Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Quinta Jurecic, Elina Saxena
Monday, September 28, 2015, 2:25 PM

On Friday, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced an agreement to cease certain forms of economic espionage via cyberattack. The “common understanding” would require both nations to halt “cyber enabled theft of intellectual property” for economic gain and comes after months of tension between the United States and China over Chinese espionage on U.S. companies. It remains to be seen, however, how robust and expansive the agreement will prove to be. The Washington Post has more.

This morning marks the beginning of the annual General Debate of the United Nations General Assembly, featuring speeches by a wide array of world leaders. President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin both spoke before the Assembly this morning, in what the New York Times understands as a trading of barbs over the conflict in Syria. While Putin urged collaboration with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Obama rejected the regime’s brutality and warned of a possible return to a “darker, more disordered world.

Yet Obama also announced his willingness to collaborate with both Russia and Iran in finding a solution to the conflict in Syria, the BBC notes. The Times points to Secretary of State John Kerry’s role in seeking to “draw Iran into the search for a political solution to the Syrian conflict” following the nuclear agreement.

On that note, Iraqi authorities have announced an intelligence sharing agreement with Russia, Syria, and Iran in their fight against the Islamic State. The Times explains the conflicting political forces facing Iraq. With over 3,500 American military advisers helping his government, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq has considered himself party to the United States-led coalition to combat ISIS; on the other hand, “the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, which has long been anxious that ousting Mr. Assad might strengthen the Islamic State, has also quietly enabled the Russian military buildup in Syria.”

Foreign Policy describes the agreement between Iraq, Russia, Syria, and Iran in the context of other foreign efforts in Syria. The Wall Street Journal comments on the expansion of Russian regional presence in light of the deal. The arrangement “effectively formalizes years of military collaboration among the four nations, which have intermittently been allies since the 1980s” and represents “another challenge to US influence in the Middle East at a time when Russia is deploying new military assets-primarily in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”

Time explains how Putin has “set the stage” for U.S.-Russia negotiations over Syria. With the buildup of Russian forces in Syria, Moscow has positioned itself to push for U.N. backed “military intervention in Syria, one that would allow what Putin calls an ‘international coalition’ of powers.”

With all of this cooperation, both Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani have doubled down on their message that Syrian president Bashar al Assad must stay in power as Syria’s “legitimate government” in order to fight terrorism. According to WBUR in Boston, Rouhani argues that ridding the Syria of terrorists is critical to the country’s future and that in the battle between two evils, the Islamic State is more evil.

For his part, British Prime Minister David Cameron has maintained that Assad must be prosecuted for his crimes even if he remains in power temporarily as a member of a transitional government. The Guardian tells us that Cameron and Rouhani are scheduled to meet on Tuesday to discuss the countries’s strategies in Syria.

Following the U.S. Central Command’s earlier statement that “all Coalition-issued weapons and equipment are under the positive control of [New Syrian Forces] fighters,” CENTCOM provided an update confirming that “roughly 25 percent of their issued equipment” was given to “a suspected Al Nusra Front intermediary.”  As reported by the Long War Journal, the United States “apparently did not anticipate Al Nusra[] blocking Division 30's first foray into northern Syria in July” and has been repeatedly thwarted by the terrorist group since. (Division 30 is another name for NSF personnel trained and equipped by the U.S.)  The CENTCOM spokesman added that the Syrian rebel commander who turned over equipment to al Nusra claimed “that he was warned that unless he gave up some of his new equipment, his troops would be ambushed on their way to the new location,” according to the Post. The Times has more.

Speaking of Division 30: over at Defense One, Molly O’Toole writes about the shifting justification used by the Obama administration to defend use of force in Syria. One more senior administration official has pointed to Article II of the Constitution as providing the legal grounding for U.S. operations in support of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels.

France has launched its first airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, the Post reports.  The target was an ISIS traning camp; French President François Hollande explained that the assaults were aimed at “protecting [French] territory, cutting short terrorist actions, and acting in legitimate defense.” The President invoked the self-defense clause in Article 51 of the U.N. Charter to justify the airstrikes.

Meanwhile, despite U.S. efforts, western ISIS recruits continue to flow into Syria, with the Daily Beast reporting that up to 1000 foreign recruits are entering the country per month. The Times discusses failed global attempts to stifle some 30,000 foreigners, who have joined the group since 2011.

Israel returned fire on two Syrian army posts after two stray rockets landed in Israeli territory. The Guardian suggests that,, although Israel has largely been on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict, it nevertheless has intervened to prevent weapons transfers to Hezbollah and to respond to rocket assaults.

Last night, clashes broke out between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters at al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, Haaretz reports. The holy site has long been a flashpoint of tension and has been marked by unrest in past weeks.

The AP examines what may lie ahead for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has threatened to drop an unidentified “bombshell” in his speech at the United Nations this week. Whatever Abbas proposes, he must grapple with widespread Palestinian disillusionment toward his committed strategy of achieving statehood through negotiations rather than violence. Recent polls indicate that up to two-thirds of Palestinians may wish for Abbas to resign.

Yesterday, Saudi airstrikes over a Yemeni village may have killed as many as 30 civilians. Al Jazeera reports on the allegations, which Saudi officials have denied. And on a similar note, the Kingdom appears to have accidentally targeted a Yemeni wedding party this morning, killing at least 38 people and wounding 40 more. According to the AP, the Kingdom acknowledged the strikes as “a mistake.”

Following the deaths of over 750 pilgrims in last week’s Hajj stampede, Iran has increased its criticism of Saudi Arabia over the Kingdom’s failure to implement adequate safety measures. The Journal notes Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s call for an official Saudi apology, and describes how the deaths of at least 155 Iranians in the stampede have exacerbated tensions between the rival powers. The AP also points to Iran’s vow to bring international legal action against the Kingdom on the matter.

Taliban forces have seized control of segments of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz following a months-long siege, the Times writes. The capture of Kunduz, a provincial capital, would be a major coup for the Taliban after months of stalemate with Afghan security forces. Some Afghan soldiers have reported that the city is now effectively under Taliban control, though officials have been more circumspect in their assessments of the situation.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, a suicide bombing in the eastern Paktika province killed 9 and wounded 51 on Sunday. And Radio Free Europe tells us that ISIS fighters have launched what may be their first attack on the Afghan security forces, attacking security checkpoints in the eastern province of Nangarhar. The province has become a flashpoint of conflict between ISIS and Taliban fighters in recent months.

The Times takes a look at failing U.S. efforts to build an effective Afghan air force in advance of the planned U.S withdrawal from the country in 2016. Disagreement between U.S. and Afghan forces over what many Afghan officials see as old and inadequate equipment has stymied the program, doing nothing to ease anxieties over the looming U.S. withdrawal.

Foreign Policy examines the violence roiling Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Over the weekend, the murder of a Muslim taxi driver led to prolonged clashes between Muslims and Christians, leaving two dozen dead and nearly 100 wounded. Though the U.N. augmented its peacekeeping force in response, many residents of the capital see the organization’s approach to the sectarian violence as inadequate.

The Post reports on the ongoing investigation of last month’s bombing at a Bangkok shrine. Thai police now believe that they have acquired enough evidence to mount a case against the first suspect to be arrested—who is believed to be a Turkish citizen. Another person has been arrested in connection with the bombing.

General Martin Dempsey has officially completed his tenure as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the AP writes. Marine General Joseph Dunford, formerly the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, has taken his place.

The FISA Court has appointed its first amicus curiae, The Intercept reports. Preston Burton, a Washington, D.C. lawyer, is the first advocate to be assigned to a surveillance case under the USA Freedom Act.

Parting shot: Indictments have been handed down in what authorities describe as “the first attempt in Maryland history to smuggle contraband into prison using a drone.” Well, there’s a first time for everything. More on your daily drone news from the Post.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Cody alerted us to the release of the U.K.’s annual report on the operation of the Terrorism Acts.

Quinta let us know that longtime Guantanamo detainee Shaker Aamer is set to be released to the United Kingdom.

On the occasion of President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States, Zack Bluestone considered the state of affairs in the disputed South China Sea.

Bruce Riedel questioned what effects the Saudi monarch will feel from the recent deaths in Mecca.

Paul feels much safer after the announcement of the U.S.-China agreement on cyber espionage.

Paul also noted an interesting tidbit on private email servers from recent testimony by NSA Director Admiral Michael Rogers.

Herb Lin posted his thoughts on the U.S.-China cyber agreement.

Chantal E. Berman considered what lessons the Iraqi refugee crisis of the early 2000s might have for countries grappling with the influx of Syrian refugees.

Jack also examined the cyber agreement, questioning what might have led to the accord.

Later, Jack updated his previous assessment of the agreement with a note on China’s apparent acceptance of the U.S. formulation of the deal.

Herb noted Xi’s comments on the agreement as a possible “authoritative public Chinese statement” on the substance of the deal.

Cody posted the Lawfare Podcast, featuring Gregory Johnsen on the byzantine politics of the war in Yemen.

Steven Pifer described Ukraine’s troubled efforts to achieve lasting political reform.

In the Foreign Policy Essay, Jillian Schwedler asked whether the U.S. drone program is doing more harm than good in Yemen.

Kemal Kirisci and Sinan Ekim suggested that Turkey may be slipping toward civil war between the central government and the PKK.

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