ISIS within two miles of Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab.

At the same time, twin car bombs killed at least 45 people, including 41 children, in Homs. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 2,375 people died in the conflict in September alone.

Today, Turkey voted to join the coalition against the Islamic State. However, while urging lawmakers to authorize intervention, Turkey’s president on Wednesday criticized U.S. airstrikes as a “temporary” solution, writes the Washington Post. Al Monitor has the scoop on why a tomb on the Syrian-Turkish border may have pushed Turkey to intervene in a conflict that it has long tried to stay out of.

The United States has approved the sale of enhanced Patriot air defense system missiles to Saudi Arabia. Defense News has more on the sale, which is another step towards fulfilling a long-held priority of developing an integrated anti-missile defense network in the Gulf.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon has put about half of the 2,300 person quick-reaction U.S. Marines force in Kuwait. The force is intended to be in place to respond to developing security or humanitarian crisises anywhere in the Middle East.

The Washington Post has 9 different visuals illustrating the crazy complexity of the Middle East.

Finally, former House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) wants Congress to vote on an ISIS authorization when lawmakers return to Washington after the midterm elections.

On Tuesday, doctors in Dallas, Texas diagnosed Liberian national Thomas Duncan with Ebola, the first diagnosis on US soil. As of Thursday, Duncan remains in isolation at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital and local and federal disease experts are casting a wide net in order to try to contain the deadly disease before it spreads further. In addition to ordering a few family members to remain at home and not have any guests while they are checked for symptoms, officials are reportedly interviewing about 100 people who may have had some exposure to Duncan. This is up from the 15-18 reported earlier. Among those original 15-18 were five school-aged children, a fact which has caused many parents in area schools to pull their kids out of class. The Washington Post and BBC have updates.

In the Telegraph, Anthony Banbury, the chief of the UN’s Ebola mission, says that if the international community does not contain the virus in West Africa, the current outbreak’s origin region, a nightmare scenario could occur: an Ebola strain mutates to become infectious through the air. Ebola is a RNA virus, a class which has notoriously high mutation rates. While the chances of the strain becoming transmissible through the air are admittedly low, the more people the virus infects and incubates in, the greater the probability such a change could occur. The UN and certain Western countries, such as the US and the UK, have already begun airlifting support and staff to the affected regions.

One common question asked amid the Ebola crisis is the following: “why has the US not stopped all flights between it and West African countries?” Abby Phillip at the Washington Post explains officials’ reasoning.

Reuters reports that the new NATO leader, former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, seems to have offered an olive branch to Russia, saying he saw “no contradiction between a strong alliance and building a constructive relationship with Russia.” Still, he said Russia “needed to demonstrate a clear change in its actions and to comply with international law” amid instability in Eastern Europe.

Speaking of Eastern Europe, is there even a truce in Ukraine? Andrew Roth at the New York Times thinks the question is worth asking, considering the continuing bloodshed there. On Wednesday morning, rockets slammed into an elementary school and a city bus, killing at least 10 people, while fighting continues unabated in and around the city’s airport. According to the Guardian, more than 3,500 people have died in the conflict so far.

Also, analysts are detecting a shift in Polish policy towards its eastern neighbors. The country’s new prime minister, Ewa Kopacz, signalled that her administraiton would take a more hands-off approach to the Ukrainian conflict, and prioritize Poland’s own defense. Ms. Kopacz reportedly said she wanted to prevent “an isolation of Poland” that could be precipitated by it setting “unrealistic goals” vis-a-vis Ukraine. According to the Wall Street Journal, the previous administration in Poland “urged stronger Western sanctions against Russia than many allies were ready to accept.”

In response to the recent publication of a tender for 2,610 homes for Jews and Arabs in the Givat Hamatos neighborhood of disputed East Jerusalem, Israel received strong criticism from rivals and allies alike. Using “uncharacteristically harsh language,” Washington condemned the tender and said the move would distance the country from “even its closest allies.” The tender, and the subsequent blowback, came just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finished a two-hour meeting with US President Obama in Washington. In response to the White House criticism, delivered by State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, Netanyahu offered the following at a press briefing at the Palace Hotel in New York: “I don’t understand that criticism and I can’t accept that position…It is better to know the material before deciding to take such a stance.” The Times of Israel has more on the evolving controversy here, here, and here.

In Afghanistan, the United States handed over Forward Operating Base Lightning, in the southeastern part of the country, to the Afghan military. Speaking at the handover ceremony, Afghan Major General Mohammed Sharif Yaftali, said, "our hope was to keep you alongside us, but we can't keep you forever; you also have families, loved ones, waiting for you." The Wall Street Journal has more.

Reuters reports that in light of recent attacks on naval warships in Pakistan, lines are blurring between the military and militants.

VICE News has an interview with the new Gitmo commander, Rear Admiral Kyle Cozad.

Newly-released documents appear to show that the FBI was in contact with Anwar al Awlaki in the years following the 9/11 attacks. The files purport that the radical cleric was “emailing and leaving voice messages with an FBI agent in 2003.” Fox News has more.

In a speech before a business group in Ottawa, Canada, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said that he is more concerned about “homegrown terrorists” than emerging terrorist threats, like ISIS. The Washington Post quotes him as saying the following: “in many respects this is the hardest terrorist threat to detect, and the one I worry most about.”

Somali-American Mohamed Mohamud was sentenced on Wednesday to 30 years in prison for “plotting to bomb a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony” in the town square of Portland in 2010. This is less than the 40-year sentence prosecutors had sought. The New York Times has more on the FBI sting operation that busted him.

The Associated Press reports that Irfan Khan, the naturalized US citizen from Pakistan that was accused of conspiring to provide funding to the Pakistani Taliban, is suing the US government. Federal prosecutors dropped all charges against Khan in 2012 due to lack of evidence, but not before Khan spent 319 days in solitary confinement.

The Wall Street Journal writes that on Wednesday, UK police released Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, from custody due to lack of evidence. Begg is a high-profile activist in the country, where he organizes on behalf of British Muslims against what he characterizes as “unjust police surveillance” of the community.

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