Today's Headlines and Commentary

Zachary Burdette, Quinta Jurecic
Friday, October 28, 2016, 3:55 PM

Syrian rebels launched a counteroffensive today to break the siege of Aleppo, the New York Times reports. Thousands of insurgents struck government positions to the east, west, and southwest of the city. Reopening the route to Aleppo from the southwest would restore access to a critically important supply route into the city.

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Syrian rebels launched a counteroffensive today to break the siege of Aleppo, the New York Times reports. Thousands of insurgents struck government positions to the east, west, and southwest of the city. Reopening the route to Aleppo from the southwest would restore access to a critically important supply route into the city. The Washington Post has more.

A number of different rebel groups have joined together to challenge the government’s hold on Aleppo—notably including former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. The moderate rebels claim they had no choice but to partner with extremist groups, given the strength of the regime’s coalition and the international community’s insufficient support of rebel groups. Fears of just such a collaboration between moderates and extremists was previously an important factor in constraining greater U.S. support for the rebels, Reuters notes. The Obama administration considered providing rebels with heavy arms, such as anti-air missiles, but had grave concerns that terrorist groups would end up with the weapons.

The rebel counteroffensive has killed 15 civilians thus far, including fatalities from rebel mortar fire hitting a school on Thursday, Reuters writes. This is the second attack on a school in as many days: an airstrike killed 28 in a school in the Idlib province on Wednesday. The Obama administration blamed Russian and Syrian forces for Wednesday’s attack, and the United Nations has called for an investigation, notes the Post. Russia denies responsibility.

Moscow also dismissed the findings of a U.N. report on Syria’s use of chemical weapons as inconclusive. Russia’s defense of the Syrian regime has continued to aggravate its already strained relationship with western countries. The Times has more.

Meanwhile, Russia failed in its bid to join the U.N. Human Rights Council, with the General Assembly supporting Hungary and Croatia for the two open seats in the Eastern European region. This failure is unusual for a permanent member of the Security Council. Buzzfeed reports on the surprising vote, which appears to have been influenced by human rights advocates’ criticism of the Kremlin’s campaign in Syria.

An American and a Russian jet had a “near miss" last week, Yahoo tells us. A Russian pilot flying over eastern Syria accidently came close to colliding with a U.S. fighter. Such incidents have become unnervingly common in the crowded skies over Syria. While Russian jets sometimes intentionally come dangerously close to American fighters, U.S. officials believe that the Russian pilot simply “didn’t see” the nearby aircraft given that both planes were flying at night and without lights.

The Iranian-backed Shiite militia known as the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) announced that its forces would advance on the western approaches to Aleppo within “a few day or hours,” Reuters writes. The Iraqi government and Kurdish Peshmerga have taken up positions to Mosul’s north, south, and east, but left a path to west open to fleeing civilians and militants. The Syrian government has criticized the United States for leaving this path unguarded, claiming that it encouraged the Islamic State to regroup in Syria. The PMF’s move on the town of Tal Afar, only 35 miles west of Mosul, will close this escape route—likely on the direction of Iran. The U.S.-backed coalition fears that the involvement of Shiite militias could lead to clashes with the Sunni-majority residents of Mosul.

American military officials believe the U.S.-backed coalition has killed between 800 and 900 Islamic State militants in Mosul thus far, CNN reports. This leaves an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 in Mosul proper and 1,500 to 2,000 in the outlying towns. The coalition has made consistent progress in clearing those towns, but expects greater resistance once Iraqi forces lead the assault on Mosul proper. In the meantime, the coalition is trying to stop the Islamic State from taking civilians into the city to serve as human shields. U.S. airstrikes today destroyed 50 vehicles that the militants planned to use to ferry civilians into Mosul, the Times reports.

Saudi Arabia accused the Houthi rebels in Yemen of firing a ballistic missile at Mecca today, writes the AP. The Yemeni insurgents denounced the accusations, claiming they targeted an international airport 45 miles west of the holy city. Saudi Patriot batteries intercepted the missile en route. Debates over the target aside, the attack is part of a surge in recent Houthi missile activity—including attacks on the USS Mason. This surge comes amid Iran’s recent decision to increase arms shipments to the insurgents.

Reports indicate that a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan killed a Taliban commander and “caused several civilian casualties” in the process, Reuters writes. The airstrike is part of an uptick of targeted killings designed to counter a resurgent Taliban.

Tensions are high along the Line of Control separating Indian and Pakistani controlled territory in Kashmir, the AP tells us. There is continuous cross-border shelling, which killed an Indian soldier and civilian today. India has evacuated some civilians who live close to the border, and officials claim they have killed 15 Pakistani soldiers in the past week.

The United States and China are negotiating a new sanctions package to counter North Korean nuclear proliferation, the Journal reports. One potential measure would close a loophole that currently allows North Korea to export $1 billion of coal to China annually on the grounds that the revenue goes to “livelihood purposes,” while in reality it sustains North Korea’s nuclear program. China has previously argued that new sanctions should narrowly target weapons programs rather than the North Korean economy generally, but the United States hopes to produce a comprehensive sanctions package.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to stop swearing following divine intervention, the Journal comments. Duterte announced that he heard the voice of God while flying back to the Philippines from his recent trip to Japan. The deity proclaimed, “I will bring this plane down now” unless Duterte cleaned up his language. The Philippines’ president promptly and piously promised to comply.

Philippine police killed a mayor and nine other people in a firefight today, the Journal reports. The authorities alleged that the major was in convoy transporting drugs and his bodyguards began firing on the police. No officers were harmed. Notably, Duterte accused the mayor of links to the drug trade only months before he was killed. The international community has widely criticized the Philippine’s drug campaign for extrajudicial killings.

Following Duterte’s visit to Beijing last week, Chinese coast guard vessels are no longer blocking Filipino fishermen from accessing the waters around the Scarborough Shoal. The shift suggests that Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping may have come to an informal agreement on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The Post has more.

Malaysia’s defense minister announced plans to purchase littoral combat ships from China, observes Reuters. The decision represents yet another example of China’s growing influence in Asia and the United States’ failure to pivot and consolidate its own influence in the region.

North Ireland’s High Court ruled that its parliament could not override the British government’s decision to exit the European Union, Reuters notes. This is the first in a series of cases that will determine the legal contours of how Brexit will proceed. The most important case in British courts will decide whether Prime Minister Theresa May can trigger the Brexit procedures without parliament’s explicit consent.

Guantanamo’s parole board has recommended that Abu Zubaydah be held as a “forever prisoner,” turning down his request for release. Zubaydah, who has never been charged, became notorious for his extensive torture at the hands of CIA interrogators. He is the 28th of Guantanamo’s 60 remaining detainees to be recommended for indefinite detention. The Miami Herald has more.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Jane Chong flagged an upcoming book on cyber policy, Cyber Insecurity: Navigating the Perils of the Next Information Age.

Benjamin Wittes uploaded the latest episode of Rational Security, The “Strange Bedfellows” Edition.

Sumaya Attia interviewed Ranj Alaaldin on the implications of the Battle for Mosul on the Islamic State.

Shannon Togawa Mercer analyzed how Brexit negotiations will cover immigration issues.

Jack Goldsmith offered some insights for law students publishing pieces online.

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.
Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. She previously served as Lawfare's managing editor and as an editorial writer for the Washington Post.

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