Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Quinta Jurecic
Wednesday, September 30, 2015, 3:46 PM

Russia has commenced airstrikes in Syria, the New York Times reports. The strikes have largely targeted the rebel-held Homs and Hama provinces. Though Russian officials maintain that Russia aims to provide air support to the regime of Syria’s Bashar al Assad in its fight against the Islamic State, the Times notes that “Homs is not under the control of the Islamic State.” Instead, Reuters tells us that Homs is critical to the Assad regime’s control of western Syria. Shane Harris of the Daily Beast writes that some U.S. officials have speculated that Russia’s forces are operating exclusively to support Assad’s regime, rather than to fight against ISIS.

Reuters spoke with a leader of a Western-backed rebel group who told the publication that “Russian air strikes in northwest Syria which Moscow said targeted Islamic State fighters hit a rebel group supported by Western opponents of President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday, wounding eight.” He said that the location of the strike “has no presence of ISIS at all and is under the control of the Free Syrian Army,” a group that the United States has actively supported.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the U.N. Security Council earlier today that “the United States supports any genuine effort to fight [ISIS and al Qaeda] affiliated groups, especially al-Nusra” but added that the United States “must not and will not be confused in [its] fight against [the Islamic State] with support for Assad” and “would have grave concerns should Russia strike targets where [ISIS and al Qaeda] affiliated targets [are not] operating.” The Times has more.

Amid mounting U.S. concerns regarding Russia’s involvement in the country, Kerry had previously called Russian airstrikes “not helpful.” Even so, Kerry has ventured where others have chosen not to go, suggesting that Russia and Iran might be able to persuade the Assad regime to stop dropping barrel bombs, AFP writes.

While the Obama administration received no official notice from the Kremlin, American forces were given advance notice of the strikes through Baghdad, where a Russian official disclosed the strike to the U.S. embassy there. The Daily Beast also claims that a Russian general asked U.S. planes to vacate Syrian airspace in the hours before Russian strikes began.

According to the Times of Israel, the Kremlin maintains that the measures are “pre-emptive, warning that Moscow would be hunting down Islamic State militants before they target Russia;” though officials suggest that the move was also, in part, a response to a plea from the Assad government. The strikes commenced just hours after the Russian parliament authorized the use of military force in Syria by a vote of 162 in favor and zero against. Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov suggests that Putin had ruled out the use of ground forces, despite having the requisite authorization for their use from the Russian parliament.

In what is sure to be a boon to jihadi propagandists, the Russian Orthodox Church also backed the use of military force in waging what they refer to as a “holy war.” The Daily Beast describes the position held by the Church, with a senior cleric declaring in Russian news source RT that “war on terror is sacred.” The Daily Beast also highlights RT’s reporting of Russia’s strikes in Syria, which has lacked the same vitriolic condemnations found so often in its references to Western airstrikes.

Meanwhile, ground sources say that Russian strikes over Homs have already caused dozens of civilian casualties, Al Jazeera reports. The Guardian is providing live updates.

More reactions:

Obama’s New Best Friend in Syria: Vladimir Putin -- Politico

“Nonetheless, Kerry appears to be pushing the new diplomatic effort with Moscow hard, saying the United States and Russia agree on 'some fundamental principles' for Syria: 'that Syria should be a unified country, that it needs to be secular, that ISIL needs to be taken on, and that there needs to be a managed transition,' Kerry told MSNBC.”

Russia’s War for Assad -- The Syrian Intifada

“The arguments that Putin will help stabilize the situation by fighting I.S. or that Obama has cunningly let Putin walk into a quagmire are notable only because people are still making them. A Russian military colony on the doorstep of a NATO member (Turkey) and a major NATO ally (Israel) that puts Iranian weapons shipments to Hizballah under the protection of its air defence systems and props up a regime that’s murdered 300,000 people and displaced eleven million more hardly seems like a recipe for stability. Some European politicians seem to have bought the idea that Putin can help stop the refugee flow, which is exactly wrong: those refugees are caused not by I.S. but by the Assad/Iran regime that Russia is supporting.”

On that note, in light of Iraq’s decision to share information with Russia, Syria, and Iran, U.S. officials are working to make sure that no confidential intelligence pertaining to the United States gets into the wrong hands.

The Guardian writes that Saudi Arabian foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir has declared that “there is no future for Assad in Syria,” calling on the Syrian president to either relinquish power or be driven out by force. Both American and Saudi diplomats see Russian actions as likely to extend, instead of end, the conflict. Pentagon officials note that Russian officials are unlikely to actually target the Islamic State in any significant way, but will further entrench Assad in regime held areas. Meanwhile, the BBC reminds us that “root cause of the entire Syrian crisis is Assad and his regime” and suggests that complying with requests for his survival would likely prolong the conflict, encouraging further radicalization in the country.

France has announced its intentions to investigate what French officials have identified as Bashar al Assad’s crimes against humanity. Reuters notes that the "competence of French courts to try those held responsible may hinge on the identification of French nationals among the victims."

As Russia escalates its involvement in the conflict, the United States has reconsidered its infamously underwhelming train and equip program and has suspended the program as U.S. officials “reevaluate efforts.” Reuters has more.

Turning to other anti-ISIS initiatives, the Times discusses Obama’s attempt to urge world leaders to fight ISIS with ideas in another address at the United Nations. His remarks were met with a general “lack of enthusiasm.” As the U.N. Assembly continues, Russia plans to host a meeting later today with the Security Council in which it “is expected to introduce a draft Council resolution [...] to authorize the “coordination” of anti-Islamic State activities in Syria.”

Yet there have been some limited bright spots in the battle against ISIS in recent days. In Iraq, Reuters tells us that Kurdish forces have successfully driven ISIS out of villages surrounding the oil city of Kirkuk. And the Journal writes that sixteen Turkish workers who were kidnapped in Iraq by unidentified gunmen earlier this month have been released. The kidnappers appear to be Iraqi Shiites unhappy with Turkey’s handling of the ISIS threat. Elsewhere in Turkey, the U.S. Air Force “has begun deploying aircraft and personnel to a southeastern Turkey airbase at Diyarbakir” as the United States prepares to increase its efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Following less-than-successful efforts made by Afghan troops and the subsequent Taliban seizure of an airport and an Afghan military fort, U.S. troops have been dispatched in Afghanistan to help Afghan forces regain Kunduz, a city which was taken by the Taliban on Monday. NATO special forces have been deployed to bolster their Afghan counterparts in their counter-offensive efforts; reports claim that some of the special forces had come under insurgent fire. The Times has not received confirmation from American officials regarding their ground activities in Kunduz. Having in mind the 7,000 Afghan security personnel in the region, the Times asks how the Taliban took the city; and why the Afghan response has been so uninspiring. Some members of the Afghan parliament have called for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s resignation.

In a huge turn of events, President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas has declared in his address to the U.N. General Assembly that Palestine is, apparently, no longer bound by the Oslo Accords---the basis for a two state solution--given Israel’s repeated violations. The announcement follows a scathing critique of Israel’s violations which Abbas suggested had “effectively gutted” the basis of the Accords.

Also at the General Assembly, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko delivered a vitriolic address yesterday, discussing Russian aggression in his country. Foreign Policy has more on Ukraine’s attempt to divert international attention to its standoff with Russia. In the United States, the Pentagon official responsible for military relations with Russia and Ukraine has resigned, Politico reports.

Vice reports that over 130 civilians were killed in a Saudi airstrike over Yemen on Monday. The strike hit a wedding party, killing predominantly women and children. Saudi Arabia has denied that the strike took place.

The Kingdom is also weathering strong criticism over the deaths of hundreds of pilgrims last week during the Hajj. The AP tells us that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has threatened a “harsh” Iranian response to the disaster, in which over a hundred Iranians were killed. Indonesia has also joined the criticism, the Times of India writes, with a complaint that Indonesian authorities were only given access to the bodies of victims from their country days after the stampede.

As people continue to flee from the violence that grips Syria and Yemen, the rest of the world is still grappling with the question of how to approach the refugee crisis. At the U.N. General Assembly, Hungary proposed a worldwide quota system to relieve pressure on European countries to accept refugees. And the Times reports that Japan announced a planned tripling of foreign aid to refugees from the Middle East.

Violence continues in the Central African Republic’s capital city of Bangui, where at least 37 people have been killed and hundreds wounded during sectarian clashes that have roiled the city since Sunday. The CAR’s president made an abrupt return to the country from the U.N. General Assembly in an effort to end the violence, Reuters tells us.

The Post takes a look at the efforts of U.S. special operators to track down the notorious Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. Five years into the mission, U.S. forces are collaborating with the insurgent group Seleka, whose efforts began the sectarian violence that still plagues the CAR. While the search for Kony still has strong support from both the White House and Capitol Hill, many U.S. soldiers have become increasingly uncomfortable with their unpleasant bedfellows.

An Indian court handed down death sentences for five suspected militants for their role in the deadly bombing of seven Mumbai trains in 2006, and sentenced seven others to life in prison. The Journal reports that the men had earlier been convicted of murder and criminal conspiracy to wage war against the government. Prosecutors in the case maintained that the attacks were sponsored by the Pakistani government; Pakistan has denied the charges.

A total of 17 explosions rocked the Chinese city of Liuzhou this morning, killing at least seven people. State-run broadcast network CCTV suggested that the detonations were caused by “parcels containing explosives.” A suspect has been identified but not yet apprehended. NBC has more.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has confirmed the arrest of two Japanese citizens on suspicion of espionage, the South China Morning Post writes. The two men have been detained since May. Chinese authorities are investigating whether the pair have any ties to the Japanese government, though Japanese media reported that there is no such connection.

The CIA pulled a number of officers from the U.S. embassy in Beijing as a safety precaution in the wake of the OPM hack, the Post reports. The documents obtained from OPM by the Chinese government would have made it relatively simple for China to determine the identities of CIA operatives at the embassy. As Post notes, this disclosure makes clear the “concrete impact” that the data breach has had on U.S. operations and policy.

Meanwhile, Defense One tells us that the Pentagon’s enthusiasm for the “Internet of Things” has led to enormous security vulnerabilities throughout the Department of Defense. DOD is doing its best to address the problem, but it’s nevertheless a cautionary tale for all those concerned about the security implications of internet-connected devices.

Cuba and the United States may soon reach an agreement that would restore scheduled commercial airline service between the two countries, Reuters writes.

Defense One’s Molly O’Toole updates us on the state of the NDAA. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees have reached agreement on a bill, but it fails to resolve the ongoing problem of sequestration cuts to the White House’s satisfaction and maintains restrictions on transfers of detainees from Guantanamo, meaning that President Obama will likely veto the bill if it reaches him.

The Journal examines the case of an al Qaeda-linked militant who now faces trial before the International Criminal Court for his role in the destruction of ancient shrines in Timbuktu. When Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi returns before the Court in January, he will become the first person ever tried for the war crime of destroying historical monuments. As ISIS continues its path of destruction across historical and archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria, Al Mahdi’s case may set an important precedent.

New York City will participate in a Justice Department program on Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, the Times reports. The program, known as the Strong Cities Network, aims to dissuade terrorist recruitment through outreach to vulnerable populations and has already been implemented in Boston and Los Angeles. Activists, however, have raised concerns that the program may lead to racial and religious profiling of the city’s Muslim American and immigrant communities.

Parting shot: The Times describes the Western vigilantes fighting the Islamic State. Their approach: No training? No strategy? No problem.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ben wished Just Security a happy second birthday and linked to their anniversary debate on going dark.

Frank Cilluffo and Joseph Clark highlight differing perspectives on whether or not cyber changes conflict.

Michael Knapp provides background on the Second Circuit’s en banc rehearing on data retention.

Cody shared testimonies from the Senate Armed Services Committee’s hearing on U.S. cybersecurity policy.

Aaron Zelin posted this week’s Jihadology podcast in which he covers al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with Katherine Zimmerman.

Matthew Weybrecht discussed U.S. military due process in Afghanistan in light of the scandal concerning orders to look the other way when confronting Afghan security personnel’s violations of boys.

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