Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Cody M. Poplin
Tuesday, October 20, 2015, 3:06 PM

Syrian ground forces are currently flanked by Iranian and Hezbollah troops as they advance on Aleppo. Yet the big news today is that Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani has “ordered thousands of Iraqi Shiite militia allies into Syria for the operation to recapture Aleppo.” According to theWashington Post, Iran and its Shiite militias are “fram[ing] the Aleppo fight as part of a single regional struggle pitting Shiites against Sunni extremists.” The ground troops are currently covered by aggressive Russian air support, whose strikes have resulted in a number of civilian casulaties. Today, the BBC reports that a Russian air strike killed 45 in a rebel held region in the Latakia province. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that a total of 370 have been killed by Russian strikes since Moscow intervened in the conflict.

The moderate rebel groups fighting against Assad’s forces continue to receive more U.S.-made anti-tank missiles. One commander of a Free Syrian Army group told Reuters that the quantity of supplies had upticked significantly in recent days and that they are now “well-stocked after these deliveries.” Yet as rebel forces continue to press the United States and its coalition allies for adequate protection from air attacks, the Daily Beast asks if man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) can be controlled in Syria. While the United States has so far avoided sending in the portable air defense systems, some its partners, such as Qatar, are believed to have provided MANPADS to Syrian rebel groups, who then lost them to the Islamic State.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph F. Dunford Jr. arrived in Iraq to assess the fight against ISIS, where the U.S.-supported Iraqi forces are now putting pressure on the Islamic State on three fronts. The Times has more on the Iraqi government’s fight against the Islamic State, while Foreign Policy highlights U.S. President Barack Obama’s own mission creep in the fight against the militant group.

Brookings scholar Daniel Byman argues that "Washington needs a real Middle East policy" that looks beyond counterterrorism. Despite the political logic, whereby counterterrorism appeals to the American population as a strategic U.S. interest, Byman suggests that the “Middle East is too complex for any single paradigm” and that an explicit focus on counterterrorism is insufficient to confront the broader issues facing the region.

NATO allies Germany, Turkey and Italy are expected to maintain their current troop deployment in Afghanistan following Obama’s announcement that he will prolong the American presence in the country. With American troops now expected to stay in Afghanistan after 2016 due to heavy losses by Afghan security forces, Slate asks a common question as of late in these parts, “why the U.S. military is so bad at teaching others how to fight?”

Following reports that a “military vehicle” forced its way into the Kunduz hospital last week, a spokesman for the Pentagon claimed that U.S. and Afghan forces were inspecting the structural integrity of the damaged facility to determine if it could be reconstructed. Another spokesman admitted that forcing entry into the compound was a mistake. The Pentagon added that the initial “casualty assessment team investigation” will be released in the coming days. Meanwhile, the Afghan defense minister continues to insist that the hospital was harboring Taliban insurgents despite Doctors Without Borders’ claims to the contrary.

In other news relating to U.S. operations in Afghanistan, yesterday, U.S. and Afghan forces killed 20 Taliban militants in an operation in the Loghar province. The Pentagon has also confirmed that an F-16 flying in Afghanistan was hit by small arms fire last week. While the pilot was unharmed, such small arms attacks are rare, and it remains unclear who fired upon the aircraft.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made a surprise visit to Israel ahead of discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. The Secretary General promised to support “all efforts to lower tensions and prevent the situation from spinning out of control” and suggested that “it’s not too late to avoid a broader crisis.” Defense One asks what comes after this most recent spate of violence, recalling past examples of violent uprisings in Israel.

The Yemeni government will talk with Houthi rebels “to discuss the implementation of a U.N. resolution aimed at ending months of heavy fighting.” As the Times suggests, “the planned talks haven't changed the situation on the ground, where pro-government forces backed by the airstrikes and coalition ground forces are continuing to battle the Houthis and allied fighters loyal to a former president.”

As the Saudi participation in the war in Yemen continues, the Pentagon has approved a $11.25 billion sale to Saudi Arabia for “as many as four Littoral Combat Ships made by Lockheed Martin Corp.” The sale comes as part of the U.S. attempt to “bolster defenses of its Gulf allies after the nuclear deal with Iran.”

Saudi Arabia, for its part, has yet to release the results of the inquiry into the Hajj stampede which Saudi officials claim killed over 700 people. Nearly a month after the disaster, country estimates suggest that the number could be as many as 1800 with still no word from the Saudi government.

Following the border closure between Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia has deployed its army to manage the influx of displaced persons; officials suggest that over 18,469 people have entered the country since Friday. Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar stated that the country was overwhelmed by the influx from Croatia and added that “it is wrong to foster the illusion that it is possible for a small nation of two million people to stop, solve, and rectify a situation where even much bigger EU member states have failed.” Slovenian troops are working in tandem with police to make sure that the refugees are registered and have necessary accommodations. The Times also reports on the troubling situation faced by migrants and refugees currently traversing the Balkans.

As Europe continues to struggle with the migrant influx, the New York Times tells us that an abandoned truck found with over seventy migrants who had died from suffocation has shed some light on how smugglers operate and how economics and government crackdowns have created incentives to transport migrants in increasingly dangerous conditions.

Earlier this morning, a fire broke out in a Swedish center for asylum seekers, causing some to suspect arson. The Swedish foreign minister said that “a civilized and humane country like Sweden cannot accept that accommodation for asylum-seekers is set on fire.”

An Iranian lawmaker has accused Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian of sedition, following last month’s conviction of the reporter for espionage. Javad Karimi-Qoddusi claimed that Rezaian’s close ties with Iranian political figures indicated his complicity in sedition and he suggested that the Rezaian “had frequently shared information with the State Department and other official arms of the United States.” The Times considers whether Karimi-Qoddusi’s remarks could have an impact on a potential prisoner swap.

The first round of Egyptian parliamentary elections concluded yesterday with a remarkably low voter turnout. Following Sunday’s voter turnout of a “lackluster 2%,” the Journal says that early polling reveals an “anemic participation by youth voters” which could undermine incumbent President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi’s claim that he enjoys “popular enthusiasm for his vision.” Early poll numbers suggesting a low turnout led to a number of measures designed to drum up participation, including making public transportation free and giving government workers a half-day off of work.

With Russian attention occupied elsewhere, the Times suggests that the “recent quiet in Ukraine” could bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The September 1st ceasefire has largely held, likely as a result of Putin’s political will, and “weapons are scheduled to be pulled back from rejiggered front lines” as “separatist leaders agreed to postpone elections until early next year.” As peace begins to look more possible, hundreds of volunteer fighters from Russia and Belarus who came to the aid of Kiev are now stranded. Foreign Policy reports that these fighters had been promise a “fast-tracked” path to Ukrainian citizenship but have since been abandoned without any documentation. Many of them are now known to Russian or Belarusian spy agencies, making it impossible for them to safely return home.

With Chinese naval presence gaining ground, literally, in the South China Sea, the Journal reports on the shift of military balance in East Asia. The Pentagon, which has recently announced plans to conduct Freedom of Navigation patrols in the South China Sea, is mulling “how to deploy the minimum amount of naval power while telegraphing a message of deterrence to Beijing.” The Journal notes that one option may be to send the new littoral combat ships based in Singapore instead of a more heavily armed vessel.

Following an increase in the number of Japanese fighter jet scrambles over the course of September, China has defended its actions and urged "Japan to cease all interfering actions targeting China and make constructive efforts to safeguard China-Japan relations and regional peace and stability."

South Korean intelligence reports suggest that North Korea is preparing for a fourth nuclear bomb test. The move would, of course, prompt broad international condemnation, but also has the potential to trigger a negative response from North Korea’s closest ally, China. According to the Journal, “U.S. military officials estimate that North Korea has already mastered the technology to mount a nuclear device on a missile that could hit the continental [United States.]”

Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhary has confirmed that Pakistan would use low-yield nuclear weapons in response to a hypothetical Indian invasion. The announcement comes just days before Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is scheduled to visit the United States. Though nuclear weapons will likely be on the agenda as part of the U.S. attempt to mitigate potential conflict in South Asia, Chaudhary suggested that Sharif would not sign any nuclear deal while in the U.S. He added that “[Pakistan’s] nuclear programme is one dimensional: stopping Indian aggression before it happens. It is not for starting a war. It is for deterrence.” American officials had hoped to convince Pakistan to halt or slow the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in exchange for easier access to nuclear technology.

The Washington Post carries a long preview of Burma’s elections next month, which activists are calling the first “real test” of the country’s progress toward democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi has vowed that if her party wins a majority in parliament, she will run the country, despite a constitutional provision that bars her from holding the presidency. The Post has more.

In a stunning rebuke of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada captured 184 or 338 seats in the House of Commons, ending almost a decade of conservative rule in the country. The prime minister-designate, Justin Trudeau, is the 43-year-old son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The Times has more on the election.

The election will likely have a number of implications for Canadian security and counterterrorism policy, and the Sydney Morning Herald reports that Trudeau will likely cancel Canada’s $24 billion contract to buy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Trudeau has also pledged to end his country’s participation in bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.

Vice News raises questions about whether Twitter is censoring tweets related to the Intercept’s “Drone Papers” as activists around the world have found that tweets linking to the story have disappeared from their timelines. It is not at all clear that Twitter has purposely targeted activists sharing the story---the paper concedes that the disappearing tweets could just be a bug---but tweets relating to the story have even disappeared from the timelines of people who are critics of the Intercept’s reporting.

In more tech news: Facebook will now alert users when their account is being targeted by a state-sponsored attack, according to Ars Technica.

Foreign Policy reports that a thirteen-year-old has claimed to have hacked the personal AOL account of CIA Director John Brennan, compromising his security clearance application, his email contacts, and a list of high-level government employees. The hacker, who goes by “cracka,” says he is a pro-Palestine protester, and that the hack was a collective operation. Over at Wired, Kim Zetter explains how cracka broke into the director’s email account. You can follow his Twitter account here, which at the time of writing was still active.

Yesterday marked the first day of hearings since February in the trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other defendants charged with orchestrating the 9/11 attacks. Yet the Miami Herald tells us that the pretrial hearings were halted during the first 10 minutes when one of the detainees, Walid bin Attash, asked whether he could represent himself in place of his court appointed attorney. Attash previously recognized that his personal translator had once served as a linguist at a black site where he was held.

Finally, the Washington Post brings us the true story of “Bridge of Spies,” the latest Steven Spielberg movie on the shoot down of a U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union and the exchange of pilot Gary Powers for captured KGB-agent Rudolf Abel. On Lawfare, Jeffrey Kahn outlined the case of Colonel Abel and what Jim Donovan’s defense of Abel can teach us about the ongoing debate over Guantanamo Bay.

Parting shot: It’s hard to get an accurate understanding of the level of destruction in Syria, but this drone footage of the Syrian army’s actions in Damascus, filmed by an “independent” Russian journalist, provides a glimpse into what appears to be near to total destruction of the city.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Jack and Ben previewed the first Hoover Book Soiree, which will be hosted at the Hoover Institution’s beautiful Washington offices tomorrow, October 21st. Ben will interview Will McCants and Joby Warrick on their new books on the Islamic State. RSVP.

Tim Edgar discussed the potential mechanisms of redress for European Union citizens regarding U.S. data collection and why extending Privacy Act rights to non-US persons will not be enough.

Noting rumors that Chinese government hackers have penetrated networks of U.S. companies in recent weeks, Paul Rosenzweig asked, “is China already cheating?”

Jack argued that the “forever war is entrenched,” and that over the last two presidential administrations, “the military, intelligence, legal, and bureaucratic architecture for supporting endless war...has matured, normalized, and become entrenched.”

Cody previewed this week’s hearings in the 9/11 military commissions case. The court is scheduled to cover a 40-item docket over the next two weeks.

Finally, Ben shared a note of appreciation of Wells Bennett, who as of Monday has left his longtime post as Managing Editor of Lawfare to start a new job. Ben says is best: “anyone who reads this site regularly and finds it useful owes Wells a debt of gratitude.” We will certainly miss him here in the office.

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