Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Sebastian Brady
Thursday, March 26, 2015, 2:25 PM

Saudi Arabia launched a slew of airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen late last night, targeting locations throughout the country, including Dailami air base and the capital’s international airport. The New York Times reports that 100 Saudi jets flew sorties, while the country has reportedly also deployed 150,000 soldiers and naval units. However, at the time of writing, the operation has only consisted of airstrikes. After the attacks, which hit targets in the Houthi-controlled capital of Yemen, Sana’a, Saudi media reported that the operation had neutralized the air force operating on behalf of the rebels.

Saudi Arabia was joined in the attacks by a coalition of regional Sunni allies. The Guardian reports that, according to Saudi-owned media, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain all contributed planes to the airstrikes. Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan and Sudan are reportedly also prepared to commit troops to a ground offensive in the country. Egyptian military officials told the Associated Press that the intervention will go further, noting their plans to commit troops once air superiority has been established. According to Reuters, four Egyptian naval vessels have crossed the Suez Canal on their way to secure the Gulf of Aden.

While the United States has not participated directly in the attacks on the Houthi rebels, Reuters notes that President Barack Obama approved “logistical and intelligence support” for the operation. The State Department has also made clear that the United States is providing “targeting assistance.” Secretary of State John Kerry commended the coalition’s actions in conversations with the foreign ministers of many of the participating Gulf nations, Reuters adds.

Iran quickly denounced the Saudi-led attacks. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quoted as demanding an immediate end to the airstrikes and warned “We will make all efforts to control the crisis in Yemen," according to Reuters. Iran's nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi, in Switzerland as part of the Iranian nuclear negotiations, said "I am concerned by the impact of regional and international events on the nuclear talks."

Trying to catch up on the chaos and figure out how we got here? Gregory Johnsen has a fantastic background on the Houthis, where they came from, and what they want. Elsewhere, Stratfor has a useful analysis of how competition between Saudi Arabia, which supports the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was forced from power months ago, and Iran, which allegedly backs the Houthi rebels, has internationalized the conflict in Yemen. But, it would be incorrect to view this as purely a Sunni-Shia conflict. As Adam Baron explains in Politico, this is mainly a local fight, with problems “deeply rooted in Yemen,” and “primarily motivated by local issues.”

Aside from any threat Saudi involvement may pose to an Iranian nuclear deal, chaos in Yemen is already wreaking havoc on U.S. counterterrorism operations in the country, which plays host to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. U.S. personnel have already been forced to evacuate, leaving the Obama administration with few options to counter any move by terrorist groups to fill the country’s power vacuum. At the Daily Beast, Shane Harris and Tim Mak describe Yemen as the “New Terror Heartland” and wonder if the administration’s previous strategy in Yemen, centered largely around drone strikes, was too narrow.

Further threatening U.S. interests in the country is the spread of information on previous U.S. operations there. The Los Angeles Times reveals that Houthi rebels have looted documents describing U.S. intelligence operations in the country and, U.S. officials fear, may have handed these files to Iranian advisors in the country. The dissemination of the information would expose the identities of covert informants and plans for future counterterrorism operations.

While its allies bomb Iran-back militias in Yemen, the United States is actively providing air support to separate Iran-backed militias over the skies of Tikrit. According to Reuters, planes from the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS struck the presidential compound in Tikrit where ISIS militants have clustered for weeks. The AP adds that the airstrikes have allowed Iraqi forces to launch an assault to complete the liberation of Tikrit from ISIS militants, who have held the city since last summer.

The New York Times reports that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi requested U.S. air support after watching an offensive led largely by Iranian-backed Shiite militias stall. The Obama administration agreed on the condition that Iraqi government forces take a leading role in the offensive, so as to avoid being seen as working with Iranian proxy forces. These forces were vehemently opposed to asking for U.S. intervention but were overruled by Prime Minister Abadi. McClatchy notes that soon before the initiation of airstrikes, Qassem Suleimani, the leader of an elite corps of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who had reportedly been directing parts of the assault, left Tikrit. U.S. officials have also suggested they hope the failure of Iran-backed militias will give the United States additional leverage in the fight and political arena, pushing Iraq closer to its American ally.

Some U.S. officials worry that such direct Iranian control of militias in the Middle East may pose a threat to U.S. personnel in the region aiding the fight against ISIS. According to Politico’s Michael Crowley, U.S. officials have expressed concern that the unraveling of Iranian nuclear negotiations or an increase of U.S. pressure on the Iranian-backed Assad regime in Syria may lead the Iranian government to push the Shiite militias it controls in the region to attack U.S. troops.

And while the Shiite militias ostensibly share the same immediate goal as the United States---the elimination of ISIS---their actions may be helping push Iraq toward disintegration. The Wall Street Journal notes that the current conflict, which cuts largely along sectarian lines, has convinced many Iraqis that a three-way division of the country is the only viable way forward. Yaroslav Trofimov writes that “With the front lines moving slowly since last summer’s Islamic State blitz, the country’s three-way division is becoming a fact of life.”

Regarding another war, one perhaps getting less of the public's attention these days: The Times describes the careful choreography that went into Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Washington, which culminated yesterday in a speech before a joint session of Congress. The Times notes that Ghani was successful in convincing President Obama to allow more troops to remain in Afghanistan through the end of this year than originally planned. But this decision may have been made more due to concerns over the coming fighting season in Afghanistan than any lobbying by or on behalf of the Afghan President. Yesterday, for the second time in a week, a suicide bomber struck Kabul. The Times reports that a car bomb detonated near a taxi stand, killing seven people and wounding 36.

In Pakistan, the military has mounted an offensive against militants in Tirah Valley, a remote region near the Afghan border controlled by the Lashkar-i-Islam group, which has aligned itself with the Taliban. The Times notes that dozens of fighters have died from both sides in the operation in Tirah, which hosts 2,500 fighters, according to Pakistani estimates. According to Pakistani officials, the offensive’s successes, including the killing of several senior militant commanders, are largely thanks to ‘Burraq,’ the new drone that Pakistan has developed. While the drone was only publicly showcased in mid-March, the Express Tribune reports that the remote-controlled aircraft was tested in combat much earlier. If true, this would make Pakistan the fourth country to use armed drones in combat.

According to a Nigerian official, Boko Haram fighters are using as many as 500 civilians as human shields as the militants retreat in the face of a multilateral offensive, the AP reports. The offensive comes as Nigerians prepare for elections on Saturday.

This morning, the final round of negotiations before a March 31st deadline for a political agreement between Iran and six world powers on Iran’s nuclear program began, the Washington Post notes. The Wall Street Journal writes that the talks have stalled because of Iran’s failure to comply with a U.N. probe into its past nuclear activities. However, one U.S. official maintained yesterday that “We very much believe we can get this done by the 31st … We see a path to do that.” The Times notes that the remarks were the most positive yet from the Obama administration.

In a move that may signal an expectation that a deal is inevitable, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have backed down from his strong opposition to the deal currently being negotiated in favor of trying to affect the small print of that deal. Earlier this week, Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said that Israel wants any deal to ensure a two- or three-year breakout time. Reuters explains that this condition indicates a willingness to back down from previous assertions that Iran be left with no centrifuges---Israel earlier said that if Iran’s nuclear capacity was completely removed, it would take a full five years for Iran to build a bomb.

However, Netanyahu indicated no such shift yesterday, when he was officially given the task of forming a new government by the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Speaking at a ceremony to mark the occasion, Netanyahu said “we will nonetheless continue to act to prevent the unfolding deal with Iran, an agreement which puts in danger us, our neighbors, the world.” The remarks may make fulfilling another task given to Netanyahu by President Rivlin: to improve U.S.-Israeli relations. The Times has more.

The U.S. government successfully won the dismissal of a defamation suit brought against an anti-Iran advocacy group on the grounds that the case could reveal state secrets and jeopardize national security. Reuters explains that the government’s use of the state secrets privilege was unusual because the government was not a party to the lawsuit. Rather, it was a private civil suit brought by Greek shipping tycoon Victor Restis against United Against Nuclear Iran, after UANI accused Restis’s company of violating Iran sanctions by exporting oil from the country.

In a new report on the 2014 war in Gaza, Amnesty International has accused Palestinian groups, including Hamas, of committing war crimes during last year’s 50-day war. The Times notes that the report, which follows a November 2014 Amnesty report accusing Israel of war crimes, says that armed Palestinians showed a “a flagrant disregard for the lives of civilians.” The report comes a week before Palestine accedes to the International Criminal Court, where it plans to file charges against Israel for alleged war crimes; the accession, the Times adds, also opens Palestinians to war crimes prosecutions.

Six years since the last six-party negotiations regarding North Korea’s nuclear program, Russia and China are discussing an attempt to revive the talks, according to a Chinese government website. Reuters reveals that this development comes two weeks after the South Korean ambassador to the talks said that five of the six parties had attained "a certain degree of consensus" on how to proceed with the negotiations; it remains to be seen how the sixth party, North Korea, responds to diplomatic overtures.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier that was held by the Taliban for five years and was eventually returned to the United States in return for five Taliban detainees, will be charged with desertion and misbehaving before the enemy, the Post reports. The announcement comes amid allegations that President Obama violated U.S. law by authorizing the release of the five Taliban fighters. The Miami Herald adds that Bergdahl may face life in prison if he is convicted.

A new report released by the FBI finds that the bureau has improved its ability to fight terrorism since 9/11, but must confront still more challenges to improve its intelligence capabilities as it fights small, agile foes. The Post explains that the report was commissioned by Congress to determine the FBI’s success in implementing the 2004 recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. We shared the report’s main conclusions yesterday here.

Finally, the Post brings us news that the head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center will be removed from his post as part of a major reorganization of the Agency under Director John Brennan. The Post describes the shake-up as a “watershed moment.” The current head of the Center has held the position for nine years, turning it into a paramilitary force that employed armed drones around the world.

Parting shot: The U.S. is dropping a new kind of bomb on ISIS targets in Syria---propaganda bombs.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Cody shared the news yesterday that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl would be charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Jack also shared some analysis (by him and by various government bodies) on whether the Bergdahl swap was lawful.

Yishai Schwartz and Jenn Williams gave us the rundown on the latest Middle East news with the "Middle East Ticker."

Jack looked a little closer at the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act and noted that doesn’t really make any unreasonable demands.

Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger posted the third of four excerpts from their new book ISIS: The State of Terror.

Cody linked us to the new FBI report looking into how successfully the bureau had implemented the reforms recommended by the 9/11 Commission.

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