Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Zachary Burdette, Quinta Jurecic
Wednesday, December 7, 2016, 3:26 PM

The Syrian government has recaptured the Old City of Aleppo, bringing roughly three quarters of eastern Aleppo back under the regime’s grip, the Washington Post reports. The rebels have retreated deeper into their vanishingly small territorial foothold, where they are now debating full withdrawal from Aleppo. Several sieges in the Syrian civil war have ended with negotiated surrender agreements, but the rebels in Aleppo have thus far vowed to fight to the death. That may change as the Syrian government and its allies approach victory. Rebels are now calling for a five-day ceasefire to evacuate civilians, but there are rumours that elements of the insurgency are interested in a more comprehensive agreement to end the fighting.

Russia slightly backtracked from its claim yesterday that it was preparing to meet with the United States to negotiate a deal for the surrender of the rebels in Aleppo, now saying that it wants to discuss such a deal but that there are no scheduled talks designated for that issue. Nonetheless, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will almost certainly broach the topic in his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Germany today. Reuters has more.

The regime is hailing its gains in eastern Aleppo as a “strategic victory” for the government, which has struggled for five and a half years to suppress the country’s insurgency in general and for four years to retake Aleppo in particular. A coalition of Russian, Iranian, and Shiite forces came together to supplement the regime’s depleted military and to oust the rebels from Aleppo. The Guardian has a useful series of maps that chart the offensive’s progress over time.

The Syrian government may succeed in clearing eastern Aleppo before President-elect Trump takes office, which would limit the next administration’s ability to intervene and change the situation in Syria. The Obama administration has declined to escalate U.S. involvement as the current President’s term comes to an end, with rebels expressing the belief that the United States has “no position” on the siege. Reuters has more.

As regime fighters swept through the Old City in Aleppo, Israel struck the Syrian government’s Mezzeh airbase outside of Damascus, the Financial Times tells us. Israel’s intervention in the Syrian civil war has been limited to targeted strikes against Hezbollah fighters working with the regime, as well as against weapons shipments that Israeli intelligence believes will end up in Hezbollah’s hands. Yesterday’s attack follows an airstrike last week against a Syrian arms convoy headed for the militant group. It is unclear if Israel coordinated its plans with Russia, which has advanced air defense systems deployed in Syria.

Iraqi forces continued to push deeper into eastern Mosul yesterday, capturing the district of al-Elam, the AP writes. Government troops also moved into al-Salam and al-Wahda in southeastern Mosul to consolidate the gains made by the Ninth Armored Division yesterday. Reuters has more.

The U.S. military official in charge of the Mosul offensive announced that the operation could take another two months, Reuters reports. He also warned that the Islamic State would likely “devolve into an insurgency over time” after they have lost control of their territory in Iraq and Syria.

The Iraqi parliament approved a new $85 billion budget for fiscal year 2017, the AP notes. The budget’s passage follows intense debate over a number of its provisions, particularly its level of support for the semi-autonomous Kurdish government and its Peshmerga forces, who have been heavily involved in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State. The Kremlin media outlet Sputnik reports that the budget will fund the Peshmerga for the first time.

Libyan forces cleared Sirte of Islamic State militants yesterday, but the Washington Post warns that the country will still struggle with instability. Rival militias are still fighting in a bid to control Libya, and the Islamic State will likely continue its operations clandestinely even though it has lost territorial control. A clash between rival Libyan factions near major oil ports today is only the most recent demonstration that violence will continue to plague Libya. Reuters has more.

The Yemeni government in exile rejected a U.N. plan to end the country’s ongoing civil war on the grounds that the effort would represent a “dangerous international precedent” and provide a “free incentive” to the Houthi rebels. The proposal would have required Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to pass over his power to a deputy in exchange for the Houthis giving up control of major Yemeni cities. Reuters has more.

Saudi Arabia sentenced 15 accused Iranian spies to death on Tuesday amidst increasing political tensions between the two regional rivals, the Times writes. Human rights organizations have denounced the trial as a “travesty of justice.”

Reuters reports that the EU’s top counterterrorism official is set to report to the bloc’s interior ministers on the importance of sharing information to track returning ISIS fighters. Gilles de Kerchove, the Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, has argued that EU member states must increase information-sharing among themselves and with the United States and Turkey to address the potential terrorist threat posed by ISIS sympathizers returning to Europe from Iraq and Syria.

A new Kremlin plan aims to counteract increased cyberattacks and “information-psychological” offensives against Russia, the Times tells us. The descriptions of cyberattacks and information warfare presented in the updated information security doctrine mirror American accusations of Russian hacking during the election, though it does not mention any specific instances of attacks.

During his interview with Time on his selection as 2016’s “Person of the Year,” President-elect Donald Trump stated, “I don’t believe [Russia] interfered” in the U.S. presidential election. He went on to say that he believes the intelligence community’s conclusion that the Russian government was behind the hacking and leaking of Democratic Party information to have been politically motivated.

Former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole was instrumental in organizing last week’s unconventional phone call between Donald Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen, the Times reports. Rather than a blunder, the phone call emerged from six months of work by Dole as a lobbyist for the Taiwanese government. Dole’s firm was paid $20,000 a month by Taiwan for his efforts.

The Times provides an interactive account of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent antidrug efforts, chronicling many of the extrajudicial police killings of supposed drug dealers and users that Duterte has encouraged since coming to office this past June. Despite Duterte’s recent hostility toward the United States, President-elect Donald Trump has invited the Philippine leader to visit the White House after he takes office.

The Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg reports from Guantanamo on yesterday’s pretrial hearing in the 9/11 case, which devolved into confusion as the government requested that the military judge disallow discussion of an unclassified document in open court on the grounds that it might reveal classified information.

Meanwhile in Washington, co-architect of the CIA torture program James Mitchell defended his endorsement of coercive interrogation and advocated a renewed “civil debate” over the use of such practices, dismissing Secretary of Defense appointee General James Mattis’s previous criticism of torture as ineffective. Buzzfeed has the story.

President Obama reviewed his administration’s counterterrorism legacy yesterday in what was billed as his final planned address on national security, the Times reports. In a series of implicit rebukes to President-elect Donald Trump, the President delivered a defense not only of his national security policy but also of the importance of the rule of law in guiding and constraining the use of force.

Though the Trump transition team has yet to choose a Secretary of State, two more appointments have been announced today: retired Marine General John Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security and Governor Terry Branstad of Iowa as Ambassador to China. General Kelly’s appointment brings the number of retired military officials holding high-level positions in the Trump administration to three, along with General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense and General Michael Flynn as National-Security Advisor. Despite his primarily domestic experience, Governor Branstad has a history of close ties to China and to President Xi Jinping.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

J. Dana Stuster updated the Middle East Ticker with analysis on Syria, Iran, and the Islamic State.

Matthew Wein assessed the status of the National Terrorism Advisory System.

Joseph Landau reviewed Peter Spiro’s At Home in Two Countries.

Herb Lin flagged key points from the recently released Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity report.

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