Today's Headlines and Commentary

Zachary Burdette, Quinta Jurecic
Tuesday, October 4, 2016, 4:00 PM

Published by The Lawfare Institute
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Following yesterday’s decision to end talks with the Russians on a new Syrian ceasefire, the Obama administration is evaluating its remaining options for managing the conflict, the Wall Street Journal reports. Possibilities include giving rebels more powerful weapons systems or allowing Turkey and Saudi Arabia to strengthen their sponsorship of the groups. The diplomatic path appears closed without changes to material circumstances on the ground.

The end of U.S.-Russian bilateral dialogue on Syria signals a new low for the relationship, notes the Washington Post. Moscow responded to Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to break off talks by abrogating a longstanding U.S.-Russian nuclear security agreement that obliged both countries to reduce their plutonium stockpiles. Russian officials blamed the collapse of the Syrian ceasefire and overall decline of the relationship on the United States, citing its “unfriendly actions” toward Russia. Moscow also announced it remained committed to peace in Syria despite the end of U.S. cooperation, Reuters adds.

Unfazed by diplomatic condemnation, Russian and Syrian forces continue the siege on rebel-held territory in Aleppo, the AP reports. Pro-government ground forces are assaulting rebel positions in eastern Aleppo and moving to attack the insurgents in southern Aleppo. The aerial assault against residential neighborhoods continues to provide those forces with air support. Rebels claim they thwarted the offensive in the south on Tuesday, Reuters comments. Syrian state media criticized rebels for killing five civilians with mortar fire the same day, Reuters notes.

Russian state-controlled reporters appear to be following an entirely different Syrian civil war than their Western peers, argues the Guardian. Russian coverage is “highly selective and defensive of the Kremlin line,” playing up Moscow’s humanitarian actions and ignoring its airstrikes in residential areas. State media regularly accuses the United States of conspiring against Russia, with accusations ranging from the mundane to the bizarre. Some examples include allegations that the CIA attacked the U.N. humanitarian convoy in Syria last month, that the United States secretly supports the Islamic State, and that Washington is encouraging terrorist groups to directly target the Russian homeland.

U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein denounced Russian airstrikes in Syria, Reuters writes. The Commissioner warned that the employment of incendiary weapons could constitute a war crime and also called for “proposals to limit the use of the veto by the permanent members of the Security Council” so that Russia could not block a referral of its actions to the International Criminal Court.

The Syrian government has not responded to a U.N. request to dispatch aid convoys to mitigate the ongoing humanitarian crisis within the country, Reuters reports. The refusal to grant permission comes as regime forces conduct a significant offensive against Aleppo—the last rebel-held territory in a major urban center.

Russia has deployed its S-300 air defense system to Syria, Kremlin news outlet RT announces. The system’s “sole purpose is to defend a Russian naval base and warships,” although—given that the Syrian opposition does not have access to aircraft—the system’s deployment is likely meant as a signal for Washington.

An American drone strike killed one of al-Qaeda’s senior operatives in Syria, Abu Faraj al-Masri (née Ahmad Salamah Mabruk), writes ABC. Al-Masri was also in the leadership of al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate, the organization now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Pentagon officials heralded the strike as yet another blow to al-Qaeda.

The U.S.-led coalition is continuing to prepare for the Mosul offensive. The United States helped broker a deal to share oil profits between the Iraqi central government and regional Kurdish governments, Reuters reports. The deal made it possible to continue coordinating the offensive with Kurdish forces. Those Kurdish soldiers have requested that the United Kingdom provide them with protective equipment to deal with the Islamic State’s recent spate of chemical weapons attacks, the Guardian writes. Finally, Iraq has started broadcasting radio messages to Mosul residents to warn them of the impending offensive, Reuters notes.

Afghan forces have retaken control of Kunduz after Taliban forces occupied the city Monday in a rapid and coordinated operation, the Journal reports. Afghan forces relied on U.S. support to retake the city, which also fell a year earlier to the Taliban after a similar surprise offensive. The Taliban captured Kunduz in conjunction with attacks in three other Afghan provinces, highlighting the group’s continued ability to challenge the weak Afghan national security forces. The Times adds that Afghan forces are still vying to defeat a Taliban offensive in Helmand.

A U.S. service member was killed by an IED while on an operation against the Islamic State’s Khorasan affiliate, writes Buzzfeed. The announcement highlights the tension between the Pentagon’s claim that U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is not in combat and the fact that U.S. forces continue to conduct operations against the Islamic State in Afghanistan.

Following the congressional override of Obama’s JASTA veto, Saudi Arabia is stepping up its ground game in Washington, the Hill reports. The kingdom hired its tenth lobbying firm in an attempt to grapple with the potential legal and political implications of the new legislation, which allows family members of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi officials. The Saudis now appear to be paying a whooping $1.3 million a month to its armada of lobbying firms.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a three-month extension of Turkey’s state of emergency, writes the Journal. President Erdogan has publicly been considering whether to maintain his enhanced executive powers for an extended period of time following this summer’s attempted coup. The ensuing crackdown led to the detention of over 30,000 people and the dismissal or suspension of 70,000 more. After the announcement, the government “suspended nearly 13,000 police officers, detained dozens of air force officers, and shut down a T.V. station,” Reuters observes. Meanwhile, authorities continue to detain Kutbettin Gulen, the brother of the cleric Fethullah Gulen whom President Erdogan alleges engineered the coup attempt, adds the Times.

The Post profiles Harry Sarfo, a German who briefly fought for the Islamic State before returning to Germany. New evidence suggests that Sarfo had a far more malevolent role in the Islamic State’s activities than he led authorities to believe, highlighting the difficulties European authorities face in grappling with the return of foreign fighters from Syria.

Pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists are carrying out an internal purge in the separatist enclave of Luhansk following an attempted coup, the Post writes. The power struggle may be over the question of access to Russian troops and resources, and might also point to strife within the Kremlin.

The Times examines the failed referendum on Colombia’s peace deal. Despite widespread confidence that voters would approve the agreement ending the decades-long war between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group, the deal appears to have fallen victim to both low turnout and a sense among some Colombians that its terms were overly lenient to FARC fighters. The Guardian reports that both FARC and the government are scrambling to figure out where things will go next, though both sides reiterated their commitment to peace.

The United States and the Philippines are conducting annual joint military exercises for what may be the last time, as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte continues to move away from the United States and toward China. Duterte today told President Barack Obama to “go to hell” and said that he would “break up with America,” Reuters reports, also suggesting plans to purchase arms from Russia and China.

U.S. officials are trying to pass off Duterte’s comments as bombastic but without substance, noting that the two nations continue to cooperate militarily. Meanwhile, the Journal tells us that Beijing is delighted by Duterte’s sudden hostility towards Washington. Duterte initially announced that joint military exercises with the U.S. in the South China Sea would end in order to cease provoking China, and he is scheduled to visit Beijing later this month.

The Guardian reports on the extrajudicial killings that have roiled the Philippines since Duterte took office in July. The president has spearheaded a controversial anti-drug program that has unleashed a wave of violence against perceived drug addicts and dealers, both by the police forces and by unidentified vigilantes.

In a press conference advertised as announcing the release of a major and damaging scoop on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange failed to present any incriminating documents against the Clinton campaign but hinted at the publication of unspecified new material before the year’s end. The Daily Beast has more on Assange’s strange non-scoop.

In 2015, Yahoo built a custom server to allow intelligence officials to search incoming email messages for a specific, unidentified selector term, Reuters writes. Internal disagreement over Yahoo’s decision to comply with a government order to allow access to the messages may have led to the departure of Chief Information Security Officer Alex Stamos from the company in June 2015. It remains unclear whether other companies also received or complied with the same order.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Rita Siemion called for the moderator in tonight’s debate to ask the vice presidential candidates about their stances on a new AUMF to fight ISIS.

J. Dana Stuster updated the Middle East Ticker, discussing the Islamic State, the conflict in Syria, Shimon Peres, and JASTA.

Julian Ku and Chris Mirasola assessed China’s compliance with the international tribunal ruling on the South China Sea.

Rick Houghton offered a primer on how military law does and does not constrain the political speech of retired military officers.

Michel Paradis discussed the passion that led to JASTA’s passage.

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Zachary Burdette was a National Security Intern at the Brookings Institution and is an M.A. candidate at Georgetown University's Security Studies Program concentrating in military operations.
Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. She previously served as Lawfare's managing editor and as an editorial writer for the Washington Post.

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