Fdd's overnight brief

October 22, 2019

In The News


Ratings agency Fitch put the long-term foreign currency rating of Turkey’s Halkbank on “rating watch negative” on Monday, following U.S. Department of Justice charges of fraud, money laundering and Iran sanctions busting. – Reuters

Facebook Inc. discovered four separate misinformation networks — three tied to Iran and one to Russia — that the social network said it shut down as part of an ongoing effort to counter “foreign influence campaigns.” – Bloomberg

An Iranian tanker damaged in the Red Sea two weeks ago has entered Iranian territorial waters, the official IRNA news agency reported on Monday, citing information from the National Iranian Tanker Company. – Reuters

Iran says it has given the U.S. a list of detained Iranians whom it wants to be freed in a prisoner swap, drawing a vague public response from U.S. officials who have sought to discuss the issue with Tehran. – Voice of America

Gerald F. Seib writes: The departure of American forces shrinks America’s role and reduces an impediment to both Iranian influence and Mr. Assad’s continuation in power. […]Inevitably, though, pursuing the goal of leaving Syria complicates the main regional goal, which is to contain Iran. The U.S. can exert maximum pressure on Iran, or it can withdraw from the Middle East. It will find it hard to do both. – Wall Street Journal 


Civilians in Kurdish areas hurled fruit and insults at a U.S. troop convoy that crossed from northern Syria into Iraq early Monday, venting anger over a withdrawal they see as the U.S. betraying its allies in the fight against Islamic State. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump said Monday that a limited number of U.S. troops will remain in Syria to man a garrison on the southern border with Jordan and “to secure the oil” elsewhere in the country. – Washington Post

American forces and their Kurdish-led partners in Syria had been conducting as many as a dozen counterterrorism missions a day against Islamic State militants, officials said. That has stopped. – New York Times

Trump, speaking at a meeting of his Cabinet at the White House, also said it appeared a five-day pause negotiated last week in the Turkish offensive against U.S.-allied Kurdish-led fighters in northern Syria was holding despite some skirmishes, and that it could possibly go beyond Tuesday’s expiration. – Reuters

Iraqi Kurdish President Nechirvan Barzani said on Monday that the United States pulling out of Syria was “undesirable” but that the semi-autonomous region appreciated the U.S. historical role in protecting it. – Reuters

The situation in Syria will continue to disintegrate, the former head of counter-Islamic State operations for the State Department said on Monday. – Washington Examiner

German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on Monday suggested the creation of a security zone in northern Syria to protect displaced civilians and ensure that the fight continues against Islamic State militia. – Reuters

President Trump said Monday that Israel and Jordan had asked him to leave a limited number of troops in Syria. – The Hill

In a rare joint statement, top foreign affairs lawmakers from the United States and multiple European allies on Monday condemned both President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American military forces from Syria and the Turkish invasion that followed. – Defense News

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that the US was prepared to take military action in the Middle East after he was asked about Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish-controlled areas of northeastern Syria. – Times of Israel

Until recently, Sen. Lindsey Graham had been one the most outspoken critics of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria ahead of Turkish military action across the border into Kurdish territory. But, after speaking with Trump on Saturday, he said he had changed his mind. – USA Today

Stevan Weine writes: Just as the U.S. and its allies failed to anticipate and prevent the rise of ISIS, we are now on the brink of single-mindedly focusing on states’ short-term security needs and failing to address the clear short- and long-term needs of the children of ISIS — which down the road could lead to countless other personal and societal tragedies, but which are preventable. – The Hill

Joseph Votel and Elizabeth Dent writes: U.S. options in Syria are more limited than they were before, but Washington still has opportunities to address U.S. strategic interests and national security. […]With a full withdrawal order in effect, and only a small presence of U.S. soldiers in At Tanf Garrison in southern Syria, the U.S. should now focus on what elements it can influence—ensuring that ISIS cannot resurge and once again threaten America and its allies. – The Atlantic 

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: If Syria is ever to emerge out from its “failed state” status, it will require stabilization in terms of security for its people and serious reforms of the civil sector and the economy. However, those fundamental changes are unlikely to be made as long as the Assad regime remains in control. […]The United States faces at least a decade of similar challenges, and trying to withdraw from an unstable world is a self-destructive exercise in futility. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Turkey is holding covert contacts with Syria’s government to avert direct conflict in northeast Syria where both sides have deployed their armies, Turkish officials say, despite Ankara’s long-standing hostility to President Bashar al-Assad. – Reuters

Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak said on Monday that sanctions threats have become a “blackmailing” effort, a week after Washington slapped sanctions on some of Turkey’s ministers and ministries over Ankara’s military incursion in Syria. – Reuters

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan will discuss Turkey’s operation in Syria during their meeting on Tuesday, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters in Moscow on Monday. – Reuters

President Donald Trump on Monday brushed away criticism of his decision to pull American troops out of northern Syria, saying the U.S. never agreed to protect the region’s Kurdish forces “for the rest of their lives.” – Huffington Post

Ilan Berman writes: Supporters of a “greater Turkey,” at least, are certainly hoping it will. In various media outlets, Turkish ideologues are now arguing that their country’s adventurism in Syria is simultaneously a vital contribution to European security and a blow to Western imperialism. Thus the consensus for further military action, if Erdogan deems it necessary, appears to be firmly in place. Whether that decision is taken depends greatly on just how deep the vision of an imperial Turkey truly runs among the Turkish president and his supporters. – The Hill


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday gave up his struggle to form a governing coalition after last month’s dead-heat national election, opening a possible path to power for his rival, former army chief of staff Benny Gantz. – Washington Post

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the possibility of Russia pardoning U.S.-Israeli national Naama Issachar when he spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said. – Reuters

Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg said over the weekend that he would consider using American military aid to “leverage” Israel to change its policies toward the Palestinians. – Times of Israel

Leading Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren on Sunday indicated the US could withhold aid to Israel to force it to halt construction in settlements. – Times of Israel

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas arrived in Tokyo on Monday ahead of Tuesday’s enthronement of Japanese Emperor Naruhito, and met several high-ranking Japanese officials, the official PA news site Wafa reported. – Times of Israel

A senior Israeli official took part in a security conference in Bahrain on Monday, in a fresh sign of warming ties between Israel and some Arab states. – Times of Israel

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the phone Monday, with the two discussing developments in Syria and other matters of mutual interest, the Kremlin said in a statement. – Times of Israel

A Palestinian Authority court in Ramallah has issued an order to block 59 websites deemed critical of the PA and its leaders. – Jerusalem Post

Eitan Ben Eliyahu writes: An Israeli attempt to inflict a hard lasting blow to Iran would probably be rejected by the rest of the world, and so, after a traumatic regional experience and a large number orf casualties, it would end up in the same place as it started. […]There’s no way of telling how things will pan out, but it’s clear that as long as the governments of Israel, the U.S. and Turkey remain in the hands of their current leaders, the first alternative will probably be favored. – Ynet

David Makovsky writes: For now, there is no indication that Trump and Netanyahu have spoken with each other since the September election, and when senior advisor Jared Kushner visits the region at the end of the month, he will meet with Gantz for the first time, not just with Netanyahu. – Washington Institute

Gulf States

Two members of Iraq’s security forces were killed and three wounded when Islamic State militants attacked checkpoints in the Allas oilfields area of the northern Salahuddin province on Monday, the military said in a statement. – Reuters

U.S. forces that crossed into Iraq as part of a pull-out from Syria do not have permission to stay and can only be there in transit, the Iraqi military said on Tuesday. – Reuters

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday, with tensions simmering between Washington and Tehran, and Russia seeking to boost its influence in the Middle East. – Reuters

Middle East & North Africa

Lebanon’s government approved an emergency package of economic reforms on Monday in a bid to ward off crisis and defuse the country’s biggest protests in decades. – Reuters

Adam Taylor writes: Obama tried to solve the puzzle of U.S. troops locked in foreign wars, while Trump is hoping to ignore it. But for now, it still seems to be that keeping U.S. troops in the Middle East is proving far easier than bringing them home. – Washington Post

Ketti Davison writes: The twin crises in Syria and Iraq are altering the region’s battlefields and geopolitical dynamics. Russia, Turkey, Iran, the Assad regime, and ISIS are sweeping in as U.S. troops withdraw from northeastern Syria. In neighboring Iraq, widespread popular protests are creating military and political opportunities for Iran and its proxies. – Defense One

Amr Adly writes: The street demonstrations wracking Lebanon come on the heels of socioeconomic protests in several other Middle Eastern countries this year, most notably in Iraq and Egypt. The protests have diverse national political and economic contexts, but the protesters have many grievances in common: rampant corruption, the deterioration of public services, as well as the heightened pain inflicted by government austerity programs and higher indirect taxes. – Bloomberg

Korean Peninsula

The United States won a federal court battle on Monday to take ownership of a North Korean ship that was seized last year for violating U.N. economic sanctions. – NBC News

A commercial by Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo has stirred a consumer backlash in South Korea amid accusations that it mocks victims of wartime forced labour and brothel workers, reopening deep wounds from Japan’s colonial past. – Reuters

With its authoritarian regime and tightly controlled tour groups, North Korea isn’t the easiest place in the world to visit. North and South Korea are technically still at war, and for many South Koreans, Pyongyang Pub is as close as they are likely to get to going north of the border themselves. – CNN

South Korea’s export-dependent economy is facing a “grave situation” as the U.S.-China trade war and the spread of trade protectionism heap pressure on the global economy, President Moon Jae-in said in a parliament speech Tuesday. – Bloomberg


China and the United States have achieved some progress in their trade talks, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng said on Tuesday, and any problem could be resolved as long as both sides respected each other. – Reuters

President Donald Trump said China has indicated that negotiations over an initial trade deal are advancing, raising expectations the nations’ leaders could sign an agreement at a meeting next month in Chile. – Bloomberg

Elizabeth M. Lynch writes: Even if the camps are disbanded, China’s gendered policies would remain. In addition to demanding that the Chinese government close the internment camps, the U.S. government — and the rest of the world — must insist that the government end the abuse of Uighur women as well. – Washington Post

William Alan Reinsch writes: With respect to the China agreement, the Trump administration once again displayed its tendency to say “dinner is served” before the turkey finished cooking. […]There is a lot to debate about why that is happening and how far it could go, which will be a subject for discussion another time. For now, it is fair to say that an outcome that allows it to continue is welcome in the White House. So, ironically, both sides are probably happy with an agreement that fundamentally changes very little. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said he has reduced the number of American troops fighting in the country in an effort to boost military efficiency, a move that comes in the midst of rickety peace talks. – Wall Street Journal

An Afghan official says the Taliban have stormed a checkpoint in northern Kunduz province, killing at least 15 policemen in the latest attack by insurgents. – Associated Press

The Pentagon recently began drawing up plans for an abrupt withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan in case President Donald Trump surprises military leaders by ordering an immediate drawdown as he did in Syria, three current and former defense officials said. – NBC News


Emperor Naruhito proclaimed his accession to the throne, accompanied by three shouts of “banzai”—a wish for a long life—and a 21-gun salute. […]Dignitaries from more than 180 nations—including Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, Spain’s King Felipe VI and Britain’s Prince Charles—watched the afternoon proceedings on a video feed. – Wall Street Journal

Shares were mostly higher in Asia on Tuesday after upbeat comments from President Donald Trump and other U.S. officials on the status of trade negotiations with China. – Associated Press

A murder case that led to mass street protests in Hong Kong should be handled independently by Taiwan, where the suspect allegedly committed the crime, authorities in the Chinese-ruled city said. – Reuters

Philip Kowalski writes: Similarly, the entanglement of Balochistan in the U.S.-Taliban peace process may end up becoming a thorn in the side of both parties if the BLA continues to expand — a situation that could have dangerous and unpredictable consequences for both domestic and foreign actors. Eyes are on Balochistan. – Middle East Institute


The Kremlin said on Monday that Kiev had sent Russia mixed signals about the war in eastern Ukraine despite agreeing to a peace plan and that no progress had been made on organizing an international summit aimed at finding a resolution. – Reuters

Russian president Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron spoke by phone on Monday and discussed the situation in Syria’s north-east and Ukraine, the Kremlin said in a statement. – Reuters

French President Emmanuel Macron said that it was important to extend the ceasefire in northeast Syria in a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. – Reuters

Edward Lucas writes: It is not just that Putin’s intervention in Syria now looks like a stroke of strategic genius. Far from being bogged down in an unwinnable war in defense of a failing dictator, Russia is now becoming a powerbroker in the Middle East—a role it had all but abdicated in the 20 years following the Soviet collapse. […]Moscow’s return to the world geopolitical stage has grave implications for U.S. allies in Europe too.  – Center for European Policy Analysis

Anna Borshchevskaya and Soner Cagaptay writes: Taken together, these factors suggest that Erdogan will have the weaker hand to play in Sochi. Putin may therefore be able to further his broader goals vis-a-vis Turkey, namely, forcing Erdogan to shake Assad’s hand. If this happens, Putin will further elevate his regional standing and move closer to reestablishing Moscow’s great-power status, all at Washington’s expense. – Washington Institute


President Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine for information he could use against political rivals came as he was being urged to adopt a hostile view of that country by its regional adversaries, including Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, current and former U.S. officials said. – Washington Post

Just 10 days before a key meeting on Ukraine, President Trump met, over the objections of his national security adviser, with one of the former Soviet republic’s most virulent critics, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, and heard a sharp assessment that bolstered his hostility toward the country, according to several people informed about the situation. – New York Times

The speaker of Britain’s House of Commons has turned down the government’s bid for a new vote on its Brexit divorce deal, in a blow to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to take the country out of the European Union at the end of the month. – Associated Press

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared in a U.K. court Monday to fight extradition to the United States on espionage charges, and he lost a bid to delay proceedings so that his legal team would have more time to prepare his case. – Associated Press

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson brushed aside yet another Brexit setback Monday and sought again to ram through his EU divorce deal in time for next week’s deadline. – Agence France-Presse

The U.K. government has today published the text of its Withdrawal Agreement Bill — the legislation needed to turn the deal reached with the European Union into U.K. law. – Politico

The president, according to people familiar with testimony in the House impeachment investigation, sees the Eastern European ally, not Russia, as responsible for the interference in the 2016 election that was investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller. – Associated Press

Two former Coast Guard Island-class cutters arrived in Odessa, Ukraine, on Monday, as part of a program to beef up Ukraine’s navy with retired U.S. vessels. – USNI News


The United States, the United Kingdom and Norway urged political parties in South Sudan to meet a Nov. 12 deadline to form a transitional government. – Reuters

President Vladimir Putin stepped up Russia’s push for influence in Africa days before he hosts a summit with African leaders, saying on Monday that Moscow could offer help without strings attached unlike what he cast as the exploitative West. – Reuters

Two Russian Tu-160 Blackjack bombers and support aircraft are expected to touch down in South Africa this week for an unprecedented deployment to the continent. – Military.com

The Americas

A significant number of military-grade weapons that were used last week in a firefight to free El Chapo’s son from custody in Mexico likely came from suppliers in the United States, arms experts said. – Washington Examiner

U.S. President Donald Trump congratulated Canadian Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau early on Tuesday after the federal election put Trudeau back in power, though with a minority in parliament. – Reuters

Mexico’s foreign minister said on Monday that a call between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Mexican counterpart following gang shootouts in the city of Culiacan would mark a turning point on illegal arms trafficking to Mexico. – Reuters


Islamic State militants have been posting short propaganda videos to TikTok, the social network known for lighthearted content popular with teenagers. – Wall Street Journal

Facebook on Monday said it removed a network of Russian-backed accounts that posed as locals weighing in on political issues in swing states, praising President Trump and attacking former vice president Joe Biden — illustrating that the familiar threat of Russian interference looms over the next U.S. presidential race. – Washington Post

Facebook announced plans Monday to identify content from state-controlled media sources posted on its platform. – The Hill

Facebook has set out extra measures for fighting the spread of disinformation at the next UK election. – BBC


President Trump has repeatedly promised to end what he calls America’s “endless wars,” fulfilling a promise he made during the campaign. No wars have ended, though, and more troops have deployed to the Middle East in recent months than have come home. Mr. Trump is not so much ending wars, as he is moving troops from one conflict to another. – New York Times

Boeing’s risk reduction contract for the Air Force’s Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program is functionally cancelled, the company announced Oct. 21. – Defense News 

The ongoing graduation exercise for the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) will not only get the 4,500 sailors and Marines ready to deploy later this year but also has started a conversation at the deck plate level about how the services will fight together in the future. – USNI News

In August, over the dusty fields of Australia, highly autonomous drones made more than 380 deliveries of blood and other medical supplies to troops amid a live-fire exercise with U.S., Australian, and other forces. – Defense One

James Andrew Lewis writes: Cold War arms control agreements face two dilemmas. The first is that they do not cover the emerging technologies that will build the next generation of weapons. The second is that China is not a party to most of them and therefore not constrained in weapons development. From this perspective, concerns about the end of the Reagan-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty neglect to consider that this treaty no longer made sense. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Long War

British prosecutors are reconsidering their opposition to trying a pair of Islamic State members linked to a cell suspected of involvement in the killing of American and British hostages in Syria. – Washington Post

Judges have completed a marathon investigation into the 2015 Paris terror attacks in which 130 died, paving the way for a trial, say prosecutors. – Telegraph

Rita Katz writes: But the far-right community has grown dramatically in the last year, with new waves of attacks and uninterrupted online spaces that inspire them—a very similar condition to that of ISIS shortly before it established its so-called Caliphate. This is a critical moment for the U.S. government to prove if it is capable of learning from history. While terrorist legislation will not be a silver bullet to stop the threat of attacks by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, it would mark a major step in the right direction. – The Daily Beast

Trump Administration

The Taliban have wanted the United States to pull troops out of Afghanistan, Turkey has wanted the Americans out of northern Syria and North Korea has wanted them to at least stop military exercises with South Korea. President Trump has now to some extent at least obliged all three — but without getting much of anything in return. – New York Times

The trips by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) to Jordan and Afghanistan this weekend is yet another reminder of the two tracks of U.S. foreign policy now emerging from Washington. – Wall Street Journal

Democratic leaders had hoped to move as soon as Thanksgiving to wrap up a narrow inquiry focused around Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, buoyed by polling data that shows that the public supports the investigation, even if voters are not yet sold on impeaching the president. – New York Times

U.S. lawmakers conducting an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump will hear on Tuesday from the top U.S. official in Ukraine, who once said it was “crazy” to withhold military aid for the country for domestic political reasons. – Reuters

Behind closed doors, President Donald Trump has made his views on Ukraine clear: “They tried to take me down.” The president, according to people familiar with testimony in the House impeachment investigation, sees the Eastern European ally, not Russia, as responsible for the interference in the 2016 election that was investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller. – Associated Press 

William Taylor has emerged as an unlikely central player in the events that are at the heart of the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. The retired career civil servant was tapped to run the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine after the administration abruptly ousted the ambassador. He was then drawn into a Trump administration effort to leverage U.S. military aid for Ukraine. – Associated Press

The Justice Department’s review of the origins of the Russia investigation created “unease” at the CIA, according to a reporter who has followed its progress. – Washington Examiner

Trump administration officials took aim at ousted White House national security adviser John Bolton, attacking his credibility following reports he regarded the Ukraine controversy as a major scandal. – Washington Examiner

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday offered a confusing description of his foreign policy priorities as commander in chief — insisting that he was working to bring home American soldiers while warning the U.S. may soon enter into new military conflicts. – Politico

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) came to the defense of fellow 2020 presidential contender Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) on Monday after Hillary Clinton appeared to suggest Gabbard was getting a campaign boost from Russia. – Huffington Post