Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Quinta Jurecic
Monday, September 14, 2015, 1:59 PM

Despite a string of stinging military defeats, the Assad regime is hanging on to power. That’s the word from the BBC, which suggests that "predictions of the imminent, or even medium-term fall of Damascus” are deeply misguided. Yet while Assad’s forces remain firmly in control of Damascus, Syrian rebels have recently pushed into the stronghold of the country’s Alawite minority, to which President Assad belongs. Reuters reports that long-simmering tensions between the Alawites and predominantly Sunni anti-Assad forces may soon lead to a “bloodbath”--particularly if ISIS gains the upper hand.

Following reports of Russian personnel buildup in Syria, Defense One's Molly O'Toole reports that U.S. forces and the recently arrived Russian troops are steering clear of “military-to-military contact.” But with the two countries “essentially on opposite sides of a civil war,” that lack of contact may prove to be a major strategic problem.

Syrian state media reported that two Russian planes had arrived carrying humanitarian aid including tents and mattresses for refugees. And fueling American concerns, the New York Times indicates that a total of seven Russian Condor transport planes have flown over Iran and Iraq after Bulgaria rejected Russian access to the country’s airspace. Over at the Washington Post, Jackson Diehl considers the Kremlin’s apparent shift of attention from Ukraine to Syria.

The Islamic State has not officially responded to allegations of their use of chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria, the BBC tells us. Adding to American reports suggesting the group's use of chemical weapons, German officials also suspect that ISIS has used mustard gas against Kurdish forces.

The Australian Air Force has participated in its first air mission against the Islamic State in Syria, Iraqi News reports. Australia’s role has so far consisted of refueling and intelligence gathering. On that note, Iraqi News also indicates that a coalition attack killed 27 ISIS militants in Ramadi yesterday. Meanwhile, Defense One’s David Alpher questions the efficacy of drone usage in the fight against the Islamic State, citing the effects of drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.

Foreign Policy discusses recent allegations that U.S. intelligence officials have been altering intelligence reports to present a rosier view of the battle against ISIS. Director of intelligence for US Central Command Army Maj. Gen. Steven Grove now faces increasing scrutiny for the "high-profile and politically explosive allegations that military leaders pressured analysts to skew intelligence reports about the campaign against the Islamic State in order to bolster tenuous White House claims of progress."

The blog Bored Jihadi notes the various colors of prison uniforms used by ISIS, and questions whether there’s a meaning behind the apparent color-coding. “Few things,” the blog notes, “are random in IS propaganda.”

The European Union has extended sanctions against Russia by six months, the Post writes, on the basis of continued artillery strikes and tension in Ukraine before the September 1 truce. A total of 149 people and 37 entities are targeted by the European visa ban and asset freeze. The Post also reports that for the first time in 18 months, no shelling has been recorded in eastern Ukraine.

With more than four million refugees fleeing the violence in Syria, Germany moved to implement emergency border controls on its border with Austria, citing concerns over national security. The Post reports on the controversial decision, which seems to fly in the face of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s much-publicized choice to allow refugees into the country last week. Germany’s decision to tighten its border controls appears to have had a ripple effect, with Austria, Slovakia, and the Netherlands following suit. The Times has more.

According to the Guardian, the overwhelming influx of refugee and migrant populations has marked the effective exit of Germany from the Schengen system.The 1985 Schengen Agreement, the BBC explains, abolished internal borders within the EU and enabled free movement between member states without passport verification. The agreement has caused controversy in the past, particularly in the aftermath of the 2007 decision to increase the size of the Schengen zone to include eastern European states recently accepted into the EU. Meanwhile, the Economist suggests that Germany’s threat to the Schengen system might be in part an effort to push other European states to accept refugees.

The European Union also announced a decision to take action against human smugglers and traffickers active in the Mediterranean, approving a plan that would allow European authorities to search and seize vessels suspected of operating in a smuggling capacity. AFP has the story.

The Times attempts to bring home the massive scale of the humanitarian disaster in Syria with a series of striking graphics--a useful reminder of the crisis driving the surge of refugees into Europe.

As the day goes on, the AP is providing live updates on the migration and refugee crisis.

Pitted against the Islamic State, American troops advising Iraqi forces are sharing a base with a militia supported by Iran. Considering factors ranging from the recent nuclear deal to domestic political circumstances in the two countries, the New York Times highlights the complexity of the United States-Iran relationship.

According to Reuters, Iran has allegedly discovered a high reserve of uranium and will soon begin extraction of the element. This announcement raises concerns amongst Western experts, many of whom had argued that Iran’s low uranium supply would force the country to import the element and therefore place the Iranian nuclear program under international control.

Highlighting Iran’s cooperation with the July nuclear accords, Reuters reports that International Atomic Energy Agency personnel will accompany Iranian technicians as they take samples from the Parchin site, where suspected weapons-related tests might have occurred. The AP released a controversial story last month indicating that the IAEA-Iran agreement would allow Iranians to independently conduct tests at Parchin.

Sixteen people have died through a combination of PKK attacks and violent clashes this past week in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, NDTV tells us. The city has witnessed an escalation of violence since the collapse of a ceasefire agreement between the PKK and the government in July, writes Reuters. The recent attacks caused a reinstatement of curfews in both Diyarbakir and Cizre, the latter of which was lifted after 36 hours.

Twelve tourists, including eight Mexican citizens, were mistakenly shot and killed by Egyptian forces in an anti-terrorist operation after the tourist convoy entered a prohibited area in the western desert, an increasingly unstable area following the degradation of security in neighboring Libya. The killings have sparked international outrage. The Post and the BBC report.

Clashes broke out on the eve of Rosh Hashanah at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on Sunday, CNN writes. Differing Israeli and Palestinian accounts of the incident indicate escalating tensions surrounding the holy area.

The exiled Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has declined to participate in U.N. facilitated discussions with the Houthis--that is, unless the Shiite rebel group accepts a U.N. resolution to withdraw from the seized territory and surrender weapons illegitimately acquired from the state. More on that from the Post.

A Taliban raid earlier this morning resulted in the escape of hundreds of prisoners from an Afghan prison in the southern province of Ghazni, the Post says. The Taliban used a series of explosions to kill the prison guards and free prisoners. The New York Times reports that of the 351 escaped prisoners, 148 were reportedly Taliban. The Guardian discusses the possible repercussions that the attack could have on already poor morale amongst Afghan security personnel, which is already suffering from casualty rates that have increased by almost 50% from last year.

Also in Afghanistan, five vehicles delivering food aid from the World Food Programme were set on fire this weekend. With humanitarian workers facing increasingly dangerous and hostile conditions and the persistent food shortages plaguing the country, no party has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Guardian has more.

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al -Zawahri has released a new video encouraging young men to pursue lone wolf attacks, Reuters writes. He also calls for greater militant unity and maintained his stance on the Islamic State claiming that the group’s claims to the caliphate were illegitimate but pledging nonetheless to “join them in fighting Western and secular forces in Iraq and Syria.”

Over the weekend, attacks by Boko Haram hit in northern Cameroon and in a Nigerian refugee camp for people internally displaced by the extremist group’s insurgency. The latter bombing may be the first ever Boko Haram attack on a displaced persons camp. Yet Vanguard News reports that “scores” of Boko Haram fighters surrendered this morning, following an intense air and ground campaign by the Nigerian military.

Malaysia has arrested three suspects in connection with last month’s bombing of a Bangkok shrine, VOA News tells us. Two of the suspects are Malaysian and one is Pakistani. The BBC also reports that one suspect, a Chinese citizen, is believed to have fled to Turkey.

The Journal examines what appears to be Vietnam’s strategy against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea: strengthen ties with other neighbors. An upcoming visit to Japan by the leader of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party indicates Vietnamese efforts to strengthen cooperation with its regional ally.

On Saturday, U.S. and Chinese officials concluded a four-day-long series of meetings on cybersecurity, Reuters writes. According to the White House, the officials had a “frank and open exchange about cyber issues,” and the Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported that the countries reached an “important consensus” on cooperation over fighting hacking.

But The Hill tells a different story: potential U.S. sanctions over China’s use of hacking for economic espionage may lead President Xi Jinping to cancel his upcoming visit to the States, as Beijing gets antsier about the possibile overlap of sanctions implementation with Xi's much-touted state visit. That alone, of course, may be enough to push the White House to delay implementing sanctions until Xi is safely back home.

The Times reports on President Obama’s decision to break with tradition during his visit to the U.N. General Assembly next week and take up residence away from the Waldorf Astoria, the hotel that has historically housed the president during trips to the United Nations. The White House cited “security concerns”--which those in the know have interpreted as a reference to worries over Chinese cyberattacks. Last year, a Chinese investor with strong ties to the Chinese Communist Party purchased the hotel.

Amidst this flurry of diplomatic activity over cyberattacks, one Temple University professor is breathing a sigh of relief. The Justice Department has dropped charges of economic espionage against the Chinese-American physics professor Xi Xiaoxing, after realizing that the supposedly incriminating blueprints shared with Chinese scientists by Dr. Xi in fact had nothing to do with the secret technology at the heart of the case. The Times has the story.

A leadership election among ministers of Australia’s ruling Liberal Party has ousted Tony Abbott as the Australian Prime Minister, with Malcolm Turnbull taking his place. Turnbull’s rise to power will likely have significant national security implications: according to Michael Fullilove of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Turnbull is “less prone to seeing the world through a security prism” than was Abbott.

And lest we forget about this weekend’s Labour Party leadership election in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted his views on Labour under new leader Jeremy Corbyn as a “threat to our national security.More on that from the Independent.

Parting shot: “Detained but ready to mingle.” That’s how one Guantanamo detainee has described himself to his lawyer, who he has tasked with keeping him updated on the status of his Match.com account. This news not from the Onion, but instead from Al Jazeera.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Ben posted Rational Security. This week: drones, the Iran deal, and a certain presidential candidate’s failure to remember the names of terrorist leaders.

Cody provided the Lawfare Podcast, featuring an interview with Gabriella Blum and Dustin Lewis on the topic of medical assistance to terrorists under IHL.

William McCants of the Brookings Institution argued against the common narrative that the U.S. occupation of Iraq “created” Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

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