Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Sitrep - 3 August, 2016

Two suspected Russian hacking groups accessed private email servers of Democratic National Committee (DNC) – the governing body of the US Democratic Party – before releasing them to activist website Wikileaks. US law enforcement is investigating the breach, but private cyber defence companies and the intelligence community say with “high confidence” the Russians are to blame.

The files were embarrassing for the party, but not strictly classified. They do however show a willingness of the Russians to engage in manipulation of elections in a foreign country, although just what effect the leak will have on the elections is unclear. The main issue for the US government is deciding how to react.

Clearly, the cyber world is without structured laws, almost any action can be undertaken without fear of reciprocity. But while the US has already conducted sabotage on foreign infrastructure, and Russia has attacked Ukrainian and Georgian infrastructure during combat, just how Washington should respond to a Russian cyber operation is a worrisome grey area. It is a debate the US needs to have.

In Syria, a re-branding exercise changing the name of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham gained international attention this week. The decision to drop the Al Qaeda brand was a conscious one, supported by the Al Qaeda core itself, which shows a certain flexibility and unification within the jihadist group, rather than discord.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is under increasing pressure from US and Russian airstrikes, both of which will coordinate attacks more tightly in the future. Its connection with Al Qaeda was seen as a liability given that the US targets only jihadist groups in Syria, not rebels. Dropping the name and mixing with rebel groups is a way of defending itself from Washington.

US aircraft have been unwilling to strike rebel positions, and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s cooperation with rebel groups was always a concern. But since the US is bound by law and respects the stated claims of groups, the murky Syrian conflict just became more opaque. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is one of the most respected fighting forces in Syria, and rebels will not appreciate US airstrikes on their positions. So it appears the group has set a neat trap for the US.

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