Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Wednesday, January 20, 2016, 4:15 PM

An attack in Pakistan left as many as 30 dead after gunmen attacked the Bacha Khan University campus in Peshawar. Four gunmen wearing suicide vests entered the campus and began shooting just after 9:00am local time. Following a shootout between the attackers and Pakistani security personnel, all four gunmen were killed before they could detonate their vests. A member of Tehreek-e-Taliban, otherwise known as the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack before the group’s main spokesman denied any involvement and condemned the assault as “un-Islamic.” The Washington Post writes that “the attack underscored the resilience of Taliban militiamen despite a widening campaign of airstrikes and other offensives by Pakistan.” The New York Times has more.

Turning to Afghanistan, the White House has authorized the Pentagon to target the Islamic State in Afghanistan in an expansion of the scope of U.S. operations in the country, which have traditionally targeted al Qaeda and the Taliban. The Wall Street Journal tells us that the move comes in response to a December request from Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s for “broader authority to expand the fight against Islamic State." In a statement yesterday, a Pentagon spokesman characterized the group as “operationally emergent.”

Elsewhere in the country, a suicide bomb detonated near the Russian embassy in Kabul left at least four dead. Though no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, the Post tells us that the Taliban has ratcheted up its tempo across the country’s capital city as rifts emerge concerning upcoming peace talks.

Secretary Carter arrived in Paris today where he is set to update his Coalition counterparts on the increased military effort against the Islamic State. He will also seek additional international participation and capabilities to support the fight. Carter suggested that the United States would increase the number of U.S. forces training Iraqi security personnel and urged other coalition and Arab countries to send additional trainers.

As Carter meets with his counterparts in France, Voice of America tells us that Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Zurich “as part of a trip to Europe, the Middle East and Asia for talks on issues including the multinational effort to bring political stability to Syria.” In response to the Russian push to widen the participation of Syrian opposition groups in upcoming discussions, the Riyadh-backed Syrian opposition council declared that it would forgo next week's negotiations with the government should a third group participate. Reuters reports that the U.N. will “not issue invitations to peace talks between Syria's government and opposition set to begin on Jan. 25 until major powers pushing the peace process reach agreement on which rebel representatives should attend,” an issue which Kerry and Lavrov are expected to discuss during their meeting in Zurich.

In spite of the bilateral discussions between Kerry and Lavrov, the Washington Post asks whether Russian military actions in Syria could be “tilting the battlefield in favor of President Bashar al Assad to such an extent that the Obama administration’s quest for a negotiated settlement to the war” is less likely to succeed. Meanwhile, the Associated Press suggests that Russia is "showing military might" in Syria ahead of next week’s scheduled U.N. peace talks.

Following yesterday’s reports that ISIS militants kidnapped hundreds and massacred dozens of civilians in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province over the weekend, the Islamic State released 270 out of 400 captured civilians. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, some 50 civilians are still being held. Russian forces are helping the Syrian government to repel the Islamic State’s advances on the province’s capital city and Russian airstrikes targeting the group have left 60 militants dead. Reuters has more on the situation in Deir ez-Zor.

Over in Iraq, satellite imagery confirmed that the Islamic State has destroyed the country’s oldest Christian monastery, adding to the list of historical and religious sites destroyed by the group. The Journal tells us that “St. Elijah’s Monastery stood as a place of worship for 1,400 years.”

A report released by Amnesty International suggests that Iraqi Kurdish forces are intentionally destroying Arab villages in areas recaptured from the Islamic State. The report claims that the attacks were carried out in retaliation for suspected local support for the Islamic State within the villages. Reuters reports that “Kurdish forces have bulldozed, blown up and burned down thousands of Arab homes across northern Iraq in what may constitute a war crime.”

As details emerge on the kidnapping of three American citizens from a private residence in Baghdad,  Reuters tells us that an Iranian-backed Shia militia kidnapped and is now holding the missing Americans. The incident sheds light on the difficulty that Shia militias pose to the Iraqi government, and a Baghdad-based analyst suggested that the kidnappings are part of an attempt to weaken Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

The United Nations has released a new report detailing the violence in Iraq. According to the Times, there were “nearly 19,000 people killed, close to 40,000 wounded and more than three million displaced from their homes over a 22-month period" that was marked, as the report described it, by a “staggering level of violence.” Tracking casualties between January 2014 and October 2015, the report suggested that the Islamic State was responsible for most of the casualties, but that factors such as “sectarian violence by militias, untreated illness and malnutrition, a wayward airstrike, [and] abuse by government forces” also contributed to the spike in deaths across the country. The report also said that some 3,500 people had been enslaved by ISIS and that hundreds of children had been forced to take up arms in support of the so-called caliphate, the Journal adds.

In other ISIS related news, the Islamic State released the latest edition of Dabiq, the group’s English-language propaganda magazine. In it, a detailed obituary of the group’s executioner known as Jihadi John confirmed his death in a coalition drone strike. The magazine also lauded the couple behind the San Bernardino shootings. The Guardian has more.

In Libya, the Times reports that "Libyan officials nominated 32 people to serve as cabinet members in a proposed unity government” in what appears to be “a step forward in a United Nations-backed process aimed at bringing together the country’s warring parties after years of political divisions and civil war." The cabinet must be approved by the country’s internationally recognized parliament and attempts to create a unity government face opposition from powerful factions. The Guardian tells us that the newly nominated U.N.-backed government is currently based in neighboring Tunisia and must first “persuade the existing parliaments in Tripoli and Tobruk, at war with each other from opposite ends of the country, to drop their opposition.”

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia, China indicated its support for the Yemeni government as it continues to fight against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Reuters adds that Xi will be visiting Tehran later this week.

In a statement made on Tuesday, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei welcomed sanctions relief but warned against American “deceptions” in a letter to the country’s president. In the letter, Khamenei urged Iranian leaders to monitor U.S. compliance with the Iran nuclear deal. Khamenei also praised the Revolutionary Guard for its controversial treatment of detained U.S. sailors.

Days after the release of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, a U.N. human rights body concluded that Iran's detention of the Rezaian violated international law.

Israeli politicians are reacting negatively to a suggestion made by U.S. Ambassador Daniel Shapiro that Israeli application of the law in occupied West Bank differs between Palestinians and Israelis. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Shapiro’s statement “unacceptable and wrong;” another minister added that Israel is “being subjected to a terrorist onslaught that is simply unfamiliar to the United States, and to pass judgment on us in such a one-sided manner is wrong.” While “State Department spokesman John Kirby insisted the ambassador was reiterating U.S. policy on Israeli settlement construction,” Israeli officials have called on Shapiro to retract the statement. The Washington Post has more on the ongoing dispute.

The Times reports that the Vietnamese government voiced opposition to the presence of a Chinese oil rig in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. While Chinese officials maintain that the rig is within China’s territorial waters, Vietnamese officials have called for China to remove the rig in accordance with international law.

A new study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies calls for more attention and resources to be given to the Obama administration’s “rebalance” to Asia and concluds that the United States should increase presence in the Asia-Pacific and bolster the capabilities of its regional partners. The report also suggests that the South China Sea will be “virtually a Chinese lake" by 2030. The full report is here.

Days after two military helicopters crashed near Hawaii, the Coast Guard has called off the search for survivors. 12 Marines remain missing. The acting Coast Guard commander in the region extended his thoughts and prayers to the Marine Corps helicopter squadron and to the families of those missing.

The Senate is expected to reject the House-passed bill barring Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the country, the Post tells us. Democratic senators vow to block the bill amid "backlash from pro-immigrant, refugee, and Muslim groups" and "increasing anti-Muslim sentiment from Republican presidential candidates.”

Ali Alvi al Hamidi, an al Qaeda member from Yemen, pleaded guilty in a Brooklyn court to U.S. terrorism charges that, the Associated Press writes, included accusations that “he helped an American recruit join the terrorist group, clearing the way for the New York native to hatch a plot against the Long Island Rail Road.”

The Miami Herald reports that the Guantánamo parole board has cleared another "forever prisoner" for release. The Yemeni prisoner, Zahir Hamdoun, has been detained for 13 years and has never been charged with a crime.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Herb Lin responded to Paul Rosenzweig's critique of the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s report on cybersecurity risks at nuclear power plants.

Laura Dean shared Omphalos’s first dispatch from Lebanon, discussing refugees, Syria, and security.

Ben and Jack reminded us of the fourth Hoover Book Soiree which featured Gayle Tzemach Lemmon on her new book Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.

Neil Kinkopf reviewed Saikrishna Prakash's latest book, Imperial from the Beginning: The Constitution of the Original Executive.

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