Fdd's overnight brief

October 18, 2019

In The News


The U.S. State Department said on Thursday it has extended by 120 days a waiver to sanctions allowing Iraq to import gas and electricity from Iran as it pushes Baghdad to make the country more energy independent. – Reuters

From his homes in France and Turkey, Ruhollah Zam called on his 1m followers on social media to reveal what they knew about the Tehran political elite’s alleged corrupt dealings and sexual affairs. […]So for many Iranians it came as a shock to see the 46-year-old son of a former reformist official back in Tehran this week, on state television, regretting his past opposition to the regime and advising people not to ever trust foreign intelligence services. – Financial Times

A new poll released Wednesday night revealed that 75% of Iranians are now against ending the country’s nuclear enrichment program, even if the US reduces sanctions. – Jerusalem Post

President Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff has said October 17 that Iran is still able to sell its oil and those who try to block it do not know how it is done, according to official news website IRNA. – Radio Farda

Amos Harel writes: We should also pay attention to what was said Wednesday in Tehran. Last week, when the eyes of countries in the region were focused on events in northern Syria, a mysterious incident occurred off the coast of Saudi Arabia. It took the Iranians time to reach a conclusion as to what happened there. But on Wednesday, a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission in Tehran said that Israel and Saudi Arabia were involved in the attack on the Iranian oil tanker that occurred after a series of similar attacks by Iran on tankers making their way to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In other words, the Iranian account with Israel is still open – and sooner or later an attempt might be made to close it. – Haaretz

Amos Harel writes: If the latest Iranian claims are accurate, it means the battleground between Israel and Iran, which stretches throughout the Middle East, has been expanded even further. […]This field of combat is not without risk. Israeli infrastructure sites and other important sites for the Israeli economy are vulnerable to attack, especially with Iran expanding the arsenal of weapons being stocked up by its proxies in neighboring countries and working to improve their precision. It’s hard to escape the impression that the “campaign between wars” has moved up a notch – in the pace and magnitude of events, and how much notice they are receiving. It’s doubtful that things can continue at this rate for long. – Haaretz


Turkey agreed to suspend military operations in northern Syria for five days in return for a U.S. pledge to facilitate a pullout by Syrian Kurdish fighters, a deal President Trump hailed as “an amazing outcome,” but that some critics said mainly fulfilled Turkish goals. – Wall Street Journal

Turkish forces tightened their grip around the Kurdish-held town of Ras al-Ain in northeastern Syria on Thursday, prompting local officials to plead for the evacuation of civilians from the besieged city. – Wall Street Journal

The Islamic State is racing to capitalize on the deteriorating security situation in northern Syria, stepping up attacks on prisons as well as on the now-weakened Kurdish militia that served as the vanguard in the U.S.-led war against the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, intelligence officials and terrorism experts say. – Washington Post

The best that can be said for the agreement is that it may stop the killing in the Kurdish enclave in northern Syria. But the cost for Kurds, longtime American allies in the fight against the Islamic State, is severe: Even Pentagon officials were mystified about where tens of thousands of displaced Kurds would go, as they moved south from the Turkey-Syria border as required by the deal — if they agree to go at all. And the cost to American influence, while hard to quantify, could be frightfully high. – New York Times

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Thursday his forces will counter Turkey’s invasion by “all legitimate means”, in his first remarks since deploying troops near the border to support Ankara’s Kurdish rivals. – Agence France-Presse

Shelling and gunfire resounded around the northeast Syrian town of Ras al Ain on Friday, a day after Turkey agreed with the United States to pause its offensive in Syria for five days to let Kurdish forces withdraw. – Reuters

Vice President Mike Pence departs for Turkey to undertake arguably his most significant mission yet, seeking to halt a weeklong assault on Syrian Kurds begun after President Donald Trump withdrew U.S. forces from northern Syria. – Associated Press

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Thursday that Washington will impose no further sanctions on Turkey once there is a ceasefire in northern Syria, and that it will withdraw existing sanctions once the Turkish military operation is done. – Reuters

Turkish-backed forces appear to be using white phosphorus-loaded munitions—a chemical that can maim and kill when it comes in contact with human flesh—in their violent campaign against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, Foreign Policy has learned. – Foreign Policy

Editorial: Though he won’t admit it, Mr. Trump is in danger of losing control of his Mideast policy. Congress is usually a tower of Babel, but in this case a bipartisan front might do some good. Democrats will have to work with Messrs. Graham and McConnell and resist the temptation to score cheap political points. Kurdish Syria may not be entirely lost after all. – Wall Street Journal

Hadi Pir writes: I applaud the Trump administration for putting religious minorities at the forefront of its foreign policy. But I believe that the rushed exit from Syria jeopardizes the gains against ISIS and could enable future religious persecution. […]Mr. Trump says ISIS has been defeated, but this assessment is premature. It will re-emerge as soon as the pressure lets up. When that happens, American citizens and the Middle East’s religious minorities will once again face a common threat. – Wall Street Journal

Edward Lucas writes: That may shore up alliances for now. But any U.S. foreign policy engagement now depends on the answer to two unforgiving questions. Does the United States have a vital interest at stake? And—more unpleasantly—how does it affect Trump? Washington has lost its appetite to be the world’s policeman. Allies, coddled for too long, will have to raise their defense spending, their risk appetite, and their readiness for innovative, taboo-busting cooperation. Those who complain that these changes will be difficult should count their blessings. The Syrian Kurds, stateless, lightly armed, and isolated, never even got the chance to try. – Center for European Policy Analysis

Melissa Dalton writes: These are admittedly mitigation steps, but they reflect the reality of the balance of leverage the United States has in the aftermath of its recent decisions. However narrow the U.S. approach in northeast Syria proved to be, the manner in which the U.S. forces have been directed to extricate themselves from northeast Syria is morally reprehensible and contrary to U.S. values. Ending the “forever wars” in places like Syria has political resonance, but it must be done responsibly. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


The bipartisan leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee have officially introduced their bill to sanction Turkey over its invasion of northern Syria. – The Hill

A senior adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Thursday said President Trump’s recently released letter to the NATO ally was “not taken seriously at the time” due to the way it was worded, calling it “absolutely irrelevant.” – The Hill

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Twitter on Thursday he is confident that joint efforts with the United States will promote peace and stability after the two sides agreed to pause Turkey’s military offensive in northeastern Syria. – Reuters

European Union leaders will seek a common front against their NATO ally Turkey at a summit on Thursday and condemn Ankara’s offensive in northern Syria, while considering further ways to pressure it to pull back. – Reuters

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan put US President Donald Trump’s letter “in the bin”, the BBC has been told. – BBC

Republican and Democratic U.S. lawmakers said on Thursday they would keep up their push for tougher sanctions on Turkey over its offensive in Syria despite the announcement of a five-day ceasefire. – Reuters

Matthew Fuhrmann and Todd S. Sechser write: In the long term, the larger risk is that removing the weapons will prompt Turkey to try to acquire its own nuclear weapons. After all, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reportedly is already exploring this option. But as relations with Turkey deteriorate, it is by no means certain that the presence of a few U.S. weapons will prevent this outcome. And there are other political and diplomatic tools for dissuading Turkey from venturing down the nuclear path if the United States pulls out its nuclear forces. – Washington Post

Eli Lake writes: The strange thing about the “cease-fire” negotiated Thursday in Ankara between the U.S. and Turkey is that one party isn’t actually fighting and the other seems unlikely to abide by it.  […]That point has already been reached. Bad things are indeed happening, and will continue to happen. And there’s little reason to believe Trump’s capitulation in Ankara will do much to stop them. – Bloomberg



First stop, Jerusalem. Washington is keeping about 150 troops at the Al Tanf base near the Syria-Iraq border, which Israel and American officials see as important to monitoring and deterring Iranian efforts to move weapons and personnel into Syria. Israel wants assurances that the base will stay open, former officials said. The U.S. military has said operations there are part of its campaign against Islamic State. – Wall Street Journal

Benjamin Netanyahu’s main rival turned down the Israeli prime minister’s renewed call to set aside political differences and join a national unity government. Netanyahu has until late next week to form a ruling coalition or risk the country’s president handing the mandate to former military chief Benny Gantz. – Bloomberg

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations responded furiously on Thursday to the news that Venezuela and Libya had been elected to serve on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), despite the long records of systemic human rights abuse in both countries. – Algemeiner

Palestinians say they have become accustomed to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s “zigzagging” policies on several issues, particularly toward Israel. The Palestinian public, however, does not seem to be seriously bothered by its leader’s shifting policies – as long as the PA continues to pay salaries to its public servants and ensure economic and security stability in the West Bank. – Jerusalem Post

Raphael Ahren writes: Many officials in Jerusalem are deeply worried about being abandoned by their superpower ally, as the American decision to gradually disengage from this part of the world — which started under former US president Barack Obama — threatens to embolden Israel’s enemies: Iran and its allies and proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and elsewhere. […]To analyze the implications of the new status quo for Israel, it is helpful to understand why Moscow is engaged in the Middle East in the first place, but even on this question experts differ. – Times of Israel

Middle East & North Africa

Japan has decided to dispatch its own self-defense troops to the Strait of Hormuz area instead of joining the U.S.-coalition to protect merchant vessels passing through key Middle Eastern waterways, the Asahi newspaper reported. – Reuters

African refugees in Libya are so desperate that some are bribing their way into detention centers in the hope of eventually being resettled out of the war-torn, lawless country, the United Nations said on Thursday. – Reuters

Samuel M. Hickey writes: It will be key for Congress to stand firm on this issue especially because the Trump Administration has proven itself to be inconsistent on policy stances, particularly in matters of foreign policy. It could very well reverse course and sign a 123 Agreement with Saudi Arabia that does not meet the “gold standard.” That is why leaders in Congress need to take the lead by cementing Secretary Perry’s written stance through the Saudi Nuclear Nonproliferation Act. It could make all the difference in preventing a new regional nuclear arms race in the Middle East. – The Hill

Korean Peninsula

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton tore into Donald Trump’s efforts to denuclearize North Korea as ineffective, saying that Kim Jong Un’s threat to the U.S. will only increase with time. – Bloomberg

A Sydney man charged over allegations he was a sanctions-busting “economic agent” of the North Korean regime attempting to sell ballistic missiles overseas has been refused bail. – The Guardian

Bruce Klingner writes: While the U.S. should continue to strive for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear threat, it is more likely that North Korea will remain a threat that requires a bipartisan policy of deterrence, containment, and compellence. The best policy for the U.S. is a comprehensive strategy of diplomacy, upholding U.N. resolutions and U.S. laws, and deterrence until the nuclear, missile, and conventional force threat is reduced. – Heritage Foundation


President Trump claimed that he struck a “phase one” trade deal with China on Friday and that the Chinese agreed to massive purchases of U.S. farm products. But nearly a week has passed, and China has not confirmed that critical piece of the agreement. – Washington Post

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Chinese officials wanted Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey to be fired for his tweet supporting anti-government protesters in Hong Kong, and the league emphatically dismissed the request. – Associated Press

A key hurdle to extending a landmark nuclear treaty between the U.S. and Russia isn’t Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin. It’s China. – Bloomberg

Mark Zuckerberg hit China’s model for the internet in a speech Thursday, saying that Facebook could not operate there without compromising its values. – The Hill

China’s economy expanded at its slowest rate in nearly three decades during the third quarter as it was hit by the long-running US trade war and cooling domestic demand, data showed Friday, with an official warning of “mounting downward pressure”. – Agence France-Presse

The partial trade deal between the United States and China is welcome news but does not undo the trade war’s negative impact on the global economy, IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva said Thursday. – Agence France-Presse

China warned Wednesday that it would take strong action against the United States if President Donald Trump signs legislation that would place Hong Kong’s special trade status under an annual review and could sanction Chinese officials. – Politico

Kenya opened a new China-funded rail link as part of the government’s agenda to increase investment in infrastructure, and is seeking about 400 billion shillings ($3.8 billion) to upgrade roads. – Bloomberg

Josh Rogin writes: This shift toward reciprocity in U.S.-China relations won’t be easy, and Beijing is not going to like it. The Chinese government has been breaking its commitments and getting away with it for so long, it’s reluctant to change. But the best hope of avoiding conflict is to compel Beijing to compete fairly and for us to realize China won’t stop its bad behavior on its own. – Washington Post 

South Asia

Victory against the Taliban in this remote northeastern province of Afghanistan is measured in distance: 20 miles of mud-brick villages and dirt roads. That’s how far Afghan Gen. Yasin Zia’s motley crew — local fighters in T-shirts, Afghan Army commandos in American tactical gear, and intelligence officers in shalwar kameez — managed to push back the militants, who had come within six miles of the provincial capital of Taloqan. – Washington Post

Bangladeshi border forces shot and killed an Indian border guard on Thursday when a altercation erupted over an Indian fisherman the Bangladeshis had detained, in a rare clash between the two sides. – Reuters

An “unprecedented” number of civilians were killed or wounded in Afghanistan from July to September this year, the United Nations said in a new report released Thursday, calling the violence “totally unacceptable”. – Agence France-Presse

Pakistan blacklisted and expelled the Asia coordinator of global press freedom group the Committee to Protect Journalists, the group’s executive director said Friday. – Associated Press

Backed by longtime ally China, Pakistan is confident it will avert blacklisting over terrorism financing by a global watchdog on Friday but it will not be completely off the hook until it proves it is genuinely severing ties with Islamist militants, officials and analysts said. – Reuters


Resolving the increasingly violent protests in Hong Kong will most likely fall to an influential group of Beijing’s local allies. The trouble: They don’t agree on much. The fissures raise the likelihood that unrest in Hong Kong could fester for months or even years. That could further hurt the city’s economy, create a constant headache for Beijing and aggravate an already sore point between the United States and China. – New York Times

A Chinese company signed an agreement to lease an entire island in the Solomon Islands a day after Beijing recruited the Pacific nation as its latest ally in the strategically important region, according to documents obtained by AFP Thursday. – Agence France-Presse

The suspect in a Taiwan murder case that sparked Hong Kong’s biggest political crisis in decades is willing to turn himself in to Taiwanese authorities, a Hong Kong newspaper reported. – Bloomberg

Protesters in Hong Kong are making unrealistic demands in an effort to take down the government, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said. – Bloomberg

A U.S. congressional group of lawmakers devoted to press freedom has expressed concern in a letter to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon over what they say are constant harassment and threats to journalists of the Tajik service of RFE/RL. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

James R. Holmes writes: In other words, the idea was that Taiwan’s quality would trump China’s quantity. And it made perfect sense—so long as the island remained a beneficiary of U.S. military largesse while China remained a poor country with little to invest in high-tech armaments. The qualitative offset endured. But U.S. presidential administrations and Congress have been stingier and stingier with arms sales over the years, even as China opened itself to the world economically, made itself rich, and sluiced some of its wealth into new weaponry for PLA naval, air, and missile forces. Both assumptions—U.S. support and mainland backwardness—are now suspect. – Foreign Policy

Joseph Bosco writes: After the tragic Syria mistake, Washington cannot afford strategic ambiguity on Taiwan or any other place in Asia that is threatened by China or North Korea. The president could demonstrate that commitment by deploying to Taiwan the small contingent of security forces that once protected the Kurds. – The Hill


Russia said on Thursday it would issue a formal note of protest to the United States after police caught three U.S. diplomats in what it said was a restricted area near a closed military testing site. – Reuters

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, have discussed situation in north eastern Syria and expressed their readiness to facilitate relevant talks, Russian foreign ministry said on Thursday. – Reuters

A Russian parliamentary committee has accused six foreign-registered and funded media outlets of violating the country’s election law before and during last month’s elections to regional and local councils. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Jon Huntsman left Moscow largely unscathed after two years in the job as U.S. President Donald Trump’s envoy to Moscow. His presumed successor might not be so lucky. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan is expected to be nominated to replace Huntsman in coming weeks. – Foreign Policy


Britain and the European Union agreed on a Brexit deal Thursday, setting the stage for a fateful showdown in the British Parliament, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces an uphill struggle to marshal enough votes for his plan after three years of anguished, politically corrosive debate. – New York Times

The knotty details of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new Brexit deal with the European Union are contained in 64 pages of revisions to the old withdrawal agreement, and an accompanying road map to future relations. After days of shadowy negotiations, the documents set out how Mr. Johnson’s deal differs from the one struck by his predecessor, Theresa May, which went down to a string of humiliating defeats in the British House of Commons. – New York Times

As many across mainland Britain expressed guarded relief at the breakthrough in Brexit negotiations on Thursday, unionists in Northern Ireland felt a deep sense of betrayal after Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed a deal with the European Union despite significant objections from the lawmakers who represent them. – New York Times

A new round of tariffs on European Union goods, such as wine, cheese and olive oil, are set to go into effect Friday, a move that illustrates the current dim prospects for a broader U.S.-EU trade deal. Negotiations for the deal stalled earlier in the year over agriculture issues, and lawmakers and trade groups see no indication that the sides are any closer to starting negotiations. – Washington Examiner

European Union leaders are meeting again on October 18 in Brussels to discuss the bloc’s budget and climate change. The bloc’s leaders wrapped up the first day of their summit in Brussels without making any decisions about the potential membership of North Macedonia and Albania, as France and two other states insisted that the Western Balkan nations were not ready to join the bloc. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Germany’s interior minister announced a new six-point plan to combat antisemitism on Thursday, as the country continued to reel from last week’s attempted massacre by a far-right terrorist of worshipers at a synagogue in Halle during Yom Kippur services. – Algemeiner

The Americas

The United Nations General Assembly on Thursday voted to add Venezuela to its 47-member Human Rights Council, despite stringent opposition from activists denouncing the country’s human rights record under its president, Nicolás Maduro. – New York Times

Atik is one of thousands of Turks who fled a government crackdown targeting followers of Hizmet, a social movement inspired by Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen.. […]In the USA, they wait and hope for democratic reforms in Turkey and watch worriedly as President Donald Trump builds an uneasy relationship with Erdogan. – USA Today

2020 presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., should take a trip to poverty-stricken Venezuela and explore the country for few weeks without bodyguards, said Venezuelan assemblyman Jose Guerra during a Tuesday interview. – Fox News

U.S. President Donald Trump says that Energy Secretary Rick Perry — a key player in the controversy over Trump’s dealings with Ukraine — will leave his position by the end of the year. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty


Facebook’s position on political speech is part of a growing divide between social media companies and traditional media companies. Twitter, too, has said it will not remove accounts of politicians who appear to violate its policies against violent speech because the posts add to discourse. In contrast, traditional media companies — including cable channels like CNN, MSNBC and CNBC — have taken a harder line by declining to air political ads with false content. – New York Times

The Army will create an enterprise cloud management office before the end of the year, the service’s top IT official said at the Association of the U.S. Army conference Oct. 15. – Federal Times

The Department of Defense does not know the full cost or scope of threats posed by severe weather and cyberattacks to its bases around the globe, the Pentagon’s top property manager told lawmakers on Wednesday. – USNI News


The Army has awarded BAE Systems a $437 million task order for open source intelligence support, the company announced Oct. 15 during the 2019 Association of the United States Army conference. – C4ISRNET

The Navy’s next-generation narrowband satellite communications system is ready for unrestricted operations, having passed the final milestone before a full operational capability (FOC) determination. – USNI News

The new chief of naval operations told global navies today that he wanted to bring his allies along as the U.S. Navy moves into higher-end maritime operations. – USNI News

Claude Berube writes: It will be the human element — knowledge, analytical capability, and ingenuity in the naval intelligence community — that guides us to victory, defeat, or stalemate as it has since wars were first fought. That is why we must reassess how time is best spent for analysts, what extraneous collateral functions that have no inherent war-fighting purpose can be eliminated, and how to re-invest in education and training that is geared toward war-fighting.  We must recognize the rules of the naval intelligence game. – War on the Rocks

Phillip Pournelle writes: The secretary of defense can build on these combined endeavors to enable truly alternative forces to be examined and assessed. Continued success requires all the elements of the national security analytic community to work together, each contributing their own perspective, led by the secretary of defense, to build the innovative joint force that the United States needs. – War on the Rocks

Missile Defense

In 2014, “60 Minutes” made famous the 8-inch floppy disks used by one antiquated Air Force computer system that, in a crisis, could receive an order from the president to launch nuclear missiles from silos across the United States. At long last, that system, the Strategic Automated Command and Control System or SACCS, has dumped the floppy disk[…]. – C4ISRNET

Incumbent Raytheon will build the U.S. Army’s new missile defense radar to replace the Patriot air and missile defense system’s current radar as part of the service’s future Integrated Air and Missile Defense System. – Defense News

Steve Fetter and Kingston Reif write: So long as U.S. adversaries possess nuclear weapons, we believe the United States should maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal to deter nuclear attacks against itself and its allies. But the Trump administration’s approach to sustaining and upgrading the arsenal is unnecessary, unsustainable, and unsafe. Nowhere is this more evident than with respect to its plan to build a new ICBM. Instead of proceeding with current plans to build an entirely new ICBM system at a cost that is likely to exceed $100 billion, the Pentagon could save scores of billions — without sacrificing U.S. security — by continuing to rely on a smaller number of existing Minuteman III missiles. – War on the Rocks

Long War

France’s interior minister said on Thursday that intelligence services had arrested a man for planning an attack inspired by plane attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in Sept. 2001. – Reuters 

In his September 24, 2019 column in the Jordanian daily Al-Dustour, ‘Abd Al-Hamid Al-Hamshari wrote that the 9/11 attacks were planned by the U.S. National Security Council with the aim of destabilizing the Middle East and preventing the rise of an Arab power that would compete with the U.S. for hegemony in that region. […]The following are excerpts from Al-Hamshari’s article. – Middle East Media Research Institute

New Zealand officials said on Friday armed police will patrol parts of the country in a trial project following heightened security concerns after a mass shooting in Christchurch in March that killed 51 people. – Reuters 

Kathy Gilsinan writes: The risks have spiked, but the policy is the same: Countries just need to take their citizens back. Most were unwilling before, and now they may be unable. As security deteriorates in northern Syria, there’s no obvious way to get prisoners out and back home even if their governments wanted them. Trump has suggested that Turkey can take over, but Turkey has shown little inclination so far. – The Atlantic