Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Staley Smith
Monday, July 27, 2015, 4:23 PM

Turkey has made a dramatic entrance into the war against the Islamic State. Following an agreement late last week about between Turkey and the United States to allow American forces to utilize a Turkish air base, officials in Washington and Ankara announced plans yesterday to clear militants from an area of land 50 miles wide and 25 miles deep along northern Syria. The arrangement is intended to create an “ISIS-free zone” controlled by relatively moderate Syrian insurgents, which, the New York Times explains, would serve as a safe haven for displaced Syrians.

The creation of the safe zone is a diplomatic victory for Turkey, which has long campaigned for establishment of “buffer zone” in northern Syria as a precondition for joining the battle against ISIS. Many of the details remain unclear including how the safe haven will be policed, whether it will include a de facto facto no-fly zone patrolled by coalition planes, and what the response will be if Syrian regime troops attack American allies including the Kurdish militias or Syrian opposition fighters battling the Islamic State in northern Syria. The Guardian has the story.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called for an emergency meeting tomorrow, following a request by Turkey to hold consultations under Article 4 of the alliance. The meeting will include the ambassadors of all 28 NATO Allies. A press release by Council stated: "Under article 4 of the Treaty, any Ally can request consultations whenever, in the opinion of any of them, their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened. Turkey requested the meeting in view of the seriousness of the situation after the heinous terrorist attacks in recent days, and also to inform allies of the measures it is taking.” Al Jazeera notes that “since the alliance's creation in 1949, Article 4 of NATO has been invoked several times, including by Turkey in 2003 and in 2012, and Poland in 2014.”

The strategy would likely intensify American and Turkish military action against ISIS in Syria, particularly the U.S. forces’ coordination with Syrian insurgents on the ground. So far, only 60 insurgents have been formally vetted and trained by the United States under a Pentagon program and “questions also remain about which Syrian insurgents and how many will be involved in the new operation.” Alice Fordham of NPR examines the situation in-depth in a podcast for NPR.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) announced earlier today that Turkish tanks hit YPG positions and those of allied Arab rebels in a village in Aleppo, Syria, injuring villagers and members of the allied rebel force. Ankara is treading lightly as it simultaneously battles the Islamic State in Syria and Kurdish insurgents in Iraq and as the YPG heighten accusations that Turkey is deliberately targeting Kurds rather than focusing its military efforts on the Islamic State. In a statement released by the YPG, the group called on Turkey to cease its attacks on Kurds: “Instead of targeting Isis terrorist occupied positions, Turkish forces attack our defenders’ positions. We urge [the] Turkish leadership to halt this aggression and to follow international guidelines. We are telling the Turkish army to stop shooting at our fighters and their positions.”

On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal informed us that, for the first time since 2011, Turkish forces launched airstrikes on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants in northern Iraq, the latest escalation that effectively ends a shaky cease-fire in place since 2013. Turkey considers the PKK a terrorist organization and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu clarified that Turkey is launching a campaign against all terrorist organizations, not just ISIS. Turkey's Kurds say that by reviving open conflict with the PKK, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is also attempting to “undermine support for the pro-Kurdish opposition ahead of a possible early election and stoke up nationalist sentiment.”

Turkish Kurds took to the streets of Istanbul to protest Ankara’s airstrikes against Kurdish militants in Iraq and against the mass-arrest of hundreds of Kurds across the country. This follows a peaceful demonstration that took place last week in Istanbul to denounce a massacre by ISIS in Suruç in which 32 lives were lost. EuroNews has the details.

Ankara has repeatedly denied claims by the PKK that it has been covertly supporting ISIS to weaken Kurdish forces in Syria. The Guardian suggests that the YPG has proved Syria’s most effective force against ISIS, but its successes have been viewed with suspicion by Turkey because of its links to the PKK.

Earlier today, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made remarks clarifying that Turkey will not send ground troops into neighboring Syria. Talking to the press, Davutoglu said that "If we will not send ground forces -- and that we will not do -- then certain elements that cooperate with us on the ground must be protected."

Back on its own soil, Turkey is intensifying a crackdown on suspected militants. The Journal also notified us that Turkish authorities arrested more than 590 suspected Islamic State and PKK members over the weekend. At least 37 of those detained are believed to be foreigners.

Turkish help for China’s Uighur refugees looms over President Tayyip Erdogan as he prepares to visit Beijing this week. Uighurs fleeing China say they are escaping repression by the Chinese authorities, though China denies it represses the Uighurs and says their freedom of religion is respected. Thousands of members of China’s Turkic language-speaking Muslim ethnic minority have reached Turkey in the last year, “infuriating Beijing, which accuses Ankara of helping its citizens flee unlawfully.” Reuters has the story.

Matt Schiavenza of the Atlantic details why Ankara’s decision to attack ISIS and the recent Iranian nuclear deal both benefit the flagging efforts of Bashar al Assad's army in Syria.

Now in its fifth year, the conflict in Syria has left 230,000 dead and displaced millions, the BBC reports. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al Assad acknowledged in an unusually frank public admission that he is losing his grip on his country. The regime’s army, which was at one point 300,000 strong, has been halved due to deaths, defections, and a rise in draft-dodging. Assad attributed the regime’s recent battlefield setbacks to a shortage of soldiers and the need to defend areas deemed more strategic and vital than others. The Wall Street Journal describes Assad’s speech as “an effort to boost the morale of his supporters and warn certain communities in regime-controlled areas about the perils of not contributing more to the regime’s defense.”

Yesterday, the Taliban freed 142 Afghan Local Police and border police who were captured in Badakhshan over the past few days following efforts on the part of tribal elders. A spokesman for the group said it had released 120 Afghan soldiers on condition that they would not return to police ranks. The news comes after scores of insurgents attacked the base on Friday night, seizing control of an Afghan joint military base in Teergaran village. Tolo News informs us that reports also suggest the Taliban seized a large amount of arms and equipment, which many fear, could be used to attack other areas.” The Long War Journal has details of the raid.

Ten people were killed in Punjab, India earlier today after three militants in army uniforms seized a police station and fired at a bus in the Gurdaspur district. The gun battle between terrorists, who were holed up in the police station, and Gurdaspur Police lasted 12 hours. According the to the BBC, such assaults are common in disputed Kashmir, but this is the first terrorist attack in India’s Punjab in almost 13 years. India tightened security on its border with Pakistan after the attack and officials say they have not not ruled out Pakistan's involvement.

The ceasefire in Yemen is unraveling, just hours after it began. The Houthis continued to attack across Yemen today, despite a ceasefire announcement by its the Saudi-led coalition. The Arab coalition fighting the Houthis had announced a five-day truce beginning Sunday night to allow in emergency aid amid severe shortages of fuel, food and medicine. A source close to the Yemeni government told the press that “These were initial and immediate indications of the failure of the ceasefire,” but added that the Yemeni government considers the humanitarian truce ongoing despite the breach. CNN reports that “Houthi militias shelled several areas in the central city of Taiz, including many residential areas.” Previous humanitarian ceasefires have struggled to take hold. One in May was only partially observed by the warring sides and another truce earlier this month was unsuccessful, according to the United Nations.

Simon Cottee of the Atlantic delves into “The Lost Pilgrims of the Islamic State,” detailing the migration of Westerners to the self-declared Caliphate, which he describes as the “tragic intersection of estrangement and utopian hope.” It is estimated that around 4,000 people have left the West to join the terrorist group, of which 550 are women seeming to have gone to become mothers and raise the next generation of jihadists.

The Guardian lets us know that the British Foreign Office has ruled out air strikes against Islamic State targets in Libya in response to last month’s beach attack in Tunisia that left 30 British tourists dead. The gunman in the Tunisian attack was reportedly trained in Libya. British Prime Minister David Cameron “ordered government departments to draw up contingency plans for Libya before his overseas trip this week to Southeast Asia.” And in another sign of concern about the state of Libya and Britain’s post-conflict intervention, “the Commons foreign affairs committee is launching an inquiry into the government’s foreign policy with respect to the north African country.”

Yesterday, the Kremlin released its revised maritime doctrine that calls for “boosting the Russian navy’s strategic positions on the Black Sea, while also helping the country’s military maintain a strong presence in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.” The International Business Times suggests that the move is aimed at countering NATO’s “inadmissible expansion” near the country’s western borders.

President Obama wrapped up a two day visit to Kenya over the weekend by delivering a tough-love message in which he encouraged Kenya to confront “the dark corners” of its past and “wage a sustained campaign against corruption, expand its democracy, overcome ethnic division, protect human rights and work to end discrimination against women and girls.” He emphasized a phrase that he has said before: that “the future of Africa is up to Africans” and that they should not look “to the outside for salvation.” But, the New York Times says, he vowed that the United States would help.

President Obama's visit to Africa continued today as he headed to Ethiopia, a key strategic ally but much criticized for its record on democracy and human rights. His trip marks the first visit to Ethiopia by serving U.S. president. Obama’s meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is expected to focus on security and the threat of Somalia-based terrorist group al Shabaab as well as Ethiopia's crackdowns on press freedoms and political opposition. Obama praised Ethiopia as an “outstanding partner” in the fight against militant Islamists.

The leaders of Kenya and Uganda will join the meeting to discuss the South Sudan crisis and efforts to build a collective front to end the 19-month civil war currently ongoing in the world's youngbest nation. The Daily Nation has the story.

The Times brings news that 13 people were killed and many more injured yesterday in a bombing outside a landmark Mogadishu hotel in Somalia. Terrorist group al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack in which a suicide bomber got to within about 100 feet of the hotel “before triggering a thunderous blast that ravaged the hotel and sent smoke billowing skyward.” The hotel is reportedly favored by diplomats and top government officials. The group claimed “it was in retaliation for the killing of civilians during a recent offensive by Somali and African Union troops against Shabaab forces in the southern part of the country.”

Foreign Policy’s Ty McCormick writes of the on-going challenge al Shabaab’s resiliency poses for African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, the multinational peace-enforcement mission that has battled the militant group al Shabaab in Somalia since 2007.

The United States is ramping up attacks on the group in East Africa, where it bombarded al Shabaab “targets in the past week with a series of strikes in Somalia, shifting from pinprick attacks that strictly focus on the jihadis’ leaders.” U.S. officials will not disclose the number of attacks or whether they were manned or unmanned, but the Los Angeles Times has reported that they were drone strikes. Paul McLeary of Foreign Policy explains that “American drone strikes and Special Forces raids have been a key part of the fight against al-Shabab in Somalia for the past decade, a struggle that has bled over the border into nearby Kenya.”

Hilary Matfess of Quartz analyzes remarks made by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari at the United States Institute of Peace last week. She claims that: “By emphasizing the restrictions that Leahy vetting places on technological upgrading of the military, as opposed to its hampering the professionalization and training of the security sector, President Buhari relinquished a valuable opportunity to provoke debate in the United States about reforming the [Leahy Amendment] vetting process and overlooked his country’s culpability in radicalizing communities in the country’s North East.”

According to U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris, China’s vastly expanded reefs in the South China Sea now look exactly like combat bases for fighters, bombers, ships, and surveillance. He also warned that the U.S. would use military force to defend its interests and its allies against any threats from the islands. Speaking about China’s activities in an address at the Aspen Security Forum, he said: “I believe those facilities are clearly military in nature.” Adm. Harris went on to say that Beijing is “essentially creating false sovereignty” and “decimating a fragile ecosystem by building man-made islands on top of coral reefs and shoals.” Defense One has the details.

Earlier today Chinese authorities announced a plan to start a second cruise ship link to the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, an area that is also claimed by Vietnam. Reuters tells us that Chinese officials “hope a second ship will be in operation before the end of the year, and that more islands can be opened up for visits, the report said.” Beijing first began cruises in 2013 on a trial basis and more than 10,000 tourists have taken the trip so far.

The Military Times reveals that more than 33,000 U.S. and Australian troops took part in Talisman Sabre, a biennial military exercise that involves 21 ships including an aircraft carrier and landing helicopter dock. The 15 day exercise comes amid increasing tension in the South China Sea and for the first time ever, the exercise was attended by Japan.

Sydney Seiler, the U.S. special envoy for now-defunct six-party talks on ending the North’s nuclear program, says the Iran deal has shown that the door is open to North Korea to negotiate when it decides it is willing to end diplomatic isolation. Seiler told the South Korean press that the Iran Deal “demonstrates again our willingness, when we have a willing counterpart, and it demonstrates our flexibility when the DPRK makes a decision that it wants to take a different path.”

In Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos announced on Saturday that government forces were halting aerial bombings of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla camps in an attempt to de-escalate the situation and potentially revive struggling peace talks. According to Colombia Reports, the confidence-building move was in response to the decision by the [FARC] to declare a unilateral cease fire.” President Santos clarified that his order applied only to camps outside urban areas which did not pose a threat to the local population.

In a piece for Medium, Major Jon Mohundro of West Point, describes how the Army is developing the wrong leaders: “As the defense budget continues to be constrained by sequestration, developing the right leaders who can operate and win in a complex world will become increasingly more important. Unfortunately, the Army’s officer education system is designed to develop the wrong leaders.”

The Wall Street Journal writes that, according to the FBI, “the U.S. government intends to increase its use of a law designed for catching terrorists and spies to fight what officials call a surge in corporate-espionage cases.” Randall Coleman, the head of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, places much of the blame on Chinese companies and says its government plays “a significant role” in the attempted theft of trade secrets.

In an annual intelligence-funding reauthorization bill, the Senate Intelligence Committee is including language that would require social media companies---including Google, Facebook and Twitter---to disclose any content on their networks that could indicate terrorist activity. The move comes as law enforcement and government agencies try to contain the increased use of social networks for recruitment and planning. The Journal has the story.

Finally, CNN brings us news that Belgian authorities have arrested two former Guantanamo Bay detainees, Moussa Zemmouri and Soufiane A, on suspicions of recruiting Westerners to join al Qaeda in Syria. Zemmouri was released from Guantanamo in 2005 and authored a book called Innocent at Guantanamo.

Parting Shot: The National Archives released a new set of 15 photos showing the Bush administration's reaction as the events of September 11th unfolded. See those here.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

In this week’s Foreign Policy Essay, Peter Feaver and Eric Lorber argue that with effects that are hard to predict and targeting that often misfires, the United States risks relying too much on sanctions.

Ben brought us the latest edition of the Rational Security Podcast on Obama’s latest plan to close GITMO, the brewing of a private Sunni army, and the rise of the “Chinese Cookie Monster.”

The Lawfare Podcast featured a trio of remarks from FBI Director James Comey, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, and NSA Director Admiral Michael Rogers, all of whom appeared at last weeks Aspen Security Forum.

Benjamin Bissell reported on Saudi-Israeli diplomacy after the Iran deal.

Yishai Schwartz reviewed Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide by former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren.

Finally, Yishai also clarified the two debates over the Iran deal: One centers on whether it’s a good deal, the other asks, now that it is done, if Congress should endorse it.

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