Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Cody M. Poplin
Thursday, September 24, 2015, 4:03 PM

Yesterday, we discussed the possible defection of Abu Zayd, commander of the New Syrian Forces---sometimes referred to as Division 30. Today, U.S. Central Command has issued a statement saying that there is “no indication that any New Syrian Forces fighters have defected to Al Nusra Front” and that “all Coalition-issued weapons and equipment are under the positive control of NSF fighters.” The Daily Beast suggests that Abu Zayd may not, in fact, have even been trained by the United States. CENTCOM added that “approximately 70 graduates of the Coalition's Syria Train and Equip Program successfully returned to Syria over the weekend and are currently operating there as New Syrian Forces.”

The Times introduces us to the senior intelligence analyst at the center of the controversy surrounding potentially doctored U.S. Central Command intelligence reports on the war against ISIS. The analyst, Gregory Hooker, had previously criticized President George W. Bush’s administration for pursuing “amateurish and unrealistic” plans in the 2003 invasion of Iraq; he now accuses the military of providing policy makers and the public with too rosy a picture of the situation on the ground in Iraq.

President Obama and Russia's Vladimir Putin are scheduled to meet next week, the Times reports. The two have had an increasingly rocky relationship over the course of Obama’s second term in the aftermath of Russia’s decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden and its annexation of Crimea. While uncertain of Putin’s motives, U.S. officials are now trying to understand Russia’s intentions in Syria, and attempting to use the crisis as a bridgehead to a diplomatic breakthrough. Politico discusses the Obama administration's confusion, which one U.S. intelligence official noted has opened the door for Putin “to play a role in choosing Assad’s successor.” The Russian president expressed preference for coordinated campaigns in the fight against ISIS between U.S. coalition forces and Russia, Iran, and Syrian government forces. But Putin has also announced plans to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State regardless of U.S. participation.

Putin will be attending the U.N. General Assembly next week for the first time in over a decade. Russia’s defense minister will also convene a meeting of the Security Council, in which he hopes to discuss a draft proposoal regarding a plan of action in Syria. But, Foreign Policy tells us, the United States is having none of it.

Supported by newly arrived Russian equipment, the Syrian government has intensified air attacks on Palmyra and ground attacks in Aleppo, and Al Jazeera tells us that all but a few dozen residents of Palmyra have fled the city. With no end to Russia’s shipments to Syria in sight, Buzzfeed details the equipment Russia has sent to the country. Russia has shipped more than 28 aircraft to the country in a covert fashion, including a number of fighter jets, prompting the Aviationist to ask how Russian forces have accomplished such a feat undetected.

In addition to Russia’s buildup in Syria, Moscow is also constructing a major military base near the Ukrainian border. With yesterday’s report on the construction of an airbase in Belarus, as well as a base in Belgorod on the border with Ukraine, Russia appears to be flexing its muscles and creating a “new line of confrontation with the West.”

In Europe, E.U. leaders pledged to increase funding to U.N. agencies working with Syrian refugees by providing an additional $1.1 billion. The leaders agreed that this emergency aid would help stabilize the countries at the center of the refugee crisis. They also agreed on the importance of stricter control over external borders, greater cooperation with neighboring Turkey, creating peace in Syria, and cooperation and unity between European member states.

The crisis continues to deepen divisions within Europe. In particular, Croatia and Serbia have traded incendiary statements. Serbian officials likened current Croat policy to that of the country’s fascist predecessors, who were closely allied with Hitler. Croatia, for its part, has largely closed its borders with neighboring states, which has caused further discord in the region.

In light of the outcry sparked by the revelation of U.S. troops turning a blind-eye towards the practice of “bacha bazi,” Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani condemned the abuse of boys by Afghan security forces. President Ghani admitted that the practice, which had been so prevalent that a U.S. “military report in 2011 listed the rape of boys as an issue that could cause tension between American and Afghan troops,” had deeper roots and added that the “larger cultural dynamic needs time.” The Daily Beast further highlights the broader cultural issues surrounding the practice.

With China’s president in the United States, the Wall Street Journal discusses Xi Jinping’s attempt to convey the message that the “Chinese government is committed to addressing US concerns over market access and intellectual property.” Xi also urged the U.S. government to ease restrictions on tech exports to China and to lower barriers to Chinese investment within the United States. In his visit to the West Coast’s business and tech leaders, the Chinese president made a commitment to creating a more favorable investment climate by cutting restrictions on foreign investment; at the same time, China’s chief Internet regulator made tentative steps towards a basic agreement on cyber warfare, though experts remain skeptical about any potential concrete cyber agreement. The Journal also reports on an investigation into cyber attacks traced to the Chinese military, thus adding detail to the public's understanding of “Beijing’s sprawling state-controlled cyberespionage machinery.”

President Xi will meet with President Obama, but it isn't fully clear what they'll discuss. Defense One’s Michael Pillsbury describes his correspondence with senior Chinese military officials, who have suggested topics that are sure to be avoided: among other things, cybersecurity negotiations, the PLA’s activities in space, potential restrictions that would limit Chinese acquisition of American defense technology, Chinese activities in the South China Sea, and Chinese buildup against Taiwan. These officials also hope to increase military exchanges with the United States to the exclusive benefit of China. The catalog's extensiveness leaves us thinking that there will be a number of awkward pauses around the table.

Defense One also takes a look at the Chinese copycat version of Lockheed Martin’s F-35, which has raised questions about the Pentagon’s long-term technical superiority. Meanwhile, Boeing has secured a $38 billion order for jets from Chinese airlines. The company was recently visited by China’s president.

A Yemeni based ISIS-affiliate claimed responsibility for the attack on a mosque in Sanaa which killed dozens today. The Times reports that the group has used similar attacks, in efforts to incite sectarian tension with the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The latter have controlled Sanaa for over a year, and many of their supporters were known to attend this mosque.

The conflict in Yemen reportedly has been marked by human rights abuses committed by Gulf coalition forces. Foreign Policy details the United Nations' concerns over the effect that Gulf air strikes and other actions in Yemen have had on civilians and the Saudi charm campaign designed to forestall an independent inquiry as the U.N. meets next week.

Clashes erupted in the West Bank earlier today, following the funeral of a Palestinian woman who was shot at a checkpoint yesterday. Israeli security forces fired stun grenades and tear gas at a group of young people throwing stones. The family of the woman disputes the Israeli military’s account that she pulled out a knife and attempted to stab a soldier. The BBC has more.

Elsewhere, the BBC brings us news that Egypt has agreed to buy two Mistral warships from France. The ships were originally built for Russia, but that contract was suspended after Moscow’s little incursion into Ukraine.

In Saudi Arabia, a stampede has killed over 700 in Mina, a desert plane used to house pilgrims travelling to nearby Mecca for the annual Hajj. The incident calls into question Saudi Arabia’s ability to manage the annual pilgrimage, as observers report a lack of accountability surrounding Hajj-related accidents.

After five decades of fighting, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the leader of the FARC rebel group announced a breakthrough in peace talks, declaring that they are close to reaching a deal. Santos stated that they “must break once and for all any link between politics and weapons.” The Times reports on the negotiations that seek to bring an end to the longest-running guerrilla war, which has claimed 220,000 lives according to government estimates. Colombian officials and FARC leaders have pledged to reach a peace deal within six months.

Two men accused of plotting a terrorist attack against a passenger train connecting New York and Toronto were sentenced to life in prison yesterday. One man, Chiheb Esseghaier was convicted of planning to derail the train, along with four other terror-related charges. The second, Raed Jaser, was found guilty of conspiring to commit murder in support of terrorism, but the jury was unable to come to a unanimous verdict on whether Jaser also conspired to derail the train. The Toronto Star has more.

Politico reports that the Justice Department filed a petition in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday claiming that there is no proof Verizon Wireless was part of the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program, even though an official document released last month names the carrier as a participant. Their argument? Verizon is only identified in the caption and the document does “not specify the scope of a proceeding, or state explicitly the nature of the carrier’s involvement in a particular matter being addressed.” You can read the filing here.

Ah, the OPM hack just keeps getting worse. Defense One tells us that yesterday, the Office of Personnel Management announced that 5.6 million sets of fingerprints---more than 5 times the original estimate---were stolen during the breach.

Parting shot: A group of researchers at a university in Zurich have programed drones to build a rope bridge capable of supporting the weight of a human. It’s a video you’ve got to see to believe.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Stewart Baker shared this week’s Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, which features an interview with Margie Gilbert and a deep dive into President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington.

Jack weighed in on the most interested sentence about Cyber from Xi’s speech in Seattle before the tech titans.

Herb Lin also looked at the potentially forthcoming China-US agreement on cybersecurity, noting that an embrace of “the GGE 2015 recommendations would be both desirable and remarkable.” Earlier in the day, Elaine Korzak explained the Group of Governmental Experts on Information Security (GGE) report and what it means for the future of stability and conflict prevention in cyberspace.

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