Fdd's overnight brief

November 5, 2019

In The News


The largest mass protests to hit Iraq and Lebanon in decades are posing a direct challenge to the influence Iran has gained in both countries as demonstrators seek to overturn the political order. – Wall Street Journal

On the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran, the Trump administration imposed new sanctions Monday on the core inner circle of advisers to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and added $20 million to a reward for information about a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran 12 years ago. – Washington Post

Ahead of the 40th anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran unveiled new anti-U.S. murals on the exterior of the former diplomatic mission over the weekend. – Washington Post

In an effort to counter American sanctions, Iran will pull further away from a landmark nuclear accord signed four years ago, President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday, announcing that the country would inject uranium gas into more than 1,000 centrifuges. – New York Times

The Islamic Republic’s reputation is in no way smeared with money laundering, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on November 3, while admitting that money laundering in the country amounts to billions of dollars. – Radio Farda

The spokesperson for Iran’s Judiciary has confirmed that hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, a judge during the 1988 execution of thousands of political prisoners, will be Iran’s next Chief Justice. – Iran News Wire

Editorial: There’s an opportunity here to force Iran back into line by accepting an expanded nuclear deal in return for sanctions relief. Europe should seize the moment, and help the U.S. bring Iran back into line. – Chicago Tribune

Jason Rezaian writes: The United States and its allies are starting to individually acknowledge the severity of the problem. […]This is a good step, but not enough. A collective approach is needed to end this 40-year menace. Without one, we risk other governments using hostage-taking as an acceptable tool of diplomacy. – Washington Post

Richard Ratcliffe writes: The British and U.S. governments have an obligation to protect their own citizens and to work with allies and the United Nations to bring an end to Iran’s hostage taking. And the world has an obligation, not just to stand up for Nazanin, but to stand up for human rights. – Washington Post

Michael Rubin writes: Perhaps it is time for liberals and European diplomats who lament the fact that U.S.-Iran relations seemingly continue to deteriorate to stop blaming Washington. Instead, whatever the bilateral litany of grievances both capitals can cite, the fact that Iran not only attacked America’s embassy but also continues to occupy it suggests that its antipathy to international norms and the framework of diplomacy remain unreformed. – Washington Examiner

Zvi Bar’el writes: The conflicting statements made recently by Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, which signaled the preconditions for negotiations with the U.S. despite the ayatollah’s vehemently opposing position, may be evidence that Khamenei’s determined stance isn’t the last word. – Haaretz


The number of US troops in Syria remains roughly stable at just under 1,000 three weeks after President Donald Trump announced their withdrawal, a US official said Monday. – Agence France-Presse

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was interviewed on Syria TV on October 31, 2019. He said that the extremist Wahhabi doctrine represented by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and ISIS will continue to exist even after ISIS is gone and that Al-Baghdadi had been released from American prisons in Syria in order to lead ISIS. – Middle East Media Research Institute

A former U.S. Army colonel and veteran of the Iraq War, U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth reacted with disgust at President Donald Trump’s sudden withdrawal last month of U.S. troops from Syria. – Courthouse News

Abigail Watson and Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen write: Trump’s recent decisions allowed a quick and dramatic flaring of violence, but his policies alone did not cause the insecurity and conflict. Policies that preceded him and created uncertainly and fragility in the region did.[…] As the international community unites in outrage at Trump’s policies once again, it would be naïve and even dangerous to see them as a complete break from the past. The sooner we recognize this, the sooner we can put to bed the myth of risk-free war. – Defense One

Seth G. Jones writes: It should be no surprise that in October 2019—shortly before the death of al-Baghdadi—the social media app TikTok removed roughly two dozen accounts related to the Islamic State, which posted slick, catchy videos designed to recruit supporters. These developments suggest that the struggle is not over. It is just entering a new phase. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Turkey’s weekslong efforts to seize Kurdish-held territories in Syria have put the Turkish military on a collision course with the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite a recent agreement between Moscow and Ankara to prevent hostilities. – Wall Street Journal

A Turkish court sentenced two journalists to about 10 years in prison for aiding a terrorist group but also ordered them released Monday in view of time served, in one of the most prominent cases of journalists jailed in the crackdown after the 2016 failed coup. – New York Times

A major Turkish state-run bank is seeking to dismiss a U.S. indictment against it for allegedly helping Iran evade sanctions on billions of dollars frozen in foreign accounts. – Bloomberg

The Turkish attack on U.S.-backed Kurds in the northeastern reaches of Syria might have been headed off, the Pentagon’s top Middle East policy official said in an exclusive exit interview with Defense One. – Defense One

Soner Cagaptay, Deniz Yuksel, and Matthew Hernandez write: Therefore, as U.S. officials build their agenda for Erdogan’s announced November 13 visit to Washington—an occasion that will be discussed at length in a separate PolicyWatch later this week, though media reports suggest Erdogan might cancel—they should urge Ankara to abandon provocative tactics toward Cyprus. They should also encourage regional powers to invite Ankara to participate in joint East Mediterranean initiatives as a way to defuse tensions and prevent conflict between U.S. regional partners. – Washington Institute

Gonul Tol writes: Only a more democratic Turkey can address the Kurdish question peacefully. The US should not see Turkey as a lost cause. There is still hope for democracy in Turkey. Given growing support in Turkey for EU membership and anti-Americanism, the US would be better advised to work with the European Union for democracy assistance to Tukey, attach democratic conditionality to Turkey-US free trade agreement and military aid, and incentivize American NGOs to monitor election monitoring. – Middle East Institute


Israel will soon release two Jordanians whose months-long detention without charge, after crossing into the occupied West Bank, had led Jordan to recall its ambassador, the two countries said on Monday. – Reuters

To salvage his legacy, the Palestinian Authority president has called — again — for the first national elections since 2006, when an Islamist win triggered a split that has set back the Palestinian national struggle ever since. It’s a tactic that could backfire on him if Hamas wins again — or prove another sign of his weakness if elections aren’t held. – Bloomberg

The Massachusetts senator and 2020 presidential hopeful took questions from the crowd in Grinnell, Iowa, on Monday, with one attendee saying, “Right now, the United States is bombing at least seven countries. We support genocides in Palestine and in Yemen. The U.S. military is actually the biggest polluter of any organization in the world.” – Washington Examiner

The leader of Gaza’s ruling terrorist group Hamas on Monday threatened the head of Israel’s Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, who is currently trying to set up a government. – Algemeiner

Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, on Monday threatened to turn Israeli cities into “ghost towns” and warned the terror group has enough firepower to launch rockets into Tel Aviv “for six months in a row.” – Ynet

Michael Oren writes: But I also remember that, back in 1973, Egypt and Syria saw a president preoccupied with an impeachment procedure, and concluded that Israel was vulnerable. In the subsequent war, Israel prevailed—but at an excruciating price. The next war could prove even costlier. – The Atlantic

Steven Emerson writes: A new study published this month in the CTC Sentinel explores this development by analyzing several cases of Hezbollah’s alleged social media efforts to recruit Israeli Arabs and Palestinians to kill Israelis. – Algemeiner


It started quietly a month or so ago with scattered protests. Those steadily expanded until last week more than 200,000 Iraqis marched in Baghdad, raging against the Iraqi government and a foreign occupier — not the United States this time, but Iran. – New York Times

Anti-government protesters crossed a major bridge in Baghdad on Monday, approaching the prime minister’s office and the headquarters of Iraq’s state-run TV, as security forces fired live ammunition and tear gas, killing at least five demonstrators and wounding dozens. – Associated Press

Just months after the Islamic State militant group lost the last of its territory in Syria, and days after its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in a U.S.-led raid, the group has found safe haven in a remote, ungoverned space in Iraq, as foreign fighters move across the border from Syria, military officials tell NBC news. – NBC News

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Aramco is undoubtedly huge and very profitable. But what’s the company worth? That question was one of many left unanswered Sunday when the company, the world’s dominant oil producer, announced it would sell a stake to investors. – New York Times

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pursued landmark reforms since coming to power, but his rise has been accompanied by “deepening repression and abusive practices”, Human Rights Watch said Monday. – Agence France-Presse

Editorial: International investors may believe themselves immune from such treatment. They shouldn’t be so sure. Among those caught up in the Saudi sweeps are U.S. citizens and one of the world’s most prominent investors, Alwaleed bin Talal. Anyone buying into Saudi Arabia has to be prepared for the reckless adventures and strong-arm tactics of its 34-year-old ruler. – Washington Post

Karen Elliott House writes: The American buildup looks intended to deter future Iranian aggression, but whether the Trump administration would engage or duck is anyone’s guess given the lack of a formal U.S.-Saudi mutual-security treaty. The Saudis are understandably nervous after President Obama failed to enforce his “red line” in Syria and President Trump made no response to Iran’s downing of an American drone in June or its attack on Aramco six weeks ago. – Wall Street Journal

Middle East & North Africa

U.S. President Donald Trump spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Monday and voiced support for negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over a giant hydroelectric dam on Ethiopia’s Blue Nile, the White House said. – Reuters

Jordan’s cabinet on Monday resigned ahead of a government reshuffle expected in the next few days, the state news agency said. – Reuters

Demonstrators in Lebanon tried to block key roads Monday after a weekend of mass rallies confirmed that political promises had failed to extinguish the unprecedented protest movement. – Agence France-Presse

Korean Peninsula

South Korean lawmaker Won Yoo-chul calls it “Trump risk” — the possibility that he will wake to a tweet from the U.S. president abruptly announcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula. – Washington Post

President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appear to be poised to meet for another nuclear summit in December, South Korea says. – Washington Examiner

Sue Mi Terry writes: Mr. Trump’s incoherent approach to North Korea has left the U.S. with few good options. Unless he is prepared to make major concessions, the North may well resume major provocations in the new year. Mr. Trump claims to be a master deal maker, but he certainly hasn’t shown it in his relationship with Kim Jong Un. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


U.S. and Chinese officials are actively considering rolling back some tariffs to clinch the partial trade deal under negotiation, according to people familiar with the talks. – Wall Street Journal

Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, broadly endorsed free trade principles and promised to welcome foreign investment in a speech on Tuesday, but he stopped short of providing specifics or addressing his country’s long-running trade war with the United States. – New York Times

Chinese leader Xi Jinping offered his full support for embattled Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam as he sought to project an image of assuredness amid political challenges from China’s southern periphery and from the United States. – Washington Post

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Monday cast doubt on whether Chinese telecom equipment vendor Huawei Technologies could participate in the development and construction of the country’s fifth-generation data network (5G). – Reuters


The fact that the two biggest controversies of the Trump presidency have revolved around Russia and Ukraine — two former Soviet republics in a state of perpetual conflict — might have seemed like a strange coincidence. More and more, we’re learning it’s not. – Washington Post

The snipers are among about 200 Russian fighters who have arrived in Libya in the last six weeks, part of a broad campaign by the Kremlin to reassert its influence across the Middle East and Africa. – New York Times

President Trump needs to be more “aggressive” in pressuring Russia to release detained American citizen Paul Whelan, said an American lawyer who is working on the case. – Washington Examiner

Boris Johnson was on Monday night accused of presiding over a cover-up after it emerged that No 10 refused to clear the publication of a potentially incendiary report examining Russian infiltration in British politics, including the Conservative party. – The Guardian


Ukraine’s military has postponed a second stage of a weapons pullback in the country’s conflict-ridden east, drawing criticism from the Kremlin’s envoy to a group trying to help end the fighting. – Associated Press

The European Union is closing in on an accord that would allow the U.S. government and American companies to participate in joint defense projects, potentially removing a source of friction in transatlantic ties. – Bloomberg

Europe needs to do much more to protect its Jewish community, including stationing police outside every Jewish institution, according to the new head of the working group on anti-Semitism in the European Parliament. – Times of Israel


Pirates attacked a Greek oil tanker off the coast of Togo on Monday and fled after taking four crew members as hostages, the West African nation’s navy and Greek authorities said, two days after a similar attack in the waters of neighboring Benin. – Reuters

Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has appealed for citizens to unite behind the country’s army, after the latest deadly militant strike killed more than 40 soldiers. – Agence France-Presse

The jihadist conflict that erupted in northern Mali in 2012 has swept into the country’s centre, igniting a tinderbox of ethnic resentment and stoking fears for the future of this fragile nation. – Agence France-Presse

The Americas

Federal authorities in Colorado have arrested a man they accused of plotting to blow up a synagogue in Pueblo, a city two hours south of Denver, according to federal court documents. – New York Times

Relatives say at least five U.S. citizens, including four children, who live in a religious community in northern Mexico were killed in a shooting attack they suspect may have been a case of mistaken identity by drug cartel gunmen. – Associated Press

Guatemalan President-elect Alejandro Giammattei said on Monday that he will break off all diplomatic relations with the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro when he takes office on Jan. 14. – Reuters

Mexican drug cartels are making “mass quantities” of fake prescription pills containing the synthetic opioid fentanyl with the intention of selling them to users throughout North America, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said on Monday. – Reuters


The U.S. Navy has reached an agreement with General Dynamics Corp. on a multibillion-dollar deal to buy the next batch of Virginia-class attack submarines, according to the service. – Bloomberg

A group of technology experts chartered by Congress to guide American efforts in artificial intelligence have released their initial report on how to ensure AI development stays on track inside the United States. And, overall, there’s a lot of work to do. – C4ISRNET

No country, including the United States, is capable of going it alone, trying to meet the economic and military challenges of the Indo-Pacific region, said Australia’s defense minister. – USNI News

The Navy and General Dynamics Electric Boat appear to have reached an agreement to build nine Block V Virginia-class submarines with an option for a tenth, but the pending deal is getting tepid applause from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. – USNI News

If Congress wants to pass the 2020 defense policy bill before the end of the year, lawmakers may have only three weeks to break a partisan deadlock between the House and Senate. – Defense News

The Air Force launched two experimental cubesats Nov. 2 that could provide key insights on the viability of fielding a proliferated constellation of satellites in low earth orbit in the next few years. – C4ISRNET

Tom Rogan writes: U.S. Navy patrols through the South China Sea and U.S. Air Force and Army units in Eastern Europe are vital to the security of an economic order that has already made poor people richer all across the world. Put simply, the Western order is just, and it has demonstrably improved the lives of peoples across the world. Here, at least, Ilhan Omar has got it totally wrong. – Washington Examiner

John Conger writes: The Department of Defense is wise to prioritize installation resilience, but it needs to get past the installation border and think regionally, in cooperation with other federal agencies, to truly cope with the threats facing its bases.[…] Civilian communities are true partners, proud of their roles in supporting their military neighbors. DoD can – and should—work with them to address resilience together, to their mutual benefit. – Defense One

Long War

Turkey captured the elder sister of the slain leader of the Islamic State group in northwestern Syria on Monday, according to a senior Turkish official, who called the arrest an intelligence “gold mine.” – Associated Press

North Korea said Tuesday the U.S. redesignation of Pyongyang as a sponsor of terrorism is dimming prospects for nuclear diplomacy between the countries. – Associated Press

Britain downgraded its national terrorism threat level to “substantial” from “severe” on Monday, its lowest level since 2014, interior minister Priti Patel said. – Reuters

Trump Administration

House investigators on Monday released the first transcripts from closed-door depositions taken as part of the impeachment inquiry as four White House officials, including John Eisenberg, a lawyer central to the Ukraine controversy, defied subpoenas to testify. – Washington Post

The former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine testified that she was the target of a shadow campaign to orchestrate her removal that involved President Trump’s personal attorney and Ukrainian officials suspected of fostering corruption, according to a transcript of her testimony released Monday by House impeachment investigators. – Washington Post

Ukraine plans to fire the prosecutor who led investigations into the firm where Joe Biden’s son served on the board, a central figure in the activity at the heart of impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump, a source told Reuters. – Reuters