Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Elina Saxena
Thursday, October 1, 2015, 3:08 PM

It may not be a stretch to say that the entire Western strategy in Syria has collapsed in the last 72 hours.

As Russian airstrikes persist, Reuters reports that hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria and will soon join Syrian government forces and Hezbollah troops in a major ground offensive aimed at helping embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recapture territory. One source told Reuters that hundreds more Iranian troops were headed to Syria, and that it was likely that Iraqi soldiers would also take part in the operation under the cover of Russian air support. The assault may begin in Idlib and Hama and would once and for all confirm that Russia is not in Syria just to fight the Islamic State.

Indeed, following a barrage of airstrikes across Syria yesterday that somehow managed to miss every single ISIS-held position, Russia launched a second round of airstrikes in Syria today. Reuters writes that after two days in the conflict, Russia has not yet targeted any ISIS-linked sites and suggests that “Russia's decision to join the war with air strikes on behalf of Assad is a major turning point in international involvement in the conflict.” U.S. officials said that Russian strikes instead hit north of Homs city.

Syrian rebels supported by the United States on the front lines with Assad forces told the Times that Russian strikes had targeted their base. The group stated that “[they] are moderate Syrian rebels and have no affiliation with ISIS. ISIS is at least 100 kilometers away from where [they] are.” John McCain (R-AZ) told CNN that he could “absolutely confirm” that Russian “strikes against the Free Syrian Army” and other “groups that have been armed and trained by the CIA.” He referred to the situation as an “Orwellian experience.”

The Russian defense ministry claimed to have hit a total of twelve Islamic State targets, and a Kremlin spokesman added that “Russia’s airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other extremist groups.” The BBC reports that the most recent “attacks reportedly hit sites in the north-west held by the Army of Conquest rebel alliance,” with most of the strikes occurring in the Idlib, Hama, and Homs provinces. The Army of Conquest alliance includes the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.

The strikes reportedly have killed as many as 36 civilians. Moscow denied that its strikes have resulted in civilian casualties—but videos and social media posts from the ground would suggest otherwise. The Times has more and provides a helpful map of the strikes. The Post also maps the locations of the attacks. The Telegraph is providing live-updates of the situation.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov plan to meet later today to discuss “deconflicting” their respective initiatives in Syria. Lavrov also gave a press conference earlier today, in which he remarked that “Russian troops were targeting ISIS militants and ‘other terrorist groups’ in Syria and saw eye-to-eye with the U.S.-led coalition on this,” adding that Russia did not consider the U.S.-supported Free Syrian Army to be a terrorist group.

Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s reacted to the Russian air strikes and Defense One’s Molly O’Toole reports that Carter refused to acquiesce to Russia’s demand that the United States clear Syrian airspace in anticipation of Russian strikes. Indeed, the United States conducted its own airstrikes in Syria yesterday near Aleppo, without warning the Russians. Meanwhile, Russia continues to argue that their involvement in the conflict is more legitimate than other efforts given their backing by Assad’s regime. The Times outlines the various strategic interests and agendas with regards to the Syrian conflict of the countries now involved in the conflict.  

The Guardian suggests that the conflict in Ukraine has showed signs of winding down in light of Russia’s increasing activities in Syria. Things have, apparently, gotten so quiet in Eastern Ukraine that a separatist commander and his men “even had time recently to kill, grill and eat Poroshenko, a pet pig they named after Ukraine’s president.” Russian, Ukrainian, French, and German officials will meet on Friday in Paris to discuss the future of Ukraine, and there is some confidence that military action in the region could end.

In Afghanistan, the Times reports that the Afghan army is rallying, in an attempt to take back Kunduz from Taliban control. While the Afghan army claims to have retaken the city, residents have disagreed with that assessment. The Long War Journal discusses the role of the NATO personnel bolstering Afghanistan’s security forces, explaining that while they are not officially “serving in a combat role,” the NATO troops nevertheless are authorized to use force when fired upon.

Following Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ announcement that Palestine was no longer bound by the Oslo accords, the Times describes the “unclear practical effects” of the declaration—which marks the end of Palestinian acceptance of the system responsible for "governing much of daily life in the occupied West Bank."  In another U.N. development, the Palestinian flag was raised for the first time outside U.N. headquarters in New York. Politico reports that President Obama brushed off Senate Minority leader Harry Reid’s attempt to extract from him public commitment to veto any U.N. resolution calling for an independent Palestinian state.

New information has surfaced on the Hajj disaster with Iran reporting that 465 Iranian pilgrims died in the stampede. According to an AP estimate based on the official figures reported by each country with nationals affected by the disaster, Iran’s revelation brings the total death toll to 997.

As the refugee crisis continues, Eastern European countries are cooperating on border control measures put in place to manage the population flows. The Times continues its live coverage of the crisis.

The European Court of Justice ruled that migrants can be arrested for re-entering a country from which they have previously been expelled. Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the crisis at the U.N. General Assembly yesterday. Voice of America reports that he “stressed the need for cooperation among all those who are struggling to cope with the crisis, with all efforts focused on saving lives.” This week has seen an unexpected increase in aid for refugee agencies.

China is investigating a series of “parcel bombs” that went off in the city of Liucheng yesterday. A total of seventeen bombs detonated in the city, killing seven and more than 50 others, according to the BBC. Police have identified a 33-year-old male suspect who officials claim hired other people to send the parcels.

Elsewhere in China news: in Foreign Affairs, Lawfare’s own Cody Poplin co-authors a piece on the “New Great Game” in the Asia-Pacific wherein India and China are caught in a battle for access and influence over Indian Ocean Rim states.

The New York Times shares that, amid the dramatic series of events in Syria, one initiative at the United Nations has quietly faded away, as Western governments dropped their push for an international inquiry into human rights abuses and war crimes committed in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. In the face of stiff opposition from Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies, Western governments now appear prepared to accept a new resolution that would instead allow exiled Yemeni president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi—a party to the war—to appoint a national commission of inquiry.

The BBC reports that the long sought peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC may be one step closer, with the leader of the rebel group announcing that FARC has stopped military training. The group has been ordered to instead conduct “political and cultural training.”

The Post writes that General Gilbert Diendere, the leader of the coup in Burkina Faso, is in custody following attempts to seek refuge in the country’s Vatican Embassy.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters yesterday that he has recommended to President Obama that he should veto the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act on the grounds that it does not lift sequestration, but instead funnels $38 billion to the Pentagon through a separate war fund. The White House for its part has called the move “irresponsible” and made clear that the President would veto the bill in its current form. The Hill has more.

Parting shot: A news report went awry yesterday when a guest went from defending Edward Snowden to supporting Edward Scissorhands.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Love Lawfare? Come work with us! The great Wells Bennett, sadly, is leaving the Lawfare clubhouse. Ben shared the announcement yesterday.

Cody linked to the White House’s statement on H.R. 3457, “The Justice for Victims of Iranian Terrorism Act.”

Nick Weaver draws lessons from Taylor Swift on how to handle the relationship between the NSA and Silicon Valley.

Quinta Jurecic explored what it means that Apple blocked the app Metadata+, an online drone strike tracker.

Ben welcomed Edward Snowden to Twitter, suggesting Lawfare readers should conduct a an interview with Snowden. #LetsAskSnowden is the hashtag. 

Finally, Quinta shared that finally a legislature has approved a Syria AUMF—that is, the Russian legislature.

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