Today's Headlines and Commentary

Cody M. Poplin
Tuesday, March 15, 2016, 6:49 PM

Charlie Savage’s lede today, as part of a story about the United State’s recent military operations against al Shabaab, brings us all the context we need for today’s news:

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Charlie Savage’s lede today, as part of a story about the United State’s recent military operations against al Shabaab, brings us all the context we need for today’s news:

“A striking fact about post-9/11 life is that Americans can wake up and discover that they are already at war with yet another Islamist group in yet another part of the world — based not on congressional debate but on an executive branch decision that the group is sufficiently linked to Al Qaeda.”

Savage’s point? The United States’s war against terrorism in far away lands, and the arcane missions in hard to pronounce places that accompany it, are the fuel that allows the Obama administration to keep “eroding limits on presidential war-making powers.” The argument has particular salience as the U.S. military engages in new fighting in Somalia, and potentially gears up once again in Libya.

Yesterday, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Sowers provided a statement saying that the government has still not deemed al Shabaab an “associated force” of al Qaeda, but that the airstrike on March 5—one that killed 150 militants—was “authorized by the 2001 A.U.M.F.” Savage has more on that theory, and why both Bobby Chesney and Ashley Deeks see the Administration's “rationale as an innovation with significant implications for limits on a president’s power to start a war.”

More information today regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unexpected announcement yesterday that Moscow would withdraw the “main parts” of its forces in Syria. The Times notes that the move has prompted speculation from capitals around the world, as “the Russian decision could signal a new confidence in Mr. Assad’s stability or an effort to pressure him to negotiate with his political adversaries---or both.” The move seems to have been clearly timed to coincide with the resumption of peace talks in Geneva, with U.N. Syria Envoy Staffan de Mistura calling the decision a “significant development.”

In his announcement, Putin stated that Russia would keep open Russian air force and naval bases in western Syria. Moreover, a Kremlin spokesman would not rule out further Russian airstrikes in Syria against “terrorists.” Even so, Reuters reports that Russian warplanes began to fly home earlier today. Upon arrival, “the pilots were greeted by between 200 to 300 servicemen, journalists, and their wives and daughters, waving Russian flags, balloons in red, white, and blue, and flowers.” A brass band played Soviet military songs as the pilots were thrown in the air by the crowd. Television stations broadcast the images broadly in Russia throughout the day.

Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama spoke by phone yesterday. The White House, which was caught off-guard by the announcement, said that Mr. Obama welcomed the reduction in violence in Syria, and “underscored that a political transition is required to end the violence” permanently.

Yet while a further reduction in violence in Syria would certainly be welcome, in Politico, Michael Crowley and Nahal Toosi ask, “Did Putin once again outfox Obama?” Elsewhere, in Defense One, the president’s former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, Evelyn N. Farkas, argues that “Putin got exactly what he wanted in Syria,” noting that the drawdown amounts to an admission that his target was never al Qaeda or the Islamic State. Yet others disagree that the withdrawal is all good news for Russia. In Foreign Affairs, Kimberly Marten and Rajan Menon take up the argument that Russia is withdrawing troops because of biting sanctions, suggesting that while this “can’t merely be a money-saving decision,” Putin has “every reason to avoid the burden of a long-term war.”

As Russia draws down, the war continues: Islamic State suicide bombers killed 47 Iraqi soldiers near Ramadi in a series of coordinated attacks against military barracks and convoys, according to Al Jazeera. Iraqi Security Forces retook Ramadi in December, but much of Anbar province remains in ISIS hands, complicating the security dynamics of the area.

The BBC reports that the Pentagon confirmed the death of Omar al Shishani, otherwise known as Omar the Chechen. A Georgian famous for his fighting skill, al Shishani was considered the “Minister of War” for the Islamic State. Al Shishani appeared to have survived the initial strike that targeted him on March 4th; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday that he died of his wounds several days later.

The New York Times sheds more light on the case of Mohamad Jamal Khweis, a 26-year-old man from Virginia and ISIS fighter who surrendered to Kurdish peshmerga fighters in Iraq on Monday. Khweis identified himself as a foreigner, and according to Kurdish fighters, was carrying three cell phones, a few thousands dollars in mixed currency, and a Virginia driver’s license. The Times shares that law enforcement officials are still trying to determine whether Mr. Khweis actually fought alongside the Islamic State. His father told reporters that he did not know where his son was at the time.

Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a resolution by a vote of 393-0 to label ISIS’s attacks against Christians, Yazidis, and other religious and ethnic minorities as genocide. The Hill writes that the “measure calls on all governments and international organizations like the United Nations to label the violence in the same way.” A former U.N. designation of ISIS’s crimes as genocide would potentially carry significant obligations for the international community, as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide calls for the “prevention and suppression” of the crime. The Hill has more.

Missy Ryan and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post report that General John F. Campbell, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan until earlier this month, “broke with standard military procedure” and forwarded a proposal for “resuming offensive strikes against the Taliban” directly to the White House in recent weeks. The Post reports that General Campbell did not clear his proposal with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter before sending to the White House; however, Campbell denied that he has not passed his proposal up the proper chain of command. Even so, the Post suggests that the proposal received “a chilly reception at the White House,” “exposing a rift between the military and senior administration officials over the U.S. role in the war in Afghanistan.”

Whatever the U.S.'s role, it appears that the Taliban does not yet want peace. According to Reuters, earlier this month, “Pakistani officials threatened to expel Afghanistan’s Taliban from bases in Pakistan if they did not join the peace talks this month, but the militants rebuffed their traditional patron.” Instead, viewing Afghanistan as an operationally conducive environment, Reuters notes, “the insurgents are now pouring back into Afghanistan for what they say will be a fierce spring offensive.” However, Afghan officials in Kabul were more skeptical of Islamabad’s account, with one cabinet member arguing that “Pakistan’s honesty and sincerity with regard to the Afghan peace process has been a question.”

“Myanmar’s parliament elected a close friend and confidant of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi as president on Tuesday, making Htin Kyaw the first head of state who does not hail from a military background since the 1960s,” Reuters reports.

According to state media, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said yesterday that his country will soon test another nuclear warhead and a ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The rhetorical salvo is only the latest in a series of threats and repeated violations of U.N. resolutions that have put the country back in the forefront of the collective U.S. national security consciousness.

The Hill reports that the Obama administration plans to follow a playbook it used against Chinese hackers in 2014 and indict Iranian hackers responsible for infiltrating a New York dam in 2013. The move would be “an attempt to deter Tehran’s rapidly developing cyber program.” It would also be the first public step the government has taken against Iranian hacking. Adam Segal of the Council on Foreign Relations explained that the indictments are meant to “send a signal about U.S. attribution capabilities in an attempt to kind of create a deterrence.” The Hill has more.

It remains unclear, however, how effective those indictments have been. Reuters reports that four security firms have attributed a series of ransomware attacks with the Chinese government, as the attacks mirrored government-supported computer network intrusions, with “a level of sophistication” similar to that in state-sponsored attacks. A Chinese spokesman said that the country did not have time to respond to “rumors and speculation.” Ransomware would be a new kind of attack for the Chinese government, leading to theories that Beijing’s recent crackdown on cyber hacking has led “some government hackers or supplement their income via ransomware.”

Parting Shot: In a story that sounds like it is straight out of a Cold War plot, a Russian bank employee in New York pleaded guilty on Friday to spying on behalf of the Russian government. The employee, Evgeny Buryakov, was accused of conspiring with two other Russians stationed in New York to collect intelligence on behalf of the Russian foreign intelligence agency, S.V.R. in order to learn more about “potential United States sanctions against the Russian Federation and the United States’ efforts to develop alternative energy resources.”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Paul Berman wrote in Lawfare on terror and the jauntiness that characterizes it.

David Bosco updated us on a new draft policy paper from the ICC prosecutor’s office that describes how the ICC chooses its cases.

Daniel Severson outlined exactly what’s in the U.K. Investigatory Powers Bill, or the “Snoopers Charter.”

Cody shared the Week That Will Be, Lawfare’s roundup of events and employment announcements.

Email the Roundup Team noteworthy law and security-related articles to include, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for additional commentary on these issues. Sign up to receive Lawfare in your inbox. Visit our Events Calendar to learn about upcoming national security events, and check out relevant job openings on our Job Board.

Cody Poplin is a student at Yale Law School. Prior to law school, Cody worked at the Brookings Institution and served as an editor of Lawfare. He graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012 with degrees in Political Science & Peace, War, and Defense.

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