Fdd's overnight brief

August 23, 2019

In The News


The United States will aggressively enforce its sanctions to prevent the private sector from assisting an Iranian oil tanker that is traveling through the Mediterranean and that Washington wants seized, a State Department official said on Thursday. – Reuters

Sweden has received “very strong indications” that a British oil tanker seized last month by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz is to be released soon, Swedish public service broadcaster SVT reported on Thursday, citing sources within Sweden’s foreign ministry. – Reuters

An Iranian tanker which the United States wants seized is not heading towards Greece as it sails through the Mediterranean, Greek Prime Minister Kyrikos Mitsotakis told France 24 TV on Thursday. – Reuters

Iran is prepared to work on French proposals to salvage the international nuclear deal that Tehran signed with world powers in 2015 but it will not tolerate U.S. interference in the Gulf, its foreign minister said on Thursday. – Reuters

Iran’s president sent a bill to parliament Wednesday that would cut four zeroes from the value of the Islamic Republic’s sanctions-battered currency, the rial, as tensions remain high between Tehran and Washington. – Associated Press

Simon Henderson writes: The American tactic for the moment appears to be that old Washington favorite, a legal challenge — hence, Gibraltar and whatever else happens this week. Efforts to form a military coalition are moving painfully slowly. So far only the UK, Australia and Bahrain have signed up. In the Gulf, legal threats mean little. With substantial U.S. naval forces inside the Strait of Hormuz and at least one carrier strike group outside, the U.S. military has considerable assets at the ready. Indeed, many more than the British Royal Navy. Yet, so far, the deciding factor in the latest confrontations with Iran has been the steady hands holding sniper scopes on Iranian adversaries rather than those controlling an F-18. – The Hill


The Syrian military on Thursday captured a strategic northern town held by rebels for the past five years, marking another milestone in the government’s long war to stamp out the insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad and producing new misery for the people forced to flee. – Washington Post

Damascus said Thursday it is opening a corridor for civilians to leave the opposition-held northwestern region of Idlib, where government bombardment has killed hundreds since late April. – Agence FrancePresse

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reports that Turkish intelligence has been spreading videos that falsely depict Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) soldiers torturing and harassing Syrian citizens. – AIMonitor


The U.S. offer to sell Turkey a Patriot missile defense system has expired, a State Department official confirmed Thursday, amid ongoing tension over Ankara’s defense dealings with Russia. – The Hill

Two US military delegations have visited Ankara in the past two weeks, and while differences remain on the size of the safe zone in Syria, some progress appears to have been made. – The National

Syrian army advances in northwest Syria are putting Turkish troops in the firing line and threaten Ankara’s hopes of preventing a new wave of refugees on its southern border. – Reuters

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will host his Russian and Iranian counterparts for a summit on Syria in Ankara on September 16, the presidential spokesman said. – Agence FrancePresse


President Trump decided long ago that it would be smart politics for him to yoke his administration to Israel and to try to brand the Democratic Party as anti-Semitic. – Washington Post

The Palestinian Authority, in deep financial crisis since Israel froze tax transfers in February, said Thursday it had accepted a partial payment of just over half a billion dollars. – Agence FrancePresse

The Gaza Strip’s ruling Hamas has requested the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group hand over a cell of four operatives identified in connection with the rocket launched at southern Israel on Wednesday, sources told i24NEWS. – i24NEWS

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas recently went on a frenzied rant in which he pledged, “We shall enter Jerusalem — millions of fighters!” it was revealed on Wednesday. – Algemeiner

A father and his two adult children were seriously injured on Friday after a grenade was thrown at them from a car near the spring of Ein Bubin near the Israeli settlement of Dolev in the West Bank in what the military is calling a serious terror attack. – Jerusalem Post

An armed Palestinian was shot Thursday night by Israel Defense Forces troops as he approached the Gaza perimeter fence near Kibbutz Nahal Oz. – Ynet

Hizbullah Secretary-General said in an August 16, 2019 speech that aired on Al-Manar TV (Lebanon) that if Israel attacks Lebanon, Hizbullah will destroy its military units and its tanks, and he threatened this will be broadcast live for the entire world to see. He said that the resistance axis is thriving and increasing in power and size, and he said that it enjoys support from the Bahraini, Tunisian, Algerian, and other nations. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Kassy Dillon writes: But with both of their track records of anti-Semitism and blind opposition to Israel, it’s likely the two planned on staying on their side of the river to reinforce their perspective, without hearing opposing views. Unfortunately, their itinerary lacked a comprehensive sample of the key players in the conflict. […]This reveals that their proposed trip was always a stunt born of ill will. Tlaib and Omar may be activists engaging with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but their unwillingness to hear all the sides involved shows that they are not true leaders. – Washington Examiner

Ksenia Svetlova writes: Relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia have strategic depth and run much deeper than the blogosphere — but this unusual phenomenon is perhaps the most vivid recent sign of a change in attitude towards the Jewish state within the Saudi kingdom. […]The question now is not how the bilateral relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh will develop, but whether a future Israeli government will use this positive atmosphere in the Arab world to push for a solution with the Palestinians, and eventually, have it all. – Times of Israel


U.S. officials have confirmed that Israel was responsible for the bombing of an Iranian weapons depot in Iraq last month, an attack that would mark a significant escalation in Israel’s years-long campaign against Iranian military entrenchment across the region. – Associated Press

The head of Iraq’s paramilitary forces supported by Iran on Thursday walked back a statement by his deputy the day before in which he blamed Israeli drones and held the U.S. responsible for a series of attacks on bases run by the militias. – Associated Press

Seth J. Frantzman writes: A divide within the Popular Mobilization Forces, a group of mostly Shi’ite militias that are seen as pro-Iran, is emerging in response to alleged airstrikes that have struck their facilities over the last month. […]The long-term question hanging over Iraq is what the PMF will look like in years to come. Will it be a collection of loosely affiliated forces like a confederation with each leader making their own statements, or will it be more formalized and integrated. Will it become a parallel state or swallow up parts of the state or be sidelined. The recent crises with the alleged airstrikes could be a large part of that process and accelerate it. – Jerusalem Post


Yemen’s government accused the United Arab Emirates of supporting separatists in the country and is demanding its expulsion from a Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting rebels there, in a setback to U.S.-backed efforts to mend fraying ties within the alliance. – Wall Street Journal

Yemeni security officials say forces loyal to the country’s internationally recognized government have taken full control of a key southern city after overnight clashes with separatists. – Associated Press

Southern Yemeni separatists clashed with government forces in the southern oil-producing province of Shabwa on Thursday, local officials and residents said, in the latest violence between nominal allies that has strained an Arab military coalition. – Reuters

Middle East & North Africa

As the United Nation’s special envoy to Libya, his mission is to end fighting between the internationally-recognized government and its chief rival, eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar, that’s been fueled by the ambitions of regional powers. After several setbacks, he says the deadlocked contest for Tripoli is bolstering his argument that no one can win. – Bloomberg

For the past few weeks an innocent-looking white executive jet has been taking off from the Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi, cruising for hours in the airspace above the Persian Gulf. A much closer look is needed to notice the unique protrusions on its belly, tail and back. This is not an ordinary executive jet, but an advanced surveillance aircraft owned by the United Arab Emirates, whose purpose is to gather electronic intelligence – and one of its targets is Iran. – Haaretz

Samuel Ramani writes: Although the contest for reconstruction contracts has remained out of the headlines, it is a major contributor to Libya’s ongoing war. Even if the war of attrition between the GNA and LNA ultimately dies down, the other geoeconomic rivalries in Libya could undermine true reconstruction of the Libyan state, dashing hopes for renewed stability and future prosperity. – Foreign Policy

Korean Peninsula

South Korea on Thursday scrapped an agreement to share military intelligence with Japan, significantly escalating the stakes in the U.S. allies’ dispute over trade and historical grievances. The decision was met with disappointment in the United States, which views intelligence sharing between the allies regarding North Korea as critical. – Washington Post

South Korea’s decision to scrap a key intelligence-sharing pact with Japan has far-reaching geopolitical implications and shows the two neighbours are still struggling to come to terms with a bloody history. Here are five things to know about the decision. – Agence FrancePresse

North Korea’s top diplomat said on Friday that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was a “diehard toxin” who only complicates denuclearisation talks and North Korea was ready for both dialogue and standoff. – Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said South Korea’s decision to cancel a deal to share military intelligence is damaging mutual trust, and he vowed Friday to work closely with the U.S. for regional peace. – Associated Press

The Pentagon reacted with dismay on Thursday over South Korea’s announcement that is axing an intelligence sharing agreement with Japan, urging the two sides to come to another arrangement quickly, citing safety concerns. – The Hill


This week the object of all that opprobrium, Jimmy Lai, a Hong Kong media tycoon, rose in Chinese propaganda from the number three spot in the “gang of four” to its senior member. That China has put much so much energy into demonizing a 71-year-old man is a measure of Mr. Lai’s singular status as the one prominent businessman in Hong Kong who openly supports antigovernment protests – New York Times

The United States on Thursday sharpened its criticism of China’s activities in disputed areas of the South China Sea, slamming an “escalation” in efforts to intimidate other claimants” such as Vietnam. – Agence FrancePresse

The European Union is exploring the creation of a massive wealth fund of more than $100 billion to promote their own businesses to compete with U.S. and Chinese tech giants, Politico reported. – The Hill

China is taking “aggressive steps” to coerce Southeast Asian nations into halting work with international oil and gas companies in the energy-rich waters off of Vietnam, the U.S. said. – Bloomberg

New allies Vietnam and Australia expressed concern on Friday about China’s activities in the South China Sea, where Vietnamese and Chinese vessels are locked in a tense standoff in Vietnamese-controlled waters. – Reuters


Two American service members were killed in combat in Afghanistan on Wednesday, U.S. military officials said, as U.S. negotiators returned to Qatar to resume peace talks with Taliban insurgents and reach a final agreement on the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops. – Washington Post

A United States envoy and the Taliban resumed negotiations Thursday on ending America’s longest war after earlier signaling they were close to a deal. – Associated Press

The deadliest year for American service members in Afghanistan since the war began was 2010, with nearly 500 military personnel deaths, 440 of which were combat related. – The Hill

Adam Taylor writes: The denial of al Qaeda’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks has a long history in Afghanistan and across the political spectrum there, with conspiracy theories flourishing just as they have in much of the world. These ideas are not limited to groups like the Taliban, which espouses a fundamentalist view of Islamism that shares similarities with al Qaeda’s worldview: during an interview with Al Jazeera in 2015, former U.S.-backed Afghan president Hamid Karzai said it was a “fact” that 9/11 had not been plotted in Afghanistan and suggested that al Qaeda was a “myth.” – Washington Post

Tanya Goudsouzian writes: The United States wants a deal. It wants to end the longest war in its history. Western negotiators have a goal — withdrawal from Afghanistan — and they are offering significant concessions in return for a graceful exit. Their tacit acceptance of a rebranded Taliban might facilitate an agreement, but no one should be fooled by Twitter feeds, Facebook sites or cricket matches. Today’s Taliban might have a far better understanding of how to market itself to a gullible world — but it is still the Taliban. – Washington Post

South Asia

Authorities in the main city of Indian Kashmir tightened security ahead of Friday prayers after separatists called for a protest march to a U.N. office, with streets bristling with paramilitary personnel and some blocked by checkpoints. – Reuters

French President Emmanuel Macron has told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that Paris is watching developments in Kashmir closely and urged him to respect the rights of people on both sides of the divided Himalayan region. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan raised the prospect of nuclear war with India while calling for international assistance in a territorial dispute with his larger democratic neighbor. – Washington Examiner

Aparna Pandey writes: India and France have an old relationship and their strategic partnership will be strengthened during PM Modi’s current visit. However, it is the military and economic rise of China and the fear of an isolationist America that underlines each country’s search for friends and allies around the world. – The Print


President Trump has shifted his stance on the unrest in Hong Kong in recent days to show greater solidarity with the pro-democracy protesters after coming to view the issue as a point of leverage in trade negotiations with China. – New York Times

Google said Thursday that it had taken down more than 200 channels weighing in on protests in Hong Kong on its video-streaming site YouTube, the latest technology firm to strike back against Chinese-backed efforts to influence clashes over the future of the region’s fragile democracy. – Washington Post

Last week, Fichot and Perina, along with seven other fathers and one mother, and on behalf of 14 children from the United States, Canada, France, Italy and Japan, filed a formal complaint to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council arguing that Japan was grossly violating the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction. – Washington Post

Chinese police on Thursday alleged that a British consulate employee from Hong Kong, detained during a business trip to the mainland earlier this month, had committed a prostitution-related offense, but offered no details or evidence to back up the allegation. – Wall Street Journal

The family of a staffer at the UK consulate in Hong Kong have rejected a “made-up” report by Chinese state media that he was detained in the mainland for visiting prostitutes. – Agence FrancePresse

Accountants in Hong Kong marched Friday in support of the pro-democracy movement, while the Canadian Consulate banned its staff from leaving the city on official business after a British Consulate employee was detained in mainland China. – Associated Press

Hong Kong’s unrest is a nine-hour flight away, but it has been impossible to avoid on campuses Down Under. Pro-democracy and pro-Beijing students have clashed physically, hurled insults and death threats, and trolls have besieged social media. While most Chinese students say apologetically it is too dangerous to talk, some are willing as long as their identity is not made public. – Agence FrancePresse

Editorial: Mr. Trump’s stance may encourage Mr. Xi to believe he will pay little price in the West if he orders a crackdown. That’s why G-7 leaders ought to prevail on the U.S. president this weekend to join them in dispelling that impression. They cannot directly defend Hong Kong or its people if China elects to use force. But they can do far more than they have so far to deter Mr. Xi. – Washington Post

Philip Terzian writes: In that sense, Trump is surely correct to insist that Xi should “quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem,” leading to “a happy and enlightened ending.” This is both an appeal to Chinese sensibilities and a recognition of reality about Hong Kong. Call it realism. Even at the height of American supremacy, in the postwar era, we didn’t always get what we wanted. – Washington Examiner

Antony Dapiran writes: This may accelerate the process of decoupling already much-discussed in U.S. policy circles. This couldn’t come at a worse time for China as its economy slows, the trade war with the United States continues to grind on with no apparent resolution in sight, and President Xi Jinping continues to pursue the long-term goal of winning China acceptance as a global player and emerging superpower. It may be that Chinese ambitions founder on the rocky shores of Hong Kong island. – Foreign Policy


As Vladimir Putin ’s Russia increasingly cracks down on internet freedoms, a band of self-styled pirates is fighting back. […]Roskomsvoboda’s main objective now is to prevent Mr. Putin’s government from advancing plans to install a “kill switch” that would allow Russia to firewall itself from the rest of the internet, much as China does. – Wall Street Journal

Russia will launch the world’s first floating nuclear reactor and send it on an epic journey across the Arctic on Friday, despite environmentalists warning of serious risks to the region. – Agence FrancePresse

Ukraine’s president backed leading European powers on Thursday in opposing the readmission of Russia to the Group of Seven advanced economies, saying Moscow still occupied Crimea and was frustrating peace in eastern Ukraine. – Reuters

Russia and the United States have traded accusations at the United Nations over the abandonment of a landmark arms-control treaty, with each side accusing the other of endangering global security. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

A change to more Russian-made parts was brought about by foreign fears of FEDOR presaging autonomous weapons. – C4ISRNET

Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to confirm on Wednesday something that international weapons experts had already suspected: that a deadly blast at a military site in northern Russia that caused a spike in radiation levels was the result of testing what he called a promising new weapons system. […]Whatever the cause of the explosion, arms controls experts remain skeptical that Russia has the money and technical know-how to make the Skyfall a reality. – Foreign Policy

David Ignatius writes: If Trump truly wants to invite President Vladimir Putin to the 2020 version of a re-christened G-8, there’s an obvious price he should demand from Putin: a verifiable commitment to stop Russia’s egregious cyber-interference in the elections of the United States and other members of the current G-7. – Washington Post


Once a showcase for international cooperation, Group of Seven summits have turned into minefields of geopolitical discord—and this year’s gathering promises another feast of high-level squabbling. – Wall Street Journal

France joined Germany on Thursday in challenging British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to show he can come up with a better alternative to the main sticking point in the stalled Brexit negotiations, giving him a month to prove he can break the deadlock on the Irish border question. – Associated Press

President Trump will meet with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday morning on the sidelines of the Group of Seven (G-7) summit in France, according to a senior administration official, one of several bilateral meetings at the summit. – The Hill

European Union officials have drawn up an aggressive 173-page plan to counter both President Donald Trump’s trade moves and American tech giants including Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook. – Politico

Heather A. Conley and Donatienne Ruy write: What actually happens to the border if a no-deal Brexit happens on October 31? That is unclear. A no-deal UK departure leaves most border issues outstanding. The Republic of Ireland is preparing for a no-deal Brexit while the United Kingdom, through its Operation Yellowhammer, is also making worse-case scenario no-deal plans. However, this planning is neither substitutes a negotiated trading relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union nor upholds the Good Friday Agreement. The physical border will need to be addressed. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


The president of Jubbaland, a Somali region critical to East Africa’s fight against the Islamist militants of al Shabaab, won a new term on Thursday, highlighting a growing rift between the federal government and its semi-autonomous states. – Reuters

Somalia’s president announced on Thursday a major shake-up of the country’s security chiefs as well as a replacement for the mayor of Mogadishu after Abdirahman Omar Osman died of his wounds following a suicide bomb attack last month. – Reuters

J. Berkshire Miller writes: At this year’s TICAD, Japan’s ability to bring its Pacific vision to bear will be key. There is a natural tendency for Tokyo to protect its hard-fought bilateral relationships in the region, but the smarter move is to be more collaborative with like-minded allies. If it continues to evolve, the TICAD will be the best way to ensure that Japan can still meaningfully contribute to the continent’s sustainable development. Likewise, a more explicit incorporation of Japan’s development efforts in its FOIP vision will ensure the long-term strategic position of the program. Abe summed up the importance of Japan’s efforts in 2016, in advance of that year’s TICAD: “[T]here can be no global development without African development.” That remains true today, even if Japan is increasingly less able to pursue such goals on its own. – Foreign Policy

The Americas

A University of Kansas chemistry professor has been indicted on federal charges that he hid his work for a Chinese university while he also conducted research funded by the U.S. government. – Washington Examiner

New York State will receive more than $178 million in anti-terror funding from the federal government to protect synagogues and other houses of worship, Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) announced on Thursday. – Algemeiner

J.J. McCullough writes: Though Canadians may enjoy looking down at supposedly jingoistic Americans and their voracious president’s bumbled project to grab Greenland, it’s worth considering whether the biggest thing preventing Canada’s leaders from acting on similar fantasies is just a lack of capacity. – Washington Post


Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and other China hawks are sounding an alarm about commercial products, such as cameras, printers and laptops, from China being purchased by the Pentagon. Most of the distress about Chinese-built technology in the Defense Department and elsewhere in government has focused on Chinese components of major software and hardware systems that access sensitive information and could be a conduit for Beijing to spy on U.S. government secrets. – Washington Post

Cyberattacks that recently crippled nearly two dozen Texas cities have put other local governments on guard, offering the latest evidence that hackers can halt routine operations by locking up computers and public records and demanding steep ransoms. – Associated Press

A newly created U.S. cybersecurity agency said Thursday that China represents the greatest strategic risk to the U.S., and as a result, the agency’s top operational priority is reducing the risks from Chinese compromises to the global supply chain, including emerging 5G technology. – Bloomberg

The intelligence community launched a bold initiative in 2012 to use cloud services as a way to share between agencies and allow analytics tools to work with the entirety of the information agencies collected. – C4ISRNET

The Army could start fielding its new electronic warfare platoons in spring 2020, a top service official said Aug. 21. – C4ISRNET

Israel is easing export rules on offensive cyber weapons, despite accusations by human rights and privacy groups that its technologies are used by some governments to spy on political foes and crush dissent. – Reuters

Thomas Spoehr writes: Purported experts who regularly forecast the obsolescence of kinetic wars in favor of conflicts featuring cyberattacks, disinformation, and electronic warfare argue for the disinvestment of conventional capabilities in favor of these alternative capabilities. While the character of war is, in fact, changing—and some investment in these capabilities is warranted—it is the U.S. preeminence in warfighting that has deterred outright aggression and maintained the peace. Proposals to shift entirely to new capabilities should be viewed with extreme skepticism. – Heritage Foundation


A US Army commander has been suspended after he reportedly sent a memo to Army recruiters that included the Nazi motto of the notorious Auschwitz death camp. – Washington Examiner

Having walked away from a Cold War-era arms control pact with Russia, the US is free to confront China in new ways. And it appears determined to do exactly that. The Pentagon’s “number one priority” is China, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told Fox News Wednesday in his first television interview since he took over the Department of Defense. – Business Insider

Tom Rogan writes: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin are upset that the United States is playing them at their own game. The U.S. should welcome this U.N. Security Council meeting and speak plainly in defense of the idea that America has the right to defend itself. – Washington Examiner

Martin Faga writes: The competing U.S. launch providers offer the Air Force a spectacular choice of innovation: new rocket engines and motors; a wide range of rocket sizes; futuristic, reusable, liquid-fueled rockets; and elegantly simple, one-time, solid-fuel rockets — all at significantly lower prices than today. This can be a procurement success story that will capstone the Air Force’s magnificent, 16-year record of 115 successful launches of mission-critical national security satellites. – Defense News

Long War

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has confirmed the death of Hamza Bin Laden, the son and designated heir of Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. – Agence FrancePresse

Four years ago a shrine named Mar Elian in Syria near the town of al-Qaryatain was bulldozed by Islamic State. It had existed since the sixth century, and was a site of devotion for Christians as well as locals. It was one of many crimes of ISIS that stretch from Iraq to Syria and beyond. Yet few have been prosecuted for these crimes, and there have been no war crimes trials charging senior or mid-level ISIS members with the systematic genocide and destruction that they wrought on communities throughout the Middle East. – Jerusalem Post

Editorial: President Trump has been eager to bring home all US troops there. Yet ISIS is like cancer: If you don’t eradicate it fully, it’ll come back — to kill. Americans should be proud of their military’s role in cutting the group down to size and freeing land it stole. How tragic if all that good work went down the drain with an ISIS comeback. – New York Post

Trump Administration

President Trump has decided not to move ahead with a plan to cut about $4 billion in foreign-aid funding after coming under criticism from lawmakers in both parties, according to administration officials. – Wall Street Journal

The chief executive of Overstock.com resigned Thursday, saying he was “far too controversial” after disclosing that he had aided in a “deep state” investigation into the 2016 election and was romantically involved with a Russian agent. – Washington Post

Testifying Thursday at the second criminal trial since reaching his plea deal with federal prosecutors, Gates appeared at ease, even good-humored, as he spoke about former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig and his interactions with Paul Manafort’s Ukrainian lobbying operation. – CNN