Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Jan. 28 2015 1:03 PM

Israel Pulled Deeper Into Syria’s War

Two Israeli soldiers and a Spanish U.N. peacekeeper were killed today on the Lebanese border in an exchange of fire between Israel and Hezbollah reminiscent of the opening days of the 2006 war. The escalation is also a sign that Israel is becoming gradually more embroiled in the violence in neighboring Syria.

The two sides had exchanged fire on Tuesday with no casualties reported. Today, Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles at an Israeli convoy in Shebaa Farms, a disputed area near where Israel, Lebanon, and Syria meet, killing two soldiers and injuring seven others. Hezbollah also fired mortars at an Israeli military position near Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights. The Israeli military then retaliated with airstrikes against Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon. The U.N. and Spanish government later confirmed that a member of the 10,000-troop UNIFIL peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon had been killed, though it’s not yet clear how it happened or who fired the shot. (Update, Jan. 28, 2:45 p.m: The Israel Defense Forces have now acknowledged that one of their mortars killed the peacekeeper.)

Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia and political party that has also been fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, says its attack on the Israeli convoy today was in retaliation for a Jan. 18 Israeli airstrike that killed six of the group’s fighters as well as an Iranian general. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon today said that Israel is holding the Assad government responsible for Hezbollah rocket fire into Israel, including the attack that killed the two soldiers.

The frozen conflict in the Golan Heights, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967, has heated up during the Syrian civil war. The U.N. evacuated its peacekeepers from the Syrian side of the Golan Heights in September due to escalating violence.

Israel is officially neutral in the war but is believed to be providing aid to Syrian rebel groups fighting against Assad’s government and his Hezbollah allies, and Israeli planes have carried out several airstrikes against the Syrian military in retaliation for cross-border attacks.

Assad, for his part, has tried to play up the Israeli connection to the rebels, joking in a recent interview with Foreign Affairs, “How can you say that al-Qaida doesn’t have an air force? They have the Israeli air force.”

The Syrian war is a conundrum for Israel, pitting the devils it knows—Hezbollah and Assad, both backed by Iran—against one it doesn’t: Sunni extremist groups like ISIS and the al-Qaida-backed Jabhat al-Nusra. The U.S. government may be gradually coming around to the view that it’s worth leaving Assad in power and entering an unspoken alliance with Iran to fight ISIS, but that’s going to be a tougher pill to swallow for Israel, which sees a Syrian hand in attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians and is loath to entertain any tacit deal with Iran.

As for Hezbollah, the group likely has no interest in a repeat of the bloody monthlong war of 2006, in which more than 1,700 people in Lebanon were killed, including between 600 and 800 Hezbollah fighters. The group would likely be even less equipped to handle a major Israeli offensive given the resources it has been pouring into Syria to defend its onetime patron Assad. So, beyond tit-for-tat rocket strikes, Hezbollah will likely avoid any actions that would provoke a major Israeli response.

However, these exchanges of violence have a way of spiraling beyond the original intentions of their initiators. Syria’s violence has already spread into Lebanon. Israel, which has so far mostly kept the carnage over the border at bay, may be getting pulled in deeper.

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Jan. 28 2015 12:50 PM

This Sinkhole That Ate a Car in Maryland Is a Pretty Good Sinkhole

Sometimes you see a headline that says “car swallowed by sinkhole” and you click and the car's front tires are just barely in a little depression in the asphalt. But this sinkhole pictured above—created by a water-main break in Bladensburg, Maryland—is a pretty good sinkhole.

Another angle:

Snow sinkhole

Mark Gail/Washington Post/Getty

Quality, solid sinkhole.

Jan. 28 2015 12:17 PM

Convictions for 1961 Civil Rights Sit-In Thrown Out in South Carolina

The 1961 trespassing convictions of nine men who staged a sit-in at a Rock Hill, South Carolina lunch counter—the “Friendship Nine,” so named for the local college many of them attended—have been vacated by a judge. Writes Reuters: “Lawyers and a judge agreed it was time to correct the record to show that the group’s decision to stand up to racial injustice was not a crime.”

The men refused to post bail or have bail posted on their behalf and served 30-day sentences at a country prison farm. (For trespassing!) The attorney who represented then in 1961 also represented them in court today, and the judge who threw out their convictions is a nephew of the judge who first sentenced them. Eight of the nine men are still alive.

An author named Kimberly Johnson had pushed for the men’s exoneration after writing a children’s book called No Fear for Freedom about their case. From an earlier Reuters piece:

Solicitor Kevin Brackett, who since 2006 has overseen prosecutions in the judicial circuit that includes Rock Hill, said past suggestions to expunge the men's records or pursue pardons seemed inappropriate because those strategies would erase an important part of history or imply the men were seeking forgiveness.
Prodded by Kimberly Johnson to take another look, Brackett settled upon a different tactic. On Jan. 28, he will argue that the men's convictions for trespassing should be thrown out because their skin color was the sole reason for their arrests.

“For the generations that are here now and for the future,” said 72-year-old Willie McCleod, one of the Nine, “it shows that the country was wrong.”

Correction, Jan. 28, 2015: This post originally misspelled Willie McCleod's name.

Jan. 28 2015 10:12 AM

NFL Ballghazi Investigators Contacted Columbia University to Ask for Physics Expert

The high-end law firm employed by the NFL to investigate Ballghazi football-deflation accusations against the New England Patriots has contacted the Columbia University physics department seeking expert consultation on the issue of gases and air pressure:

Lorin L. Reisner, a partner in the litigation department of the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, called the physics department on Monday, according to notes taken by an administrative manager.
“He would like to consult with a physicist on matters relating to gas physics,” the notes said.

A follow-up email from the firm asked to “discuss engaging a professor of physics to consult on matters relating to gas physics and environmental impacts on inflated footballs.”

Footballs used by the Patriots during the first half of their AFC championship victory were reportedly found to be 2 pounds per square inch of pressure under the NFL’s allowed lower limit of 12.5 psi. Some observers’ calculations and at least one real-life trial have suggested that the drop in temperature that occurred when the balls were taken outdoors for game play might explain their reduced pressure.

Jan. 27 2015 11:58 PM

Mexico Officially Declares All 43 Students Missing Since September Are Dead

Four months after the abduction of 43 college students in rural Mexico sparked outrage in the country, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam officially pronounced the missing students dead on Tuesday. Murillo Karam’s pronouncement is the first time the attorney general has said conclusively that all the students had died and comes as the students’ relatives have questioned the government’s evidence and conclusions about what happened to their loved ones last September in the city of Iguala.

“[Murillo Karam] went beyond hints that the students had been killed to declare that after an ‘exhaustive, serious’ investigation, ‘the evidence allows us to determine that the students were kidnapped, killed, burned and thrown into the river,’” the New York Times reports. “Mr. Murillo Karam, in what appeared to be an effort to convince an increasingly skeptical public that investigators had solved the crime, showed photographs of charred remains, snippets of videotaped confessions and the crime scene. He also disclosed that nearly 100 people had been arrested, 39 confessions obtained and thousands of fragments of human remains recovered.”

“The attorney general has come under attack from many quarters, including the students' relatives and fire experts, who say the government's version of what happened is implausible,” the Associated Press reports. “Murillo Karam said the motive was that the members of a local gang, the Guerreros Unidos, believed the young men were rival gang members… But many of the suspects testified that they knew the men were students.”

“[The students’ relatives] maintain the military based in Iguala would have known about the arrival of the students in the town and what happened to them,” according to the BBC. “They have campaigned to gain access to inspect army barracks where they allege students might have been taken.”

Jan. 27 2015 10:27 PM

Two Former Vanderbilt Football Players Convicted of Rape

A Nashville jury on Tuesday convicted two former Vanderbilt football players of raping a fellow student in 2013. After weeks of testimony the jury took three hours to deliver a guilty verdict, rejecting the argument, as the Associated Press puts it, “[the players] were too drunk to know what they were doing and that a college culture of binge drinking and promiscuous sex should be blamed for the attack.”

Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey could face decades in prison when they are sentenced in March. The details in the court testimony describing the night when the rape of the then-21-year-old neuroscience and economics major occurred are gruesome. The victim said she didn’t remember what happened, just that she woke up in a strange room the next day. Here’s more from the AP:

[The jury] saw cellphone images from the night of the attack that Vandenburg sent to his friends as it was happening. Despite the photos and the video, and although witnesses saw the woman unconscious and at least partially naked in the dorm, no one reported the attack. Vandenburg and Batey were on trial together, but represented by different attorneys. Attorneys for Vandenburg, who had been seeing the woman, said he did not assault her. Testimony showed Vandenburg passed out condoms to the other players, slapped her buttocks and said he couldn't have sex with the woman because he was high on cocaine. Batey raped the woman and urinated on her, prosecutors said. His attorneys argued the images didn't show that.

“Rumors about what happened quickly spread around campus, and the assault might have gone unnoticed had the university not stumbled onto the closed-circuit TV images several days later in an unrelated attempt to learn who damaged a dormitory door,” the AP reports. “The images showed players carrying an unconscious woman into an elevator and down a hallway, taking compromising pictures of her and then dragging her into the room. School authorities contacted police, who found the digital trail of images.”

Two other former players who are also accused of raping the woman are awaiting trial.

Jan. 27 2015 8:39 PM

Marshawn Lynch Is Here for One Reason (You Won’t Believe What Happened Next)

Why are any of us here really? Don’t answer that. There isn’t enough room on the Internet. Narrowing things down a bit: Why is Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch here? And when I say “here,” I don’t mean on Earth, I mean at the NFL’s mandatory Super Bowl Media Day on Tuesday. The "mandatory" part seems self-explanatory, but Lynch took five minutes out of his day on Tuesday to inform a gaggle of reporters why he was on Earth in Arizona sitting in front of them.

“I’m here so I won’t get fined,” Lynch explained. Good answer. So good, in fact, Lynch used that line, with slight variations, some 30 times to answer each and every question lobbed his way during his media appearance. Not getting fined, of course, hasn’t always been Lynch’s forte. The running back famously doesn’t like talking to the media. In the run up to last year’s Super Bowl, Lynch defied the league’s third commandment—thou shalt show up for media day—and this season he’s racked up more than $100,000 in fines. The fine Lynch was conspicuously avoiding on Tuesday was reported to be a cool $500,000.

Jan. 27 2015 6:45 PM

At Least 10 Killed, Including an American, in ISIS-Linked Libya Terror Attack

Gunmen claiming allegiance to ISIS attacked a hotel in Tripoli on Tuesday, killing at least 10 people including an American contractor. From the New York Times:

Four or five gunmen stormed the hotel, the Corinthia, in the early morning, firing their guns into the lobby, battling guards and indiscriminately shooting at civilians, according to news reports and people in contact with associates inside the hotel. ... It was the deadliest attack on Western interests in Libya since the assault on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in 2012.

According to the Times, Libyan television is reporting that at least two of the attackers were killed; it's not clear what happened to the others.

The "Tripoli Province of the Islamic State" claimed responsibility for the attack online, justifying the violence as retaliation for the United States' capture of Abu Abas al-Libi, a former Osama Bin Laden associate, in Libya in 2013. Al-Libi, who suffered from hepatitis C and liver cancer, died on Jan. 2 in New York while awaiting trial.

Conflict is ongoing in Libya between two rival governments, nicknamed Libya Dawn and Operation Dignity. Libya Dawn, an Islamist group, currently controls Tripoli.

Jan. 27 2015 5:52 PM

Greece’s New Prime Minister Is Country’s First to Take Nonreligious Oath of Office

The new prime minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras, has made history already: Tsipras, an avowed atheist, is Greece’s first leader to swear a nonreligious oath upon taking office. The Economist writes that, upon winning election this week, Tsipras “politely” informed the archbishop of Athens of his unprecedented decision:

It's hard to overstate what a rupture this marks with the ceremonial culture of Greece. For as long as anybody can remember, every senior office-holder, from socialists to right-wing dictators, has assumed the post with a ritual involving Bibles, crosses and often holy water, sprinkled about with a sprig of basil. The opening words of the Greek constitution recall the theological formulas of the early church which predate by the Hellenic state by more than 1,300 years: "In the name of the holy, consubstantial and indivisible Trinity......"

The Economist notes that the prime minister is still building a relationship with the moderate archbishop, who in fact conducted a religious funeral service for Tsipras’ father.

Jan. 27 2015 5:27 PM

Did Obama’s Drone War Help Cause Yemen’s Collapse?

A U.S. drone strike hit a vehicle in central Yemen on Monday, killing three members of al-Qaida according to a representative of the group. The strike was the first since Yemen’s U.S.-backed government collapsed last week, in what’s been widely seen as a major setback for efforts to combat the powerful al-Qaida affiliate that took credit for the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

But what if the drones themselves are part of the problem? It’s not unreasonable to ask whether U.S. attacks in the past six years, and particularly the civilian casualties they have caused, helped to hasten the Yemeni government’s fall, contributing to the headache now confronting U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

According to data collected by the New America Foundation, as of the end of 2014, the U.S. had launched 118 drone and air strikes on Yemen—all but one of them under the Obama administration—killing more than 800 people, including between 81 and 87 civilians. U.S. authorities have stressed that they do all they can to avoid civilian casualties, although the administration has also adopted a controversial method of counting casualties that essentially designates all military-aged males in a strike zone as military combatants.

Since al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has risen to become the most powerful affiliate of the international terror network and the U.S. has drawn down its presence in Afghanistan, Yemen has begun to displace Pakistan as the main battlefield of the U.S. drone war. For Americans, the best known drone strikes in Yemen are those that killed American born al-Qaida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his son in 2011, in what was a rare and controversial instance of a U.S. citizen being targeted for extrajudicial killing overseas. Yemen was also the site of one of the drone war’s greatest tragedies: Fifteen civilians were accidentally killed in 2013 when their wedding procession was mistaken for an al-Qaida convoy.

There’s long been concern that the strikes have been driving sympathy and support for al-Qaida, particularly in predominantly Sunni southern Yemen. As the Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan reported in 2012, “In 2009, when President Obama was first known to have authorized a missile strike on Yemen, U.S. officials said there were no more than 300 core AQAP members. That number has grown in recent years to 700 or more.” Locals told Raghavan, “These attacks are making people say, ‘We believe now that al-Qaeda is on the right side.’” 

There’s no direct link between the al-Qaida sympathies prompted by drones and last week’s government collapse. The drone campaign has been concentrated in the country’s south while the Houthis—the Shiite militia that has now taken over the capital—come from the north and are enemies of al-Qaida. But al-Qaida’s growing strength was one reason that the Houthis portrayed themselves as an alternative to the pro-American stance of both ousted former presidents, Abd-Rabbu Mansur Hadi and Ali Abdullah Saleh, and their opposition to drone strikes only helps their cause..

The future of the U.S. campaign Yemen is uncertain after the Houthi takeover. While the Iranian- supported group has opposed drone strikes in the past and chants “death to America” at its rallies, there’s some hope it may actually be fairly accommodating to efforts aimed at its mortal enemy, al-Qaida.

There’s less hope that the U.S. will seriously consider whether the drone campaign has been effective at all. As counterterrorism scholar Bruce Reidel notes, after the costly and unpopular engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, “Yemen was supposed to be a role model for this smarter approach of building local capacity and getting our allies to do more.” Instead, in the time since the drone campaign was launched, al-Qaida has only grown in size, two pro-American governments have been overthrown, and the country is on the brink of splitting in two.  

Maybe the French will have better luck.