Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Cody M. Poplin, Quinta Jurecic
Tuesday, October 13, 2015, 2:02 PM

Still reeling from Saturday’s twin suicide bombings which left at least 95 dead, Turkey has seen no respite from the intense political polarization that has recently gripped the country. The Times takes a look at the Turkish reaction to the deadly attacks and notes that “within hours of the attack on Saturday outside the train station in Ankara, the capital, where two suicide bombers killed nearly 100 people, political leaders engaged in more bickering than consolation, and angry citizens began protesting against the government.”

Turkish officials now say they have “concrete evidence” of ISIS involvement in the attacks in Ankara, the Guardian writes. Government officials have dismissed accusations of negligence in failing to prevent the bombings, defending the security provisions that had been in place for the peace rally.  

Bloomberg tells us that, though the Turkish government has endorsed the PKK’s unilateral ceasefire as an “important step,” officials insist that the move is insufficient to end the conflict between government and PKK forces. And Reuters reports that Turkish officials, made nervous by recent Kurdish military successes in northwestern Syria, have asked countries backing Kurdish forces to hold back from supporting further territorial advances along the Turkey-Syria border.

And which countries might be supporting the Kurds, according to Turkey? The United States and... Russia. Yes, you read that correctly: Turkish officials claim that the Kremlin has been providing backing to Kurdish fighters in the Syrian northwest.

The network of alliances in Syria grows more complicated by the hour. For those keeping track, the Syrian war now involves 4 of the P5 countries, one NATO ally, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Hezbollah, Iran, Kurdish militants, Al Qaeda, ISIS fighters, and militants from around the world.

Meanwhile, the United States has airdropped 45 tons of ammunition to a rebel coalition fighting ISIS in northeast Syria, the BBC writes. The ammunition will be used by an alliance of Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters to launch an assault on the ISIS-held city of Raqqa, which Reuters suggests will likely begin within weeks.

Reuters also reports on the new alliance between the Kurdish YPG (or People's Protection Units) and Syrian Arab groups, which may “deflect criticism that [the Kurdish group] fights only on behalf of Kurds”especially in the wake of accusations by Amnesty International that the YPG has committed war crimes by displacing thousands of non-Kurdish civilians and demolishing houses in areas recaptured from ISIS. Voice of America has the story.

As U.S.-backed Syrian rebels continue to stave off the Russia-backed Syrian government forces, the Times writes that the conflict is quickly turning into a proxy war. One rebel referred to the supply of arms from the CIA as essentially “carte blanche”: “We can get as much as we need and whenever we need them.” Rebel factions have increasingly relied on U.S. anti-tank missiles in their fight against the Syrian military.

The Journal writes that Russian airstrikes are causing formerly fractious Syrian rebel groups to pull together, perhaps “offering another shot at a more unified front against the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.”  As contempt for Russian involvement grows among rebel groups, the al Nusra Front’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, has called for revenge attacks on Russia both within and outside of Syria. Jolani also placed a bounty of $3.4 million on Bashar al Assad, the Post tells us.

Confirming Russia’s long-suspected intentions, President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged the Kremlin’s intention to prop up the regime of Syrian president Bashar al Assad, saying that “[the Russian] task is to stabilize the legitimate government and to create conditions for a political compromise ... by military means.” The Hill notes the contrast with previous Kremlin assurances that Russia’s activities were aimed strictly against terrorist groups. In his remarks, Putin also jabbed at the Pentagon’s failed train and equip program, suggesting that, given the same $500 million, “[Russia] would have spent it better.”

During a pro-government gathering in Damascus thanking Russia for its military intervention on behalf of the Assad regime, insurgents fired two shells at the Russian embassy, the Times tells us.  No one was hurt in the attack.

The Times reports on the suspected terror cell that the FSB claims to have discovered in Moscow, after arresting several people who had allegedly trained in ISIS camps in Syria. FSB officers also reportedly discovered an IED with over 10 pounds of explosives in the suspects’ apartment, though some social media users have expressed skepticism over the “foiled plot.”

Politico examines the rift that has arisen within the Obama administration’s foreign policy team following Putin’s intervention in Syria. Pushing back against the president’s weariness toward increased U.S. engagement, some officials have argued for bolder U.S. action in Syria, suggesting that the United States looks weak by not responding decisively to Russia’s provocations. Yet their arguments appear to have had little effect on the U.S. policy.

Military Times reports that, as part of DOD’s overhaul of its much-maligned train-and-equip program in Syria, the Pentagon “will markedly scale back the rigorous screening and vetting process designed to ensure the rebels do not have links to terrorists or extremist groups.” In contrast to their last attempt in this respect, the Pentagon will continue to vet leaders of groups “with little or no scrutiny of rank-and-file fighters.” Officials suggest that the new plan will allow greater flexibility in U.S. efforts.

According to the Pentagon, the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State has successfully killed an estimated 20,000 militants. Yet USA Today notes that the group continues to draw fighters, and quotes Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon as saying that the war against ISIS is all but “stalemated — in both Iraq and Syria.”

Iraq has announced the “launch of the second phase of a large-scale military operation to drive Islamic State militants out of the central Salahuddin province, the AP writes. This phase will follow months of stalled U.S. and Iraqi anti-ISIS efforts following their April recapture of Tikrit, the province’s capital.

The increase in violence in Israel shows no sign of ebbing. The Post reports on the “Day of Rage” declared by Palestinian groups, which has led to numerous Palestinian stabbing attacks and the deaths of three Israeli civilians. One attack, in which two Palestinian men boarded a bus and proceeded to shoot and stab passengers, recalled similar assaults aboard buses that characterized the Second Intifada. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised “aggressive measures” to calm the situation. The Times has more.

Earlier today, the Taliban officially announced that they have completely withdrawn from the city of Kunduz. While Taliban militants only held the city for 15 days, during that time the group was able to destroy government offices and facilities, kill local opponents, and free allied prisoners. More importantly, it reestablished itself as a force to be reckoned with, retaking its first city in fourteen years and undermining hopes that the Afghan security forces would be able to defend the country’s most important cities on their own.

Even as the Afghan security forces consolidate control over Kunduz, the Guardian reports that Taliban insurgents threatened to storm Ghazni, another provincial capital south of Kabul. Afghan security forces successfully repelled the attack, but the provincial governor told the AFP that the Taliban had attacked with 2,000 fighters and that the “assault left the streets of Ghazni deserted.”

According to the New York Times, though, the Taliban may not be the only militant group advancing in the country: the Islamic State is also making inroads in its own battles against the Taliban in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar Province. Why? The answer is simple: The Islamic State is flush with cash, allowing it to pick off Taliban fighters with a signing bonus of $500 dollars. The group is consolidating control with the same cruelty it has displayed elsewhere, rounding up and executing tribal elders and anyone associated with the Afghan government. A provincial deputy director for the Refugees and Repatriation Ministry said that more than 17,000 families in Nangarhar have been displaced by ISIS’s expanding violence.

Elsewhere in the country, U.S. airstrikes covered Afghan ground forces as they destroyed an al Qaeda sanctuary and training camp in southern Afghanistan. CNN shares that the five-day mission is one of the largest joint operations the two countries have undertaken.

In light of the rising chaos on the ground in Afghanistan, the Post’s Greg Jaffe provides today’s long read on President Obama’s fading hopes of bringing the troops home before he departs from the White House.

The Times reports that earlier this morning, the Iranian Parliament endorsed the nuclear deal negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 in July. The fate of the deal is now in the hands of the 12-member Guardian Council, which has the option to send the agreement back to Parliament for “further evaluation.” An Iranian state news agency reports that during debate on the vote, a scuffle took place between a hard-line opponent of the deal and one of the agreement’s supporters, prompting Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to leave the building. Another eye-catching development: “Other hard-line representatives were seen crying after the approval of the agreement, which passed with 161 votes in favor, 59 against and 13 abstentions.” It seems the U.S. Congress is not the only representative body prone to drama.

Even as the nuclear deal sailed through Iran’s parliament, the Hill writes (citing a "senior administration official") that the Obama administration now believes that an Iranian missile test over the weekend likely violated a 2010 United Nations resolution meant to limit the country’s ability to test and deploy advanced weapons systems. The issue has yet to be referred to the United Nations Security Council, and U.S. officials insisted that the ballistic missile launch was beyond the purview of the nuclear agreement.

A Dutch investigation into the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, which crashed in Ukraine in 2014, has concluded that the aircraft was likely hit by a Russian-made BUK missile. While the report does not attribute blame for the missile launch, but the Times notes that the findings “appear consistent” with the theory that the plane was shot down by Russian-backed separatists. The Times’ story includes a 20-minute video from the Dutch Safety Board explaining their findings.

The Times reports that the United States’ Pacific allies have expressed mixed opinions regarding the Obama administration’s intentions to carry out Freedom of Navigation patrols near artificial islands built by China in the South China Sea. The Philippines has openly supported the patrols, while new Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has expressed caution.  For its part, Singapore said it “does no good for the region if there are incidents.” Though the United States has yet to announce when it will carry out the patrols, the administration has recently taken to briefing allies in the region, signalling that they could occur anytime.

The AP carries more news on Hillary Clinton’s secret email server, this time noting that the server was connected to the Internet in a way that allowed users to control it remotely. Experts have argued that the remote desktop service was not intended for such use without additional protective measures, potentially opening up the former Secretary of State to more criticism that her personal email server created security risks for the classified and confidential information she handled while in office.

Moscow’s recent incursions into Ukraine and Syria have boosted its incentive to tighten relationships with what the Hill calls “cyber gangs,” creating “some of the most sophisticated hacking teams in the world.” In exchange for their cooperation in spying and writing malware code, the Russian government often turns a blind eye to a group's’ activity on the dark web.

A new report in the Wall Street Journal highlights some of the risks identified by law enforcement relating to encrypted smartphones. Law enforcement officials share that in recent months they have been unable to unlock the phones of two homicide victims, undermining their ability to know who the victim communicated with in their final hours. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance says that he has encountered 101 iPhones that his office could not unlock as of the end of August. The revelations may be the first volley by local prosecutors and law enforcement as the debate about going dark trickles down from the Federal to the local level, where small law enforcement offices often lack the capabilities of their national counterparts.

Now for some news from down under: As of today, Australian telecommunications companies are required to retain certain metadata on their servers for two years. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who championed the policy during his time as communications minister, endorsed the new measure as “critical” to the work of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. But the BBC reports that civil liberties advocates—including, via Twitter, Edward Snowdenare up in arms over what they see as a potential invasion of privacy.

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit against the two psychologists who played a major role in designing the CIA’s interrogation program, largely on the basis of information revealed in the “torture report” released by the Senate Intelligence Committee last year. The suit, which accuses the psychologists of human rights violations, is on behalf of two detainees who say they were tortured in CIA custody and one whose death has been attributed to harsh treatment at the hands of the CIA. Politico has the story.

Parting shot: This evening at 8:30 pm EST, CNN will hold the first democratic primary debate for the 2016 presidential campaign. Foreign Policy weighs in with a helpful guide on issues to keep your eye on, including TPP and a possible no-fly zone over Syria.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ben announced a new series of book events Lawfare will be running with the Hoover Institution here in Washington, D.C. The first event is October 21st and will feature Will McCants and Joby Warrick. RSVP today.

Francesca Procaccini brought us the other big encryption news last week: a district judge in New York deferred ruling on the government’s petition for an order that would force Apple to disable security on an Apple device, and signalled he did not think the government has legal authority to make such an order.

In light of recent recommendations for reconciling U.S. and E.U. data privacy policies, Peter Margulies pushed back on the idea that the United States should drop to “conduct of foreign affairs of the United States” provision in the FISA Amendments Act.

Herb Lin broke down the confusing rhetoric in the encryption debate, in which opponents often use the same language but mean very different things.

Cody notified us that the 25th Annual Review of the Field of National Security Law will be held from November 5-6, 2015. RSVP.

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