Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Zachary Burdette
Tuesday, October 18, 2016, 4:27 PM

The Mosul offensive continues. The first stage of the offensive involves clearing the villages surrounding Mosul to set the stage for encirclement and finally an assault on the urban center. The offensive began yesterday with coordinated operations between Kurdish and Iraqi government forces to take villages to the east and south of the city, respectively, the Times reports. This leaves a corridor in the west that allows militants to flee to Syria, which could reduce civilian casualties by drawing fighters out of Mosul’s dense urban center. The next stage of the offensive will likely cordon the city and close the corridor in preparation for Iraq’s elite special forces to move into the heart of Mosul. The Wall Street Journal adds that the plans carefully balance the presence and roles of different ethnic and sectarian groups to moderate tensions.

Despite some episodes of fierce resistance from Islamic State militants, U.S. officials announced the initial operations were successful and the offensive is “ahead of schedule,” the Washington Post notes. Reporters from the Times who were embedded with Kurdish forces chronicled the start of the offensive. The Kurdish and Iraqi forces ultimately captured 17 villages, observes the Journal. Militants responded with significant mortar fire and suicide car bombers.

Operations in the second day are already revealing some cracks in the coalition, writes the Journal. Kurdish forces are accusing the Iraqi government of inaction and allowing Kurdish fighters to bear disproportionate risk in clearing cities. Iraqi forces counter that they need to consolidate control over recently captured territory. Turkish involvement is also sowing discord, prompting condemnation by Shiites who view Sunni-majority Turkey’s intervention along sectarian lines. Many analysts are particularly bullish about the military operation to secure Mosul but express concerns about subsequent stabilization and governance efforts.

What role is the U.S. military playing in the offensive? US officials have been careful to frame the operation as Iraqi-led and U.S.-supported—but beyond the ongoing efforts to organize, train, and equip Iraq’s national security forces, the United States has gradually increased the depth of its military integration with the counter-Islamic State coalition. The Times reports that 200 to 300 U.S. special forces are embedded with Iraqi and Kurdish fighters, serving in an advisory capacity and as forward air controllers. The Journal notes that the heavily-armed special forces are playing a “visible role” but remaining behind the front lines. In short, American forces continue to play vital “advise and assist” roles but do not have the authority to directly engage Islamic State militants on the front lines—barring actions in self-defense. The Washington Post has more.

Why does Mosul matter? The New York Times explains: as the second largest city in Iraq when the Islamic State captured it in 2014, Mosul provides an important source of resources and legitimacy to the proto-state.

Western officials are trying to temper expectations that the offensive will be quick and easy. When reporting the initial successes, U.S. officials cautioned that “it’s early and the enemy gets a vote here,” writes the Times. French officials likewise warned that the offensive “won’t be a Blitzkrieg,” observes Reuters. France is contributing air and artillery support.

Humanitarian issues remain a concern. Reuters reports that the Islamic State is “using civilians as human shields” against coalition forces moving on the surrounding villages. Militants are executing civilians trying to escape, and the UN expects the offensive to displace 200,000 people. The coalition is taking efforts to mitigate the potential humanitarian crisis. Iraq is securing routes for fleeing civilians and dropping leaflets to warn Mosul’s residents of the upcoming assault. The United Nations is building camps to host those displaced.

The success, failure, and potential fallout of the campaign will have significant implications for President Obama’s national security legacy. While President Obama has focused U.S. efforts on building the capacity of local actors, forming coalitions, and providing American logistical, intelligence, and air support, the repeated failures of local partners have raised questions about the viability of this approach. Successfully clearing, holding, and governing Mosul could help vindicate Obama’s strategic choices. The Times has more.

The siege of Aleppo continues in neighboring Syria. Russian and regime forces announced a “humanitarian pause” in the air strikes to allow rebels to flee and provide aid convoys access to the city, writes the Journal, though rebel groups announced they would not use the window to leave the besieged city. Russians officials explicitly flagged the move as an effort to soften tensions between Russia and the West following the collapse of the ceasefire. The Post notes that airstrikes continued against nearby rebel positions outside the city, suggesting that both Russia and the international community attach specifical significance to Aleppo. The Kremlin called upon other states to support its attempts to conclude the siege, Reuters tells us.

Turkey threatened U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels in Syria today, Reuters reports. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced plans to remove the Kurdish militia from the important city of Manbij, which is near the Turkish border, once the Islamic State loses its territory in the region. The rebels are affiliated with the Kurdish YPG, which the United States sponsors and Turkey argues is affiliated with the Turkish-based PKK terrorist group.

A 72-hour ceasefire is set to begin in Yemen just before midnight on Wednesday in the latest effort to end the country’s ongoing civil war, Financial Times writes. The Yemeni government in exile agreed to possibly extend the ceasefire if Houthi rebel forces commit to an extension as well. The Journal has more.

The Pentagon is reviewing whether the USS Mason was fired upon by Houthi missiles on Saturday following a reported missile attack that may have been a radar malfunction, Reuters tells us. If confirmed, Saturday’s attack would have been the third time in a week that the warship was targeted by Houthi missiles. The U.S. fired retaliatory strikes against Houthi territory last Thursday in response to the two earlier attacks.

The Guardian reports that Afghan officials have restarted secret peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar, the first known negotiations between the parties since a U.S. drone strike killed Mullah Omar’s successor in May 2016. According to a Taliban source, one senior U.S. official was present at the talks, though no representatives from Pakistan attended. Pakistan has previously played a major role in brokering discussions between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Relations between the United States and Russia are “pretty bad,” said a frank Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, in an interview with the Times. Churkin went on to say that “the tensions are probably the worst since 1973,” in the midst of the Cold War.

Ukrainian officials are hopeful that a frustrated EU has become more willing to to take a harsher approach to Russia, the Wall Street Journal writes. Germany will host a summit on Ukraine on Wednesday with French, Russian, and Ukrainian officials. But Reuters tells us that German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned the public not to expect “any wonders” from the meeting—though she added that “no option … including that of sanctions” was out of the question regarding the EU’s response to Russian conduct in Syria. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko echoed Merkel’s pessimism on the summit, telling reporters, “let’s not have very high expectations.”

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite warned that Russia’s decision to move nuclear-capable missiles to the western city of Kaliningrad last month represents an “open demonstration of power and aggression” against all of Europe. She emphasized the importance of military cooperation between NATO and non-NATO European countries in response.

Vietnam’s defense ministry indicated its support for U.S. “intervention” in the Asia-Pacific region “as long as it brings peace, stability and prosperity.” Despite the much-discussed “pivot to Asia,” Washington’s diplomatic role in the region has become uncertain amidst regional tensions and the imminent end of the Obama presidency. Reuters has more.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for a round of talks with Chinese leaders that will be closely watched for confirmation of a potential Philippine realignment toward China. Reuters tells us that China may grant the Philippines limited access to the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, a sign of warming relations between two countries. Yet a new survey indicates that Filipinos have far greater trust in the United States than they do in China, despite Duterte’s indications to the contrary.

The Times reports on the strange situation of Julian Assange, whose internet access appears to have briefly been cut by the Ecuadorian embassy sheltering him in London from questioning by Swedish police over sexual assault allegations. Wikileaks announced yesterday that Assange’s internet access had been curtailed by a “state actor,” later clarifying that the state in question was Ecuador. The embassy later clarified that Ecuador is still offering Assange asylum.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Bobby Chesney flagged a New York Times article on the new form of U.S. warfare in Somalia.

Quinta Jurecic discussed President Obama’s comments on the targeted killing program in a recent interview.

Herb Lin considered possible U.S. cyber responses to Russian hacking.

Quinta posted two statements by Military Commissions Chief Prosecutor Mark Martins.

Daniel Byman asked whether Hezbollah has become less dangerous to the United States.

Quinta reviewed the Week That Will Be.

Alex Loomis covered last Wednesday’s pretrial hearing in the 9/11 case.

Quinta posted the indictment of General Cartwright on the charge of making false statements in a leak investigation.

Benjamin Wittes argued that after the election, all democratic forces must form a coalition to protect American democracy and the rule of law.

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