Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Tuesday, December 8, 2015, 4:58 PM

U.S. officials have denied Syrian accusations that U.S. coalition planes targeted a Syrian military base, and instead asserted that Russia was responsible for the strikes that killed four Syrian soldiers and wounded at least 13 others. According to Defense One, the U.S. claim is based on radar images that show Russian aircraft in the skies above the region of the Deir Ezzor province where the strikes occurred. Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis declared that U.S. forces had no reason to strike Syrian government targets. Russian officials have yet to respond.

Syrian opposition factions have begun discussions in Saudi Arabia regarding a political solution to end the conflict in Syria. The BBC reports that the groups will consider a “political solution to the four-and-a-half-year-old conflict as an important step in a process that will eventually lead to the elimination of the self-styled Islamic State.” The various opposition factions hope to reach a unified psotion for negotiations with the incumbent Syrian regime.

On Sunday night, U.S. President Barack Obama outlined his strategy for defeating the Islamic State and affirmed that he would pursue a “sustainable victory” that did not include a massive U.S. troop invasion of Iraq and Syria. Today, the New York Times writes that a Western ground invasion of would likely be welcomed by the Islamic State’s prophetic ideology, which suggests that the group “will be victorious after an apocalyptic battle to be set off once Western armies come to the region.” The presence of ground forces in the region could prompt a “new recruiting drive at the very moment the terrorist group appears to be losing volunteers.” As politicians escalate their rhetoric against the Islamic State, Pentagon officials have warned that a “reckless escalation” of against ISIS could bolster ISIS’s recruiting efforts.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post points out one “big hole” in Obama’s strategy though: it relies on a Sunni military force that doesn’t exist. Ignatius asks what local forces the United States plans to support in the fight against the Islamic State given that a “strong, reliable, indigenous Sunni ground force” does not appear to exist in the region and that efforts to create one have largely ended in failure.

Ground force or no, U.S. airstrikes continue apace. Bloomberg News tells us that U.S. forces dropped the highest number of bombs and weapons last month since the campaign began sixteen months ago.

The number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria has reached at least 27,000 and more than doubled since July 2014, according to a new report released by the Soufan Group. Between 27,000 and 31,000 foreign fighters from some 86 countries have travelled to the region. Among the countries that contribute the most foreign fighters are Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. The Daily Beast points out that the number of foreign fighters from Russia has almost tripled, with the majority of Russian fighters coming from Chechnya and Dagestan. The Soufan Group explains that local grievances have contributed to discontent in the Caucuses. They add that "a search for belonging, purpose, adventure, and friendship, appear to remain the main reasons for people to join the Islamic State." For more, read the full report.

The report comes as the New York Times tells us that the Islamic State is broadening its recruitment efforts in China. For the first time, the group released a recording in Mandarin Chinese. The recording calls upon Muslims to join the fight and is presumptively targeted at China’s Uighur population in Xinjiang province.

Yet even as the number of foreign fighters increases, Dan Byman and Jeremy Shapiro of Brookings argue in Foreign Affairs that the threat that radicalized foreign fighters pose upon returning home is exaggerated.

After Iraq demanded that Turkey withdraw its troops from northern Iraq yesterday, Turkey agreed to halt troop deployment while refusing to withdraw troops already in the country. Turkey maintains that its military is helping Iraqi forces near Mosul train to fight against the Islamic State, but Baghdad has denied any advanced knowledge of Turkish forces deploying to Iraq.

Meanwhile, a son of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has denied Russian claims that the Erdoğan family has been profiting off of ISIS oil sales.

Defense One tells us “that the President will soon implement a new terrorism threat alert system” in order to respond to intermediate-level threats. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced the new system yesterday.

Democrats are pushing new legislation that would prevent individuals on a government no-fly list from being able to purchase guns, an effort that President Obama endorsed Sunday night from the Oval Office. However, in Foreign Policy, David Francis outlines why that may not actually be such a good idea. The ACLU, a longtime opponent of no-fly lists, has come out against the proposal.

Republican Presidential-candidate Donald Trump called for the United States to ban all Muslims from entering the country. The New York Times writes that the proposal “reflects a progression of mistrust that is rooted in ideology as much as politics.” The comment has sparked outcry from across the world, including from both British Prime Minister David Cameron and his French counterpart Manuel Valls. Responding to Trump’s latest anti-Muslim salvo, Lawfare’s John Bellinger explains that Donald Trump poses a threat to U.S. national security with his “hate-filled and divisive rhetoric,” which contributes “to fear and unrest at home and unsettles our friends and allies abroad.”

The suspect accused of carrying out the knife attack in a London metro station has been charged with attempted murder and prosecutors continue to investigate the incident as an act of terrorism. The Wall Street Journal reports that material associated with the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, along with other ISIS-related images, was found on the man’s phone.

The Long War Journal tells us that two senior jihadist leaders “identified as Abdirahman Sandhere from Shabaab, al Qaeda official branch in Somalia, and Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi, from the Islamic State’s province in Libya” were killed in separate airstrikes in Somalia and Libya. The Pentagon confirmed both strikes yesterday.

The Associated Press reports that a Minnesota man who joined al Shabaab in Somalia “more than seven years ago and more recently went online to urge others to carry out violence on behalf of the Islamic State group has turned himself in to authorities in Africa.” Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan joined al Shabaab in 2008 and is among some 22 Minnesota men who have travelled to Somalia to join the group since 2007. Another 12 Minnesotans have travelled to Syria in efforts to join ISIS. Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that, according to an al Shabaab commander, the recent defection of “two fighters, an American and a U.S. resident, from Somalia's Islamic extremist rebels highlight tensions” within al Shabaab as to whether it should remain part of the al Qaeda network of if it should pledge bay’ah to the Islamic State.

The Independent reports that Taliban fighters in Afghanistan are joining the the Islamic State’s ranks. According to a recent Afghan government investigation, ISIS is gaining followers in the Helmand province and two other provinces with heavy Taliban presence. The Afghan army has struggled to deal with the influx of jihadist groups, and the Independent suggests that “military mismanagement, corruption and lack of accountability are blamed by soldiers, middle-ranking officers and commanders for growing dissatisfaction within the ranks.”

Meanwhile, local officials stated that at least 11 militants were killed by a U.S. drone strike in Nangarhar province.

The Daily Beast's Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef reveal that an unreleased congressional report suggests that the exchange of Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay was politically motivated. Sources familiar with the report said that it raised the question as to “whether the administration was motivated to release the five prisoners as a way of reducing the prisoner population at Guantanamo.” Pentagon officials denied the report, saying that the goal was Bergdahl’s safe return.

An alleged member of a local Islamist group in Bangladesh has confessed his role in the October murder of a Japanese researcher in the country. The Islamic State initially claimed responsibility for the act. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has rejected that claim and instead pointed to local extremist groups as possible culprits.

The warring parties in Yemen’s conflict have committed to a ceasefire beginning on December 15 and will commence U.N.-sponsored peace talks. The U.N. special envoy to Yemen has encouraged “the parties to work on confidence-building measures including implementing a ceasefire, the releasing of prisoners and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian supplies," and Reuters writes that both parties are “committed to the peace process laid down by the Security Council last April.”

U.S. officials have suggested that Iran violated two U.N. Security Council resolutions last month by testing a new medium-range ballistic missile. A 2010 resolution bans Iran from testing all ballistic-missile systems, while a resolution from July of this year urges Iran to halt work on any ballistic missiles designed to carry nuclear weapons for eight years. The Security Council has not taken any action, though unnamed diplomats have said that no recent violations have been brought to the Council’s attention.

As tensions continue to brew over Chinese territorial claims, Singapore has agreed to allow the United States to deploy the U.S. P8 Poseidon spy plane from Singapore for the first time. China denounced the move, suggesting that it would militarize the region. A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that the “increase in military deployment by the United States....does not accord with the joint long-term interests of the countries in this region.”

The Army has recommended that retired general and former CIA Director David Petraeus “not face further punishment for having an affair with his biographer and providing her with top-secret materials,” the Washington Post writes. Defense Secretary Ash Carter will decide whether to discipline Petraeus after reviewing the Army’s recommendation.

Parting Shot: Dogplomacy? That’s what Foreign Policy has termed Russia’s decision to gift France a new German Shepherd puppy in light of the news that a SWAT team’s 7-year-old Belgian Malinois, named Diesel, was killed during a raid following the Paris attacks. Russian Deputy Interior Minister Igor Zubov called the puppy a “symbol of the unity of our nations in the implacable fight against terrorism.” Don’t worry, the New York Times has got your video.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Jack highlighted President Obama’s request in his Oval Office address Sunday night calling for an ISIS AUMF, suggesting that the proposal is unlikely to gain any traction and that Congress could instead vote on a single sentence.

Ben pointed us to Donald Trump’s latest proposal to bar Muslims from entering the United States, contrasting it with Mai El-Sadany’s latest piece on being an American Muslim these days.

Andrew Woods and Jen Daskal responded to Greg Nojeim on cross-border data requests.

Paul Rosenzweig argued that the reorganization of the National Protection and Programs Directorate in the Department of Homeland Security is wise, and one that finally recognizes the convergence between physical and cyber security.

Ben shared Military Commissions Chief Prosecutor Mark Martin’s statement in advance of this week’s pre-trial hearings in the 9/11 case.

Bobby noted that the Pentagon has confirmed that a U.S. military strike in Libya has killed ISIS’s leader there and that another strike in Somalia last week killed al Shabaab leader Abdirahman Sandhere.

Ben alerted us to the European Court of Human Rights’ opinion in Roman Zakharov v. Russia, which Marko Milanovic at EJIL: Talk! says finds “serious and systematic faults with the Russian legislative framework regulating the surveillance of mobile communications.”

Finally, Timothy Edgar shared his summary of Charlie Savage’s Power Wars in 100 tweets.

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