The Soufan Group Morning Brief

Editor’s Note: There will be no Morning Brief on Monday, May 30th in recognition of the Memorial Day holiday. We will be back Tuesday, May 31st.

FRIDAY MAY 27, 2016

U.S. Special Operations Forces are supporting Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters in a new offensive against ISIS north Raqqa, the extremist group’s de facto capital. Defense officials confirmed that photos taken by an Agence-France Presse photographer in the village of Fatisah on the outskirts of Raqqa were of American commandos assisting fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces. Pentagon officials claimed said that U.S. forces were conducting strictly “advise-and-assist operations” and were not involved in any combat role on the ground. New York Times, Washington Post

The Hill: Pentagon denies U.S. special operations forces on front lines in Syria

A provision included in the Senate’s annual intelligence authorization bill could give the FBI the ability to demand citizens’ online data, including email records and browsing history, without a warrant. Although the text of the bill is not yet public, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oreg.) wrote in a statement that the provision “would allow any FBI field office to demand email records without a court order, a major expansion of federal surveillance powers.” The Intercept, Guardian, Reuters

Reuters: Push to expand FBI surveillance authority threatens U.S. email privacy bill

Gitmo: Saudi-born Palestinian Abu Zubaydah, also known as Zayn al Abdeen Mohammed al Hussein, may make his first appearance in front of the war court at Guantanamo Bay next week. Zubaydah, who has not been seen in public since his capture by the CIA in 2002, has been called as a witness in the 9/11 suspects’ case to describe conditions inside the Camp 7 prison at Guantanamo. A Senate report found that Zubaydah was the first prisoner to be put through the CIA’s harsh interrogation program. Miami Herald, Associated Press

Defense bill: On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously passed its version of the 2017 defense bill. The appropriations bill would set defense spending at $574.5 billion for 2017 with $515.9 billion for base spending and $58.6 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations. The Hill

Anti-terror funding: Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) announced that Congress is set to pass a Homeland Security budget that restores federal anti-terror funding to $600 million for 2017, avoiding a White House-proposed cut to $330 million. The funding for the Urban Area Security Initiative includes $180 million for the city of New York. ABC, Empire State News

Nuclear arsenal: The Obama administration has slowed the reduction of the U.S. nuclear arsenal last year, dismantling the smallest number of warheads since taking office. The Pentagon released new figures that show the Obama administration has reduced U.S. nuclear stockpiles less than any other Post-Cold War presidency. New York Times

UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Thursday that there will be no new rounds of Syria peace talks for up to three weeks. De Mistura said he wanted to see more progress on the cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access on the ground before talks resume. Reuters

Pakistan: Pakistan officially confirmed the death of former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour on Thursday. The announcement comes five days after a U.S. drone strike killed Mansour in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. New York Times

Yemen: On Thursday, the warring parties in Yemen agreed to a prisoner exchange before the holy month of Ramadan begins in early June. Houthi Rebels and the exiled Yemeni government agreed to swap as many as 4,000 detainees, according to a government source. Reuters

Reuters: Al Qaeda still reaping oil profits in Yemen despite battlefield reverses

Iran: The Obama administration officials told Congress that they would oppose new sanctions on Iran if they interfere with last year’s nuclear agreement. Adam Szubin, the lead official at the Treasury Department overseeing sanctions, said that “if legislation were to undermine the deal, by taking off the table commitments that we had put on the table, that would be a problem.” House and Senate members have drafted new sanctions measures and are seeking to renew the Iran Sanctions Act which expires at the end of 2016. Reuters

African counterterrorism: The United States has increased training exercises with several African governments in response to a series of recent terrorist attacks on hotels and tourist sites. American forces and trainers have been working with troops in Burkina Faso and police in Kenya to provide training on how to defend civilian targets and respond to hostage scenarios. The U.S. Army has also planned exercises in Gabon next month. New York Times

Uganda: Seven men involved in a 2010 al-Shabab bombing in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, were convicted on murder and terrorism charges on Thursday. The attacks killed 76 people watching the 2010 World Cup final at a crowded restaurant. Guardian, Associated Press
Viewpoint: Is there any chance of talks with the Taliban?: “There will be no let-up in the fighting for the time being so as to prevent any loss of morale or unity among the rank and file fighters, at the precise moment when US drones and the Afghan armed forces may be hoping for a sudden drop in morale and momentum in the Taliban ranks which they could exploit,” writes Ahmed Rashid on BBC News. “However, more than anything these next few weeks and months offer a space for greater diplomacy. It is time to step up efforts to reach out to the Taliban.”

With Obama’s hands-off approach, the Syrian fire will continue to burn: “Over the past four years, the United States has largely been a bystander in the largest strategic and humanitarian disaster of our time,” writes Michael Gerson in the Washington Post. “To avoid responsibility for this nightmare, the Obama administration has tried to narrow the definition of U.S. interests. What really matters is removing Assad’s chemical weapons. Or the Iranian nuclear agreement. Or killing terrorists with drones and special operations. Anything else is, according to Obama, ‘someone else’s civil war.’”

Whistle-blower, beware: “Should it be a crime to report a crime? Many top officials in Washington seem to think so, at least in the case of Edward Snowden,” writes Mark Hertsgaard in The New York Times. “If a whistle-blower is willing to take that risk to alert the American people to dangers, the least the law should do is take full account of the whistle-blower’s intentions. The Espionage Act should be amended to allow a public interest defense. Let Mr. Snowden come home and face trial. But make it an honest trial.”

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For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Strategy to Level the Playing Field

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