Fdd's overnight brief

October 24, 2019

In The News


Albanian police said on Wednesday they have discovered an Iranian paramilitary network that allegedly planned attacks in Albania against exiled members of an Iranian group seeking to overthrow the government in Tehran. – Associated Press

Iran executed seven child offenders last year and two so far this year even though human rights law prohibits the death penalty for anyone under age 18, a U.N. independent human rights expert said Wednesday. – Associated Press 

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech he delivered at a ceremony at the IRGC’s officer training academy that Iran will never give up in its resistance against America, in which he encouraged the youth of Iran to persist. – Middle East Media Research Institute 

Saam Izadi writes: But the Islamic regime’s disinformation campaign will not be limited to this. The regime will continue its ideological subversion campaign because this regime doesn’t believe in the western concept of national sovereignty, and its survival depends on the spread of its ideology. – Washington Examiner 

Bobby Ghosh writes: Circumstances can change, as we’ve learned in Syria over the past few years. Erdogan’s ambitions could come unstuck for any number of reasons, from Kurdish resistance to another about-face by U.S. President Donald Trump. If the protests in Lebanon and Iraq die down, Iran’s proxies could again turn their attention to Syria, restoring some of Tehran’s lost leverage. Rouhani can take some consolation from the hope that he will be a key figure in the next round of discussions. But for now, he’s a spectator, not a player. – Bloomberg

Eli Lake writes: Back in 2015, desperate to reach a deal with Iran to limit its nuclear program, U.S. negotiators made a fateful concession: The UN’s conventional-arms embargo on Iran, they agreed, would be lifted in five years. The costs of that concession, one of the worst mistakes of those negotiations, are about to come due. The embargo is set to expire on Oct. 18, 2020 — and if it does, the situation in the Middle East is likely to get even worse. – Bloomberg

Sean Lawson writes: We can be thankful that, so far at least, the Trump administration has chosen to respond to Iran with cyber operations instead of kinetic military strikes that would certainly risk a deadly escalation of the ongoing conflict. But recent research on the nature of international cyber conflict indicates that whether those operations will have a positive, long-term effect on the conflict remains uncertain at best. – Fifth Domain


President Trump said Wednesday that a “permanent” cease-fire had been established in northeastern Syria, declaring a major diplomatic victory for his administration even as Russian forces began moving into territory once controlled by the United States and its Syrian Kurdish allies. – Washington Post

Once again, Syrian President Bashar Assad has snapped up a prize from world powers that have been maneuvering in his country’s multi-front wars. Without firing a shot, his forces are returning to towns and villages in northeastern Syria where they haven’t set foot for years. – Associated Press

Republican and Democratic U.S. senators asked the State Department on Wednesday to quickly provide a visa so that the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces could visit the United states to discuss the situation in the country. – Reuters

The United States has seen no evidence of ethnic cleansing in northeastern Syria by Turkish forces in the wake of a U.S. pullout and has been assured by Turkey there will not be any, a senior Trump administration official said on Wednesday. – Reuters

An uneasy, defiant mood hangs over this Kurdish-controlled city, as rapid shifts in Syria’s war place a question mark over the future of Kurdish self-rule in the country’s northeast. – Reuters

President Donald Trump’s special envoy for Syria said on Wednesday that U.S. forces had seen evidence of war crimes during Turkey’s offensive against the Kurds in Syria, and had demanded an explanation from Ankara. – Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump promised to maintain long-term support for Kurdish-led forces who control large swathes of northeastern Syria, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander Mazloum Kobani said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Kurdish lawmaker Musa Farisogullari says he has been targeted by water cannon, tear gas and blows from riot shields while trying to protest this month against Turkey’s military offensive in northeast Syria. – Reuters

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin assured him that Kurdish YPG militants will not be allowed to remain in Syria along the Turkish border wearing “regime clothes.” – Reuters

The United States has drawn up a plan to send troops and tanks to guard Syria’s eastern oil fields amid a withdrawal from the country’s north – Newsweek

While Russia’s sudden appearance in eastern Syria as the arbiter appeared to humiliate the US last week, it now appears the US and SDF might have an avenue to speak to the Russians about some shared interests. This is because the SDF now has signed agreements with the Syrian regime while Russia has signed an agreement with Turkey. Turkey is ostensibly an American NATO ally. – Jerusalem Post  

The United States and NATO cautiously welcomed on Wednesday a German proposal for a security zone in northern Syria, though Washington’s envoy to the alliance saying it should be for Europe to take charge and not U.S. forces. – Reuters 

Rania Abouzeid writes: To be clear, the Middle East — at least most of it — is not typically pleading for more American military intervention. And ending endless wars, as Mr. Trump claims he wants, is a noble idea. But the hasty, unplanned manner of the White House’s policy has had immediate bloody consequences, not just for who controls what in Syria but also for how the world views the United States. – New York Times 


President Trump said he is lifting U.S. sanctions against Turkey as its forces suspended their offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria and instituted a separate agreement with Moscow that sent Russian security forces to begin patrolling nearby. – Wall Street Journal

President Vladimir Putin’s new pact with Turkey expands Moscow’s role as a power broker in the Middle East, again showing his skill at building up Russia’s sway while weakening U.S. influence. – Wall Street Journal

The NATO chief is calling for a political resolution to the conflict in Syria and urges Turkey to focus on the threat posed by the extremist Islamic State group, two weeks since Turkey invaded northeastern Syria in an offensive against Kurdish forces there. – Times of Israel

European Union lawmakers on Wednesday condemned Turkey’s offensive to carve out a “safe zone” in northeast Syria and prepared the way for new EU financial sanctions against Ankara. – Reuters 

A U.S. district judge on Wednesday ordered Turkey’s majority state-owned Halkbank to appear in court on Nov. 5 and warned that he may sanction the bank if it fails to show up. – Reuters

Editorial: President Trump on Wednesday announced what he called a “great outcome” in Syria, and he’s right if he’s referring to the interests of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. In return for agreeing to consolidate their territorial and strategic gains, Mr. Trump is withdrawing American forces and lifting the sanctions against Turkey he imposed only a few days ago. – Wall Street Journal

Daniel Pipes writes: The U.S. consensus rejecting the Turkish invasion as unacceptable offers an encouraging basis for action. It suggests that Americans can join with others to restrain the rogue Turkish president and help his country avoid becoming another Venezuela. But unless tough action is taken quickly, starting with American leadership to end the Turkish occupation of northern Syria, it will be too late to stop Turkey from becoming a premier international trouble spot.Wall Street Journal

Matt A. Hanson writes: Erdogan’s consolidation of presidential power in 2017 was momentous. He is a political disciple of former Turkish prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, whose undisguised antisemitism was pervasive throughout his career. Not since Ataturk has one man gained so much power in the Turkish Republic, and never behind a religious base. – Jerusalem Post 


The U.N. independent expert on human rights in the Palestinian territories called Wednesday for an international ban on all products made in Israeli settlements as a step to potentially end Israel’s 52-year “illegal occupation. – Associated Press

Palestinian journalists on Wednesday protested a decision by a Palestinian Authority court to block dozens of websites and social media accounts and called for rescinding the order. – Jerusalem Post

Neri Zilber writes: For Israel, the crossing is intricately tied to the policy question of whether to continue blockading Gaza. Israel has significantly eased restrictions since last year, allowing the transfer of Qatari money while also granting additional exit permits for a few thousand laborers, increasing the amount of goods that can be exported from Gaza, allowing wider infrastructure repairs to go ahead, and reportedly reducing the number of banned dual-use imports by 30 percent. The fact that such dual-use items may be entering Gaza anyway via Salah al-Din further highlights the need for a broader policy reassessment. – Washington Institute

Ghaith al-Omari and Ben Fishman write: The optimism that characterized the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty a quarter-century ago has long since dissipated. Today, the peace rests on a strong security foundation but lacks popular support, particularly on the Jordanian side. Nevertheless, there remain important opportunities for strengthening Israel-Jordan relations and preserving that pillar of America’s steadily eroding security architecture in the Middle East. – Washington Institute

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia hosted the military chiefs of staff from the five other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and several friendly countries on 21 October to talk about how to defend the region from Iranian aggression, the Saudi Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced on the same day. – Jane’s 360

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman appointed a new foreign minister on Wednesday, according to a royal decree issued less than a year after his predecessor took office. – Agence France-Presse

The US Air Force has deployed F-22 Raptor stealth fighters to Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB) in central Saudi Arabia. – Jane’s 360 

Middle East & North Africa

Uri Friedman writes: In the longer term, the withering of U.S. influence as Turkish, Russian, and Iranian-backed Syrian forces rush into the vacuum, and the radiating security threats that these shifting dynamics pose, could be even more consequential—to American allies in the region and beyond, and to the United States itself. – The Atlantic

Olga Oliker writes: Russia’s impressive juggling act in the Middle East, and in Syria in particular, has left it in a powerful position. But by filling the vacuum left by the US, it has had to take on far more responsibility than it may have expected or sought. To date it has managed well, but with few easy choices ahead and Syria in its current state, this may not be an enviable prize. – The Guardian

Bilal Y. Saab writes: Lebanon’s current uprising, larger than the Cedar Revolution and rooted in long-held socio-economic grievances, seems to have drastically reduced this fear. Unique about it is the fact that protestors across the country are united in their calls for fundamental political change. And this time, Shiites have joined the struggle.This is not a good outcome for Hezbollah. Nothing shakes the group’s confidence and even threatens its existence more than discord within its own Shi’a community — not even Israel, its number-one enemy. – Middle East Institute 

Korean Peninsula

A dormant North Korean mountain resort that was once a rare example of inter-Korean economic cooperation will be refurbished, leader Kim Jong Un said, but this time without South Korea’s help. – Wall Street Journal

North Korea on Thursday accused U.S. officials of maintaining hostility against Pyongyang despite a “special” relationship between leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump and urged Washington to act “wisely” through the end of the year. – Associated Press

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump continue to have close relations and trust, with Kim calling the relationship “special,” North Korea’s state news agency KCNA said on Thursday – Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon agreed on Thursday on the importance of cooperating on North Korea and other issues, seeking to rebuild relations amid a bitter feud over history and trade. – Reuters


Diplomatic tensions between China and the United States continued to climb Wednesday, when Chinese officials accused the United States of having “weaponized” the visa process after a top Chinese official was unable attend a major international space conference being held in Washington. – Washington Post

Editorial: This year, Ms. Chen wrote an essay to mark the fifth anniversary of Ms. Cao’s death. She was soon detained and disappeared into the Chinese penal system. She was later charged with subversion and remains locked up in a Shanghai detention center. […]Ms. Chen should be released and the charges dropped. Helping people claim their rights and raise their voices, to express themselves freely and to protest is not a crime or subversive, except in a system that puts the party on a pillar and the people under a boot. – Washington Post

Gary Shapiro writes: President Trump is right to fault China for unfair practices. […]But reaching a “deal” while continuing to impose tariffs is a one step forward, two steps backward approach. There are better tools the president can use to counter China’s bad behavior. – Washington Examiner


At least five Marines were wounded on Tuesday during a Taliban rocket attack on a military base in southern Afghanistan, according to three defense officials. The high number of casualties came a day after Defense Secretary Mark. T. Esper visited the country. – New York Times

Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister, Salahuddin Rabbani, has resigned his post. – Associated Press

President Donald Trump bemoaned a US-led coalition mission to provide aid to Afghanistan and derailed a meeting with top military officials last year, according to an upcoming book written by former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s aide. – Business Insider

Scott DesMarais and Emily Estelle write: Al Qaeda has expanded its presence in Afghanistan since 2014 in collaboration with the Taliban. The Taliban and al Qaeda maintain, and will sustain, an enduring and intimate relationship that invalidates the premise of U.S. negotiations with the Taliban. The Taliban-al Qaeda partnership will allow al Qaeda militants to exploit any potential U.S. military withdrawal to expand further their access to safe havens in Afghanistan. – Institute for the Study of War


U.S. defense strategy calls for retooling the military to better counter big powers, especially China, but the Pentagon still gives its Pacific military operations the short end of the budgetary stick, say many lawmakers, officials and experts. – Wall Street Journal

Activists here in Spain’s Catalan region have watched and learned as pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have defied authorities and taken to the streets to press their demands. – Wall Street Journal

In big red letters, “WANTED” cut across a collage of photos. One picture showed the Chinese national emblem defaced. Another showed a Hong Kong protester preparing to toss a Chinese flag into the harbor. […]Targeting domestic helpers as potential informants carries an eerie resonance with China’s Cultural Revolution, a decade of political upheaval that began in the mid-1960s and included public denunciations of those considered at odds with the state. – Washington Post

Two sons of Amriddin Tabarov, the late founder and leader of the banned Islamic militant group Jamaat Ansarullah, have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms in Tajikistan. Officials from the Tajik Supreme Court told RFE/RL on October 22 that Abdulfattoh and Saidjamoliddin Tabarov had been extradited from Afghanistan and were sentenced to 23 years and 16 years in prison, respectively, on August 29. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

The Australian government’s peak cybersecurity agency claimed two speakers were cancelled from the country’s premiere cybersecurity conference because it was suggested they would host a panel with the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, but the Guardian has been told the idea was never formally proposed. – The Guardian


Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has spoken by video conference to the leader of Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Russian news agencies reported on Wednesday. – Reuters

Russia and Turkey are in talks about extra deliveries of Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems to Ankara, the head of Russia’s defense sales agency said on Wednesday, the Interfax news agency reported. – Reuters

Maria Butina, the red-headed gun advocate from Russia who built a network of high-level Republican contacts before being arrested for spying, is expected to return to her country after her Friday release from a Florida prison. – Agence France-Presse

Leonid Bershidsky writes: If the Putin-Erdogan arrangement fails for any reason, Russia won’t sustain any serious damage. Putin’s Russia is not spending trillions of dollars in Syria as the U.S. did in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s keeping boots on the ground to a minimum, and it’s not seeking to expand its permanent presence beyond the two military bases already established in Syria. Putin expects Europe to shoulder the substantial economic burden of rebuilding Syria, not least so it can send back refugees, though Russia would expect to be rewarded with concessions to develop oil fields and determine pipeline routes. – Bloomberg


The timetable of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union was in limbo on Wednesday, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson waiting on E.U. leaders to decide whether and how long to delay his country’s departure from the bloc. – Washington Post

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy said his country’s intelligence services had informed the American attorney general, William P. Barr, that they played no role in the events leading to the Russia investigation, taking the air out of an unsubstantiated theory promoted by President Trump and his allies in recent weeks. – New York Times

Ambassadors of the 27 EU member states that will remain after Britain leaves the bloc made no decision on London’s request for a Brexit delay at a meeting on Wednesday but will meet again to discuss the issue on Friday, three senior EU diplomats said. – Reuters

Leading UK Jewish groups on Wednesday condemned the recent desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Rochester, Kent. – Algemeiner

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told European Council President Donald Tusk on Wednesday he did not want another Brexit delay, confident he could still get a deal through parliament by Oct. 31, his political spokesman said. – Reuters

Emmanuel Macron is playing the tough guy on Brexit again. As the European Union discusses whether to give Prime Minister Boris Johnson the Brexit delay he has asked for but doesn’t really want, the French president has signaled he’s ready to block it. – Bloomberg


The border between Burkina Faso and Mali is the latest flashpoint in the vast, arid Sahel region that stretches across Africa south of the Sahara Desert. In the past week at least 19 civilians have been killed by suspected extremists in Burkina Faso’s north. – Associated Press

Hailed by an excited media as an “African Manhattan” or a new New York for the continent, the view from the top of the tallest Modderfontein towers would have passed over the densely packed Alexandra township[…]. Beyond a few connector roads and streetlights the Chinese developer’s dream never became reality. – The Guardian

China’s assertive, large-scale investments in Africa are starting to find pushback in Uganda, where some critics worry the East African nation is using oil it hasn’t even begun to produce to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars for infrastructure projects. – Associated Press

The Americas

Congressional lawmakers delivered a broad lashing of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday, sniping at his company’s plans to launch a digital currency, its pockmarked track record on privacy and diversity, and its struggles to prevent the spread of misinformation. – Washington Post 

Months after President Trump expressed an interest in buying Greenland and canceled his trip to Denmark when its government refused to sell the autonomous territory, a U.S. delegation was in Greenland on Wednesday for meetings with high-level government officials and civic leaders. – Wall Street Journal

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer met this week with Democratic lawmakers to try to resolve their concerns about the U.S.-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade agreement as Republicans increased pressure to get the deal passed by the end of 2019. – Reuters

Brazil’s environment minister said on Wednesday that the government will call on the Organization of American States (OAS) to demand an answer from Venezuela over a mysterious oil spill that has affected a large part of Brazil’s northeastern coast. – Reuters

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro lands in China on Thursday on a mission to strengthen relations with Beijing amid the looming question of whether the Latin American giant should allow Huawei Technologies Co. to build its 5G network. – Bloomberg

Leonid Bershidsky writes: It was William Taylor who got the U.S. government to spell “Kyiv” the way Ukrainians do — not “Kiev,” Russian style — more than a decade before major U.S. media made the switch. He’s a rare beast in the U.S.: a bona fide Ukraine expert. It would be best for both the U.S. and Ukraine for him to keep his job as the top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv regardless of what happens next in the impeachment inquiry. – Bloomberg


When speaking of the Department of Defense’s artificial intelligence research and development, a panel of academics and the Pentagon’s top A.I. officials agreed the effort is underfunded and understaffed. – USNI News

The Navy and Marine Corps recently tested out the “Lightning Carrier” concept of packing an amphibious assault ship with F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter jets, and they will likely continue to expand and exercise this capability. – USNI News

Congress needs to consider its own culpability before criticizing the Navy for the slow pace of prepping USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) for deployment, Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer said on Wednesday. – USNI News

The Navy and Marine Corps are busy figuring out what they do – and don’t – need to buy to support their emerging operational concepts for high-end warfare. – USNI News

Air Force leaders said they are closer to formally accepting a new GPS III satellite and a new ground system program into day-to-day operations after an upgrade allowed the control system to connect to the space vehicle on orbit. – Defense News

While U.S. Space Command was officially launched in August, the process of firmly establishing the Pentagon’s newest combatant command will take years to complete. But according to a key industry official, the command’s creation is already impacting how the Defense Department communicates with industrial partners. – Defense News 

The Time Integrated Gigawatt Electromagnetic Response, or TIGER, developed by Leidos, made its public debut at the 2019 meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army. Melding the stylistic choices of a 1950s sci-fi reel with color schemes and lived reality of the forever war, Leidos bills the TIGER as part of a balanced counterdrone diet. – C4ISRNET

House Republicans’ top defense leader warned Wednesday that America’s military “will be tested” in the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria earlier this month. – Military Times

The US Army is set to revise the baseline objective range requirement for the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) to ‘beyond 500 km’, subsequent to prototype demonstration flights of both competitor solutions in November and December this year. – Jane’s 360

Richard V. Spencer writes: As secretary of the Navy, I have a duty to represent the dedicated members of America’s naval forces and ensure that, as investors, they are not unwittingly helping to underwrite the threats China and Russia pose to their lives. For the good of the country and those who serve it, the FRTIB must reverse its decision to adopt the All Countries World Index—and do it before a single dollar from its fund pays for a weapons system aimed in our direction. – Wall Street Journal

Long War

Islamic State militants, who have been posting propaganda videos to TikTok, the social-media network known for lighthearted content popular with teenagers, have also been posting execution and torture videos to the site. – Wall Street Journal

More than 100 Islamic State prisoners have gone missing since Turkey invaded Syria, and the State Department doesn’t know where they are, the department’s anti-ISIS chief said today. – Washington Examiner

A jury has failed to reach verdicts in the trial of a man accused of plotting a drone strike on British soil. – BBC

Trump Administration

House Democrats say testimony provided Tuesday by William B. Taylor Jr., the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, could prove devastating to President Trump, showing he had his E.U. ambassador attempt to extort Ukraine using taxpayer money. – Washington Post

A Defense Department official appeared before the House panels leading the impeachment inquiry as Democrats continued to probe the White House’s hold on security assistance to Ukraine, which had raised alarms at the Pentagon. – Wall Street Journal

A group of Trump’s congressional allies escalated their complaints about the impeachment inquiry by barging into a secure facility on Capitol Hill where a Pentagon official was to testify before the House Intelligence Committee. Their intrusion, which caused the testimony to be delayed for about five hours over security concerns, came a day after the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine testified under oath that the White House had threatened to withhold military aid unless the Ukrainian government announced investigations for Trump’s political benefit. – Washington Post