Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Quinta Jurecic
Friday, October 9, 2015, 3:05 PM

The White House is shutting down the Pentagon’s ill-fated train-and-equip program for Syrian rebels, at least in its current form. So says the New York Times, which reports that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter will officially announce the program’s end today. Secretary Carter stated that the Pentagon had “devised a number of different approaches” to overhauling its train-and-equip efforts, and a senior official told the Times that the revamped program will likely involve training opposition leaders in operational maneuvers rather than recruiting moderate Syrians.

So what does this mean for the CIA’s more successful training program? The Washington Post notes that the answer is as yet unclear, though no changes to the CIA program have been announced.

Radio Free Europe takes a look at Russia’s own train-and-equip program, which also doesn’t seem to be doing so well. The idea: take advantage of the relative calm in eastern Ukraine to funnel pro-separatist Russian fighters into Syria, through the same social-media efforts that proved so successful in the Ukrainian conflict. But recruits are few and far between, and the largest campaign to date appears to be a prank that redirects would-be fighters to a treatment center for drug and alcohol abuse.

What to do about Russian involvement in Syria? The Times takes a look at the reactions of both NATO and the Obama administration, which range from an aggressive reinforcement of defenses (on NATO’s part) to a more wait-and-see attitude (on the White House’s). And in the Post, Condoleeza Rice and Robert Gates have an op-ed arguing that the United States should counter the Kremlin through a realpolitik program of deconfliction, no-fly zones, and “robust support for Kurdish forces, Sunni tribes, and what’s left of the Iraqi special forces.”

Reuters updates us on the Assad regime’s ongoing ground offensive, which began yesterday with significant Russian air support. The offensive aims at reclaiming rebel-held territory in western Syria, in an area without a strong ISIS presence—though the Kremlin still claims that yesterday’s airstrikes were aimed at ISIS targets.

As part of the offensive, Russian warships in the Caspian Sea fired cruise missiles over Iran and Iraq and into Syria. That was the idea, anyway. Ars Technica examines U.S. allegations that, rather than making it to Syria, four of those twenty-six Russian cruise missiles crashed over rural Iran insteadan incident that both Russia and Iran are strenuously denying. As always, Russian propaganda outfit RT gives us the straight talk, reporting Iranian General Musa Kamali’s comments that U.S. accounts of the missile crash are part of a U.S. campaign of “psychological warfare.”

Amid the chaos, ISIS has orchestrated a surprise advance on the rebel-held city of Aleppo. The extremist group has quickly gained significant territory in Aleppo province and is moving toward the city itself, the Post writes. In a significant development, Iranian state television stated today that the fighting around Aleppo killed Revolutionary Guard commander Hossein Hamedani, who was reportedly in the area “on an advisory mission.” Hamedani is the second senior member of the Revolutionary Guard to be killed in Syria this year.

The BBC reports that Gulf Arab stateschiefly Saudi Arabia and Qatarare now looking to increase their influence within Syria by upping weapons transfers to rebel groups. The move seems to be triggered by concerns that Russia’s campaign in Syria will create a “Frankenstein’s monster” of extremist groups.

Meanwhile, France continues its anti-ISIS air campaign with a successful strike on an ISIS training camp. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drien emphasized that French rationale for ongoing airstrikes is based in self-defense: the camp, he argued, was aimed not at training fighters to attack within Syria but rather “to come to France [and] to Europe to carry out attacks.” This is consistent with initial French justifications for launching the air campaign. Reuters has more.

With 7,000 refugees and migrants now arriving in Greece per day, Defense One’s Molly O’Toole studies how security worries have prevented the United States from providing shelter to Syrian refugees. Her conclusion: Despite the Department of Homeland Security’s stated concerns, DHS was unable to point to any data suggesting that an influx of refugees would also lead to an influx of terrorism. But FBI Director James Comey thinks otherwise, stating in a congressional hearing yesterday that "[t]here is risk associated with bringing anybody in from the outside, but especially from a conflict zone like that.” CNN has the story.

The Institute for the Study of War describes the new Iraqi Security Force’s offensive in Ramadi. The offensive aims to cut Islamic State supply lines between Ramadi and Hit; ISW suggests that the offensive’s failure could cause Iraq to pivot away from U.S.-support in favor of Russia and Iran.

The Post looks into ISIS’s presence in Libya and its “increasingly sophisticated propaganda effort … building on the success of similar operations in Iraq and Syria.” Though ISIS’s expansion complicates the country’s already divisive political situation, the Journal reports that the U.N.’s Libya envoy has announced a plan for a national unity government bringing together the two dueling parliaments. Both must now vote on the plan, leading to concerns among some Libyan officials that the announcement is premature.

The Atlantic writes that as many as 30 may have died in a Saudi airstrike that hit a Yemeni wedding party. The strike comes just a week after another Saudi strike targeted a wedding in Yemen, killing over 130 people.

At Foreign Policy, Paul O’Brien suggests that the Obama administration’s “deep concern” over the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is doing little to resolve the situation. He urges the administration to withdraw its support of the Saudi-led coalition, enable the free flow of commercial goods into Yemeni ports, and push for UNSC initiatives to push a ceasefire and a comprehensive political solution.

A new tally reported by the AP indicates that 1,453 people died in the Hajj stampede last months, almost double the figure given by Saudi authorities. 476 Iranians were killed, the highest toll from any country. Iran “has called for an independent body to take over planning and administering the five-day” pilgrimage, a responsibility which the Saudi royal family would not likely relinquish.

Tensions and violent attacks have escalated further within Israel. As clashes spread to the Gaza border, AP reports that “what began as Palestinians throwing rocks and firebombs at passing cars and police morphed into a deadly shooting and a rash of knife attacks where Palestinians stabbed Israeli civilians and soldiers in the streets.”

The Journal describes a stabbing attack by an Israeli man on three Palestinians and an Arab Israeli, which follows a string of similar Palestinian attacks on Israelis. In response to the most recent incident, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that  “those who use violence and break the law—from whatever side—will be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law.” Netanyahu’s cabinet has approved several measures aimed at calming the violence, which include increased use of administrative detention and accelerated demolition of alleged terrorists’ homes. The Times has more on Israeli proposals to contain the violence.

Meanwhile, the Post examines some Palestinians' frustration with President Mahmoud Abbas’ alleged failure to lead. As Abbas’ popularity falls, an increasing number of Palestinians express support for violent resistance against Israel.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban claim to have seized two districts in the northern province of Faryab, according to the Long War Journal. It explains that, in light of these recent developments, “31 of Afghanistan’s 398 districts are under Taliban control, and another 36 districts are contested" and suggests that the “situation in Faryab somewhat mirrors that of Kunduz, where the Taliban took control of several districts since it launched its offensive in the province in May.”

Even as security in the country deteriorates, the United States is still set to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2016. But yesterday, Secretary Ash Carter stated that the U.S. has asked NATO to “remain flexible and to consider the possibility of making adjustments” to the withdrawal plan. In response, NATO secretary-general Jans Stoltenberg indicated that “many allies are willing to stay longer if needed.” The Journal has the story.

Al Jazeera notes that Carter’s comments constitute the first public acknowledgement that the Obama administration might be reconsidering the 2016 withdrawal. Earlier this week, General John Campbell, who commands the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, indicated his belief that an international presence would have to remain in the country “well beyond this year.”

Five days after the U.S. air strike on a Médecins Sans Frontières in Kunduz, 33 people remain missing. AFP suggests that the casualty toll may rise from the current count of 22 dead.

This morning, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko struck a conciliatory tone about the situation with Russia, suggesting that “the guns have been silent for more than two weeks and this gives grounds for cautious optimism." But despite Poroshenko’s perspective, Lev Golinkin argues in Foreign Policy that the Ukrainian government faces a right-wing threat that could easily gain traction amid rising frustrations over austerity measures and the continued decline in standards of living.

The European Union plans to lift sanctions on Belarus for four months in response to authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko's "pardoning of six jailed political prisoners in August and hosting of peace talks for Ukraine in February." Lukashenko’s actions have given Europe hope that the traditionally Moscow-aligned Belarus is slowly warming to Europe. For his part, Lukashenko has sought to balance allies and strengthen the Belarusian economy.

The Post reports that China has arrested several hackers responsible for economic espionage on U.S. companies, following requests from the U.S. government. This marks the first time that the Chinese government has acquiesced to such a demand. U.S. officials remain uncertain as to “whether the arrests mark a deeper shift in China’s stance — or whether they were a short-term move to avoid getting hit by sanctions.” The arrests come one week after the U.S. and China reached a widely-noted agreement on (among other things) commercially motivated cybertheft.

While the arrests may be the cause of some optimism, the Daily Beast’s Shane Harris describes how, even after the U.S.-China agreement, “China’s computer spies are still targeting hundreds of American companies working for the U.S. military.” The spying identified by the FBI is not covered by the recent agreement, as the cyberespionage involved information relevant to Chinese national security interests—instead of trade secrets to be provided to Chinese companies.  

China has responded stridently to U.S. plans to sail warships within what China claims to be its territorial waters, insisting that it would maintain control over the waters surrounding the contested Spratly Islands. The planned U.S. naval exercise would underscore the United States' refusal to accept Chinese territorial claims in the Spratlys. Reuters has more.

The AP discusses attempted hacks of Hillary Clinton’s private email server from Chinese, South Korean, and German sources, adding that “at least five cyberattack tries were apparently blocked by a ‘threat monitoring’ product that was connected to her network in October 2013, eight months after she left office.” Her system was not, however, protected between June and October of 2013, raising questions about the security of her correspondence.

The “going dark” debate continues: the Post writes that the Obama administration “will not — for now — call for legislation requiring companies to decode messages for law enforcement,” following months of discussions between the Justice Department, the FBI, and a variety of tech firms. And the National Journal notes FBI Director Comey’s most recent statement on the matter from his testimony yesterday, where he said that the Bureau had faced “dozens” of cases involving unbreakable encryption.

The Intercept updates us on the state of the ongoing Klayman case on NSA bulk surveillance.  The most recent courtroom debate concerns whether Section 215 collection should be halted prior to the 6-month window allowed by the USA FREEDOM Act, which currently requires collection to end on November 29th.

Wired discusses California’s landmark Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which effectively “bars any state law enforcement agency or other investigative entity from compelling a business to turn over any metadata or digital communications [...] without a warrant.” The California ECPA also requires “a warrant to track the location of electronic devices like mobile phones, or to search them.” According to the ACLU, this is the most comprehensive legislation of its kind in the country.

The University of Washington Center for Human Rights is suing the CIA for violating its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act, alleging that the Agency “illegally withheld information about a U.S.-trained military commander who led an operation that allegedly resulted in a massacre during El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s.” Al Jazeera has more.

The Journal reports on the case of an ex-CIA operative who was briefly detained in Portugal yesterday. Portuguese officials detained Sabrina de Sousa on the grounds of an in absentia conviction by an Italian court for her role in the 2003 kidnapping and rendition of an Egyptian cleric. Though de Sousa has been released, she has been ordered to remain in Portugal while waiting for the government’s decision on whether she will be extradited to Italy to serve a prison sentence.

Parting shot: A warm congratulations to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2015 today. The Quartet, a coalition of four Tunisian civil society organizations, has played a crucial role in maintaining and strengthening Tunisia’s nascent democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Bobby wrote about the case of Sabrina de Sousa, the ex-CIA operative detained in Portugal.

Quinta and Ben shared Facebook’s shocking new look following the Schrems decision. Or did they?

Steve Vladeck examined the latest developments in the al-Nashiri case.

Ben posted the “He Said, Xi Said” edition of Rational Security.

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