Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Quinta Jurecic
Monday, September 21, 2015, 2:31 PM

As the Kremlin ramps up its involvement in Syria, world leaders are taking a careful look at Russia’s intentions and strategy in the country. Speaking on Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoygu agreed to “further discuss mechanisms for deconfliction in Syria and the counter-ISIL campaign,” says Defense One’s Molly O’Toole. Russia is reportedly deploying fighter jets along with surveillance drones over Syria, and Reuters tells us that U.S. and Russian leaders have agreed to discuss “ways to avoid accidental interactions” in the limited airspace. Meanwhile, Syrian government forces appear to be using new types of weapons likely provided by their Russian allies. The BBC has the story.

Radio Free Europe reports on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin today. The two discussed Russia’s continuing aid to the Syrian government along with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s concerns that, together with Iranian forces, Syria’s army could form a “second terrorist front against Israel.” In related news, Iran and Russia step up coordination in Syria. The Journal highlights the visits that have occurred between Tehran and Moscow in recent months.

Reuters examines what rebel fighters think of the Kremlin’s new role in the Syrian conflict. Rebel forces are already seeing Russian involvement bolster the effectiveness of the regime’s fighting forces, and many believe that Russia’s presence will prolong the four-year-old war. Some, however, are optimistic that they will soon be seeing increased aid from Saudi Arabia in response. The Russians, said one rebel, are in risk of “another Afghanistan.”

But the Kremlin doesn’t appear to be feeling particularly cautious: the Russian foreign ministry has now called for “concrete action” after news that a rebel shell hit the Russian embassy in Damascus this morning, AFP writes. The shell caused no damage.

Secretary of State John Kerry is maintaining the U.S. position that Syrian president Bashar al Assad must step down, the Washington Post reports, but indicating that the United States might be flexible on the conditions and timing of Assad’s exit. Following Friday’s discussions between the U.S. and Russian defense secretaries as well as calls for further diplomatic efforts, Secretary Kerry urged Russia to facilitate Assad’s exit from power. While touring Europe, Kerry also spoke with his British counterpart about the violence in Syria in relation to the refugee crisis facing Europe. The BBC has more.

The latest headcount of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels tallies not four, not five, but a whopping nine fighters operating in Syria. Defense One writes that eleven more fighters are currently outside the country and waiting to return, fourteen have joined with other moderate rebel groups, and eighteen are missing within Syria. But we can all breathe a sigh of relief, because their U.S.-provided equipment is accounted for and has not fallen into the hands of ISIS or the al Nusra Front.

And a total of seventy five U.S. trained recruits crossed into Syria through Turkey over the weekend, the Telegraph tells us. Experts suggest that the strategy is “more about public relations than foreign policy” or “a way of dealing with the embarrassment of not having a policy on such an escalating conflict.” The rebels entered Aleppo province under U.S. coalition cover.

The Times reports on a new study by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London that analyzes the disillusionment shared by many ISIS defectors. The report examines testimony by fifty-eight former ISIS recruits, many of whom are in hiding after fleeing the extremist group. Of the twenty thousand foreign fighters who have traveled to Syria to fight alongside ISIS, and “hundreds” are thought to have defected.

The al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front has executed fifty six soldiers fighting for the Syrian government, the Times tells us. The soldiers were taken prisoner after an al Nusra Front raid on an airbase earlier this month.

The Daily Beast’s Shane Harris brings us news of the intelligence reports that were doctored by high-ranking officials to present a rosier view of U.S. efforts against ISIS. Reports indicating serious doubts over the efficacy of airstrikes against key ISIS leaders were often sent back to analysts with orders to revise their conclusions, creating a climate of “self-censorship” within the military’s Central Command. In contrast, reports that were more optimistic about the air campaign did not receive the same level of criticism from higher-ups.

A new report by Human Rights Watch indicates that, after retaking the Iraqi city of Tikrit from ISIS militants in March and April 2015, Iraqi Shiite militias intentionally destroyed civilian homes and abducted over two hundred Sunni Iraqis. The report argues that the militias’ activity was in violation of the international laws of war. More on this from Rudaw.

Today, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko "to launch a joint disaster management exercise of NATO and Ukrainian emergency personnel." Newsweek describes the impact that the growing relationship between NATO and Ukraine could have on Kiev-Moscow relations. Reuters discusses General Stoltenberg’s hope to avoid antagonizing Russia. Departing from his predecessor’s intense criticism of Russia, the General aims to rebuild the armed forces of Ukraine “after years of mismanagement” and will likely deny any request from Ukraine to provide defensive weapons systems.

The Times points to the lack of funding for U.N. refugee initiatives as a large factor contributing to the refugee and migration crisis. The crisis calls attention to the gross underfunding of groups such as the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization, which are unable to provide for the needs of the sheer number of refugees.

In the same vein, the United States announced plans to augment financial assistance for relief efforts and to increase refugee admission to one hundred thousand in 2017. Up from the annual admission of seventy thousand refugees, the United States has faced criticism for failing to take a more active role in combatting the current refugee crisis in Europe with advocacy groups urging the country to accept over one hundred thousand Syrian refugees within the year.

The Times continues to provide live updates on the refugee-migrant situation in Europe, while Vice News documents the difficulties facing the displaced population as routes and conditions continue to change. Despite the difficulties facing the refugees in Europe, the Wall Street Journal suggests that young and educated Iraqis might be next to join the exodus to Europe to the region.

IAEA inspectors visited Iran’s Parchin military site earlier today and took environmental samples, Reuters writes--despite statements by the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency that Iranian investigators had taken samples without IAEA representatives present. While touring the facility, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano reported evidence of recent renovation and added that the facility held no equipment. The Journal describes Amano’s visit, adding that Iran’s compliance with the IAEA is necessary for the lifting of sanctions.

In light of the Parchin inspections, it’s only fitting to revisit this piece by Cheryl Rofer at War on the Rocks from earlier this summer. Rofer examines this August’s controversy over the AP’s misreporting on a draft agreement between Iran and the IAEA over the sampling procedures at Parchin.

Over at Vice, Gary Owen of Sunny in Kabul sheds light on the U.S. concerns over the Islamic State’s growing foothold in Afghanistan. Though the United States is still set to withdraw completely by 2016, this past spring and summer saw a significant increase in coalition airstrikes over Afghanistan—a sign that U.S. forces are uncertain of the Afghan military’s capability to deal with the threat of ISIS.

The Times reports on the U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, who were told to “look the other way” as their Afghan counterparts abused young boys. While their superiors stand by the position, out of a desire to maintain good relations with their Afghan allies and to defeat the Taliban, critics have expressed outrage, arguing that ignoring the blatant abuse of children can only stoke anger in victims and their families.

Houthi rebels released six foreign hostages over the weekend following negotiations with Oman, the Times writes. As the rebels continue to engage in discussions with the U.N. envoy to Yemen, Saudi-led coalition forces escalated airstrikes against Houthi rebels in San’aa in anticipation of an impending ground offensive.

Heavy fighting between government forces and Islamist militias has killed six people in Libya, the Guardian tells us. The fighting is expected to increase tensions in U.N. led peace negotiations. Meanwhile, in neighboring Egypt, a bomb went off in Cairo on Sunday with no group claiming responsibility for the attack as of yet. Egypt faces a growing insurgency, and attacks have become increasingly regular in the capital. The AP has more.

The Times reports that mediators have formulated thirteen proposals to stem Burkina Faso's ongoing political crisis. The mediators will present these ideas to leaders from Economic Community of West African States.

In Nigeria, bomb blasts have killed forty six and left eighty five injured in the city of Maiduguri. While no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, officials suspect Boko Haram’s involvement. Bloomberg has the story.

Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza party has triumphed in Greece’s snap election, Reuters writes, returning Tsipras to power as Prime Minister following his resignation late in August. Tsipras is now tasked with implementing the European bailout deal that he accepted after a “dramatic summer U-turn,” but his reelection is expected to give him a stronger hand in grappling with Greece’s ongoing debt crisis.

The Indian government has approved a four hundred million dollar purchase of ten missile-armed Heron TP drones from Israel, reports India’s Economic Times. This order will add to the fleet of unarmed drones which India uses for surveillance purposes and will increase the Indian Air Force’s ability to conduct strikes in hostile areas with minimal risk to its personnel.

On Saturday, Japan’s parliament passed the controversial bill that would enable Japan’s military to engage in overseas activity. While this bill goes against the history of pacifism that has limited Japan’s military since the end of the Second World War, Al Jazeera writes, it represents a critical feature of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s security policy. The measure allows Japan to exercise military capabilities in collective self-defense in the event that an ally were attacked.

The Philippines expelled the U.S. military from its Subic Bay naval base in 1992but as China continues to expand its presence in the Pacific, the Philippines is weighing the decision to allow the United States to return to the base. The Times suggests that, concerned about the increasing number of Chinese vessels in the waters surrounding the Philippines, the latter's government has also asked Washington for millions of dollars to strengthen its military.

The Times discusses Chinese President Xi Jinping’s interest in developing strategic rivalry with the United States. With Xi’s expected visit this month, experts suggest that few substantive decisions will be reached on crucial security matters like cybersecurity or China’s growing presence in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, experts at RAND suggest that the United States will need more submarine capability to combat China’s expanding Navy.

Hundreds of apps in Apple’s Apps Store have been compromised by malware, Reuters reports. The BBC suggests that, while mostly Chinese apps have been affected, this is the first such large scale compromise. As Apple staff go “to great lengths, and great expense, to sift through each and every submission to the store” and “check for quality, usability and, security” the breach comes as a surprise.

The French data privacy regulator has rejected Google’s appeal of an order that would require the company to remove search results worldwide should a French citizen request removal under the “right to be forgotten,” as opposed to removing those results only within Europe. According to the Post, Google has argued “that agreeing to the request would leave it — and the free flow of information — vulnerable to similar orders from any government, democratic or totalitarian” and thus stem freedom of information.

In light of the numerous cyberattacks that government agencies have faced, the Department of Homeland Security is considering revoking security clearance for seniors who repeatedly fall for phishing scams. “Someone who fails every single phishing campaign in the world,” said DHS’ chief information security officer, “should not be holding a TS SCI with the federal government.” Defense One has more.

Shortly after returning to his home country of Morocco after 13 years of detention in Guantanamo Bay, Younis Abdurrahman Chekkouri was detained by Moroccan police, the AFP writes. Chekkouri was arrested on suspicion of terrorism and may appear in court as early as today.

Yesterday, the Times editorial board made the argument that a soon-to-be-released joint White House-Pentagon plan for closing Guantanamo Bay represents the best hope for finally shutting the doors on the detention center. The plan will involve increasing the pace of releases from the camp and transferring those who cannot be released to prisons in the United States.

The Times reports on revelations that President Bush sought to retroactively authorize NSA data collection that extended beyond the initial purview of the Terrorist Surveillance Program. A Justice Department examination of the program found that, though the president had initially only authorized collection of metadata from electronic communications if one end of the communication was outside the United States, the NSA had also collected metadata from purely domestic communications. Responding to this problem with the help of David Addington, Vice President Cheney’s legal counsel at the time, President Bush implemented a sweeping reauthorization of domestic metadata collectionover the objections of the Department of Justice.

It’s a feel-good day around the globe for female and LGBT members of the armed services. Reuters tells us that Australia has sworn in its first female defense minister, who is also the first woman to hold that post or a similar post in an English-speaking country. And in the United States, we learn from the Post that President Obama will nominate Eric Fanning as secretary of the Army. Fanning would be the first openly gay service secretary in the United States.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps is grappling with the question of integrating women into the ninety three-percent-male force. The Times examines the public debate that has roiled the Corps, which must ask for an exemption by 2016 if it wishes to avoid the White House-imposed deadline for gender integration in the military. The Marines are widely seen as the branch of the U.S. Armed Forces most resistant to incorporating female soldiers.

Parting shot: “It was the largest terrorism investigation in U.S. history,” and now one amateur detective believes he’s found the culprit. Take a look at this #longread from the New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe on the 1998 Lockerbie bombing.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Jack examined the Vesting Clause, the president’s foreign affairs power, and Zivotofsky II.

Jack also alerted us to an upcoming conference on “President Obama’s War Powers Legacy.”

Ben weighed in on the Obama administration’s struggle with encryption, arguing that technology companies seem to have won the fight for now.

Cody posted the Lawfare Podcast, this week featuring an interview with Brig. Gen. Richard Gross on “hybrid conflict.”

Daniel Byman wrote this week’s Foreign Policy Essay on Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

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.