Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Quinta Jurecic
Friday, October 30, 2015, 2:38 PM

Leaders from over 17 countries, the European Union, and the United Nations opened talks in Vienna today to discuss the future of the Syrian conflict. The Wall Street Journal writes that “the gap appeared to be narrowing between two key blocs—Assad's allies Russia and Iran and the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Western allies who support moderate rebel forces” despite downplayed expectations from Secretary of State John Kerry. The West has softened its call for Syrian President Bashar al Assad to step down, warming to the possibility of his remaining in power for enough time to effect a political transition.

According to the AP, the leaders are considering the possibility of a four to six month ceasefire, after which a transitional government including both President Bashar al Assad and opposition leaders would be formed. It remains unclear, however, how long Assad would remain in power under the transitional government. Follow-up meetings may continue in Austria as early as next week.

The New York Times highlights that tensions between Saudi and Iranian diplomats have threatened to disrupt the talks. Before the two regional rivals met in Vienna, Iran accused Saudi Arabia of having orchestrated the kidnapping of several Iranian officials in the midst of the chaos during the hajj stampede. Relations between the countries are at a striking low, leading to a setup in Vienna that allowed the Saudi and Iranian delegations to avoid making eye contact with each other.

Foreign Policy explores the implications of the U.S. shift toward allowing Iranian participation in the Syria talks. Washington has backpedaled on its insistence that the price of Iranian admission would have to be a commitment to Assad’s departure, though Tehran has also indicated a willingness to compromise.

U.S.-Iran relations remain rocky, however, as the the Times writes that Tehran has detained another Iranian-American alongside Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian. Siamak Namazi, a scholar and consultant, was arrested in mid-October after arriving in Tehran in September. Namazi’s detention may indicate a backlash among Iranian hardliners to a perceived growing U.S. influence following the nuclear accord.

As the diplomats debate the future of Assad’s regime, the BBC examines the difficulty of coming up with any credible alternatives to replace the dictator. And with discussions ongoing in Vienna, the AP provides live coverage.

Meanwhile, a Syrian government strike killed over 40 civilians in a market in Douma, a city 10 miles to the north-east of Damascus. 100 more civilians were wounded, Reuters writes.

The United States is expected to send special forces to Syria in order to advise local militants in their fight against ISIS as they prepare for an offensive on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. The Journal tells us that the White House has approved a force of up to 50 U.S. personnel to “advise and assist” local forces in northeastern Syria, marking the first sustained U.S. ground deployment in the country and "the start of a sharp escalation in the level of U.S. involvement in the fight against Islamic State." According to NBC, the special forces will be embedded within groups with a “proven track record” of fighting ISIS, which may include Kurdish fighters and allied Syrian rebels.

A U.S. airstrike in Syria has killed a “German-performer-turned-rapping-propagandist for the self-proclaimed Islamic State,” the Daily Beast writes. Denis Cuspert, formerly Deso Dogg, was part of an ISIS program termed “Jihad Cool” that aimed at recruiting young people partially through hip-hop--a musical genre whose reliance on the rapper’s voice avoided ISIS restrictions on musical instruments.

The Post examines the shift among ISIS and other militants away from Twitter and Facebook and toward the social media app Telegram. While platforms like Twitter can police users’ content to some extent and thereby limit the dissemination of extremist propaganda, Telegram was intentionally designed to maintain near-total anonymity and lacks a “clear mechanism for law enforcement agencies to track individuals or demand that material aimed at inciting terror attacks be taken down.” The service became popular among extremists after unveiling a function that allows users to broadcast content to large numbers of anonymous subscribers.

Two anti-ISIS journalists were found beheaded in south-eastern Turkey, the Daily Beast reports. One of the two was a member of the group Raqqa is being Slaughtered Silently, which reports on ISIS atrocities within the group’s de facto capital. ISIS has claimed responsibility and is celebrating the assassination on social media.

In Iraq, around 15 rockets landed on a camp close to the Baghdad International Airport, killing 23. The camp held members of People's Mujahideen Organisation of Iran (PMOI), an Iranian opposition group in exile, though it is not clear whether PMOI members were intentionally being targeted. An Iraqi Shiite militia has claimed responsibility, the BBC writes. Reuters has more.

The Times tells us that a long-delayed report detailing the British role in the Iraq war is expected to be released in June or July. Some have noted that the six year report-process has lasted longer than British combat operations in Iraq did.

Facing an increased Taliban presence in Afghanistan, the Post reports that the Afghan government is turning towards militia groups to maintain security. This "increasing reliance on the militias is the latest sign that the United States’ signature effort in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks — building a capable army and police force — is buckling under a challenge from the Taliban" as the militias have reportedly "deepened ethnic divisions and weakened the central government’s influence in many areas."

Over in Israel, the Times writes that the wave of violent attacks has shifted from Jerusalem to Hebron, a stronghold for Hamas support. Nearly 240 Palestinians have been arrested in the city for stabbing attacks on Israelis, while some 20 have been killed by Israeli forces. In order to limit Palestinian entry into Jewish neighborhoods in Hebron, Israeli security personnel “were instructed Friday to seal off certain Palestinian neighborhoods in Hebron in order to better conduct security operations and searches throughout the area.” Though the violence has shifted away from East Jerusalem, Foreign Policy tells us that heightened tensions remain throughout the city.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras strongly condemned European leaders for their handling of the migrant and refugee crisis. As migrants and refugees continue to move through Greece, Tsipras said that “these are hypocritical and crocodile tears, which are being shed for the dead children” before asking about the fate of “the children that are alive, who come in thousands and are stacked on the streets.”

In efforts to improve relations, the European Union has suspended sanctions against Belarus for four months following the country’s release of several political prisoners. Europe will “suspend asset freezes and visa bans on 170 out of 174 blacklisted Belarusians and also remove restrictive measures against the 14 companies” sanctioned. The United States will also lift sanctions against nine Belarussian entities, though it is unclear which.

Following reports that low-flying Russian planes passed aggressively close to a U.S. aircraft carrier near Korea, Defense One predicts that these sorts of probes will continue to occur. Once “staples of the Cold War,” these run-ins will likely become more common as relations between the United States and both China and Russia remain tense.

Boko Haram has lost significant ground in Nigeria despite its claims to the contrary, General David Rodriguez of U.S. Africa Command stated yesterday. According to the Journal, General Rodriguez also indicated that, while ISIS seems to have been tutoring Boko Haram in its use of propaganda following the group’s declaration of allegiance to the Islamic State, there is no evidence to indicate significant financial flows from ISIS to Boko Haram.

Following the U.S. patrol near disputed territory in the South China Sea, China has declared that "if the United States continues with these kinds of dangerous, provocative acts, there could well be… a minor incident that sparks war.” U.S. officials stated that both sides have agreed to follow protocols to avoid clashes, Reuters writes.

The Times reports that an arbitration court in the Hague will hear the Philippines’ claim against China over disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea, in a blow to Chinese expansionism in the region. The Chinese foreign ministry, which had aimed for the court to reject jurisdiction over the case, issued a standard statement declaring that it would not accept the court’s ruling in the matter and condemning the Philippines for “political provocation under the cloak of law.”

In the midst of these diplomatic strains, the Journal sheds light on China’s attempt to balance “between satisfying nationalism at home and projecting firm diplomacy abroad without escalating tensions.” The goal is to maintain patriotic support for Chinese projects while avoiding both a potential foreign policy crisis or a populist challenge to the Communist Party.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has declared his intentions to sue the United States in order to have the White House lift an executive order declaring Venezuela a threat to U.S. security. The order, he suggested, was illegal under international law. The Journal has more.

The European Parliament has voted in favor of a resolution that calls on member states to protect Edward Snowden from extradition, CNN reports. Though the resolution has no legal authority, it urges E.U. members to drop criminal charges against Snowden. On Twitter, Snowden wrote that the resolution “is not a blow against the U.S. Government, but an open hand extended by friends.”

A new data-sharing framework between the U.S. and E.U. may soon replace Safe Harbor, which was recently invalidated by the European Court of Justice’s decision in Schrems. “Safe Harbor 2.0” is “within hand,” according to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. Pritzker suggested that the revised framework, which had been under negotiation prior to Schrems, could be made consistent with the ruling with only “modest refinements.” Reuters has the story.

Yesterday, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit declined to issue a preliminary injunction against NSA bulk collection of metadata under the USA FREEDOM Act and Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, the Times reports. The court, which held in May that Section 215 collection was not authorized by the language of the statute, ruled that the USA FREEDOM Act allowed continued collection over the course of an 180 day transition period away from bulk collection, which will end on November 29th. The court also declined to consider the constitutionality of bulk collection of metadata.

Shaker Aamer, the last British resident detained at Guantanamo Bay, has been released from the prison and will return to the United Kingdom. Aamer, a Saudi citizen who has been detained since 2002 under suspicion of involvement with al Qaeda, became somewhat of a cause celebre among U.K. activists. As of his release, there are now 112 detainees remaining at Guantanamo. More on that from the AP.

The Miami Herald updates us on the ongoing proceedings in the 9/11 case. Yesterday, the presiding judge refused to allow one of the defendants to fire his lawyer and represent himself. The judge also refused the request of some defense lawyers to halt proceedings over Pentagon officials’ criticism of his order restraining female guards from touching the defendants.

Following the high-profile budget deal reached earlier this week, the NDAA is on its way to the president’s desk. Reuters reports on the bill, which sets the federal budget for the next two years. President Obama vetoed the bill’s previous incarnation on the grounds that it failed to resolve sequestration spending caps.

Paul Ryan is now the Speaker of the House, but just what exactly is his foreign policy? That’s the question asked by, well, Foreign Policy, which concludes that the newly-minted speaker is a “consistent advocate for expanded U.S. military involvement around the world.” When push comes to shove, he’s likely to be more of a defense hawk than a budget hawk, despite his famously thrifty attitude toward government spending.

Foreign Policy also examines the case of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, whose punishment for desertion is set to be handed down by a military court in the next few days. The politics of Bergdahl’s sentencing are tricky, because Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who has openly declared his desire for a harsh punishment, sits on the panel that will decide the promotion prospects of the general who will make the final decision in Bergdahl’s case. In the words of one expert, if the general “doesn’t do what Sen. McCain wants, his career could be over.”

The FAA may soon implement new technology to commandeer drones flying near airports, the Post writes. The technology, developed by a defense and intelligence contractor that has partnered with the FAA to implement its new drone-tracking program, would allow the agency to identify drones flying near airports, identify the location of their operators, and remotely force the drones out of potentially dangerous airspace.

Parting shot: Happy Halloween! Unless you’re in Russia, that is. The Moscow Times reminds us that the holiday, considered by some to be a corrupting Western influence, is a bit politically charged within Russia--but never fear, as the paper has also put together a list of “wholesome,” Russia-inspired costumes for would-be trick-or-treaters.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Quinta shared the Second Circuit’s decision to deny injunctive relief against Section 215 collection in ACLU v. Clapper.

Ryan Scoville asked how American courts ascertain customary international law.

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