Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Staley Smith, Quinta Jurecic
Wednesday, August 19, 2015, 3:41 PM

In the latest atrocity perpetrated by the Islamic State, members of the militant group have beheaded the renowned retired director of antiquities in the Syrian city of Palmyra, the Guardian reports. 83-year-old Khaled al-Asaad had worked for 50 years as “the top overseer for Palmyra’s sprawling Roman-era ruins and the gatekeeper for researchers seeking to work there for more than five decades.” There were many concerns from the international community that the militant group would destroy the UNESCO world heritage site but it seems largely to remain in tact. Some believe that the jihadist group is using the ruins for protection under the assumption that the United States-led military coalition that is bombing Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria will not bomb a UNESCO heritage site.

CNN carries the first interview with a man claiming to be a member of the New Syrian Force, who suggests that "17,000 men want to join, but the training is very slow." The fighter, named Abu Iskander, also provides the first clear explanation of the current combat roles members of the force are executing, saying "I go to the front line against ISIS, and I give locations for the warplaines to bomb." So far, it has cost the United States $41 million to train and equip just 54 moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State. At least 5 of the rebels were kidnapped by the al Qaeda affiliated group, al Nusra Front, the first day they entered the battle. 70 more fighters are expected to graduate from the training program shortly. Iskander went on to say that the program needs to be faster and include more trainees.

Reuters brings news that ISIS militants set off a truck bomb outside offices of a Kurdish security agency in northeastern Syria earlier today, killing at least 11 people. The attack occurred near the Turkish border and targeted the headquarters of the Asayish, the Kurdish internal security force set up by the autonomous Kurdish government that runs large areas of northern Syria.

The International Business Times presents an important graph that depicts the breakdown of the 2015 death toll in Syria. For some perspective: the Syrian regime's barrel bombs have killed more civilians than ISIS and Al Qaeda combined.

Umm Sayyaf, the widow of a former top ISIS commander killed in a U.S. raid last May, is set to stand trial in an Iraqi Kurdish courtroom for her leading role in ISIS's brutal treatment of women and girls, including the kidnapping and enslavement of Yazidis. The Daily Beast explains that the decision allow Kurdish authorities to try Sayyaf---an Iraqi citizen who was captured in Syria and subsequently interrogated in Iraq by an American unit---“was the result of both legal and pragmatic considerations” and that “the handling of the case is highly unusual and poses significant questions about how future ISIS fighters captured overseas will be dealt with by U.S. authorities.” A U.S. administration officials claims that the Iraqi legal system made it virtually impossible to extradite her to the United States to face charges here. Officials were also concerned that they did not have enough evidence to build a case against her.

Some are challenging the U.S. government’s decision not to have Umm Sayyaf extradited to the U.S. to face charges, including Senator John McCain (R-AZ) who sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Attorney General Loretta Lynch criticizing the desicion of the Pentagon and White House. Umm Sayyaf is not expected to be charged with any crimes related to the kidnapping of American aid worker Kayla Mueller who died while in the hands of ISIS earlier this year. In his letter, McCain expressed disapproval and stated that "the White House has said that she was ‘complicit’ in the illegal captivity of Kayla Mueller, the U.S. citizen and aid worker who was abducted and held by ISIL in Syria until her tragic death earlier this year.”

The New York Times suggests that the prospects for a period of instability in Turkey are increasing after attempts by Turkey’s ruling party to form a new coalition government officially ended in failure. Earlier today Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu formally acknowledged to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he will be unable to form a coalition, paving the way for new elections that will likely be held in November. President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party was stunned in an election in June in which it lost the parliamentary majority for the first time in 13 years. Since his party’s defeat, “Mr. Erdogan’s critics have accused him of taking actions — including a new crackdown on Kurdish militants — to sabotage the formation of a coalition and to justify a call for new elections so that he could try to regain a parliamentary majority.”

Lauren Bohn of the Atlantic looks inside Turkey’s revived war against the Kurds and the complex web of regional alliances and existential struggles.

Time notifies us that ISIS has re-established its hold on former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown after suppressing a rebellion by residents of the city. The group shelled residential neighborhoods in Sirte, hung bodies from lampposts and beheaded at least 12 people. The latest fighting “underscores the persistence of an ISIS-dominated enclave in Libya that emerged from the chaos of a civil war” in which “neither of the competing governments or their allied military forces have demonstrated an ability to dislodge the extremists.” The Islamic State’s control of Sirte raises the question of whether it can “maintain a hold on its only territorial island outside of the the group’s heartland in Iraq and Syria.”

In response to Libya’s plea for help in battling ISIS, the Arab League has endorsed the position of the internationally recognized Libyan parliament, but has not yet pledged any assistance. Libya has been plagued by internal strife since the Arab Spring and is now facing a growing ISIS insurgency, which its weak government is unequipped to counter. The Journal has more.

As the ISIS-affiliated group Sinai Province grows further entrenched in northeastern Egypt, the United States is weighing its options as to what to do with U.S. peacekeeping forces deployed in Sinai. According to the AP, the Obama administration may choose to enhance the forces’ protection or to pull them out entirely from the increasingly volatile region. U.S. forces have been deployed to the region since the 1979 Camp David Accords to assist in keeping the peace between Egypt and Israel.

The Wall Street Journal also reports on a burgeoning ISIS ally in Central Asia: the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The group has played a major role in anti-government fighting in northern Afghanistan, switching its allegiance from the Taliban to ISIS after confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death. The group's presence may validate increased Afghan concerns over the security of the country’s northern border and international worries over a possible pan-Central-Asian ISIS movement. “Afghanistan is fighting on behalf of Central Asia,” an Afghan national security advisor said.

And as Afghanistan grapples with the Taliban, ISIS, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and other extremist movements, Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum is resorting to tactics that some find worrying. The New York Times tells us that Dostum has begun to make use of private militias to push back against the insurgency in the country’s north. Yet given his history as a former warlord who played a central role in earlier conflicts with the Taliban, both Afghan and Western officials are concerned that Dostum’s mobilization of militias may signal a return to the violence and chaos of the 1990s.

War reflections: in the New York Times Magazine, Vanessa M. Gezari studies what she sees as the failure of the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System in Afghanistan and Iraq. Developed as part of the counterinsurgency strategy of the 2000s, the Human Terrain Teams have been unable to live up to their promise of developing a deeper strategic understanding of regional culture and politics.

Pakistani diplomats have had a busy week. First, Afghanistan summoned the Pakistani ambassador to explain a firefight along the border between the two countries that resulted in the deaths of several Afghan border policemen. Then, Islamabad did some summoning of its own, calling for a meeting with Kashmiri separatists in what one expert on the region described as a “deliberate attempt to irritate India.” The attempt at irritation follows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s needling of Pakistan yesterday over what Indians perceived as its sponsorship of terrorism. Reuters has the story.

The Times examines what appears to be a coordinated government harassment campaign by the government of Indian Prime Minister Modi against Teesta Setalvad, a human rights activist who has spearheaded efforts to hold the prime minister accountable for deadly riots that occurred on his watch in the state of Gujarat. As Setalvad prepares to present her case in court, she has been raided, branded a threat to national security, and falsely accused of “colossal fraud.”

Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) announced his opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran yesterday, following in the footsteps of Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY)---the only other Democratic senator to oppose the deal, Politico notes. Meanwhile, Japan is considering an investment pact with Iran, which would go into force after the government lifts economic sanctions along with the United States and European Union.

In a story sure to add more fuel to the anti-accord fire, the AP reports that the supplementary IAEA agreement with Iran will allow Iranian inspectors to inspect the Parchin military site. Parchin is suspected to have been a development site for nuclear weapons, although any nuclear activity there appears to have ended over a decade ago. The agreement, which was endorsed by the parties to the main nuclear deal after a briefing by the IAEA, differs from usual IAEA procedures by letting Tehran take the reins in investigating evidence of past military dimensions (PMDs) to nuclear activity.

The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled to allow the release of a Palestinian hunger striker, the New York Times reports. The case of Mohammad Allan, who has been on a hunger strike for two months to protest his detention without charge by Israeli authorities, has presented a difficult political question: “release Mr. Allan and capitulate to the demands of hunger strikers, or risk unleashing violence if he dies.” While Israeli state prosecutors were unwilling to grant immediate release, the Supreme Court held that Allan's rapidly deteriorating health merited his release from administrative detention.

The United States has threatened U.N. sanctions against South Sudanese leaders with who fail to support the peace process if a peace agreement is not signed within 15 days, Al Jazeera tells us. In July, the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions against the generals involved in South Sudan’s civil war.

An attack by Boko Haram killed at least 60 people in northeastern Nigeria last week. While the attack occurred last Thursday, details only recently emerged---a fact that the BBC suggests may indicate the weakness of the Nigerian government in some of the areas under attack by Boko Haram.

Thai authorities have issued an arrest warrant for the individual believed responsible for the bombing of a Bangkok shrine on Monday. The AP writes that while the warrant states the suspect to be an “unidentified foreign man,” the Thai police have expressed a lack of certainty over whether the individual really is from outside Thailand. The national police chief also suggested that a “network” may have perpetrated the bombing. No organization has yet come forward to claim responsibility.

Russia has sentenced an Estonian intelligence officer to 15 years in prison for allegedly spying along the Russia-Estonia border, the Guardian tells us. The officer was captured a Cold War-style tactic by Russian forces last September, in what the Estionian government claims was an abduction at gunpoint at a border crossing and what the Kremlin maintains was a justified arrest for his intrusion into Russian territory. Western governments, including the U.S. Department of State, are calling the incident a gross violation of international law and have called on Russia to release the Estonian officer immediately. Tensions between Russia and Estonia, along with the other Baltic states, have been high in the wake of Russian activities in Ukraine.

According to Bloomberg, the U.S. Navy is seeking to improve its surveillance capability in order to better detect Russian submarine patrols, suggesting increased U.S. concern over the threat posed by the Kremlin’s naval strategy. No word on whether the Navy’s decision was influenced by President Vladimir Putin’s recent submersible ride to the bottom of the Black Sea.

Remember Ashley Madison, the infidelity dating site that was hacked a few weeks ago? The data obtained in the hack---including the names, email addresses, street addresses, and phone numbers of those who signed up on the site---have been released to the internet. Wired reports on the data dump, noting that “some 15,000” of the email addresses released end in .mil or .gov. More details are available here, including a breakdown of how many people were registered for Ashley Madison from different branches of the military. 

Bloomberg View tells us that Edward Snowden may be running out of time to reach a plea agreement with the Department of Justice. The value of any information that he might have provided the government in exchange for a deal if quickly diminishing, as the intelligence community now believes both that it has a better sense of what Snowden obtained from the NSA, and that other governments likely already have possession of the information anyway. But whether or not Snowden could obtain a deal that would allow him to return to the United States, neither he nor the Justice Department seem interested in negotiating.

At Defense One, two former employees of the CIA argue that the U.S. intelligence community  needs to “do more to engage the press” on sensitive matters of national security. In their view, the IC must craft a more refined media strategy if it wants to adapt to a new media landscape that encourages publication of sensitive information.

As we noted yesterday, the first two women are set to graduate from the Army’s prestigious Ranger School---and congratulations to them. The Washington Post writes that the achievement of Lieutenant Kirsten Griest and Captain Shaye Haver may lead to broader changes in the armed forces’ treatment of women. And those changes are beginning already: the Navy will soon open up membership in SEAL teams to qualified female soldiers, Navy Times reports.

Parting shot: Hamas has declared itself to have captured a new breed of Israeli spy: a dolphin. The animal, which was captured several weeks ago in the waters near Gaza, was supposedly equipped with “various spying devices”---according to Hamas. “The Israeli Navy has a fleet of ‘Dolphin class’ submarines,” Haaretz writes, “but Army Radio made it clear that Hamas was talking about the real air-breathing animal.”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Mai El-Sadany examined Egypt’s draconian new counterterrorism law.

Major General Charlie Dunlap reviewed Peter W. Singer and August Cole’s new techno-thriller, Ghost Fleet.

Paul let us know that the transition of control over the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority has been delayed by a year.

finally, Ben wrote about his recent meeting in Jerusalem with Sheikh Abdullah Nimar Darwish, a different kind of Israeli Islamist.

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