Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Sebastian Brady
Friday, May 29, 2015, 2:23 PM

As Iraqi forces focus on driving ISIS out of Ramadi, two bombings rocked Baghdad yesterday, killing 15 and wounding 42 more. The Associated Press reports that the two car bombs detonated late Thursday night at two hotels in the capital city. While ISIS did not immediately claim responsibility, a government spokesman blamed the group and warned that such attacks will continue while government forces and Shiite militias prosecute their campaign against ISIS militants. “Iraq is in a state of war and what happened in Baghdad is a product of that war."

As the United States reevaluates the campaign against ISIS in Iraq after the fall of Ramadi, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff indicated he was open to embedding U.S. troops with Iraqi forces. DefenseOne writes that Gen. Raymond Odierno said yesterday that “Embedded advisors, with increased risk to our soldiers, probably would make this more effective.” While also voicing approval for deploying more Army trainers to Iraq, he warned that an increased U.S. military presence could worsen sectarian or ISIS violence in the country.

Elsewhere in Iraq, Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias are fighting to retake the Beiji oil refinery from ISIS militants. Al Jazeera reports that significant sections of the large refinery complex, which has been violently contested for months, came under ISIS control in early May. A combinaton of police, soldiers, and special forces remain in the complex, however, and reportedly have designs on quickly rooting out the ISIS militants.

Across the border in Syria, ISIS is working to solidify its control of Palmyra, the ancient city it seized last week. The New York Times details these efforts, which vacillate between terrorizing and courting the locals. Soon after ISIS captured the city, for example, militants executed dozens of people and left their bodies strewn in the streets, only to then reopen the city’s sole bakery and begin giving out free bread to residents.

As ISIS works to subdue Palmyra, other Islamist rebels, including militants from the al Qaeda affiliate al Nusra Front, took control of Ariha, one of the Syrian government’s last remaining strongholds in the western Idlib Province, according to activists on the ground. The BBC notes that the victory would mark the latest in a string of rebel victories in Idlib and would leave most of the province, which borders Turkey, under rebel control. However, the Syrian army has claimed that there is still intense fighting ongoing in Ariha.

The Washington Post reveals that a Tajik special forces commander trained by the United States has defected to Syria to join ISIS. Col. Gulmurod Khalimov, who led the Tajik Interior Ministry's special forces and received training in both Russia and the United States, appeared in a recent video proclaiming his allegiance to ISIS and warning that he's been joined by a significant number of other Tajik men who are now fighting for ISIS.

A car bomb exploded outside of a Shiite mosque in Saudi Arabia earlier today, killing four people. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack, which follows another similar attack on Shiite Saudis that it claimed last week. Reuters explains that the militant group has been open about its goal of stirring sectarian conflict in the country as a way to bring about the overthrow of the Saudi ruling family.

ISIS also continues to take advantage of the chaos in Libya. The AP reports that ISIS’s Libyan affiliate has taken control of a civilian air base in the central city of Sirte, which has served as the group’s stronghold in the country.

In northern Afghanistan, civilians are bearing the brunt of the fighting between Afghan security forces and Taliban militants. The AP writes that already 100,000 people have been forced from their homes in the region. Those that remain are often used by militants as human shields, hampering government efforts to beat back the Taliban.

U.S. surveillance imagery shows that China has placed weaponry on one of the islands it has constructed in the South China Sea, the Wall Street Journal reports. U.S. officials noted that the weaponry couldn’t threaten U.S. ships or planes, but could reach nearby islands, including one claimed by Vietnam. These revelations come just as the Chinese ambassador to the United States accused the U.S. government of overreacting to China’s land-reclamation efforts in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. In an interview with the Journal, Ambassador Cui Tiankai claimed that the U.S. response to China’s aggressive territorial claims in the sea has raised many questions in China, including if “there [is] an attempt to replay the Cold War in Asia?”

As the June 1 sunset of key provisions of the USA Patriot Act looms, top Senate Democrats are pushing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to drop his opposition to the USA Freedom Act, which would reform the NSA’s intelligence practices while preserving some of the law’s expiring powers. In a statement released ahead of a Sunday Senate session, the Senate’s top four Democrats said that “we have not moved any closer towards a solution,” and took Sen. McConnell to task for his decision to block USA Freedom. That decision, the statement notes, has “left our country without a clear path forward when it comes to our national security and civil liberties.” The Hill has more.

If the Senate fails to reach a compromise, and certain government surveillance authorities do expire on Monday, those authorities may be gone for good, writes Shane Harris. Indeed, lawmakers note that a vote to reinstate lapsed surveillance powers requires a much different calculation than a vote to reform but largely maintain those same powers. According to Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), “There were members who voted for the USA Freedom Act who would feel differently about reinstating those provisions” if they sunset.

A new Pew poll suggests that a majority of Americans continue to support drone strikes against extremists. 58 percent of Americans surveyed approved of U.S. drone strikes against extremists in places such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; 35 percent disapproved. However, 48 percent said they were “very concerned” that drone attacks endanger innocent civilians. The Hill covers the poll.

Parting Shot: All Drones Great and Small: Popular Science details China’s “Divine Eagle,” the world’s biggest drone, while DefenseOne reveals that U.S. Special Forces are experimenting with the 18-gram “Black Hornet,” the smallest drone to ever be used in combat operations.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Nathalie Weizmann teased out some of the crucial legal distinctions between the end of active hostilities and the end of armed conflict.

Ganesh Sitaraman and David Zionts pointed us to their new NYU Law Review article on the lessons that behavioral psychology has for constitutional debates on war powers.

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