Today's Headlines and Commentary

Elina Saxena, Cody M. Poplin
Thursday, October 29, 2015, 1:55 PM

Breaking news from Capitol Hill this morning.

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Breaking news from Capitol Hill this morning. The New York Times tells us that Paul Ryan (R-WI) will replace John Boehner (R-OH) as Speaker of the House, writing that “Ryan’s ascent stems not from electoral victory but rather the chaos in the ranks of his party’s sizable majority.” It remains to be seen whether Ryan can bridge the growing divide between the GOP establishment and the House Freedom Caucus.

In anticipation of Friday’s discussions in Vienna, Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the future of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, arguing that the war in Syria must end in order to defeat the rising threat of the Islamic State. Kerry emphasized the need to intensify U.S. military efforts against the group while emphasizing diplomatic efforts to resolve the broader conflict in Syria. The secretary also stated that to successfully navigate the challenges “in Syria today is nothing less than to chart a course out of hell.”

Even so, Secretary Kerry expressed hope that the talks in Vienna will be the first steps towards an “inclusive diplomatic process” which will work towards “an early end to this Syrian disaster” through the transition outlined in the Geneva communique. In his remarks, Kerry also stressed the need to bring about a political transition, stating that “nothing would do more to bolster the fight against [the Islamic State] than a political transition that sidelines Assad so that [the United States] can unite more of the country against extremism.”

Yet, despite Kerry’s assertion that “Russia, the United States, and others share an amazing amount of common ground on [Syria],” Reuters reports that “U.S. officials are playing down expectations of any major breakthrough.” Another senior western diplomat said that “just keeping the players at the conference table and avoiding a collapse of the talks would represent a level of modest success.” In order to do so, the Post suggests that the world leaders will put the question of Assad’s future aside as "Kerry and his Russian counterpart have stipulated in near-daily conversations that their ongoing disagreement about where a Syrian political transition must end [...] should not prevent the process from starting."

Syrian opposition and rebel leaders, though one would think they play an important role on the ground, have not been invited to the Vienna discussions, causing opposition leaders to question the legitimacy and seriousness of the planned talks. But, one of their largest backers, Saudi Arabia, will join the discussions. The Wall Street Journal writes that the “Saudi announcement marked a shift, after saying Iran shouldn’t take part in any talks about the future of Syria” due to “Tehran’s support for President Bashar al-Assad’s war crimes against his own people.” In response to the announcement, the Syrian government has suggested that Saudi Arabia “is not qualified to play a ‘productive’ role in resolving the conflict,” adding that the Kingdom “is shedding the blood of Muslims and Arabs there, in Yemen and in Iraq.” With over 20 states expected to be represented in Vienna, “most attention is focused on the United States, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.”

As violence continues across the country, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has reported that over twelve hospitals have been hit by strikes in recent weeks, killing at least 35 patients and staff. In response to the strikes, a MSF worker questioned the lack of adherence to international humanitarian law by parties to the conflict. Reuters shares that Russian strikes have added to the already large number of displaced in Syria, with at least 120,000 Syrians in Aleppo, Idlib, and Hama provinces displaced by fresh fighting in October lone. The Times shows us which factions have gained ground in Syria since Russia began its strikes nearly one month ago.

In Iraq, Reuters shares that the government is expected to hire 10,000 additional paramilitary forces in order to combat the Islamic State. Due to budget constraints, the Iraqi government plans to invest more on light and medium weapons as opposed to heavier artillery.

The Journal tells us that the conflict in Syria has drawn many from former Soviet Central Asian republics to join jihadi groups. Over 500 people are suspected of having defected from Kyrgyzstan alone since the conflict began.

Today’s long read: In the Atlantic, David Ignatius covers how ISIS spread in the Middle East and how we can stop it.

In yet another incident involving Russian aircrafts, a U.S. ship conducting standard exercises with the South Korean Navy scrambled its fighter jets after a Russian reconnaissance plane flew as low as 500 feet in the ship’s vicinity. U.S. officers received no radio response when they attempted to contact the aircraft. As Stars and Stripes writes, in recent weeks, “Russian aircraft have tested international boundaries by either violating other countries’ airspace or engaging in what Pentagon officials have called ‘provocative’ actions toward U.S. and NATO ships.”

As relations between Russia and the West continue to deteriorate, the Journal reports that NATO is considering increasing troop numbers in countries bordering Russia. U.S. officials have suggested that “in light of stepped-up exercises by Russia in the region, increasing the NATO presence could show Mr. Putin that the alliance is cohesive and Washington remains committed.” Yet some members of the alliance have voiced concerns that such a move could trigger a strong Russian reaction.

The Times writes that Greece saved at least 240 refugees after the wooden vessel in which they were travelling capsized. The incident is one of a series of accidents in the waters surrounding the country. Greece has received over 500,000 refugees over the course of the year and has agreed to host more than 50,000.

With a renewed push from the Taliban in Afghanistan, the number of Afghan asylum-seekers has more than doubled in 2015. Rampant unemployment and growing instability have prompted the exodus of Afghans who make up 16% of the refugees and asylum-seekers arriving in Turkey and Europe.

The Journal takes a look inside Europe’s migrant smuggling rings, which in order to profit from the current migration crisis, have adapted from existing criminal networks once known for smuggling guns and drugs. And as Europe works to manage the ongoing crisis, Hungary will challenge the EU plan to allocate migrants across the bloc in court.

Meanwhile, violent attacks persist in Israel and Reuters tells us that two more Palestinians have been shot following separate attacks in the region. Israel is reportedly holding the bodies of 29 Palestinians, adding to the already unprecedented tensions.

In Foreign Affairs, Samar Batrawi describes “what ISIS talks about when it talks about Palestine” and in his opinion, why we should be worried.

In Yemen, Saudi strikes killed 10 Yemeni factory workers near the city of Taiz. At least 5,600 people have been killed since the conflict began.

As Afghanistan continues to recover from Monday’s 7.5-magnitude earthquake, the Taliban has extended an informal ceasefire in order to allow the Afghan government to deliver assistance to those affected by the disaster. Afghan officials have not encountered security challenges in their humanitarian efforts, and aid workers have reported receiving requests for help from Taliban fighters in the northeastern provinces of the country.

Frequent readers will remember that in September, the Times reported that U.S. troops had been told to ignore their Afghan counterparts’ abuse of young boys. Today, the Post tells us that the Pentagon’s Inspector General is investigating allegations those allegations, many of which suggest U.S. military commanders may have mishandled child sexual assault cases in Afghanistan since 2011.

Senior Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) commander Abu Qasim was killed in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Thursday in what the Indian government called a surgical operation. LeT has been responsible for a series of large terror acts throughout India, including the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Qasim was considered the mastermind behind many of the group’s plots.

China has announced that it will end its infamous “one child” policy, allowing families to have two children. China has eased restrictions on the policy in the last few years, but the decision reflects, in part, the country’s need for a demographic shift as its increasingly aging population is contributing to a diminishing workforce.

In the wake of the United States’ recent freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea, the chiefs of the U.S. and Chinese navies are expected to hold discussions today. China maintains that the United States unlawfully entered its territorial waters and that the country’s “military will take ‘all necessary’ measures in response to any future U.S. Navy incursions.” A spokesman for the Chinese Defense Ministry said that China remained “strongly against any kind of effort in the name of freedom of navigation that might damage the interests and security of the littoral states.” The Times suggests that China is attempting to push back U.S. naval supremacy and influence in the region as it attempts to establish its own sphere of influence.

Reuters tells us of the deliberation that preceded the U.S. naval patrol in the South China Sea. While the Pentagon, frustrated by repeated delays, pushed for action, the White House was more reluctant, seeking to avoid a potential confrontation.

In her visit to Beijing, German chancellor Angela Merkel suggested that the United States and China turn to international courts to resolve the dispute concerning the law of the sea. During the visit, China and Germany also agreed to “work on stopping economic cyber spying between the two nations.”

The African Union released a damning report which accused government and rebel forces in South Sudan of committing heinous crimes and atrocities. Since South Sudan erupted in violence in late 2013, tens of thousands have died while another two million have been displaced. The report also cites evidence of torture, mutilations and rape, and episodes of forced cannibalism. The South Sudanese government has said that it “cannot accept” the AU’s allegations, which they consider to be based on “inconclusive evidence.” The Times has more.

Soldiers from 22 African states began joint exercises in South Africa as part of the AU’s long-awaited African Standby Force. Backed by European money and arms, African military chiefs laud the progress made toward creating the force, a force they suggest will be “the antidote to insurrections spiraling into civil war or even genocide.”

Police in the United Kingdom have seized the laptop of a BBC reporter that was used to communicate with a group of British foreign fighters who have joined the Islamic State in Syria. The reporter has covered the role of UK-born jihadists extensively over the last year. A BBC editor, Ian Katz, said in a statement, “While we would not seek to obstruct any police investigation, we are concerned that the use of the Terrorism Act to obtain communication between journalists and sources will make it very difficult for reporters to cover this issue of critical public interest.”

While the seizure of the laptop has renewed questions about press freedom under the UK Terrorism Act, the head of MI5 called yesterday for a “mature debate” on surveillance as the UK parliament considers a bill updating state surveillance powers next week. The BBC has more.

The Hill shares that, following the European Court of Justice’s decision to strike down Safe Harbor, German privacy regulators have announced an investigation into data transfers between the European Union and the United States. Hamburg’s Data Protection Officer told German magazine Der Spiegel, “Anyone who wants to remain untouched by the legal and political implications of the judgment, should in the future consider storing personal data only on servers within the European Union.”

In Wired, Kim Zetter reports that, according to newly obtained documents from the Department of Justice, stingray devices are capable of not only recording the incoming and outgoing numbers for a mobile phone, but can also intercepting the content of voice and text communications. The report has more.

And then there were 113. Reuters reports that the Pentagon has transferred Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, a detainee held at Guantanamo Bay, to his native Mauritania.

And while the slow emptying of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay continues, Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald shares that the 9/11 military commission trial has hit yet another roadblock with detainee Walid bin Attash requesting to fire his current counsel. Rosenberg notes that if allowed, Attash’s firing of counsel could delay the hearings by six months to more than a year.

Parting shot: The Internet practically melted yesterday as news erupted that a military blimp used as part of a U.S. Air Force missile defense system had broken away from its mooring and begun drifting westward from Maryland. The Post provides a rundown of responses as the $2.7 billion blimp drifted across the countryside, escorted by two F-16s, casually knocking out power for 35,000 people while setting off a Twitter firestorm.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

David Ryan provided us with an update on the ongoing litigation in Dhiab v. Obama, reporting that Judge Gladys Kessler has denied the government’s motion to reconsider her order to unseal classified videotape of force-feeding at Guantanamo Bay.

In light of Charlie Savage’s article yesterday on the deliberations and legal memos leading up to the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, Jack explained the decline of OLC and some reasons why the office may not have been consulted.

Joel Brenner shared a chance for U.S. law students to shape privacy law. The opportunity? Bring suit against a European government alleging that it is violating their rights through its surveillance operations.

Tim Edgar examined the issue of standing as a barrier to challenging U.S. surveillance activities and how that challenge is changing.

Zack Bluestone covered the rare Sunday session in the 9/11 military commission trial.

Finally, Ingrid Wuerth argued that the Captures Clause of the Constitution does not give Congress the authority to regulate the treatment of prisoners captured in war.

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Elina Saxena was a National Security Intern at The Brookings Institution. She is currently a senior at Georgetown University where she majors in International Politics with a concentration in Security Studies.
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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