Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Cody M. Poplin
Wednesday, September 9, 2015, 2:34 PM

Earlier today, the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed Russian military presence in Syria, claiming that military experts were assisting in the delivery of arms shipments aimed at combatting terrorism in the country. Following intelligence reports that disclosed suspected Russian preparations to deploy personnel to the Syrian city of Latakia, the United States has stepped up efforts to impede Russia's actions in Syria. The New York Times reports that the White House has appealed to both Greece and Bulgaria to block Russian transport planes from entering into their airspace---a request with which Bulgaria has reportedly complied. Even so. the AFP notes that at least three Russian transport planes have already landed in Latakia.

For their part, Russian officials defended the blocked shipments as part of routine humanitarian and military aid, denying rumors of personnel deployment or military buildup in war-torn Syria. However, Foreign Policy details a report by investigative journalist Ruslan Leviev who has followed the social media trail left by Russian troops supposedly journeying to Syria. According to Leviev, Russian troops can’t get enough of themselves, sending an assortment of selfies that point to an increased Russian troop presence in the naval facility at Tartus and potentially in other parts of Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concern that further Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict could exacerbate violence.

In the face of domestic criticism, the British government has doubled down on its support for drone strikes in Syria. The New York Times reports on the debate that is taking place in Britain between those who view targeted drone strikes as illegal and unauthorized versus those who view them as necessary to prevent potentially imminent attacks. The Times suggests that the British government is expected to ask lawmakers to revisit the subject of air strike authorization as “it is illogical to keep attacking the group in Iraq but not in Syria.” 

Spencer Ackerman of the Guardian writes that the recent strike highlights the legacy left by the Obama Administration’s approach to counterterrorism. With both Pakistan and the U.K. following in Obama’s example, critics worry that the targeted killings open up a potentially concerning legal precedent that has become increasingly accepted by American allies.

A briefing from the Centre for the Response to Radicalisation and Terrorism (CRT) describes the legal basis for targeted airstrikes against British citizens involved with the Islamic State. The report cites the a state's right to use force in self-defense against imminent attack and discusses the threat posed by the Islamic State by its continued recruitment of Western citizens. Apropos, Lawfare's Ashley Deeks takes a look at the use of the principles associated with a state's right of self defense, which both France and Australia appear prepared to invoke as they launch new missions in Syria.

Under these legal interpretations, the U.S. and its allies are deepening their commitment to targeting the Islamic State in Syria. According to an AP report, Australia is expected to launch airstrikes in Syria in the coming days, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott declaring that "there can be no stability and no end to the persecution and suffering in the Middle East until the Daesh (Islamic State) death cult is degraded and ultimately destroyed."

Amid spiraling unrest caused by a series of bombings that killed 15 Turkish police officers and a separate Turkish air strike hit on the PKK, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called for calm in Turkey. His appeal comes after angered crowds attacked media institutions and the offices of a Pro-Kurdish party.

The Guardian reports on an Egyptian operation against the Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula. Over the course of two days, the Egyptian army claims to have killed 56 jihadis and arrested more than 150 members of the militia. The ISIS-affiliate has been linked to a series of attacks in the area, including several roadside bombs responsible for injuring multiple peacekeepers.

With an increasing amount of European states reconsidering their position on Syrian refugees, the United States may also be considering accepting a greater number of people fleeing the conflict. Having accepted only 1,300 Syrians since January, the United States has been scrutinized by various humanitarian groups and European leaders. The United States has also contributed a total of $4 billion towards the improvement of refugee conditions in Europe, but various groups have called for it to increase its leadership in combatting the refugee crisis.  

Despite Germany’s recent announcement that it will accept 500,000 Syrians annually, European plans to accept refugees are facing intense opposition from various member countries. The New York Times describes the “divisive proposal” to accept 160,000 refugees into Europe. Formulated by Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, the plan is not guaranteed to be accepted by European leaders, causing Juncker to remark upon the “lack of union in this European Union.”

A special report from Der Spiegel describes the dangers posed by the Islamic State's presence in Libya, detailing the clash between ISIS forces and Salafist militias that have torn apart the city of Derna. The report features a diary of a Derna resident who portrays the terror imposed on the city caught between the two radical forces.

President Barack Obama has secured the support of 42 Democratic senators for the Iran nuclear deal, crossing the threshold necessary to potentially avoid having to veto a resolution of disapproval from Congress. The Journal notes that the debate in Congress has now largely shifted to a negotiating over how the Iran deal will be handled procedurally. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) proposed allowing a vote on the resolution of disapproval at a 60-vote threshold. Such a move would avoid a Democratic filibuster, allowing Congress to register its voice on the accord but preventing it from actually passing the resolution. Already though, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has rejected the option, viewing the filibuster as a potentially very costly political move for Democrats. Many Democrats agree, with Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) suggesting that he would not support a filibuster, even though he supports the deal.

And today, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced her support for the Iran deal in a speech at the Brookings Institution. Clinton endorsed the deal, saying that “diplomacy is not the pursuit of perfection, it is the balancing of risk,” but she also called for a “larger strategy toward Iran” that would counter any benefits Tehran gains as part of the agreement. At the Wall Street Journal, Jay Solomon and Laura Meckler describe how, when she was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton softened her opposition to allowing Tehran to enrich uranium, opening the door for a  shift in U.S. policy.

Finally, Defense One, in a new report, provides evidence that Iranian IEDs may have killed fewer Americans in Iraq than previously thought. Newly declassified Pentagon documents claim that the ordinances killed 196 Americans and injured 861 over a five-and-a-half-year period, a number that is less than half as many deaths as lawmakers have claimed in recent years. A spokesman for Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who had previously endorsed the higher number, responded to the report, saying “whether the number is 500 or 196 is immaterial; the fact remains that General [Qassem] Soleimani---a man responsible for the deaths of hundreds of american service members---will receive sanctions relief to the tune of millions of dollars” under the Iran deal.

The Washington Post reports that according to recently released Pakistani government statistics, terrorist attacks in that country are down 70 percent, boosting Pakistani public confidenc. According to the Post, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is using the moment of peace to do something that leaders of his country have struggled to do for decades: implement a plan for a “peaceful, stable Pakistan.”

Across the Durand Line in Afghanistan, Pajhwok News confirms that an operation in the province of Paktika has left 51 Taliban fighters and six Afghan security personnel dead over two days of operations. Police officials in the province said that an additional 80 fighters had been wounded.

News from Bangkok today suggests that the bombers responsible for the deaths of 20 people outside a Thai shrine planned the attack using the popular messaging service Whatsapp. Whatsapp offers seamless end-to-end encryption to many of its users, allowing them to share text messages that cannot be intercepted or deciphered by outside actors. According to Thai media reports, the attackers never actually met in person while planning the attack.

Apropos of the security and privacy battle surrounding end-to-end encryption apps, Wired writes that it is likely that Apple actually could wiretap iMessage, “because it does not allow users to verify encryption keys when writing or receiving messages.” Yesterday, the New York Times reported that Apple has refused a Court order demanding that it provide iMessages to the Department of Justice on the grounds that it could not technically execute the order. Wired’s explainer challenges that claim, noting a previous Lawfare piece asserting that iMessage is “backdoor enabled” by design.

A new United Nations report claims that nearly 8,000 people have died and almost 18,000 have been injured in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The report also blamed Russia for the continuing flow of fighters and weaponry into the region, naming those actions as the major obstacle to securing peace. The New York Times has more.

The Obama administration is poised to indict Chinese hackers involved in hacking American companies. The Daily Beast highlights the Administration's traditionally passive handling of Chinese cyber espionage in order to avoid confrontation even as it suggests that it is considering pressing formal charges against those involved in stealing U.S. trade secrets.  Any threat of retaliation is not without risk, however, and experts suggest that the Obama administration may  be using the threat of sanctions itself as a deterrent for future Chinese attacks.

Even so, the New York Times discloses that Beijing is organizing a tech forum in the lead up to President Xi Jinping's visit to Washington later this month in order to demonstrate China’s “sway over the American tech industry.” Highlighting what they term "a sort of technological Cold War" between the U.S. and China, the Times sheds light on the issues that have divided the two countries regarding the management of the internet.

Speaking of those divisions, NextGov reports that NSA Director Michael Rogers said yesterday that the NSA eventually did step in to defend the Office of Personnel Management when it fell under cyber attack, but only after OPM had detected the intrusion. According to Rogers, the NSA provided “a significant amount of people and expertise to OPM to try to help them identify what had happened, how it happened and how we should structure the network for the future.”

At the same event, Admiral Rogers said that the cyberattack on the Pentagon, in which an unclassified network of the Joint Chiefs was infiltrated, was preceded by a failed attack the week before, that then morphed into a persistent and quickly evolving breach. Russian hackers are believed to have been behind the breach and Rogers noted that “the campaign went against dozens of networks, segments of the network within the network,” and was able to “achieve that level of penetration one time.”

Dustin Volz of the National Journal reports that U.S. and European officials have secured a deal regulating how personal information will be protected when shared between law-enforcement agencies across the Atlantic during criminal and terrorism investigations. However, the accord comes with one hang-up---the U.S. Congress must pass a bill that grants E.U. citizens the right to sue in U.S. courts if they think American authorities have misused their personal data.

A new book published by former high-ranking CIA officials, including George J. Tenet, Michael Hayden, and Porter Goss, defends the Agency against the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on enhanced interrogation techniques released last year. According to the Washington Post, the book paints the Senate investigation “as a partisan attack that maligned agency employees and dismissed the value of intelligence gained” from the EITs used during the Bush administration. The book, entitled Rebuttal, is set to be released today by the U.S. Naval Institute.

The forever prison remains: Defense One reports that the White House has---wait for it---delayed its plan to close Guantanamo Bay as it searches for an alternative site to house the remaining detainees. Pentagon officials say they are still on “step one” of the plan, which is a far cry from the White House’s line that they are in the “final stages” of drafting a plan. Molly O’Toole has more on the complications the Administration faces  in its drive to close the detention facility.

The Washington Post brings us news that the Marine Corps’ recent women-in-combat experiment produced “mixed results.” Over the last nine months, the Marines tested a gender-integrated task force, placing roughly two dozen women in a variety of combat roles including infantry, artillery, and armored divisions. Only two women were left at the experiment’s conclusion, while both men and women in the task force reported a breakdown in unit cohesion. It is not clear how the experiment will affect the Marine Corps’ position on integrated combat units.

Parting Shot: The folks over at War is Boring provide the interesting history of how the United States attempted to ground the Ayatollah’s American-made F-14 Tomcats, 40 of which still operate in the skies above Iran.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

We began the day back from August recess with a piece from Dustin Lewis, Naz Modirzadeh, and Gabriella Blum on “Medical Care in Armed Conflict: IHL and State Responses to Terrorism.”

Cody shared the latest Guantanamo Bay detainee recidivism report, in which 10 more former detainees are suspected of reengaging in terrorism.

Paul Rosenzweig asked readers for their thoughts on a possible breach of the TrueCrypt encryption program.

Cody also linked to last night’s Brookings Debate, in which Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senior Fellow Leon Wieseltier faced off against Senior Fellows Suzanne Maloney and Bruce Riedel over how Congress should vote on the Iran nuclear deal.

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