Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Quinta Jurecic, Staley Smith
Tuesday, August 18, 2015, 1:39 PM

A new report suggests that all sides in the conflict in Yemen have indiscriminately killed civilians and may have committed war crimes. The report, issued by Amnesty International, notes the routine use of indiscriminate weapons in the conflict and points to a series of airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition that appeared to target civilian areas without nearby military targets. The BBC has more---and on that note, Reuters tells us that airstrikes have hit the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeida, a major entry point for humanitarian aid supplies.

The Los Angeles Times reports on the recent successes of the Saudi-led air campaign, aided by a boost in U.S. military advisors deployed to provide the campaign with increased intelligence for airstrikes. The number of advisors has more than doubled from 20 to 45 in recent months, though the Pentagon emphasized that “the final decisions on the conduct of operations in the campaign are made by members of the Saudi-led coalition, not the United States.” And what about the problem of civilian casualties? A spokesman for the military told the newspaper that “We are confident that the intelligence we pass on to Saudi Arabia and other coalition members is sound, giving them the best options for military success consistent with international norms.”

Meanwhile, in many areas where the Saudi-led coalition has pushed the Houthis rebels out, the Washington Post writes, now no one has control. The newly-created power vacuum has led to clashes between a possibly resurgent AQAP and local militias that are both anti-Houthi and anti-government, stemming from the coalition’s failure to secure captured territory.

The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution yesterday calling for peace in Syria, the New York Times reports. The resolution, which was backed by Russia, marks the first time in four years that the Security Council has reached agreement on how to address the ongoing Syrian crisis. The Times notes that the resolution does not mention specifics on how and when Syrian President Bashar al Assad would step down from power, pointing to the complexity of the issues that any peace process must untangle.

Of course, the Syrian government has no love lost for the United Nations. The day after the vote, the regime sharply criticized the U.N. envoy to Syria for “straying from neutrality” in his comments about “unacceptable” and “devastating” government airstrikes that killed nearly 100 civilians in the city of Douma on Sunday. Yet the envoy’s criticism doesn’t appear to have dissuaded the regime, which again bombed Douma yesterday. The Guardian has the story.

Posting on his Facebook page, former Iraqi Prime Minister and Vice President Nouri al Maliki declared “worthless” a soon-to-be-released government report blaming him for the fall of Mosul to ISIS militants. Instead, he blamed Turkey and Iraq’s Kurds for a “conspiracy” leading to Mosul’s capture. A parliamentary panel has called for Maliki to face trial for his involvement over the seizure of the city last year.

On Sunday, Maliki lost his position as one of three vice presidents in the Iraqi government as part of a sweeping government reform effort orchestrated by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi. Over at Defense One, Jane Arraf of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that Prime Minister Abadi’s reforms may be just what the embattled country needs.

Only days after asking its Arab allies for assistance in conducting anti-ISIS airstrikes, Libya’s internationally recognized government is now requesting help in supplying military equipment. According to Foreign Minister Mohammed al Dairi, the Libyan military lacks the weaponry to effectively counter ISIS’s expanding presence within the country. The Journal has more.

During a visit to the United Arab Emirates, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took what the Journal describes as a “thinly veiled swipe” at Pakistan’s complicated relationship with terrorist groups. “Those who support terrorism must be on one side and those who believe in humanity on the other,” Prime Minister Modi said, in an implicit reference to Indian accusations that Islamabad has sponsored anti-Indian terrorism.

Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has decisively failed in his effort to regain power, Reuters reports---despite his stirring campaign promise to "support good policies and oppose bad things.” General election results consolidate the control of current President Maithripala Sirisena, and may lead to Rajapaksa’s trial for alleged corruption and abuse of power if he fails to step down from the parliamentary opposition to Sirisena’s government. The election may portend profound geopolitical consequences, solidifying Sri Lanka’s recent turn away from Chinese engagement in the country.

Yesterday, a bomb struck near a popular Hindu shrine in central Bangkok, killing at least 20 people, many of them tourists. Today, a second bomb exploded without harming anyone in a Bangkok river. The Journal examines Thai authorities’ efforts to investigate the blast, for which no individual or organization has yet claimed responsibility. And the Post considers the history of political violence in Thailand. While some have suggested that the low-level Islamist insurgency in southern Thailand may have led to the attacks, there is “no precedent for an Islamist or separatist strike in Bangkok that would mirror Monday’s bombing.”

In response to a pair of unexplained explosions that rattled the port city of Tianjin last Wednesday, Chinese authorities are investigating the head of the State Administration of Work Safety, Reuters writes. More than 100 people were killed and 700 injured in the explosions, which have caused widespread outrage among residents of Tianjin over government secrecy on the matter.

The domestic political battle over the nuclear deal with Iran continues. Yesterday, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) announced his opposition to the deal in an op-ed over at the Post---an opposition countered by a group of nonproliferation and nuclear exports, who have signed a statement supporting the agreement. Politico has the story.

Meanwhile in the Persian Gulf and nearby waters, a game of “spy versus spy” is playing out between the United States and Iran. The Times reports that each military is closely watching the other in the region, launching fighter jets, patrolling the Gulf coastline, and---in one meta-spy incident---filming each other filming each other.

As Iran and the United States recalibrate their relationship with each other in the wake of the nuclear agreement, Russia and Iran are doing the same. Reuters tells us that Iran and Russia will soon sign a contract for Tehran to acquire four S-300 surface-to-air missile systems. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed recent reports of Iranian Major General Qasem Suleimani’s visit to the Kremlin as "rumors". The presence of Suleimani, who heads the notorious Quds force, in Moscow, would be in violation of a U.N. travel ban.

Russians are beginning to feel the ruble’s fall and are experiencing the first sustained decline in living standards in 15 years since President Vladimir Putin came to power. The New York Times lets us know that “the ruble has fallen by half against the dollar, driven by the plunging price of oil, the lifeblood of Russia’s economy.” However, President Putin’s popularity ratings have remained high since last year’s annexation of Crimea, which was extremely popular among Russians.

In Moscow, the Times reports a significant shake-up in internal politics as Vladimir I. Yakunin, the director of Russia’s national railway company and a longtime associate of President Putin, has allegedly been ousted from his position. A local news outlet announced that Mr. Yakunin, who has known President Putin since the 1990s, has accepted a mostly ceremonial political position in the upper house of Parliament.

Despite a ceasefire reached in February, Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces have escalated fighting in recent days. Yesterday, Moscow and Kiev exchanged allegations as to which party was responsible for the uptick in violence, as Russian President Putin visited Crimea. According to the Ukrainian government, two civilians were killed and six wounded by shelling on the outskirts of Mariupol. At the same time, a Ukrainian military spokesman accused the Russian-backed separatists of engaging in “active offensive operations.” The Wall Street Journal carries the story.  

The Journal also reports that in response to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, NATO’s eastern flank countries will hold a summit in November to discuss potential security guarantees for the region. The conference will include Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland. For its part, the Polish government has called for a greater NATO military presence in the country.

Marines based in Bulgaria are set to receive four Abrams tanks, three howitzers, and six light armored reconnaissance vehicles, according to the Marine Times. 160 Marines are currently based in Bulgaria on six-month rotations, which are meant to alleviate the fears of eastern NATO allies concerned with Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine.  

Finally, Defense One brings us news that Russia’s army of cyber trolls is making open source intelligence much harder for certain U.S. spies---those tasked with sorting through Facebook posts, tweets, and blog posts to actually analyze sentiment and on-the-ground events. While cyber trolls complicate the task of the intelligence community, their larger impact may be in keeping an audience captive and influencing local perceptions of what is happening in the conflict.

The Department of Commerce announced yesterday that it will delay plans to cede oversight of the global address system for the web by at least a year, the Times reports. Since 1998, the Commerce Department has contracted out management of the system to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit. The Commerce Department has long planned to phase out its oversight, and an additional year will allow time for the international community to figure out how the transition should work.

Defense One tells us that, over the next year, military researchers are expected to unveil new tools enabling organizations such as the Defense Department to rapidly respond to DDoS attacks---a crude but sometimes effective method of cyberattack. The goal is to allow websites to recover from the attacks in 10 seconds or less.

The United Nations plans to contact AT&T over a recent Times report on the telecommunications company’s collaboration with NSA bulk surveillance practices, including the surveillance of all internet communications at the U.N.’s New York headquarters. Yet the AP writes that it is not yet clear how the U.N. will respond, especially given the assumed frequency of state surveillance at the U.N. offices in New York.

Yesterday, the IRS revealed that a cyberattack into one of its computer databases was three times more extensive than previously thought. Reuters informs us that 330,000 tax forms were illegally accessed by cyber criminals, whom the agency believes may use the information to potentially file fraudulent tax returns during the upcoming 2016 filing season.

Parting shot: A warm congratulations to the first two women to graduate from the Army’s Ranger School. Alongside 94 male servicemembers, they will receive their Ranger Tabs this Friday.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ben offered a look at strategic Jerusalem through his camera lens, where inches matter and maps often fail to display the complexity of the conflict.  

Quinta wrote a literature review on moral theory and drone warfare, outlining key issues in the ongoing debate.

This week’s Jihadology Podcast with Aaron Zelin featured an interview with Samar Batrawi on Palestinians and the global jihadi movement.

Email the Roundup Team noteworthy law and security-related articles to include, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for additional commentary on these issues. Sign up to receive Lawfare in your inbox. Visit our Events Calendar to learn about upcoming national security events, and check out relevant job openings on our Job Board.