Fdd's overnight brief

December 24, 2018

In The News


One of the biggest winners of President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria will be Iran, which can now expand its reach across the Middle East with Washington’s already waning influence taking another hit. – Washington Post

Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards launched war games in the Gulf on Saturday, state television reported, after a U.S. aircraft carrier entered the waterway amid rising tension with Washington over reimposed U.S. sanctions. – Reuters

Iran has executed a businessman convicted of fraud, bribery and embezzlement. State TV reported that Hamid Reza Bagheri Dermani was hanged Saturday. The Supreme Court in November upheld his October death sentence and conviction on a charge of spreading corruption on Earth. – Associated Press

A Tehran regime official gloated on Friday that the US had “failed” in Syria following the Trump administration’s announcement of the withdrawal of American troops from the country. – Algemeiner


President Trump on Sunday said he discussed withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and made clear he is sticking by the decision despite criticism from lawmakers and military leaders. – Wall Street Journal

In interviews, more than two dozen Syrians recently released from the Sednaya military prison in Damascus described a government campaign to clear the decks of political detainees. The former inmates said prisoners are being transferred from jails across Syria to join death-row detainees in Sednaya’s basement and then be executed in pre-dawn hangings. – Washington Post

Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State, has resigned in protest of President Trump’s decision to abruptly withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. – Washington Post

Syria’s nearly eight-year war has gutted the country’s economy. Inflation has soared and output has fallen. Factories and industrial zones have been reduced to rubble. Three-quarters of working age Syrians are either unemployed or inactive, the World Bank said last year. But roadside extortion is still booming. The business has become an enduring feature of Syria’s wartime economy, with pro-government soldiers and militias as well as antiregime rebels exploiting insecurity to justify their checkpoints, […]. – Wall Street Journal

Turkey will delay a planned offensive against Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday, citing talks with the U.S. president and other officials after the administration’s decision this week to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country. – Washington Post

Residents and fighters in territory held by pro-Turkish rebels in northern Syria cautiously welcomed Washington’s decision to pull out troops, viewing it as a chance to push further into Kurdish territory. – Agence France-Presse

Turkey is massing troops near a town in northern Syria held by a U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led force, a war monitor said as Turkish media reported Sunday new reinforcements crossing the borders. – Associated Press

Syria’s state news agency is reporting that a top aide to President Bashar Assad has visited Egypt to discuss political and security issues, including efforts to combat terrorism. – Associated Press

A much touted Russian initiative to facilitate the return of refugees of Syria’s 7-year-old war from around the region appears to have fizzled out, with only a tiny fraction of the nearly 6 million who fled their country since the start of the conflict in March 2011 returning home. – Associated Press

The head of the Israeli military on Sunday called the withdrawal of US troops from Syria a “significant event,” but added there was “no need to overstate it.” – Algemeiner

The order to withdraw American troops from Syria has been signed, the US military said Sunday, after President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart agreed to prevent a power vacuum in the wake of the controversial move. – Agence France-Presse

Walter Russell Mead writes: The most surprising thing about President Trump’s decision to overrule his top advisers and withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan isn’t that it was improvised and disruptive. Sudden shifts are part of Mr. Trump’s method, and disconcerting senior officials is one of his favorite management tools. – Wall Street Journal

David Ignatius writes: What’s agonizing is that Mazloum has been fighting alongside U.S. Special Operations Forces that represent the steadfastness of this country’s military, and now he is experiencing a quite different American face. […] “Because after this decision, what are people going to say about America? All the credibility and trust that was built, we have lost.” – Washington Post

Joost Hiltermann writes: So what is next for the YPG? It could choose to put up a fight, but the low-lying terrain does not favor them, especially against armies. It has two other options: withdraw into the mountains of northern Iraq, where the PKK has long had its stronghold and where it could yet survive fire from Turkish forces; or strike a deal with the Syrian regime to preserve some of its post-2012 gains. – The Atlantic

Russell Berman writes: Yet Trump’s reticence about the United States’ ongoing involvement in faraway conflicts may resonate beyond his conservative base, finding common cause with millions of Americans who have grown weary of the decades-long post-9/11 wars. And the loud clamor of opposition to the president’s decision stands in contrast to the scale of the U.S. military presence in Syria. – The Atlantic


Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pledged on Saturday to implement a court ruling and dissolve the parliament controlled by his rival Hamas movement, triggering warnings of chaos from the Islamic militant group. – Associated Press

President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” peace plan will include a Palestinian state, Israel’s education minister said Sunday. “This would mean an additional Arab entity west of the Jordan River,” Naftali Bennett, a member of Israel’s Security Cabinet and head of the Jewish Home party, said in an interview with Israel Army Radio. – Bloomberg

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued a verbal spat with Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday, calling the Turkish president an “antisemitic dictator” who was “obsessed” with the Jewish state and its military. – Algemeiner

A recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found a significant jump in Hamas’ popularity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. – Jerusalem Post

IDF soldiers opened fire at a group of gunmen who crossed the 1974 ceasefire line in the Golan Heights and were approaching Israel’s border fence from Syria, the army said Sunday night. – Times of Israel

Israel’s leader says the American decision to withdraw its forces from Syria will not affect Israeli policy. – Associated Press

Amos Harel writes: As planned, Israel launched a diplomatic campaign against the Lebanese government and Hezbollah this week after uncovering the tunnels dug by the Shi’ite organization under the Israel-Lebanon border. – Haaretz


The challenges were visible during a rare visit to Hodeida last week. After four years of war, suspicion runs deep between the coalition forces backing Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the rebels, known as Houthis. So profound is the animosity that shelling thundered on during the peace talks and in the days after a deal was reached. – Washington Post

Land mines scattered by Yemen’s Houthi rebels are largely unmapped and will remain a threat even if the latest push for peace succeeds in halting the conflict, those involved in their eradication say. – Associated Press

A U.N. advance team arrived in Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah on Sunday to start monitoring a ceasefire and withdrawal of forces agreed by the Iranian-aligned Houthi group and Saudi-backed government forces, the United Nations said. – Reuters

Mohammed Al-Jaber writes: The Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen made critical compromises in peace talks this month, agreeing to retreat from the key city of Hodeidah and release a stranglehold that has blocked aid from reaching millions. Now the hard part: ensuring the Houthis live by their commitments. – Wall Street Journal


Middle East & North Africa

New insights into the group’s financial holdings have emerged from raids in recent weeks on businesses in Baghdad and Irbil, in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish province. Investigators traced the flow of millions of dollars in Islamic State revenue through banking networks with links to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates as well as Iraq and Syria. – Washington Post

Khashoggi reacted with a combination of the nerve and trepidation that would define the remaining months of his life. He challenged Qahtani about the plight of activists he knew had been imprisoned in the kingdom, according to a friend who witnessed the exchange. But even as he did so, the friend said, “I saw how Jamal’s hand was shaking while holding the phone.” – Washington Post

Turkey began reinforcing its positions on both sides of its border with Syria on Sunday, a Reuters witness said, as Ankara and Washington agreed to coordinate a U.S. withdrawal from Syria. – Reuters

Moroccan authorities believe four suspects in the killing of two Scandinavian women in the Atlas Mountains were acting on their own initiative, even though they had just pledged allegiance to Islamic State, an official said on Sunday. – Reuters

Efforts to finalize a deal on a Lebanese national unity government hit new snags on Saturday, postponing its formation, a senior official closely involved in the efforts said. – Reuters

Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry summoned the deputy charge d’affaires of the embassy of Iraq on Monday to denounce footage of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki criticizing Manama’s crackdown on the Shi’ite opposition. – Reuters

Editorial: So far, the democratic West has responded weakly to such aggressions. If the impunity continues, no exiled dissident will be safe and no Western capital immune from foreign hit squads. That’s one of the reasons imposing consequences on Mohammed bin Salman is more important than arms sales: The United States and other democracies will not thrive in the lawless world he would help to create. – Washington Post

Vivian Bercovici writes: Even by rather robust Israeli standards, the last few weeks have been unusually action packed. Hezbollah tunnels burrowing into Israel from Lebanon were exposed, and the United Nations Security Council reacted to this egregious breach of international law and Resolution 1701 with a big fat yawn. […] . Each of the inventoried occurrences above is explosive in terms of its potential to destabilize the Middle East and beyond. Combined and in a short period of time, they are positively thermonuclear. – Commentary Magazine


Canada tried to turn up pressure on China on Saturday over the detention of two Canadians caught up in a struggle between global superpowers, with its foreign minister calling their imprisonment “arbitrary” and “a precedent that is worrying not only for Canada but for the world.” – New York Times

U.K. authorities are increasingly concerned that Huawei Technologies Co. hasn’t fixed a software issue in its telecommunications equipment months after a British lab flagged it, souring the Chinese company’s ties in one of its most important foreign markets. – Wall Street Journal

China’s aggressive policing of Muslims in its western region of Xinjiang is being replicated in other parts of the country, particularly in areas with other Muslim communities. – Wall Street Journal

Fresh U.S. accusations of cyber thieving by China add to friction between the countries, though both sides show signs of trying to contain the damage while trade talks are under way. Federal indictments unsealed by the Trump administration on Thursday leveled criminal charges against two Chinese nationals, alleging they stole sensitive information from Western businesses and government agencies in a campaign led by China’s intelligence service. – Wall Street Journal

The book is so popular that the publishers have ordered print run after print run. A Chinese thriller? A romantic page turner? Not even close. It calls for the Chinese people to gird themselves for a long war against a hostile foreign force, and suffer short-term setbacks along the way to final victory. It’s about resilience and perseverance, refined fighting skills and an absolute belief that you can win. – Washington Post

China plans to ban local governments from forcing foreign companies to transfer proprietary technology to their Chinese partners, to address a complaint at the heart of the US-China trade and technology dispute. – Financial Times

Noah Smith writes: Unfortunately, there are some signs that China has been creating an increasingly hostile climate for overseas businesses in recent years. China mandates that foreign companies operating in certain strategic industries form joint ventures with local Chinese companies. The multinationals’ technology is then rapidly stolen or copied;[…]. – Bloomberg


Maintaining the mission will require the Pentagon to keep at least one major base open, most likely Bagram Airfield north of Kabul. The installation is home to a Special Operations task force from which Army Rangers and other elite forces launch raids, F-16 jets and other strike aircraft, and units that support them. – Washington Post

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani named two former heads of the intelligence services to key security posts in his government on Sunday in a step that could affect both next year’s presidential election and moves toward peace with the Taliban. – Reuters

Asfandyar Mir writes: The pressure on al-Qaeda might be sustained if Afghan intelligence agencies can substitute for the U.S. intelligence infrastructure that will fold with the drawdown. A surge in offshore U.S. capabilities, like aerial surveillance and communication interception, and armed striking platforms such as drones could enable the U.S. government to manage al-Qaeda’s threat. – Washington Post


British forces stormed an Italian cargo ship on Friday and gained control after stowaways had threatened crew members as the vessel sailed close to southeast England. – Reuters

The Italian Senate on Sunday passed a revised 2019 budget agreed after a tense standoff with Brussels which saw the populist government water down key measures. – Agence France-Presse

U.K. Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn ruled out backing a new referendum on leaving the European Union, telling the Guardian he would prefer to renegotiate a customs arrangement with the bloc in a decision that disappointed some party members. – Bloomberg

Theresa May has cut short her cabinet ministers’ Christmas break, summoning them to a meeting to discuss a no-deal Brexit on January 2, as the UK prime minister tries to ramp up pressure on her critics. – Financial Times

Rick Novak writes: Yet, somewhat curiously, talks about a permanent U.S. presence on Polish soil with the aim of deterring Russia appear to be moving ahead even as Trump is raising questions over the future of the NATO, according to recent interviews with government representatives. Last month, Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak told Polish radio that it was not a question of whether but of how the base would be constructed. Top officials repeated those claims this week. – Washington Post


A suicide car bombing on Saturday near the presidential palace in Mogadishu, the Somalian capital, has killed at least 13 people and wounded at least 17 others, the police said. – New York Times

Editorial: America needs to care about Africa and the rest of the world, at least because Russia and China care about them. But in our engagement to counteract our authoritarian and socialist rivals, we need to be sure we don’t become them. – Washington Examiner

Grant T. Harris writes: The United States is right to be concerned about Chinese investment in Africa. According to the consulting firm McKinsey, more than 10,000 Chinese companies now do business on the continent, earning approximately $180 billion each year. Although the United States still has more foreign direct investment stock in Africa, Chinese investment in the region is growing fast. It more than doubled in 2016 alone. – Foreign Affairs

United States

The Trump administration warned Sunday that the partial government shutdown could stretch into January, squeezing furloughed workers and shifting a high-stakes spending fight into a new Congress where Democrats control the House. – Wall Street Journal

US lawmakers headed home for Christmas leaving the government partially shut for a third day Monday in an impasse over President Donald Trump’s demand for border wall funding, a standoff which the White House budget director said may continue until a new Congress takes over in January. – Agence France-Presse

The partial government shutdown that began Friday could stretch for more than two weeks, with negotiations at a stalemate and congressional leaders leaving town to spend Christmas with family. – Politico

America’s federal cybersecurity workforce will see sharp reductions if Congress fails to pass a spending bill to keep the government open, according to planning documents from federal agencies. – Fifth Domain

Editorial: Just when the Republican party’s loss of control of the domestic agenda in Congress makes Mr Trump likely to pivot more to foreign policy, Mr Mattis’s departure is a heavy blow. The defence secretary valued US allies and was firm with foes. He was the last of the so-called “adults” in the administration. […] The tone and timing of his resignation letter, defending the need to “respect allies” and be “resolute” with adversaries, was damning. – Financial Times

Latin America

An oil exploration ship run by Exxon Mobil Corp. halted work and fled after being intercepted by Venezuela’s Navy, rekindling a border dispute between the two nations just as a separate political crisis threatened Guyana’s government. – Wall Street Journal

In barely a week’s time, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has cemented the authoritarian reputation of his government by shuttering the offices some of the few remaining resonant voices of dissent and expelling the international monitors documenting his government’s alleged crimes. – Associated Press

The director of a TV station critical of President Daniel Ortega was accused Saturday of inciting terrorism after authorities raided and shut down the station’s offices in their latest salvo against independent media and nongovernmental organizations. – Associated Press


SpaceX has launched the U.S. Air Force’s most powerful GPS satellite ever built. A Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday, hoisting the satellite toward orbit. – Associated Press

A looming partial government shutdown will not directly affect the Department of Defense operations, but several agencies that work with DoD will either have to stop or severely curtail their activities. The U.S. Coast Guard, which works closely with the Pentagon, especially the Navy in patrolling offshore waters, is among the agencies that will be without funding without an appropriations deal. – USNI News

Guided-missile destroyer Paul Ignatius (DDG-117) has completed its acceptance trials ahead of an expected early 2019 delivery to the Navy, Naval Sea System Command announced on Friday. The Flight IIA Arleigh Burke-class destroyer spent two days in the Gulf of Mexico working through a series of demonstrations and tests for the U.S. Navy’s Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV). – USNI News

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ resignation Thursday — and President Donald Trump’s retaliatory swifter removal Sunday — raised concerns as to whether anyone could now serve as a check on the president. – Military Times

Long War

A French judicial official said the gunman suspected of shooting and killing five people in a Christmas market attack in Strasbourg this month had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. – Associated Press

Just days before submitting his resignation, U.S. special envoy Brett McGurk, who heads the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State, said in an exclusive interview that putting an end to ISIS will be a long-term, multiyear effort. – CNBC

Terror group al Qaeda is “resurgent” and looking to carry out attacks on passenger planes in Europe, UK Security Minister Ben Wallace has warned. – CNN

Trump Administration

President Trump, who aides said has been seething about news coverage of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s pointed resignation letter, abruptly announced Sunday that he was removing Mattis two months before his planned departure and installing Patrick Shanahan as acting defense secretary. – Washington Post

Donald Trump on Sunday announced he will replace Defense Secretary Jim Mattis with his deputy Patrick Shanahan, speeding up the Pentagon chief’s planned exit days after he quit, citing key policy differences with the US president. –  Agence France-Presse

Eli Lake writes: At the same time, Haley showed an ability to work within the institution. In addition to the North Korea sanctions, Haley and her team pushed through a set of reforms to streamline the UN bureaucracy and cut some of the waste from the budget. She wisely gave up on trying to reform the farcical UN Human Rights Council, instead withdrawing the U.S. from it in June. – Bloomberg

Hal Brands writes: They have done so for a variety of reasons: The paucity of real, near-term alternatives to relying on America, fear of further alienating the president, hope that Trump would be turned out of office in 2020. Yet U.S. allies also believed that they could rely on officials like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and especially James Mattis to rein in the president. – Bloomberg