Fdd's overnight brief

August 2, 2019

In The News


U.S. allies criticized Washington’s decision to impose sanctions on Iran’s foreign minister and vowed to keep their own diplomatic channels open, in the latest spat between the White House and European countries over how to deal with Tehran. – Wall Street Journal

With tensions rising with Iran, the United States and Britain have been shopping for European support to bolster patrols in the Persian Gulf around the Strait of Hormuz, a vital passage way for global oil supplies. – New York Times 

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday mocked a US decision to impose sanctions on his top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif, saying it showed Washington was “afraid” of the foreign minister as tensions again flare between the arch-enemies. – Agence France-Presse 

Iran’s president lambasted new U.S. sanctions by the Trump administration targeting the country’s foreign minister, describing the move Thursday as “childish” and a barrier to diplomacy. – Associated Press  

President Hassan Rouhani said on Thursday that Iran was ready for the worst in an uphill struggle to salvage its nuclear deal with world powers abandoned by the United States, but that he was sure Tehran would eventually prevail. – Reuters 

Japan will not send warships to join a U.S.-led maritime force to guard oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz fearing a military response from Iran, but it may send patrol aircraft, said the Mainichi newspaper, citing unidentified government sources. – Reuters 

Iranian oil tankers have been quietly offloading their supply into Chinese ports, according to ship tracking data, despite U.S. sanctions on crude from the Islamic Republic. – CNBC 

Vice Adm. Michael Gilday spoke on Wednesday during his confirmation hearing about ongoing efforts to ensure safe passage of commercial vessels through the Strait of Hormuz. There have been multiple reports in recent months of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) harassing, attacking and seizing vessels transiting the strait, which have prompted responses from both the U.S. and Europe. – USNI News 

President Donald Trump wants a new deal with Iran to replace the nuclear agreement he pulled out of, and he’s turning to one of his most hawkish confidants to help do it. – The Daily Beast 

James Stavridis writes: It seems clear the Iranians have little inclination or motivation to back down. They will probably increase the aggression toward merchant shipping, either putting mines in the Strait of Hormuz (which they did as part of the so-called “tanker wars” in the 1980s) or actually sinking a ship, probably surreptitiously using a diesel submarine. They could also widen the conflict “horizontally” by unleashing their surrogate terrorist organization in Lebanon, Hezbollah, against Israel, or having its Afghan spinoff, Liwa Fatemiyoun, carry out attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. If Iran takes such a reckless course, the West will likely respond militarily. – Bloomberg


Twelve US Republican Congressmen have sent a letter to German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas expressing disappointment over a recent parliamentary vote that failed to outlaw the political branch of Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah, and urging the German government to outlaw Hezbollah completely. – Jerusalem Post 

An Israeli missile struck western Quneitra province in Syria, near the Golan Heights border with Israel, Syrian state media reported Thursday. […]Saudi news channel Al Arabiya Al Hadath reported that the strike was reported after Hezbollah militants were identified in the area, but did not cite any Syrian sources. – Haaretz 

Amos Harel writes: The Iranians are trying to translate their regional arc of influence into a real land corridor – along with the arms smuggling network they are operating, alongside their air and sea efforts, on the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut line on the ground. […]the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have distanced themselves for now, under the pressure of the Israeli attacks, from the Damascus Airport to the T-4 airbase near Homs. But Hezbollah operations in the villages on the Golan have intensified. The Israeli actions may be only touching the tip of the iceberg, while Hezbollah worked very hard to turn these villages into fortified military compounds, as it has done since 2006 in the Shi’ite villages in southern Lebanon. – Haaretz 

Liron A. Libman writes: Iran can attempt to limit the risk of its arms shipments to Hezbollah being captured by using ships under its flag and sailing in open seas directly from Iran to Lebanon without any other country gaining the power accrued from using its ships or passing through its waters. However, this course imposes significant practical constraints on carrying out these shipments, and also makes it easy to track and uncover Iranian actions contravening the UN resolution. Thus, even forcing Iran to take such a course of action gives Israel an advantage. – Jerusalem Post


The United Nations has ordered an investigation into a surge of Russian and Syrian airstrikes against hospitals and clinics in northwestern Syria amid growing concerns that Russia is using U.N.-supplied data to deliberately target medical facilities. – Washington Post 

The Syrian government has agreed to a truce in the northwestern region of Idlib on condition a Turkish-Russian buffer-zone deal is implemented, state news agency SANA reported Thursday. – Agency France-Presse 

In the past year, as the Trump administration tightened sanctions on Syria and re-imposed sanctions on its chief regional ally, Iran, living conditions have become steadily worse, compounding the daily struggles of a worn-out population that has lived through eight years of conflict. – Associated Press

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration will allow about 7,000 Syrians who have fled war in their country to stay 18 months longer in the United States, extending them a temporary protection on Thursday it has tried to deny to other migrants. – Reuters 

Stabbing guards, stoning aid workers and flying the Islamic State’s black flag in plain sight: the wives and children of the ‘caliphate’ are sticking by the extremists in a desperate Syrian camp. – Agence France-Presse 

Josh Rogin writes: Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) talks often about her January 2017 trip to Syria, when she met Bashar al-Assad, toured Aleppo after it had been reduced to rubble, and interviewed Syrian civilians and the regime-approved “opposition,” who unanimously told her Assad was a better option for Syria than the “terrorists.” […]Gabbard’s plan to overtly side with Assad and Russia while they commit crimes against humanity would be a strategic disaster, a gift to the extremists and a betrayal of decades of U.S. commitments to stand up to mass atrocities. Democratic voters who believe in liberalism and truth must reject not only her candidacy but also her attempt to disguise moral bankruptcy as a progressive value. – Washington Post


Jewish organizations on Thursday welcomed the confirmation of diplomat Kelly Craft as the new US ambassador to the United Nations. […]In their statement of congratulation to Craft, Arthur Stark, chairman, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman and CEO of the Conference of Presidents emphasized that they “look forward to her continuing the efforts of Ambassador Nikki Haley to call out and confront the blatant and discriminatory anti-Israel bias in that international body.” – Algemeiner 

A preliminary investigation into a shooting incident on the Gaza border in which three IDF soldiers were wounded has revealed that the terrorist spent approximately two hours inside Israeli territory before he was tracked down and killed. – Algemeiner 

An Israeli Arab who joined Islamic State in Syria has appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to return to Israel. – Ynet 

According to a report in Haaretz, Iran and Hamas have agreed to open a southern front should a war break out in the North. Israeli officials have warned that any northern war will not be confined to one border, but rather both the Lebanese and Syrian border. That means war on three fronts. – Jerusalem Post 

Saudi Arabia

Walid Fitaihi, a dual U.S.-Saudi citizen who was jailed in Saudi Arabia for nearly two years without trial, has been temporarily released from custody but is still facing criminal charges in the kingdom, according to a Saudi official and two associates of Fitaihi’s family. – Washington Post 

Facebook said Thursday that it had removed an online disinformation campaign with ties to the Saudi government that was aimed at spreading propaganda across the Middle East. – The Hill 

The U.S. Congress left Washington on Thursday without enacting legislation to punish Saudi human rights abuses, but lawmakers said efforts to stop military sales and impose sanctions would continue after their August break. – Reuters

Middle East & North Africa

Iran-backed Huthi rebels say they launched missile and drone attacks on a military parade in Yemen’s southern port of Aden, the headquarters of the Saudi-backed government, that killed more than 30 people. In separate tweets, Yemeni Prime Minister, Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed and Saudi Arabia’s envoy to Yemen accused Tehran of being behind the August 1 attack claimed by the Huthis, and an explosion at a police station in Aden, the headquarters of the Saudi-backed government, that security sources said involved a car bomb. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty  

As Turkey moves further from the West and closer to alliance with Russia, it is emerging as an aggressive and disruptive force with regard to gas development in the eastern Mediterranean. The main area of current concern is regarding Cyprus – Israel, Egypt and Lebanon have all signed delimitation agreements with Nicosia. Turkey refuses to do so. – Jerusalem Post 

Elana DeLozier writes: Caution can be the basis of a smart military and diplomatic strategy if backfilled with a political plan—but such a workable political plan has long proven absent in Yemen. The death of Abu Yamamah, in addition to inevitably sparking fury in the south, should reignite a debate about what the political future of Yemen can and should look like and how outside actors so closely involved in the country can help get it there. – Washington Institute 

Korean Peninsula

North Korea conducted its third weapons test in just over a week, launching a pair of short-range projectiles off its east coast on Friday, South Korean officials said, ratcheting up pressure against the U.S. amid stalled nuclear talks. – Wall Street Journal 

North Korea’s recent weapons tests are widely seen as a means to pressure the U.S. into offering concessions when talks resume, including easing economic sanctions and relaxing demands that Pyongyang relinquish its nuclear weapons. – Wall Street Journal

Japan’s cabinet decided to remove South Korea from a list of trusted trading partners on Friday, turning up the heat in a bitter dispute between the two U.S. allies about compensation for wartime forced labor. – Washington Post 

North Korea’s return to missile testing after a long hiatus raises the stakes for President Trump ahead of planned nuclear negotiations, undermining his claim that his personal relationship with dictator Kim Jong Un has reduced the threat from North Korea and made Asian allies safer. – Washington Post 

Unable to meet with a North Korean official, the chief U.S. envoy for North Korea met on Friday with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts in Thailand. – Associated Press 

The Japanese Ministry of Defence said on Friday no immediate impact was seen on the nation’s security after North Korea carried out a new projectile launch. – Reuters 

In recent weeks, North Korea has been testing a short-range missile that U.S. President Donald Trump dismissed as “very standard.” In fact, it’s anything but: The new missile represents an important advance in North Korea’s ability to deliver a nuclear weapon and evade American missile defenses, according to experts. – Foreign Policy 

William Gallo writes: The discrepancy between the North and South Korean accounts raised the possibility that Seoul is having problems tracking and identifying Pyongyang’s new weapons. It could also be a matter of interpretation, since the line between ballistic missiles and rockets is blurry. Another option: North Korea could be mischaracterizing its tests, as it has done in the past. – Voice of America


President Trump moved Thursday to extend tariffs to essentially all Chinese imports, escalating a trade conflict that is poised to hit U.S. consumers in the pocketbook and roiling financial markets. – Wall Street Journal 

China’s claim that “most” inmates have been released from re-education camps in its Xinjiang region has been met with anger and scepticism by the Uighur diaspora which has launched a social media campaign challenging Beijing to prove it. – Agence France-Presse 

Editorial: The INF treaty did not happen because the U.S. stopped investing in defense out of high moral principle. It was achieved through credible deterrence and after the U.S. military buildup of the 1980s, as Ronald Reagan deployed U.S. missiles to Europe to counter Russia’s. Adversaries don’t seek arms agreements if they have a military advantage. The Democratic missile ban will be sorted out in conference with the Senate. A ban would vindicate Russia’s contempt for its treaty commitments and accelerate China’s drive for military dominance in the Pacific. Wall Street Journal 


The Trump administration is preparing to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan in exchange for concessions from the Taliban, including a cease-fire and a renunciation of al-Qaeda, as part of an initial deal to end the nearly 18-year-old war, U.S. officials say. – Washington Post 

The following report compiles all significant security incidents confirmed by New York Times reporters throughout Afghanistan from the past seven days. […]At least 112 pro-government forces and 69 civilians were killed in Afghanistan during the past week. – New York Times 

The United States peace envoy to Afghanistan met with Pakistan’s prime minister and other top officials ahead of his flight to Qatar for a crucial round of peace talks with the Taliban. Before landing in Islamabad, Zalmay Khalilzad had hinted that a peace agreement could be reached in the next round of talks, potentially delivering an end to the nearly 18-year war in Afghanistan, America’s longest. – Associated Press


The U.S. and Japan are working to hammer out a limited trade pact that would pave the way for more U.S. farm exports to Japan, while dropping the threat of U.S. tariffs on Japanese cars. – Wall Street Journal 

The top Chinese military official in Hong Kong has called the violent protests of recent weeks “absolutely intolerable,” in a threatening speech that coincides with the release of an extraordinary video showing Chinese soldiers practicing firing on demonstrators. – Washington Post 

The U.S. and other Western nations are “fanning the flames” of street protests in Hong Kong that aim to undermine the semi-autonomous region’s prosperity, stability and security, China’s top diplomat told state media Friday. – Associated Press 

Several small bombs exploded across Bangkok on Friday, rattling the Thai capital as it hosted a regional summit attended by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and leaving four people wounded but not disrupting the diplomatic event. – Agence France-Presse 

Donald Trump has said anti-government protests in Hong Kong are “riots” and a matter for China, in contrast to a fresh bipartisan call from Washington lawmakers urging the US president to take Beijing to task over threats to demonstrators. – Financial Times 

India on Friday again rejected President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate its dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir. – Associated Press 

Bennett Murray writes: Vietnam’s unilateral negotiating power, dwarfed as the country is by its enormous and increasingly powerful neighbor, has proved paper-thin in the past two years. Relying on Moscow, or Washington, as an advocate may not be ideal, but options are running out. – Foreign Policy


Washington and Moscow walked out of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty that President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed in 1987, raising fears of a new arms race. The U.S. blamed Moscow for the death of the treaty. It said that for years Moscow has been developing and fielding weapons that violate the treaty and threaten the United States and its allies, particularly in Europe. – Associated Press 

President Donald Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Russia for its use of chemical weapons in the 2018 attack on the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, according to two U.S. officials. – Politico 

A visit on Friday by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to an island claimed by both Japan and Russia was extremely regrettable, Japan’s foreign ministry said, urging Moscow to take constructive steps to advance ties. – Reuters 

Russia’s media regulator says it will amend existing legislation in order to impose fines on British and other foreign media organizations working in Russia for breaking impartiality standards in retaliation for London fining Russia’s RT TV channel. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty 

President Trump spoke with President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday and offered U.S. help in fighting widespread forest fires raging in parts of Siberia, according to a Kremlin account of the call. – NPR 

Amy Mackinnon writes: Beyond the grisly chilling effect, the amorphous nature of poisonings gives Moscow a veneer of deniability, which has become the cornerstone of Russian malfeasance in recent years. From interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to the war in eastern Ukraine, the Russian authorities have been careful to launder their intentions through networks of proxy players: rebel groups, Kremlin-aligned businessmen, and useful idiots. Although their ties to these players have eventually been exposed, it delays investigations and sows confusion and leaves Western democracies scrambling as to how to respond in the absence of smoking-gun evidence.  – Foreign Policy


Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, is facing a maritime security standoff with Iran that could, if handled indelicately, spark conflict in the Persian Gulf region. – USNI News 

German police launched an investigation on Wednesday following an incident last week in which one of Berlin’s most prominent rabbis was insulted and spat on. Returning home with one of his children from Shabbat services last Friday night, Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal was set upon by two men, who insulted him in Arabic and then spat at him. – Algemeiner 

Elliot Ross writes: The effect of Brexit on Scotland’s continued membership of the U.K. may be less pressing—Scotland has no land border with an EU member state, and has not experienced sectarian conflict on anything like the scale Ireland has—but the lingering question of Scottish independence has been completely reframed by the prospect of a meaningful border with England. – The Atlantic


The mayor of Mogadishu has died after being badly wounded in a suicide bombing by Al Shabab in his offices last week, Somalia’s government said on Thursday. Six of his colleagues were also killed in the attack, and nine members of his staff wounded. – Reuters 

At least four protesters were killed and many injured by gunfire in the Sudanese city of Omdurman on Thursday, opposition medics said, as hundreds of thousands took to the streets to pile pressure on the country’s military rulers. – Reuters 

China’s economic growth has shown signs of a slowdown recently and that may well affect its levels of trade and investment in Africa in the future. But given the increasing competition from around the world for doing business with African countries, the United States will have to demonstrate a renewed vigour in its relations with the continent if it really wants to engage with its emerging economies. – BBC

The Americas

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross laid out a plan including credit and investment to help rebuild Venezuela’s economy under democratic rule, as Washington pushes for new leadership in the struggling nation. – Wall Street Journal

A surge of Cuban asylum seekers, long accustomed to preferential treatment under U.S. migration policies, are being stopped by U.S. government efforts to contain a tide of Central Americans migrating north. – Wall Street Journal 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appointed Melissa Fleming of the United States as the world body’s communications chief. – Associated Press  

Scott B. MacDonald writes: The geopolitics of the Caribbean are changing. There is a higher level of friction in U.S.-Chinese relations over a wide range of issues, including Beijing’s penetration of the Caribbean. Some analysts are calling this a new Cold War. Whatever it is called, there is a level of tension between U.S. and Chinese aspirations in the Caribbean. This includes Suriname, which has had a long relationship with China. – Center for Strategic and International Studies 


U.S. President Donald Trump signalled on Thursday that he still plans to nominate Representative John Ratcliffe to be the next U.S. spy chief despite worries that Ratcliffe may have exaggerated his achievements as a prosecutor. – Reuters 

Pentagon officials found extra money in military retirement accounts that will be diverted to help fund construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. – Military Times 

The Pentagon is hitting pause on a massive, first-of-its-kind cloud computing contract after President Trump cited critics’ accusations of favoritism toward Amazon. – NPR

The U.S. Senate sent the president a $2.7 trillion budget plan with roughly $45 billion more in military funding over two years, despite complaints from fiscal conservatives the measure would raise the federal deficit. – Defense News 

The head of the Navy’s SEAL Teams sent a letter to his commanders telling them “We have a problem” in bold type following reports of disciplinary problems across the elite force. Rear Adm. Collin Green’s letter, dated July 25, gave his subordinates until Aug. 7 to detail any problems and offer recommendations on how they will improve discipline and ethics across their teams, according to CNN. – Washington Examiner 

The U.S. Army has awarded a contract each to Northrop Grumman and Raytheon to build a 50-kilowatt-class laser weapon for Stryker combat vehicles for the Short-Range Air Defense (SHORAD) mission, according to an Aug. 1 statement from the service’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office. – Defense News

John Fairlamb writes: Make no mistake, deploying weapons in space would cross a threshold that cannot be walked back. Given the implications for strategic stability and the likelihood that such a decision would encourage an expensive arms race in space in which any advantage gained would likely be temporary, such a decision should be weighed with the utmost caution. – The Hill

Long War

Ambassador James Jeffrey, the State Department envoy to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State, told reporters that thousands of the extremist organization’s fighters are scattered around Syria and Iraq, where officials see a “persistent, resilient, rural terrorist level of violence” in that country. – Associated Press

Recent intelligence indicates that al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has a “heart complaint,” according to a senior official involved in international counterterrorism efforts. – CNN 

Colin P. Clarke writes: Zawahiri’s isolation and removal from the day-to-day operations of al Qaeda’s broader organization—including its affiliates in Yemen, North Africa and Syria—coupled with his inability to exercise more robust command and control, had spurred speculation that Hamza bin Laden might be the man to lead al Qaeda into its next phase. His apparent death, however, raises even more questions for the future of al Qaeda. – Foreign Policy