Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin
Tuesday, March 10, 2015, 4:57 PM

Yesterday, in what many have termed an unprecedented move, 47 Republican senators released an open letter to the “leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” making note that any deal without the expressed support of Congress would only be an executive agreement, which could be reversed by the next president. The White House expressed outrage over the letter, with President Obama calling Republicans in Congress and hardliners in Tehran “an unusual coalition.”

However, Democrats were not the only dissenters. Prominent Senate Republicans such as Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) also voiced concern. Politico reports that Senator Corker concluded that the letter might derail his ultimate goal of passing a veto-proof bill that would require a Congressional vote on deal. Fearing that the perception of partisanship will drive Senate Democrats away from his proposal, Corker said that his “goal is to get 67 or more people on something that will affect the outcome.” Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, agreed, suggesting “it’s more appropriate for members of the Senate to give advice to the president.”

On the Brookings blog Markaz, Suzanne Maloney explores whether the Republican letter was a “spectacular misstep or a savvy strategy,” arguing that the Republican's “open letter may actually impede their effort to consolidate a veto-proof majority;” however, that may be a “small price to pay if the letter hits its real target,” Ayatollah Khamenei, who already mistrusts American intentions in the negotiations.

The letter prompted a response from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who called it a “propaganda ploy” with “no legal value.” Mr. Zarif also argued that abrogating the agreement would be a “blatant violation of international law.” You can read the entirety of Mr. Zarif’s response here.

Speaking yesterday in Baghdad, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey warned that the anti-ISIS coalition could fracture if the government in Baghdad does not do more to address the sectarian divide in the country. General Dempsey said that the “military aspect” of the fight was going “fine,” but that there were real challenges were ahead unless Iraq “formed the unity platform to which they committed.” Also yesterday, the chief of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi, called for the creation of an Arab counterterrorism force capable of intervening “rapidly to fight terrorism and activities of terrorist groups.”

Reuters reports that Iraqi troops and Shiite militias have retaken a strategic town north of Tikrit. While many have worried about the prospect of sectarian reprisals against Sunnis, local officials said there was no sign that Shiite militias had launched revenge attacks in al-Alam. According to security officials, the final assault on Tikrit could begin as early as Wednesday. In light of the impending operation, the BBC shares that ISIS militants are currently being reassigned from Mosul in preparation for the offensive.

Also, according to the BBC, Iraqi Security Forces are not the only ones advancing against the Islamic State. Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga troops have launched their own offensive against ISIS targets in Kirkuk province. The offensive follows a series of U.S. airstrikes in the region.

At the same time, the U.S. Air Force confirmed yesterday that it had executed strikes against the al Nusra Front in recent days in Syria. The air strikes mark the third time that the United States has attacked the al Qaeda affiliate since beginning of bombing last year. McClatchy has more on the strikes.

In the Guardian, Jessica Stern and JM Berger share an extract from their newly released book, ISIS: The State of Terror, on how a sense of adventure and a desperate search for purpose draws foreign fighters from around the world to ISIS. And, while Turkey faces significant pressure from its Western allies to staunch the flow of fighters into Syria, the porous border continues to serve as a conduit for would-be Islamic State militants, allowing the group to “replenish forces depleted in battle.” The New York Times details the lives and choices of smugglers who used to transport sugar and cigarettes, but now run jihadists over the border.

As foreign fighters continue to leave for the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, they now have something new to look forward to: CaliphateBook. When they arrive, new initiates can now join “CaliphateBook,” the Islamic State’s newest attempt at creating its own social media network from which its members cannot be banned. However, at the time of writing, the website, “5elafabook.com,” is down. The page presents a message stating that the temporary shutdown is in order to “protect the info and details of its members and their safety.” Reuters has more.

One civilian was killed and 25 policemen were injured after a suicide bomb attack in the Sinai Peninsula earlier this morning, Al Jazeera reports. The attack follows another on Monday, which killed three Egyptian soldiers.

Patrick Tucker of DefenseOne writes that the “Ukrainian conflict represents the most significant use of drones in warfare on two opposite sides of a battlefield.” As pro-Russian rebels employ sophisticated Russian-made drones, Ukrainians are launching “war start-ups” and taking the initiative to modify hobby drones for intelligence gathering missions. Tucker writes:

The most sophisticated UAV that has come out of the Ukrainian side since the start of the conflict is called the PD-1 from developer Igor Korolenko. It has a wingspan of nearly 10 feet, a five-hour flight time, carries electro-optical and infrared sensors as well as a video camera that broadcasts on a 128 bit encrypted channel. Its most important feature is the autopilot software that allows the drone to return home in the event that the global positioning system link is jammed or lost.

As the ceasefire tentatively holds in Ukraine, the New York Times reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly contradicted his previous claim that the Crimean referendum was the catalyst for his decision to reclaim the region. Instead, in a new documentary produced by Russian state-run television, Putin indicates that planning for the annexation of Crimea began just as former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed, weeks before the referendum. This timeline corresponds with a previously released memo reportedly drafted in the weeks leading up to the collapse of the Ukrainian government; the memo recommended steps Russia could take to capitalize on instability in its closest neighbor.

And on Monday, Russian authorities reiterated claims that opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was killed by an Islamist gunman who was angry over a perceived slight to Muslims. The charge, which many find implausible, deepens the concerns of Nemtsov’s supporters that justice will not be served.

Elsewhere, the Times shares that the demand for bailouts by Russian companies is skyrocketing, raising the likelihood of an economic crisis. While the country still has plenty of money--more than $360 billion in reserves, in fact--the funding for propping up companies its becoming more and more complicated. The state-owned oil giant Rosneft requested $21.3 billion on its own; Gazprom asked for $3.2 billion. And, that is just the beginning, with firms across Russia reeling under collapsing oil prices and the weight of Western sanctions that limit their access to other sources of funding.

Pakistan has tested a new ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to all corners of India, according to McClatchy. The missile, called the Shaheen-III, travelled 1,720 miles from its launch pad. But, in a sign of respect for Riyadh, the test stayed short of the 2,100 mile range necessary to target Israel. The test is just the latest in the expanding arms race in South Asia, following India’s recent tests of its Agni-IV and Agni-V missiles, which are capable of traveling 2,500 and 3,400 miles respectively. India has fast-tracked the deployment of both missiles.

While the two South Asian giants flex their military muscles, outrage is building in Karachi, where a terror crackdown has led to claims of that the government’s battle against extremists is taking the lives of hundreds each year. India and Pakistan have long faced charges of “fake” police encounters that result in extrajudicial killings, but human rights groups claim that the ongoing anti-terrorism campaign, and the extraordinary new powers it has granted to police, is making the problem even worse. The Wall Street Journal carries the report.

The United States has issued new sanctions against seven individuals tied to the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. As part of the sanctions, the Obama administration declared Venezuela a threat to the national security of the United States; however, officials said that the sanctions would not target the Venezuelan people, but only “targeted people whose actions undermined democratic processes or institution, had committed acts of violence or abuse of human rights, were involved in prohibiting or penalizing freedom of expression, or were government officials involved in public corruption.” Reuters has more.

Yesterday, jurors in the Boston Marathon bombing trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev watched the grim surveillance footage from the scene of the attack. The Boston Globe shares more detail on the day’s heartbreaking testimony.

The Supreme Court has rejected two appeals involving the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. In the first, the court left in place a January 2014 ruling against Abdul Rahim Abdul Razak al Janko who has sought to sue the United States for damages incurred during his seven years at GITMO. The court also decided not to hear the appeal of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which was seeking the release of videos and photographs detailing detainee treatment.

Parting Shot: If you hear a lot of buzzing around the District during the middle of the night these days, don’t fret. It’s most likely just the Secret Service testing its defenses against drones.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Yesterday, Jack caught an embarrassing error in Senator Tom Cotton’s (R-AR) “constitutional lessons” to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Sebastian Brady alerted us to the University of Virginia School of Law’s 23rd National Security Law Institute. Applications are due April 17th.

Finally, Mira Rapp-Hooper brought us the latest installment of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, which covers the annual military exercises that take place in Asia each year.

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