Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Cody M. Poplin
Tuesday, November 3, 2015, 2:02 PM

As the United States continues to modify its strategy in Syria, the New York Times writes that the new U.S. effort to arm and equip local militias against the Islamic State is mired in challenges, chief among these is that “many of the forces in the [U.S.-backed] alliance, called the Syrian Democratic Forces, made clear that so far it exists in name only, and that the political and logistical challenges it faces are daunting.” Already, the alliance has encountered difficulties, which have forced it to rely on Kurdish forces to lead the charge against ISIS in predominantly Arab regions while Arab militias play a more secondary role due to limitations in capabilities and experience.

In a push to overcome these setbacks, 50 U.S. special operations forces will be deployed to Syria, a move that the Washington Post suggests “[fails] to add up to a coherent strategy.” President Obama said in his remarks yesterday that the U.S. special forces will help train, advise, and assist local fighters and that the deployment of these forces is merely an extension of ongoing U.S. operations in the country. He added that the decision to send in special forces does not break his “no boots on the ground” pledge. The Daily Beast tells us that the United States will deploy F-15Cs to Turkey in order to “'ensure the safety' of America’s NATO allies." Given that F-15Cs have only air-to-air weapons systems and that the Islamic State does not have air capabilities, the Daily Beast speculates that the move is to counter the increased presence of Russian forces in the skies over Syria.

Meanwhile, the U.K. government is still considering the question of airstrikes in Syria but faces increasing challenges from lawmakers. Britain's Foreign Affairs Select Committee advised against the proposed operations, saying that airstrikes would be "a distraction from the much bigger and more important task of finding a resolution to the conflict in Syria."

Russia has softened its commitment to Syrian president Bashar al Assad and is working to “host a round of talks between Syrian government officials and members of the country's opposition in Moscow next week.” Russia has traditionally been Assad’s strongest supporter, intervening in the country’s conflict to support his regime’s fight against rebel forces. A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said that the Syrian people needed to decide the fate of Assad. This change in tone could symbolize a departure from Iran’s goals, marking a split between the Assad regime's nominal allies. The head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Crops signalled yesterday that Tehran may be more committed than Moscow to keeping Assad in power.

The Times writes that Iran has threatened to withdraw from discussions due to “what Iranian officials described as the unconstructive role of Saudi Arabia.” Yet despite continued distrust of the United States, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei clarified that the slogan “‘Death to America’ is not aimed at the American people, but rather American policies,” the AP tells us. And while Tehran continues to deny the “presence of Iranian combat troops in Syria,” Iranian media announced that another member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard had died in the conflict.

The Journal reported that the U.S. “Federal Reserve and Treasury Department temporarily shut off the flow of billions of dollars to Iraq’s central bank this summer as concerns mounted that the currency was ending up in Iranian banks and possibly being funneled to Islamic State militants.”

Following the Syrian government’s shelling of a rebel-held Damascus suburb, rebels have openly begun using human shields, imprisoning regime forces and Alawite civilians in cages in the town square in an attempt to deter more government bombardments.

In a recently released recording, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri urged militant unity in the Syria conflict. Though it is unclear when the video was produced, Reuters suggests that the recording “references to Russian aggression suggest it was made after Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, launched air raids against opposition groups and Islamic State in Syria.” Another al Qaeda recording was also released but held a “scathing” criticism of the Islamic State, the Post tells us.

The Journal tells us that Turkey has commenced a new round of strikes against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants in northern Iraq. A PKK spokesman interpreted the strikes as a sign that Turkish leaders did not want to pursue peace talks. Also from Turkey, following the victory of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party in the recent parliamentary elections, Reuters writes that “opponents fear the result, which dashed any hopes of a coalition government that might soothe deep social divisions, will exacerbate his authoritarian instincts.” Government authorities have already increased cracking down on dissent.

As mystery continues to engulf the circumstances surrounding the Russian plane that crashed in the Sinai, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi dismissed ISIS's claims that it brought down the plane, calling them propaganda. Yet experts have not ruled out the possibility of ISIS involvement in downing the plane, but say that it is too early to speculate about the causes for the plane’s demise.

Relationships between Egypt and Israel may be thawing. Following reports that Israeli forces helped locate the downed Russian plane, Israel also said that it conducted joint training exercises with Egyptian and Jordanian air force. Meanwhile, at the U.N., Egypt voted in favor of an Israeli bid for the first time since 1948.

Meanwhile, as violence continues across Israel, the AP reports that Israel shut down a Palestinian radio station which it claimed was inciting violence. The station’s director accused Israel of trying to silence the Palestinian voice in, what he calls, “violent aggression on the Palestinian media.” Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas sought Europe’s help “to de-escalate the crisis with Israel” and prevent further deterioration, the AP writes.

On the eve of discussions between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu next week, Politco interviewed retired Israeli general Michael Herzog about U.S.-Israeli relations and the U.S. role in the region.

In Yemen, a massive cyclone has wreaked havoc and caused massive amounts of damage in the wartorn country.

Voice of America tells us that Pakistan has banned media coverage of an Islamist charity linked to the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The move comes after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif assured President Obama of “Pakistan’s resolve to take effective action against United Nations-designated terrorist individuals and entities.”

At a Defense One summit yesterday, Director of the Office of National Intelligence James Clapper said that the CIA did not pull officers from Beijing following the Chinese hack of the Office of Personnel Management. The Post notes that the director, however, did not elaborate.

Speaking in Beijing, Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., the head of U.S. Pacific Command, told a crowd that the U.S. Navy’s recent freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea was not intended as a military threat, but instead served “to protect rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law.” His comments came as Malaysia’s defense minister welcomed the operations, according to the Wall Street Journal. Speaking at an Associate of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the patrol was “very important.” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is expected to appear at the summit along with his Chinese counterpart tomorrow.

About that operation: Defense News reports that several Chinese Navy warships escorted the USS Lassen as it cruised through the waters surrounding the Subi Reef, shadowing the U.S. ship but staying “at a safe distance.” Even so, China’s “little blue men”--fishing and merchant vessels utilized to enforce Chinese maritime claims--”were not as demure,” according to a U.S. Navy source. One ship apparently left anchorage and crossed the destroyer’s bow before circling around. Andrew Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College suggests these hybrid forces are intended to reinforce Chinese claims without forcing the Chinese navy to directly challenge other claimants in the region.

Secretary of State John Kerry sought today to reassure Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, that the United States would remain committed to the security and prosperity of the region even after the country’s drawdown of forces in the region. In the last few days, Kerry has made stops in all five of the regions former Soviet republics. Reuters has more.

The United Nations said Monday that a record 218,394 people crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe during the month of October. That number all but eclipses the total number of migrants entering the continent last year. The Washington Post reports that as the number of migrants balloon, European nations are facing renewed pressure to close their borders as neighboring countries fear that a sudden closure of any one border could leave tens of thousands of people stranded, desperate, and angry. In light of the growing frustration, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called today for a bundle of national and European measures to stem the number of refugees flowing into Germany. Elsewhere, the Wall Street Journal carries a special report on life in limbo at Europe’s door, a tragic story of African migrants who can’t reach the continent but can’t go home either.

The Associated Press brings renewed reports of violence in Ukraine, as both government and separatists forces confirmed new bursts of fighting outside Donetsk.

Elsewhere, NBC News reports that Spanish police have broken up an ISIS cell in Madrid that was committed to carrying out an attack in the country. The cell consisted of three Moroccan nationals, according to Spanish police.

The National Journal writes that Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) has introduced a bill that would make stingrays, or cell-site simulators used by law enforcement to vacuum up data from cell phones, illegal to use without a warrant. The bill as described by the National Journal would largely codify and extend newly released Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security policies to state and local police.

The Miami Herald updates us on the latest from Guantanamo Bay as a recently unsealed war court document reveals that Majid Khan, "an American-educated former al-Qaida courier turned government witness, has agreed to postpone his Guantánamo sentencing hearing by three years." Following his detention in a CIA blacksite, Khan pled guilty to terror charges in 2012 for involvement in transferring money used to fund the 2003 bombings of a Marriot hotel in Jakarta. The document “does not specify at which trial Khan would testify, nor whether postponement might permit him to serve a shorter sentence than the original plea deal [that scheduled him] to be released in 2031 at the earliest, if he satisfied the Pentagon prosecutor’s conditions.”

Parting shot: The new Long Range Strike Bomber is cloaked in as much mystery as it will supposedly be by stealth, but the folks at War is Boring have eked out a few clues as to what we can expect on the project.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Jack and Ben posted an invitation to the next Hoover Book Soiree in Washington, D.C, which will take place on November 10th. Don’t miss this opportunity to hear Jack interview Charlie Savage about his new book, Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency.

Rachel Brand outlined the complexities inherent to achieving the right balance between transparency and secrecy in light of the ODNI’s newly released transparency implementation plan.

Finally, Zachary K. Goldman and Ramesh Karri described the real insider threat from breaches of trust like the Volkswagen EPA scandal.

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