Today's Headlines and Commentary

Elina Saxena
Thursday, December 17, 2015, 3:55 PM

Let’s begin today in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual televised news conference, discussing subjects ranging from Syria, Ukraine, Turkey, and Donald Trump.

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Let’s begin today in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual televised news conference, discussing subjects ranging from Syria, Ukraine, Turkey, and Donald Trump. Putin reaffirmed his position that the conflict in Syria must be resolved through a political solution decided upon by the Syrian people and suggested that both Washington and Moscow had agreed on the need to establish a constitution and a basis for elections in the country. According to Reuters, Putin confirmed that “Russia did have personnel in eastern Ukraine who were carrying out certain military tasks but denied Moscow had deployed regular troops there.” He told the press that “we never said there were no people there who were carrying out certain tasks including in the military sphere.” During his address, Putin also called the Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian warplane “an enemy act” while suggesting that Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict had halted Turkish incursions into Syrian airspace.

And a bit farther afield, Putin remarked that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was a “very flamboyant man, very talented” who “is an absolute leader of the presidential race, as we see it today.” He also welcomed Trump’s desire to seek a “deeper level of relations with Russia.” The Washington Post has more on the news conference.

Speaking of presidential candidates, Defense One highlights each of the 2016 presidential candidates’ positions on the use of military force. The “Presidential Candidates Use of Force Tracker” can be found here.

The United Nations is seeking to adopt a resolution aimed at curtailing the Islamic State’s funding. Finance ministers from each of the countries on the U.N. Security Council will meet today to discuss and likely adopt a resolution which is aimed at crippling the Islamic State’s funding by targeting revenue sources like oil trade and antiquities sales. The New York Times reports that "the United States and Russia have joined forces to draft a legally binding Security Council resolution to strengthen sanctions against those who do business with terrorist groups, chiefly the Islamic State,” highlighting a possible increase in cooperation between the two countries.

Reuters tells us that the “United States has delivered a fresh supply of ammunition to Syrian Arab fighters ahead of an expected stiff battle with Islamic State as they push toward the Syrian town of al-Shadadi, a key logistics hub for the group.”

Baghdad has declined American offers of additional military assistance to boost the Iraqi fight against the Islamic State in the city of Ramadi. The Military Times reports Iraq declined the offer made by Defense Secretary Ash Carter to “provide Iraqi army units with close-air support via Apache attack helicopters and also to expand the advise-and-assist mission to include combat advisers at the brigade level” during his visit to Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has recently come under pressure from Shia politicians who oppose any expansion the U.S. military’s role in the country.

The United States called upon Turkey to withdraw unauthorized troops from Iraq in an effort to “defuse a dispute that has rankled relations between two countries central to the fight against the Islamic State.” Iraq and Turkey have been at odds since Turkey deployed additional troops near the city of Mosul to protect its forces from Islamic State militants without alerting Baghdad. Upon discovering the troop increase, Iraq demanded the immediate withdrawal of the Turkish forces.

Pakistan has confirmed its involvement in the recently announced Saudi-led alliance against terrorism, but “is awaiting further details to decide the extent of its participation in different activities of the alliance,” according to a statement from its Foreign Office. A Pakistani news source tells us that the alliance is “envisaged to serve as a platform for security cooperation, including provision of training, equipment and troops, and involvement of religious scholars for dealing with extremism.” In its analysis of the coalition, the Soufan Group writes that the alliance initiative will likely “struggle to avoid what has ailed so many Arab coalitions; sectarianism, parochialism, and competing self-interests.”

Four years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Reuters reports that Libya’s warring parties have signed a U.N.-brokered deal to form a national government, “a deal that Western powers hope will bring stability and help fight a growing Islamic State presence.”

Meanwhile, as U.N. sponsored peace talks enter their third day, the Yemeni ceasefire is at risk of crumbling. One source said there had been more than 150 violations of the ceasefire since it was implemented. The warring parties to the conflict announced a second prisoner exchange involving “370 Houthi rebels and 285 pro-government fighters.” The exchange was not confirmed by the International Committee of the Red Cross in Sanaa, and sources reported that the exchange had been blocked by local tribesmen, delaying the planned swap. Reuters has more.

U.S. and British forces have “deployed at least four special-operations teams to the Afghan province of Helmand, stepping up their direct intervention in support of struggling Afghan government forces trying to fight off advances by Taliban militants.” Taliban militants have taken control of several districts in the province and are threatening areas bordering its capital. This latest development comes just days after a Pentagon report indicated that violence in Afghanistan was on the rise.

The New York Times carries an exclusive investigative report into allegations that U.S. Navy SEALs participated in the beating and torture of Afghans in the village of Kalach, amid renewed claims that the entire affair was swept under the rug.

A Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli security personnel after attempting to stab Israeli officers. Reuters writes that “violence has been partly fueled by Palestinian frustration over the collapse of statehood talks with Israel in 2014 and stepped up Jewish visits to Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque compound,” but Israeli officials have accused Palestinian leaders of inciting violence.

In the latest development in the manhunt for Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam, Belgian authorities suggested that they had delayed a raid on a house in Molenbeek last month due to a law prohibiting police raids of private residences during the night. One official said that authorities “took measures throughout the night to make sure that Salah Abdeslam could not flee that particular home if he indeed was there.” Since the attacks in Paris, Belgium has debated a series of new security measures as controversy surrounds the country’s counter terrorism measures and its handling of the investigations following the Paris attacks.

Germany has announced a new counter terrorism police unit, which, the Associated Press writes, “will be better armed, outfitted and trained to deal with terrorism, based on an analysis of the country's security in the wake of deadly attacks in Paris earlier this year.” The unit will aim to fill “a gap between the special unit and regular police” amid fear that Germany is under increased risk of an armed terrorist attack.

The New York Times tells us that links between a Budapest rail station and the Paris attacks have added fuel to the “mounting debate over links between terrorism and the chaotic influx of people fleeing war and poverty in the Muslim world.” While the Hungarian government has painted refugees as a “pool of willing terrorist recruits,” Belgian investigators have countered that there is no evidence to suggest that refugees in Budapest were recruited for terrorist activities.

In a news conference yesterday, FBI Director James Comey said that the couple behind the attack in San Bernardino were not part of a larger cell or directed by terrorist groups abroad. He also challenged claims that the female suspect had made public statements on social media that expressed her support of jihad and martyrdom, clarifying that such remarks were only made in private communications. The Daily Beast’s Shane Harris writes that Comey’s remarks call into question the narrative of the attacks that have been “characterized in the press and by government officials as an ISIS—or, at least, ISIS-inspired—attack in which social media figured prominently in the shooters’ radicalization and planning.”

As investigations continue, gun charges are expected to be announced against Enrique Marquez, the neighbor and friend of the couple involved in the San Bernardino shooting. Marquez bought the two rifles used in the massacre and has been at the center of the investigation.

In light of the attacks in San Bernardino, in the Hill, Rachel Brand of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board calls for a “renewed discussion about whether the laws governing our intelligence agencies enable them to pursue terrorist threats nimbly and aggressively while also respecting american’s privacy and civil liberties.” Specifically, she notes that “there is a fine line between enacting beneficial reforms and subjecting our intelligence agencies to death by a thousand cuts.”

The Obama administration has authorized a $1.83 billion arms sale to Taiwan, formally notifying Congress on Wednesday of the deal, which will include two frigates, anti-tank missiles, amphibious assault vehicles and other equipment. The announcement has elicited strong protests from China. According to the New York Times, China has “threatened to penalize the companies that made the armaments and summoned a United States diplomat to register an official protest.”

Amid concerns that ethnic violence could be returning to Burundi, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for talks to prevent the resurgence of a civil war in the country and sent a special envoy in an attempt to defuse the crisis. Burundi has “defended the actions of its security forces and rejected any idea of stationing foreign troops on its soil,” Reuters suggests.

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter recently notified Congress that he has approved 17 proposed transfers of lower-level detainees from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, the New York Times tells us. The proposed transfer would reduce the number of detainees held in the facility to 90. Meanwhile, the Daily Beast reports that “it’s been months since reporters have been allowed to see the U.S. military’s War on Terror prisoners” held in the facility, noting that, of the 107 prisoners housed there, only the ten who have been charged have been seen by journalists.

The Pentagon revealed that Defense Secretary Ash Carter conducted some official business from a personal email account but has since stopped the practice. Carter said that he had not sent classified information through his account, but admitted that he had used his personal phone to send emails to “immediate staff” until several months ago.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Congress is “poised to pass” the Cybersecurity Act of 2015, a “measure aimed at prompting business to share information on online threats.” The Journal has more on the act, which Paul Rosenzweig also covered for Lawfare.

Parting Shot: War on the Rocks got a copy of Ash Carter’s letter to Santa. It includes some must-haves for any Defense Secretary, including a fleet of T-70 X-Wing fighters to replace those oh-so-troublesome F-35s.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Stewart Baker shared episode 93 of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, which features an interview with Rod Beckstrom.

Bobby linked us to a debate between Charlie Savage of the New York Times and Steve Griffin of Tulane over whether administrations have actually denied the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution.

Julian Ku argued that China’s harassment of civilian ships and aircraft in the South China Sea is a dramatic reminder of why we need more U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the region.

Cody highlighted Hillary Clinton’s recent remarks on encryption, which phrase the issue as a problem to be solved.

Paul Rosenzweig walked us through the key provisions of the Cybersecurity Act of 2015. He later pointed to provisions in the Omnibus that may be “read as a rebuke to the SEC.

Sarah Freuden and Alex Zerden examined corporate liability and the Alien Tort Statute.

Elina provided a roundup of all the relevant quotes from the 5th GOP presidential primary debate, organized by topic

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.

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.

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