Fdd's overnight brief

December 20, 2018

In The News


Albania has expelled Iran’s ambassador and another diplomat for “damaging its national security”, the foreign ministry said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Iran denied on Wednesday reports that its exports of crude oil to Chile’s state energy company ENAP might have been a possible source of noxious fumes that caused hundreds of people to seek hospital treatment in August. – Reuters

As the Trump administration works to unravel Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, the producers of the country’s famed Persian carpets fear they will lose vital markets. Before the U.S. withdrew from the deal and began restoring crippling sanctions earlier this year, the $425 million a year industry preserved an ancient tradition while providing much-needed income to Iranians as well as Afghan refugees, […]. Iran produces some 400 tons of carpets a year and exports 80 percent of them. – Associated Press

Charles Wald and Michael Makovsky write: Iran’s recent nuclear-capable ballistic missile test exploded three myths popular in Washington: that missile development was forbidden by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal; that Saudi Arabia’s reckless and heinous killing of Jamal Khashoggi represents the most pressing regional threat to the United States; and that U.S. sanctions are addressing Iran’s growing missile threat. The United States should offer a more robust approach to addressing that threat, including developing a regional missile defense capability for our Middle Eastern partners. – Newsweek

Ray Takeyh writes: President Hassan Rouhani and his battered centrists are also looking at American politics, but instead of an immediate conflict they want to wait out the Trump storm and deal with a more accommodating Democratic president that may come to power in 2020. The ultimate arbiter of this debate is leader Ali Khamenei, who seems to be edging toward his hardline disciples. – Washington Examiner

Elana DeLozier writes: In the past few weeks, the UN Security Council has released three reports related to Resolution 2231, each providing updates on Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and its suspicious acquisitions outside the official procurement channel set up under the JCPOA. Any hopes for detailed updates were dashed, however; instead, the reports underscored how the UN Secretariat and the International Atomic Energy Agency remain reliant on weak self-reporting mechanisms to verify and monitor procurements, thus fostering the possibility of Iran illicitly or covertly obtaining nuclear items. – Washington Institute

Ilan I. Berman writes: Last December, grassroots protests erupted throughout Iran. Ordinary Iranians, discontented with worsening domestic conditions and their government’s misplaced political priorities, held rallies and demonstrations that transformed over time into a profound challenge to the legitimacy of the country’s clerical regime. A year on, the Iranian “street” is still in ferment – although you don’t hear much about it in the news. – American Foreign Policy Council


President Trump has ordered the withdrawal of 2,000 American troops from Syria, bringing a sudden end to a military campaign that largely vanquished the Islamic State but ceding a strategically vital country to Russia and Iran. – New York Times

The day that President Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, the Islamic State claimed that it had set off a bomb in Raqqa, the group’s former capital, killing a Kurdish fighter. – New York Times

A U.S. move to immediately withdraw troops from Syria could ease pressure on Islamic State, potentially allowing the extremist group an opportunity to rebuild. There are about 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, the Pentagon says, primarily in the east and southeast of the country, where they are part of an international coalition conducting airstrikes and training local fighters battling Islamic State. – Wall Street Journal

Russian officials expressed cautious enthusiasm for U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to pull troops out of Syria, with some suggesting the news was too good to be true.

“If the Americans really do pull their troops out, I think that would only help stabilize the situation in Syria,” the Interfax news service cited Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy chairman of the international affairs committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, as saying. – Bloomberg

Donald Trump campaigned on a vow to get U.S. troops out of intractable Middle East wars. He also promised to push back against rising Iranian power in the region. On Wednesday, he took a step toward keeping his first promise -– and triggered a firestorm in Washington as critics said he’s going soft on the second. – Bloomberg

Karen De Young writes: In April, President Trump repeated his campaign promise to end U.S. military involvement in Syria. […] In September, senior administration aides said at the time, the president was persuaded to change course. – Washington Post

Joby Warrick and Souad Mekhennet write: An attack such as the one in eastern Syria reinforces a view that is widely held among U.S. military and intelligence officials, as well as U.S. allies in the region: Even as the territory claimed by the Islamic State continues to shrink, the group remains a powerful and deadly force across large swaths of Syria and Iraq. – Washington Post

Eli Lake writes: President Donald Trump is on the verge of making a spectacularly bad decision. The White House is soon expected to announce its plans to remove the 2,000 U.S. troops now serving in northeastern Syria.  This is not totally unexpected. Trump ran for president in part on the idea of smashing the Islamic State, but he also said there was no point in trying to stabilize the country after the terrorists were defeated. – Bloomberg

Robin Wright writes: Trump’s decision clearly contradicts the preferences of the professionals who have managed America’s largely successful military campaign against the Islamic State, which seized a third of the land in Syria and Iraq in 2014 and threatened to reconfigure the map of the wider Middle East. U.S.-backed forces in Iraq ousted isis last year. – New Yorker

Dana Stroul and Soner Cagaptay write: On December 19, multiple media sources reported that Washington is preparing for an imminent withdrawal of all U.S. forces in east Syria. The reports followed statements two days earlier by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who noted the White House’s “positive response” to Turkey’s planned cross-border military campaign in the area. – Washington Institute

Danielle Pletka writes: In tried and true fashion, President Donald Trump announced abruptly on Twitter today that “we have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” Pentagon sources confirmed to multiple reporters that the US will rapidly drawdown some 2,000 troops on the ground working with allies in Syria. – American Enterprise Institute

Jon B. Alterman and Will Todman write: On December 19, President Trump declared on Twitter: “We have defeated [the Islamic State group] in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” The White House then confirmed that U.S. troops are leaving Syria immediately and will be completely gone within 30 days. U.S. officials said all State Department personnel would leave within 24 hours, and NGO staff working on stabilization are also reportedly being evacuated. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Ilan Goldberg writes: President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria is a mistake. But unlike so many of his other ill-considered moves, this one is completely conventional and consistent with the bad choices of past presidents. – Politico


Hezbollah has committed “an act of war” by digging tunnels under Israel’s border with Lebanon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday, calling on the United Nations to halt what he called a “grave violation” of Israel’s sovereignty. – New York Times

Bulldozers shifted earth in the driving rain Wednesday, and mobile drilling rigs punched holes in the ground as part of what the military has called Operation Northern Shield — to uncover and eventually destroy the cross-border tunnels. The tunnel tour for journalists came as members of the U.N. Security Council met in an emergency session requested by Israel and the United States.  – Washington Post

Israel will study a U.S. decision to pull its forces from Syria and will ensure its own security, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Senators Bernie Sanders and Dianne Feinstein sent a letter on Thursday to Senate leaders urging them not to promote a controversial piece of legislation that will penalize boycotts against Israel and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. – Haaretz



The number etched on the bracelet around Mohammed’s wrist gave the 13-year-old soldier comfort as missiles fired from enemy warplanes shook the earth beneath him. For two years Mohammed fought with Yemen’s Houthi rebels against a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States. – Associated Press

The Saudi-led coalition bombed an air base in Yemen’s rebel-held capital on Wednesday as a local cease-fire held around the Red Sea port city of Hodeida. In comments aired by Saudi state-run TV, the coalition said it struck the air base next to Sanaa’s international airport, destroying a rocket launcher and a drone that it said was preparing to carry out an attack. – Associated Press

The United States wants the United Nations Security Council to condemn Iran in a draft resolution being negotiated to back a ceasefire deal in Yemen’s Hodeidah region, but Russia has rejected the move, diplomats said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Middle East & North Africa

With the U.S. all but absent, the Kremlin sees an opening to become the key power broker in Libya, rudderless and divided since Muammar Qaddafi’s overthrow and death in 2011. Russia is likely to be emboldened in that aim by U.S. plans to pull out of Syria. – Bloomberg

Before their lives ended in an underwater deathtrap, before they lined up 100 to a row on a Libyan beach to board a boat with no anchor, the young men from the parched villages of the Sahel had names. Two forensic investigators, one crisscrossing Africa and another in a university laboratory in Italy, are on a quest against the odds to keep Italy’s promise to find those names.  – Associated Press

A man suspected in the killing of two female tourists from Norway and Denmark in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains belongs to a militant group, a prosecutor said on Wednesday, without identifying the group. – Reuters

The Kremlin said on Wednesday Russia was pressing ahead with a contract to deliver advanced S-400 missile air defense systems to Turkey despite the U.S. State Department approving the possible sale of a rival U.S. missile defense system to Ankara. – Reuters

Turkey has not changed its decision to buy S-400 missile defense systems from Russia but welcomes a U.S. State Department approval of the possible purchase of a rival Patriot system from the United States, two Turkish officials said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Korean Peninsula

The United States plans to review its ban on American travel to North Korea to help facilitate humanitarian aid shipments to the isolated country, Washington’s top envoy to the North said on Wednesday. – New York Times

North Korea’s commitment to the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” also includes “completely eliminating the U.S. nuclear threat to Korea,” North Korean state media said on Thursday. – Reuters

South Korea wants to hold smaller joint military drills with the United States next year, the defense ministry said on Thursday, scaling back larger exercises as part of an effort to boost nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. – Reuters

Hundreds of South Koreans have sued the government for compensation over their forced labor at Japanese firms during World War Two, representatives said on Thursday, in a fresh twist to one of several historical disputes between the two sides. – Reuters


Chinese officials have repeatedly said the Belt and Road is purely an economic project with peaceful intent. But with its plan for Pakistan, China is for the first time explicitly tying a Belt and Road proposal to its military ambitions — and confirming the concerns of a host of nations who suspect the infrastructure initiative is really about helping China project armed might. – New York Times

Canada revealed a third Canadian national in just over a week has been detained in China since the arrest in Vancouver, British Columbia, of Huawei Technologies Co.’s chief financial officer. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that this new case appears to differ from the detention last week of two Canadians—a former diplomat, Michael Kovrig, and an entrepreneur, Michael Spavor, with ties to North Korea—who are both reportedly being held on national security grounds. – Wall Street Journal

China’s foreign ministry said on Thursday it “resolutely opposes” a new U.S. law on Tibet, saying Tibet is an internal affair and that Beijing allows no foreign interference. – Reuters


Against the advice of many in his own administration, President Donald Trump is pulling U.S. troops out of Syria. Could a withdrawal from Afghanistan be far behind? Trump has said his instinct is to quit Afghanistan as a lost cause, but more recently he’s suggested a willingness to stay in search of peace with the Taliban. – Associated Press

The latest talks between the Taliban and a U.S. peace envoy on the war in Afghanistan focused on the withdrawal of NATO troops, the release of prisoners and halting attacks on civilians by pro-government forces, a Taliban spokesman said Wednesday. U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who tweeted that talks held this week in the United Arab Emirates were “productive,” was in Pakistan on Wednesday to meet with the chief of the country’s army before heading to the Afghan capital Kabul later in the day. – Associated Press

Andrew J. Bacevich writes: With the sole exception of Vietnam, the ongoing Afghanistan war represents the greatest failure in U.S. military history. Today, all but a few diehards understand that Vietnam was a debacle of epic proportions. With Afghanistan, it’s different: In both political and military circles, the urge to dodge the truth remains strong. – Los Angeles Times


Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III asked the House Intelligence Committee on Friday for an official transcript of Trump adviser Roger Stone’s testimony, according to people familiar with the request, a sign that prosecutors could be moving to charge him with a crime. It is the first time Mueller has formally asked the committee to turn over material the panel has gathered in its investigation of Russian interference of the 2016 campaign, according to the people. – Washington Post

The United States imposed fresh Russia-related sanctions on Wednesday, expanding a blacklist of individuals allegedly involved in a Kremlin-backed campaign to meddle with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, among other misdeeds. – Reuters

Ukraine plans to again send its warships into the Sea of Azov, a top Ukrainian official said, a move that could set the stage for another clash with Russia. Oleksandr Turchynov, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, […]  that another such mission is necessary to prevent Russia from claiming control over the body of water. Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday denounced his remarks as a “provocation.” – Associated Press

The top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee signaled Wednesday that they do not oppose the Treasury Department’s decision to loosen sanctions on three companies owned by a Russian oligarch with links to Russian President Vladimir Putin and key players in Ukrainian politics, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. – Roll Call


After months of torturous negotiations, acrid insults, internal tensions and enough social media airtime to fill a Netflix series, Italy’s populist leaders bowed to the demands of the European Union to roll back its expensive, rules-flouting budget.  – New York Times

Britain has entered the last 100 days before the nation is set to abandon the European Union. But in the House of Commons on Wednesday, lawmakers spent the afternoon accusing one another of endless dithering. They’re right. If Brexit feels interminable, it is because it is. After yanking a vote on her Brexit deal last week, Prime Minister Theresa May said Parliament won’t get a chance to vote until after the Christmas holidays, during the third week of January. Washington Post

Britain and the European Union are stepping up planning for a scenario they have both long struggled to avoid: the exit of the U.K. from the bloc in March without a withdrawal agreement. – Wall Street Journal

Ireland does not rule out asking the European Union to relax or waive some rules of the single market in the event of a no-deal Brexit in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said on Wednesday. – Reuters

France has launched the first of three identical military imaging satellites, which, when they reach full operational capability at the end of 2021, will replace the aging Helios system and provide 800 very high-resolution black and white, color, and infrared images per day for European military and civilian intelligence agencies. – Defense News

Deepak Malhotra writes: Prime Minister Theresa May was not among the disingenuous Leave campaigners, but she made two significant mistakes early on as prime minister: First, she focused too much on her own political problems and failed to take seriously the European Union’s legitimate fears and constraints. Ignoring the genuine “red lines” of your negotiation counterpart is often a costly mistake. Mrs. May’s second error was her refusal to manage expectations from the beginning. – New York Times

Karina Piser writes: By upholding an antiquated law and pursuing legal action premised on the idea of a closed border between France and Italy, officials are sending a signal that “it’s legitimate to, in a situation on the border where fundamental rights are being violated, side against the people trying to defend those rights.”[…] – The Atlantic

Janusz Bugajski writes: 2019 promises to be a crucial year in the Western Balkans where key decisions will decide its long term future. These decisions can usher in greater state stability, regional security, and international integration, or they could precipitate new conflicts. But regardless of the outcome, the current status quo cannot continue indefinitely. – Center for European Policy Analysis

Latin America

Brazil’s far-right President-elect Jair Bolsonaro said on Tuesday that he would take all action “within the rule of law and democracy” to oppose the governments of Venezuela and Cuba. – Reuters

Guatemalan authorities said Tuesday that they have withdrawn diplomatic immunity from 11 workers with a U.N.-sponsored anti-graft commission who have investigated cases of alleged corruption — including ones targeting President Jimmy Morales’ son and brother. – Associated Press

Nicaragua announced Wednesday that it was expelling international experts investigating allegations of human rights abuses by security forces during anti-government protests earlier this year in which demonstrators had demanded President Daniel Ortega leave office. – Associated Press


Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson released a new strategy document this week that notes a “conceptual challenge” on the lower end of the warfare spectrum. The strategy document is squarely aimed at countering Russia and China – great powers that have engaged in cyber and disinformation campaigns, unsafe intercepts of and interactions with U.S. ships and aircraft, economic aggression towards U.S. allies and partners and other types of “gray zone” activity. – USNI News

The U.S. Coast Guard’s funding for a polar icebreaker is set to be postponed yet again, after Congress and President Donald Trump again failed to reach an agreement on Fiscal Year 2019 funding for the Department of Homeland Security and the Senate today began work on passing another short-term continuing resolution. – USNI News

Douglas J Feith and Seth Cropsey write: The problem of dangers’ being unimaginable was front and center for the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission. Congress created the commission of national-security experts in December 2016. Its report, released last month, conjured up realistic near-term scenarios to show how the U.S., as a result of military deficiencies, might acquiesce to enemy aggression or accept defeat in battle. – Wall Street Journal