Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Benjamin Bissell
Thursday, November 13, 2014, 2:25 PM

Breaking news flooding onto our Twitter streams today: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has released a new audio recording of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, accompanied by English translation of his remarks. If the audio is authentic, it would confirm that al-Baghdadi survived a coalition air strike that was suspected of killing or, at least, injuring the self-declared “Caliph.” The message references events that have occurred since the reported strike on ISIS leadership, specifically the declaration of allegiance to the Islamic State offered by Egyptian jihadist group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. However, the 17-minute audio recording of al-Baghdadi leaves us wondering why the group chose not to release video of their leader, especially given their media and propaganda savvy. Reuters has a summary of the audio. We will keep you posted as US intelligence agencies work to confirm the recordings’ authenticity.

Stateside, CNN brings us news that President Barack Obama has asked his national security team to prepare another review of the U.S. strategy in Syria, apparently after deciding that the Islamic State cannot be defeated without some form of political transition in Syria. Most importantly, senior U.S. officials told CNN that transition would mean the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Yesterday, U.S. Central Command also announced that they would host a 30-national coalition planning conference at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. It appears that the national security staff may have decided that there is not time for an “Iraq first” strategy, as the Syrian moderate opposition struggles in a two-front battle against the Syrian regime and radical extremist groups like ISIS and al-Nusra. Read the full article at CNN.

The news out of Iraq and Syria today rings full of pleas for greater assistance.

Reuters reports that moderate Syrian rebel groups in the south of the country are seeking a larger profile---one that might merit more help from the West. The rebels, which have been characterized by some Western officials as the most organized groups fighting Assad, have laid out a transition plan in recent days, suggesting they are the best hope “for a revolution hijacked by jihadists.” Calling themselves the “Southern Front,” the groups seek to present an alternative to the Free Syrian Army, which has seen dramatic setbacks in recent weeks. According the Reuters, their plan calls for turning the southern rebels into a civilian security force, and emphasizes protection for all Syrians regardless of religious or cultural backgrounds.

For its part, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the Syrian city of Aleppo has rejected a United Nations truce proposal that seeks to freeze the fighting in the city, suggesting that it would only serve the Assad regime. The answer came only one day after the Syrian regime appeared to be considering the proposal. Al Jazeera has more.

NBC News reports that ISIS has released a video purporting to show an underground tunnel network that allows them to survive the punishing U.S. airstrikes around the Iraqi city of Fallujah. One fighter notes that the trenches now serve as break rooms and bedrooms, allowing the group to stay away from above-ground houses.

In Iraq, the Washington Post reports that Kurdish fighters are requesting more direct military aid in the form of heavy artillery from the United States as peshmerga forces struggle to adapt to the Islamic State’s evolving tactics, which now include explosive booby traps and roadside bombs. Kurdish forces claim that up until this time, the military assistance they have received from the central government in Baghdad (through which most international military aid has been funnelled) has been limited to light and medium arms such as automatic weapons. According to the Post, “U.S. officials are...leery of establishing a precedent for providing arms to a force such as the peshmerga, which is not commanded by a national government.”

In Syria, however, the U.S. faces a different political complication with a Kurdish rebel group - the group wants to help the United States push back ISIS, but they also want to keep control of the land they seize. The Wall Street Journal writes that the Kurdish YPG, a group affiliated with the radical guerrilla group Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, boasts 30,000 fighters and a leadership that is eager to join the U.S.-led coalition. However, a senior State Department official, while praising the group’s force, said that cooperation would not be tied to any political recognition of the current self-rule areas occupied by Kurdish forces. Instead, the official said that the United States “hope[s] everyone in Syria works together on a national unified project.”

The Washington Post shares news that some Alawites, the core of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, are beginning to question their support for the government. Alawite groups (Assad himself is an Alawite) have become more critical of the regime on social media and at public protests, and perhaps more critically for the survival of the regime, they are increasingly avoiding compulsory military service.

The Associated Press surveys the uphill battle that new U.S. military advisers will face in Iraq’s Anbar province, where Iraqi soldiers are still poorly prepared to battle the Islamic State. But, the AP also reports that there are dramatic changes afoot in the Iraqi military following Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s decision to relieve 26 army officers of their commands and retire 10 others. Abadi also appointed 18 new commanders. The move follows a probe ordered last month that investigated corruption in the military. Some cases showed that soldiers had paid half of their salaries to commanding officers in order to stay away from units tasked with fighting ISIS. The New York Times has more on the shake-up.

Finally, Foreign Policy tells us why the United States has yet to use its biggest financial weapons against banks in territory controlled by Islamic State. In an attempt to keep financial activity in the region moving in a way that does not dramatically affect civilians, the United States has foregone shutting off the banks from the global financial system, instead targeting the financial transactions of ISIS through a variety of more piecemeal mechanisms. However, Brookings scholar Vanda Felbab-Brown says that the U.S.’s approach takes more than just humanitarian factors into account; she says it also represents an effort to avoid pushing the locals into the arms of extremists. According to Felbab-Brown, "At the end of the day what will make a difference in debilitating ISIL will be how much the local population turns against the group," and "this very tempting desire to shut down the financial system will tremendously worsen the lives of people that are already living in desperation."

In Amman, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in an effort to diffuse recent tensions in Jerusalem. Reuters reports that earlier Thursday, Kerry also met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Violence continues to flare in the disputed city and in the West Bank, although top Israeli security officials have said they expect it to ebb over time.

According to the Washington Post, Iran claims that it did respond to a series of letters US President Barack Obama sent to Tehran over the past few months. It remains unclear whether or not the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, penned the letters himself. The correspondence between the long-time enemies comes amid a recent “thaw” in the embittered relationship and a flurry of diplomatic activity over the Iranian nuclear negotiations’ looming November 24th deadline.

The question underlying the recent reports out of eastern Ukraine is stark: are Russia and Ukraine approaching an all-out war? The New York Times reports that tanks and other military vehicles are “pouring” into Ukraine from its eastern neighbor. Perhaps more worrisome, “green men,” i.e. professional soldiers without insignia, have also been sighted. The presence of the latter has some observers worried, in part because their appearance preceded the Kremlin’s outright annexation of Crimea last spring. While Russian officials continue to deny any power plays in eastern Ukraine, NATO officials say that Russian troops and military equipment are incontrovertibly crossing the border to prepare for “renewed military action,” though what that action might be remains “unclear.” At Businessweek, Carol Matlack tries to fill in the gaps and outlines four reasons why Russian President Vladimir Putin may want a fight with Kiev.

Russia is not just flexing its military might in Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal writes that Moscow is expanding its military presence far from its borders, and is reinstating long-distance air patrols to such far-flung areas as the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean basin. Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin’s plans are “likely” to raise tensions with Washington.

Despite the collapsing truce in Ukraine, Europe appears as of yet unlikely to increase the sanctions against Russia. Foreign Policy reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has ruled out imposing new sanctions and Russia and Ukraine recently inked a deal to resume gas shipments to Kiev.

Russia and Ukraine aren’t the only countries playing a cat-and-mouse game. Turkish daily Hurriyet writes that farther south, the Greek and Turkish navies are currently locked in a tense back-and-forth in the Aegean Sea.

On to the Asia Pacific. Just hours after the US-China climate change pact was announced, the Washington Post reports that Congressional Republicans are already criticizing it. Soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) directly referenced it during a morning coffee with fellow Republicans, saying it goes easy on the Chinese while wreaking havoc on job creation and utility prices across the US.

In the Atlantic, James Fallows examines whether or not the climate change accord is really a big deal. His conclusion: it doesn’t mean that global climate negotiations will succeed, but it means they are “no longer guaranteed to fail.” Kate Galbraith of Foreign Policy writes that the deal is a “good start.” At Lawfare, Jack Goldsmith demurs, saying the deal does “less than has been hyped.”

Also at the Atlantic, Matt Schiavenza asserts that in light of China’s willingness to sign the deal, in addition to its increased diplomatic weight elsewhere, Beijing has officially assumed “great power status.”

China and the US also signed other agreements in the past few days, one of which hopes to reduce the risk of “accidental war” in the Pacific. Still, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. of Breaking News argues that while Chinese President Xi Jinping may be changing tactics, these moves do not change the “fundamentals of the competition” between Beijing and Washington. Breaking Defense also has more on the reportedly imminent release by US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel of defense counters to military advances by China and Russia.

The Washington Post reports that hackers from China breached the network of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in late September. For unclear reasons, officials did not indicate they had a problem until almost a month later on October 20th. Even then, the NOAA did not say its systems had been compromised. Officials also say NOAA did not notify proper authorities when it detected the hack. For its part, NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen said in a statement on Wednesday that the “incident response began immediately.”

In the English language edition of Caixin, an influential Chinese economics paper, Barry Eichengreen, a professor of economics at Berkeley and Cambridge, writes that the view that Chinese growth must slow may be ignoring the country’s “uniqueness” and “technological advances.”

Filipino news site Rappler reports that the country’s president, Benigno Aquino III, was “soft” on maritime rival China at the latest APEC summit. The President himself called his statements about China “gentle reminders,” and said he lowered the tone of his remarks due to “recent developments” in the region.

As the APEC summit concludes and Asian leaders meet at the ASEAN conference that began yesterday in Myanmar, Patrick Cronin of War on the Rocks outlines why the US needs economic statecraft in Asia.

Although ostensibly for the ASEAN summit, some analysts believe President Obama’s  “unprecedented” three day stay in Myanmar this week is meant to emphasize Washington’s foreign policy “win” in promoting the democratization of Yangon’s long-repressive regime. In Politico, Adam Lerner writes that Washington’s success in the country may have been short-lived; the US’ "win" is unraveling amid democratic rollbacks and widespread abuses against the country’s Rohingya minority. As he speaks with international and Myanma leaders, President Obama appears to have no choice but to directly address the shortcomings of both Yangon’s democratic development and the country’s much-lauded “saint,” Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

This may be easier said than done: in Foreign Policy, Justine Drennan asserts that President Obama retains precious little leverage over Myanmar’s rulers as the country’s human rights record “backslides.”

Further west, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani will visit Pakistan in a two-day state visit starting on Friday that will include high-level meetings with Pakistani President Manoon Hussain and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. This is Ghani’s first visit to Pakistan since taking power.

He will arrive to a country in turmoil: a Pakistani court has issued warrants for the arrests of politician Imran Khan and cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri for their roles in the massive protest movements that crippled Islamabad this summer. The New York Times notes that the warrants were issued by an anti-terrorism court on account of an attack by protesters who attacked the headquarters of a state-run television network.

The Daily Beast carries a long read that dives into the complicated network of informants for the United States’ targeted killing program in Pakistan. It’s fascinating and terrifying.

In light of a decreasing rate of new Ebola infections in Liberia, US and Liberian officials are debating whether or not to shift resources aimed at building rapid-response treatment centers towards longer-term measures for countering future outbreaks. The New York Times reports.

The White House has withdrawn its nominee for Undersecretary of the Navy, Jo Ann Rooney. The decision comes after her nomination has languished for over a year following a poor performance in her Senate confirmation hearing wherein she made controversial statements about the military’s handling of sexual assault cases. Defense News has more.

The National Journal reports that current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is trying to advance a Senate vote on NSA reform before Republicans take over the body early next year. Senator Reid filed for cloture on the USA Freedom Act yesterday, which is a bill that would effectively end the government’s bulk collection of metadata. In order to progress further, the legislation requires 60 votes to end debate and then a majority to pass it through the chamber. The Washington Post divulges that the Senate may vote on the bill as early as next week. It could then be voted on by the House and signed into law before 2015, fulfilling one of President Obama’s requests of Congress.

In a statement yesterday, the Obama administration formally endorsed provisions of the Convention Against Torture that ban torture and cruel treatment of prisoners held by the US abroad. The Washington Post has more on the decision, which reverses an interpretation held by George W. Bush’s administration that the CAT did not apply to detainees held overseas. In Lawfare, John Bellinger III explains exactly what the shift in the Article 16 interpretation means and why it happened.

The Guardian reports that lawyers for men allegedly tortured by the CIA have come forward in recent days to say that their clients were never interviewed as part of a “major criminal investigation” that concluded in 2012.

Parting Shot: Foreign Policy reports that Chinese censors “went wild” on Monday when Russian President Vladimir Putin got a “little too friendly” with the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Peng Liyuan. Click here for the diplomatic hit on.

ICYMI: Yesterday, On Lawfare

John Bellinger III explains the United States’ stated position on the applicability of Article 16 of the Convention Against Torture.

Matt Waxman and Kenneth Anderson cover the New York Times’s latest piece on autonomous weapons, highlighting their recent work arguing that those weapons systems can be effectively regulated within the existing law of armed conflict framework.

Wells weighs in on the language of the preamble to the ISIS AUMF.

Jack offers two quick reactions to John Bellinger’s post on Tuesday regarding a new ISIS AUMF.

Wells informs us that the DC Circuit temporarily stayed the United States’ appeal in al-Nashiri.

Finally, Paul Rosenzweig provides us the text of his remarks to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), entitled “Privacy as a Utilitarian Value.”

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