October 14th, 2016

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Iran

On Thursday, Iran announced it had deployed two warships to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, where a US Navy destroyer recently launched retaliatory strikes against Iranian-backed Houthi rebel sites in Yemen.  Although the semi-official Iranian Tasnim News Agency said that the ships were deployed to “protect the country’s trade vessels against piracy in the unsafe zone,” it also reported that the move “coincides with the US decision to get directly involved in a Saudi-led war against Yemen.”

– The Obama Administration is breaking with a group of Senate Democrats seeking to renew expiring sanctions aimed at Iran’s energy sector.  When the Obama Administration and other powers negotiated a deal with Iran to halt its nuclear program last year, the White House agreed to waive all energy-sector sanctions, a decision not received well by some of President Obama’s closest allies in Congress.  Some Senate Democrats are urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to schedule votes on reauthorizing the law during the lame-duck session.

– Four members of the House of Representatives have called on the Obama Administration to oppose Iran’s efforts to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). Reps. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), and Grace Meng (D-NY) wrote to US Trade Representative Michael Froman last Friday arguing that Iran’s acceptance into the WTO would make it more difficult to impose future sanctions, particularly over human rights violations.  “As Iran remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and continues to be a destabilizing force in the Middle East, maintaining our robust sanctions regime is critical,” the legislators wrote.

Iraq

Colonel John Dorrian, a spokesman for the US-led coalition against ISIS, announced Friday that “We have been intensifying our efforts in and around Mosul.”  The assault on Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, is bringing American forces into their most significant role in Iraq in years.  The coalition said its planes had conducted more than 50 airstrikes against ISIS in the Mosul area over the past two weeks.  Analysts predict the operation will be the most complex yet for Iraq’s military and coalition forces.

– The Pentagon has expressed concern over the Islamic State’s heavy preparation for the Mosul offensive.  On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said,  “We’ve seen a number of things, everything from berms and trenches being prepared, [bombs] being placed in buildings and cars and along roads along the way, charges being placed on bridges, giant pits full of tire and oil being readied to be lit quickly and create these giant obscuration fires, very smoky dark clouds that make it hard to do air operations.”

Saudi Arabia

Weeks after Congress voted overwhelmingly to override President Obama’s veto on the JASTA bill, the fight has moved to a courtroom in lower Manhattan, where for 14 years lawyers have been grappling with a sprawling lawsuit that covers the vast majority of 9/11 victims.  The victims’ cases are built on two theories about alleged Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks, both of which Riyadh denies.  The Kingdom’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs is at the center of both theories.  On Sunday, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that he doesn’t know if Congress will pass legislation to address concerns over the new law.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy is calling for the United States to end military support for the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in Yemen after a coalition airstrike hit a funeral last weekend, killing more than 140 people.  In a separate statement on Saturday, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said, “US security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check.  In light of this and other recent incidents, we have initiated an immediate review of our already significantly reduced support to the Saudi-led Coalition and are prepared to adjust our support so as to better align with US principles, values and interests, including achieving an immediate and durable end to Yemen’s tragic conflict.”

Syria

On Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry will launch a renewed effort to pursue a cease fire for the besieged city of Aleppo by meeting with representatives from the regional powers most directly involved in the Syrian conflict.  The negotiating strategy this time is to bring together diplomats from Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Russia and the United States in Lausanne, Switzerland, in the hope that nations that have the greatest stake in the crisis may agree on a truce for Aleppo, which could eventually lead to broader talks on Syria.  State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday that the main focus “is getting a cessation of hostilities in place, particularly in and around Aleppo, and to get humanitarian aid delivered, which is not happening.”

– President Obama and his top foreign policy advisers are expected to meet Friday to consider military and other options in Syria as Syrian and Russian aircrafts continue to pound Aleppo.  Some top officials argue the US must act more aggressively in Syria or risk losing what influence it still has over moderate rebels and Arab, Kurdish, and Turkish allies in the fight against ISIS, the officials told Reuters.  One set of options includes direct US military action, such as air strikes on Syrian military bases, munitions depots, or radar and anti-aircraft bases, said one official who spoke anonymously in order to discuss internal details.  The official said this course of action raises the possibility of direct confrontation with Russia, which Obama has deliberately avoided.

– According to US military officials, militant groups like Hezbollah and the Islamic State have learned how to weaponize surveillance drones and use them against each other, adding a fresh layer to Syria’s civil war.  Military officials said that the Pentagon has allocated significant resources to stopping drones, but that few Iraqi and Kurdish units have been provided with the sophisticated devices that the American troops have to disarm them.  A drone rigged with explosives that ISIS used to kill Kurdish peshmerga forces was made of plastic foam and attached to a timer, a US defense official said Wednesday.  A coalition military official is downplaying the effect of these explosive drones. “These aren’t having any kind of strategic impact at all,” Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Air Force Col. John Dorrian said to reporters on Wednesday.

Turkey

On Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim slammed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for saying she would consider arming Syrian Kurds if elected.  During Sunday’s debate with Donald Trump, Clinton said that she would continue the Obama Administration’s policy of funneling weapons to Iraq’s Kurdish armed forces and also hinted that she would consider extending that support to Syrian Kurdish fighters. Trump had nothing to say regarding the Kurds during the debate, but in July he called himself “a big fan of the Kurds.”  Clinton’s comment has further strained relations between the two NATO allies.

Yemen

US-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles destroyed three coastal radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory on Yemen’s Red Sea Coast early Thursday, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook announced.  The move was a retaliatory action following two incidents this week in which missiles were fired at US Navy ships. The strikes mark the first shots fired by the US in anger against the Houthis in Yemen’s long-running civil war. The US previously only provided logistical support and refueling to the Saudi-led coalition battling Yemen’s Shiite rebels. The development suggests the US may be drawing closer to a confrontation with Iran over involvement in Yemen’s civil war.

 

– The retaliatory act came after a US destroyer off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea was targeted by two missiles fired from territory controlled by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.  Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said at approximately 7 PM on Sunday, the USS Mason detected two inbound missiles over a 60-minute period, with both missiles hitting the water.

– Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a retired Air Force colonel, urged the Obama Administration to “retaliate swiftly and decisively” after Sunday’s incident.  If it went unanswered, it would invite further aggression, he said.

– Separately, in a Wednesday letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) wrote, “The US needs to cease immediately the aiding and abetting of the coalition pending the administration’s review of the war in Yemen.”