Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Sebastian Brady
Monday, March 16, 2015, 2:17 PM

In an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to suggest that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has a role to play in any negotiations to end the Syrian civil war. According to the New York Times, Kerry said “We are working very hard with other interested parties to see if we can reignite a diplomatic outcome … We have to negotiate in the end.” When pressed if that meant negotiating with Assad, Mr. Kerry said, “if he is ready to have a serious negotiation about the implementation of Geneva I, of course.” While accepting that President Assad should take part in any negotiations would mark a major shift in U.S. policy in the conflict, U.S. officials quickly asserted that Kerry’s comments indicated no such thing.

President Assad quickly dismissed Kerry’s remarks, the Associated Press notes. In an interview with Iranian TV, he said any “talk about the future of the Syrian president is for Syrian people alone," and added that remarks like Kerry’s from the international community are mere "bubbles that disappear after some time."

Syria’s neighbor Turkey, which has long demanded Assad’s removal as an integral part of any end to the civil war, criticized Kerry’s remarks even more harshly. According to Al Jazeera, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu asked "You are going to have what [kind of] negotiations with a regime that has killed over 200,000 people and has used chemical weapons?"

Amid new claims by Kurdish forces that ISIS has employed crude chlorine gas attacks, the Iraqi government offensive on Tikrit has been put on hold, Reuters reports. Officials are calling for more airstrikes on the city, where ISIS militants still hold the city’s central districts; airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition have been conspicuously absent in the Iraqi assault, which has been stalled for four days. Elsewhere, Kurdish forces advanced in the villages of Wahda, Saada, and Khalid in the north near Kirkuk.

At the Daily Beast, Nancy Youssef describes the U.S. strategy toward the Tikrit offensive as “a triumph of hope over experience.” If the Shiite militias and Iranian advisers decide to exact retribution on the Sunni population in Tikrit, which many fear they will, she writes, the United States has no way of stopping them. And in what may be a troubling sign, the AP reports that dozens of fighters from the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr’s militia group have left Baghdad to join the offensive in Tikrit. Previously, al Sadr had agreed to remove his militia as a “show of goodwill” after his forces faced renewed accusations of battlefield atrocities.

McClatchy notes that the United Nations is preparing for a massive outflow of refugees from both Aleppo, where ISIS may be preparing to launch an assault, and Mosul, the presumptive focal point of coalition efforts to push ISIS out of Iraq. According to U.N. officials, the Aleppo assault could force 500,000 people from their homes, and an attempt to reclaim Mosul could displace 1.5 million.

Yet, as the conflict continues to push locals out of their homes, the influx of foreign fighters into ISIS-held areas continues. The Guardian reveals that three British teenagers were stopped in Istanbul while trying to cross the Turkish border into Syria to join ISIS. The three men were sent back to the United Kingdom on Saturday, where they were arrested on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks.

In parallel with the U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes against ISIS, the United States has also conducted a series of attacks against the Khorasan group, an al Qaeda offshoot operating in Syria. The AP notes that, while the U.S. military has hit as many as 17 Khorasan targets, intelligence analysts disagree about how successful these attacks have been. According to some U.S. officials, the military claims the attacks have lowered the group’s capacity to strike the West, while segments of the intelligence community warn that its capacities remain largely undiminished.

ISIS-affiliated militants claimed responsibility for the bombing of a police checkpoint in Libya’s capital city of Tripoli, Reuters reports. The bombing, which wounded five police officers, was accompanied by another attack in Misrata. Though the Libyan Islamic State group did not immediately claim the attack, it targeted a militant group currently fighting Islamic State militants in the Libyan city of Sirte.

In Yemen, Houthi rebels have released Yemen’s prime minister, who had been under house arrest for nearly two months. After his release, Reuters reveals, Prime Minister Khaled Bahah wrote that the move was a sign of goodwill by the Houthis, who hope it will help propel talks on a political transition in Yemen.

Suicide bombers struck two Christian churches during Sunday services yesterday in Lahore, Pakistan, the Times reports. At least 15 people were killed in the bombings, which hit both a Catholic and a Protestant church in one of the largest Christian neighborhoods in the country. Angry crowds formed following the attack and reportedly lynched two suspected accomplices while preventing police from entering the area. Dawn reports that violent demonstrations across Punjab province have left at least one protester dead.

The terrorist attack came on the heels of a Pakistani announcement that it had reached a new frontier in its ongoing fight against militants. According to the Washington Post, Pakistan’s military announced that it had successfully tested its own armed drone and will begin deploying these vehicles to attack terrorist groups. The Post adds that this development will drive other countries to continue developing similar technologies.

According to Afghan officials, Afghan security forces killed 10 militants claiming to be affiliated with Afghanistan’s Islamic State group in Helmand province on Sunday. Reuters explains that the operation comes amid a number of reports of Taliban fighters joining the new extremist group. Fears that a significant U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan may allow the group to flourish, among other things, may be forcing the Obama administration to abandon its current withdrawal plan. Instead, during a visit by the Afghan president next week, President Obama may announce plans for a more gradual drawdown of troops in the country, U.S. officials say. The AP has more.

Over the weekend, the Times reported that money secretly given to the Afghan government by the CIA ended up in the hands of al Qaeda in 2010. In a deal to secure the release of an Afghan diplomat held by the terrorist group, Afghan officials paid the terrorist group $5 million---$1 million of which came from a secret government fund paid into by the CIA. The money provided a much-needed lifeline to the group, which had suffered heavy losses in its upper ranks due to a CIA drone strike campaign.

The Times covers France’s extensive military operation in the African Sahel region. France has 3000 counterterrorism troops based in the region, with military facilities scattered from Chad to Mali to the Ivory Coast. All are part of a wide-ranging effort to combat several different violent extremist groups.

The European Union appears divided over imposing new sanctions on Russia for its role in destabilizing Ukraine, the Wall Street Journal reports. At a meeting of E.U. representatives in Brussels earlier today, some called for increasing the current sanctions, which are currently in place through September; others claimed that the conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists has quieted recently, so no new sanctions are necessary. Fighting does continue, however, if only sporadically. The Ukrainian military announced that a soldier had been killed in eastern Ukraine, though it was the first death in fighting since March 11th. Reuters covers the story.

As the anniversary of the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine approaches, a state-run Russian TV channel has released a documentary celebrating the move. The Times writes that in the documentary Russian President Vladimir Putin blames western machinations for the popular ouster of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, boasts about the Crimean gambit, and claims he even considered putting the Russian nuclear arsenal on alert during the takeover.

The Wall Street Journal notes that negotiations in Switzerland over Iran’s nuclear program were set to resume today. Reuters adds that western negotiators are hoping the recent initiation of talks about crafting a U.N. resolution to ease sanctions on Iran may convince Iran to make concessions of its own.

Back in the United States, however, opposition to the ongoing negotiations appears to be growing stronger. Politico reports that Republican politicians may be close to enticing enough Democrats to form a veto-proof majority supporting two bills aimed to undercut the President in the nuclear negotiations, one which could impose new sanctions on Iran if it were to renege on a deal and one which would force the President to bring any deal before Congress.

The BBC reports that a potential deal also faces significant opposition from Saudi Arabia. Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief, warned that if a deal grants Iran permission to enrich uranium, then Saudi Arabia will claim the same right, as will other countries. The end result, he claimed, would be a nuclear arms race in the region.

After raising similar concerns in a recent controversial speech before Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing potential defeat in Israeli general elections. The Wall Street Journal reports that Netanyahu told a rally of supporters that “A left-wing government will come to power—this possibility exists.” Recent polls suggest that his party is trailing a center-left coalition just ahead of tomorrow’s election; Netanyahu suggested this weekend that foreign powers are conspiring to defeat him.

A lawyer representing Stephen J. Kim, a former State Department contractor who was convicted of revealing classified information about North Korea to Fox News, has filed a letter claiming that the plea deal given to retired General David Petraeus shows a “profound double standard” in how the U.S. Department of Justice has handled leak cases. The Times has more.

The Daily Beast’s Shane Harris brings us news that lawyers for Guantanamo Bay detainee Al Warafi have filed a motion in the DC Circuit claiming that since the war in Afghanistan is over according to President Obama, the United States no longer has the right to hold him. As Harris outlines, the defense could put U.S. attorneys in the awkward position of arguing that hostilities haven’t actually come to a conclusion, regardless of what the Commander-in-Chief has said.

And, Reuters reports that the one question that hangs above all in the trial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is whether he will testify in his own defense. Tsarnaev’s lawyers contend that he played a subsidiary role to his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was the mastermind of the attacks.  Reuters carries more on the trial and the strategy of both the defense and prosecution.

According to Mike McConnell, former NSA director and Director of National Intelligence, every major U.S. company has been hacked by the Chinese government. CNN reports that McConnell told an audience at the University of Missouri that Chinese malware had been found in the computers of “every major corporation of any consequence in the United States.” He also claimed that, during the later years of the Gorge W. Bush administration, China employed 100,000 hackers whose sole task was to break into computers. Some questioned McConnell’s claims, and one former CIA cybersecurity researcher went so far as to call the comments “reckless.”

The United States and Cuba will meet for talks on restoring diplomatic relations today in Havana. This will be the first round of talks since the United States issued sanctions against several Venezuelan officials and declared Venezuela, Cuba’s closest ally, a national security threat.

Parting Shot: For War on the Rocks, Paul Scharre explores the human element of robotic warfare.

ICYMI: This weekend, on Lawfare

On Sunday, Stephan Haggard outlined a few lessons for the Iran negotiations from past experiences with North Korea. Surprise, surprise, things aren’t as clear as they may seem.

Jack shared four thoughts on White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough’s letter to Senator Corker on the Iran deal.

In this week’s Foreign Policy Essay, Anastasia Norton, Alysha Bedig, and Harriera Siddiq presented a new framework for countering violent extremism: analyze beliefs, but counter the behavior.

Diane Webber detailed the strange saga that led Abid Naseer to be convicted in a U.S. court.

Finally, the Lawfare Podcast featured Gabriella Blum, Benjamin Wittes, William Galston, and Ben Wizner with thoughts on the very bright future of violence.

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