Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Cody M. Poplin
Thursday, November 12, 2015, 4:22 PM

Backed by U.S.-coalition air power and thousands of Yazidi fighters, Kurdish forces have launched an offensive to retake Sinjar from the Islamic State. The New York Times writes that “as many as 7,500 Kurdish peshmerga fighters were moving on ‘three fronts to cordon off Sinjar City, take control of ISIL’s strategic supply routes, and establish a significant buffer zone to protect the city and its inhabitants from incoming artillery.” Kurdish officials reported that peshmerga forces have captured several villages close to Sinjar and have cut off a crucial ISIS supply line connecting the ISIS-held city of Mosul to Syria. While the operation will test coordination between Kurdish fighters and the U.S.-led coalition, the Washington Post suggests that given its strategic location, Sinjar could be used as a staging ground for future offensives against Mosul and as “a potential choke point to disrupt Islamic State links between footholds in Iraq and Syria.” Reuters tells us that “a victory in Sinjar could give the Kurds, government forces, and Shi'ite militias momentum in efforts to defeat Islamic State.”

Meanwhile, on the western front, Russian-backed Syrian government forces reportedly broke ISIS’s siege of an airbase near Aleppo. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called the victory “a hugely significant development and a message to America that [it] must forget about the military option and seriously focus on a realistic political solution.” Syrian allies Russia and Iran will likely use the victory as leverage during the impending discussions with Arab and Western leaders in Vienna. As 50 U.S special operations forces arrive in Syria to support opposition groups, the United States continues to pursue “a cease-fire to limit the cycle of killing and the establishment of a timeline for a transition of power.”

As the countries that are party to the Syrian conflict prepare to meet in Vienna on Saturday, a leaked Russian proposal for a political solution in Syria is circulating at the United Nations. While the proposal fails to articulate whether or not Assad would remain in power, the Wall Street Journal lists the eight steps proposed by the Russian plan, which include “establishing an 18-month constitutional reform period; creating a united delegation from the hodgepodge of opposition groups; identifying terrorist factions; coordinating international military strikes on Islamic State; and holding simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections.” A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry maintained that the document merely served as a basis for discussions.

The Hill tells us that a new Congressional authorization for the use of military force against the Islamic State is unlikely. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) said that the Obama administration has not sought additional authorities concerning the U.S. effort against ISIS and that current actions being considered against the group would not require further legal authority. Speaking of the U.S. strategy against ISIS, Brookings' J.M. Berger reflects on the U.S.'s war of ideas against ISIS, concluding that “the most decisive defeat of [the Islamic States’] ideas will almost certainly coincide with its defeat on the battlefield."

A twin suicide bombing in Beirut left dozens dead and over 100 wounded. The Washington Post reports that the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack and that "such attacks in the past have been carried out by Sunni extremists angered by Hezbollah’s unilateral decision to fight alongside government forces against rebels in the Syrian civil war." The attack occurred in a neighborhood primarily inhabited by Hezbollah loyalists. Officials stated that a third bomber failed to detonate his explosives after being killed in one of the other two explosions.

Over in Afghanistan, Afghan citizens have taken to the streets of Kabul to protest Islamic State brutality and the government’s failure to stop it. After ISIS slit the throats of seven Hazara hostages, the crowd marched through Kabul carrying the coffins of those killed and “accused President Ashraf Ghani of incompetence in the face of deteriorating security and called for the resignation of his coalition government.” Ghani responded to the protests by calling for unity as he declared that the Islamic State, "by creating incidents that have ethnic and regional color" is trying to break the unity of the country. Though the protests largely remained calm, several protesters broke a window and attempted to storm the presidential palace, causing Afghan security forces to fire warning shots. The Hazara hostages killed had been kidnapped in March and were among some 53 Hazaras who have been abducted by the Islamic State.

Over a month after U.S. airstrikes hit a Doctors Without Borders facility in Kunduz, the Associated Press writes that the U.S. forces who called in the strikes were not in the vicinity of the Kunduz hospital, suggesting that the U.S. forces were relying extensively on Afghan intelligence as they undertook the assault. This revelation has raised new doubts as to the quality of intelligence coming from Afghan security services.

In remarks made to an Italian newspaper, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suggested that "the nuclear deal reached between world powers and Iran could lead to better relations between Tehran and Washington” if the United States could “modify [its] policies, correct errors committed in these 37 years and apologize to the Iranian people.” The remarks follow a spike in anti-American sentiment among hardliners in Tehran as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has vocally opposed normalizing U.S.-Iranian relations.

Following complaints from conservative politicians that the implementation process was proceeding too quickly, Iranian state media reported that the country has halted the dismantling of centrifuges in two uranium enrichment plants. A number of politicians in Iran continue to oppose the nuclear accord “which was forged by moderates they oppose and which they see as a capitulation to the West.” Despite this opposition, Rouhani recently announced that “Iran has plans to renew trade with France in car manufacturing, agriculture, and aviation.”

As the investigation of the Russian plane crash in the Sinai continues, the Wall Street Journal reports that the “Egyptian-led probe into what caused the crash of a Russian passenger plane is bogged down in secrecy and squabbling, causing concern among safety experts that key evidence is being compromised.” The Daily Beast’s Shane Harris sheds light on the “baffled” U.S. response to the crash in light of the “absence of any definitive evidence.” As Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited the seaside tourist town of Sharm el-Sheikh for the first time since the crash, he sought to “reassure people” and maintained that the government "will announce the results with absolute transparency and clarity," the Times tells us.

Plainclothes Israeli forces raided a West Bank hospital and shot a Palestinian dead while searching for another man suspected of committing a violent attack two weeks ago. The New York Times highlights the “looplike dynamic of Israeli-Palestinian violence: stabbings of Israelis followed by swift, often deadly responses by Israeli security forces and graphic video footage inspiring replica Palestinian attacks against Israelis.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington earlier this week, meeting with President Obama for the first time in over 13 months. Reflecting on the considerably less tense atmosphere in Netanyahu’s Washington visit, the Washington Post writes that the U.S.'s focus on “the chaotic Middle East and the [U.S.] domestic political campaign” has prompted a “more pragmatic and realistic approach to U.S.-Israel relations" as Obama sought to "reassure a key ally in an unstable region and soothe uneasy Democrats who backed the Iran nuclear deal.” On the other side of the pond, European officials have affirmed that goods produced in territory seized in the 1967 war must be labeled as “made in settlements,” exacerbating tensions between Europe and Israel.

Following the attack in a Jordanian training facility that left six dead including the shooter and two American contractors, investigators are struggling to understand what prompted the attack and whether or not it was carried out in connection with a jihadi group. Meanwhile, the motive for the attack remains unclear, but jihadis are lauding the shootings and calling upon others to commit similar “lone-wolf” attacks.

After the electoral victory which cemented his parliamentary support, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan must choose between the continuing war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or pursuing a ceasefire agreement with the group, the Journal writes. While intensified efforts and “hard-line rhetoric” against the PKK helped boost electoral support for his party, experts question whether a political solution with the PKK is possible and whether pursuing war with the PKK could lead to a stalemate.

Leaked Emirati emails uncovered evidence that the United Arab Emirates violated an international arms embargo by shipping weapons to belligerents in Libya while also offering Bernardino Léon, the chief U.N. diplomat involved in the peace process, a high paid job. The New York Times has more on the implications that these revelations could play in undermining the Libyan peace process and the diplomat leading it.

At least 16 suspects with ISIS connections were arrested across Europe and charged with a series of terrorism-related crimes. The suspects were allegedly part of a network active in radicalizing and recruiting Europeans for ISIS. The network has been under investigation for nearly five years and “included 16 Kurds and one person from Kosovo." Seven of the suspects were arrested in Italy, four in Britain, three in Norway, and one in Finland.

Russian media apparently “leaked” plans for a long-range torpedo being developed that, in the words of the Russian media, could “destroy important economic installations of the enemy in coastal areas and cause guaranteed devastating damage to the country's territory by creating wide areas of radioactive contamination, rendering them unusable for military, economic or other activity for a long time.” Russian officials have maintained that the plans were a “secret,” but a Russian government paper also revealed the plans, leading some to speculate that “the leak may not have been accidental.”

Europe is offering African leaders aid and a series of benefits in efforts to stem the flow of migration into the European Union. Meeting in a Summit at Malta, E.U. and African leaders sought to discuss the 17-page plan “for what leaders say should be a partnership to combat the poverty and insecurity driving Africans north and ensure that migration which does take place is safe and beneficial to all involved.” For their part, African leaders have noted that the planned European fund of $1.9 billion was not sufficient to address the root problems facing the African continent.

As European countries continue to confront the massive influx of refugees and migrants, Sweden has reinstated temporary border control measures as the “surge in new arrivals had resulted in a threat to public order.” In Slovenia, soldiers have begun to construct a fence along the country’s border with Croatia. The move comes in response to “government fears that if neighboring Austria restricts their entry, the number of people that would be stranded in Slovenia would be too much for the tiny Alpine state to handle.”

The Journal writes about rising suspicions that a new purge of high level officials is underway in North Korea after a certain official was absent from the guest list of a high profile military funeral.

The New York Times reports that “Myanmar’s military establishment on Wednesday acknowledged the victory of the country’s democracy movement led by the Nobel Peace laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, raising hopes for a peaceful transfer of power after five decades of military domination.” The incumbent President Thein Sein conceded defeat in a Facebook post, which expressed congratulations to Suu Kyi and her party. Though she is prohibited by the current constitution from being elected president, Suu Kyi has suggested that “she would serve above the president” and promised to “uphold the parts of the Constitution that are good.”

Just weeks after the European Court of Justice struck down the Safe Harbor framework, which had previously allowed data transfer between European and U.S. entities, Microsoft announced plans to offer European customers the chance to store cloud data in Germany as part of its efforts to alleviate concerns over surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies. The Journal has more.

A panel of three judges on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay on U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon's Monday ruling in Klayman v. Obama which prohibited the NSA from collecting metadata on a lawyer and his firm. The Post writes that without this stay, “the government could be forced to abruptly terminate an important counter-intelligence program in toto,” which could cripple critical intelligence needs. With bulk collection scheduled to end on November 29th as part of the USA Freedom Act, the stay will last through November 16th. The Hill reports that “few watchers expect the court to interfere with the NSA’s own schedule.”

Justice Department lawyers in Los Angeles are questioning whether a massive DEA wiretapping operation is legal. The operation intercepts and monitors texts and calls of drug traffickers across the United States, but the “surveillance has raised concerns among Justice Department lawyers in Los Angeles, who have mostly refused to use the results in federal court because they have concluded the state court's eavesdropping orders are unlikely to withstand a legal challenge.”

Defense One’s Molly O’Toole reports that President Obama is expected to sign the NDAA after “the Senate passed the $607 billion annual defense authorization bill 91-3 on Tuesday,” despite his earlier threats to veto the bill, which still restricts his ability to shut down Guantanamo Bay. Obama had previously vetoed the bill at the end of last month, in large part “because lawmakers circumvented budget caps to boost defense spending through the Pentagon’s war chest.” In passing the NDAA, the Senate also once again barred transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay to the United States. Press Secretary Josh Earnest suggested that the vote would not have material impact on the White House’s “ability to put together and send to Congress a thoughtful, carefully considered plan for closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay.”

Parting shot: Looking for ISIS? Foreign Policy tells us that “Russian speakers searching the web for the Islamic State may find it in an unusual place: The offices of a state-sponsored television station in Moscow, at least if they use Google Maps.” Russian search results for IGIL, the Russian acronym for the Islamic State lead users to Zvezda, a T.V. station run by Russia’s Ministry of Defense.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Aaron Zelin shared this week's Jihadology Podcast, which features C. Christine Fair in a discussion on the islamist militancy in Bangladesh.

Ben considered the health of recently released Shaker Aamer after photos of and articles about him make little mention of poor health.

Ken Anderson highlighted Linda L. Fowler’s new book Watchdogs on the Hill: The Decline of Congressional Oversight of U.S. Foreign Relations, which considers the change in congressional oversight in matters of foreign policy and national security.

David Bosco asked how a potential International Criminal Court investigation into the crimes committed in occupied territories could alter the Security Council's role in determining the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Ben shared the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeal’s stay issued in response to Judge Richard Leon's Monday ruling in Klayman v. Obama. Previously, he shed light on the legal wrangling over Section 215 following Judge Leon’s ruling.

Jack looked at the precedent set by Zivotofsky II as it related to executive power.

Jack also reviewed Charlie Savage’s new book Power Wars.

Amira Mikhail took a look at Egypt's pretrial detention laws and the confusion surrounding them.

David Kris responded to Bobby's discussion of Charlie Savage's treatment of transit authority in his new book Power Wars.

Robert Loeb and David Ryan wrote about former CIA detainees suing CIA contractors for alleged torture under the Alien Tort Statute.

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