Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Staley Smith, Quinta Jurecic
Friday, August 21, 2015, 3:07 PM

Continuing on its path of destruction, the Islamic State has demolished an ancient Christian monastery in central Syria, the Guardian tells us. Priests and activists say ISIS militants wrecked an Assyrian Catholic church inside the monastery that dates back to the first Christian centuries. The latest ravaging illustrates the continuing ISIS campaign against the Christian minority’s cultural heritage.

Foreign Policy looks at the significance of cultural destruction as a deliberate tactic used by both the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In addition, by murdering Khalid al-Asaad, the director of antiquities in Palmyra and “a revered figure in Syria’s cultural community, the Islamic State showed another shade of its brutality, and also its criminal disdain for Syria’s vast heritage.”

The Wall Street Journal announces that Australia is considering joining the coalition airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State. Following a request from Washington, Prime Minister Tony Abbott says the Australian military is likely to expand its involvement in the conflict beyond the Australian F/A-18 Super Hornet warplanes that have been attacking northern Iraq since last year.  

Politico's Ibrahim Hirsi writes about Minneapolis's only Somali city-councilor who battles both potholes and terrorists from City Hall.

Alex Zerden of the American Banker discusses the four pressing issues in combatting terrorism financing. Earlier this year, the House Committee on Financial Services established a bipartisan Task Force to investigate terrorism financing. He suggests that the Task Force can take a more holistic approach to the potential consequences of new terrorism financing measures, and that it study how technology is transforming the delivery of financial services in the United States and abroad. He also encourages the Task Force to give greater attention to cybersecurity matters and to explore ways to harness the power of the private sector to deter and disrupt terrorism financing.

The Pentagon is stepping up pressure on Turkey, Defense One reports. More than a year after the U.S.-led campaign began against Islamic State militants, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is demanding that Ankara do more. In a news briefing at the Pentagon yesterday, Carter pressed Turkey to stop ISIS fighters and equipment from moving across its porous borders with Syria and Iraq. He also stated that American officials want Turkey to join the air campaign against the Islamic State; so far they have only bombed Kurdish PKK militants in Iraq.

Israeli forces conducted an attack just over the Syrian border this morning, in response to rocket fire from across the Golan Heights. The air raid killed up to five of the militants responsible for the rocket attack, though the militants’ affiliation remains unclear: AFP notes that they were variously referred to as members of the Iran-backed Palestinian group Islamic Jihad and as soldiers under the Syrian government. The Golan Heights has not seen rocket fire from Syria since perhaps as far back as the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Foreign Policy examines the radical fringe of Jewish activists linked to the recent arson attack on a Palestinian home in the West Bank. While “‘Jewish terror’ is not new to Israel,” new movements of hard-line settlers who reject the authority of the Israeli state pose a particular problem for the Israeli government.

President Barack Obama has penned a letter to congressional Democrats concerned over the Iran deal, promising to deploy both economic sanctions and military force against Iran if needed to prevent further nuclear development. The New York Times, which obtained the letter, has the details on the president’s pledges. Meanwhile, the AP provides an updated whip count of the Senate Democrats in favor of, and against, the deal.

Vox has a useful explainer of Wednesday’s confusing AP story on procedures for inspection of the Parchin military site under the IAEA-Iran agreement.  While the AP originally reported that Iran would be allowed to independently investigate the site, the arrangement appears to be far less damning than it seems at first glance, though details are notably scarce.

The United Kingdom will reopen its embassy in Tehran today, four years after it was shut down following a riot over U.K. sanctions on Iran. The Guardian has more.

And lastly in Iran news, the Times reports on anticipation, among both Iranian officials and private investors, of a flood of foreign investment. Iran stands to benefit tremendously from the lifting of sanctions under the nuclear agreement. Some, however, suggest that economic benefits may flow disproportionately to the Iranian elite—many of whom populate the government of President Hassan Rouhani.

The Saudi-led coalition hopes to reclaim Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa from Houthi control, in what coalition forces anticipate will lead to a final rout of the Houthi movement in Yemen. The Financial Times writes that Saudi Arabia appears willing to fight until the bitter end, instead of allowing Oman-sponsored talks to lead to a negotiated peace. A Saudi official referred dismissively to the Omani negotiations as the “Iranian route” to ending the war.

This coalition plan may prolong a conflict that has already lead to a brutal humanitarian crisis across the country. Reuters reports on a string of coalition airstrikes yesterday and a declared ISIS attack at a government post near the coalition-held city of Aden.

Militants have been ransoming the bodies of the two foreign hostages killed in a U.S. drone strike this past January, according to the Wall Street Journal. Yesterday, the Italian government announced that it had recovered the body of Giovanni Lo Porto, but the body of U.S. aid worker Warren Weinstein remains missing. The group holding Weinstein’s body has reportedly contacted the United States government rather than Weinstein’s family for ransom, and the government’s unwillingness to pay may reopen a debate about U.S. policy against providing ransom payments to extremist groups. While Weinstein and Lo Porto were killed in al Qaeda custody, the group holding Weinstein’s body appears to either belong to a different cell of al Qaeda or have another affiliation altogether.

Afghan officials remain unhappy over what they perceive as Pakistani protection of extremist fighters. Today, Afghanistan announced that if Pakistan fails to adequately address the problem of militant “sanctuaries” in the country’s remote northwestern region, Afghan forces will be forced to cross the border and deal with the militants on their own. TOLO News has the story.

It’s not only Afghan officials who are unhappy over the Pakistani government’s perceived failure to crack down on militants within its borders. The Washington Post follows up on the news, announced yesterday, that Pakistan may face sharp aid cuts over the inadequacy of its efforts to crack down on the extremist Haqqani network. A continuing military aid package from the United States is contingent on Pakistani action against the network, but the extremist group’s apparently good fortunes may lead the Department of Defense to withhold the final $300 million dollar payment.

Yet if U.S. military aid to Pakistan decreases, Islamabad may be able to turn to the Kremlin. The Journal tells us that Russia has agreed both to sell Pakistan military helicopters and to begin building a 684-mile natural gas pipeline in the country. The decision points to a warming relationship between Pakistan and Russia and may indicate, as one former Pakistani diplomat said, that “Pakistan has decided it is no longer an American client state.”

A day after exchanging fire across their heavily guarded border, North and South Korea continue to trade threats. The Wall Street Journal reports that the United States is monitoring the situation, but that North Korea appears to be relying on its traditional strategy of “maximizing fear but avoiding a descent into a major conflict its inferior military can’t win.” Meanwhile, the Times fills us in on the “unlikely cause” of this sudden escalation in tensions: South Korea’s use of loudspeakers to blast anti-Pyongyang propaganda across the border, which apparently goaded North Korea to the point of opening fire.

According to the Pentagon, China is picking up the pace on its island-building project in the South China Sea. China stated earlier this month that it had halted construction, the Journal reminds us, but the Pentagon’s report gives the lie to this claim.

Those at the Office of Personnel Management can take heart: it’s not just the United States that’s under cyberattack from China. The Post brings us news that a group likely based in China is using software vulnerabilities to steal diplomatic information from government computers and academic institutions around the world. India is a particularly easy target because of its weak cybersecurity measures.

One country that may not be getting hacked by the People’s Liberation Army? Russia, Defense One reports. Russia and China recently signed a cyber “nonaggression pact,” which commits both countries to collaborating in shaping international norms on cyberspace and cyberattacks and appears to promise that neither country will use cyberattacks against the other. Yet that last provision is somewhat vague in its wording—so perhaps we’ll see how safe from hacking the Kremlin really is.

Another dump of Ashley Madison data was posted online by the Impact Team hacker group, this time including emails from the company’s CEO and the website’s source code. The hackers appear to have released the data as retaliation for the CEO’s earlier refusal to admit the legitimacy of the leaked information, the Guardian writes.

As the Pentagon grapples with that evergreen question of where to relocate Guantanamo detainees as part of the prison’s closure, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has announced her opposition to potential plans to hold detainees in a Charleston navy brig. While a Pentagon survey team is set to visit the brig by the end of the August, Haley declared that Pentagon investigators will be “wasting their time” with the exercise. The AP has more.

Parting shot: Hackers can disable a sniper rifle—or change its target. Wired has the story— and video.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Daniel Reisner considered the recent U.N. report on last summer’s war in Gaza.

Alex Loomis questioned the legal reasoning behind a Times op-ed on U.S. military aid to Egypt.

Ben brought us Rational Security. This week: Umm Sayyaf, Snowden, and “strategic Jerusalem.”

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