Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin
Monday, March 2, 2015, 2:53 PM

Describing his actions as part of a “fateful, even historic, mission,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has arrived in the United States in preparation for his address to Congress on Iran’s nuclear program, which is set for tomorrow. Reuters reports that a senior Israeli official told reporters on the flight to Washington that Netanyahu’s address could be “the last brake” for stopping a nuclear deal. Similarly, Haaretz informs us that Israel knows the details of the agreement that is coming together and the Prime Minister feels that “Congress members are unaware of these details.”  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told ABC News on Saturday that the Obama administration does not want to see the speech turned into “some great political football.”

However, not everyone in Israel agrees with Netanyahu’s decision to bypass the American president and address the U.S. Congress. On Sunday, a group of 180 retired Israeli generals and former top security officials warned that his address would “do more harm than good.” Amnon Reshef, a former head of the army’s armored corps, railed against the prime minister, saying that he “is not only misleading Israel, he is strengthening Iran.” The brewing showdown between the White House and Israel’s leader is sure to have “far-reaching implications” for the shape of power, security, and influence in the Middle East, reports the Wall Street Journal. On Friday, the Obama administration set out to rebut Netanyahu’s expected critiques, affirming that “the alternative to not having a deal is losing inspections.” The New York Times has more on the White House’s perspective on the upcoming address.

While the political fight rages, Bloomberg brings us news on the IAEA’s reluctance to follow up on a three-year-old tip regarding a series of high-explosive tests near the Iran-Iraq border. According to the report, the hesitance demonstrates the flaws in some of the IAEA’s intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program---doubts that could weigh heavily as the agency’s verdict on Iran’s nuclear activities could determine whether international sanctions against the regime remain in place.

The New York Times reports that the Iraqi military along with thousands of Shiite militia fighters have launched an assault to retake Tikrit. On Sunday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi visited the mass of troops outside the city, proclaiming that the “zero hour” for the city’s liberation was at hand. The operation is expected to involve more than 30,000 fighters under the cover of Iraqi helicopters and jets. The BBC reveals that Iran’s General Qasem Solemani, commander of the elite Quds Force, is also taking part in the operation, a sign seen as further evidence of Iran’s deepening involvement on the ground in Iraq. The Times notes that success in Tikrit could encourage a faster timetable for the Mosul campaign.

But, as the battle for Tikrit ramps up, the Wall Street Journal reports that the United States is walking back its plan to retake Mosul in April. After earlier suggestions of a spring offensive, the military is now suggesting that any campaign to retake Mosul will not occur until the fall, at the earliest. The Journal says that the “evolving plan” will involve heavy U.S. air power in the coming months in order to further isolate Mosul and eliminate ISIS commanders before inserting Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga on the ground. The U.S. military believes that it will require a force of 20,000 to liberate and then hold Mosul.

In Baghdad, a series of attacks against crowded markets and Shiite checkpoints has left 37 people dead and wounded another 87. The Wall Street Journal has more on the continuing instability in the capital region. In Syria, the Islamic State released 19 of the recently captured Assyrian Christians. According to local reports obtained by the New York Times, those released were mostly women and a few elderly men.

In Syria, the proposed ground force for the U.S.-backed campaign against ISIS just took another hit. The Daily Beast writes that the Syrian rebel group Harakat al-Hazm, one of the White House’s most trusted and most heavily supported militias disbanded on Sunday, with a spokesman stating that its units are folding into larger Islamist militias. The Obama administration had cut funding to the organization in half since Christmas, and in recent weeks, the brigade has suffered repeated attacks from Al Qaeda's affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

The Guardian reports that ISIS killer Mohammed Emwazi, or “Jihadi John.” was linked to the 2005 failed London bomb plot. According to a court filing, a leader of the terror cell of which Emwazi was a member, had a telephone conversation on the day of the attacks with Hussein Osman, who was later convicted and imprisoned for placing an explosive at a London tube station. The new information raises serious questions as to how Emwazi, a “person of interest” for MI5, was able to leave the United Kingdom for the battlefields of Syria. In the Associated Press, Gregory Katz explores why the unmasking of “Jihadi John” will reduce his role in ISIS propaganda.

Turning to the Middle East’s other wars: A new report from the United Nations warns that arms bound for Libya could pose a significant terror risk as the arms could end up in the hands of Islamist radicals. “Current transfers to Libya are probably contributing to further onward proliferation of material,” concluded the report.

Today in Yemen, a US drone strike killed two suspected Al Qaeda militants in the southern Shabwa province, according to the Associated Press. The U.S. ambassador to the embattled country also visited its president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in the southern city of Aden in sign of support for his campaign against the Houthi rebels.

The New York Times reveals that recently leaked audio recordings show that the United Arab Emirates gave the Egyptian Defense Ministry money in support of protests against ousted President Mohamed Morsi in June 2013. The Times notes that current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was then the defense minister that led the ouster of Mr. Morsi, claimed at the time to be responding to the protests.

The Washington Post carries a rare look inside the al-Hair high-security prison in Saudi Arabia, which is currently the home of nearly 1,100 prisoners, all jailed on terrorism-related charges. The story claims that the prisoners are “showered with perks”: the state puts each inmate’s family on welfare; they are allowed to attend funerals and weddings of close family members; there is a hotel for family members to stay in when they visit; and they are given as much as $2,600 for wedding gifts. Saudi government officials claim to have spent $35 million last year on these perks. However, the Post concedes that just because no one was tortured in front of its reporter doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

The Hill shares that President Barack Obama will meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah in Washington in late March.

On Friday, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered just outside the Kremlin. Mr. Nemtsov had been a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the ongoing war in Ukraine. In response, the New York Times reports that tens of thousands of people---far more than expected---marched through central Moscow yesterday to mourn and honor the slain leader. And while little is known about the circumstances of Mr. Nemtsov’s murder, prison, exile, and death are thinning the opposition. The Guardian asks, “Who is left to take on Putin?”

The ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists continues hold, even amid sporadic violence. On Monday, one Ukrainian servicemember was killed and four wounded; however, Ukraine reported a significant decrease in attacks from rebels over the weekend and confirmed that all sides were continuing to pull back heavy weapons from the front line. Reuters has more.

In the Financial Times, Jeevan Vasagar reports that Germany has pledged to raise its military spending in the coming years, a sign of its increased willingness to play a central role in guarding European security in light of the ongoing unrest in Ukraine. Germany’s anemic defense budget equaled only 1.1 percent of its GDP this year, even though NATO members are required to maintain two percent spending on defense. Britain, Canada, Germany, and Italy are all due to cut defense spending this year.

Closing arguments in the trial of Abid Naseer, a Pakistani accused of plotting to bomb targets in England, Denmark, and New York, began today. The verdict in the trial could be handed down this week. The Wall Street Journal carries more on the dramatic testimony and cross examination of MI5 agents.

The Pentagon has revoked its earlier order requiring military commission judges to take up residence on base at Guantanamo Bay for the duration of their trials, reports the Miami Herald. The abrupt change came after the judge in the 9/11 case stopped the trial on account of the order, concluding that it could create improper influence on its outcome. The judge has since lifted the freeze on the trial’s proceedings.

In other news at Guantanamo Bay, a military judge has lifted an earlier restraining order preventing female prison guards from touching detainees while transporting them between the prison and their medical and legal appointments.

Following the news that the United States will begin allowing the sail of armed drones to foreign countries, the New America Foundation has compiled data on the 85 countries that have currently have some sort of drone capability, armed or unarmed. The page has a helpful global map and tables explaining the level of capability of each country.

And while many fear that the State Department’s new rules on the export of armed drones will lead to a dramatic proliferation in drone technology, in Breaking Defense, Peter Lichtenbaum and Rachel Stohl argue that “the new policy actually raises the level of scrutiny over the technology.”

Lynn E. Davis, Michael J. McNerney, and Daniel Byman dispose of the myth that international norms for drone use would be counterproductive, arguing in a Rand blog post that the “principles of proper use” in the administration’s new export policy do not go far enough in its support for those global norms.

Parting Shot: Finally, aerial drone wedding photography is a burgeoning industry, but make sure you know what is coming down the aisle.

ICYMI: This weekend, on Lawfare

Ben updated us on three new additions to the Lawfare team: Timothy H. Edgar, Susan Landau, and Amy Zegart.

On that note, Tim Edgar explained how the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Yates v. United States could begin the roll back on the meaning of “tangible things.”

In this week’s Foreign Policy Essay, Alexander Velez-Green explained how South Korea’s new sentry guarding the DMZ is a “killer robot” that makes war less likely.

Matt Danzer provided an overview of Friday’s sessions in the Al Nashiri military commission case.

Finally, the Lawfare podcast featured the testimony of Benjamin Wittes, Bobby Chesney, and General Jack Keane before the House Armed Services Committee on the President’s proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force against ISIL.

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