Fdd's overnight brief

October 17, 2019

In The News


Iran will further reduce its commitment to the nuclear deal signed with world powers by limiting international inspectors’ access to its nuclear sites, senior Iranian MPs have said. The move, which is expected to take place at the beginning of November, will be the fourth Iranian step away from the deal, and puts pressure on France, Germany and the UK to make some form of counter-move. – The Guardian 

Pakistan’s foreign minister says Iran and Saudi Arabia have indicated a willingness to pursue diplomacy to end their disputes after Pakistan’s prime minister traveled to both countries to try and ease tensions. – Associated Press 

The State Department on Wednesday revealed that Iran has been transferring ballistic missiles to regional partners that the United States views as terrorists. – Roll Call 

A member of Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission said on Wednesday that footage proves last week’s attack on an Iranian oil tanker was carried out by the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia. – Haaretz 

A senior US administration official insisted Wednesday that President Donald Trump’s pullout from Syria will not change his hard line on Iran, a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad. – Agence France-Presse 


The blow to America’s standing in the Middle East was sudden and unexpectedly swift. Within the space of a few hours, advances by Turkish troops in Syria this week had compelled the U.S. military’s Syrian Kurdish allies to switch sides, unraveled years of U.S. Syria policy and recalibrated the balance of power in the Middle East. – Washington Post 

Tens of thousands of Syrians have been caught in the crossfire as fighting has engulfed northeastern Syria. But many of the aid groups desperate to help the displaced and the vulnerable have been forced to flee. – Washington Post 

Washington now seems more poised to try to mitigate the aftermath of the Turkish offensive than to reel it back in. Here are some of the tools the United States has left on the table — none of which offer Washington much leverage.- Washington Post 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey on Wednesday called for Kurdish fighters battling his troops in northeastern Syria to lay down their weapons and withdraw from the border area “this very night.” – New York Times

President Trump said on Wednesday that he did not give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey a green light to move Turkish forces into northern Syria, adding that he’d written a “very powerful letter” of warning in the days after announcing his decision to pull back American troops from the area. – New York Times

The House on Wednesday dealt a stinging bipartisan rebuke to President Trump for his decision to withdraw American forces just inside Syria’s border, registering overwhelming opposition in Congress to a move that has thrown the region into bloody chaos and unraveled Middle East policy. – New York Times

Syrian forces on Wednesday night rolled into the strategic border town of Kobani, blocking one path for the Turkish military to establish a “safe zone” free of Syrian Kurdish fighters along the frontier as part of its week-old offensive. – Associated Press 

Humanitarian groups in northeastern Syria are scrambling to provide aid to hundreds of thousands of people as rapidly shifting battle lines make it increasingly difficult to reach them. – Associated Press 

U.S. President Donald Trump did not object to an agreement cut between Kurdish-led forces and the Syrian government to protect Syria from a Turkish offensive, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander Mazloum Kobani said on Wednesday. – Reuters 

The United States carried out a pre-planned air strike in northern Syria on Wednesday to destroy an ammunition cache and military equipment that were left behind as U.S. personnel prepare for a withdrawal from northeast Syria, U.S. officials said. – Reuters 

In the week since Turkish forces began a ground and air assault on Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria, reports of civilian killings and other human rights atrocities have emerged, including the alleged execution of a female Kurdish politician by Turkish-backed Syrian forces. – Business Insider

Philip Bump writes: President Trump’s indifference to the world beyond U.S. borders is not new. […] In that light, his decision to move the United States to the side in Syria and allow Turkey to target Kurds in the northeastern part of the country makes more sense. Trump was faced with three complementary impulses: the political utility of opposing military conflicts, the ambitions of his “friend” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his explicit indifference to the fate of the Kurds and the region. – Washington Post 

Deb Riechmann writes: The president is taking a backwards approach to policymaking, in the view of foreign policy experts. Instead of listening to his advisers, then making a decision, Trump does the reverse. […]On Syria, Trump insists he understands the situation “better than most.” He argues that America should not be the world’s policeman — but admitted over the weekend that “now I’m sort of an island of one” on his decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria. […]There’s little sign that any of the criticism on either Ukraine or Syria has caused Trump to rethink his approach. – Associated Press 

Charles Thepaut writes:  European contributions to counterterrorism operations against ISIS cells in the region will be difficult without a U.S. presence. Nor can European NGOs operate without the U.S. security guarantees. European officials cannot visit prisons and camps where ISIS members are detained without the security that only the U.S. military can provide. There also is a reputational cost for the U.S. — its partners will acknowledge that effective alliance with Washington can vanish overnight.- The Hill 

Eli Lake writes: According to President Donald Trump, Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria “has nothing to do with us.” America’s longtime adversaries in the region — Syria, Iran and Russia — should be left to fight Islamic State. […]As a believer in American unexceptionalism, Trump sees the world as a savage place, and the U.S. is just as savage as its adversaries. […]In fairness to Trump, he is not alone in seeing American idealism as an elaborate con. […]There is a strain of American foreign policy realism based on the idea that the rules-based international system camouflages the inherent chaos of state competition. The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must, as Thucydides wrote. – Bloomberg 


Turkey rebuffed U.S. calls for a cease-fire in northeastern Syria as it pressed ahead Wednesday with an offensive targeting Syrian Kurdish forces and demanded that the fighters lay down their arms. – Washington Post 

President Trump has often said things he perhaps shouldn’t have and has repeatedly disclosed sensitive information. On Wednesday, he did so again, appearing to confirm the United States has nuclear weapons in Turkey. – Washington Post 

The problems keep escalating for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whose invasion of Kurdish-held northern Syria last week unraveled already tense relations with American and European partners and radically reshuffled the battle lines and alliances of Syria’s eight-year-old Syrian war. But as challenging as Mr. Erdogan’s predicament appears from the outside, analysts say, it is only likely to buttress his standing at home, as the fighting fans an already heightened state of nationalist feeling. – New York Times 

Companies conducting business in Turkey are bracing for possibly more restrictions and lost revenue in the wake of President Trump’s authorization of new sanctions on the country—a move that could further complicate compliance as geopolitical tensions grow. – Wall Street Journal

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday said the United States was “going to try to work it out” with Turkey regarding its assault into northeastern Syria, but U.S. sanctions would be “devastating” if discussions with Ankara do not go well. – Reuters 

The sanctions announced Wednesday by House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., include a ban on U.S. military assistance to NATO ally Turkey and, separately, would apply to anyone who provides financial, material or technological support to or knowingly conducts a transaction with the Turkish armed forces, including defense articles, petroleum and natural gas. – Defense News 

In response to a reporter’s question, President Trump on Wednesday said he was “confident” about the safety of U.S. nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. – Defense News

President Donald Trump assigned his attorney general and Treasury secretary to deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repeated pleas to avoid charges against one of Turkey’s largest banks, according to two people familiar with the matter. – Bloomberg

Turkey is using M60-A1 tanks upgraded by Israel in its offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria. Photos near the Turkish border town of Akçakale during Operation Peace Spring of M-60 tanks upgraded by Israeli Military Industries are circulating on social media. – Jerusalem Post

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday he will not discuss Syrian ceasefire talks with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and vowed to continue his country’s military excursion into Syria, which observers have already linked to war crimes. – Fox News 

Uri Friedman writes: The Trump administration’s sanctions are “quite lenient and light,” Cagaptay noted, and seem like an effort to “take some steam off” congressional efforts to penalize Turkey. Expecting such a result, Erdoğan may have calculated that the upside of a military operation in Syria against Kurdish forces, whom the Turkish government considers terrorists linked to the country’s own Kurdish insurgency, outweighed the downside. – The Atlantic

Jeremy Hodge writes: What will likely ensue will be a committed, albeit slow and protracted campaign to achieve Ankara’s goal of carving out a safe zone in Manbij and along the entirety of Turkey’s border with Syria. However, the likely delay in achieving further Turkish gains will also give the Syrian regime a larger window to calmly mobilize and deploy its forces throughout the region while still being able to exploit the threat posed to the SDF by Ankara in order to slowly grab more power in northeastern Syria. – Daily Beast


Pompeo will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Friday and then travel later that day to Brussels for a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the department said in a statement. – Reuters 

A unity government seemed closer than ever on Wednesday night, with Blue and White Party leader MK Benny Gantz moving toward negotiations based on President Reuven Rivlin’s outline for a rotation for the prime minister. – Jerusalem Post 

Uri Heitner writes: The Kurdish people are a Middle Eastern minority that has endured centuries of persecution. Israel has long seen them as an ally and has provided arms and training to its military organizations. […]Israel must not militarily intervene in Syria. It is not a super power and it is not its job to police the Middle East. […]Israel should be raising the issue at the United Nations and at every other international institution – and move towards sanctions against Turkey. – Ynet


As foreign powers jostle for control of northeast Syria, a new wave of refugees is trudging into Iraq, fearful, uncertain and worn out. Aid groups said Wednesday that more than a thousand Syrians had crossed the Iraqi border in the days since U.S. troops pulled back and Turkey moved in to push Kurdish-led forces from its southern frontier. – Washington Post 

Iraq’s defense minister on Wednesday expressed concerns that the Islamic State group could take advantage of Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria to destabilize Iraq, saying that a number of militants have been able to escape detention in Syria amid the chaos and cross into Iraq. – Associated Press 

Iran-backed militias deployed snipers on Baghdad rooftops during the Iraq’s deadliest anti-government protests in years, two Iraqi security officials told Reuters. – Reuters

Middle East & North Africa

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have stepped up efforts to protect the kingdom’s oil production, holding talks on connecting Saudi missile defenses to U.S. systems and investigating new antidrone technologies, after an attack last month knocked out half of the country’s crude production. – Wall Street Journal 

The peace treaty between Jordan and Israel is “under threat” due to Israeli “violations” against Jerusalem, according to the speaker of the Jordanian House of Representatives and president of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union, Atef Tarawneh, as quoted by Jordan’s government news agency. – Jerusalem Post

David Ignatius writes: The aftershocks of President Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in Syria are rumbling through the region, and a string of Lebanese officials told me last week that they fear they’re the next to be discarded by the United States. […]The chief enemy of a strong, sovereign Lebanon is Hezbollah, which profits from chaos. It follows that a stronger Lebanon will, over time, weaken the Shiite militia. Bankrupting Lebanon to pressure Iran, as some U.S. officials suggest, would be one more act of folly for a Trump administration that has made far too many mistakes in the Middle East already. – Washington Post

Brian Katz and Michael Carpenter write: The reality is that ISIS and al Qaeda were enjoying a resurgence even before Trump’s withdrawal and the Turkish invasion—ISIS in eastern Syria and al Qaeda in the west of the country. Now, with the United States headed for the exits, the Kurds battling Turkey, and the Assad regime and its backers focusing on other priorities, no force is left to counter an extremist revival. – Foreign Affairs  


The Trump administration is imposing new requirements on Chinese diplomats in the U.S.—though short of the restrictions Americans face in China—in what U.S. officials say is a bid to level the playing field between the two nations’ diplomatic corps. – Wall Street Journal 

In view of the cybersecurity accusations leveled by the U.S. and international rights groups against Huawei, the relationship between China and countries that use the company’s technology is coming under renewed scrutiny. – Associated Press 

U.S. and Chinese trade negotiators are working on nailing down a Phase 1 trade deal text for their presidents to sign next month, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Wednesday, adding he was prepared to travel to Beijing for more meetings if necessary. – Reuters 

High-resolution satellite images show that the construction of China’s first full-sized aircraft carrier is progressing steadily alongside expansive infrastructure work that analysts say suggests the ship will be the first of several large vessels produced at the site. – Reuters 

The Chinese foreign ministry said it has detained two American citizens who run an English-teaching business in China, a development that comes as a trade war stokes broader tensions between the countries.- Bloomberg  

Ian Williams and Masao Dahlgren writes: China’s embrace of high-tech “informationized” warfare reflects the many lessons the PLA has learned from observing U.S. operations over the past two decades. During this period, the United States enjoyed the uncontested use of advanced ISR and C2 networks. The PLA has watched this advantage become a dependency, one which it is now looking to exploit. This brief will provide an overview of the systems and capabilities the PRC emphasized in its 70th anniversary celebration and attempt to explain how they fit into China’s military vision. These include electronic warfare, drones, and China’s array of new missiles. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

 John Pomfret writes: Even as policy makers fret that China’s government immunized itself from the baleful influence of Western values, they see that it has begun to turn the tables and is exporting its ideology around the world. In short, China has begun to shape and manage us, not the other way around. – The Atlantic 


Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam was again forced from the legislative chamber because of protests Thursday by opposition members following a bloody attack on a leader of the nearly 5-month-old protest movement. – Associated Press 

Australia’s national intelligence agency said in a report published this week that it does not have enough resources to collect intelligence on potential foreign agents and their efforts to interfere in Canberra’s affairs. – Reuters 

Malaysia needs to boost its naval capabilities to prepare for possible conflict in the South China Sea, its foreign minister said on Thursday, even as Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy pursues non-militarization of the disputed waterway. – Reuters


This week, Russians were again on the march, moving in to fill the vacuum in Syria created by the departure of American troops. […]President Vladimir Putin was at the same time on something of a regal tour of Arab capitals, complete with bands, horsemen, falcons and fighter jets. – Washington Post 

Three U.S. diplomats were removed from a train headed to Russian cities with restricted access and located near the site of a recent deadly nuclear explosion, according to Russian news agencies. […]It isn’t known what happened to the three U.S. diplomats after they were removed from the train. – Wall Street Journal 

Jonathan Spyer writes: Vladimir Putin is now the indispensable strategic arbiter in Syria. None of the remaining pieces on the broken chessboard can move without Mr. Putin’s hand. The Assad regime owes its survival to Moscow’s air intervention in September 2015. This reporter and others who have spent time in Damascus note the impunity with which Russian security and other personnel conduct themselves. They are effectively beyond the reach of the local authorities. – Wall Street Journal


British and European negotiators blew through one deadline after another Wednesday as they raced to reach a Brexit deal on the eve of a critical summit. – Washington Post 

The sentencing on Monday of 12 former leaders of Catalonia’s independence movement for their involvement in a failed attempt to break away from Spain in 2017 has set off days of protests and reignited long-running tensions in the region. – New York Times 

Britain’s frantic efforts to negotiate a Brexit agreement with the European Union hit a last-minute snag on Thursday morning, after Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party said it could not support the deal “as things stand.” – New York Times 

Brexit may cause the smoldering conflict to flare up once again, she fears, especially if there are renewed customs and passport controls along the now-invisible border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland after Britain leaves the European Union. – Associated Press 

President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel sought Wednesday to show unity at a meeting in southern France, as the European Union and Britain appeared close to a tentative Brexit deal. – Associated Press 

Europe must be ready for the possibility of a new refugee influx, Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Wednesday, as an unfolding Turkish offensive in Syria could see more people flee the conflict-ridden region. – Agence France-Presse

Turkey’s Syria offensive has created fresh divisions within NATO and, while there is no chance of Ankara being thrown out, the crisis adds to pressures on the alliance as it heads towards a crucial summit in December. – Agence France-Presse 

Securing a Brexit deal in Brussels may yet prove the easy bit for Boris Johnson. In the race to meet his self-imposed deadline of leaving the European Union by October 31, the British prime minister has always faced two challenges: striking a deal with EU leaders, and selling it at home. – Politico

British Jewish Labour MP Dame Louise Ellman has announced her departure from the Labour Party after 55 years as a member and more than 20 years as a lawmaker, citing rising anti-Semitism within the party since Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader. – Ynet

David Frum writes: The next few days will see a sequence of dramatic events in British politics. The timeline is confusing, the outcomes unpredictable. But it’s a good guess that Johnson will pull a rabbit out of a hat, procure something that can be sold as a deal, and put himself on the road to the election he wants. Johnson and his advisers hope that once they put Brexit behind them, they can return to the familiar politics of rich versus poor, Thatcherism versus socialism, up versus down. – The Atlantic  


South Sudan’s fragile peace deal is faltering less than a month before the country’s president and armed opposition leader are meant to form a coalition government and begin the long recovery from a five-year civil war. […]The U.S. has said it will reevaluate its relationship with South Sudan if a new government isn’t formed next month. – Associated Press 

The Southern African Customs Union, which comprises Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia and Eswatini, along with Mozambique last month agreed on a deal with the U.K. to govern trade should it leave the European Union at the end of the month. The deal mirrors the terms SACU currently has with the EU. – Bloomberg 

Hundreds of foreign nationals on Wednesday took to the streets of Cape Town, demanding to be relocated from South Africa after camping at the UN refugee agency offices for a week. – Agence France-Presse 

The Americas

Former President Barack Obama endorsed Justin Trudeau’s re-election as prime minister on Wednesday, potentially giving him a lift just days before Canadians go to the polls in closely fought elections. – New York Times

As Venezuela’s mass exodus persists, the initial warm welcome many migrants received has begun to wear thin. In recent weeks, several videos on social media in Peru have shown migrants being assaulted, threatened or harassed, sparking concerns that xenophobic attacks on the newcomers are mounting. – Associated Press 

The Trump administration is resuming targeted foreign assistance funding for El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras after the three Central American countries recently signed immigration deals with Washington. – Associated Press 

Spain’s King Felipe and Queen Letizia will visit Cuba in November for the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the founding of Havana, Spain’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell confirmed on Wednesday during a trip to Havana. The visit will be a welcome sign of support for Cuba which is facing increasing U.S. hostility. Spain and its former colony have improved ties in recent years within the broader normalization of relations between the European Union and Cuba. – Reuters 

The Army component of U.S. Southern Command is planning to send a Stryker battalion to Chile for the first strategic deployment of that kind called Southern Vanguard. – Defense News


The U.S. Army is delaying the integration of Javelin anti-tank missiles onto the Stryker combat vehicle due to problems in connecting the weapon to the remote weapons station, according to Col. Bill Venable, the service’s program manager for the Stryker combat vehicle. – Defense News 

The Senate on Wednesday approved Barbara Barrett, a former ambassador to Finland, to become the next secretary of the Air Force after a 85–7 vote. – Defense News

The U.S. Army has recently seen a dramatic increase in its budget, allowing the service to work toward fixing readiness issues as well as apply funds toward modernization goals to prepare troops for the future battlefield. – Defense News 

U.S. Cyber Command is working with the energy sector and the Department of Energy as a way to bolster their relationship in case of a malicious, or catastrophic, cyberattack. […]Now, the Department of Defense and Cyber Command are working on a pathfinder effort with DOE. – Fifth Domain

James Andrew Lewis writes: Cybersecurity and emerging technologies create a new agenda for international security that we have only begun to define. Policymaking and engagement for these topics must be coordinated with the larger problems of nonproliferation, strategic technologies, and technology transfer—all the issues that fall under the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security. Continued delay or continued confusion would be a mistake and a setback. – Center for Strategic and International Studies 

Trump Administration

President Trump on Wednesday attempted to distance himself from the escalating chaos in northern Syria following his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the region and lashed out at lawmakers critical of the decision, including during an extraordinary White House meeting that ended in acrimony. – Washington Post 

President Trump deemed his former defense secretary the “world’s most overrated general” after he questioned the president’s handling of the Islamic State. According to reports, Trump made the remark about Jim Mattis in a meeting with Democratic leadership about the situation in the Middle East on Wednesday. – Washington Examiner

A high-level meeting Wednesday between President Donald Trump and top congressional leaders over the Syria crisis ended abruptly after Trump insulted Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which spurred Democratic leaders to walk out of the White House. – Politico 

The House on Wednesday approved a resolution formally rebuking President Trump over his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria. – The Hill 

The House Administration Committee voted 6-1 on Tuesday to push forward legislation intended to limit foreign interference in elections, moving the bill to the House floor for a vote against strong Republican objections. – The Hill 

For months, investigators looking into Rudy Giuliani’s business dealings in Ukraine have dug into everything from possible financial entanglements with alleged corrupt Ukrainian figures to counterintelligence concerns raised by some of those business ties, according to people briefed on the matter. – CNN