Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Cody M. Poplin
Thursday, October 8, 2015, 4:25 PM

Russia and Syria continue their coordinated air and ground operations against anti-Assad forces in the Idlib and Hama provinces in what one Syrian official referred to as a large offensive to reclaim western Syria from rebel factions. And while Russia initially declared its operation to be against the Islamic State, the offensive is largely concentrated in regions held by a coalition of rebel groups which includes the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra front.

After a week of airstrikes, the Guardian reports that only 10 percent of Russian strikes have targeted the Islamic State. Following accusations that Russian forces were striking U.S.-backed rebel groups in Syria, the Russian foreign ministry suggested that “Moscow was willing to establish contact with the Free Syrian Army - a Western-backed rebel group - to discuss fighting IS ‘and other terrorist groups’.”

Russia’s bravado may be backfiring though. Yesterday, the country surprised military officials by launching 26 cruise vessels from ships based in the Caspian Sea. A U.S. official suggested that Russia’s launching of “26 Kaliber sea-based cruise missiles at 11 targets” is a part of Russian propaganda aimed at demonstrating that Russia has a modern military. The Russian Defense Ministry even released a video showing the cruise missiles being launched and claimed that the missiles destroyed “weapons factories, arms dumps, command centers and training camps supporting Islamic State forces,” all with no civilian casualties. According to McClatchy, the strikes were the longest-range attack by Russian forces in modern history.” Yet today, CNN reports that a number of cruise missiles launched from those same positions have veered off course and crashed in Iran.

The Journal writes that U.S. officials have “ruled out strategic collaboration with Moscow” in light of the “burgeoning Russian military campaign based on land, air and sea that is at odds with U.S. goals” The Times discusses the shift in language used by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter as “the Russians are seeking greater cooperation, and frankly [the United States does not] want that greater cooperation.” Even so, at least one U.S. plane was forced to reroute to avoid a Russian warplane, highlighting “the Pentagon's interest in talking further to Russian officials about ways to avoid accidents and potential unintended conflict in the skies over Syria.”

NATO defense ministers are meeting in Brussels, where discussions are anticipated to focus largely on Syria and the “troubling escalation of Russian military activities,” the Washington Post says. The Journal writes that the “ministers began a one-day meeting with tough language aimed at Russia’s escalation in Syria, but there is still little clarity on what the alliance can do to ratchet down growing tensions. The discussions follow Russian incursions into Turkish airspace; the incident prompted NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to reaffirm, as the Post reports, that the alliance is “able and ready to defend all allies, including Turkey, against any threat.” He also expressed willingness to send in ground forces to defend Turkey should the need arise. Reuters also discusses Turkey’s concern over plans to withdraw the NATO deployed Patriot batteries. NATO deployed the batteries in 2013 to protect Turkey from potential incoming ballistic missiles fired by Syria’s Bashar al Assad, but are scheduled to be withdrawn in the coming months.

Meanwhile, Turkey has warned that Russia’s military involvement in Syria could weaken trade relations between the two countries. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey could seek gas from another source in light of what he calls Russia’s “unacceptable” military actions.

With the potential for so much loss, Foreign Policy sheds light on why Putin is so concerned about keeping Bashar al Assad in  power, suggesting that the lack of a decisive U.S. policy in the Middle East was pushing regional leaders closer to the “steadfast” Russia. One expert says in the Foreign Policy piece that “the region is falling apart, and states are collapsing, and the Russians are willing to intervene to protect their interests and assert their power, and the United States is not.”

U.S. lawmakers are questioning potential intelligence lapses about Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict, the scope of Russian operations, and their intent in Syria. The news comes amidst concerns over blindspots in American intelligence from this past year, including the surprise Russian takeover of Crimea.

Fox News reports that Russian fighter jets have “shadowed” U.S. predator drones flying over Syria on three separate occasions this week. One official told Fox that “the first time it happened, we thought the Russians got lucky. Then it happened two more times.”

Supported by U.S. airstrikes, Iraqi forces have recaptured Ramadi from Islamic State control. Al Jazeera describes the operations that the Iraqi military has undertaken to defeat ISIS.

The Guardian writes that the Islamic State is ransoming 200 Assyrian men for over $100,000 each. While human trafficking and extortion have long been money-making tools for ISIS, Vice News reveals that a recently leaked Islamic State budget may provide more detail on how the group funds its activities.

Yesterday, President Obama issued a direct apology to the head of Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, over the attack in Kunduz. The apology comes after release of the group's statement, which claimed that, by seeking to justify the bombing of MSF's Kunduz hospital on the mere allegation of Taliban members being present there, the governments of Afghanistan effectively had admitted to committing a war crime. The group continues to call for an independent investigation of the attack. MSF also stated that 33 people are still unaccounted for following the bombings, and the Times reports that the death toll may rise. MSF’s general director called the attack “a grave violation of international humanitarian law, not just an attack on [their] hospital, but an attack on the Geneva Conventions as well.”  

Tensions continue to rise in Israel as the Times reports that violence has spread beyond Jerusalem and the West Bank into Tel Aviv and southern Israel. In Tel Aviv, an Israeli soldier and three civilians were stabbed by a 19-year-old Palestinian man. In the West Bank, 300 Palestinian students protested "in solidarity with Al Aqsa," referring to the shared holy site that has been at the heart of recent tensions. The students clashed with Israeli security forces, and over a dozen were injured. As incidents of Palestinian stabbings increase, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to the escalation as a “wave of terror” and warned that “civilians are at the forefront of the war against terrorism and must also be on maximum alert.” Netanyahu also banned politicians from entering the Temple Mount—where another Palestinian stabbed Israeli citizensover fears of further violence. On account of the escalating violence, Netanyahu has cancelled the German-Israeli Summit meant to commemorate 50 years of diplomatic ties.  

Haaretz suggests that Netanyahu rejected demands to announce the construction of new West Bank settlements over concerns that such an announcement could threaten U.S.-Israeli discussions regarding plans to bolster Israel’s military.  

In Yemen, a Saudi airstrike struck another wedding, this time killing 23 people. The airstrike was the second on a wedding party in Yemen in just over a week. Yet while casualties in the war mount, Reuters writes that Yemen’s President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi dismissed the Houthis’ acceptance of a UN peace agreement as a “maneuver” and called for the group to announces its “willingness to implement all articles of the [UN] resolution without changes.”

Suicide bombers in Nigeria have killed 17 people, according to a spokesman for the governor of Yobe state. While the group has yet to claim responsibility, all indicators suggest that the three attacks were likely carried out by Boko Haram. Reuters has more.

The BBC reports that al Shabaab has claimed responsibility for an attack by armed gunmen that killed Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s nephew in the streets of Mogadishu.

Some good news: the BBC also reports that the three west African countries at the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak have recorded their first week with no new cases since March 2014.

Pivoting to the South China Sea: Confirming an earlier report from Dan de Luce of Foreign Policy, Reuters shares that the United States is considering conducting freedom of the seas operations close to China’s artificial islands in the Spratly Islands chain. A U.S. defense official said that the U.S. navy will sail within the 12-nautical-mile zones around the islands, which China considers sovereign territory. The operations are expected to occur within the next two weeks.

More breaking news about China comes from Financial Times, which reports that three state-owned Chinese firms benefited from trade secrets stolen by the People’s Liberation Army as part of cases linked to the 2014 U.S. indictments of five PLA officers. The three companies are Chinalco, the biggest aluminium company in China, Baosteel, a large steelmaker, and SNPTC, a nuclear power company. Previously, the Obama administration has threatened to apply sanctions to companies that benefit from commercial espionage. It remains unclear whether this is the first step in that process.

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that she had previously “championed while serving as secretary of state,” according to the Post. Secretary Clinton also praised the deal in her book, Hard Choices. The deal is seen as a critical element to President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia, but has been opposed by labor groups who fear it will hurt American jobs.

The ICC said yesterday that its prosecutor plans to investigate possible war crimes committed in the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. The initiative must now be approved by the court’s judges, which is already considering whether or not to open an investigation into crimes committed in Ukraine. Reuters carries the report.

The United Nations came under fire yesterday when it announced that it has not yet launched an internal investigation into allegations that a former General Assembly president had accepted bribes. According to the world body, it does not have the authority to investigate individuals or entities that are not official U.N. staff. The United Nations have suffered from accusations of corruption for years. The Wall Street Journal has more.

Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) shocked members of his own party today, announcing that he will drop out of the the race to replace John Boehner (R-OH) as Speaker of the House. The Times reports that McCarthy’s campaign was hurt when he suggested that the House committee investigating Benghazi was designed to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

The U.S. Senate passed the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) yesterday, sending it along for a likely veto by President Barack Obama. The Senate voted 70-27 to approve the bill, authorizing $612 billion in defense spending this fiscal year. The Washington Post has more, noting that while the Senate passed the measure with a veto-proof majority, the House will not be able to reach the necessary two-thirds majority.

Elsewhere on the Hill, Defense One shares that the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) will arrive back on the Senate floor after next week’s recess, according to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr and Vice-Chair Dianne Feinstein. The bill is designed to create incentives for private companies to share cyber-threat information with other companies and the government, but privacy activists have criticized the measure because they say it does not go far enough to protect personal data.

2016 presidential campaign interlude: Motherboard reports that while bragging about helping the NSA, Republican presidential candidate and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina may have revealed classified information. According to Fiorina, she redirected truckloads of HP servers to the NSA after 9/11 so that the agency could implement its warrantless wiretapping program. 

The Miami Herald reports that the Periodic Review Board has cleared Guantanamo Bay detainee Mohammed Kamin, “an Afghan man who is considered ‘one of the most compliant detainees’ at the detention center.” Charges against Kamin were dropped in 2009. 54 of the remaining 114 detainees are now cleared for release.

Parting shot: Wired provides “a brief history of the end of the comments” section on websites. It’s a long overdue death. Lawfare, long a pioneer in this regard, welcomes other outlets to the comment-free lifestyle. 

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Aaron Zelin shared the latest Jihadology Podcast, which features Thomas Joscelyn on the Khorasan Group in Syria and what its actions tell us about al Qaeda’s strategy in the region.

In the wake of the ECJ’s decision, Timothy Edgar argued that surveillance reform is our only hope for reviving safe harbor.

Finally, Michael Barnett suggested it’s time to focus on Palestinian rights instead of just a Palestinian state.

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