Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Sebastian Brady
Tuesday, April 14, 2015, 1:36 PM

Breaking news this morning out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) and ranking Democrat Benjamin Cardin of Maryland have reached a compromise on a bill that will give Congress a vote on any final deal aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program. According to the New York Times, the compromise will shorten the review period for a final deal from 60 to 30 days, while also adjusting language that tied the lifting of sanctions to ending Iran’s support for groups the United States has deemed terrorist organizations. One senior Democratic aide told the Times that the bill would most likely receive overwhelming, veto-proof support from the full Senate.

Both yesterday and early this morning, Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz pressed representatives to reject legislation that would give Congress the opportunity to approve or reject preliminary sanctions relief in the event of a final agreement.

According to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, talks between Iran and the six world powers are set to resume on April 21st.

But, further complicating those negotiations is news from Reuters that Russia has confirmed an oil-for-goods trade deal with Iran under which Moscow will provide an advanced S-300 anti-missile system to Tehran. Russia had instituted a self-imposed ban on the sale of the air defense system to Iran in 2010; however, with sanctions and low oil prices cutting Russia’s monetary reserves, Russian President Vladimir Putin lifted the embargo on Monday. The contract is reportedly worth $800 million.

The Daily Beast carries a description of exactly what the S-300 missile defense system would mean for U.S. and Israeli capabilities to strike Iranian nuclear sites, noting that the system would make “entire regions no-go zones for conventional jets.” Per the Beast, Nuclear sites would remain vulnerable to B-2 stealth bombers, F-22 Raptors, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter when it is finally commissioned. However, in practical terms, according to senior defense officials, that means no one save the United States could execute an attack on Iran.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived in Washington last night for his first trip to the United States as leader of his beleaguered nation. Reuters reports that Prime Minister Abadi will meet with President Obama today to discuss the fight against ISIS; the Prime Minister is expected to request shipments of U.S. drones and other weaponry worth billions of dollars. The Times adds that Prime Minister Abadi’s visit will also be focused on securing financial aid for Iraq, which is facing a budget deficit of $22 billion in a total budget of just $105 billion. To this end, he will also meet with the leaders of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The visit comes at a crucial juncture in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, Politico notes. After the recapture of Tikrit, it remains uncertain where Iraqi forces should advance next, and what assistance the United States should provide. But while the path forward is by no means certain, the Defense Department released a new map yesterday detailing the progress already made against ISIS. The Military Times covers the new map of ISIS territory, which shows that the group has lost about a quarter of the territory it held at its peak last August. A Pentagon spokesman noted, however, that “It's still early. This is a long fight, so I am not prepared to say that the tide of battle has turned.”

In another glimmer of potential progress, some Sunni tribal leaders are reporting that last month’s successful campaign in Tikrit has helped ease tensions between some Shiite militias and Sunni fighters, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Iraqi government’s success in fostering such cooperation between long-time enemies will “go a long way in determining whether it prevails over Islamic State.”

But violence continues to plague the country. The Associated Press reports that a series of ISIS car bombings in and around Baghdad killed at least 20 civilians today, a day after another series of car bombs killed 15 people. ISIS militants also attacked the country largest oil refinery, though the governor of Salahuddin province, where the Benji refinery lies, reported that the attacks had been repelled.

U.S. soldiers left Iraq in 2011 confident in the Iraqi security forces they had trained. Now, Just a few short years later, U.S. soldiers re-deployed to Iraq as trainers are finding those same forces in disrepair. The Times describes the deterioration of those forces in the interim and new U.S. efforts to prepare Iraqi troops to defeat ISIS.

In Syria, the western-backed Southern Front, an alliance of more moderate rebels controlling relatively little territory in southwestern Syria, has denounced al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, setting the stage for more fighting between the groups opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Reuters reports that the Southern Front has in the past cooperated with the Nusra Front, but a recent spate of incidents between the two sides has raised tensions.

And as U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS continue in both Syria and Iraq, the Obama administration’s proposed authorization for the use of military force in the two countries has been declared dead in the House. The Hill reveals that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters that the measure could not win a majority, saying “I do not see a path to 218 with what the president sent up because the world has become more dangerous.” This development may not change all that much because, as Ben noted on Lawfare this morning, the Obama administration has already claimed the authority “to do everything he wants to do against ISIL.”

As the U.S-led coalition continues to battle ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the militant group is portraying itself as a growing force in Libya. The Washington Post reports that yesterday the group claimed responsibility for two attacks in Tripoli, one on the Moroccan Embassy yesterday and one on the South Korean Embassy on Sunday. According to the Times, the inroads that ISIS has made in Libya is pushing Libya’s two main political factions toward a compromise. One politician explained, “Nobody can win. We have only one way we can survive, and that is a unity government.”

The United Nations has voted 14-0 to approve an arms embargo on the Houthi rebels battling for control of Yemen, as well as on former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his son. The AP reports that Russia, which had previously demanded that the embargo extend to all parties to the conflict, was the sole abstention. The news comes as Houthi rebels are apparently suffering setbacks in southern Yemen. Reuters reports that, according to fighters loyal to ousted President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Houthis have been pushed back from several areas, including some key regions in the port city of Aden.

Iran’s foreign minister has revealed a peace plan for Yemen, the Wall Street Journal notes, which calls for an immediate ceasefire and allows humanitarian assistance. The proposal was released amid Saudi claims that the Iranian-backed Houthis are blocking humanitarian assistance from reaching some areas in Yemen. Al Arabiya has more.

According to a new study, U.S. drone strikes in Yemen fail to adhere to the Obama administration’s own rules for avoiding civilian casualties. While President Obama explained in 2013 that “Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” the report, released yesterday by the Open Society Justice Initiative, points to nine drone strikes in Yemen that killed 26 civilians as proof that “President Obama’s standard is not being met on the ground.” The Times covers the report.

The Times describes the challenge facing Afghan forces as they prepare for what may be the most violent fighting season since the start of the Afghan war with a much smaller contingent of international troops to rely on. Fighting with the Taliban has already begun in northern Badakhshan Province, claiming 20 Afghan soldiers thus far, several of which were beheaded. The AP notes that, according to a provincial official, 250 Taliban militants overran Afghan army posts in the area before fleeing when Afghan reinforcements arrived. Some army officials have been detained for “demonstrating laxity,” Pajhwok reveals.

Across the border in Pakistan, a raid by Pakistani security forces killed five al Qaeda militants in Karachi, the Express Tribune reports. Among the militants killed in the raid were two commanders of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. In an operation in Balochistan province, security forces also killed 13 militants from the Baloch Liberation Front. Those killed in the operation allegedly include those responsible for the massacre of 20 construction workers in Balochistan on Saturday. Dawn has more.

The Post reports that al Shabab militants stormed a government building in Mogadishu in an attack that included suicide car bombs and automatic gunfire, killing at least 10 people and leaving seven of the attackers dead.

Following late-night meetings in Berlin on Monday, foreign ministers from Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France issued a call for heavy weaponry to be withdrawn from the front lines of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. However, the Wall Street Journal writes that the talks did not yield a real breakthrough towards a more-lasting peace. Indeed, the AP brings us news that in the early hours of Tuesday morning, sporadic fighting resumed on the outskirts of Donetsk. A Ukrainian military spokesman said that six troops were killed and 12 wounded during the fighting.

Michael Weiss of the Daily Beast has an interview with Russian activist and spy-watcher Andrei Soldatov on the power-struggle within Russia, the Nemtsov assassination, and the strange behavior of Edward Snowden. From Soldatov:

[Snowden] is clearly being exploited—after all, many repressive measures on the Internet in Russia were presented to Russians as a response to Snowden’s revelations. For instance, the legislation to relocate the servers of global platforms to Russia by September of this year, to make them available for the Russian secret services, was presented as a measure to assure the security of Russian citizens’ personal data.

Yesterday, four former Blackwater security guards received lengthy sentences for their parts in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad that left 17 civilians dead. One contractor received a life sentence while the three others were given 30 years behind bars. The case has been a source of friction between the United States, Iraq, the FBI and Justice Department, as well as two presidential administrations questioning how to handle the individual charges. Adam Lerner of Politico shares the report.

Finally, in the first day of his presidential campaign yesterday, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) said that if elected, he would resume the policy of sending suspected terrorists to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Parting Shot: The Daily Beast writes that the era of laser weapons is closer than you might think.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Yishai Schwartz tipped us off to the “polite sabotage” currently underway against the Corker bill in the United States Senate.

Herb Lin shared new information that suggests the FISC is not quite the rubber stamp its opponents claim.

Finally, Ben wrote on the New York Times’ latest “kill list” story in the case of al Farekh, highlighting the internal debate inside the Obama administration that ultimately stayed a drone strike and led to his capture.

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