The Early Edition: October 23, 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 defeat of Islamic State fighters in their de facto capital of Raqqa was a “critical breakthrough” in the worldwide campaign to defeat the militants and their “wicked ideology,” President Trump said Saturday, adding that the U.S. efforts would start to enter a new phase entailing support for “local security forces,” and measures to “de-escalate violence across Syria, and advance the conditions for lasting peace.” Reuters reports.  

The U.S.-led coalition bombed Raqqa “off the face of the earth” in their fight against the Islamic State militants, spokesperson for the Russian Defense Ministry Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said yesterday, comparing the scale of the destruction to that of Dresden in 1945 and accusing the West of hurrying to send financial aid to the city to cover up evidence of its crimes. The BBC reports.

The U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) seized Syria’s largest oil field from Islamic State militants yesterday, taking al-Omar – a key source of revenue for the terrorist group – in the Deir al-Zour province, where the S.D.F. and the pro-Syrian government forces are both competing to gain as much territory as possible. Benoit Faucon and Raja Abdulrahim report at the Wall Street Journal.

The S.D.F. are expected to step up efforts to drive out the Islamic State militants from their remaining positions in Deir al-Zour following their successful campaign in Raqqa, the spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition Col. Ryan Dillon said yesterday, adding that the attack on al-Omar was a surprise assault intended to ensure the militants could not sabotage the oil field’s infrastructure. Liz Sly and Zakaria Zakaria report at the Washington Post.

The S.D.F.’s capture of the al-Omar oil field brings them closer to pro-government forces across a front line in Deir al-Zour, increasing the potential for a clash between U.S.-backed forces and the Russia- and Iran-backed Syrian army. Anne Barnard reports at the New York Times.

The Islamic State group’s oil production has been reduced to less than $4m per month from a peak of approximately $50m per month since the U.S.-led coalition began operations against the militants in 2014, according to a statement by the coalition yesterday. The AP reports.

The reconstruction of Syria offers the chance for allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to sign lucrative contracts, particularly Russia and Iran. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian explains at Foreign Policy.

Iran and its allies have the opportunity to assert control following the defeat of the Islamic State in Raqqa last week and the Trump administration should devise a strategy that ensures the U.S. efforts in Syria are consolidated and not exploited by adversaries.  The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

IRAQ

The Iraqi government in Baghdad and the leadership of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (K.R.G.) have been engaged in a blame game, pointing to each other for firing the first shots last week in the oil-rich Kirkuk province and placing the U.S. in a difficult position between its two allies. David Zucchino explains at the New York Times.

Last month’s Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum has “backfired spectacularly,” exposing divisions in the Kurdish region and prompting a strong response from the Baghdad government. Loveday Morris explains at the Washington Post.

IRAN

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Iranian-backed militia in Iraq’s Popular Mobilzation Forces to “go home” during a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Tillerson’s comments provoked an angry reaction from Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Paul Sonne and Margherita Stancati report at the Wall Street Journal.

“No party has the right to interfere in Iraqi matters,” a statement by the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office said today, pushing back at Tillerson’s comments about Iranian-backed militia groups and saying that the “Popular Mobilization are Iraqi Patriots.” Reuters reports.

Tillerson’s meeting with King Salman and Abadi was part of the Trump administration’s efforts to push back against Iranian influence in the region and to encourage greater partnership between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Matthew Lee reports at the AP.

European firms conduct business with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) “at great risk,” Rex Tillerson warned yesterday, sending a strong signal to European allies and others that the Trump administration seeks to reopen negotiations on the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement to include stricter provisions and that re-imposing sanctions against Iran would be a possibility. Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

The Palestinian militant Hamas group would maintain close ties to Iran, the deputy head of Hamas Saleh Aroruri was quoted as saying yesterday by the semi-official Mehr news agency. Reuters reports.

NORTH KOREA

“I will pursue decisive and strong diplomacy to tackle North Korea’s missile, nuclear and abduction issues,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed today, making the comments after decisively winning re-election yesterday, his victory signaling that Abe would likely continue to work closely with the U.S. and maintain a hard line on Pyongyang. Mari Yamaguchi reports at the AP.

Abe and Trump agreed to work together to raise pressure on North Korea in a phone call, a deputy chief cabinet secretary said today. Reuters reports.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will discuss the North Korea threat with Asian allies during a week-long trip to region starting today. Phil Stewart reports at Reuters.

The State Department should immediately relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and correct historical mistakes by acknowledging that the U.S. cannot continue its dealings with Pyongyang based on flawed assumptions. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) writes at the New York Times.

Former President Jimmy Carter seeks to work with Trump over North Korea, Carter said in an interview with Maureen Dowd at the New York Times, also discussing other issues such as Trump’s policies in the Arab world and Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

AFGHANISTAN

The C.I.A. is set to expand its role in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban, reflecting a more assertive role since the appointment of Director Mike Pompeo, and the efforts will be led by small counterterrorism pursuit teams. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Eric Schmitt and Adam Goldman report at the New York Times.

Last week’s series of attacks in Afghanistan killed nearly 200 people, prompting questions about security and the ability of President Ashraf Ghani’s administration to prevent the Taliban from carrying out suicide attacks. Antonio Olivo and Sayed Salahuddin report at the Washington Post.

The PHILIPPINES

The fight against Islamic State-linked militants in the southern Philippine city of Marawi has “successfully concluded,” a spokesperson for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said in a statement yesterday, separately the Philippines Defense Secretary added that there were no more militants in the city that was sieged five months ago. Jake Maxwell Watts reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis praised the Philippine army for its victory in Marawi, making the comments to reporters yesterday on the flight for his trip to Southeast Asia. Robert Burns reports at the AP.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

Bipartisan politics stands in the way of an effective investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the three congressional committees looking at the issue have faced significant obstacles, with Republicans keen for the probes to conclude and Democrats keen to explore further questions. Nicholas Fandos explains at the New York Times.

The Trump campaign’s digital director Brad Parscale is scheduled to appear before the House Intelligence Committee tomorrow, Julie Bykowicz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

“We cannot force talks upon people who are not ready to talk,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday – referring to Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Egypt and Bahrain’s isolation of Qatar on June 5 due to Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism and close ties to Iran – adding that he was not hopeful that Saudi Arabia would engage in dialogue to resolve the Gulf crisis. Al Jazeera reports.

The lack of a strategy for U.S. involvement in Middle East and Africa has caused concern in Congress and about the U.S.’s long-term counterterrorism goals, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Diplomats hope that U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley’s visit to Ethiopia today would mark greater engagement with Africa. Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.

Senators were surprised to learn that the U.S. has 1,000 troops in Niger, prompting questions about Congress’s role and whether it should have a vote on reauthorizing U.S. military involvement around the world as part of the war against terror. Betsy Woodruff explains at The Daily Beast.

The U.S. military has a presence in almost every country in the world and it is time to consider the deployments and whether there is any strategy that underpins this broad reach. The New York Times editorial board writes.

The top two contenders to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are Nikki Haley and C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo, Haley would likely by a more traditional and hawkish, whereas Pompeo would be more likely to align himself closer to the White House and the president. Josh Rogin provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

At least 16 Egyptian police officers were killed in an attack by militants on Friday, an initial claim of responsibility by the Islamist Hasm group was discounted by militancy experts and the Islamic State group may have been behind the attack. Declan Walsh and Nour Youssef report at the New York Times.

U.N.-hosted talks on the situation in Libya ended on Saturday with no discernible progress, the second round of talks, which lasted one month, attempted to reconcile the rival Libyan factions. Ulf Lasseing reports at Reuters.

Russian operatives sought access to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of her inner circle to gain influence, according to interviews and unsealed F.B.I. records. John Solomon and Alison Spann reveal the Russian campaign at the Hill.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has been pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy but has been facing resistance, particularly from its neighbors. Jane Perlez explains Xi’s approach at the New York Times. 

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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