Fdd's overnight brief

October 8, 2019

In The News


Iran’s foreign minister on Monday backed Syrian sovereignty and opposed military action in a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, state media said, after a U.S. pull-back of troops in northeast Syria appeared to open the way to a Turkish attack. – Reuters

Iran has confirmed the arrest last week in Tehran of a Russian journalist, saying the case was a matter of a visa violation. – Times of Israel

Iran could use a combination of cruise missiles and advanced drones to attack Israel, in a manner similar to the way it attacked the Saudi oil fields last month, Absorption Minister Yoav Galant told Army Radio. – Jerusalem Post

Iran’s total exports to Turkey, including oil and gas in the first eight months of 2019 has amounted to nearly $2.9 billion, which shows a 43% decline compared with the previous year, Turkish official statistics show. – Radio Farda 

The spokesperson of U.S. Department of State has welcomed a decision by China’s national oil company CNPC to withdraw from a gas exploration deal with Iran. – Radio Farda


For the past five years, Syrian Kurds have stood alongside the United States in its effort to vanquish the Islamic State, in the process securing control over a vast area of Syria they hoped would form the nucleus of an autonomous Kurdish region. – Washington Post

President Trump’s latest move to end U.S. involvement in Syria drew a burst of condemnation from dedicated supporters, who warned that abandoning a key ally, the Kurds, and walking away from the fight against Islamic State would cause irreparable damage to U.S. interests. – Wall Street Journal

For nine months, the Pentagon played down the presence of its 1,000 troops in Syria, hoping that President Trump would not focus on the extent to which the American military was continuing to fight the Islamic State despite his order in December to pull out. – New York Times

President Trump’s decision to step out of the way of a Turkish offensive in northern Syria renews pressure on the Kurdish ethnic group and the forces that helped it establish a semiautonomous region in the country. – Wall Street Journal

American forces in northeastern Syria received an urgent, unexpected alert early Monday morning to pull back from their posts. “We’re departing the field,” the messages said, according to current and former senior U.S. defense officials. – NBC News

President Donald Trump said his decision to shift U.S. troops out of the path of a threatened Turkish military incursion in Syria will be regretted most by Russia and China. They “love to see us bogged down” in expensive military quagmires, he tweeted on Monday. – Bloomberg

Senior U.S. national security officials on Monday said they are more worried that ISIS will be able to launch successful breakouts from makeshift prisons in northern Syria where thousands of fighters are currently detained, following President Trump’s shocking late night statement on Sunday announcing that he would withdraw U.S. troops to make way for a looming Turkish invasion. – Defense One

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights denied a report by Syrian state news agency SANA earlier on Monday evening claiming that Turkey had conducted airstrikes in Syria against the Syrian Democratic Forces. According to the SOHR, the airstrikes hit targets in Iraq. – Jerusalem Post

Turkey said on Tuesday it had completed preparations for a military operation in northeast Syria after the United States began pulling back troops, opening the way for a Turkish attack on Kurdish-led forces long allied to Washington. – Reuters

Editorial: Mr. Obama left Mr. Trump with a bad Syria hand, but the President risks making the same mistake. Economic sanctions won’t deflect White House blame for a Kurdish bloodbath. And if ISIS revives, the U.S. will have to go back in—this time without Kurdish allies on the ground. Mr. Trump may want to leave the Middle East, but chaos there will follow him home. – Wall Street Journal 

Editorial: The consequences are likely to be the same as Mr. Trump was warned of before. Betrayed by the United States and forced to fight a potentially bloody conflict with Turkey, the Kurdish-led forces could quickly abandon any further effort to control the Islamic State. – Washington Post

Walter Russell Mead writes: Mr. Trump’s Syria decision may also prove to be a mistake, but it should give the establishment pause that two presidents as different as Messrs. Obama and Trump reached similar conclusions about the political risks in the Middle East. […]The U.S. may be the most powerful actor in the region, but it can’t resolve the economic and social conflicts that destabilize the Middle East. As long as this is the case, those who want presidents to commit to long-term military engagements, however limited and however advantageous, must expect a skeptical hearing in the Oval Office. – Wall Street Journal

Eli Lake writes: One of Trump’s staunchest allies now concedes that he doesn’t expect the president to deter a NATO ally from reaping the whirlwind in Syria. If Trump were smart, he’d welcome Graham’s intervention. A U.S. retreat and a Turkish incursion will not end the war in Syria — they will prolong it. – Bloomberg

Lionel Beehner writes: Unlike Nikki Haley’s comment above, the real fear is not that nobody will partner with us going forward. It’s Washington’s lack of a coherent strategy in Syria, going back to President Barack Obama. Syria is what happens when wars are left to fester and the fighting is outsourced to dubious groups. – USA Today

Mike Giglio writes: Whatever the outcome this time around, America’s allies in the fight against ISIS have again been undermined—and they should begin to grapple with the fact that while Trump has promised to pull America from its forever wars, the local soldiers who have fought this version of it will sooner or later be forced to do it alone. Whether they can withstand an ISIS resurgence on their own—amid the same sort of chaotic conditions in Iraq and Syria that saw ISIS rise up in 2014—is another question. – The Atlantic

Will Todman writes: If the Trump administration allows a Turkish incursion into northeast Syria, a full U.S. withdrawal from Syria appears inevitable. Without a presence on the ground, the United States will have no ability to achieve its three articulated aims in Syria: an enduring defeat of the ISG, the removal of Iranian forces and its proxies from Syria, and an irreversible political transition. U.S. leverage in Syria would be essentially be reduced to economics—the ability to increase its sanctions and deny reconstruction funding. Russia and Iran will both benefit from the new status quo. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Israel was surprised by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from Syria and allow Turkey to begin a military operation in the area. – Haaretz

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urgently wants to supplement the defense budget by a few billion shekels to improve the missile defense system in identifying incoming cruise missiles. The security cabinet met Sunday afternoon to discuss the issue of the threat from Iran. – Haaretz

The incoming European Union foreign policy chief, Spain’s Josep Borrell, said during his hearing on Monday that he espouses the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that he hopes the EU will continue to support it during his tenure. – Haaretz

Gaza’s Hamas rulers have been waging a “secret war” against followers of the Islamic State and other Salafist groups in the Strip, according to a recent report in the Lebanese daily Al Akhbar. – Times of Israel

Israel’s defense establishment is analyzing last month’s strike on Saudi Arabian oil facilities, which is being blamed on Iran, to learn how to protect the country from a possible similar assault, Hebrew media reported Monday. – Times of Israel

Israel has “great challenges around us” and it’s cooperation with Russia is “critical,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday, a day after US President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw troops from Syria and allow a Turkish incursion there against Kurdish forces. – Jerusalem Post

Amid concerns that Israel may be facing a potential direct attack from Iran, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi pledged on Monday a strong response to anyone who threatened Israel. – Algemeiner

Herb Keinon writes: Don’t let the lack of any formal Israeli response to US President Donald Trump’s dramatic reversal of policy and decision to remove US troops from northern Syria fool you: Jerusalem is deeply, deeply concerned about this step. Not because it will suddenly impact Israel’s ability to take action in Syria when it desires to halt Iranian attempts to entrench itself there – though it could make that marginally more difficult – but because it drives home the idea that Israel really can only rely on itself. – Jerusalem Post

Seth J. Frantzman writes: The US decision to open the door for a Turkish invasion of eastern Syria is seen as a betrayal among US partners on the ground in Syria, and particularly among many Kurds. Across the region it is also seen as the US, once again, letting down allies. […]This has repercussions for Israel. – Jerusalem Post

C.R. Rublin writes: The Facebook groups examined in this report are focused on promoting the Palestinian cause and Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. In this report we present posts that appeared in eight BDS groups between January 2016 and July 2019, with explicit and blatant antisemitic incitement against Jews and Judaism without any context linking them to Israel or its policies. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Middle East & North Africa

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi on Monday acknowledged for the first time that Iraq’s military had used excessive force to quell protests that have left more than 100 people dead and over 6,000 injured. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump’s surprise decision to pull U.S. troops from northern Syria will hurt U.S. intelligence-gathering, erode U.S. credibility, help Iran arms its proxies in Lebanon, and help ISIS regrow, says a retired three-star who helped build up Syrian rebel forces. – Defense One

David Rosenberg writes: But it’s the long-term problem that’s sparking the protests. The region is hamstrung by corruption, poor regulations, second-rate schools that don’t teach skills, insider dealing and a bloated public sector. The economies aren’t growing fast enough to create new jobs, nor do they provide a business-friendly environment to those who might opt to go into business. – Haaretz

Korean Peninsula

North Korea on Monday denounced a scheduled U.N. Security Council discussion of its latest test of an underwater-launched ballistic missile, calling it “dangerous” and saying it will increase “our desire to defend our sovereignty.” – Associated Press

North Korea warned the United States, Britain, France and Germany on Monday that raising the issue of Pyongyang’s missile tests at the United Nations Security Council would “further urge our desire to defend our sovereignty.” – Reuters

Washington will have to consider big concessions before a nuclear deal between the U.S. and North Korea can be reached, one professor said Monday. His comments follow recent working-level talks between the U.S. and North Korea, which ended in a stalemate. – CNBC


The U.S. added 28 Chinese entities to an export blacklist Monday, citing their role in Beijing’s repression of Muslim minorities in northwest China, just days before high-level trade talks are set to resume in Washington. – Wall Street Journal

Since the 1992 Olympics, when the NBA’s best players ran all over the rest of the world, the league has sought to take basketball — its product in particular — globally. Its partnerships in China, where the game is wildly popular, have been a pivotal part of that expansion strategy. But a single tweet from a general manager supporting protesters in Hong Kong could threaten that relationship and affect the way the public here and abroad views the league’s intentions on social issues. – LA Times

Hong Kong’s under-fire leader Carrie Lam said Tuesday she would not rule out accepting help from mainland China in tackling increasingly violent pro-democracy protests. – Agence France-Presse

Edward Lucas writes: At all future historical commemorations in central and Eastern Europe, I want to see Chinese dissidents, Tibetan émigrés, Hong Kong protesters, and Taiwanese dignitaries in places of honor, speaking about how their present-day struggles echo those of their hosts in years past. Otherwise, our celebrations are a cynical, self-indulgent sham. We know. The question is what we do with that knowledge. History is watching us. – Center for European Policy Analysis


Eleven Taliban commanders have been released from a high-security prison in Afghanistan, according to Taliban officials, in an apparent deal that included a prominent regional leader caught five years ago personally escorting a shipment of nearly a ton of opium. – New York Times

An Afghan official says a bomb has gone off inside a classroom in eastern Ghazni province, wounding at least 19 university students. – Associated Press

Despite pulling off a safer presidential election than expected, Afghanistan looks headed for a prolonged period of political uncertainty, with the two front-runners claiming victory before ballots are tallied and signaling they would not accept defeat. – Reuters

Javid Ahmad and Husain Haqqani write: The United States should demand that the Taliban issue a statement rejecting the al-Qaeda leader’s pledge of allegiance to the Taliban leader, effectively declaring al-Qaeda persona non grata in Afghanistan. Taliban leaders should issue a clear directive instructing its fighters to halt all joint operational activities with al-Qaeda, cease support networks and shut down safe havens. At the same time, the Taliban leaders must immediately engage its hard-liners through an intra-Taliban dialogue to settle on such a compromise. – Washington Post


Hong Kong’s stock exchange pulled a $36.6 billion bid for its London rival, a deal that would have united two major trading hubs even as both are clouded in political turmoil. – Wall Street Journal

US President Donald Trump on Monday hailed a banner day for American farmers, announcing two trade agreements with Japan that he said would deepen economic ties in agriculture and digital commerce. – Agence France-Presse

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing on Tuesday to discuss the security situation in the disputed region of Kashmir as well as economic ties, his office said on Monday. – Reuters


The US is considering pulling out of a vital treaty with European allies and Russia, according to the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee. – Business Insider

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held talks by phone with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the RIA news agency reported on Monday, citing the Russian ministry. – Reuters

Leonid Bershidsky writes: Much has been made of Russia’s pivot to China as a danger to the U.S.-led world order, and the Kremlin has done its best to play up these fears in an effort to keep Russia punching above its weight.[…] Putin’s Russia is not really a European, a Central Asian or an East Asian country, as its geography might suggest. It’s a Middle Eastern authoritarian regime. Its pivot to the Middle East is more natural than previous attempts to cozy up to the U.S. or the current overtures to China. Whether it’s in Russian national interests is a question for Putin’s successors to ponder. – Bloomberg

George Beebe writes: Managing and containing the combustive mixture of volatile factors in the U.S.-Russian relationship is a daunting, but far from impossible, challenge. Washington’s approach must dispassionately balance firmness with accommodation, military readiness with diplomatic outreach—all without skewing too far toward either concession or confrontation. It’s a difficult balance, but the United States is not even attempting it at the moment. It will require more robust U.S.-Russian communication, as well as new rules of the game to deal with new weapons systems, game-changing cyber technologies and the shifting geopolitical order. – Politico 

Michelle Van Cleave writes: The next move is up to Congress. As they consider how to respond to foreign interference in U.S. elections, the oversight committees should take a serious look at the stalled modernization of America’s counterintelligence enterprise and the performance of the national CI office. I think they will find that the United States needs a national-level strategic counterintelligence program to shake free creative thinking and desperately needed new energy to get inside hostile intelligence services, find their vulnerabilities and disrupt their operations. – Politico


France has been rocked by a security breach that allowed an Islamist extremist to work in the heart of its counterterrorism apparatus for years, before he killed four of his colleagues last week and was then shot dead. – Wall Street Journal

Counter terror police have arrested four people on suspicion of being members of a banned organisation. The Sri Lankan nationals were arrested after arriving at Luton Airport on Saturday and Sunday. – BBC

The Defender 2020 in Europe is set to be the third-largest military exercise on the continent since the Cold War, according to Lt. Gen. Chris Cavoli, the U.S. Army Europe commander. – Defense News

The government has announced changes to British tariffs on lorries, bioethanol and clothing in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Revisions to the temporary tariff schedule are an attempt to keep down prices for people in the UK after Britain leaves the EU, according to the Department for International Trade. – The Guardian

The Americas

The escalating impeachment drama between Congress and the White House that has all but doomed hopes of most legislative progress this fall has instead enhanced the prospects for approval, within weeks, of one major initiative: a sweeping new trade agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico. – New York Times

The United States and its Latin American allies launched last month a renewed diplomatic offensive against the regime of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, which more than 50 democracies around the world deem illegitimate. – Foreign Policy

Software company Adobe is shutting all its accounts in Venezuela to comply with US sanctions, leaving thousands of users without access to Photoshop and Acrobat Reader, and prompting accusations that it is being heavy-handed and hitting ordinary people rather than the government of Nicolas Maduro. – Financial Times

Michael O’Hanlon and Juan Carlos Pinzon write: Since extremist groups are violating Venezuelan sovereignty and using its territory to plot attacks on Colombia with likely regime complicity, Washington and Bogota can consider a response under Article 51 of the United Nations charter. Any American assistance would likely consist of intelligence support, but depending on specific circumstances, some limited direct American kinetic involvement could be appreciated by the people of Colombia. – The Hill


The Trump administration has begun inserting legal protections into recent trade agreements that shield online platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube from lawsuits, a move that could help lock in America’s tech-friendly regulations around the world even as they are being newly questioned at home. – New York Times

The U.S. Army continually transforms over time, and the latest iteration is the transformation to support the concept of Multi-Domain Battle. This concept describes how the Army will operate, fight and campaign successfully across space, cyberspace, air, land and maritime domains. While cyberspace is defined as a domain, it is not separate and integrates across all other domains. Maintaining cyber physical systems is critical to succeed across all domains. – Fifth Domain

Tim Wu writes: As it did with the internet research, the United States government should broadly fund basic research and insist on broad dissemination, with the exception of tools that might be dangerous. Not all government funding need go to academia: Private research institutions like OpenAI that are committed to the principled development of A.I. and the broad dissemination of research findings should also be potential recipients. – New York Times


The Missile Defense Agency is working to up its game to meet new challenges posed by the next generation of precision-guided weapons the agency’s director said on Monday. – USNI News

The Department of the Navy’s new chief learning officer sees creating a thinking force, able to quickly apply classroom concepts to live situations, as the new training focus for all sailors and Marines. – USNI News

Congressman Rob Wittman writes: Less than two weeks after assuming his role as the 38th commandant of the Marine Corps, Berger published a new Commandant’s Planning Guidance. In this 23-page document, he outlines his plan to solidify the Marine Corps’ place as the world’s premier naval expeditionary fighting force. It is a vision that seeks to morph the Corps into a force that will dominate the future fight. […]Simply put, I agree with the commandant; the measure of success as Congress provides resources for national defense is not in the number of platforms, but in the overwhelming capability the U.S. military brings to deter and, if necessary, to win decisively against any adversary. – War on the Rocks

Trump Administration

House committees subpoenaed the Pentagon and White House budget office for documents related to the Trump administration’s dealings with Ukraine, the latest effort by Democrats to obtain new information from the administration on efforts to pressure Kyiv to investigate the president’s political rival Joe Biden. – Wall Street Journal

House Democrats are weighing extraordinary steps to secure testimony from a whistleblower whose complaint prompted their impeachment inquiry, masking his identity to prevent President Trump’s congressional allies from exposing the individual, according to three officials familiar with the deliberations. – Washington Post

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned Monday morning from a European trip to a State Department workforce that is increasingly demoralized and resentful under his leadership, amid a growing belief that he has subordinated its mission and abandoned colleagues in the service of President Trump’s political aims. – Washington Post

Before President Donald Trump’s controversial phone call with the president of the Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky’s closest advisors established contact with Washington, D.C., power players, including former senior administration officials. – CNBC

A federal judge will hear arguments Tuesday from the House Judiciary Committee, which is demanding the grand-jury evidence behind special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. – USA Today