Fdd's overnight brief

October 16, 2019

In The News


The United States carried out a secret cyber operation against Iran in the wake of the Sept. 14 attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, which Washington and Riyadh blame on Tehran, two U.S. officials have told Reuters. – Reuters

A second French national is being detained in Iran and has been imprisoned since the summer, Le Figaro newspaper reported on Wednesday, which is likely to complicate France’s efforts to defuse tensions between the United States and Tehran. – Reuters

Iran’s economy is expected to shrink by 9.5% this year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said, down from a previous estimate of a 6% contraction, as the country feels the impact of tighter U.S. sanctions. – Reuters

The White House is warning Chinese shipping companies against turning off their ships’ transponders to hide Iranian oil shipments in violation of U.S. sanctions, two senior administration officials said. – Reuters

Hezbollah’s threats to take to the streets to confront Lebanese bank measures hold security and political messages to local and foreign powers. The Iran-backed party had threatened to stage protests against banks that adhere to US sanctions against its leaders and economic institutions. – Asharq Al-Awsat

Simon Henderson writes: Observers who are skeptical of the truth of an Iranian statement wondered whether there actually had been an attack. Instead perhaps, according to this logic, it was merely an elaborate Iranian ruse to cast itself as yet another victim of the recent attacks on oil tankers and facilities, widely blamed on Tehran, although not definitively. – The Hill


Russia announced Tuesday that its units were patrolling between Turkish and Syrian military forces near the strategically important Syrian town of Manbij, in a sign that Moscow, a key ally of the Syrian government, was moving to fill a security vacuum after U.S. troops withdrew from the area. – Washington Post

Khalaf, a native of the northeastern Syrian town of Malikiyah and secretary general of the Kurdish Future Syria Party, was on her way to party headquarters Saturday when armed men ambushed her car and killed her and her bodyguards, filming the attack. Her death caused an outcry within Kurdish communities and leadership, which deemed it a war crime committed in the midst of a Turkish incursion into Syria’s Kurdish-controlled northeast. – Washington Post

As Moscow announced Tuesday that its units were patrolling in northern Syria, a journalist traveling with Russian-backed forces released a video that appeared to show the inside of a now-abandoned U.S. base near the town of Manbij. […]A U.S. official said late Monday that U.S. troops had withdrawn from Manbij. Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a U.S. military spokesman, declined to say Tuesday whether Syrian troops or their Russian allies had entered Manbij. – Washington Post

Fearing U.S. abandonment, the Kurds opened a back channel to the Syrian government and the Russians in 2018, and those talks ramped up significantly in recent weeks, American, Kurdish and Russian officials told The Associated Press. – Associated Press

President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria radically realigns the balance of power in the country’s northeast and creates a vacuum which Russia, Turkey and Iran are racing to fill. – Reuters

A wide range of American military personnel and defense officials are expressing a deep sense of frustration and anger at the Trump administration’s refusal to support Syrian Kurds facing a Turkish military assault, over half a dozen US military and defense officials have told CNN. – CNN

As Congress seeks a way to reverse the damage from the U.S. military pullback from northern Syria, the House is expected to vote Wednesday on a resolution condemning President Donald Trump’s decision. – Defense News

Josh Rogin writes:  As if all of that weren’t bad enough, Trump’s hasty and unplanned troop withdrawal has also worsened the fate of millions of Syrians living in Idlib province, where the Assad regime and Russian war machines have actually stepped up their wanton killing of civilians with barrel bombs, chemical weapons and other instruments of war crimes. While the world looks away, Idlib is being destroyed. […] And for years to come, the world will be dealing with the consequences — including more terrorism, more refugees, more Iranian expansion, more war crimes, more Russian influence and a grim future for millions of innocent Syrians. – Washington Post

Tom Rogan writes: Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria is a disaster. Civilians are being slaughtered, and ISIS has new space to regroup. We need a scenario that can win a buy-in from all the major actors. One former special forces soldier claims he has the plan. […]None of this would be simple. This deal would infuriate Assad and the Russians (who want the oil for themselves), and the Iranians, who want to use eastern Syria as their pipeline for arms supplies to Hezbollah in Lebanon. But those actors have been and will be deterred in Syria. The deal would also require sustained American brokering so that infighting between the Kurds and Turks didn’t disrupt the deal before it even began.  But if you listen to Reese pitch his plan, it certainly seems worth a shot. – Washington Examiner

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: Put bluntly, the U.S. may now have to write off Syria and the Kurds. If it is to remain the major strategic power in the rest of the Middle East and revive NATO as an effective alliance, however, it cannot go on relying on sanctions, empty military threats, sudden force withdrawals, and bluster. It needs to show that it can still lead, do so consistently and effectively, and be trustworthy as a strategic partner. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


The Trump administration dispatched senior officials to Turkey to press for an end to Ankara’s military offensive in northeastern Syria, as Moscow began to fill a void created by departing U.S. troops. – Wall Street Journal

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan charged Turkish state-owned lender Halkbank with a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran, ramping up pressure on Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he conducts a military offensive on Syria. – Wall Street Journal

Doubling tariffs on Turkish steel imports, as President Trump said he would do Monday, might make investors nervous. But it would take a much broader attack on the economy of Turkey to restrain its tanks from moving deeper into Syria, analysts say. – New York Times

Amid the rapid developments on the ground, here are the uncomfortable truths about the U.S.-Turkish relationship that need unraveling. – Washington Post

Turkey vowed to press ahead with its offensive in northern Syria on Tuesday despite U.S. sanctions and growing calls for it to stop, while Syria’s Russia-backed army moved on the key city of Manbij that was abandoned by U.S. forces. – Reuters

Russia called Turkey’s military incursion into northeast Syria “unacceptable” and said on Tuesday the operation had to be limited in time and scale, a rare broadside that suggests Moscow’s patience with Ankara is wearing thin. – Reuters

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that an attack from the northern Syrian town of Manbij earlier in the day that killed one Turkish soldier was launched by Syrian government forces in the region. – Reuters

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could help Russia in multiple ways if he continues to undermine the effectiveness of NATO from within the transatlantic alliance, according to diplomats and analysts. – Washington Examiner

Rudy Giuliani is said to have privately implored President Trump in 2017 to extradite an opponent of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from the United States. – Washington Examiner

The White House has invited congressional leadership and key committee members to a meeting with President Trump on Wednesday to discuss Turkey in the wake of Ankara’s invasion of northern Syria. – The Hill

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said expelling Turkey from NATO over its offensive in northeastern Syria “should be on the table.” “I think it should be on the table, absolutely it should be on the table,” Swalwell, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday on CNN. – The Hill

Qatar defended its close ally Turkey’s controversial operation against Kurdish forces in northern Syria on Tuesday, saying Ankara had acted against an “imminent threat”. – Agence France-Presse

Leonid Bershidsky writes: The weak Western reaction won’t force Erdogan to retreat. But the possibility of an all-out war might thwart his plan to clear a 30-kilometer “safe zone” in Syria. He may need to make a deal with Putin and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. This could involve allowing him to resettle in northern Syria some of the 3.7 million Syrian refugees Turkey has been sheltering and no longer wants, perhaps making Russia and the Assad regime responsible for holding back any anti-Turkish activity along the border. – Bloomberg


As far as is known, Trump did not give Netanyahu advance warning of his decision to pull out of northern Syria. Israelis, who have long viewed their northern neighbor as a threat because of Syria’s volatility and the heavy presence of Iranian proxies, reacted in horror. – LA Times

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Tuesday asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to pardon an American-Israeli woman who was jailed after authorities found cannabis in her luggage at a Moscow airport. – The Hill

In a two-part article in the Palestinian Authority (PA) daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, journalist Muwaffaq Matar called to adopt an idea presented by Palestinian President Mahmoud ‘Abbas in a booklet from 1982, titled “We Need an Arab Keren Hayesod.” […]After summarizing ‘Abbas’s arguments in the booklet, journalist Muwaffaq Matar writes that the Zionist Movement deliberately pushed Jews to leave their countries of origin and emigrate to Palestine by drumming up fear of antisemitism, and also by initiating terrorist actions against Jews around the world. – Middle East Media Research Institute

For almost four years, he sat in Israel’s Hadarim Prison without anyone taking any interest in him. He was described as a quiet man who caused no disciplinary problems. Aleksey Burkov, 29, required no special attention from his jailers or anyone else, aside from a few Russian-speaking prisoners with whom he became friendly. But last weekend, it became clear to everyone that he was a hacker wanted by both Washington and Moscow. – Haaretz

Jordan’s King Abdullah II has reportedly agreed to extend an agricultural land lease to Israel that was part of the 1994 peace treaty, according to Maariv. – Jerusalem Post

Gulf States

France’s foreign minister said on Wednesday that he would soon go to Iraq to discuss a judicial framework to enable jihadists being held in Syria to face trial. – Reuters

This week has seen a full ceremonial 21-gun salute for President Vladimir Putin in the capital, an audience with the king and crown prince, a host of bilateral deals and a seismic strategic recalculation in the region as Saudi Arabia’s US allies effectively abandon the Kurds to their fate in northern Syria. So how close is Saudi Arabia now drawing to Russia and why? – BBC

Anna Borshchevskaya writes: Sixteen years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraq faces daunting challenges, but it still has a degree of freedom that no country in the Middle East except Israel and perhaps Tunisia enjoy. If the U.S. continues to ignore Iraq, this hard-fought and fragile freedom will be lost. […]Iraq is not yet lost. But if we continue to ignore it, it soon will be. – The Hill

Michael Knights writes: Another resurgence in Iraq is hardly inevitable, however—the country is subject to different internal drivers, and the United States is still well-positioned to lead international support of Baghdad’s counterterrorism efforts. Yet Washington will need to stay engaged and urgently address new problems if it hopes to prevent another disastrous insurgency. – Washington Institute

Korean Peninsula

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was shown riding a white horse in the snow on a sacred mountain, in a series of photographs released by state media on Wednesday that experts said could presage a major announcement. – Washington Post

New pictures of Kim Jong Un riding a white horse through a winter landscape to the summit of Mount Paektu, a sacred peak for North Koreans, have fuelled speculation that the young leader may be set for a major policy announcement. – Agence France-Presse

South Korea’s indigenous fighter jet development program has entered the phase of prototype development following critical design review, or CDR, according to developers. – Defense News


Huawei Technologies Co., the world’s largest maker of telecommunication equipment, said its revenue rose 24.4% during the first nine months of the year despite a U.S. export blacklisting. – Wall Street Journal

Despite a Chinese promise to buy more U.S. farm products, questions remain over how much, the time frame for purchases, and what the U.S. might have to give in return. – Wall Street Journal

Barely a week after a single tweet detonated a firestorm against the Houston Rockets and the NBA, another international incident has erupted. But this time, China is the country being punished. […]But perhaps the Chinese side went too far in appealing to nationalist tendencies in Beijing. – Washington Post

Editorial: When the United States and its allies made the decision to engage with China, they imagined that economic growth and trade would promote political liberalization and a convergence of values. That hasn’t happened. Instead, there is competition between vastly different sets of values, and China doesn’t hesitate to use the lure of its market to demand fealty to its propaganda line. Apple, the National Basketball Association and other businesses should resist — but they need help. The United States should negotiate not only over soybean purchases and steel quotas but also to protect free speech and other liberties that China would erode. – Washington Post

Zeynep Tufekci writes: Is China an integrated part of the global failure and corruption of elites, failing in its own way due to shortsightedness and incompetence? Or is it a confident new superpower that is just beginning to throw its weight around? I can’t say for sure which is true, and I don’t think it’s easy to quickly conclude one way or the other, but we should consider the question with the full gravity it deserves, because the answer will shape the fate of billions in the 21st century. – The Atlantic

South Asia

A Taliban suicide bomber killed at least three people and wounded 27 on Wednesday when he set off explosives in a truck near a police headquarters in Afghanistan, officials said. – Reuters

Three militants were killed in a gun battle with Indian security forces in disputed Kashmir on Wednesday, the first such incident since mobile telephone links were restored in a bid to restore normalcy after a lengthy shutdown. – Reuters

Pakistan is trying to avoid getting blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force, a global watchdog, when it meets Wednesday in Paris. – Associated Press


Chinese authorities reacted angrily to the House of Representatives’ passage of a bill that paves the way for economic sanctions against individuals who undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, as the city’s pro-democracy lawmakers prevented the embattled leader from delivering a much-anticipated policy speech in the legislature. – Washington Post

Pro-democracy lawmakers drove Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, from the legislative chamber on Wednesday as she prepared to make a speech outlining policy ideas for dealing with Hong Kong’s roiling crisis. […]Mrs. Lam, who is under pressure from China’s central government to put an end to the increasingly violent protests that have gone on for more than four months, showed no signs of compromise in her address. – New York Times

China has viewed the protests as a challenge to its fervent nationalism, while democracy supporters worldwide have cheered what they see as a poke in the eye of the autocratic Chinese government. It all comes amid a rancorous trade war between China and the United States, and some international businesses have found themselves stuck in a political mess they wanted no part of. – New York Times

Australia wants bilateral free trade deals with Hong Kong, Indonesia and Peru to take effect early next year, the trade minister said Wednesday, adding that the Hong Kong treaty supports its unique status within China. – Associated Press

Jillian Kay Melchior: Protesters especially fear Ms. Lam will try to block WhatsApp, Telegram and the online forum LIHKG, which have enabled them to respond nimbly to the riot police. Hong Kong already has strict gun control; such a move would give the government a monopoly on communications technology as well as deadly weapons. – Wall Street Journal


Whether by chance or by design, the foreign policy crises involving Syria and Ukraine that have enveloped the White House have a common element. In each case, President Trump has taken action that has had the effect of helping the authoritarian leader of Russia. – Washington Post

Russia kicked off a sweeping military exercise of its Strategic Missile Forces on Tuesday. The Defense Ministry said the drills would include 16 practice launches of cruise and ballistic missiles.  – CBS News

A group of Russian journalists who investigated the activities of a secretive group of Russian mercenaries in Africa and the Middle East have been subject to a campaign of physical threats and harassment, their editor-in-chief said. – Reuters

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin spoke with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan about Syria by phone and invited him to visit Russia in the next few days, the Kremlin said late on Tuesday. – Reuters


British and European Brexit negotiators talked into the early morning hours Wednesday to try to finalize a deal to split Britain from the European Union, as diplomats and officials said they could be closing in on a last-minute agreement. – Washington Post

France’s Emmanuel Macron will hold talks Wednesday with Germany’s Angela Merkel for the second time in a week to chart a united front on issues ranging from Brexit to Syria ahead of this week’s EU summit. – Agence France-Presse

Germany released draft security guidelines on Tuesday for next generation wireless networks that stopped short of banning Huawei, as the U.S. warned again it would reconsider intelligence sharing with allies that use the Chinese company’s equipment. – Associated Press

More Afghans than Syrians have migrated to the European Union so far this year, official data shows, making them the largest nationality illegally entering the bloc, with many relocating from Iran partly due to the hardship caused by U.S. sanctions. – Reuters

The Americas

President Trump vetoed a second Congressional attempt to terminate his February national emergency declaration, which directed money from other projects to pay for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. – Wall Street Journal

A senior U.S. State Department official on Tuesday warned Guatemala that it must reach agreement with the United States on accepting asylum-seekers from other countries in order to benefit from a regional economic development plan. – Reuters

The United Nations ended its 15-year-long peacekeeping and justice mission to stabilize Haiti on Tuesday with a mixed legacy highlighted by the fact the country is entering its fifth week of violent anti-government protests. – Reuters

A Canadian imam called candidates in the country’s upcoming elections “evil and filthy” supporters of Zionism who approve of homosexuality, warning Muslims they would be judged for their votes. – Times of Israel

Uranium One Group, a subsidiary of Russia’s state nuclear company Rosatom, may buy a controlling stake in a lithium project in Chile’s Atacama salt flat from Wealth Minerals Ltd (WML.V), the Canada-listed company said on Tuesday. – Reuters


A 23-year-old law giving technology companies legal protection from lawsuits over user-generated content remains critical to the internet’s future, Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Google unit and social media site Reddit Inc said in testimony released on Tuesday. – Reuters

U.S. policymakers are so concerned about Facebook’s plans to launch a new digital currency that they’re contemplating a novel response — having the Federal Reserve create a competitor. – Politico

Twitter has revealed its moderation policies for world leaders in a new blog post. […]Twitter said the following types of tweets will lead to enforcement, regardless of who is making the posts. – Business Insider


The Navy last week took another step foward in its transition to the next-generation fleet of logistics aircraft to support its carrier strike groups. – USNI News

The Army spent years internally developing its own multimission launcher for the Indirect Fires Protection Capability program — designed to counter threats like rockets, artillery and mortars as well as cruise missiles and unmanned aircraft systems. But that grand plan is now officially off the table. – Defense News

China and Russia have better military capabilities than many Americans imagine, according to two U.S. generals in charge of military modernization. – Washington Examiner

The Army is pushing its document related to long-range precision munitions requirements for the future vertical lift modernization effort through the approval pipeline. And you can expect it to be finalized by the end of the year, according to Brig. Gen. Wally Rugen, who is in charge of Army aviation modernization. – Defense News

Two companies are competing to build the Army’s new light tank for Infantry Brigade Combat Teams and, in order to win, their prototypes will be judged by the users themselves. – Defense News

The U.S. sold $55.4 billion worth of weapons to allies and partners around the globe in fiscal year 2019, essentially flat from the previous fiscal year. – Defense News

Mark F. Cancian writes: The U.S. Army’s effort to grow its force structure has been stymied by recruitment challenges, making it difficult to expand for day-to-day operations, creation of new capabilities, and wartime surge. With modernization, the Army has increased production of proven systems and shifted billions into development of high priority programs to prepare the Army for great power conflict. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Trump Administration

One of 13 Russians indicted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III for alleged interference in the 2016 election was released Tuesday by Belarus, where she has been detained since Sunday on the American charges. – Washington Post

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, is prepared to tell lawmakers this week that top White House national security officials never personally raised concerns with him about his dealings with Rudy Giuliani in Ukraine, a person familiar with his account told The Associated Press on Tuesday. – Associated Press

The White House designated a three-person team to bypass formal U.S.-Ukraine policy following a meeting organized by acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, a senior State Department official told House impeachment investigators. – Bloomberg