Fdd's overnight brief

October 23, 2019

In The News


The annual ceremony commemorating a founding figure of Shiite Islam is one of the most important religious celebrations in the Shiite world, drawing millions of pilgrims to the holy city of Karbala, Iraq. This year, the Arbaeen ceremony was also a political skirmish — the latest test of Iran’s power in Iraq and of Iraq’s increasing desire for independence from its powerful neighbor. – New York Times

U.S.-Iran relations have been adversarial—to varying degrees of intensity—since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. U.S. officials have consistently identified Iran’s support for militant Middle East groups as a significant threat to U.S. interests and allies, and Iran’s nuclear program took precedence in U.S. policy after 2002 as that program advanced. – USNI News 

Iran was banned from international judo competitions Tuesday for refusing to let its athletes fight Israeli opponents. – Associated Press 

An Iranian beauty queen is pleading for asylum in the Philippines as she fights extradition to her native country — fearing she’ll be executed if she gets sent back. – New York Post

Hanin Ghaddar writes: While exhausting every opportunity to weave itself into the region’s state institutions, the Iranian regime failed to notice that power requires a vision for the day after. As events unfold in the region, Iran is failing to rule. Iraq and Lebanon are good examples. – Foreign Policy 

Seth Cropsey writes: Regardless of the option chosen, Israel and America must recognize that option three, a direct strike against Iran, will become necessary. History contains many examples of powers that knew the stakes of a confrontation yet refused to strike early. Athens and Sparta hoped to stave off war as long as possible. Sparta required unquestionable primacy, Athens an equal position to Sparta’s. Each demanded what the other could not give. – The Hill 


This tiny village in the northwestern corner of Syria became a refuge six months ago as thousands of families fled shelling by the government of President Bashar al-Assad and airstrikes by one of its main allies, Russia. Now, as Turkey seeks Moscow’s help to seize a strip of northeast Syria, the village has also become another square on the Middle East geopolitical chessboard. – Wall Street Journal

If you ask President Trump, the United States is simultaneously bringing its troops home from Syria and securing “the Oil” (his capitalization) there. In fact, the United States has neither brought home the troops — the military is in the process of pulling out most of them and re-stationing them in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East — nor completely left Syria. […]So what’s going on? Let’s dive in. – Washington Post 

Prospects for an end to Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish fighters in Syria were better than a week ago, U.S. President Donald Trump’s special envoy for Syria said on Tuesday, but a permanent ceasefire would depend on both sides meeting the terms of last week’s temporary ceasefire agreement. – Reuters 

U.S. President Donald Trump’s special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, said on Tuesday that “dozens” of Islamic State fighters had been freed since Turkey began its incursion in northeastern Syria. – Reuters 

Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the situation in northern Syria in a phone call on Tuesday with his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian presidency said in a statement. – Reuters 

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday said the regime would support Kurdish fighters in the northeast of the war-torn country against Turkish soldiers and their Syrian proxies. – Agence France-Presse 

The Trump administration’s special envoy for Syria and the anti-ISIS coalition said Tuesday he was not consulted on President Trump’s decision this month to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. – The Hill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republican senators introduced a resolution Tuesday in opposition to President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from Syria, warning that his decision has benefited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, Russia and Iran. – CNN

Kathy Gilsinan writes: The U.S.-brokered semi-reprieve from the fighting was fundamentally a bargain between Turkey and the United States, in which the U.S. message was: Stop attacking the Syrian Kurds, who helped us beat ISIS; they’ll get away from a piece of your border; and we won’t come after your economy. Yet in the days since, it’s only become clearer that each of the key players—the U.S., Turkey, and the Syrian Kurdish leadership—all believe they agreed to different things. – The Atlantic

Matthew Petti writes: A State Department official broke a pencil and screamed at the Syrian Kurdish delegation during a dramatic breakdown of relations between the United States and the Syrian Kurds. The high-tension moment in September highlights the diplomatic problems plaguing the Trump administration, which has been trying to broker a cease-fire agreement between Turkey and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.. – The National Interest 


And on Tuesday, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia played host to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey for more than six hours of talks on how they and other regional players will divide control of Syria, devastated by eight years of civil war. […]The change strengthens the rapid expansion of Russian influence in Syria at the expense of the United States and its Kurdish former allies. – New York Times

The Turkish Army halted its incursion into a Kurdish-run area of northern Syria on Wednesday morning, after a deal between the Turkish and Russian governments promised that Kurdish fighters would retreat from the Turkish-Syrian border. – New York Times

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday the United States has not fully kept its promises agreed in last week’s temporary truce in northeastern Syria, according to Turkish broadcaster NTV. – Reuters

Turkey has launched the country’s first indigenous submarine program, known as MILDEN, a Turkish acronym for “national submarine. – Defense News

A U.S. prosecutor on Tuesday called Turkey’s Halkbank (HALKB.IS) a “fugitive” after it failed to make an initial court appearance in a criminal case accusing it of conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran. – Reuters  

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development opposes the Turkish government’s decision to name Hakan Atilla, a former Halkbank executive who was jailed in the United States, as chief executive of the Istanbul bourse in which it has a big stake. – Reuters

Tuna Beklevic writes: Abandoning this narrow counterterrorism framing, and insisting on a real understanding of the causes of this conflict, is the only way to achieve democracy, security and a real end to this war. If I can reject the narrative of the society I was born in and the government I once worked for, there is no reason others around the world cannot do the same. My country, and all of its people, cannot afford otherwise. – Washington Post


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to form a governing coalition by this week’s deadline has turned the spotlight on his political rival, former Army chief of staff Benny Gantz, who becomes the only other Israeli authorized to form a government in more than a decade. – Washington Post

For the first time in a decade, someone other than Benjamin Netanyahu will be asked to form a government in Israel. […]Here are some of the possible scenarios, including even a third parliamentary election in less than a year, following two inconclusive elections in April and September. – Reuters

The Israeli military said a small quadcopter fell inside southern Lebanon on Wednesday morning after Lebanese media claimed that it had been shot down by Hezbollah. – Jerusalem Post

Israel is readying for a direct cruise missile or drone strike by Tehran in response to recent attacks on Iranian regional proxies which have been attributed to the Jewish state, Army Radio reported Tuesday evening. – Times of Israel 


The Iraqi government on Tuesday fired scores of senior military commanders for their role in a deadly crackdown on protesters, as authorities tried to avert a potential explosion of unrest that is compounded by new threats to Iraq’s stability in neighboring Syria. The move comes as protesters gear up for renewed demonstrations against Iraq’s political establishment on Friday that are intensifying pressure on Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s government. – Wall Street Journal

On Thursday, Zuckerberg — under scrutiny for how misinformation is harnessed and is now protected by Facebook — bridged the debate over Iraq and the nexus of his company, even at one point suggesting the social network could have stopped the war entirely. – Washington Post

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper arrived in Baghdad on Wednesday, where he is likely to face questions about how long U.S. troops withdrawing from northeast Syria will stay in Iraq. – Reuters 

Several hundred U.S. troops withdrawing from Syria into Iraq will be coming home following Baghdad’s refusal to let them stay there indefinitely, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday. – Military.com 

Michael Knights writes: To prevent Iran from further compromising the Iraqi government or fomenting violence around the country, Washington must demonstrate that it stands with the next generation of Iraqis, particularly the reformists and supporters of free expression who have taken to the streets despite facing the real threat of death. […]This experiment should be repeated with multiple rounds of new sanctions and exposure of crimes against the Iraqi people. – Washington Institute

Arabian Peninsula

Defense Secretary Mark Esper met Tuesday with the king of Saudi Arabia during a tour of the kingdom’s military facilities as the U.S. pursues its biggest Middle East troop buildup of the Trump administration. – Wall Street Journal

The top echelon of Washington and Wall Street will return to an opulent investment conference in Saudi Arabia next week, a year after American officials and prominent business leaders shunned the gathering amid backlash surrounding the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist. – New York Times

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday that he will urge allies later this week to contribute more to the defense of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region to counter threats from Iran. – Associated Press  

At a White House cabinet meeting yesterday, Donald Trump boasted, “We’re bringing our soldiers back home from the endless wars. We’re doing great.” In reality, of course, the president isn’t actually withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, despite his claims to the contrary, and he’s deploying additional U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia. – MSNBC

Yemen’s warring parties have set up joint frontline observation posts in the flashpoint port city of Hodeidah, the United Nations said on Wednesday, the latest step in U.N. efforts to maintain a ceasefire in the Red Sea port city. – Reuters

Middle East & North Africa

Two children were killed on Tuesday when a rocket hit their home in Libya’s capital Tripoli, as Amnesty International accused warring parties fighting for the city of “utter disregard” for the laws of war. – Agence France-Presse

The public relations firm that helped launch President Trump’s election campaign is lining up a fact-finding tour of Libya as part of a $1.5-million contract to lobby on behalf of the government of Tripoli. – Washington Examiner

Egypt said on Tuesday it had accepted a U.S. invitation to a meeting of foreign ministers over a project for a giant hydropower dam on Ethiopia’s Blue Nile that is causing an escalating spat between the two African countries. – Reuters

Tens of thousands of Lebanese protesters kept the country on lockdown on Tuesday, rallying for a sixth consecutive day to demand new leaders despite the government’s adoption of an emergency economic rescue plan. – Agence France-Presse

When mass anti-government protests engulfed Lebanon, a taboo was broken as strongholds of the Shiite Hezbollah group saw rare demonstrations criticizing the party and revered leader Hassan Nasrallah. […]This shattered the myth of absolute acquiescence among Hezbollah’s popular base, baffling even those who hail from the movement’s bastions. – Times of Israel 

Korean Peninsula

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered the destruction of South Korean-made hotels and other tourist facilities at the North’s Diamond Mountain resort, apparently because Seoul won’t defy international sanctions and resume South Korean tours at the site. – Associated Press

The animosity between Japan and South Korea is entwined with the history of Japan’s 1910-45 occupation of the Korean peninsula, the mobilization of forced labor at companies and women in wartime brothels, and a row over the ownership of islets in the sea between the two nations. – Reuters

Nicholas Szechenyi writes: As the CSIS timeline shows, the Japan-South Korea relationship is complex, and near-term solutions to some of these challenges could remain elusive. But the current crisis also presents an opportunity for U.S. leadership to help turn the tide. Encouraging a more positive dynamic between Japan and South Korea is a strategic imperative for the United States, which relies on alliance networking to uphold the regional order. – Center for Strategic and International Studies 


The Trump administration is divided over how aggressively to restrict China’s access to United States technology as it looks for ways to protect national security without undercutting American industry. – New York Times

Sitting in the Oval Office alongside senior Chinese officials this month, President Trump declared that the United States had reached “a substantial phase one deal” with China — a development that could ease an intensifying trade war that has roiled global markets and hurt many U.S. businesses and consumers. […]Nearly three years into his tenure, the president who promised to bring his “Art of the Deal” business savvy to foreign and trade policy has few substantive deals to his name — and he is running short on time to deliver big-ticket agreements ahead of Election Day next year. – Washington Post

China’s state-sponsored hackers have drastically changed how they operate over the last three years, substituting selectivity for what had been a scattershot approach to their targets and showing a new determination by Beijing to push its surveillance state beyond its borders. – New York Times

Beijing on Tuesday offered major Chinese and international soybean processors waivers that would exempt the companies from steep tariffs on imports of up to 10 million tonnes of U.S. soybeans, according to two people briefed on the matter – Reuters

South Asia

China is organizing talks among Afghanistan’s rival factions as part of efforts to end years of war after negotiations between the Taliban and the United States on the withdrawal of U.S. forces broke down. – Reuters

The UN, the European Union, as well as a number of Western countries, including the United States, say they remain committed to reaching a “sustainable peace agreement” that ends the war in Afghanistan. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

The head of a U.N. fact-finding mission on Myanmar warned Tuesday that “there is a serious risk of genocide recurring” against the estimated 600,000 members of the Rohingya Muslim minority still living in the country. – Associated Press

The United States on Tuesday renewed calls on India to ease its clampdown in Kashmir as several lawmakers voiced anger at actions by a country that usually enjoys robust US support. – Agence France-Presse


Since China resumed control of Hong Kong in 1997, the city has served as a conduit for trillions of dollars in fundraising, trade and investment. Having a separate system—sealed off, yet under Beijing’s thumb—caused a raft of social and political concerns that gave rise to this year’s protests, now in their fifth month. But the city also enabled China’s rise. […]Here’s why Hong Kong matters financially to China. – Wall Street Journal

The suspect in a murder case that led indirectly to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong was released from prison on Wednesday and said he would surrender himself to Taiwan, where he is wanted for killing his girlfriend during a Valentine’s Day trip last year. – New York Times

The Chinese government is drawing up a plan to replace Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, with an “interim” chief executive following violent protests against her administration, according to people briefed on the deliberations. – Financial Times 

The U.S. Coast Guard is looking at longer deployments to the Western Pacific region following the successful execution of the Operation Aiga deployment to Samoa and American Samoa, commandant Adm. Karl Schultz told reporters on Monday. – USNI News

Gary J. Schmitt and Michael Mazza write: The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) interference in Taiwan’s democracy—efforts to influence politics in Taiwan through both overt and covert, both legal and illicit means—is a matter of importance not only for Taiwan but for the United States as well. […]For Americans, understanding what happened in Taiwan is undoubtedly informed by our own recent experience with foreign interference in elections. But there are important differences to be kept in mind and which make the case of China and Taiwan unique. – Global Taiwan Institute  


Russian President Vladimir Putin is hosting dozens of leaders of African nations for the first-ever Russia-Africa summit, reflecting Moscow’s new push to expand its clout on the continent. – Associated Press

Tom Rogan writes: There is only one silver lining here. Perhaps Trump will now realize that Putin is neither a good friend nor a reasonable partner. It’s odd that Trump still hasn’t understood Putin’s nature. Had he paid any semblance of attention to his intelligence briefings and Putin’s overt global activity, Trump would realize the Russian leader is an ardent adversary. – Washington Examiner

Hal Brands writes: Russia can say that it is fighting terrorism in Syria and elsewhere, but only the U.S. really has the capability to keep groups like the Islamic State at bay. Moscow can change the trajectory of the Syrian civil war, but it can’t unlock the flow of international aid dollars that will eventually be needed to rebuild that country — only Washington, in partnership with Europe, can. In short, Russia can chip away at the American-led order in the region, but only the U.S. can destroy that order altogether. Right now, Washington is doing a pretty good job of that. – Bloomberg


U.K. lawmakers endorsed a Brexit deal for the first time on Tuesday, raising the prospect that the country’s protracted divorce from the European Union is finally entering its endgame. It was an important step that gave critical momentum to the deal negotiated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but not a decisive one. – Wall Street Journal

European Council President Donald Tusk said on Tuesday that he would recommend that the 27 other member states of the European Union approve a delay of Britain’s departure date following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to put the Brexit deal on hold. – Reuters

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said on Tuesday he would await further developments from London and Brussels about a possible extension to Brexit after his British counterpart lost a crucial vote in parliament on the timetable for departure. – Reuters

A fake press release saying the United States will remove nuclear weapons from Turkey and house them in Lithuania appears to be a Russian operation to divide NATO, western officials and analysts said. – Washington Examiner

The Senate on Tuesday voted in support of North Macedonia joining NATO, paving the way for the Balkan country to become part of the alliance. – The Hill

Two members of Britain’s Labour party have been shortlisted to become members of Parliament despite both having been reported for alleged anti-Semitism. – Times of Israel

The Americas

The results of Canada’s national election on Monday have echoes of divisions in other countries across the world where regionalism is intensifying and the urban-rural divide is growing. Britain has Brexit. The United States has Trump Country. And, after Canada’s election, separatists in the western prairie provinces are calling again for #Wexit. – New York Times

The government of Bolivian President Evo Morales has asked the Organization of American States (OAS) to conduct an audit of a binding vote count after preliminary results of Sunday’s presidential election that showed Morales’ winning outright sparked concerns about tampering and violent protests, the country’s foreign minister said on Tuesday. – Reuters 

President Donald Trump’s plan to reverse America’s involvement in “endless wars” has run up against a difficult truth: When it comes to national security, rarely can a simple solution solve a complex problem. – Associated Press

Andy Mukherjee writes: In the end, it’s Donald Trump’s stance on Libra that should perplex Asia. The U.S. president has blasted Facebook’s plan. Why is a leader otherwise so determined to delay China’s rise on the world stage not willing to hand over the reins of the dollar’s global dominance to Western tech companies whose behavior the U.S. can still influence? If the sticking point is oversight, it may still be possible to hammer out a compromise, and rescue a global stablecoin. – Bloomberg


An influential British lawmaker challenged Facebook’s new effort to safeguard elections on Tuesday, warning that they will place a heavy constraint on the company’s ability to combat misinformation. – Associated Press

Leading civil rights groups are pressuring Facebook to ramp up its efforts to protect users from discrimination and voter suppression, among other violations. – Washington Examiner

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will tell House lawmakers Wednesday that he’s willing to postpone the launch of the controversial digital currency that the social media giant is spearheading, amid growing pushback from policymakers around the world. – Politico 

The U.S. House has launched an ambitious new task force to examine how to maintain Pentagon’s technological edge against Russia and China[…]. Led by House Armed Services Committee members Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Jim Banks, R-Ind., the bipartisan Future of Defense Task Force has a six-month charter, and a broad scope. – Defense News

Almost every state and territorial attorney general in the U.S. is now part of an ongoing investigation into whether Facebook is breaking antitrust laws, the lead investigator’s office announced Tuesday. – Politico

The National Cyber Security Centre defended the U.K. from 658 cyber attacks in the year to October — many from hostile foreign states — with government departments most at risk from attack, according to its annual report. – Bloomberg 

Jon Bateman writes: No Big Tech breakup plan should be taken seriously if it ignores national security. Likewise, no tech company should distract us from irresponsible behavior by simply waving the flag. Big Tech presents problems, to be sure, but the answer isn’t simply to turn it into Small Tech. – Wall Street Journal


The key component of a British hypersonic, air-breathing rocket engine with the potential to fly aircraft and space vehicles at Mach 5 speed has been successfully tested at a site in the United States. – Defense News 

Airbus has developed changes to the software that controls the A330 tanker boom specifically for midair refueling of the Boeing F-15 Eagle. – Defense News 

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) may not be ready to deploy until 2024, further complicating the Navy’s persistent problems of generating deployable carriers from the East Coast. – USNI News 

The United States military is falling behind in the race to use artificial intelligence to box adversaries into warfighting corners, the former head of U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command said on Tuesday. – USNI News

Long War

As the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate collapsed in Syria, tens of thousands of men, women and children who had lived in it ended up in squalid camps and crowded prisons run by the Kurdish-led militia that had partnered with the United States to defeat the jihadists. But now that a military incursion by Turkey against Kurdish forces has set off a new wave of violence and weakened their control over the area, uncertainty has grown over the fate of the huge population of people who survived the toppling of the Islamic State and have been warehoused since then in prisons and detention camps. – New York Times 

“ISIS bride” Shamima Begum has launched a legal challenge to the British government’s decision to strip her of her citizenship and prevent her from returning to London, according to reports. – New York Post