Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Quinta Jurecic
Friday, October 23, 2015, 3:42 PM

The Pentagon has released the name of the American serviceman killed in the recent raid in Iraq that rescued more than 70 hostages scheduled to be executed by ISIS. Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler died after injuries sustained during a firefight between ISIS militants and the U.S. and Kurdish force. His is the first combat death sustained by U.S. forces in Iraq since 2011, the Washington Post writes.

The U.S. commandos, who were meant only to play a supporting role to Kurdish fighters, decided “in the heat of the moment” to assist Kurdish forces that were sustaining heavy casualties, Foreign Policy reports. This “last minute decision” lead to the first direct ground confrontation between the U.S. and ISIS in Iraq—which might explain why a spokesman for the Iraq's Defence Ministry said that Baghdad was not informed of the raid beforehand.

According to the New York Times, the Pentagon has stated that the firefight was a “unique circumstance in which very close partners of the United States made a specific request for our assistance,” emphasizing that the incident was not “something that’s going to now happen on a regular basis.” But the Wall Street Journal points out that the raid suggests the flexibility of just what constitutes a “train, advise, and assist” mission in the heat of battle. And the Daily Beast chimes in with further skepticism as to the Pentagon’s refusal to refer to the raid as “combat.”

Only days after Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s visit to Moscow, Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in an effort to restart diplomatic negotiations over a possible resolution to the Syrian conflict. They were joined in Vienna by both the Saudi Arabian and Turkish foreign ministers, and negotiations are expected to continue next week with both countries that are involved in the conflict militarily and those affected by the ongoing refugee crisis. Kerry and Lavrov are also expected to discuss the ongoing violence in Israel. More on that from the Post.

AFP reports that, earlier in the day, Lavrov and his Jordanian counterpart announced plans to coordinate Jordanian and Russian military activities in Syria. It remains unclear how far the cooperation will extend, but Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judah indicated his hope that the countries’ shared efforts would “be effective in fighting terrorism in Syria and beyond.”

For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin may be changing his tune on the existence of moderate Syrian rebel factions willing to fight against ISIS—or then again, perhaps not. Though Russia has been systematically bombing non-ISIS rebel groups on the grounds that all opponents of the Assad regime are terrorists, Putin indicated yesterday that he and Assad had discussed the possibility of Russian backing to rebel groups prepared to “really fight” against ISIS. The Journal theorizes that Putin may have been referring to the Syrian Kurdish forces fighting in northern Syria, though his comments remain unclear.

Putin further suggested that the deconfliction agreement recently reached by the United States and Russia foreshadow further cooperation, saying that “we are close to beginning information exchanges with our Western partners on the positions and movements of militants.” And Reuters tells us that he went on to clarify that the Kremlin has no intention of extending its air campaign into Iraq, despite requests from some Iraqi officials and Shiite militias.

Amid the persistent violence, the United States is weighing its options as to how to best protect civilians in Syria. The Times reports that political pressure is mounting on the White House to establish no-fly zones and safe havens, despite President Obama’s consistent opposition to these proposals. While Secretary Kerry is pushing for these measures to protect civilians, the Pentagon has emphasized that any no-fly zone or safe harbor would require escalation of U.S. military presence in the region.

And as the United States continues to revise its policy in Syria, Defense One updates us on the State Department’s effort to to “out-tweet” the Islamic State. The counter-propaganda force, which currently numbers around 20, is doing its best to use social media techniques against ISIS recruitment but is still in need of some serious reinforcement.

Washington has declared that U.S.-backed forces will soon launch an offensive on ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital Raqqa, but the supposedly imminent military action has yet to materialize. That’s the word from the Post, which writes that the fifty tons of ammunition airdropped by U.S. forces last week have been claimed by Kurdish forces rather than their tentative Arab allies. The discovery that Kurdish fighters have likely laid hold of the ammunition creates serious problems for the military campaign, with both Turkey and Sunni Arabs anxious over how much the Kurds are really willing to cooperate. Meanwhile, the United States continues to maintain that Syrian Arab groups received the airdrop.

With General John Allen stepping down as the U.S. anti-ISIS czar, Foreign Policy lets us know that the White House has finally chosen General Allen’s replacement: Ambassador Brett McGurk, currently Allen’s number two in the anti-ISIS effort. McGurk’s position will be based in the State Department and will not come along with a position on the National Security Council, potentially creating difficulties in coordination with the Pentagon. Overall, it’s hard to disagree with Foreign Policy’s assessment that McGurk will inherit the “job from hell.”

The International Committee for the Red Cross has said that airstrikes in Syria are hindering humanitarian efforts, AFP writes. The group said that the strikes were preventing them from accessing areas in need of humanitarian assistance. The ICRC’s remarks come alongside reports that “nine Russian airstrikes have hit hospitals or field clinics operating in war-torn Syria,” killing civilian and aid workers. Russia has denied the allegations.

Reuters tells us heavy fighting in Yemen’s third largest city, Taiz, has left 22 civilians dead and 140 wounded. The ICRC reported that the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes “indiscriminately” hit civilian areas.

With Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visiting Washington on Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter praised Pakistan’s effort in the fight against terrorism. During discussions between Sharif and President Obama, Obama emphasized his commitment to a “lasting political settlement with the Afghan government” following his decision last week to maintain a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. Both leaders declared that the Taliban should initiate “direct talks” with the government of Afghanistan, the Post tells us.

Haaretz reports that the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission has endorsed the nuclear deal with Iran, despite heavy government opposition to the deal. And on that note, the Journal takes a careful look at the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. “Mutual distrust” between the allies led to U.S. monitoring of Israeli communications and military bases in 2012 after the White House became afraid that Israel was preparing to take a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Swedish authorities now suspect that the deadly sword attack that left two dead in a Swedish school could have been triggered by racial motivations, the Journal reports, as Sweden faces a massive influx of immigrants and asylum seekers. The Times reports that the attack occurred “on the same day that the Swedish Migration Agency forecast that as many as 190,000 refugees” would enter the country this year. Only a day after this announcement, the Swedish government agreed to tighten immigration rules.

Germany is introducing measures to tackle its refugee crisis earlier than previously expected, a top government official said on Friday, allowing accelerated deportation procedures to begin as early as next week. Germany expects a record influx of more than 800,000 migrants this year, by far the most in the European Union. Reuters tells us that the tighter rules aim to speed up asylum and extradition procedures for migrants from southeastern Europe, in order to focus on refugees from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Guardian writes that Berlin is also expected to “push for more ambitious and extensive common European Union policies on the refugee crisis,” including “compulsory and permanent” quotas that will help distribute the influx across the E.U. The scheme faces stiff opposition, however, with over half of E.U. member states opposed to the measure.

Speaking of the European Union, Chinese President Xi Jinping weighed in on the possibility of a “Brexit” from the E.U. during his visit to the United Kingdom. In what Reuters describes as a “rare mention of another country's planned vote by China,” Xi expressed hope that the U.K.’s upcoming referendum on E.U. membership would maintain the country’s status within the Union.

South Korea has urged North Korea to conduct bilateral talks regarding the latter’s nuclear program, Korea Times reports. Without such discussions, South Korea suggested that “North Korea will be unable to gain economic assistance, normalization of relations with the U.S., and the signing of a peace treaty, which were agreed upon in the Sept. 19, 2005, deal..”

Meanwhile, as regional concerns rise over China’s increased presence in the South China Sea,  the Journal writes that “Indonesia will seek U.S. help as it builds a new coast guard to patrol its strategic waters, and will play a more active role in resolving regional territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.” The request comes after the U.S. announcement that "it would spend $100 million on maritime law enforcement in Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia."

A twin suicide bomb killed 18 in northeastern Nigeria, the Times tells us. The attacks targeted a mosque in Maiduguri, the city of Boko Haram’s origin.

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton testified before the House Select Committee on Benghazi… for eleven hours. Defense One’s Molly O’Toole reports on the marathon hearing, agreeing with Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) that the hotly-anticipated event failed to turn up anything new on Clinton’s response to the 2011 attack.

President Obama has used his veto power for only the fifth time in his presidency to reject the NDAA, on the grounds that the bill both fails to address the problems of sequestration and strengthens restrictions against the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay. According to the Times, the White House is confident that House Democrats will be able to uphold the veto.

So what happens now as far as defense spending is concerned? Defense One examines what the future may hold, explaining that Congress now has until December to pass a new NDAA, at which point the continuing resolution funding the government will expire.

The Cybersecurity and Information Sharing Act is on its way to a final vote in the Senate after a successful vote on a key amendment, Foreign Policy reports. The amendment attempts to address privacy concerns raised by civil liberties groups and technology companies, and also prohibits companies from “hacking back” against cyberattackers. The Hill writes that the White House has formally endorsed the bill. And so, too, has the Washington Post’s editorial board, which argues that CISA represents an important “step toward breaking the logjam on security.”

Wikileaks has released a second batch of documents reportedly obtained from CIA Director John Brennan’s AOL email. Part two of the would-be scoop includes a contact list and two documents related to a report on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan--material that, NBC tells us, is “neither classified nor revelatory.”

Parting shot: That’s one approach to decommunisation: in response to new Ukrainian legislation requiring the dismantling of Soviet-era monuments and symbols that remain in the country, an artist has converted a statue of Lenin into one of Darth Vader. May the force be with you, Comrade.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Bobby looked at the heroic raid that left one American serviceman dead and reminded us that the U.S. “assist” mission in Iraq does not preclude combat situation.

Bobby also suggested that the NDAA just might tweak the framework for lethal operations oversight.

Cody shared President Obama’s promised veto of the NDAA.

Zack Bluestone discussed the 9/11 case hearing cancelled due to the absence of a translator.

R. Taj Moore looked at what was in the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act, summarizing the act’s warrant and notice requirements.

Ellen Scholl introduced "Hot Commodities," a new Lawfare feature containing a roundup of news and analysis of energy and security issues.

Yishai Schwartz explained why Iran’s long-range missile test was not a violation of the JCPOA.

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