Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Tuesday, May 31, 2016, 4:13 PM

“A human catastrophe is unfolding in Fallujah,” says Jan Egeland, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council. An estimated 50,000 civilians still remain trapped in the Iraqi city as the battle to reclaim it from the Islamic State’s grip continues.

Earlier today, Iraq’s forces fighting to reclaim Fallujah repelled a four-hour counterattack by the pseudo-state. According to the Associated Press, “the dawn attack unfolded in Fallujah’s Nuaimiya area, most of which was captured by Iraqi troops the previous day” and that Islamic State militants “used tunnels and snipers, and targeted Iraqi forces with six explosives-laden cars that were destroyed before reaching their targets.” Meanwhile, the AP also reports that concerns for civilians trapped within the city have “renewed calls on warring parties to open up safe corridors for civilians to flee.”

Iraqi forces began the ground assault on Fallujah yesterday but faced difficulties with their attempts to enter the city. According to Iraqi and U.S. officials, the Islamic State began amassing civilians to serve as human shields. The Wall Street Journal reports that “the Fallujah operation, led so far by Shiite militias and army and police forces, has almost completely cleared the city’s perimeter of Islamic State fighters since it was launched a week ago. But the next, crucial stage of that operation, led by Iraq’s U.S.-trained counterterrorism forces, got off to a fitful start Monday.” However, despite some difficulties, Iraqi troops have won control over districts around the city in the “multi-pronged assault aimed at reaching the city center.” Read more on that from the Guardian.

Reclaiming Fallujah from the Islamic State would be a strategic victory. The Financial Times’s Rebecca Collard writes that “retaking Fallujah would provide a psychological boost for Iraq’s unproven military.” Beyond giving the needed morale boost, “it would also push the militants further back from Baghdad, which lies just 50 kilometers to the east, and set the stage for a bigger showdown in the northern city of Mosul.”

Yet, the effort to retake Fallujah has not stopped Islamic State attacks. Yesterday, the terrorist group claimed credit for a wave of bombings in and around Baghdad that killed at least 24 people. The Associated Press details the attacks here.

Turkey has suggested that it could carry out joint military operations with the United States to drive the Islamic State out of Syria. The Associated Press shares that Turkey’s “Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that operation could ‘easily advance to Raqqa,’ the main IS bastion in Syria.” Additionally, the AP reports that “American special operations forces and a coalition known as the Syria Democratic Forces have begun clearing areas north of Raqqa in preparation for an eventual assault on the city.” Reuters has more on the U.S.-backed alliance of Syrian militias widening their offensive against the Islamic State’s de-facto capital.

Elsewhere in the region, elite U.S. soldiers and Kurdish troops are moving on the Islamic State near Mosul. Read more from the Daily Beast on how the Kurdish offensive against the terror group continues to make gains with the help of U.S. forces here.

During a speech yesterday commemorating Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery, President Obama focused on the three American service members who were killed fighting the Islamic State in Iraq. However, the Washington Post notes that “this time, Obama left no doubt that the missions that took their lives involved combat.” President Obama also sat down with Stars & Stripes last Friday for a Q & A on Iraq, where he revealed that Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, Staff Sergeant Louis Cardin, and Chief Special Warfare Operator Charles Keating were killed in combat fighting the Islamic State.

The situation in Syria surely does not seem to be getting any better, and it looks like Syria’s chief negotiator in Geneva agrees. Mohammad Alloush, the Syrian opposition’s main negotiator, resigned from his post on Monday “citing both the international community’s failure to make concrete progress toward ending the country’s conflict and continuing hostilities by the regime.” The Wall Street Journal reports that “Mohammad Alloush’s departure could be a particularly troubling development for the fractured opposition, which has faced difficulties nominating consensus leaders wielding both political clout with the international community and influence among rebels on the ground."

Despite the attempts at peace, “a wave of late night airstrikes pummeled the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib, killing at least 23 people, wounding dozens, and trapping several under the rubble of their homes.” Who is to blame? According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Russia carried out the airstrikes on the city. However, Russia has denied that it has performed any airstrikes in the Idlib province. Reuters has more on the strikes here.

Speaking of Russia, last week, a Lebanese newspaper reported that Moscow “had finished drafting a constitution for Syria that would remove many of the Syrian president’s powers and set up a more decentralized government, both possible concessions to rebel groups fighting the regime of President Bashar al Assad.” Al Jazeera shares that “according to the Al Akhbar report, the new constitution, done with the blessing of the United States, would be put to referendum before the end of the year.” However, there has not yet been word from the United States or Russia on the new constitution.

Afghan Taliban militants killed at least 25 policemen over the past two days as the insurgent group overran several checkpoints in the Helmand Province. The New York Times describes the attacks as “the first major assaults in the province since the insurgents named a new leader last week.” Al Jazeera reports a conflicting casualty number of more than 50 police officers killed since Sunday. Additionally, CNN reports that “nearly 200 people were kidnapped by Taliban fighters in the northeastern province of Kunduz in Afghanistan early Tuesday morning.” However, a majority of the hostages have since been released, but around 20 of them still remain in Taliban custody. More on the massive kidnapping here.

Afghan Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was not the only person killed in the U.S. airstrike in Pakistan last week. According to the Washington Post, the brother of a man killed alongside the Taliban chief “has filed a police report asking for his brother’s killing to be investigated.” Muhammad Azam, a Pakistani citizen, was driving Mansour from the Pakistan-Iran border when his vehicle was destroyed by the drone strike.

“Yemen’s Houthi rebels have launched a missile over the border into Saudi Arabia for the first time in weeks in the latest violation of a shaky truce between the insurgents and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government.” Read more on Yemen’s conflict by Associated Press here.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that he is willing to discuss an Arab initiative for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. According to Reuters, Prime Minister Netanyahu “held out the prospect on Monday of reviving a 2002 Arab peace initiative that offers Israel diplomatic recognition from Arab countries in return for a statehood deal with the Palestinians.” In a statement, the prime minister said, “We are willing to negotiate with the Arab states revisions to that initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes in the region since 2002 but maintains the agreed goal of two states for two peoples.”

Earlier today, Hamas executed three convicted Palestinians in Gaza in a move “condemned by local and international human rights groups and likely to lead to deeper division among Palestinian factions.” Reuters tells us that “the three were found guilty of murder in separate cases and sentenced to death after a trial and all appeals were exhausted, Hamas said. Two were executed by firing squad and the third, a policeman, was hanged, security sources said.”

In Africa, Libyan forces have captured the coastal town of Ben Jawad from the Islamic State, east of the terror group’s stronghold of Sirte. Al Jazeera shares that “the Petroleum Facilities Guard said on Monday that they had ‘liberated’ the town of Ben Jawad, some 160km east of the central city of Sirte, and that fighting was raging for control of the nearby town of Nawfiliyah.” Read more from Al Jazeera here.

Elsewhere, “Hissene Habre, the former president of Chad, was sentenced to life in prison after he was found guilty of crimes against humanity, torture, and sex crimes on Monday, more than 20 years after the start of a campaign to hold him accountable for the suffering and death of tens of thousands of people.” The New York Times and the Guardian have more on Habre’s sentencing.

A military court in Mogadishu on Monday sentenced two men to life in prison for masterminding the Daallo Airlines Airbus A321 bombing earlier this year. The bombing, claimed by al Shabaab, killed one passenger. The Associated Press shares that “Abdiweli Mohamed Maow, a former senior security officer at the Mogadishu airport, was convicted of preparing the laptop computer used to bomb the plane. Areys Hashi Abdi was convicted in absentia.”

The French jihadist network responsible for “grooming” one of the Paris Islamic State terrorists went on trial on Monday in France. The Associated Press reports that “the seven defendants, friends from the eastern city of Strasbourg, were arrested in 2014 on suspicion of unspecified terrorist activity after returning from Syria. Court documents show no indication they were planning a specific attack at that time.”

In other news, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced an “upcoming ‘landmark summit’ will enhance the alliance’s defensive and deterrent presence in Poland and in the region, but decisions as to the number still haven’t been finalized.” According to the Associated Press, during a visit to Warsaw, Poland, Stoltenberg said “that several battalions will be placed in Poland, the Baltic States, and elsewhere in the region that will raise NATO presence in troops, equipment, prepositioning, and infrastructure.”

Reuters tells us that “China will ‘pressure’ the United States on maritime issues at talks in Beijing next week because of Chinese concern about an increased U.S. military presence in the disputed South China Sea.” You can read more on the ever increasing tensions here.

North Korea attempted to test another missile earlier this morning. The Wall Street Journal reports that “a North Korean missile launch likely failed on Tuesday, according to South Korea’s military, the latest in a string of high-profile failures that tempers somewhat recent worries that Pyongyang was pushing quickly toward its goal of a nuclear-tipped missile that can reach the U.S. mainland.” According to the Guardian, “South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said in a statement that the North had launched what appeared to be an intermediate-range Musudan ballistic missile, but added that it had been unsuccessful.”

Meanwhile, North Korea lost a key military and police ally this week. The New York Times reports that “Uganda has agreed to cut all military and police ties with North Korea, depriving the North of a crucial base for arms and other exports in Africa.” President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda made the promise to South Korean President Park Geun-hye during her visit to Africa for a summit meeting. Read more from the Times here.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder stated that Edward Snowden performed a “public service” by starting the debate over government surveillance techniques. Attorney General Holder made his somewhat surprising remarks during a conversation with CNN’s David Axelrod for his podcast, The Axe Files. You can check out the podcast episode here. Read more on this story from the Guardian and the Hill.

The Miami Herald has the latest news coming from Guantanamo Bay. According to the Herald, “the two top Pentagon officials on Friday issued a statement of support of the independence of the war court at Guantanamo - as well as integration of women troops in all roles - in a clear-cut bid to try to mollify the Sept. 11 trial judge, who had ruled it looked like they were trying to contaminate his court.” You can read the statement by Secretary Carter and General Dunford here. More from the Herald here.

In other Guantanamo news, apparently the claim that Camp 7, the secret prison where ex-CIA prisoners are kept, was falling apart may not have been true. The claim—which resulted in a Marine general asking Congress for $49 million and a committee proposing $69 million to build a new facility—“was one big mistake.” Read more on the “oops” from the Herald here.

A 26-year old cab driver from Virginia faces up to 48 years in prison after a federal grand jury charged him with “helping provide support for terrorists after he transported one of his associates, a would-be member of the Islamic State, 90 minutes to the airport.” The Intercept shares that “the cabbie, Mahmoud Amin Mohamed Elhassan, was also charged with making false statements to federal agents. He faces up to 48 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines - more than twice the maximum of 20 years faced by the budding terrorist he transported.” Read more on the case that is questioning the government’s use of informants here.

Parting Shot: The Taliban is not the only group fighting to control land in Afghanistan. The Washington Post shares the story of Nesar Ahmand Papalzai, who, during the last few years, “has helplessly watched a well-connected developer take over his two-acre farm and erect a building with four new shops.” “The practice - in which acres of private and government land are illegally seized by local strongmen, corrupt officials, and other opportunists - contributes to thousands of land disputes in Afghanistan.” Read more from the Post here.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Alex McQuade shared the Week That Was, rounding up all of the Lawfare’s content from last week.

Paul Rosenzweig flagged that the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication has failed to take the most basic security steps to protect its network.

Cody Poplin released the latest Lawfare Podcast, highlighting the role of transparency in intelligence programs.

In Sunday’s Foreign Policy Essay, Michele St. Amandt analyzed the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

Susan Hennessey featured Chief Prosecutor Mark Martins’ remarks at Guantanamo Bay.

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