Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Monday, December 14, 2015, 4:14 PM

In a rare appearance at the Pentagon today, President Barack Obama declared that U.S. coalition forces are making progress in the fight against the Islamic State. Amid rising skepticism surrounding the Administration’s plan to fight the group, the president briefed the Pentagon on his administration’s strategy against ISIS. While he conceded that “progress needs to happen faster,” the President also pointed to the effectiveness of U.S.-coalition led airstrikes, which has led to the successful elimination of the group’s top leaders. He also said that Defense Secretary Ash Carter would be visiting the region to bolster regional support for the U.S. effort against the group.

The U.S. coalition is increasingly targeting the Islamic State’s oil trade. In total, USA Today tells us that U.S. "airstrikes have destroyed about 400 tankers" responsible for transporting oil from the area controlled by ISIS. The Economist tells us that while the “self-styled caliphate’s income is taking a pounding,” the group has created an intricate bureaucracy to manage its business portfolios and minimize the damage.

The Economist also suggests that the Islamic State’s propaganda arm could be losing its edge as social-media platforms crack down on the group’s messaging and the reality of life in the so-called caliphate grows increasingly bleak.

As Iraqi forces continue their push to recapture Ramadi from the Islamic State, the Washington Post writes that the Iraqi soldiers consider the initiative as an opportunity for redemption. Iraqi forces were forced out of the city in May, causing a number of military supplies to fall under the control of ISIS forces. Last week, Iraqi forces captured an important foothold on the outskirts of the city, and military sources suggest that they will be able to recapture the city before the year’s end. As the fight continues, Baghdad has maintained that it does not want Western troops on the ground to fight against the Islamic State militants. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has stressed that fighting against the terrorist group must “be done by local forces that can enjoy the confidence of the Sunni tribes,” Defense One reports.

Syrian airstrikes killed at least 45 civilians in the Eastern Ghouta region on Sunday during "heavy bombardment of a besieged Syrian rebel stronghold east of Damascus that also struck a school." The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights could not confirm whether it was Russian or Syrian planes that had fired the rockets. The bombardment was preceded by rebel-fired mortars which left three dead in Damascus. As they seek to establish presence in the rebel-held region near the capital city, regime forces captured a military air base that had been held by local rebel forces for the past three years.

U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien declared that the deaths caused by the mortar and rocket strikes were a “tragic reminder of the urgency of finding a political solution and securing a nationwide ceasefire” and referred to the humanitarian situation in Syria as "a blot on our collective conscience." As calls for a political solution to the conflict grow, “Russia stepped up its criticism of U.S. policy on Syria on the eve of a visit to Moscow by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, saying the United States had not shown it was ready to cooperate fully in the struggle against Islamic State militants.” Reuters tells us that Russia also criticized the United States's policy of "dividing terrorists into good and bad ones." Meanwhile, Stars and Stripes reports that the Free Syrian Army, one of the main U.S.-backed opposition groups, is on the verge of collapse due to low morale, desertions, and a metastasizing distrust of the group's leaders by the rank and file. Comprised of some 35,000 fighters, the FSA "is the biggest and most secular of the scores of rebel groups fighting the Assad government" and among the central groups considered “capable of defeating the Islamic State and negotiating an end to the Syrian civil war.”

Turkey withdrew some of its forces from Iraq after the Iraqi government fiercely protested the additional deployments. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu referred to the “rearrangement” of troops as a "military necessity." The Associated Press writes that “Turkey has had troops near the Islamic State group-held city of Mosul in northern Iraq since last year to help train local Kurdish and Sunni forces, but the arrival of additional troops earlier this month sparked uproar in Baghdad.” Ankara halted additional deployments of Turkish forces but refused to withdraw the rest of its forces from the region.

Meanwhile, tensions between Turkey and Russia show no signs of subsiding. A Russian warship fired warning shots at a nearby Turkish fishing boat after the smaller vessel approached within 600 meters of the Russian ship. The Turkish vessel’s captain, for his part, was unaware that his boat had been shot at. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu suggested that "the reaction of the Russian naval ship was exaggerated" given that the Turkish vessel "was only a fishing boat," adding that Ankara’s patience “has a limit.” A Turco-Russian bilateral summit scheduled for December 15 has now been cancelled.

Leaders from 17 nations have pledged support to the formation of a national unity government in Libya. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed optimism that the majority of representatives of the two rival governments would sign a deal to create a national unity government on December 16th after declaring that the leaders present at the summit “refuse to stand by and watch a vacuum filled by terrorists.”

Meanwhile, French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian declared that the Islamic State is looking to gain access to Libya's oil wells and is pushing to extend its influence inland from the group’s coastal stronghold of Sirte.

A bomb blast in Parachinar, a town in northwestern Pakistan, killed at least 25 people on Sunday. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a violent Pakistani sectarian group, claimed responsibility for the attack, which targeted the primarily Shia residents of Parachinar. A spokesman for the group stated that the attack “is revenge for the crime of taking sides with Iran and Bashar al-Assad,” following reports that a Shia unit of Pakistani fighters was joining the war against ISIS in Syria. The New York Times has more.

Two men of Syrian origin were arrested in Geneva "on suspicion of making, concealing and transporting explosives and poisonous gases." The Swiss prosecutor “said no toxic gas—only traces of explosives—were found in the Syrians’ vehicle, which they told police they had only recently obtained.” Geneva raised its threat level on Thursday as it searched for four men with suspected ties to the Islamic State. No links have been established connecting the two arrested with the other four.

A French school teacher claimed to have been stabbed by an ISIS supporter, stating that his attacker had yelled “this is Daesh, this is a warning.” The teacher admitted to having fabricated the account, with one official suggesting that the incident “was a fake attempt, done so that [the teacher] could have himself transferred.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged to limit the number of asylum-seekers entering Germany. In a speech to the annual convention of the Christian Democrats party, Merkel defended her policy to welcome refugees and asylum seekers but agreed to limit the numbers admitted into the country. According to the Wall Street Journal, the move “represented a compromise with party members who wanted tougher measures, including a hard cap on the numbers that Germany would accept.”

As authorities continue to investigate the San Bernardino attacks, the New York Times reports that none of the three immigration background checks “uncovered what [female suspect Tashfeen Malik] had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad” as well as her expressed desire to participate in it. Investigators are now focusing efforts on Enrique Marquez, a friend of the suspects who claims to have planned a previous attack with Syed Farook.

Following the San Bernardino attack, there has been “an unprecedented spike in anti-Muslim incidents,” as what appear to be hate crimes have targeted Muslim and Sikh Americans. In response to the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and incidents, President Obama warned that stereotyping Muslims simply played into the desires of terrorists. Meanwhile, writing for Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt says that the “unhinged nature of the current discourse on terrorism [...] reveals how profoundly unserious U.S. counterterrorism efforts really are.” He calls for a “sustained, all-out effort by top U.S. officials to remind their fellow citizens how safe they actually are” in order to prevent the extremely divisive reactions by politicians and citizens alike “that nurture and sustain the very behavior we are trying to prevent.”

Elsewhere in the United States, “a Minneapolis man was charged Friday with tweeting threats against FBI agents after the arrest of a friend on charges of conspiring to help the Islamic State,” the Washington Post writes. Authorities suspect that the man had also hoped to travel to Syria.

France’s far-right National Front failed to secure a victory in any of France's regional elections held on Sunday. The Washington Post reports that “French voters turned out in droves Sunday to prevent a surging anti-establishment, anti-immigration party from capturing regional office, a week after the once-fringe group shocked many by leading the nationwide vote in the first round of elections.”

In Saudi Arabia, women ran and voted for the first time in Saudi Arabian municipal elections. Twenty women won seats on municipal councils. The Washington Post tells us that “the 20 female candidates represent just one percent of the roughly 2,100 municipal council seats up for grabs, but even limited gains are seen as a step forward for women who had previously been completely shut out of elections.”

Egypt released its preliminary assessment of the circumstances surrounding the downed Russian jetliner that crashed in the Sinai in October. Contradicting the Russian conclusion that a homemade bomb was responsible for the plane’s crash, Egyptian investigators maintain that there is no evidence that "indicates illegitimate interference or an act of terrorism." Responding to the Egyptian assessment, the Kremlin reaffirmed its conclusion that the crash was an act of terrorism. Following the attack, Russian authorities pointed to "traces of foreign explosives" found on debris at the crash site as evidence of foul-play. The attack was also claimed by an affiliate of the Islamic State militant group and mentioned in the Islamic State’s English-language propaganda magazine, Dabiq. While the investigation committee “continue its work,” the Atlantic notes that the crash has had a heavy impact on Egyptian tourism.

An Emirati commander and a Saudi officer were killed by Houthi forces in Yemen. The Houthi attack reportedly killed dozens of coalition forces, and “a pro-government military source told the Reuters news agency that the rocket hit at a camp housing Yemeni, Sudanese, Emirati and Saudi troops in the Dhubab area.”

A Palestinian was shot dead after driving his car into a bus stop in Jerusalem. The motorist injured nine pedestrians before being shot dead. Elsewhere, Israeli authorities are looking into whether excessive force was used by an Israeli police officer who fatally shot a young Palestinian attacker. The Associated Press reports that "the attorney general had requested the investigation into claims that the officer shot the 16-year-old girl after she had already been restrained." Since the wave of violence began in September, “a total of 19 Israelis and an American seminary student have been killed by Palestinian attacks, mostly stabbings, while at least 112 have been killed on the Palestinian side, including 75 people said by Israel to be attackers.”

As China enhances its naval fleet and flexes its muscles in the South China Sea, Foreign Policy tells us that the U.S. Navy is looking to shake up its current “war-fighting doctrine in the Pacific.” The Pentagon is looking into developing a new anti-ship missile and is “focused on securing access to air bases scattered across remote Pacific islands to reduce the vulnerability of large bases within China’s missile range.”

General Robert B. Abrams, a top army commander, ordered today that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl face a court-martial on charges of desertion and endangering troops. The New York Times writes that the charges stem from Bergdahl's "decision to leave his outpost in 2009, prompting a huge manhunt in the wilds of eastern Afghanistan and landing him in nearly five years of harsh Taliban captivity." If convicted, Bergdahl could face up to life in prison. More from Bergdahl on his decision to leave his post can be heard in the latest season of the NPR podcast Serial.

Shane Harris of the Daily Beast brings us a report on a "botched resuce of Bowe Bergdahl," in which the United States paid a ransom in hopes of freeing the soldier, but when the FBI went to collect him, he wasn't there. Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and another individual knowledgeable about the operation paint the picture of an FBI victim to bad intelligence and duped into delivering funds to the Haqqani Network and receiving nothing in return. The new report raises serious questions both about the U.S.'s efforts to secure American hostages abroad in general and about the exchange for Bergdahl in particular.

The Miami Herald brings us the latest from the 9/11 military commission at Guantanamo. The defense attorney for Khalid Sheik Mohammed in the case called for the abandonment of the death penalty due to concern that rhetoric from political and military leadership had tainted the case. For more on the 9/11 hearings, check out Lawfare’s coverage.

Parting shot: Recently released from Guantanamo Bay, Shaker Aamer issued a scathing criticism of extremists in the United Kingdom, calling upon them to "get the hell out" of the country and stating that they “have no right to live in the U.K.” He added that "you cannot just kill anybody." Buzzfeed has more from Aamer’s interview with the U.K.'s Daily Mail.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Cody shared The Week that Will Be.

Ben provided summaries from the 9/11 hearings. Wednesday’s morning session took a look at the issue of female guards and lawyers, a discussion continued in the afternoon session. Thursday morning‘s proceedings were hampered by intricate scheduling difficulties, while the afternoon yielded an actual proceeding on the nature of a previous order’s effect on operational readiness.

David Bosco asked what the ICC thinks of America’s torture investigations.

Colin Geraghty discussed the perils of "French Islam" and France's misguided response to the attacks in Paris.

Cody posted the latest edition of the Lawfare Podcast, which features the Economist’s Edward Lucas in a discussion of his new book, Cyberphobia: Identity, Trust, Security and the Internet.

Jack shared the latest ISIS AUMFs.

Julian Ku considered the nature of Taiwan’s relationship with China and how the politics of the South China Sea could impact bilateral relations between the two countries.

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