Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Quinta Jurecic
Wednesday, November 4, 2015, 3:25 PM

A joint U.S.-Russia military exercise over Syria? Certainly not, says the Pentagon, disputing Russian claims that the two nations conducted just such an exercise. A Pentagon spokesman declared that the exercise, in which fighter jets from both countries flew within five miles of each other, was just a “communication test.” The test was meant to allow the two countries to practice deconflicting while in Syrian airspace and followed the deconfliction procedures established in an agreement reached by Washington and the Kremlin. More on that from CBS.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have discussed last week’s diplomatic talks over the future of Syria. Erdogan’s government has insisted that President Bashar al Assad must step down, and in recent days, the Kremlin has appeared to soften its prior support of Assad.

Fresh from a resounding triumph in Turkey’s parliamentary elections, Erdogan has pledged to continue military action against the Kurdish PKK until the group is “liquidated.” Reuters examines the violence between Kurdish and government forces that continues in the wake of the election, reporting that 18 people have been killed in clashes in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast.

Russian airstrikes killed 23 civilians in an ISIS-controlled town on Monday, AFP writes. The figure comes from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which also reported that the first month of Russian airstrikes has killed nearly 600 people, including 185 civilians.

The Syrian army has recaptured a critical supply route to Aleppo from ISIS control, the BBC tells us. Aleppo remains divided between government and rebel forces while the Islamic State controls areas to the east and north-east of the former industrial hub. ISIS gained control of the supply route last month.

Elsewhere in the country, rebel forces operating under the banner of the Free Syrian Army shot down a government fighter plane with anti-aircraft fire over the province of Hama. Anti-aircraft capabilities are rare among rebel groups, Reuters writes, and as a result government planes have been shot down only rarely. A spokesman for the rebel group claimed that the group’s fighters “shot at [the plane] with our medium machine guns.”

In today’s long read, Lisa Blaydes and Martha Crenshaw respond to David Ignatius’ recent piece on the spread of ISIS in the Middle East, arguing that the common three-way distinction between Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds ignores the deep divisions within Iraq’s Sunni community. Any serious effort to defeat ISIS and stabilize Iraq must recognize and grapple with this difficult reality.

Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi politician who played a critical role in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and went on to hold high office within Iraq, died from a heart attack on Tuesday. The Times reports on Chalabi’s highly controversial legacy. Response to his death within Washington has been muted.

The chatter continues as to the possibility of a new AUMF against ISIS, with the Post updating us on the unlikely alliance between the Obama administration and Republican lawmakers who would rather stick with the shopworn 2001 AUMF. The campaign within Congress to draft a new authorization has so far been largely confined to within the Democratic caucus, with even some of the president’s sharpest Republican critics coming out in support of the administration’s current use of the fourteen-year-old authorization.

Over in Afghanistan, the Post writes that Taliban gains across northern Afghanistan are spreading regional Afghan forces thin. Last month’s brief Taliban victory over Kunduz pointed to the group’s increasing strength, bolstered by well-trained foreign fighters and the drawdown of U.S. troops.

Speaking of Kunduz, Nancy Youssef and Shane Harris of the Daily Beast look into the Pentagon’s silence on its investigations into the recent U.S. bombing of the city’s Medicins Sans Frontieres hospital. As of yesterday, the Pentagon’s self-imposed 30-day deadline to provide information about the ongoing investigation has passed by without the release of any new details. But at the same time, officials have also consistently stonewalled MSF’s attempts to launch an independent investigation

A U.S. drone has crashed into mountains near Kabul, the AP reports. A NATO official stated that the crash is being investigated.

The Wall Street Journal tells us that a faction of the Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for killing a journalist on the grounds that he had failed to provide “proper coverage” of the group, warning that more attacks on the media may be yet to come. The attack points to the difficult situation that journalists working in Pakistan’s remote tribal areas face; they are forbidden by the government from reporting statements made by militants, but can then be targeted by militants for refusing to provide coverage.

Confusion still surrounds the case of the Russian jet that recently crashed over the Sinai. The United Kingdom has issued a statement indicating its concern that a bomb may have been responsible for the crash, and the Guardian reports that all flights between the Egyptian resort Sharm el-Sheikh and the U.K. have been put on hold as a result. The AP writes that “U.S. satellite imagery detected heat around a Russian jetliner just before it went down,” which leaves a number of explanations open for the crash’s cause.

Meanwhile, the local Islamic State-affiliate, Sinai Province, continues to insist that it was responsible for bringing the plane down. Despite the skepticism expressed by U.S., Egyptian, and Russian governments, the Journal tells us that an ISIS spokesman has challenged officials to “prove that it wasn’t [the Islamic State].”

A second airplane has crashed in South Sudan, killing at least 25 people. The Russian-built plane was carrying passengers though it was also a cargo plane, the Telegraph reports.

Back in the Sinai, four Egyptian policemen were killed in a suicide bombing for which Sinai Province has claimed responsibility, declaring that the attack was meant in retaliation for government arrests of women from the area. Earlier this week, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi stated in a BBC interview that “the situation in Sinai… is under our full control.” The Times has the story.

President Sisi is headed to London on a state visit, and the Guardian reports that numerous U.K. and Egyptian advocacy groups are calling for protests upon his arrival. Sisi has recently defended his harsh new security measures as necessary to protect the country from terrorism, though he indicated a possible willingness to allow the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to return to public life.

Violence continues in neighboring Israel, with the rash of Palestinian attacks against Israelis showing no sign of stopping. The AP reports that, in a move that will raise the stakes for Palestinians accused of throwing stones at civilians and security personnel, the Knesset has passed long-dormant legislation that creates a minimum sentence of three years for stone-throwers and strips social security benefits.

On that note, Foreign Policy examines the tension surrounding the Temple Mount, taking a look at how control over the holy site has shifted. And in the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg interviews Defense Secretary Ash Carter on the future of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

On the 36th anniversary of the raid of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, hardliners in Iran are marking the occasion by protesting the perceived Western “infiltration” following the nuclear deal. Amid the anti-American sentiment, the Times reports that a knock-off halal KFC was shut down by Iranian authorities after it was mistaken for a real KFC. Meanwhile, the AP writes that “Iranian state television on Tuesday claimed that a Washington-based Lebanese citizen missing in Tehran since September is actually an American spy now in the custody of authorities.”

Cyclone Chapala made land in Yemen yesterday with heavy rain, wind, and flash flooding, leaving “25 people injured, 21 missing, 57 homes destroyed and over 2,100 families displaced.” USA Today has the story.

Turning to Europe, the Journal reports that German authorities have launched mass raids on human smugglers in an attempt to grapple with the ongoing refugee and migration crisis. German police arrested a total of 17 people suspected of smuggling Lebanese and Syrian citizens into Germany with false documents. The ring reportedly charged 10,000 euros per person to smuggle a migrant or refugee into the E.U.

E.U. President Donald Tusk stated yesterday that Russia’s failure to abide by the terms of the ceasefire deal in Ukraine will likely affect an upcoming E.U. review of sanctions on Russia. The current sanctions are due to expire at the end of this coming January if they are not renewed by E.U. members. Reuters has the story.

In a historic summit in Singapore, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeou will come together in the first meeting of the two sides since the end of Chinese civil war 60 years ago. The meeting comes in the midst of a years-long thaw between the countries, but is politically risky for both leaders, the Journal writes, and has the potential to influence Taiwan’s upcoming elections one way or the other. The Times sheds light on the delicate protocols in place for the meeting, designed to minimize the potential for a diplomatic incident.

Before heading to Singapore to meet with Ma, Xi will visit Vietnam on Friday. The relationship between China and Vietnam has become frigid over territorial disputes in the South China Sea just as diplomatic relations between Washington and Hanoi have warmed for that same reason, making Xi’s arrival unavoidably fraught as he attempts to smooth things over. Reuters has more.

The ongoing dispute over Chinese claims in the South China Sea led the United States, China, and a group of Southeast Asian countries to cancel a planned joint statement at a meeting of defense ministers yesterday. After Chinese delegates pushed to exclude any mention of the South China Sea from the statement, the Times reports, the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) quickly fractured. The Journal notes that ASEAN has only failed to release a joint statement once before, when tensions flared over the South China Sea in 2012.

The Journal also reports that Defense Secretary Ash Carter will visit a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier patrolling the disputed waters on Thursday in an effort to reaffirm the U.S. position on Chinese claims to territorial waters in the region.

Defense One updates us on the Obama administration’s cybersecurity plan of action, providing a helpful list of internal deadlines for shoring up the government’s security in the wake of the OPM hack. And the site also writes that, somewhat alarmingly, it’s still unclear whether the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. military’s Cyber Command would be in charge in the event of a major cyberattack on U.S. infrastructure.

Today, the U.K. government presented draft legislation before Parliament to expand surveillance powers while also increasing transparency and oversight for the intelligence community. The Investigatory Powers Bill--or, to its critics, the “snoopers’ charter”--is a response to concerns over government surveillance following the Snowden revelations. Both Wired and the Guardian have a rundown of the bill’s provisions, which require judicial authorization for electronic surveillance of both content and metadata through a commission with a broad oversight mandate. The bill also requires telecommunications companies to store data for 12 months and effectively bans companies from using “strong” or end-to-end encryption.

A new plan to close Guantanamo is in the works under the leadership of White House counterterrorism advisor Lisa Monaco, Reuters reports. The plan, which is set to be unveiled within the month, would transfer detainees abroad when possible, begin prosecutions of those who can be prosecuted, and transfer an “irreducible minimum” of detainees who cannot be prosecuted or transferred abroad into a facility within the U.S. Yet despite the president’s insistence that the detention center be closed before he leaves office, the plan faces a number of potential hiccups--chief among them, the fact that transferring detainees onto U.S. soil is currently illegal. And the new plan lacks a “silver bullet” to get around this difficulty, one official said.

In the Times, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) chimes in with her support for closing Gitmo, on the grounds that the detention center is both a “terrorist recruiting tool” and a “huge drain on taxpayer dollars.” She argues that Congress should amend a controversial provision in the 2016 NDAA--which contributed to President Obama’s veto of the bill--that limits the administration’s ability to transfer detainees abroad, and also calls on Congress to lift the ban on transferring detainees to the United States either for trial or continued detention.

About the NDAA: the House will vote Thursday on a new draft of the legislation following President Obama’s veto, the Post writes. The revised version features $5 billion in spending cuts as required by the budget deal reached last week. Yet Reuters tells us that the language limiting transfers from Guantanamo Bay remains unchanged, though the White House has not yet stated whether the president plans to veto the bill on these grounds alone.

The Miami Herald reports that one more “forever prisoner” at Guantanamo has been cleared for release, bringing the number of detainees cleared for release up to 53 out of a remaining 112. Mansoor Abdul Rahman al Dayfi, a Yemeni whom the military most recently assessed as having been a “low-level fighter… aligned with al-Qaeda,” has been recommended for release to anywhere but his currently chaotic home country. He reportedly became a fan of Taylor Swift and Little House on the Prairie while detained at Guantanamo.

Parting shot: About that halal KFC-mimic shut down by Iranian officials… Foreign Policy takes a look at Iranian authorities’ confusion over the perceived U.S. restaurant and provides a helpful list of other Iranian knockoffs of U.S. franchises (including “Stars & Bucks” and “Pizza Hat”). For its part, the original KFC was “shocked” to discover a knock-off franchise in Iran.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Matthew Dahl asked what effect Chinese military reorganization could have on the recent cyber agreement between the United States and China.

Ben shared that trendy “Support Assad!” shirts are being sold in Moscow.

Ben also posted the latest coverage of his challenge to Vladimir Putin.

Ben provided us with the audio and video from the joint CIA-George Washington University conference on "The Ethos and Profession of Intelligence.”

Cody summarized Thursday’s 9/11 hearing, which addressed the question of whether Walid Bin Attash could fire his attorney.

Bobby highlighted Charlie Savage's discussion of the the NSA's "transit authority" in his new book Power Wars.

Jack further discussed the decline of the Office of Legal Counsel as a source for advice on issues of national security within the Executive branch in light of Savage’s book.

David Bosco asked how far the United States went with the freedom of navigation operation.

Aaron Zelin posted the latest Jihadology Podcast, which looks at the Islamic State and al Shabab in Somalia.

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