Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Cody M. Poplin
Wednesday, September 23, 2015, 3:38 PM

Remember Division 30, you know, the group of Syrian rebels trained by the United States as the ground force to defeat ISIS? Previous reports, later confirmed by the U.S. military, made clear that only a handful of the original 54 fighters remained engaged in the fight, but that an additional 70 fighters crossed the border from Turkey into Syria yesterday. Today, the British Telegraph reports on rumors that the leader of the latter group, Major Anas Obaid or Abu Zayd, has defected to the al Nusra Front, taking with him U.S. weapons and other U.S. trained rebels. The Daily Beast goes further, noting that the remaining elements of Division 30 have acknowledged that they have lost contact with Abu Zayd.

The Pentagon released a statement saying they have “no indication that any New Syrian Forces fighters have defected to al Nusra Front,” but on his own Facebook page, Abu Zayd claimed that he has left Division 30. The current spokesman for the group told the Daily Beast that the group had “warned those in charge” and that “this defection was expected.” Even so, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said “no one has defected” and that the rumors were nothing more than “media propaganda from al Nusra.”

Defense One’s Derek Chollet contends that initiatives to train fighters is a difficult business, explaining that “working to arm, train and sustain insurgent or indigenous forces is hardly new, and history offers few cases showing it effective.” He argues that “if it’s hard enough when we are all-in, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is even harder when we’re not, like in Libya and Syria.” Indeed.

Amid general concern over the U.S. strategy on ISIS, General John Allen has announced that he will be leaving his post as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in November. Politico describes the retired general’s dissatisfaction over White House underfunding and micromanaging of war efforts. As the Washington hesitates in deciding on a course of action against the Islamic State, the Washington Post suggests that the United States is paralyzing its Kurdish allies in the region as a shipment of arms and aid waits for U.S. authorization.

Back to the battlefield: the Pentagon confirmed the deaths of two military leaders in Iraq and Syria who had been killed by separate coalition strikes earlier this year. The individuals in question were Abu Bakr al-Turkmani, an administrative leader within the Islamic State, and David Drugeon, an infamous French explosives expert working with the al Qaeda affiliated Khorasan Group. The Post and Long War Journal have more.

New Satellite imagery shows new construction at Syrian military bases, heralding a dramatic increase in Russia’s military presence in Syria. U.S. officials now hope to use the brewing crisis to bolster diplomatic efforts with Moscow, so as to facilitate the transition of Syria’s president Bashar al Assad from power and avoid an extremist takeover. According to the Journal, the White House may confer with Moscow regarding finding a successor from Assad Alawite sect. President Obama will broach the idea at the United National General Assembly in New York next week.

Over at Foreign Policy, Jeffrey Mankoff and Andrew Bowen discuss the projection of Russian power in the Syria in an attempt to “guarantee its own long term future in the Middle East.” They suggest that by bolstering Assad’s forces, Russia seeks to establish itself as a regional power broker. Meanwhile, in a continuation of Moscow’s increasing expansion of military capabilities abroad, Russia has announced plans to build an airbase in Belarus, not far from the country’s border with NATO-allied Lithuania.

Meanwhile in Europe: The Post reports that many migrants are disguising themselves as refugees fleeing war torn countries like Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan; many migrants reporetdly will seek asylum. Meanwhile, ISIS is increasing its propaganda against what it calls “defection.” ISIS evidently fears that images of beleaguered refugees will undermine its narrative of a stable caliphate; the group has released a dozen videos since the crisis began.

The Times asks whether under EU law refugees can choose where to seek asylum, and whether host countries can relocate refugees to different countries. In a Times op-ed, David Miliband criticizes the United States’ “paltry” contribution to alleviating the refugee crisis, and calls upon the country to do more in order to “confirm the nation’s commitment to its moral and international responsibilities.” The Times continues to provide live updates on the refugee crisis.

Foreign Policy maps the attitude towards refugees expressed by each European country impacted by the recent decision to distribute 120,000 refugees across the continent. The plan represents the first step that Europe has taken collectively to alleviate the crisis; it barely begins to cover the reported 480,000 people who have arrived in Europe by sea this year.

Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia reportedly have blasted the E.U.'s crisis plan as a “violation of their independence[.]” The Post discusses the rift that the measure has caused within Europe. The European Union will hold a summit to consider reinforcing European borders and providing aid to Syria’s neighbors. The E.U. is also considering funding the assistance of refugees. As confusion grows, some of the refugees and migrants have turned back towards home; others endure prolonged uncertainty in Europe.

Meanwhile, Chinese president Xi Jinping touched down in America yesterday. His visit to the United States is expected to force contentious issues to the surface, including China’s posturing in the South China Sea as well as its continued cyberattacks against U.S. entities. The Times has more on the diplomatic wrangling likely to be covered.

In his address to tech leaders in Seattle, President Xi pledged to fight alongside the United States against cybercrime, and continued to deny Beijing’s sponsorship of cyber theft. Despite those relatively conciliatory comments, U.S. officials have scaled back expectations on any anticipated agreement on the issue of cyber attacks. Defense One sums up commentary on the implications of such an agreement.

The Journal also reports on a dangerous maneuver made by two Chinese fighter jets as they came within 500 feet of the nose of an American surveillance plane. The latter was conducting routine operations in international airspace off of China’s coast.

President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi returned to Yemen yesterday, ending his six month exile in Saudi Arabia. The Times discusses the challenges facing coalition forces as they intensify their efforts to reclaim Sanaa.

Reports that American troops were ordered to ignore Afghan troop abuse of young boys sparked justified outrage. But top commanders have again insisted that no such order existed. Army General John Campbell issued a statement that he was “confident that no such theater policy has ever existed here, and certainly, no such policy has existed throughout [his] tenure as commander.”

A Bangladeshi Islamic militant group published a list of writers and activists who will be targeted if the group’s demands are not met. The Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) has been blamed for the deaths of various bloggers and activists in recent months. This is the first time that the group has listed targets outside of Bangladesh’s borders.

Meanwhile, in neighboring India, the government scrapped a policy seeking to defeat encryption measures, following outrage over the potential threat to privacy and and the threat of prosecution for noncompliance. The scuttled measure would have required social media users to save their outgoing content for a period of 90 days. The Post has the story.

The United States and India agreed to train African troops from six countries before they deploy to support U.N. peacekeeping missions on the continent. The Times speculates about the growing relationship between India, Japan, and the United States—characterizing the cooperation as a potential response to China’s rise.

Reuters reports on Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s decision to pardon 100 prisoners. The pardon, which includes three Al Jazeera journalists, comes just as Sisi plans to attend the annual U.N. summit next week.

In a reverse of last week’s coup, Burkina Faso's President Michel Kafando is back in power after regional actors called for his return. Yet conflict between rival forces continues as regional actors undertake efforts to mediate between loyalists and coup leaders. Earlier today, Western African leaders met at an emergency ECOWAS summit and urged the presidential guard to lay down arms and refrain from use of force.

French far-right Front National party leader Marine Le Pen is scheduled to appear in court on October 20th, on charges of inciting racial hatred for her recent comments that compared Muslims praying to a Nazi occupation. The Guardian reports that the penalty for inciting racial hatred in France can be up to a year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros.

The European Court of Justice’s Advocate General, Yves Bot, issued an opinion earlier today arguing that the U.S.-E.U. Safe Harbor agreement does not do enough to guarantee the privacy rights of E.U. citizens transiting the Atlantic to the United States and that the agreement should have been suspended. Bot’s legal opinion also claims that national data protection authorities can suspend data transfers to countries outside of the European Union, if they determine that such transfers will violate the privacy of E.U. citizens. While Bot’s opinion is not binding, the Guardian notes that ECJ, whose opinion is binding, typically follows his lead. You can read the opinion here.

And then there were 114. Yesterday, the Pentagon repatriated Abdul Rahman Shalabi, one of Guantanamo Bay’s “forever detainees.” Shalabi was returned to his native Saudi Arabia. He is the second detainee released in the last week. The Miami Herald also shares that Abd al Hadi has fired his legal team, paralyzing the one military commissions case that had been moving towards trial.

Parting shot: According to the director of the Defense Information Systems Agency, Lt. Gen. Alan Lynn, only 1 in 7 emails sent to the Pentagon is actually legitimate. Apparently, the rest are spam, malicious phishing attempts, or viruses.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Jeffrey Kahn posted the latest in Lawfare, InterCross, and EJIL:Talk!’s joint series, covering the application of IHL by national courts.

Wells shared the United States’ en banc petition in United States v. Graham and the conditional cross petition filed last week by attorneys for Aaron Graham.

Wells also updated us on this week’s proceedings in the al Hadi hearings.

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