Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Benjamin Bissell
Tuesday, October 21, 2014, 2:04 PM

According to Reuters, the United Kingdom has authorized “spy planes and armed drones to fly surveillance missions over Syria.” London’s statement that it would send Reaper drones and Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft to the embattled Middle Eastern country came soon after Turkey’s announcement on Monday that it would allow “Iraqi Kurdish fighters to reinforce fellow Kurds in the Syrian town of Kobani.” The Wall Street Journal and McClatchy report that the shift by Ankara came in response “to US pressure” and is “a striking reversal for a country that had considered those fighters its enemy.”

Still, all is not settled. The BBC reports that “fierce fighting” has erupted to the north of Kobani “after two days of relative calm,” driving speculation that ISIS is making a strong push to take the city before the arrival of peshmerga reinforcements. The New York Times has more on the rapidly-evolving situation, and the Washington Post provides several satellite photos of the struggle being waged in and around the city. The United States Central Command released a summary of recent military actions in the area, which include six airstrikes that destroyed ISIS fighting and mortar positions, an ISIS vehicle, and a stray resupply bundle, preventing it from falling into militant hands.

Liz Sly of the Washington Post reports on earlier failed tribal revolts against ISIS, including one that left 700 civilians dead. She argues that Western silence over ISIS’s brutal response may obstruct efforts to persuade those living under Islamic State rule “to join the fight against the jihadist group.”

And just for good measure, Syrian rebels claim Bashar al Assad’s forces are still using chemical weapons to kill civilians. FT has more.

According to the Hill, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said on Monday that “there is no evidence” that ISIS “has acquired warplanes or pilots capable of flying them.”

David Kenner of Foreign Policy analyzes the on-going struggles plaguing moderate Syrian rebel organizations, including a “lack of funds and a crippling distrust among the exiled anti-Assad forces.”

In Iraq, ISIS militants seized two Yazidi villages on Monday as they continued a recent advance towards Mount Sinjar. The resurgence by Islamist forces in the region “strike an embarrassing blow to the international campaign against the" group, especially since President Obama authorized targeted airstrikes in August to “address the plight of thousands of Yazidis” trapped in the area.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the militant group’s alarming rise in popularity among the 27% of the Lebanese population that is Sunni.

At the Huffington Post, Ronald Tiersky analyzes the importance of the Caliphate and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi to the militant group, and poses the question as to whether leadership targeting of ISIS would do critical damage to the group.

The New York Times reports that 40 people were killed in Iraq yesterday after militants set off a quadruple car bombing near two of Baghdad’s holiest shrines for Shiite Islam and a suicide attack inside a mosque. While no group has taken responsibility for the attack, suspicion immediately fell on the Islamic State, which has ramped up car bombs and suicide attacks in recent weeks.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pledged continued support to the Iraqi government yesterday, telling visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi that Iran has supported Baghdad “from the first day and will remain on that path until the last day.” The statement came during Abadi’s first foreign visit, in which he said that “choosing Iran as my first destination after taking office indicates the depths of ties.” The New York Times has more.

Finally, Mike Brunker of NBC News has published a map of Americans and U.S. residents who have allegedly sought to join Islamist groups in Iraq or Syria:

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Duncan Pickard of the Atlantic Council explains why Tunisia’s October 26th elections, and the governing coalition that results, is “an important first step in securing democracy” in the country.

Trying to get a handle on where the US is engaged worldwide? Security Assistance Monitor recently released a new interactive map that details all public information on “US security and defense assistance programs throughout the world, including arms sales, military and police aid, training programs, exercises, exchanges, and deployments.”

Libya’s “beleaguered” House of Representatives, the elected parliament currently exiled in the eastern city of Tobruk, has formally aligned itself with General Khalifa Haftar, Reuters reports. General Haftar is locked in a struggle with Islamists and other militias “fighting for territory and influence,” having just last week launched an offensive on the Islamists’ stronghold of Benghazi. The country remains in disarray a full three years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.

Reuters is also reporting that at least 33 people have died in a suicide bombing and gun attacks in central Yemen. Since Shiite Houthi rebels took over the capital, Sanaa, last month, Sunni militias and al Qaeda militants have counterattacked across the country. Preliminary reports from the region say al Qaeda fighters have seized al Odayn, “a city of 200,000” in the province of Ibb, capturing the local government and raising their black and white flag over public offices.

Ahead of the Iran nuclear talks’ November 24th deadline, Iran claims to be promoting “a new compromise proposal,” but Western negotiators say it offers “no viable concessions.” According to Reuters, “the Iranians say they are no longer demanding a total end to economic sanctions in return for curbing their nuclear program,” but instead just the “latest, most damaging, sanctions.” Western officials have “dismiss[ed]” this, saying “the Iranians have always known that the sanctions could only end gradually...after Iranian compliance had been proven.”

The Jerusalem Post writes that Israeli Defense Minister Moshe “Bogey” Ya’alon met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon today in New York. The two discussed the reconstruction of Gaza and Israeli security concerns over Hamas rearmament.

From the New York Times: Pakistan’s government on Monday “suspended the license of ARY News,” a media outlet that has been “sharply critical” of the country’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. The move was “widely criticized by rights groups and journalists, including Amnesty International. The suspension, which was effective immediately, runs for 15 days and accompanies a fine of approximately $97,000.

Sobering news out of Afghanistan: “despite $7.6 billion in US counternarcotics efforts since 2002,” Afghanistan’s opium production is skyrocketing. According to the UN, the current net land area used for poppy cultivation in 2013 reached more than 500,000 acres, a 36% jump from the previous year and an all-time record. Stars and Stripes writes that most of the cultivation comes from the perennially-restive Helmand and Kandahar provinces, which, as loyal Lawfare reader Daniel Rubin once said, are to poppy what Quebec is to maple syrup.

The New York Times reveals that amid a campaign against separatist insurgents in the rebel-held city of Donetsk, the Ukrainian Army “appears to have fired cluster munitions,” which is a weapon “banned in much of the world.” Donetsk has a peacetime population of “more than one million.”

Swedish armed forces are on the hunt for a suspected Russian submarine, the Guardian reports. Sweden “widened” its search today, with “helicopters, naval vessels and some 200 military personnel” all combing the country’s waterways for what defense officials believe to be a “midget sub of the kind used by Russia’s Spetsnaz (special forces),” such as a Triton or Piranha. The vessel reportedly broke the surface 30 miles east of Stockholm and has been sighted three times since Friday. In the ensuing search, the government has ordered all civilian shipping to evacuate the area and “non-essential air traffic” in the search zone has similarly been banned. Foreign Policy analyzes what the “Hunt for Black October” means for security in the Baltic.

The first round of talks between Hong Kong officials and student-led protesters ended today without any breakthrough. Still, the government’s chief negotiator said “she hoped for further meetings with the protest leaders.” The BBC’s Juliana Liu says that “although demonstrators know the chances of getting what they want are almost zero, they are staying on the streets to show authorities that the struggle for democratic reform is a long-term fight.” The talks came a day after the semi-autonomous city’s Chief Executive, CY Leung, repeated his refusal of the protesters’ demands and warned they would lead to “populist policies:” “if it’s entirely a numbers game...then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month...then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies.”

The New York Times reports that amid the mixed economic signals emanating from China, “it is hard to be certain just exactly how the country’s economy...is faring.” As the report notes, while the overall economy continues to grow steadily (increasing by 7.3% in the third quarter, down from 7.5% in the previous one), inflation is approaching a five-year-low, commodity prices are “plunging,” new home sales are decreasing and “foreign investment is contracting.”

Despite the current uncertainty, China still boasts increasing economic heft. At the Huffington Post, Shashi Tharoor, former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, analyzes what kind of economic implications China’s “silk road revival” plan could precipitate across Asia and the world.

A top North Korean diplomat has warned the UN that if any effort is made to charge the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, with “crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court,” North Korea would take “unspecified ‘countermeasures.’” The New York Times has more.

Joko Widodo, the new president of Indonesia, is set to make a blitz of appearances at international summits in the next few weeks, including attending meetings for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the East Asia Summit, and the G-20. The New York Times has more on the new leader’s ambitious itinerary and why many in Indonesia believe he will raise the country’s global stature.

The Stars and Stripes writes that the US and Japan have struck a new bilateral agreement that allows Japanese officials access to US military bases in the event of environmental accidents, such as oil spills. The supplement to the Status of Forces Agreement, which included other provisions as well, is “part of the ongoing realignment of US forces in the Asia-Pacific region.”

The World Health Organization affirmed on Monday that Nigeria has contained its Ebola outbreak, the New York Times reports. However, in Sierra Leone, the Huffington Post writes that cases of the virus have skyrocketed in western areas of the country, where the capital is located. According to an elected official representing a western area, “more than 20 deaths are being reported daily.”

The Stars and Stripes reports that more US troops are arriving to Ebola hotspots in Western Africa to help contain the outbreak. More than 500 service members are currently in Liberia, while another 115 are in Dakar, Senegal. By Wednesday, 80 more troops are expected to arrive and thousands more “are scheduled to deploy to [Liberia] in the coming weeks.” None of these personnel will be “assigned to patient treatment.”

In another bit of good news, the WHO also announced on Tuesday that the first trials of Ebola vaccines “should be held in West Africa by January.” Still, a top WHO official cautioned against “anticipating a mass vaccination campaign” by that time frame. The Wall Street Journal has more.

Despite a ceasefire agreement, at least 30 people have been killed in Nigeria in ongoing clashes between government forces and Boko Haram militants. 25 “suspected Boko Haram insurgents” were killed in skirmishes with soldiers in northeast Nigeria; five civilians also died in fighting elsewhere. Reuters has more.

Yesterday, two Canadian soldiers were struck and one killed, in what police are calling a “deliberate” hit-and-run. The driver, Martin Rouleau, was fatally shot after hitting the soldiers. According to police, Rouleau was one of 90 people being monitored as part of 63 current national security investigations into radicalized Canadians. Today, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police issued a statement saying “this individual was known to Federal authorities, including our Integrated National Security Investigations team in Montreal, who, along with other authorities, were concerned that he had become radicalized.”

Reuters reports that US law enforcement officials on Monday ruled out Russia as the sponsor of the recent cyber attack on JP Morgan.

The US Justice Department is shifting the focus of its national security prosecution team to deal with cyber instead of spies. Assistant Attorney General John Carlin has led the reform, which is a reflection of the fact that “national security threats have broadened and become more technologically savvy since the 9/11 attacks against the United States.” Structurally, the Justice Department has embodied the shift by creating a “new position in the senior ranks of its national security division to focus on cyber security” and recruiting Luke Dembosky, “an experienced prosecutor,” to fill it.

Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald reports that a US national security panel has approved Muhammed Zahrani for release from Guantanamo. Advocates for the detainee argued he “was less of a risk than the five Taliban captives sent to Qatar in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in May.” The New York Times has more.

Yesterday, the New York Times Editorial Board urged President Obama to close the “overseas torture loophole” that allows US officials to torture suspects outside American borders.

The Washington Post reports that Ahmed Abu Khattala, “the man charged with leading the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four US officials,” pleaded not guilty to all charges in Washington, DC on Monday. A federal grand jury filed 18 charges last week against the suspect, counts that included “murder and other crimes eligible for the death penalty.”

Attorneys representing Jamshid Muhtorov, a terror suspect that is challenging the constitutionality of the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program, demanded details on Monday “about the government’s surveillance methods so they can challenge their legality in court.” The Associated Press has more on the motions.

The Arms Control Association is out with a new report entitled, “The Unaffordable Arsenal: Reducing the Costs of the Bloated US Nuclear Stockpile.” The report argues that current plans to rebuild US nuclear forces are untenable in a difficult budgetary environment and suggests ways to save roughly $70 billion over the next decade.

Finally, while you may be having a difficult day, at least you aren’t running in last weekend’s Beijing Marathon. The Huffington Post reports that the city’s Air Quality Index approached a perilously high 400 on the morning of the race, forcing some participants to don facemasks as they ran.

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