The Early Edition: October 17, 2017

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

SYRIA

The Syrian city of Raqqa has been cleared of Islamic State fighters and there are no longer clashes going on in what was the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, according S.D.F. commander Brig. Gen. Talal Sillo. Clearing operations are now underway to uncover sleeper cells and remove landmines, and an official declaration of Raqqa’s liberation is expected soon. The BBC reports.

Pro-Syrian government forces have advanced on Islamic State-held districts in the eastern Deir al-Zour city today, with the support of a Russian air campaign and Iranian-backed militias. Reuters reports.

Israel “will not allow” Iranian military presence in Syria, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said today during a meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu. The AP reports.

The ascendance of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime threatens the coexistence of the Syrian administration and Kurdish administration in the northern city of Qamishli, a city that the Kurds have established as the based for the semiautonomous region they have established across much of northern Syria. Raja Abdulrahim reports at the Wall Street Journal, explaining the anticipated offensive of the Syrian regime on the Kurds.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out two airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on October 15. Separately, partner forces conducted eight strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

IRAQ

Iraqi federal forces seized the oil-rich Kirkuk province from the Iraqi Kurds yesterday after weeks of escalating tension between the central government and the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (K.R.G.) following the controversial Iraqi Kurdistan referendum held last month where Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence. The Iraqi army were able to take the province in a day in the face of little resistance, marking a significant victory for Baghdad, revealing deep divisions within the Kurdish command and undermining hopes of an independent Kurdistan. David Zucchino reports at the New York Times.

The U.S. has sought to stay neutral in the fight for the disputed Kirkuk province which was controversially included in last month’s plebiscite. Ben Kesling, Nancy A. Youssef and Paul Sonne report at the Wall Street Journal.

 “We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides,” President Trump told reporters yesterday, Reuters reports.

“The Coalition strongly urges all sides to avoid escalatory actions,” a statement by the U.S.-led coalition said yesterday, stating that the coalition forces and advisors “are not supporting Government of Iraq or Kurdistan Regional Government activities near Kirkuk.”

“We support the peaceful exercise of joint administration by the central and regional governments,” the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement yesterday, adding that the U.S. was working with all parties to “encourage dialogue.” The BBC reports.

The Iraqi Army takeover of Kirkuk was a result of “coordinated movements, not attacks” and the reported exchange of fire was “an isolated incident,” the Pentagon spokesperson Col. Robert Manning said yesterday, demonstrating the Pentagon’s attempts to play down the clashes between its allies. Martin Chulov, Julian Borger and Saeed Kamali Dehghan report at the Guardian.

The Baghdad government will pay a “heavy price” for its military operation in Kirkuk, the Kurdish Peshmerga General Command (P.G.C.) said yesterday, stating that the campaign was “a declaration of war against the nation of Kurdistan.” Al Jazeera reports.

The K.R.G. President Masoud Barzani is expected to make a statement today urging Kurds to avoid civil war, according to the Iraqi Kurdistan-based Rudaw TV. Reuters reports.

“Make no mistake, there will be severe consequences” if the Iraqi forces continue to use U.S. equipment against the Kurds, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain (R-Ariz.) warned yesterday. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

A local Iraqi government-affiliated force of Yazidis today seized control of the Kurdish-held town of Sinjar near the border with Syria, Reuters reports.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces have withdrawn from an area on the border with Iran as the Iraqi forces prepare to take over Kurdish positions. Reuters reports.

A Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) bomb killed two Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq yesterday, the Turkish armed forces said today, adding that the Turkish air forces carried out air strikes in the same region and killed eight P.K.K. fighters. Reuters reports.

The importance of the battle for Kirkuk is explained by Philip Issa at the AP.

The history of the U.S. relationship with the Iraqi Kurds is set out by Rick Noack at the Washington Post.

The clashes between the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces come as their joint aim of defeating the Islamic State group is being realized, prompting fears that the removal of the common enemy would lead to a wider conflict between the two U.S.-backed forces, especially as the loss of Kirkuk constitutes a significant blow to the Kurdish goal of independence. Ali A. Nabhan and Isabel Coles explain at the Wall Street Journal.

The Kurdish “gamble” to strive for independence at this point may not pay off as it has provided the federal government with the opportunity to assert its authority and threaten Kurdish autonomy. Yaroslav Trofimov writes at the Wall Street Journal.

The clashes between the Iraqi and Kurdish forces tests the U.S.’s limited influence to avoid a wider conflict that has the potential to open Iraq to risks from insurgents and Iranian-backed militia. Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali explain at Reuters.

The defeat of the U.S.-backed Iraqi Kurds would send a message to its allies about the extent of U.S. support and their loss would strengthen Iran and the Iraq-Iran Shi’ite alliance. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

The conflict between the Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi Army may be the first of the complicated conflicts that many have predicted would break out following the defeat of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, and this conflict provides an opportunity for Iran to extend its power in Iraq. Adam Taylor provides an analysis at the Washington Post and warns that the Trump administration must tread carefully.

NORTH KOREA

“A nuclear war may break out any moment,” North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the U.N. Kim In Ryong told a U.N. General Assembly session yesterday, accusing the U.S. of posing an “extreme and direct nuclear threat” to Pyongyang as evidenced by its yearly large-scale military exercises using “nuclear assets.” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

“Eventually, we don’t rule out the possibility of course of direct talks,” the Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan said today, shortly after Ryong’s comments about the possibility of nuclear war, Sullivan emphasizing that “our focus is on diplomacy” to address the threat posed by North Korea. Tim Kelly and Michelle Nichols report at Reuters.

North Korea would not be interested in diplomacy with the U.S. until it has a “reliable defensive and offensive capability to counter” any U.S. aggression, a North Korean official told CNN yesterday, demonstrating the difficulty of pursuing diplomatic efforts, especially in light of the mixed messages provided by the Trump administration. Will Ripley, Zachary Cohen and Richard Roth report at CNN.

South Korea are “confused” and a “little bit shaken” by Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea, the ranking Democrat of the Senate Armed Services Committee Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said yesterday, talking to reporters after a trip to South Korea last week. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The international community’s efforts to isolate North Korea have started belatedly and reveal the success of the Trump administration to pressure nations to cut off ties with the Pyongyang regime. Gerald F. Seib explains at the Wall Street Journal, using the example of Namibia’s recent actions to demonstrate the successes of the U.S. campaign.

The PHILIPPINES

The southern Philippine city of Marawi has been “liberated from the terrorist influence,” the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared today, marking a significant victory against the Islamic State group-affiliated militants who occupied the city five months ago, however some fighting remains as around 20 to 30 militants remain. Jim Gomez reports at the AP.

The rest of the fighting will only take a “matter of days,” a Philippine military spokesperson said today, Euan McKirdy and Joshua Berlinger report at CNN.

SOMALIA

More than 300 people were killed by Saturday’s twin explosion in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, raising questions about the effectiveness of the international and U.S. efforts against the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab militants and the threat they pose to the internationally recognized government in Mogadishu. Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Christina Goldbaum report at the Wall Street Journal.

The attack demonstrates al-Shabaab’s resilience and its ability to execute attacks despite its diminished resources and recruitment losses since 2010. Alex Horton and Carol Morello explain at the Washington Post.

IRAN

The E.U.’s Foreign Affairs Chief Federica Mogherini announced a trip to Washington to discuss the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and to address the disagreements between European leaders and the Trump administration over the agreement and Iran’s compliance with its terms. Jacopo Barigazzi reports at POLITICO.

The Trump administration should exercise “tremendous diplomacy with our European allies” if it wants its Iran strategy to succeed, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said yesterday, the senator is leading Congressional efforts to impose conditions on the U.S. in relation to its role in the 2015 nuclear agreement. Patricia Zengerle reports at Reuters.

Senior Russian and Iranian diplomats are set to meet this week to discuss the nuclear deal, according to the Russian Interfax news agency, Reuters reports.

Will Congress learn the lessons of the run-up to the Iraq war when approaching Iran? Philip Gordon provides an analysis at POLITICO Magazine.

YEMEN

A U.S. drone launched a series of missiles at Yemeni Islamic State militants yesterday, killing dozens of militants according to the Pentagon. Erin Calabrese and Chris Essner report at NBC News.

The U.S. drone targeted two Islamic State training camps used to train militants to conduct terror attacks, a statement by the U.S.-led coalition said yesterday.

Residents disputed the Pentagon’s account, stating that the U.S. drone targeted an al-Qaeda affiliate in the area rather than Islamic State militants. Reuters reports.

The TRAVEL BAN

A Maryland District Court judge yesterday questioned Trump administration attorneys on a classified government report used to justify the newest travel ban, Yeganeh Torbati reports at Reuters.

A new U.S. embassy in Chad was opened yesterday amid increased tensions following Trump’s decision to include Chad in his latest travel ban. Melanie Zanona reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A document setting out Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya’s talking points for her meeting with Donald Trump Jr. in June 2016, which is at the center of the investigations into alleged connections between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, is revealed by Elias Groll at Foreign Policy.

Israel has been tentatively moving ahead with plans for new settlements in the occupied West Bank and the Israeli Prime Minister has once again embarked on a balancing act of keeping his pro-settlement coalition partners onside and countering opposition from the international community. Isabel Kershner and David M. Halbfinger report at the New York Times.

Missiles fired by a suspected U.S. drone killed 20 militants in northwest Pakistan, two intelligence officials said yesterday, the drone targeted a compound near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Ishtiaq Mahsud reports at the AP.

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for an attack on a provincial Afghan police headquarters today, killing at least 33 people and wounding 160. Mirwais Harooni reports at Reuters.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl pleaded guilty to desertion yesterday, the sergeant having walked away from his base in eastern Afghanistan in 2009 and was captured by the Taliban hours after his disappearance. Richard A. Oppel Jr. reports at the New York Times.

The situation in Africa’s Sahel region is in a “continuous downward spiral” and the international community must step up its efforts to avoid further radicalization and instability, the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned yesterday. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Former F.B.I. Director James Comey began drafting a statement about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server in May 2016, months before he announced in July 2016 that the F.B.I. would not recommend charges against the former presidential candidate. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill. 

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About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK