Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Zachary Burdette
Tuesday, December 6, 2016, 3:45 PM

Iraqi forces pushed deeper into southeastern Mosul today in an effort to gain ground after weeks of slow fighting, the AP reports. The Ninth Armored Division launched a new assault to take the hospital in Mosul’s Salam neighborhood, which Islamic State fighters had been using as a base of operations. The unit aims to reach Mosul’s Fourth Bridge, one of five bridges crossing the Tigris and connecting western and eastern Mosul, in an attempt to cut off the remaining Islamic State militants in the eastern districts from receiving reinforcements from the west. The Ninth Armored is now within a mile of the Tigris. Reuters has more.

The Islamic State has decided to shift more fighters from its stronghold in western Mosul to bolster its defenses in the east, Reuters tells us. U.S. military officials report that the quality and complexity of the Islamic State’s resistance in eastern Mosul is beginning to falter after weeks of tough fighting from militant suicide bombers, snipers, IEDs, and guerilla raids, but it appears the militants are doubling down on their attempt to hold the city’s eastern districts. While the coalition expected to face the bulk of Islamic State fighters in Mosul’s western districts, which are more densely populated and more Sunni-dominant, local commanders report that the extremists are now moving their defenses up to meet the coalition’s advance in east Mosul.

Meanwhile, the United State is struggling to maintain the integrity of the multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic, and multi-national coalition fighting the Islamic State, the Wall Street Journal writes. The latest threat to the coalition arrives in the form of tension over the Iraqi Parliament’s debate on whether the government should fund Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Kurdish politicians support financing the fighters, but Iraqi lawmakers argue that the semi-autonomous Kurdish government should provide the funding because they fall outside of the main Iraqi chain of command. Both Iraqis and Kurds are concerned about how the incoming Trump administration, which has given little indication of its policy toward Iraq, will handle the country’s delicate political situation.

Syrian government forces took the Shaar neighborhood in central Aleppo from the rebels today, the AP notes. Humanitarian monitors have confirmed the regime’s claims of having captured the Qatarji and Karm al-Dada districts in the city’s east as part of a two-front offensive, with regime fighters also moving on rebel positions in the Saif al-Dawleh and al-Zabadiyeh districts to the south. The gains follow a series of rebel losses in the past two weeks that have put as much as two-thirds of rebel territory in Aleppo back in government hands, the BBC adds.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that the United States and Russia plan to negotiate an agreement that would allow Syrian rebels to evacuate their positions in Aleppo, the Journal reports. U.S. officials said that “technical talks” might occur, but added that they “don’t have anything to confirm at this point.” The United States has previously expressed support for a surrender agreement limited to fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda, which would not apply to the “moderate” rebels. Meanwhile, the Syrian government insists that there can only be a ceasefire if all rebels leave the city, Reuters notes. The possibility of negotiating a deal comes a day after China and Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire.

Libyan fighters have cleared the Islamic State from the Libyan city of Sirte, Reuters tells us. They defeated a final holdout of militants in the Ghiza Bahriya district, although Libyan forces report that they “still need to secure the area around Sirte” from extremists who fled Sirte after the fighting began in May. The United States has supported the offensive with 495 airstrikes since 1 August.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has threatened to “firmly respond” if the United States extends its existing sanctions regime against Iran. President Rouhani erroneously claimed that the extension violates the country’s nuclear deal with the United States and five other countries, though the deal does not stipulate the categorical elimination of all sanctions on Iran and the specific sanctions in question are not only unrelated to the state’s nuclear program but also pre-date such disputes. Nevertheless, Iranian lawmakers issued a statement this weekend warning that Iran may begin enriching uranium beyond the deal’s limits if the United States maintains the sanctions. At the same time, President Rouhani defended the importance of preserving the nuclear agreement in the face of President-elect Donald Trump’s threats to abrogate it. Reuters has more.

Britain’s Supreme Court is hearing a case that will decide if the government can leave the European Union without a parliamentary vote authorizing the procedure, the New York Times writes. Ironically, the Supreme Court could end up seeking guidance on a key question—the legal reversibility of Article 50—from the European Court of Justice, the ultimate authority in E.U. law. Even if Prime Minister Theresa May loses her case, it is unlikely that the British Parliament will stop Brexit, although it may delay the process.

An alleged commander in the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army is facing trial before the ICC, the AP notes. Dominic Ongwen has pleaded ‘not guilty’ to charges that include murder, rape, and the forced recruitment of child soldiers. The trial comes amid intense criticism that the ICC has disproportionately focused on African countries in its investigations, which Burundi, Gambia, and South Africa used as an excuse to announce their withdrawal from the court’s jurisdiction. Russia followed suit, fearing that the institution could turn its attention to the Kremlin for pervasive humanitarian abuses in Syria.

South Korea has accused North Korea of stealing classified data from the South’s military cyber command, the BBC tells us. This is the first public accusation that the North has hacked the South Korean military, although Pyongyang has repeatedly attacked commercial and media targets. The nature and importance of the stolen data remains classified.

Following President-elect Trump’s controversial phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen last week, the United States, Taiwan, and China are all rushing to clarify the situation. President Ing-wen claimed that the phone call did not represent a change in U.S. policy, the Post writes. The Obama administration is reassuring China that the United States is still committed to its “One China” policy, Reuters adds, while China has criticized the President-elect’s phone call and asked the United States not to allow President Ing-wen to stop in New York on her way to a meeting in Guatemala. A State Department official announced the United States would not stop her from visiting New York, although a Trump official clarified that a meeting between President Ing-wen and President-elect Trump during the stop is "very unlikely.”

The Pentagon may have wasted $125 billion and then hid the internal study detailing its failure. When DOD leadership received the report outlining a plan to eliminate much of the Pentagon’s massive back-office bureaucracy, they feared that Congress would respond with further budget cuts rather than reallocating the money to military modernization programs and decided to hide the findings and data. The Post has more.

President Obama will publicly defend his administration’s record on counterterrorism in a major speech today, the Washington Post reports. Obama’s arguments for a light military footprint, building local capacity, and shunning major commitments will likely go unheeded in the next administration. Nevertheless, President Obama will attempt to shift the attention from the widespread violence engulfing the Middle East toward those crises that have been avoided: a major terrorist attack on the United States and deep American entanglement in another large-scale war.

Debate continues over whether Congress should issue a waiver to allow General James Mattis to serve as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Defense even though he has not been out of uniform for seven years as per the statutory requirement, the Hill writes. Some are concerned that his appointment could undermine the norm of strong civilian control of the military, while others counter that his military experience makes him well-suited to lead American wartime efforts and help keep a potentially erratic administration on course.

Finally, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected an appeal by a Somali-American man who claimed he had been entrapped and illegally surveilled without a warrant. The court upheld Mohamed Mohamud’s 2013 conviction on domestic terrorism charges and affirmed that the government appropriately used evidence collected under Section 702 without a FISA warrant, declining to hold 702 surveillance unconstitutional. The Times has more.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Dan Byman outlined air power’s limits in the campaign against the Islamic State.

Benjamin Wittes uploaded the White House’s “Report on the Legal and Policy Frameworks Guiding the United States' Use of Military Force and Related National Security Operations” and provided some initial analysis.

Chris Mirasola and Helen Klein Murillo summarized the report.

J. Dana Stuster asked if the Arab world missed its chance to democratize.

Nicholas Weaver discussed the future of law enforcement hacking Tor hidden services.

Quinta Jurecic flagged CNAS event entitled “Surveillance Policy: A Pragmatic Agenda for 2017 and Beyond.”

Quinta also posted a statement from Military Commissions Chief Prosecutor Mark Martins on this week’s pre-trial hearings in the 9/11 case.

Jack Goldsmith recommended another event: the Yale Cyber Leadership Forum this spring.

Shane Reeves assessed LOAC’s viability in the age of hybrid warfare.

Paul Rosenzweig commented on how the 2017 NDAA may limit the influence of JAGs over military operations.

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