Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Quinta Jurecic
Monday, October 26, 2015, 3:04 PM

As the fight against the Islamic State grinds on, Defense One introduces us to the military’s new anti-ISIS top commander, Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland. Maj. Gen. Darsie Rogers will also be stepping in as the region’s new special operations commander. Alongside the imminent replacement of current anti-ISIS czar Marine Gen. John Allen by Ambassador Brett McGurk, these new appointments indicate somewhat of a reshuffle among the administration’s top anti-ISIS team.

The Washington Post shares footage of the joint U.S.-Kurdish raid in Iraq that left one U.S. commando dead. Taken from a helmet camera, the footage reflects the “professionalism of the joint force as they move methodically through the compound, searching hostages and moving them, most likely, to the waiting helicopters for extraction.” Another video shows the Islamic State compound being destroyed by U.S. coalition forces following the operation responsible for freeing over 70 hostages who had been scheduled for imminent execution.

The raid has prompted questions about whether or not American forces are indeed engaged in combat operations in Iraq. Despite earlier Pentagon comments as to the raid’s “unique circumstances,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stated bluntly that “there will be more raids.” Carter’s statement may herald the start of a “new and more muscular” role for the United States in Iraq and Syria, the Wall Street Journal writes.

Of course, the raid hasn’t changed the fact that U.S. forces are officially engaged only in a “train, advise, and assist” role in Iraq and Syria, rather than a combat role. The Hill examines the language used by various officials to discuss the raid: was it “unique,” part of “overarching counterterrorism efforts throughout the region,” or just part of the “train, advise, and assist” mission? Earlier on Lawfare, Bobby questioned just how much assisting U.S. forces are permitted to undertake. 

The New York Times writes that the surge in violence resulting from Russia’s participation in the Syrian conflict has displaced tens of thousands of Syrians, significantly worsening Syria’s already dire humanitarian crisis. Russian air support has enabled the Syrian government to begin new offensives in areas that had previously been relatively free from fighting, particularly near the cities of Hama, Homs, and Aleppo.

On the other hand, USA Today tells us that harsh conditions over Syria have led “nearly one-third of Russian attack planes and half of its transport aircraft” to be grounded at any given time. Dust from the desert environment is causing technical problems for Russian aircraft, which has led the number of Russian airstrikes to fall somewhat.

Though the Kremlin has announced that it would be open to supporting the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, the FSA would rather not have Russian help. According to some FSA members, Russia has reached out directly to the FSA to offer backing. But an FSA spokesman told the BBC that the rebel group rejected Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s offer of assistance, on the grounds that Moscow’s support for the regime of Bashar al Assad has rendered its help untrustworthy.

And instead of peeling moderates off, Russia's bombing campaign is rally groups together. The Long War Journal writes that three Syrian jihadist groups have collaborated to form an explicitly anti-Russian coalition near Damascus. The three groups, the al Nusra Front, Ahrar al Sham, and Ajnad al Sham, have pledged to defeat both Russia and the Syrian regime.

Russian lawmakers who met with Assad during his recent visit to Moscow indicated that Assad would be willing to discuss constitutional reforms and hold presidential and parliamentary elections with “reasonable, patriotic opposition forces”--but only “after the victory over terrorism.” The AP has the story.

Following a meeting between John Kerry and King Salman this weekend, the Telegraph reports that the United States and Saudi Arabia have “pledged to continue and intensify support” for  moderate opposition forces in the face of Russian airstrikes and the Syrian regime’s ongoing offensive. This public commitment represents an acknowledgement of the drastically increased number of anti-tank missiles currently in use by rebel forces, the missiles having been funneled to rebel forces by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia following the beginning of the Russian air campaign.

Over at the Times, President Jimmy Carter urges states involved in the Syrian conflict to push for a political solution and calls for five-way negotiations between the United States, Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime. “The involvement of Russia and Iran is essential,” he writes: Assad “will not end the war by accepting concessions imposed by the West, but is likely to do so if urged by his allies.”

In Turkey, a firefight between ISIS militants and Turkish police left seven militants and two policemen dead. The firefight followed Turkish raids of over a dozen houses in south eastern Turkey. Reuters reports that twelve other militants were captured alive.

As the Yemeni government and Houthi rebel forces look to engage in peace talks for the second time since the conflict began, Peter Salisbury of the Post explores "how Yemen's United Nations mediation could avoid failing again." Urging U.N. mediators to address the grievances of the Yemeni population at large, he concludes that “if whoever is handed power in a post-conflict settlement cannot display clear political will to govern on behalf of all Yemenis by acknowledging and addressing local grievances and improving living standards, the country is likely to collapse once again into a morass of inter-regional battles.

The Yemeni government has gained ground in the southwest city of Taiz following days of fighting with Houthi forces. In the nearby Yemeni port city of Aden, the AP writes that some 30 Islamic militants stormed a supermarket. The militants claimed to be protesting the mingling of genders within the supermarket and left the market after holding those within it hostage for over an hour.

A suicide bomber killed three people and wounded several others in an attack on a Saudi mosque, according to Saudi state television. Reuters reports that no group has yet to claim responsibility, though ISIS has been behind the last several suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia. The mosque’s religious affiliation is not yet known.

Secretary of State John Kerry made his way to Israel on Saturday in an effort to end the growing violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Following discussions with Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli officials, Kerry announced joint Israeli and Jordanian measures to calm tensions, particularly a proposal to install 24-hour cameras in the Temple Mount in order to show that Israel has no plans of changing the status quo in the holy area, which has been at the heart of recent violence. The Times has the story.

Despite the agreement, the Journal reports that violent attacks have continued, with multiple Palestinians stabbing Israelis over the weekend. Meanwhile, Reuters tells us that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering revoking travel and other rights for Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, though the political feasibility of the proposal remains unclear.

A 7.5-magnitude earthquake along the Hindu Kush has left at least 215 dead in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with tremors felt as far away as New Delhi. While officials have reported “high material and human losses,” the collapse of electricity and telecommunications infrastructure has prevented officials from getting further details about the destruction in remote areas. The majority of the deaths appear to be in northern Pakistan, the Times writes, and the death toll across the region is likely to rise significantly. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan have declared emergencies in response to the quake.

In a somewhat unlikely turn of events, both the Taliban and the Afghan government are now reaching out to Russia for military aid. Following the gradual drawdown of U.S. troops, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is looking to Russia as a possible source of military assistance--although the Journal writes that Russia is unwilling to commit to sending troops into the country. Meanwhile, the Daily Beast reports on Taliban efforts to cozy up to the Kremlin and gain support for its battle against ISIS. The takeaway: Russia may be “playing a double game” just in case the Taliban regain control of Afghanistan.

But the Afghan government isn’t limiting its calls for assistance to the Kremlin. The AP tells us that Afghanistan’s national security adviser has requested increased U.S. and NATO help in driving out ISIS and a resurgent Taliban, warning that Afghanistan faces a  “symbiotic network” of terrorism.

A new report from Doctors Without Borders indicates that the death toll from the U.S. bombing of their hospital in Kunduz has risen to 30. The NATO report on the incident has been delayed, allegedly “held up by difficulties in identifying the remains of bodies in the hospital.”

A suicide attack targeting a Shiite procession in southern Pakistan killed at least 22. While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, the Times notes that the Taliban may be responsible given its history of attacking Pakistani Shiites. In Bangladesh, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for three bombs that went off during a Shiite procession on Saturday, killing one and wounding dozens of others; however, Dhaka has disputed those claims.

In Nigeria, AFP reports that 60 suspects were arrested by Nigerian Department of State Services “over an alleged Boko Haram plot to attack the country's financial hub, Lagos.” 15 suspects were released after preliminary investigations.

At an emergency summit held in Brussels, leaders of  “11 EU states and three non-EU countries met to discuss how to handle growing numbers of migrants” and refugees. Agreeing on a series of measures to handle the refugee crisis, the leaders agreed to bolster Slovenian police forces to help manage the influx, to increase communications between countries about migrant numbers, and to discourage the movement of migrants across borders without "informing neighboring countries." The Journal reports that the leaders also agreed on measures aimed at slowing the influx of displaced persons and formed a plan to open thousands of extra refugee reception areas.

Poland’s nationalist, “euroskeptic” Law and Justice Party (PiS) has triumphed resoundingly in the Polish parliamentary elections, the Journal reports. After riding to victory on its opposition to German plans to resettle refugees across Europe, the party’s agnosticism toward the E.U. may spell trouble for the already strained internal politics of the Union. PiS is also a strong advocate of an aggressive NATO posture toward Russia, Reuters writes.

The Times reports that “Russian submarines and spy ships are aggressively operating near the vital undersea cables that carry almost all global Internet communications,” with a noticeable increase in Russian underseas operation over the past year. Some U.S. military and intelligence officials are concerned about the possibility of the “ultimate hack”: a potential Russian operation to sever fiber-optic cables in order to “halt the instant communications on which the West’s governments, economies and citizens have grown dependent.”

Politico writes that, having emerged victorious from debate over the nuclear deal with Iran, Secretary Kerry and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz are working to persuade the Senate to revive and reconsider the nuclear test ban treaty formerly rejected in 1999. Though ratification might ultimately aid in reining in “nuclear outlaws,” any effort to push the treaty forward faces a steep uphill climb given the current mood in the Senate.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo will begin his state visit to the U.S. with a meeting with President Obama this afternoon, the Times reports. President Widodo has indicated that he will decide whether or not Indonesia will join the Trans-Pacific Partnership following the meeting. Indonesia’s participation would bring the largest economy in Southeast Asia within the agreement, a significant milestone for the White House.

This week, India will be hosting a major summit with African nations in an effort to provide an alternative to growing Chinese dominance over the continent. The summit represents a campaign to project Indian soft power in Africa as opposed to what many see as a relentless Chinese focus on economic expansion, Reuters writes.

Meanwhile, the Journal takes a look at the new economic plan set to be approved by the Chinese Communist Party this week, which will likely aim to further decrease state involvement in the economy. The results of the Central Committee meeting will be a test of President Xi Jinping’s political clout, as Xi seeks to push his anticorruption and reform agenda.

The leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea will soon gather for a trilateral summit in Seoul… or will they? The Journal examines the atmosphere of confusion surrounding an upcoming meeting between the three countries: while “all three nations agree that some events will take place,” they can’t seem to publicly agree on “exactly between whom and about what.” The “conflicting messages” over the talks, which would represent the first trilateral talks between the nations since 2012, suggest the persistent tensions that still strain relations among the three.

Why do government officials keep using their personal emails for official business? So asks Defense One, reporting on the recent hack of CIA Director John Brennan’s AOL email in context of Hillary Clinton’s own private email server. Despite an abundance of reports on the cyber insecurity of private emails, government cybersecurity is far from where it should be--so perhaps it isn’t out of the question to imagine that a private account might offer equal, or even better, protection.

The Senate’s final vote on the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon, the Hill tells us. Senators will consider a variety of amendments along with the bill itself, two of which aim to address privacy advocates’ concerns by limiting sharing of personal data and tightening the bill’s definition of “cybersecurity threat” and “cyber threat indicator.” Politico’s Morning Cybersecurity brief has more on the smorgasbord of amendments.

Following the European Court of Justice decision striking down Safe Harbor data transfer framework, the E.U.’s top data protection authority has stated that companies operating in Europe must act within three months to limit transfers of E.U. citizens’ personal data to the United States. During this grace period before enforcement begins, companies are likely to scramble to build local data centers within Europe while also perhaps securing “alternative legal measures such as consent forms,” Reuters writes.

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit by Wikimedia challenging the legality and constitutionality of NSA “upstream” collection, Reuters reports. Judge T.S. Ellis III held that, under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Clapper v. Amnesty International, the plaintiffs’ reliance on suspicion rather than factual evidence of surveillance wa insufficient as a basis for standing. The ruling is available here.

The D.C. Circuit Court held on Friday that a U.S. citizen mistreated by FBI agents while detained abroad cannot file suit against those agents. The Hill takes a look at the ruling, which held that federal agents are protected from Amir Meshal’s Bivens suit both because the mistreatment occurred overseas and during a terrorism investigation. (David Ryan broke down the details of the ruling on Lawfare over the weekend.)

Parting shot: Perhaps you’ve been following Benjamin Wittes’ quixotic quest to fight Vladimir Putin in single combat. If so (or even if you haven’t), check out CBC’s interview with Ben on “As It Happens,” starting at the 9 minute mark in Part II.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Zack Bluestone posted the latest Water Wars, noting the absence of any significant developments in the Philippines v. PRC case as well as the planned U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the Spratly Islands.

Adam Klein and Mira Rapp-Hooper discussed the planned operations in the Spratlys, outlining the potential U.S. legal claims for its freedom of navigation exercises. 

Herb Lin considered the possibility of improving drone safety operations by establishing “no-fly” zones over sensitive areas.

Robert Loeb and Matthew Weybrecht looked at the legal issues involved in Wikileaks’ doxxing of CIA Director John Brennan.

Yishai Schwartz updated us on the latest from Guantanamo, as the 9/11 trial proceedings encountered some difficulty with MOUs.

Ben posted a debate between Christine Fair and Glenn Greenwald on the use of drones in counterterrorism.

Ben also shared the latest episode of Rational Security, which featured a discussion on Ben’s challenge to Vladimir Putin, whether Russia is a resurgent power in the Middle East, and the ECJ’s Schrems decision.

David Ryan highlighted the DOJ victory in the D.C. Circuit’s decision that a plaintiff cannot invoke Bivens for an alleged constitutional violation occurring during a terrorism investigation abroad.

Ben posted the latest Lawfare Podcast, featuring Will McCants and Joby Warrick on the future of ISIS.

Bobby asked what the role of U.S. ground forces is in fight against the Islamic State, looking at Ash Carter’s most recent comments about the use of combat in “self-defense” situations.

In this week's Foreign Policy Essay, Daniel Byman asked whether Syrian refugees pose a potential terrorism threat.

Email the Roundup Team noteworthy law and security-related articles to include, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for additional commentary on these issues. Sign up to receive Lawfare in your inbox. Visit our Events Calendar to learn about upcoming national security events, and check out relevant job openings on our Job Board.