Today's Headlines and Commentary

Rishabh Bhandari, Caitlin Gilligan
Wednesday, August 10, 2016, 2:36 PM

Syrian rebels have rejected claims that they have lost ground in Aleppo to government forces and allies.

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Syrian rebels have rejected claims that they have lost ground in Aleppo to government forces and allies. The fighters are still confident they can retain control over their territories despite the Syrian government sending thousands of reinforcements to the city in recent days. Al Jazeera shares a map of who controls what areas in Syria and has more on the recent developments here.

With fighting still raging in Syria, the United Nations has given up hopes to restart diplomatic talks to end the civil war and instead is prioritizing humanitarian aid for the civilians trapped in Aleppo. In order to give aid to the 2 million people trapped inside the city, the United Nations is calling for a ceasefire. American doctors have described the conditions in Aleppo as “hell” and say that those trapped inside lack access to the most basic medical supplies. But Russia’s deputy ambassador Vladimir Safronkov rejected the humanitarian rhetoric as a mere political tactic and blamed U.S. democratization policy for the continuing humanitarian problems in Syria. For more, the Guardian has you covered.

The deteriorating security situation in Syria is preventing the United Nations and its aid partners from delivering crucial supplies and assistance. “They are brave but they are not suicidal,” said Under Secretary-General Stephen O’Brien of the humanitarian aid team. The Washington Post reported that though the Russians are ostensibly open to the idea of a ceasefire, they would not halt fighting “terrorists,” which is the term Russia and Syria use to refer to most of the rebel forces in Aleppo.

Sunni tribal militias are joining Iraqi forces in their preparations to retake Mosul from Islamic State. The Sunni militiamen are local to the Mosul area and could be critical in keeping the peace after the Islamic State’s defeat. But many Iraqis are suspicious of Sunni militiamen because many have relatives who are serving as fighters in the Islamic State. The Associated Press reports that the Mosul offensive is slated to begin sometime this year and may displace up to 1 million Iraqis.

Turkey accused the European Union of making “grave mistakes” in their response to the failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey’s European allies have voiced concern that Erdogan is using the coup attempt to tighten his grip on power, but Turkish officials say the purges are “justified by the gravity of the threat” facing the regime. Erdogan’s meeting with Putin caused some concern from the West but a government spokesman claimed it normal for Turkey to “seek ‘other options’ on defence cooperation” since it has not received adequate support from its allies after the failed coup. According to Reuters, NATO has no intention of revoking Turkey’s membership and has reaffirmed its support for the nation.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Turkish state media that Ankara and Moscow will establish a “joint military, intelligence, and diplomacy mechanism” to try to find a solution in Syria. Russia will also lift trade sanctions and accelerate plans to assist Turkey in constructing the country’s first nuclear power plant. The New York Times reported that Erdogan’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin Their symbolic meeting in St. Petersburg raised alarms in the West. Anti-Americanism continues to rise in Turkey as many still believe that the United States was involved in the botched coup attempt.

Russia and Turkey also agreed to hold a separate discussion on the Syrian civil war. The two sides have backed opposing forces in the region. The Associated Press reported that it is unlikely Erdogan will reverse his position as one of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s most formidable regional adversaries even though Turkey looks to build closer ties with Russia. Analysts suggest Erdogan has invested too much in the Syrian rebel movement to change course.

Lilia Shevtsova opined in the Financial Times that the West’s tepid response to Erdogan’s crackdown will encourage other authoritarians to follow suit without the fear of repercussion. According to Shevtsova, Erdogan’s actions are “exposing precisely where the ‘red line’ on illiberal actions really lies.” She added that Russia is the third party that stands to gain the most both by exploiting a rift in Turkish-Western relations but also highlighting the West’s fragile commitment to liberalism.

For the first time, U.S. special operations troops are aiding the Libyan forces fighting the Islamic State according to the Washington Post. The United States will also continue conducting airstrikes and providing intelligence to forces aligned with Libya’s internationally recognized but fragile unity government. The positioning of a small number of elite U.S. personnel, operating alongside British troops, in the coastal city of Sirte deepens the involvement of Western nations against the Islamic State’s most powerful affiliate.

The Associated Press revealed that the Taliban are threatening to recapture Lashkar Gah, the capital of the key southern province of Helmand. The Afghan government has scrambled both police units and soldiers from elsewhere to keep their grip on Helmand, a critical province for the Taliban because it is a major producer of opium and a large revenue stream for the insurgency. The United States is providing air support.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have exploited their control of Sanaa, the capital, to take more than $100 million a month in cash from the central bank to pay its fighters’ salaries. But government officials in areas outside of Houthi control have reported not being paid despite warnings from the United Nations and aid agencies of a potential famine. The internationally-recognized government, which is based in Aden, has urged the IMF to freeze the Yemeni central bank’s accounts because its foreign exchange reserves are being used “in an irresponsible manner.”

The New York Times reported that gridlock in Congress over a visa program for Afghans who provided translating services for U.S. operations is undermining the United States’ ongoing mission in the region. Top former commanders in Afghanistan including General David Petraeus and General Stanley McChrystal and foreign policy heavyweights in the Senate such as Senator John McCain have called for the program’s renewal and expansion but they have been blocked by hardliners who are concerned about the program’s costs and the dangers of bringing immigrants who may be radicals.

A German special police unit arrested a Syrian refugee who allegedly planned to launch a terrorist attack during the opening of the Bundesliga, the country’s premier soccer league tournament. German authorities have been vigilant after the country was struck four times over six tragic days last month by terrorism.

CNN profiled Omar Omsen, a Sengalese-born Frenchman who is leading the Islamic State’s radicalization campaign for French Muslims. According to CNN, French authorities estimate that Omsen is responsible for recruiting up to 80 percent of the country’s jihadists who move to Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic State. The profile also detailed the growing number of young girls, many of whom are not even teenagers, who are moving to the Islamic State.

The Associated Press reported that roughly 1,000 Russian opposition supporters rallied in Moscow to protest a controversial new raft of legislation that offers new sweeping powers to security agencies. The set of counter-terrorism amendments initiated by the hawkish lawmaker Irina Yarovaya has sparked outrage among rights activists, many of whom believe the laws will help the Kremlin silence dissent in the lead-up to next month’s parliamentary elections. Among other things, it introduces prison sentences for failure to report a grave crime and obliges telecommunications companies to store call logs and data for months. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the amendments into law last month.

Russia’s Federal Security Service announced on Wednesday that the bureau had disrupted two armed Ukrainian attempts to smuggle saboteurs into Crimea and dismantled a Ukrainian spy network inside the annexed peninsula. The FSB accused Ukrainian special forces of planning to carry out terrorist attacks inside Crimea targeting critical infrastructure. Russian authorities also said an FSB employee and a Russian soldier had been killed in clashes with Ukrainian forces.

Reuters informed us that Vietnam has moved rocket launchers into the disputed South China Sea to defend its islands. The new launchers are capable of hitting China's runways and military installations across the vital trade route. The move is designed to counter China’s escalating strength and aggression in the region.

Admiral Scott Swift, the commander of the U.S. naval forces in the Pacific, said Beijing had taken several destabilizing steps in the South China Sea—including conducting air patrols, announcing joint drills there with Russia, and installing hangars for military aircrafts on its artificial islands—since a tribunal ruling against China’s maritime claims in July and in favor of the Philippines. Still, Swift said he was pleased that both Beijing and Manila are determined to resolve the dispute through bilateral negotiations. The Wall Street Journal has more.

The Associated Press offered a summary of the major foreign policy challenges that are testing President Xi Jinping as China prepares to host the annual G20 summit next month. They range from the Korean peninsula and Taiwan to Beijing’s complicated relationship with Washington.

Pakistani officials are still investigating whether the Islamic State was responsible for a suicide attack on Monday that claimed at least 72 lives in the city of Quetta. The so-called caliphate claimed credit for the attack via its official media arm that same day but a faction of the Pakistani Taliban has also made a similar claim. The Islamic State made the unusual move of filing their press release in Urdu in addition to Arabic and English, a sign that the organization is moving into South Asia. The Wall Street Journal has more.

The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism released a report documenting the Islamic State’s bloody footprint. According to the researchers, the Islamic State is directly or indirectly responsible for 33,000 deaths between 2002 and 2015. These figures include not only acts committed by the official Islamic State organization but also the precursor groups that came before it was officially founded such as the al Qaeda branch in Iraq. The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor broke down the report here.

ICYMI: Yesterday on Lawfare

David Kris reflected on his trip to Israel and Palestine and examined Israel’s national security culture.

Robert Loeb shared a lawsuit filed on Monday against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by parents of two men killed in Benghazi in 2012.

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Rishabh Bhandari graduated from Yale College with degrees in History and Global Affairs. His senior thesis focused on the decision making of the Nixon administration in response to the 1971 Bengali Genocide. He is pursuing a doctorate in international relations at Oxford University.
Caitlin Gilligan is a national security intern at Lawfare. She is a rising senior at Colgate University where she majors in Political Science and minors in Applied Mathematics.

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