Today's Headlines and Commentary

Zachary Burdette
Thursday, October 27, 2016, 3:22 PM

The U.S.-backed Raqqa offensive is imminent, and the New York Times reports that it will follow the general blueprint of the Mosul offensive. The United States is cobbling together a coalition of Kurdish and Syrian Arab forces to move on the Islamic State’s capital in three phases: preparatory U.S. airstrikes, coalition forces enveloping Raqqa, and Syrian Arabs leading the final assault to take the urban center.

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The U.S.-backed Raqqa offensive is imminent, and the New York Times reports that it will follow the general blueprint of the Mosul offensive. The United States is cobbling together a coalition of Kurdish and Syrian Arab forces to move on the Islamic State’s capital in three phases: preparatory U.S. airstrikes, coalition forces enveloping Raqqa, and Syrian Arabs leading the final assault to take the urban center. Turkey has objected to the presence of Kurdish fighters in the coalition, but U.S. military leadership maintains that the Kurds are indispensable in any near-term operation against Raqqa. U.S. special operations forces deployed in Syria are preparing local Arabs to fight alongside the Kurds in retaking Sunni-majority Raqqa.

The United States is rushing the Raqqa offensive in part to pressure the Islamic State along multiple fronts, but also to thwart the group’s plans for international terrorist attacks, writes the Wall Street Journal. U.S. military officials believe Raqqa is the hub for “significant external-operations attack planning,” but are unsure when and where the militants plan to attack.

The battle for Raqqa will pose some new challenges, CBS notes. The exceedingly quick timetable for the start of the operation leaves little time to finish preparations. The U.S. military still needs to recruit, organize, train, and equip more local Syrian Arabs, and it has to do so while also continuing to back the ongoing assault on Mosul. Like the Mosul coalition, the forces moving on Raqqa will comprise an uneasy mix of ethnic and sectarian groups—but the Raqqa coalition will solely consist of militias, without local government forces. Planning may be further complicated by demands from states such as Turkey, Syria, and Iran to ensure the participation of militias they support.

The Islamic State is still putting up fierce resistance in the areas south of Mosul, Reuters reports. The militants are massacring civilians and may soon resort to chemical weapons attacks against coalition forces. ISIS counter-attacks in cities such as Kirkuk have failed to derail the offensive, and more broadly reflect the group’s loss of support among Iraqi Sunnis, writes the Journal. Yet the group’s ability to pull off these attacks demonstrates that the Islamic State still retains a presence in Iraq beyond Mosul. The Journal profiles one such hub that the government still needs to clear after the fall of Mosul—the Iraqi city of Hawija.

Turkey announced that its forces in Syria will work with rebels to capture al-Bab before moving on to Manbij and Raqqa, Reuters reports. Turkish attacks on Kurdish rebels may complicate the U.S.-backed Mosul offensive, leading to clashes between two sides both backed by the United States in its fight against the Islamic State. The United States rejected Turkey’s earlier request that Kurdish forces not join the Raqqa offensive. In response, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his commitment to move forward with Turkey’s own operations in Syria.

Russian officials claimed today that neither Russian nor Syrian aircraft have attacked Aleppo for nine days, Reuters notes. Some monitors contest this claim, denouncing an airstrike on a school in the Idlib province yesterday that killed 26 civilians, mostly children. Russia denies responsibility.

The European Union expanded its sanctions on the Syrian regime for its humanitarian abuses, putting ten more government officials under bloc-wide sanctions, Reuters writes. France and Britain have unsuccessfully pushed for similar sanctions on Russian officials for their complicity in the siege of Aleppo. Other EU members are concerned that such sanctions would hurt their trade ties with Russia.

A draft of a U.N. peace agreement to end Yemen’s civil war would return exiled Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Hadi to his office as only a figurehead, Reuters reports. The Yemeni government and the United Nations maintain that Hadi must remain in power, but the Houthis refuse to permit his return. The agreement hopes to bridge the divide by keeping Hadi in office while transferring much of his functional power to other positions.

The U.S. military has a new drone base in Tunisia to cover operations in Libya, writes the Washington Post. The drones are currently used in unarmed reconnaissance missions around Sirte, but could be armed in the future. Though the newly-democratic Tunisian government was hesitant to bring U.S. forces into the country for domestic political reasons, officials ultimately prioritized enhanced collaboration with the United States in counterterrorism.

U.S. airstrikes killed two senior al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, the Times reports. The two operatives—Faruq al-Qatani and Bilal al-Utabi—were working to re-establish Afghanistan as a safe haven for al-Qaeda.

India has expelled a Pakistani diplomat from New Delhi on accusations of espionage, the Post notes. The police arrested the man when he was allegedly meeting with two assets he had recruited. Where did authorities raid and detain the spy ring? The Delhi Zoo, of course.

NATO is increasing its military exercises in response to heightened Russian military activity, Reuters observes. NATO forces are practicing “shock” exercises focusing maneuvering on short-notice, which are designed to enhance readiness and interoperability among NATO members. The Journal has more on the escalating tensions between NATO and Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin denied interference with the U.S. election today, Reuters writes. The former KGB officer claimed the Kremlin was not capable of influencing the election and that accusations were ruses to distract the American public from the candidates’ lack of real solutions to pressing domestic problems.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reiterated his commitment to ending joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises, but left open the possibility of holding exercises with Japan, Reuters tells us. The announcement follows Duterte’s consistent anti-U.S. statements and threats to pivot to greater partnership with the Chinese.

The AP notes that the Philippine terrorist group Abu Sayyaf has made $7.3 million in ransom from kidnappings in 2016 alone. A new government report suggest that the Philippine authorities have made some progress in killing the group’s militants, but that Abu Sayyaf has increased terrorist attacks in response.

The Chinese Communist Party has designated Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “core” CCP leader, on par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, writes the Times. The move further consolidates Xi’s power ahead of the CCP’s upcoming leadership decisions.

China and Saudi Arabia conducted joint anti-terrorism drills today for the first time, Reuters reports. China claimed the move represented its desire to better counter violent extremism as its presence in the Middle East grows. The CCP also faces threats from Uighur extremist groups in western China, particularly in the Xinjiang province.

The Chinese military accused Japanese pilots of provocative behaviors when shadowing Chinese fighter jets in the East China Seas, Reuters notes. Japan has scrambled a record number of sorties to intercept Chinese planes, and officials accuse them of locking onto the planes with radar and jamming communications.

The Times tells us that South Korea will once again hold talks with Japan on a possible pact to share military intelligence in the face of North Korean aggression. The two nations held similar talks four years ago but failed to reach a deal after negotiations sparked domestic controversy. According to South Korean officials, Seoul hopes to finalize an agreement with Tokyo by the end of the year. Meanwhile, Reuters writes that Japan, South Korea, and the United States have agreed to increase pressure on North Korea to abandon its burgeoning nuclear weapons and missile programs.

The Post looks at Pyongyang’s most recent activity and asks: “Did North Korea just try to launch two long-range missiles?” Though analysts initially believed that the tests were of missiles capable of almost reaching Alaska at the farthest, evidence now indicates that Pyongyang may actually have been testing ICBMs.

For the first time, the United States abstained rather than voted “no” against a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, the Times reports. The abstention by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power is a symbol of continued American efforts to mend ties between the two nations. The Assembly has held such a vote every year since 1991.

Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald has filed suit seeking the expedited release of Defense Department staffing figures for Guantanamo Bay, the Herald tells us. Rosenberg, who has filed a series of FOIA requests for the release of the data with no success, has argued that information on staffing levels is crucial to understanding the government’s long-term plans for the detention center.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Nora Ellingsen and Benjamin Wittes argued that President Obama should visit Kansas to address the recently thwarted terrorist plot against Somali immigrants.

Lisa Daniels discussed the differences between state and federal terrorism cases.

J. Paul Pope reviewed David Priess’s book, The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama.

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.

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.

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