Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Cody M. Poplin
Thursday, November 5, 2015, 3:15 PM

Syrian rebel and jihadist forces have captured a major town along the main highway connecting Aleppo and Hama. Since Moscow’s intervention in Syria, Syrian government forces have faced increasing resistance from rebel groups particularly in Hama, and one expert suggests that the regime has actually lost ground. This news comes as the United States and its allies have agreed to increase support to moderate Syrian rebels fighting in order to “challenge the intervention of Russia and Iran on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Turkish and Saudi officials have urged the United States to increase arms flows to rebels and to supply shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles despite U.S. concerns that such missiles could threaten civilian aircrafts or end up in terrorist hands. Officials suggest that the move to further support to rebels is part of the Obama Administration’s “dual track” strategy to increase on-the-gound pressure on the Syrian regime while also diplomatically working to remove Bashar al Assad from power.

A new report from Amnesty International tells us that the Syrian government profited from abducting at least 65,000 people and extracting “black market” bribes from concerned relatives. The group reached this conclusion after interviewing 71 close acquaintances of Syrians who went missing between 2011 and 2015. The Washington Post adds that “the Assad government has long been accused of attempting to silence critics with the extensive use of detentions and abductions, which involve torture and even extrajudicial executions.”

Russian officials confirmed that their forces in Syria have anti-aircraft missiles, a measure allegedly designed to safeguard their aircraft against external threat or possible hijacking attempts. Earlier this week, the Daily Beast reported that the United States was sending F-15Cs, which only have air-to-air weapons systems, and speculated whether the move was to counter the increased presence of Russian forces in the skies over Syria.

The Guardian reports that Iran is recruiting Afghan refugees to fight in Syria with recruiting “taking place on a daily basis in Mashhad and Qom, two Iranian cities with the largest population of Afghan refugees.” Though Iran maintains that its own forces merely advise Syrian troops, the Guardian tells us that “the Fatemioun military division of Afghan refugees living in Iran and Syria is now the second largest foreign military contingent fighting in support of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, after the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.”

An explosion in a Lebanese town along the country’s border with Syria killed several civilians and clerics. Local sources said that the bomb targeted the Qalamoun Clerics Association, an organization which works with refugees.

Speculation on what downed a Russian jetliner above Egypt continues as the U.K. suspended flights to and from the Sinai peninsula and suggests that a bomb likely caused the crash. As investigations into the incident continue, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is in London to meet British Prime Minister David Cameron. For their part, Russian and Egyptian officials have rejected the idea that ISIS targeted the plane, the Post writes. Egypt’s civil aviation ministry suggested that the British theory was “not based on facts” while the Russian Foreign Ministry questioned the U.K.’s evidence for such a claim. The Guardian provides us with live updates on the investigation, while the Daily Beast cautions against jumping to hasty conclusions and suggests that the those claiming ISIS involvement in the crash should provide evidence for their assertions.

Just over a month after the strike that left at least 30 dead in a Kunduz hospital, Médecins Sans Frontières released a report expressing skepticism that the attack was a mistake. The group cited accounts that those fleeing the hospital were shot at from the attacking aircraft and claimed that the hospital was under no threat from Taliban insurgents in the days leading up to the attack. The Post reports that other airstrikes called in by Afghan forces caused significant damage despite their being no apparent militant presence in the targeted locations.

The Wall Street Journal writes that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is calling for a new constitution that would increase his power as he vows to crush the Kurdish separatists and terror groups threatening Turkey. Following recent elections, the Justice and Development Party has a clear ruling majority in parliament. Erdoğan has claimed that the election’s results “showed the nation’s desire to build a ‘new Turkey’ and its rejection of terrorism.”

Over in Iran, President Hassan Rouhani criticized the recent wave of anti-American sentiment that has passed over the country, the Times tells us. In a telling statement, Rouhani urged others to “not go and arrest one person here, another there, based on an excuse and without any reason, and then make up a case and aggrandize it, and finally say this is an infiltration movement.” Meanwhile, the Journal reports that U.S. officials have detected a flood of Iranian cyberattacks. While the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has conducted cyber attacks against the United States in the past, officials confirmed that “there has been a surge in such attacks coinciding with the arrest last month of Siamak Namazi, an energy industry executive and business consultant who has pushed for stronger U.S.-Iranian economic and diplomatic ties.”

In other cyber related news, the Daily Beast writes that Pentagon contractors hired Russian programmers to “write computer software for sensitive U.S. military communications systems, setting in motion a four-year federal investigation that ended this week with a multimillion-dollar fine against two firms involved in the work.” The contractor who reported Russian involvement, John C. Kingsley, said that at least one network had been loaded with viruses.

In the midst of ongoing tensions in Israel, Israeli officials have rejected Palestinian claims that organs had been harvested from Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in the recent spate of violence. Following claims made by the chief Palestinian delegate at the U.N., Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. fired back by dismissing the accusations “blood libel.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appointed a new chief of public diplomacy, a conservative academic known for his strong rhetoric. The new chief, Ran Baratz, has previously “suggested President Obama was anti-Semitic and compared Secretary of State John Kerry’s ‘mental age’ to that of a preteen.”

Despite record-low relations between the two countries, Israel has asked the United States for $5 billion in defense aid, up from the $3 billion annual aid which is set to expire in 2017. It seems the U.S. defense diplomacy tree is ripe for the picking, at least for counrties in the Middle East, after the Iranian nuclear deal.

Evelyn Farkas, who stepped down last week from her position as the Pentagon's top official for Russia and Ukraine, said that the Obama administration should have armed Ukraine and even opened a base in Eastern Europe to send a stronger message to Vladimir Putin. Ukraine previously requested such assistance from U.S. and NATO forces in support of its attempts to repel the little green men-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

New estimates from the European Union suggest that about three million migrants and refugees are set to enter Europe by 2017. The AP provides updates on the refugee crisis in Europe.

In Bangladesh, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack that left one policeman dead. Bangladesh has seen an uptick in violent attacks in recent months, including the recent killings of foreigners and secularist writers. ISIS has claimed responsibility for several other attacks in Bangladesh this year, but authorities in Dhaka have disputed those claims.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter visited the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which is currently on patrol in the South China Sea. While not conducting a freedom of navigation operation, the Roosevelt’s patrol signals, according to the Wall Street Journal, “that the U.S. won’t accept Chinese domination of the contested region.” Speaking aboard the ship, Secretary Carter said “The American approach to the security structure for Asia is an inclusive one, we’re not trying to make divisions,” and emphasized that the United States “want[s] China to be part of the security system of Asia and not to stand apart from it.” Reuters has more.

Foreign Policy shares that 47 percent of U.S. government websites have now installed Einstein, a government system designed to “detect and stop malicious traffic” aimed at federal servers. The program automatically blocks malicious code. According to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Einstein has blocked 700,000 attempts to hack .gov servers. The flip side? While the rollout of Einstein has been greatly accelerated, over half of the government still lacks its protections.

The Wall Street Journal reports that President Obama is increasingly likely to attempt to use executive action to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, overriding congressional attempts to bar the transfer of detainees to the United States. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that while the president would like to work with Congress to close the facility, he would not “rule out the president using every element of his authority” if Congress proves unwilling to cooperate. In response, Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) said that he would place holds on Obama administration nominees in order to prevent the president from shuttering the facility.

UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron has introduced a controversial new piece of legislation, the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, that grants British authorities the right to get information about the websites individuals have accessed and requires Internet providers to maintain metadata for a year. The Wall Street Journal notes that the bill also includes explicit oversight rules on the government’s powers to hack computers. For Lawfare, Nick Weaver takes a look at the bill, calling it the prelude to a “surveillance state” that is “far beyond the world envisioned by George Orwell.”

Writing for Time, Lawfare’s Matt Waxman reviewed Charlie Savage’s new book, Power Wars.

Parting shot: It’s not just American pop icons; even ISIS fighters have Twitter drama. Gawker covers the latest feud, which contains this ultimate dis, “May Allah humiliate you so much you wont even dare to come on twitter ever again.”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ellen Scholl shared the latest energy and security news in Hot Commodities.

Adam Klein walked us through the issues at play in Spokeo v. Robbins and its far reaching implications for both privacy and cyber law.

Stewart Baker provided this week’s Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, featuring an interview with Ari Schwartz on CISA.

Cody linked to the Chief Prosecutor’s closing statement in this month’s military commission trial of five alleged 9/11 conspirators.

Julian Ku argued that if the U.S. conducted “innocent passage” in the South China Sea, it may have actually “strengthened China’s sketchy territorial claims.” Adam Klein and Mira Rapp-Hooper noted that the lingering questions regarding what the U.S. Navy actually did is a problem for U.S. foreign policy and for international law.

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