Fdd's overnight brief

October 4, 2019

In The News


Iran’s foreign ministry has urged Iranian pilgrims to postpone their visits to Shiite holy sites in Iraq amid the turmoil in the neighboring Arab nation. – Associated Press   

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said it thwarted plans by Arab and Israeli intelligence agencies to kill the commander of its elite Qods unit earlier this year, publishing details of its claims amid a tense standoff in the Gulf. – Bloomberg 

Iran and the United States have one month to get to the negotiating table, France’s foreign minister warned, suggesting that Tehran’s plan to increase its nuclear activities in November would spark renewed tension in the region. – Reuters 

The 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the remaining signatories can still be saved after the U.S. withdrawal but Iran must return to the full implementation of its commitments and in return be offered some goodwill instead of sanctions, the Slovak candidate to head the United Nation’s nuclear agency said on Thursday. – Reuters  

Amos Harel writes: The announcement by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on Thursday was unusual. This wasn’t an anonymous leak, but an official declaration by the head of the group’s intelligence division, claiming that Iran had uncovered an Israeli-Arab plot against Soleimani. All these factors require special vigilance in Israel, with possible developments on the nuclear front in the background. Between the lines of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in the Knesset on Thursday, one could detect his disappointment with the recent moves by President Donald Trump, who has made a dramatic U-turn in recent months in his attitude toward the Iranians. – Haaretz 


The conflict between Iran and the U.S. that has created tensions throughout much of the Middle East is now also being felt in Lebanon, where Washington has slapped sanctions on the Iran-backed Hezbollah and warned they could soon expand to its allies, further deepening the tiny Arab country’s economic crisis. – Associated Press    

Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon held his first working meeting with new US Ambassador Kelly Craft, and the two discussed working together to form a broad coalition against Hamas and Hezbollah. – Jerusalem Post 

Matthew Levitt writes: Against this backdrop, more criticism is being directed at Hezbollah, the widely designated terrorist organization that is simultaneously the most powerful party in Lebanon’s government and an aggressively sectarian movement that keeps its activities and weapons outside the government’s control. As the Treasury Department recently noted, developments over the past few weeks have underscored the extent to which the group’s actions “prioritize its interests, and those of its chief sponsor, Iran, over the welfare of Lebanese citizens and Lebanon’s economy.” – Washington Institute 


U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that Turkey soon will mount a major incursion into northern Syria and trigger a clash with Kurdish fighters, a move likely to prompt the Trump administration to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria to avoid a conflict. – Wall Street Journal

Turkey does not think its efforts with the United States to form a “safe zone” in northeast Syria will yield the results it wants and is ready to take action itself, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as saying on Thursday. – Reuters

After more than eight years of war and bloodshed in Syria, the Iranian presence in the nation is at an all-time high, warned the top Syrian opposition figure. – Fox News 

Steven A. Cook writes: If a congressionally mandated report on a vexing foreign-policy issue is published in Washington in 2019, will anybody pay attention? Probably not, especially these days. So it is with the Syria Study Group (SSG), a bipartisan commission charged by Congress with “examining and making recommendations on the military and diplomatic strategy of the United States with respect to the conflict in Syria.” […]So far so good. The report makes clear that the United States has interests at stake in Syria and some leverage to compel other parties to do what it wants. The crux of the matter, however, is another question entirely: what is it that the United States wants in Syria? – Foreign Policy 


In a series of developments in the continuing stalemate over who will form Israel’s next government, Blue and White party number two Yair Lapid gave up his chance to serve as prime minister, current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed he considering holding party primaries to shore up his mandate as leader, and the 22nd Knesset was sworn in. – Algemeiner

The IDF and Israel Police thwarted an attempt to smuggle weapons from Lebanon into Israel in September, according to an IDF spokesperson. – Jerusalem Post 

Seth J. Frantzman writes: What Israel faces today is potentially two strong adversaries in Turkey and Iran, although they are quite different in how they confront Israel. Turkey uses soft power; Iran uses hard power. But Israel, appearing strong, now faces these challenges in some ways alone. – Jerusalem Post 

Alan Baker writes: The repeated references by the EU representative to the “illegality of settlements” may well be accepted EU political policy, but they are not necessarily compatible with the legal position consistently maintained by Israel, as they have apparently been summarily rejected by the EU. More importantly, they ignore that the issue of settlements is a further agreed-upon negotiating issue on the permanent-status negotiating table. But this has not prevented the EU from unilaterally imposing partisan limitations and sanctions on Israeli companies, academic institutions, social projects and villages located in the territories, thereby prejudging the permanent-status issue. – Jerusalem Post 


Iraq’s widening protests have centered on issues that plague everyday life in the oil-rich state, including corruption, poor services and unemployment. For most civilians, there have been few improvements in the two years since Iraqi forces pushed Islamic State militants from major cities, and for many Iraqis, life is getting worse. – Washington Post 

The United Nations is calling for dialogue between the Iraqi government and protesters, saying “we very much regret the loss of life that we have seen over the last few days during the protests.” – Associated Press 

Security forces in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, have fired live rounds at protesters defying a curfew. […]The United Nations and the United States have expressed concern at the violence and urged the Iraqi authorities to exercise restraint. – BBC 

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called on lawmakers on Thursday to support him to reshuffle cabinet posts and urged calm after three days of deadly civil unrest rocked the country. – Reuters 

During the recent protests in Baghdad, the difference between Erbil and Baghdad was clear. Baghdad used heavily armed police and security forces against the protesters, shooting dozens. This is not how a stable democracy that Washington or London claim to support usually behaves. […]This is alarming. But it is also a tactic Baghdad learned from the 2017 operation in Kirkuk, understanding that heavy-handed methods will not receive much pushback. It has support from Iran, Turkey and other countries. – Jerusalem Post 

Omar al-Nidawi writes: Iraq is in trouble. Baghdad cannot challenge Tehran’s use of allied Iraqi militias to beef up its forward defenses at Iraq’s expense. These militias might not take marching orders from Tehran, but there is a strong “convergence of interests” between Iran and powerful Iraqi militias whose influence in Iraq’s government is powerful enough to deter coercive measures by Baghdad. […]Its impending failure is inseparable from the country’s deepening entanglement in the rising tension with Iran. – War on the Rocks 

Tom Rogan writes: The prime minister wants to resolve these issues. But while he’s no Iranian puppet in ideology or purpose, Abdul-Mahdi is politically weak. He relies on Iran’s political puppets in Iraq to sustain his government. And he has few alternative partners. […]This leaves us with the situation Iraq faces now: a government in a state of deep dysfunction, unwilling or unable to address popular concerns and the resulting public fury. – Washington Examiner 

Gulf States

Gulf military leaders on Thursday condemned the use of their countries’ airspace to carry out attacks last month against a Saudi crude processing plant, a statement that indicated oblique backing for a U.S./Saudi account blaming Iran for the attack. – Reuters 

Some members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family and business elite have expressed frustration with the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman following the largest-ever attack on the kingdom’s oil infrastructure last month. – Reuters 

Simon Henderson writes: In his CBS interview, MbS emphasized the threat of Iran and said of U.S.-Saudi ties that “the relationship is much larger than” Khashoggi’s murder. Perhaps unintentionally, he may have wandered into another quagmire. Congress and the American public, as well as international opinion, is at best uncertain about U.S. policy towards Iran, if not openly critical. […]It’s going to be interesting to see the extent to which MbS’s acceptance of responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder is heard amid all the anniversary articles and their ghastly details of his dismemberment. – The Hill  

Middle East & North Africa

A series of sophisticated cyberattacks targeting Egyptian journalists, academics, lawyers, opposition politicians and human rights activists has been traced to Egyptian government offices, a cybersecurity firm has found. – New York Times  

Alarmed by a rising number of migrants reaching Europe, top EU officials will hold talks in Turkey on Thursday over Ankara’s demand it receive greater rewards in return for stemming the flow of refugees, as well as its plan to move millions of Syrians back home. – Bloomberg  

Cyprus on Friday said Turkey’s action in sending a drill ship to an area Nicosia has licensed for offshore hydrocarbons exploration was a ‘severe escalation’ of what it called Ankara’s violations of the island’s sovereign rights. – Reuters 

Josh Rogin writes: This is not one of those foreign policy issues the United States can afford to ignore. The lesson of Libya is not that U.S. intervention is bad; the lesson is that when the United States leaves a vacuum, bad actors intervene. – Washington Post

Shaul Arieli writes: Without renewing negotiations with the Palestinians based on the parameters set by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas in 2008 in the Annapolis talks, canceling the peace treaty with Jordan, which is good for Israel (and on some issues good for Jordan, too), could turn into the worst step in the parade of stupidity of Netanyahu and his successors with regard to Israel’s security and integration into the region. – Haaretz 

Korean Peninsula

The U.S. and North Korea are set to meet for the first time in months for working-level nuclear discussions, with President Donald Trump saying Pyongyang’s most provocative missile test in two years wouldn’t derail them. – Bloomberg 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Friday he was determined to meet North Korea’s leader to resolve the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents, maintaining an offer to talk despite the country’s missile launches. – Reuters 

The U.N. Security Council will likely meet behind closed doors on North Korea next week, diplomats said on Thursday, after Pyongyang said it had successfully test-fired a new submarine-launched ballistic missile ahead of fresh nuclear talks with Washington. – Reuters


Australia’s ban on Chinese telecoms giant Huawei’s involvement in its future 5G networks and its crackdown on foreign covert interference are testing Beijing’s efforts to project its power overseas. – Associated Press  

The U.S. Commerce Department slapped more duties on wooden cabinets and vanities from China in a sign of the challenges awaiting negotiations when the two countries resume trade talks next week. – Bloomberg 

The Trump administration would be wise to implement restrictions on U.S. investments in China as it seeks to gain additional leverage in the long-running trade war, former Fed governor Larry Lindsey told CNBC on Thursday. – CNBC 

Bret Stephens writes: A policy of hoping the protesters discredit themselves or simply run out of steam shows no sign of working. A Tiananmen-style crackdown would underscore the regime’s brutishness and incompetence, destroy Hong Kong as a global financial capital, and spur China’s neighbors to arm to the teeth and draw closer to Washington. Accommodating the protesters’ demands, above all the granting of genuine universal suffrage, is the right thing to do, but introduces a democratic principle fatal to the regime’s self-preservation. Hence the looming crisis. It could be defused, if Beijing guarantees amnesty for all nonviolent protesters and removes the troops it has brought in from the mainland in exchange for a meaningful process of negotiation. – New York Times 

Melinda Liu writes: Outwardly, the Xi-Putin optics are warm and fuzzy—romantic, as it were—but both Beijing and Moscow are “pretty grim realist powers. […]Both see themselves as locked in a contest against the West with its messy democracy and its perceived involvement in protests,” said Pantucci, referring to the pro-Western “color revolutions” that shaped the post-Soviet world, the Arab Spring revolts, and the more recent demonstrations rocking Hong Kong and Moscow. – Foreign Policy 

Rotem Oreg writes: Eventually, and from a US-perspective most alarmingly, is China’s spreading reach to new countries, including those within with the US orbit. From slightly growing political involvement in regional conflicts to taking the lead on climate change, China is positioning itself as an alternative beacon to the US, providing an alternative model of government to the liberal world order. – Jerusalem Post 

South Asia

For the first time, India is taking punitive action against an overseas defense company that could see Turkish firm Anadolu Shipyard banned from doing defense-related business in India. – Defense News  

A Taliban delegation met with U.S. special representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad in Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad on Thursday, two sources told Reuters. – Reuters 

India, the world’s third-largest oil consumer and importer, wants to reduce its reliance on oil — and working with Russia could help it achieve that, said Indian Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan. – CNBC 


On the Hong Kong side, the internet is open and unfettered. On the China side, connections wither behind filters and censors that block foreign websites and scrub social media posts. The walk is short, but the virtual divide is huge. – New York Times 

The Australian ambassador to the U.S. on Thursday said the country will cooperate with the Justice Department in its inquiry into the origins of the Russia investigation but dismissed a claim that an Australian official was involved. – The Hill  

Hong Kong police loosened guidelines on their use of force in the run-up to demonstrations on Oct. 1, giving them greater power to deal with protesters in difficult situations, according to police documents seen by Reuters. – Reuters 

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Friday Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam should step down following months of protests against her government, Malaysian media reported. – Reuters 


President Vladimir Putin said Russia is helping China to develop an anti-missile early warning system, as he criticized the U.S. for abandoning a key nuclear treaty. – Bloomberg   

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday praised Donald Trump for what he said was the U.S. president’s historic move to enter into talks with North Korea to defuse nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula. – Reuters  

Ukraine plans to carry out a major prisoner swap with Russia and hopes it will take place next week, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said late on Thursday. – Reuters   

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv has welcomed “progress towards peace” in eastern Ukraine, two days after Kyiv, Moscow, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) agreed to move forward with talks to find lasting peace in the Donbas. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty


The European Union signaled it wouldn’t immediately retaliate against new U.S. tariffs, seeking to avoid a broader trade war as Washington moves to punish the bloc over Airbus SE subsidies the World Trade Organization ruled illegal. – Wall Street Journal 

The top European Union court said Thursday that Facebook and other platforms can be required to remove illegal content worldwide, a ruling with global implications that pits the social media giant’s free speech ethos against laws in other countries. – Washington Post 

European leaders and merchants on Thursday slammed Trump administration plans to impose hefty tariffs on a wide array of European goods after the World Trade Organization ruled in favor of the United States in a long-brewing dispute over subsidies for European aircraft manufacturer Airbus. – Washington Post 

Police and intelligence agencies are to be given expedited access to electronic communications sent by terrorists, serious crime gangs and white-collar criminals, under a new agreement between the UK and the US. – Financial Times 

The trade wars threatening to push the global economy into recession are entering a new phase, with the United States and European Union escalating a dispute that endangers the world’s biggest trade relationship. – Associated Press  

The top commander of western forces in Europe has not discussed the military contributions of allies to Ukraine, the four-star American general told reporters today at the Pentagon. – Washington Examiner 

With the European Union appearing lukewarm toward U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s latest Brexit proposal, the deadline for Britain to leave the bloc could once again be pushed back, according to a British lawmaker. – CNBC   

Mateusz Kubiak writes: Even if U.S. sanctions only delay the construction of NS2, they could still have a significant impact on Central Europe and Ukraine. There are other gas pipeline projects currently in development including the Baltic Pipe and Slovak-Poland interconnector, as well as plans for LNG terminals in Germany and the Świnoujście terminal expansion in Poland. Once completed, these should significantly alter the market conditions for NS2 and could increase Ukraine’s energy security – especially the Slovak-Poland gas pipeline, which allows gas export to Ukraine via the Slovak grid. – Center for European Policy Analysis 

Noah Barkin writes: But European leaders, juggling economic and broader strategic interests, have too often hedged their bets when it comes to democracy and human rights. […]It’s time for Europe to decide which way it wants to go. With the U.S. stepping back from an activist role under Trump, democratic movements desperately need someone to take its place. – The Atlantic  

Andris Banka writes: A number of things had to go right in order for the Baltic states to join NATO. Deep structural forces worked in their favor. In the post-Cold War era, the global distribution of power had shifted away from Russia, putting Moscow in too weak a position to challenge the enlargement process in a meaningful way. […]Regionally, the Baltics benefited immensely from their Nordic neighbors who were keen to invest in modernization of Baltic armed forces, transfer knowledge, and lobby on the Baltics’ behalf internationally. – War on the Rocks 


Zimbabwe angrily denounced a U.S. government decision to curb imports of diamonds from its Marange field, branding the claim the country uses forced labor at the operations “a shameless lie.” – Bloomberg 

President Paul Biya on Thursday ordered the release of several hundred detainees linked to the separatist crisis in Cameroon’s anglophone regions as talks on the turmoil ended their fourth day. – Agence France-Presse 

The United States Embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia, has reopened after being closed for 28 years, officials said Wednesday. […]The Al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab extremist group has been responsible for several attacks in Somalia this year, as it attempts to topple Somalia’s weak U.N.-backed government. On Monday, militants staged an attack on a U.S. military base that is used to launch drone strikes. – Fox News 

Latin America

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has hailed his country’s relations with Cuba, saying they have a “brilliant” future as he arrived in Havana for a two-day visit. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty 

Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno declared a state of emergency on Thursday as protesters hurled stones and erected burning barricades after the end of decades-old fuel subsidies as part of a $2 billion government fiscal reform package. – Reuters  

Peru’s centrist President Martin Vizcarra swore in a new Cabinet on Thursday as a challenge to his leadership by dismissed lawmakers fizzled out, potentially ushering in a rare period of political calm in the South American nation. – Reuters


Officials are calling on Facebook not to use encryption in its messaging services that does not provide authorities a way to see what is being sent. The request was made in a letter signed by US Attorney General William Barr, British home secretary Priti Patel and Australian minister for home affairs Peter Dutton. – Agence France-Presse 

Facebook said it has removed multiple accounts involved in what it terms “coordinated inauthentic behavior” on both its Facebook and Instagram platforms. […]“We found three separate operations: one of which originated in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Nigeria, and the other two in Indonesia and Egypt.” – CNBC 

Governments need to take people’s privacy into account as more and more countries consider using facial recognition technology to beef up security, said an expert at the World Economic Forum. – CNBC   

The FBI on Wednesday warned U.S. businesses and organizations of the increasing threat posed by ransomware cyberattacks, following several high-profile attacks on government offices and other public entities. – The Hill  


The U.S. Air Force is taking a gamble on its future fighter, with officials hoping to rapidly produce a family of jets known as the “Digital Century Series” using digital engineering and other technology breakthroughs. – Defense News  

As U.S. lawmakers grapple with why President Donald Trump froze nearly $400 in military aid for Ukraine, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith said he has “no doubt whatsoever” Trump sought a quid pro quo for damaging information about the Bidens, and that he was open with Republican lawmakers about it. – Defense News     

The Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities Sept. 14 pulled the curtain back on one of the Pentagon’s inconvenient truths, namely that despite untold billions spent on missile defense, the United States does not have a reliable shield against low-flying cruise missiles and small, hard-to-detect drones. – Washington Examiner 

Trump Administration

The Trump administration has made sanctions a key part of its foreign policy arsenal, placing enormous economic pressure on nations like North Korea and Iran in a bid to force concessions in negotiations with the United States. But is there real evidence that this tactic works? – Washington Post 

The Trump administration sought to use a potential meeting between the president and his Ukrainian counterpart as leverage to press Kyiv to investigate Joe Biden, newly released text messages showed, as President Trump called on China to also investigate his political rival. – Wall Street Journal  

If China were to act on U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprising request on Thursday to start an investigation into Democratic rival Joe Biden and his family, it would be breaking one of its stated rules: do not meddle in another nation’s internal politics. Beijing also stands to gain little by helping Trump undermine a political opponent, even in the midst of a bitter trade war that China is eager to end, China experts say. – Reuters