Fdd's overnight brief

October 11, 2019

In The News


Explosions hit an Iranian tanker near the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah on Friday, sending oil prices higher amid already heightened concerns over the security of oil infrastructure in the Middle East. – Wall Street Journal   

All crew members of an Iranian oil vessel that was on fire in the Red Sea after an explosion are safe and the situation of the tanker is stable, Iran’s Nour news agency reported on Friday. – Reuters 

Israel’s military has a secret weapon as the war-between-war campaign against Hezbollah and Iran continues to expand: the Language Teaching Department at the Military Intelligence and Cyber Instruction Unit (MICIU), a language school where soldiers become fluent in Arabic or Farsi in under two months.  – Jerusalem Post

In an interview published Thursday, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen said a potential Israeli assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the head of the elite Quds Force in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was “not impossible.” – Times of Israel   

Oula A. Alrifai writes: Deir al-Zour’s centrality to Iran’s religious and strategic goals was reinforced this past July, when IRGC-Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani visited al-Bukamal in person. There, he met with militia leaders to establish a new unit under the name “Liwa Hurras al-Maqamat” (The Guardians of Holy Shrines Brigade), which will be charged with defending Shia shrines recently built in Deir al-Zour. By placing new Shia shrines on or near older holy sites previously established by Sunni dynasties, the IRGC seeks to manufacture local religious legitimacy. – Washington Institute


Turkish forces and their Syrian Arab allies swept into northern Syria on Thursday, killing at least 23 Kurdish fighters in a sharp escalation of a campaign against a Kurdish-led militia that had fought alongside the United States against the Islamic State. – New York Times 

Turkey’s military strike on Wednesday against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria — a group long regarded as the United States’ most reliable Syrian partner in its fight against the Islamic State — has been years in the making. – New York Times 

President Trump has gone to great lengths to defend his decision for U.S. troops to step aside this week as Turkey plowed ahead with an offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria, a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State. – Washington Post

Turkey’s Defense Ministry says a Turkish soldier has been killed during action in Syria — Turkey’s first military fatality in Ankara’s cross-border offensive, now into its third day. – Associated Press  

The divided U.N. Security Council failed to agree on Turkey’s offensive in northeast Syria on Thursday, with Europeans demanding a halt to military action and Syrian ally Russia calling for “restraint” and “direct dialogue” between the two countries. – Associated Press  

The Kurdish fighters have few options. They could turn to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and its allies Russia and Iran for support, but that would mean giving up the autonomy they built up in the north over nearly 30 percent of Syria. […]Otherwise, the 60,000-fighter force, which was the core ground force in the US-backed campaign against Islamic State militants, may have to fight to its last soldier. In the war with IS, it lost 11,000 fighters. – Associated Press    

Turkey will take custody of Islamic State prisoners only in areas of northern Syria where Turkish troops are trying to create a buffer, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday, contradicting a key claim made by President Donald Trump. – Bloomberg 

Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Maqdad on Thursday attacked U.S.-backed Kurdish led forces saying they had betrayed their country and accused them of a separatist agenda that gave Turkey a pretext to violate his country’s sovereignty. – Reuters   

For the eight years that Syria has been mired in a civil war that’s claimed more than half a million lives, the U.S. and Turkey have been among the fiercest critics of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, arming his opponents and condemning his abuses. […]Fast forward to late 2019, and Washington and Ankara’s actions might yet help Assad regain his hold over most of pre-war Syria. – Bloomberg 

Former deputy director of the CIA has cited President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria as evidence of the commander in chief’s “impulsive and reckless instincts” which have left the administration rudderless. […]He also suggested that two of America’s biggest rivals—Russia and Iran—would be the ultimate beneficiaries. – Newsweek 

The Syrian Kurdish-led authorities accused Turkey of shelling a prison holding Islamic State (IS) militants of more than 60 nationalities, calling this “a clear attempt” to help them escape. – Reuters 

Senators critical of President Donald Trump’s sudden military withdrawal from Syria are prepping a legislative response to the Turkish offensive there, but some colleagues worry America’s Kurdish partners may be dead by the time sanctions are imposed. – Defense News  

Diane Foley, Art Sotloff and Shirley Sotloff write: Our U.S. troop withdrawal suggests that it is okay to abandon our allies, to no longer care about the suffering of innocents, and to kidnap and kill Americans abroad without any accountability. […]We implore President Trump to reconsider this decision and to deny the Islamic State the opportunity to regroup and continue its reign of terror. […]If we ever want to stop terrorists, they must face the consequences of their horrific crimes. All of them, not just a representative few. – Washington Post 

Peter Baker and Lara Jakes write: No one should have been surprised, and yet it seems that everyone was. President Trump made clear long ago that he wanted to get out of the Middle East, but even some of his own supporters evidently assumed that he would not follow through or that someone would stop him. As a result, the international crisis that many of his opponents feared for so long has finally arrived, but it is one of Mr. Trump’s own making and one that pits him against his own party and his own government. The Turkish assault on America’s Kurdish allies that he effectively facilitated reflects his foreign policy in its rawest Trumpian form. – New York Times 

Michael Rubin writes: Under Erdoğan, Turkey supported the Islamic State financially, logistically, and materially. The true basis of their solidarity, however, is a shared Islamist supremacist vision. What the Islamic State did in is five-year caliphate, Turkish and Ottoman forces did a century ago to Turkey’s Armenian and other Christian populations. […]Trump may define himself as a president who stands up for religious freedom, but his latest move on Syria shows that he is instead an enabler to the enemies of religious freedom. – Washington Examiner  

Eli Lake writes: Amid the unfolding disaster in Syria, Mazloum Abdi offers the slightest sliver of hope: The Kurdish and Arab fighters guarding Islamic State prisoners remain at their posts. For now. […]If Trump cannot persuade Erdogan to pull back his army, then Abdi confirmed what most of the U.S. government already knows: He will seek out a partnership with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. – Bloomberg 


During a contentious Oval Office meeting with President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in 2017, Rudolph W. Giuliani pressed for help in securing the release of a jailed client, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader, as part of a potential prisoner swap with Turkey. […]Mr. Giuliani, in an interview on Thursday, defended his actions in the gold trader case, which were first reported on Wednesday by Bloomberg. – New York Times 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged the U.S. and other NATO allies to back Turkey’s military offensive in Syria, threatening to allow waves of Syrian refugees to head for European shores if his country doesn’t receive adequate support. – Wall Street Journal   

As Turkey’s military incursion into Syria continues, President Donald Trump is telling reporters the U.S. has only two choices: Hit Ankara hard with financial sanctions or send in U.S. troops to stop the fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces. – Associated Press   

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) plans to introduce legislation in the coming days to implement sanctions on Turkey over its incursion into northern Syria after President Trump withdrew U.S. forces from the area. – The Hill  

On Thursday, Norway’s Foreign Minister Ine Soreide announced in an email to AFP that, given the complexity and ever-changing nature of the situation, “as a precautionary measure” the foreign ministry “will not handle any new demands for exports of defense material or material for multiple uses to Turkey.” – Fox News

Leonid Bershidsky writes: Erdogan isn’t really an effective gatekeeper when it comes to Europe’s refugee influx. In fact, his military operation in Syria may send a flood of Kurdish asylum seekers to Europe by other routes. The readmission agreement has served its purpose, and the EU shouldn’t cling to it. – Bloomberg  

Hassan Mneimneh writes: Ankara, which has a demonstrable record of leveraging ISIS against the PKK-aligned PYD, cannot be entrusted with the management of the vexing problem of ISIS’s legacy of fighters and families. Turkey is openly seeking to deny the PYD the ability to create or maintain its autonomous region by reducing it geographically and reconfiguring it demographically through the anticipated relocation of Syrian refugees. – Washington Institute 


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday denounced the just-launched Turkish invasion of the Kurdish region of northern Syria. “Israel strongly condemns the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish areas in Syria and warns against the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey and its proxies,” the prime minister stated. – Algemeiner 

With little to show from 18 months of demonstrations beyond the hundreds of people killed or wounded by Israeli fire, many Gazans are beginning to question and even criticize the Hamas-led protests, a rarity in a territory where dissent is barely tolerated by the ruling Islamic militant group. – Associated Press  

Israeli security forces early Friday mapped the home of an alleged terrorist who helped carry out a deadly West Bank bombing last month, ahead of its demolition, the army said. – Times of Israel   

Eight improvised pipe bombs have been seized during police operations in the Palestinian Authority village of Al-Eizariya, between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim. – Arutz Sheva 

Middle East & North Africa

President Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. commandos out of northern Syria ahead of Turkey’s incursion will further destabilize the Middle East and empower Russia, his former National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster, warned Thursday. – Politico

Saudi Arabia’s deputy defense minister said on Thursday he discussed regional security and military cooperation with senior US government officials at a time of heightened tension with Iran following last month’s attacks on Saudi oil facilities. – Reuters  

Moroccan human rights activists have been targeted by hackers armed with sophisticated computing spying software amid a government crackdown on protests in recent years, according to research by Amnesty International. – Reuters  

Tunisia voted over the weekend in its third parliamentary elections since the 2011 revolution that brought a new sense of democracy to the country. With 41% turnout, the election faced some hurdles, but nevertheless shows the country is on a different path than many of its neighbors that are struggling with authoritarianism or instability. – Jerusalem Post

Joshua Rovner writes: A central lesson from the Iraq surge is the danger that arises when tactical necessity allows political and military leaders to put strategy on hold. […]Those who favor a continued presence in Syria are obligated to explain how deployed forces will facilitate a durable outcome at an acceptable cost. The alternative is a semi-permanent garrison in the heart of the Middle East, whose mission and purpose are unclear. – War on the Rocks  

Korean Peninsula

South Korea will begin the second phase of its plan to acquire stealthy fighter jets, code-named F-X III, by acquiring 20 more F-35s, the country’s arms procurement agency has confirmed. – Defense News  

The Republic of Korea Navy (RoKN) revealed in a report presented to lawmakers on 10 October that it has been running a task force on the potential construction of nuclear-powered submarines, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported the same day. – Jane’s 360 

Sung-Yoon Lee writes: Instead, the U.S. must enforce sanctions against North Korea, levying nine-digit fines on Pyongyang’s accomplices. Only with financial leverage gained should Washington resume negotiations with Pyongyang. – The Hill  


U.S.-China trade talks kicked off amid expectations that Beijing’s emissaries are ready to offer compromises aimed at getting President Trump to hold off on tariff increases set to take effect next week and in December. – Wall Street Journal   

China is behaving in a way that is inconsistent with Australian values by targeting political parties and universities in Australia, a senior government minister said on Friday in comments that threaten to further inflame bilateral tensions. – Reuters

A new front has opened in the U.S.-China trade war as companies shifting manufacturing to Vietnam engage in a fierce battle for skilled labor, aggravating an existing shortage and prompting calls for education reforms to address the problem. – Reuters

The latest round of talks may give us a better idea. Or they won’t. But if what the past week has illustrated is a deterioration in U.S.-China ties, that’ll be bad for everyone. – Bloomberg 

U.S. and Chinese negotiators meet in Washington on Thursday and Friday to try, once again, to defuse a trade war that has roiled markets and triggered tit-for-tat tariffs on hundreds of billions of goods traded between the world’s largest economies. – Reuters

An adviser to President Donald Trump who received material from Chinese officials last week on Hunter Biden’s dealings with Beijing told McClatchy on Thursday that its contents do not expand on publicly available information. – McClatchy 

With many investors worried about further economic damages from the U.S.-China trade war, even a “pause” in that bilateral fight would be a “big relief” to markets, according to an economist. – CNBC

Editorial: At last, the Trump administration has placed sanctions on some of the most significant government and business organizations enabling and executing China’s campaign to eradicate the culture and language of more than 1 million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang province. The administration says it has also blocked some Chinese officials who are carrying out the repression from gaining visas to the United States. These measures were necessary, overdue and must be sustained as long as China puts the Uighurs and other Muslims in concentration camps. [….]For the sanctions to represent real bite, they must now stick. – Washington Post


A married couple who appear to have been inspired by the Islamic State attacked Indonesia’s chief security minister, Wiranto, as he visited western Java on Thursday, the police said. – New York Times 

In a fiery speech likely to upset Beijing, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen called on the island’s people to draw lessons from the violent protests in Hong Kong and pledged to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty. – Wall Street Journal

Thailand’s powerful army chief has declared that the country’s government is virtually at war with its critics, warning that politicians and intellectuals may “manipulate” young people to stage protests like those in Hong Kong. – Associated Press

Chinese President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi are expected to agree new security measures along their unsettled border during a summit on Friday, officials said, in an effort to smooth ties ruffled by differences over Kashmir. – Reuters 

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said on Friday he had ordered tighter security for state officials a day after a suspected Islamist militant stabbed the chief security minister as he was greeting crowds in a provincial town. – Reuters

Hundreds of mask-wearing pro-democracy protesters marched through Hong Kong’s central business district at lunchtime on Friday, occupying a main thoroughfare and disrupting traffic as the city braced for another weekend of turmoil. – Reuters

The Chinese embassy in Bangkok has condemned Thai politicians for showing support to Hong Kong activists amid mass anti-Beijing protests, saying that such move could harm the relationship between the two countries. – Reuters 


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday threatened to call off a summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin if all sides do not agree on plans to pull out troops from the east. – Agence France-Presse  

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that Moscow repeatedly warned the U.S. against its Kurdish “experiment” in Syria, suggesting it could only end in disaster. – Newsweek 

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystayko says he is in the “final stage” of negotiations to return three naval vessels that Russia impounded in November 2018 in the Black Sea after firing on them and taking 24 Ukrainian crewmen captive. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty   

Editorial: Conceived in the depths of the Cold War by President Dwight Eisenhower and pressed forward by President George H.W. Bush to promote international stability after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, the Open Skies Treaty allows the United States, Russia and other nations to send unarmed surveillance flights over one another’s territories to monitor military buildups or warnings of a surprise attack. […]So it looks as if President Trump will withdraw from it.  [….]If Mr. Trump has problems with the treaty, he should raise them with Congress and the allies and work out a way forward before he formally gives the treaty’s monitoring association notice of his withdrawal. – New York Times

Patrick J. Allen writes: Russia’s aggression has caused Nato to reinforce its ability to respond to hybrid warfare attacks against, for example, one of the Baltic states. But without Nato, it is not hard to see a Russia led by Vladimir Putin deciding that the benefits of today’s form of military “aggression” might be worth the risk of a response from a less than united EU. – Financial Times  


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar unexpectedly declared Thursday they saw a chance of a Brexit deal, stoking hopes that a last-ditch agreement to get the U.K. out of the European Union could still be in reach and prompting the biggest one-day jump in the British pound against the dollar in more than two years. – Wall Street Journal  

Were it not for a dark wooden door, the authorities say, Stephan Balliet may have succeeded in carrying out a massacre of Jews he had planned to broadcast live around the world. He chose Yom Kippur, knowing the synagogue in Halle, Germany, would be full. – New York Times

A day after an attack on a synagogue left two dead in Halle, eastern Germany, Jews across the country said they felt increasingly under siege from growing anti-Semitism across German society. – Wall Street Journal 

Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed Thursday there would be “zero tolerance” for hate in Germany after an attempted massacre at a synagogue, as Jews demanded action to protect the community from the rising threat of neo-Nazi violence. – Agence France-Presse

Ukraine relies on U.S. money and moral goodwill to keep Russia at bay. One of the potential threats of the impeachment inquiry is that Trump will harbor a grudge against Ukraine, with regional consequences. – USA Today   

Speaking to the RFE/RL on October 10, the country’s likely future prime minister said that for stalled talks to resume, he first wanted to hold consultations with European Union representatives to assess the level of implementation of the agreements with Serbia already mediated by the bloc. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty  

U.S. President Donald Trump’s special envoy for talks between Balkan rivals Serbia and Kosovo has met with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty  

Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have agreed to lift barriers to free trade and travel between the three Balkan states. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty 


The U.S. may impose sanctions on South Sudan’s ruling elite if leaders fail to meet a mid-November deadline to form a unity government, a senior U.S. official warned Thursday. – Wall Street Journal  

The U.S. Treasury froze assets owned by three brothers at the center of a sprawling government-corruption scandal in South Africa that contributed to the ouster of former President Jacob Zuma and ensnared major international companies. – Wall Street Journal 

Islamist militants who once tried to conquer Mali by force are striking again with an insidious new strategy, security analysts say: Fighters linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are provoking feuds between old neighbors — the Fulani and the Dogon — and gaining ground by offering to protect victims of the conflict they’re stoking. Now a record number of people are fleeing their homes in this West African nation twice the size of Texas. – Washington Post

Somalia summoned Kenya’s ambassador after a Kenyan-registered plane landed in the port city of Kismayo in the southern state of Jubaland without “official permission,” amid a simmering maritime-border dispute between the neighbors. – Bloomberg  

Thousands of Nigerian hunters, armed with charmed amulets and intimate knowledge of harsh terrain, are preparing an offensive against the Boko Haram extremists who have ravaged the northeast for a decade, calling it “high time” they help soldiers end the deadly insurgency. – Associated Press  

Latin America

Labor unions, women’s rights groups and students are protesting the austerity package introduced this month by President Lenín Moreno. But Ecuador’s majority indigenous population is at the heart of the demonstrations that have paralyzed this South American country — a challenging development for Moreno, given the movement’s success at ousting previous presidents. – Washington Post 

After seeking asylum in the United States at the Mexican border, Pablo Sanchez was placed in a detention center and is now facing what has become an increasingly common scenario under President Donald Trump: deportation to Cuba. – Associated Press 

The U.S. government has reportedly rejected Brazil’s attempt to enter the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in a reversal after backing its bid for months. – The Hill   

A key Ecuadoran indigenous leader Thursday rejected talks with President Lenin Moreno and issued a call to “radicalize” protests over fuel price hikes in violence that has left five protesters dead. – Agence France-Presse

Mary Beth Sheridan writes: So why the wave of turmoil now?  The crises, while different from country to country, have some common threads. The economy in much of Latin America has slowed. Democratic institutions remain weak. The public is far less tolerant of corruption and poor services. And polarization is rising. All of this makes for flammable situations such as the one in Ecuador… [….]The upheaval matters well beyond Latin America. The region is home to the No. 1 U.S. trading partner, Mexico. It’s a principal source of migrants and drugs. – Washington Post


The Air Force’s next generation early warning missile defense satellite passed a preliminary design review, the service announced Oct. 10. – C4ISRNET  

The cybersecurity agency within the Department of Homeland Security is seeking subpoena power to protect critical infrastructure. – Fifth Domain 

 President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said on Thursday he plans to reduce the size of the National Security Council by about a third in coming months and limit the NSC’s role to gathering options for Trump rather than directing foreign policy. – Reuters 

David Auerswald writes: Finally, the United States needs to rethink Arctic maritime operations writ large. It should build icebreakers and ice-capable surface ships, not for Arctic FONOPs but to support search and rescue operations in and maritime control of Alaskan waters. Those capabilities could also address American defense responsibilities toward NATO allies Canada, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway. Until then, the United States should be very, very cautious about saber-rattling in the Russian Arctic, and do so only after thinking through the long-term implications of failure and success. – War on the Rocks 

Long War

Al Qaeda’s chief bomb maker, who was behind the failed 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomb plot to down an airliner over Detroit and other attacks, was killed two years ago in a U.S. counterterrorism strike, the White House confirmed. – Wall Street Journal   

An American woman whose son was killed by the Islamic State said Thursday that she is hopeful the transfer to U.S. custody of two British militants brings them a step closer to criminal charges. – Associated Press   

The U.S. will hand over to Iraqi authorities nearly 50 Islamic State members who were transferred from Syria in recent days, two Iraqi intelligence officials said Thursday. – Associated Press  

US President Donald Trump’s decision to take custody of dozens of high-value Islamic State militants from the under-siege Kurds avoided their possible release but raised the pressure on Washington and its allies to accept them for trial. – Agence France-Presse

Trump Administration

Federal prosecutors unsealed charges on Thursday against two men who have aided President Trump’s efforts to gather damaging information in Ukraine about his political opponents, a criminal case that signaled growing legal exposure for the president’s allies as Mr. Trump tries to blunt an impeachment inquiry in Congress. – New York Times 

At least four national security officials were so alarmed by the Trump administration’s attempts to pressure Ukraine for political purposes that they raised concerns with a White House lawyer both before and immediately after President Trump’s July 25 call with that country’s president, according to U.S. officials and other people familiar with the matter. – Washington Post

Political appointees in the White House budget office intervened to freeze aid to Ukraine despite some career staffers raising concerns that the move was improper, people briefed on the matter said. – Washington Post 

President Donald Trump on Thursday minimized the ongoing threat of the Islamic State and overstated his economic success, declaring inaccurately that China would have overtaken the U.S. as the world’s largest economy if he wasn’t president. – Associated Press  

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has in the last year become something of a congressional point man for President Donald Trump’s negotiations with Turkey, leading discussions on everything from Ankara’s purchase of a Russian missile system over the summer to their more recent incursion into northern Syria. – Politico