Fdd's overnight brief

October 30, 2019

In The News

Islamic State

U.S. commandos zeroed in on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s final hideout with the help of an extraordinarily well-placed informant, an Islamic State operative who facilitated the terrorist leader’s movements around Syria and even helped oversee construction work on his Syrian safe house, according to U.S. and Middle East-based officials knowledgeable about the operation. – Washington Post

The decentralized group, with members estimated anywhere between 14,000 or 30,000, has already pivoted toward insurgency after losing its territory in the last couple of years. But its branches abroad and the number of those who pledged their allegiance have increased. Who the next leader is will likely determine whether the group will dig in to consolidate its hold on Syria and Iraq — or focus on global outreach. – Associated Press

The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a big step in the fight against Islamic State but the United States still has more work to do, White House adviser Jared Kushner said on Tuesday. – Reuters

The operation to kill the Islamic State group’s leader took months of intelligence work, required the snatching of his underwear and ended when one of the world’s most sought-after men blew himself up. – Agence France-Presse

President Trump said Tuesday that U.S. forces had killed the “number one replacement” for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, days after the ISIS leader was killed in a U.S. military raid in Syria. – The Hill

Michael Weiss writes: But the Pentagon isn’t quite declaring total victory just yet, even if Donald Trump insists on doing so. […]Here are five reasons to be wary of thinking ISIS is done and dusted. – Politico

Aaron Zelin writes: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was never able to match the spectacle of al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack, but his legacy as a jihadi may equal or outshine Osama bin Laden’s. In spring 2010, he became the leader of what was then called the Islamic State of Iraq, after 34 of its top 42 leaders had been killed or captured. Over the next several years, under Baghdadi’s leadership, the group became the most important jihadi organization in the world, surpassing its former partner al Qaeda. – Foreign Policy

James Jay Carafano writes: It would also be great if we could put aside the endless political squabbling. The truth is we have had the three most successful years in the fight against global terrorism. We should be building on that record of achievement—not fighting each other. – Fox News


U.S. sanctions on Iran threaten access by some Iranians to medicines that treat diseases such as cancer and epilepsy, despite exemptions in the measures for imports of humanitarian goods, a report said on Tuesday. – Reuters

An Iranian beauty queen who has spent almost two weeks inside Manila’s international airport says she will be killed if she is sent back home and is seeking asylum in the Philippines. Bahareh Zare Bahari, a contestant in the recent Miss Intercontinental pageant in Manila, claims Tehran is attempting to silence her because of her public stand against the government. – CNN

Iran on Tuesday called for unity among Lebanon’s political groups after Saad al-Hariri resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister amid protests. – Reuters

Blue and White Benny Gantz said Tuesday he would always prefer diplomatic means to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, though he stressed that, if all else fails, “all options are on the table.” – Times of Israel

Alex Vatanka writes: This year marks the 30th anniversary of Khamenei ascending to the top job. His reign began on slippery ground. But he was quick to reach a bargain with the IRGC, which had up to that point looked at him suspiciously. The 80-year-old Khamenei is now looking for the second generation of the IRGC to safeguard the regime after he is gone. But giving a carte blanche to the generals—risk-taking by nature and these days more concerned with proxy wars in the region than the fate of ordinary Iranians—has a big chance of backfiring. – Foreign Policy


As the final hours of a cease-fire in northeastern Syria wound down on Tuesday, dread descended on a region once shielded by the United States. – Washington Post

The last remaining Kurdish fighters exited Syria’s northern border area as a cease-fire period ended on Tuesday, Moscow said, clearing the way for Russia and Turkey to secure the area. – Wall Street Journal

Iran and Russia on Tuesday criticized and scoffed at Trump administration plans to protect oil deposits in Syria, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accusing Washington of “illegal” actions. – Associated Press

A bipartisan bill punishing Turkey for its invasion of northern Syria and illustrating both parties’ dismay with President Donald Trump’s retreat from the region sailed easily through the House on Tuesday. – Associated Press

Russia told Turkey that Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters have left a strip of land near the Syrian-Turkish border within a 150-hour deadline set by Ankara and Moscow, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Turkey will eliminate any Syrian Kurdish YPG militia fighters that remain in a planned “safe zone” in northeastern Syria after the expiration of a 150-hour deadline agreed upon by Ankara and Moscow, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Eighteen people, suspected of being part of Syrian government forces, were captured around the northern Syrian town of Ras al Ain, the Turkish defence ministry said on Tuesday, adding the issue was being coordinated with Russian officials. – Reuters

The United States Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn voiced concern on Tuesday at what he said was the “continuing dangerous situation in northeast Syria” and urged all sides to work to stabilize the situation. – Reuters

Turkey adamantly opposes U.S. plans for Syrian oil, including Senator Lindsey Graham’s proposal to use crude revenue to help fund American military operations in the war-torn nation. – Bloomberg

Syrian Kurdish and Arab warriors who fought alongside American forces against the Islamic State could wind up joining dictator Bashar Assad’s military, sources said.Syrian Kurdish and Arab warriors who fought alongside American forces against the Islamic State could wind up joining dictator Bashar Assad’s military, sources said. – Washington Examiner

The armies of Syria and Turkey traded deadly fire Tuesday for the first time since Ankara launched an anti-Kurdish offensive in early October, as Russia announced Kurdish forces had withdrawn from the key border area. – Agence France-Presse

Jon Finer and Brett McGurk write: America’s partners around the world are watching closely to see if we still stand by those who stood with us. It is too late to reverse the decision that has imperiled American partners. But it is not too late to do right by those who helped the United States by ensuring that those seeking refuge will find it. – New York TImes

Steven Metz writes: After Syria, chances are that only the most desperate irregular forces will cast their lot with the United States. So, if America continues to treat unconventional warfare as a cheap way to weaken adversaries with a limited commitment, then the outcome will yield sordid alliances with ever more unsavory partners producing more threats than they resolve. – National Interest


Turkey’s longtime leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had suffered political blows in recent months from a recession and unease over millions of Syrian refugees, reflected in key election losses and rare defiance from ruling party bigwigs over his authoritarian and nepotistic ways. Now, after three weeks of military action, Mr. Erdogan’s political horizon has suddenly brightened. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to recognize the mass killings of Armenians a century ago as a genocide, a symbolic but historic vote instantly denounced by Turkey. – Reuters

Turkish authorities have detained 43 people suspected of belonging to Islamic State and of plotting attacks targeting celebrations of Turkey’s national day on Tuesday, police and state media said. – Reuters

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday strongly condemned a move by the U.S. House of Representatives to back a resolution that would impose sanctions on Ankara, saying the decision was not fitting of the NATO alliance between Turkey and the United States. – Reuters

The Defense Department believes that Turkey’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system will soon be ready to track aircraft in the region, a top official said Tuesday. – Military.com

Paul Kane writes: And, like so much of the past few years, what changed the dynamics was President Trump, beginning with one phone call earlier this month. Without consulting Congress, Trump called President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and agreed to withdraw almost all U.S. troops in northern Syria and essentially allowed Turkish forces to invade Kurdish strongholds to attack their longtime rivals, who for years had been the chief U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State. With that, Turkey lost its already wavering support on Capitol Hill, and the dam burst with a flow of proposed sanctions, which also were approved by the House on Tuesday, and new momentum behind the long-stalled effort to officially recognize the Armenian genocide. – Washington Post


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to shift funds designated for civilian purposes to military spending to meet any threats from Iran, a government official said on Tuesday. – Reuters

A senior Jordanian official suggested late Tuesday that the Hashemite Kingdom use an Israeli citizen detained after crossing the border as a bargaining chip to secure the release of two Jordanians being held by Israel. – Times of Israel

Female terrorist approached a member of the Border Police with a knife at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron on Wednesday morning and attempted to carry out a stabbing attack. – Jerusalem Post

Israeli fighter jets shot down a drone that was flying at an “irregular altitude” over the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces said. – Times of Israel

WhatsApp on Tuesday sued Israeli technology firm NSO Group, accusing it of using the Facebook-owned messaging service to conduct cyber-espionage on journalists, human rights activists and others. – Times of Israel

Amos Harel writes: Before the new police investigation against his advisers totally took over the media agenda, Benjamin Netanyahu had an interesting security-related announcement. He stated at a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin that Iran had recently placed long-range missiles in Yemen that threatened to reach Israel. – Haaretz


Tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators amassed in central Baghdad and other Iraqi cities on Tuesday as one of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite clerics, Moqtada al-Sadr, called for sweeping changes to the political system. – Washington Post

The day after anti-government protests erupted in Iraq, Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani flew into Baghdad late at night and took a helicopter to the heavily fortified Green Zone, where he surprised a group of top security officials by chairing a meeting in place of the prime minister. – Associated Press

Masked gunmen opened fire at Iraqi protesters in the Shiite holy city of Karbala on Tuesday, killing 18 people and wounding hundreds, security officials said, in one of the deadliest single attacks since anti-government demonstrations erupted earlier this month. –  Associated Press

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s two main backers have agreed to work to remove him from office as protests against his government gained momentum in Baghdad and much of the Shi’ite south only to be met with violence. – Reuters

Populist Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has invited his biggest political rival to work with him on ousting the country’s prime minister as thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets for a fifth day. – Reuters

Azhar Al-Rubaie writes: It appears that the Iraqi government remains perplexed by how to deal with future demonstrations staged by restless masses, who remain furious with the widespread corruption they face in their daily lives. If Iraqi leadership hopes to put an end to future demonstrations, they cannot continue to rely on violence. Instead, Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi must take immediate action through serious reforms and the formation of an impartial government—one where members are held accountable to the Iraqi people. – Washington Institute

Saudi Arabia

In Riyadh’s old quarter, a small group of Polish holidaymakers exploring the mud-brick Masmak Fort were making history as some of the first foreign tourists to visit Saudi Arabia since it opened its doors. – Agence France-Presse

B-1B Lancers have returned stateside after a short trip to Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan Air Base. The Air Force on Monday said the deployment was meant to flex bomber muscle for a rapid deployment scenario and to “promote regional security.” – Military.com

Alan Rappeport and Stanley Reed write: World leaders and business executives converged upon the palatial Ritz-Carlton hotel on Tuesday, putting concerns about Saudi Arabia’s role in the 2018 murder of a dissident journalist behind them and returning unabashedly to deal-making. – New York Times

Middle East & North Africa

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced he is submitting his resignation during a televised address Tuesday, after nearly two weeks of anti-government protests that have paralyzed the country and led Hariri to suggest that he is out of options to fix the country’s problems. – Washington Post

The protests in Iraq and Lebanon are fueled by local grievances and mainly directed at political elites, but they also pose a challenge to Iran, which closely backs both governments as well as powerful armed groups in each country – Associated Press

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday urged Lebanon’s political leaders to help form a new government responsive to the needs of its people after Saad al-Hariri resigned as prime minister after huge protests against the ruling elite. – Reuters

Iran on Tuesday called for unity among Lebanon’s political groups after Saad al-Hariri resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister amid protests. – Reuters

Germany hopes the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri will not undermine the country’s stability, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Hundreds of migrants were released on Tuesday from a detention center in the Libyan capital Tripoli as heavy gunfire rang out across the city, witnesses and the United Nations said. – Reuters 

The U.S. State Department’s top diplomat for the Middle East on Tuesday called Egypt’s treatment of a prominent journalist and activist “outrageous,” saying he had raised the issue with Egyptian ambassador. – Reuters

Sailors with the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group were told this weekend their deployment has again been extended while the ship slated to replace theirs in the Middle East is undergoing unexpected repairs. – Military.com

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: The Burke Chair at CSIS is circulating a new working paper that updates its assessments of the cost of the Afghan and Iraq/Syria Wars, and highlights how these costs have been cut through major changes in the nature of U.S. ground forces and air commitments. It also highlights the affordability and present size of U.S. military bases and commitments overseas. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Korean Peninsula

As the Trump administration pursues a two-track North Korea strategy—combining maximum economic pressure with engagement—a new report contends the global sanctions regime has directly contributed to the deaths of innocent civilians and calls for the removal of restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance. – Wall Street Journal

North Korea on Tuesday rejected South Korea’s request for working-level talks to discuss the possible demolition of South Korean-made hotels and other facilities at the North’s Diamond Mountain resort that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants removed. – Associated Press

North Korea won’t send its women’s soccer team to a regional competition in South Korea in December amid strained ties between the two countries. – Associated Press


A Democratic senator asked the Trump administration to clarify whether U.S. officials sought to inject an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden into trade negotiations with Beijing. – Wall Street Journal

The frustration has been around only about a year, since it became clear that President Trump wouldn’t settle for a quick, tweetable victory in his trade war with China. False starts and foundered deals have compounded the angst. – Washington Post

China and the West are clashing at the U.N.’s human rights committee over claims that Beijing systematically oppresses ethnic minority Muslims. – Associated Press

China on Tuesday accused the U.S. of “economic bullying behavior” after U.S. regulators cited security threats in proposing to cut off funding for Chinese equipment in U.S. telecommunications networks. – Associated Press

China on Tuesday promised more improvements in conditions for foreign companies including an end to officials pressing them to hand over technology — a key irritant in its tariff war with Washington. – Associated Press

Chinese authorities are targeting journalists who cover protests in Hong Kong, press associations say, as the Beijing-backed local law enforcement warns reporters about the risks of working close to protesters. – Washington Examiner

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Canberra will hold China to account on issues such as human rights, insisting that staying quiet on sensitive issues is not in Australia’s national interests. – Reuters

Hal Brands writes: By pursuing trade policies that injure friends as well as competitors, the U.S. is creating precisely the economic running room China needs. By squandering its own influence in the Middle East, it is opening the door to greater Chinese sway there. Washington could have a great deal to say about the fate of China’s Eurasian project, but only if it first manages to stop self-destructing. – Bloomberg

Denny Roy writes: China’s ability to outspend Taiwan in the competition for diplomatic allies should not be mistaken for clever statecraft. The Xi Jinping era has been disastrous for Chinese society, for China’s foreign relations with much of the world, and particularly for cross-Strait relations. – National Interest

South Asia

The Afghan government said on Tuesday that it would not take part in negotiations with Taliban unless a cease-fire had first held for at least a month, a demand that is likely to face resistance from the insurgents and complicate the revival of peace efforts that were upended by President Trump. – New York Times

India will formally split up disputed Jammu and Kashmir state into two federal territories on Thursday, aiming to tighten its grip on the restive region that has been in the grip of a harsh security clampdown for nearly three months. – Reuters

Afghanistan’s ruling elite and international power brokers must listen to the fast-growing youth population — including junior Taliban members — if the war is ever to end, the country’s new youth delegate to the United Nations says. – Agence France-Presse


The United States has downgraded its participation in back-to-back Asia-Pacific summits in Bangkok next week, a move bound to disappoint Asian partners worried by China’s expanding influence. – Reuters

After five months of protests, Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam has said her government will “tackle the violence head on” as the Asian financial hub slips into a recession, its first since the global financial crisis. – The Guardian

Michael Peck writes: But Russian bombers based on Philippines airfields, ranging far over the Pacific to give the United States nightmares? That prospect is distant at best and dim at worst. But it is not unheard of for nations to switch partners. A prime example is Egypt, a major recipient of Soviet weapons and advisers during the Cold War, but which is now an American client. India relied on Russian arms for years, but is now buying American equipment, while once-staunch U.S. ally Turkey is buying Russian anti-aircraft missiles.   – National Interest


Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed Cuba’s resilience in the face of U.S. pressure as he hosted his Cuban counterparts for talks Tuesday on expanding cooperation between the old allies. – Associated Press

The TurkStream pipeline that would bring gas to Central Europe bypassing Ukraine and nuclear energy issues are expected to feature high on the agenda at a meeting between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday. – Reuters

Ukrainian officials and Russia-backed separatists both announced Tuesday they have begun pulling back weapons in Ukraine’s war-torn east, a step they hope unblocks a stalled peace process. – Associated Press

Leonid Bershidsky writes: A deal like the INF treaty can be overtaken by technological and geopolitical developments, but openness never goes out of date. That’s the main reason the U.S. and Russia must keep Open Skies alive, even if it’s only a relic of better times. – Bloomberg

Dimitri Alexander Simes write: Many in Moscow are offering a far more cautious appraisal of the deal, emphasizing that while Russia succeeded in averting a confrontation with Turkey over Syria, many challenges and risks lay ahead. – National Interest

Elsa Kania and Samuel Bendett write: Sino-Russian relations have been adapting to an era of great-power rivalry. […]Today, like-minded democracies must recognise the threats from advances in and the diffusion of technologies that can be used to empower autocratic regimes. For that reason, it will be vital to mount a more unified response to promulgate norms for the use of next-generation technologies, particularly AI and biotech. – Real Clear Defense


Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday finally won lawmakers’ support for an early election, setting up a Dec. 12 ballot that will be dominated by Brexit, Brexit and more Brexit. – Washington Post

German prosecutors said Tuesday they have charged two suspected former members of Syria’s secret police with crimes against humanity in a case that human rights campaigners say marks a major step in the fight to hold to account Syrian officials responsible for atrocities in the country’s long-running civil war. – Associated Press

The head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency said on Tuesday that militant right-wingers were mixing with less radical conservatives, blurring the lines to make extremism more acceptable and harder to detect. – Reuters

Heather A. Conley writes: Whereas, in the new parliament, the SNP, Lib Dems, and Labour might agree to a common approach to Brexit based around a second referendum, the Conservatives will not be able to call on support from anywhere (assuming the Brexit Party does not win any seats). […]And the United Kingdom would be back to square one—perhaps even asking the European Union for yet another extension to Brexit. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

The Americas

Supporters and opponents of Bolivian President Evo Morales returned to the streets Tuesday as they waited for international observers to audit the election that he says he won. – Washington Post

Five members of an indigenous guard in Colombia were killed Tuesday in what authorities are describing as a massacre by a dissident guerrilla front. – Associated Press

Governments, aid agencies and charity groups vowed Tuesday to boost their efforts to help Venezuelans fleeing their crisis-wracked country, and to assist neighboring communities struggling to host them, as refugee numbers look set to exceed those caused by the Syrian war. – Associated Press

A center-leftist’s victory in Argentine presidential elections is set to cement a rift between South America’s largest nations, and suggests regional turbulence could extend for years. – Associated Press


The United Nations’ atomic agency’s board picked a new leader Tuesday with strong U.S. backing who has pledged to shake up the body and strictly monitor Iran’s nuclear activities. – Wall Street Journal

America’s investments in military readiness are paying off, particularly for the Army, but its armed forces would be stretched dangerously thin if they participate in more than one large war at the same time. – Defense News

With political gridlock stalling negotiations over the annual defense authorization bill, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday unveiled plans for his backup “skinny” version of the legislation to ensure critical military programs continue uninterrupted into next year. – Defense News

Critical fielding plans for major elements of the Army’s revamped network could fall apart if Congress does not reach a budget deal soon, according to service leaders in charge of network modernization. – C4ISRNET

The Pentagon and Lockheed Martin have finalized a $34 billion deal for the next three lots of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, setting the price of an F-35A jet below $80 million. – Defense News

As the U.S. Air Force looks to increase the size and capability of its aircraft inventory, the service should assess the possibility of using drones as a low-cost and highly available alternative to manned airplanes, posits a new study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. – Defense News

The Commandant’s Planning Guidance has sparked several questions about the future of the amphibious ship fleet – how many ships are needed, and what kinds of ships will have a role in the future – and while answers are still in development, the expeditionary warfare community has a lot of thoughts on the matter. – USNI News

For his determination and refusal to quit under overwhelming odds, President Donald Trump will award Master Sgt. Matthew Williams, a weapons sergeant on ODA 3336, with the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony Wednesday. – Military.com

Will Cathcart writes: The mobile phone is the primary computer for billions of people around the world. […]Governments and companies need to do more to protect vulnerable groups and individuals from these attacks. WhatsApp will continue to do everything we can within our code, and within the courts of law, to help protect the privacy and security of our users everywhere. – Washington Post

Trump Administration

A top official with the National Security Council plans to tell House impeachment investigators that he was concerned by President Trump’s July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, saying that the president’s request to have the Ukrainians investigate Joe Biden and his son may have been interpreted as a “partisan play.” – Wall Street Journal

Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, told House impeachment investigators on Tuesday that the White House transcript of a July call between President Trump and Ukraine’s president omitted crucial words and phrases, and that his attempts to include them failed, according to three people familiar with the testimony. – New York Times

Two career diplomats will testify before House impeachment investigators Wednesday that President Trump displayed a deeply pessimistic view of Ukraine that was out of step with officials at the White House and State Department who saw support for the European country as critical in its battle with Russian-backed separatists, according to their prepared remarks obtained by The Washington Post. – Washington Post

American officials sounding the alarm about foreign efforts to disrupt the 2020 election include multiple countries in that warning. Concerns abound not only about possible hacking of campaigns, but also about the spread of disinformation on social media and potential efforts to breach voting databases and even alter votes. – Associated Press

Defying White House orders, an Army officer serving with President Donald Trump’s National Security Council testified to impeachment investigators Tuesday that he twice raised concerns over the administration’s push to have Ukraine investigate Democrats and Joe Biden. – Associated Press