Fdd's overnight brief

October 9, 2019

In The News


Iran’s foreign minister was quoted on Tuesday as signalling his country would be willing to sit down to discuss regional issues with Saudi Arabia, but that Riyadh had to stop “killing people”. – Reuters 

Since they erupted a week ago, deadly protests in Iraq have been tracked closely in Iran where they are seen as a plot to undermine ties between the neighbours. Tehran has close but complicated relations with Baghdad, holding significant clout among its Shiite political groups. – Agence France-Presse 

Iran’s nuclear chief said Monday the country will start using 30 advanced centrifuges for enriching uranium, again violating terms of the 2015 nuclear deal and ramping up pressure on Europe to save the accord. – Fox News 

Sanctions have led to Iran’s oil industry falling behind but Iran will resist, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said on Tuesday, according to the semi-official Mehr news agency. – Reuters 

On screen, the small robot slides perfectly underneath the textureless tank. It is a modern iteration of an old promise in remote warfare, rendered with all the processing power of a desktop PC from 1994. Can a small, cheap robot prove useful against the vehicles of an enemy at war? A recent exhibition of unmanned ground vehicles by Iran suggests that the possibility, if not the reality, is already in development. – C4ISRNET 


The furor over the decision to pull U.S. troops out of northeastern Syria began late Sunday night with a poorly conceived White House statement about an ominous telephone conversation between President Trump and the Turkish president. The results have been rapid and remain unpredictable — and, in the view of critics, amount to the abandonment of America’s Syrian Kurdish allies to a massive Turkish military assault. – Washington Post 

President Trump said the U.S. wasn’t abandoning Kurdish fighters in northern Syria amid blowback from lawmakers over his decision to withdraw American troops from the area ahead of a planned military incursion by Turkey. – Wall Street Journal 

Faced with bipartisan condemnation for his effort to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria, President Trump wants to make one thing clear: He is trying to keep his word. – Wall Street Journal 

Republicans in Congress assailed President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria’s border with Turkey on Monday, warning that a threatened Turkish invasion would lead to a dangerous resurgence of the Islamic State, the slaughter of U.S. allies in the region and a boon for American adversaries. – Washington Post 

European officials were angered and taken aback Monday by the Trump administration’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the Syrian-Turkish border, as Turkey prepares a long-awaited offensive on U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in the region. – Washington Post 

The unexpected announcement by President Trump that he will draw down the U.S. military presence in Syria to make way for Turkish troops was greeted by the Kurds as a betrayal of the trust established during the fight, which has cost the lives of more than 12,000 members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the joint Kurdish-Arab militia formed to battle the militants. – Washington Post 

The commander of the American-backed militia in Syria said Tuesday that it would attack Turkish forces if they entered northeastern Syria, while Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, indicated that such an operation was imminent. “We will resist,” Mazlum Kobani, commander of the Kurdish-led militia, said in an interview with The New York Times. – New York Times 

Amid the criticism over President Trump’s Syria policy, there is one former American ally that has welcomed his decision to pull back Kurdish-led forces and allow Turkish troops to create a safe zone in northern Syria: the rebel Free Syrian Army. – New York Times 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long threatened to send troops into northeastern Syria to clear the border region of Syrian Kurdish fighters whom Turkey considers a serious security threat. A Turkish invasion looks more likely after President Donald Trump’s sudden announcement that U.S. troops, who had fought alongside the Kurds against Islamic State group, would withdraw from the area. – Associated Press 

A U.S.-backed force and two Syrian activist groups say Islamic State militants have carried out an attack in the city of Raqqa in northern Syria. – Associated Press 

The former commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East said Tuesday that President Trump’s decision to retreat from northeast Syria and pave the way for a Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurds could add to the humanitarian crisis in the region and turn off potential future U.S. partners. – The Hill 

US Jewish groups have reacted with dismay following President Donald Trump’s announcement of a new Syria policy that effectively leaves America’s Kurdish allies exposed to a brutal invasion by a vastly-better equipped Turkish army. – Algemeiner 

Kathy Gilsinan writes: Trying to explain why the president seemed to be opening the way for Turkey to attack America’s Syrian Kurdish partners, a senior administration official intoned it again and again: Trump wasn’t endorsing an invasion; he was just moving a handful of troops out of the way in case there was one. […]That strategy was forged by a president, Barack Obama, who never wanted to get involved in Syria, and is being haphazardly sustained by another, Donald Trump, who has repeatedly said he wants to get out. Across two administrations, it’s been characterized by “expansive goals, limited resources, and constantly utilizing these resources just a bit too late,” said Jasmine El-Gamal, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who worked on Syria issues at the Pentagon for five years. – The Atlantic


Turkish forces, together with the rebel Free Syrian Army, will cross the Syrian border “shortly”, President Tayyip Erdogan’s communications director said early on Wednesday, as a surprise withdrawal of U.S. troops made way for the Turkish incursion. – Reuters 

As Turkish troops finalize plans to attack northeast Syria, Ankara’s scheme to move millions of refugees into conquered territory there is alarming some Western allies as much as the military operation itself. – Reuters 

Cyprus, Greece and Egypt called on Turkey on Tuesday to “end its provocative actions” in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, including exploring for oil in Cyprus’ territorial waters, which they called “a breach of international law” – Reuters 

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan will visit the United States on Nov. 13 at the invitation of U.S. President Donald Trump, a White House spokesman said on Tuesday. – Reuters 

Eli Lake writes: In the last six months Erdogan has ignored U.S. and NATO objections to his purchase of a Russian air defense system and tried to steal a municipal election in Istanbul. Now Trump has invited him to the White House. And that, perhaps, is the most galling legacy of Trump’s Syria policy: He is showing the world how America abandons its friends and rewards its adversaries. That message will resonate even if the worst-case scenario for Syria doesn’t come to pass. – Bloomberg 

Boris Zilberman writes: Erdogan’s repeated actions attacking U.S. interests show that he is no friend nor NATO partner in good standing — but rather an adversarial power seeking to undermine U.S. power and values. America enables Erdogan when we back off sanctions or acquiesce to military action against our allies. The U.S. should push back, increase the pressure, and keep Ankara accountable until it changes course. If not, we have seen that Erdogan will keep pushing his agenda to the detriment of the United States and our allies. – Daily Wire 

Dana Stroul writes: Given ample evidence that ISIS still poses an urgent, deadly threat, it is clear that the military mission in Syria is not complete. In fact, if Trump insists on withdrawing U.S. forces now before conditions on the ground are sufficiently stable, he will clear the way for ISIS to rebuild and once again threaten America and its allies around the world. – NBC


Israel’s national security does not immediately depend on who controls the border of Turkey and northern Syria, more than 500 miles from its own territory. Yet President Trump’s abrupt order to withdraw American troops there and abandon Kurdish forces, who have been stalwart American allies against the Islamic State, set off clanging alarm bells among officials in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. – New York Times 

 But after nearly three years of walking in lock-step with the Trump administration, Israel is facing the reality of an unpredictable and transactional president who has deep reservations about using US military might, is afraid of getting involved in another Middle East conflict, and who, like Mr Netanyahu, is immersed in his own domestic political battles for survival. – BBC  

The European Union supports to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has kept that option alive, the incoming European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told the European Parliament. – Jerusalem Post 


Iraq has been plunged into a new cycle of instability that potentially could be the most dangerous this conflict-scarred nation has faced, barely two years after declaring victory over the Islamic State group in a war that left much of the country in ruins and displaced tens of thousands. – Associated Press 

Iraq’s government issued a second package of proposed social reforms on Tuesday in an attempt to meet the demands of anti-government protesters who have demonstrated nationwide for eight days, with the loss of 110 lives and 6,000 wounded. – Reuters 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to “exercise maximum restraint” and “address protesters’ grievances” after more than 100 people were killed in recent demonstrations, the State Department said on Tuesday. – Reuters 

Iraq will need to root out corruption, one of the main reasons for the failure to deliver public services. The nation’s among the most corrupt in the World Bank’s Control of Corruption Index. It also ranked 168 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index in 2018. Protesters say the political system set up after the 2003 invasion, which is based on ethic and sectarian quotas, rather than merit, lends itself to graft and means positions aren’t filed on merit. – Bloomberg 

Middle East & North Africa

The United Arab Emirates pulled some of its forces from Yemen’s southern port of Aden on Tuesday, officials and witnesses said, as a Saudi-led military coalition works to end a power struggle between the Yemeni government and separatists in the city. – Reuters 

Thomas L. Friedman writes: If you think Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria will make the Middle East more explosive, you’re correct. But there’s far more going on. Those troops were also interrupting Iran’s efforts to build a land bridge from Tehran to Beirut to tighten a noose around Israel — and their removal could help bring the Iran-Israel shadow war out into the open. […]So, the Middle East may look calm right now, but that’s an illusion. Everyone is recalculating: The Iranians are emboldened, the Arabs are frightened and Israel and Iran are one miscalculation away from a war of precision missiles that neither can afford. – New York Times 

Katherine Zimmerman writes: The US is losing against al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other like-minded groups, which are all part of the Salafi-jihadi movement. US counterterrorism efforts have made Americans safer, but the Salafi-jihadi movement is more than its terrorism threat. That movement now prioritizes developing its relationships with local Sunni communities, from which it draws its strategic strength, to transform the Muslim world. – American Enterprise Institute

Korean Peninsula

The five European members of the United Nations Security Council urged North Korea on Tuesday “to take concrete steps” toward giving up it nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner. – Reuters 

Thousands of protesters rallied Wednesday in South Korea’s capital for the second consecutive week to call for the ouster of President Moon Jae-in’s hand-picked justice minister, whose family is at the center of an investigation into allegations of financial crimes and academic favors. – Associated Press 

The U.S. Coast Guard says a seized North Korean cargo ship suspected of being used to violate international sanctions has been sold and towed from American Samoa. The U.S. seized the Wise Honest in May and towed it to the port of Pago Pago in the U.S. territory. – Associated Press 

Uri Friedman writes: The North Korea watcher said it’s also possible that North Korea’s leaders, who would have been suspicious of any pact made with Washington, have drawn the opposite lesson from the political turmoil in the United States: that there’s no use in surrendering assets as part of an agreement with Trump that could collapse within months as a result of impeachment pressures or the 2020 election. In which case Pyongyang might see an opening in the next year, while the United States is paralyzed by “fratricidal warfare,” to further develop its nuclear-weapons arsenal. Impeachment, which Democrats plan to vote on by the end of the year, would thus serve as a death knell for the Trump administration’s diplomacy with North Korea. – The Atlantic


The U.S. is imposing visa restrictions on Chinese officials linked to the abuse of Muslim minority groups in China’s Xinjiang region, where as many as a million people are detained in camps. – Wall Street Journal 

As China sanctioned the National Basketball Association this week for a pro-Hong Kong message delivered by one of its team leaders, other American companies scrambled to avoid fallout of their own. – Washington Post 

NBA commissioner Adam Silver is ready to accept the consequences for defending freedom of speech, even if supporting those values means losing the riches that Chinese business partnerships have brought the league. – Agence France-Presse 

China demanded Washington lift sanctions on Chinese tech companies and warned Wednesday it will “resolutely safeguard” the country’s interests. – Associated Press 

John Calabrese writes: Decades of war, sanctions, and sectarian conflict have not deterred China from pursuing business in Iraq. On the contrary, China has emerged as Iraq’s number one trading partner and Iraq as China’s third-leading source of oil after Saudi Arabia and Russia. As the Da’esh threat has receded, China has sought to expand its footprint in Iraq and has found in Baghdad a partner greatly in need of support for its reconstruction and recovery effort. – Middle East Institute 

Joseph Bosco writes: Xi has skillfully played off one issue against another in the multi-dimensional U.S.-China relationship, always in the cause of advancing Beijing’s core interests and long-term ambitions.  As this article was nearing completion, the already complex dynamics of the U.S.-China relationship suddenly became even more complicated and Xi was given a new card to play to America’s disadvantage. – The Hill 


American and Afghan commandos killed the head of an affiliate of Al Qaeda in a southern Afghanistan raid last month, according to a statement released Tuesday by Afghanistan’s intelligence agency. – New York Times 

But some Afghan security officials caution that the successes of election day may not be easily repeated: The number of forces needed to secure the country and the tempo of operations is unsustainable in the daily battle against insurgent groups. Others say that while large attacks were thwarted, daily life in the country was forced to a halt. – Washington Post 

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing on Wednesday and signed several agreements in the first official visit since the two countries established diplomatic relations last month. – Reuters 

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is embarking on a regional charm offensive this autumn by sending a pair of ships on friendly visits – including a rare port call in Japan – as part of an ongoing effort using the military to further diplomatic missions. – USNI News 

Ravi Agrawal and Kathryn Salam write: Chinese President Xi Jinping has South Asia on his mind this week. After welcoming Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Beijing on Tuesday, Xi is scheduled to visit India and Nepal to discuss trade, infrastructure, and regional foreign-policy issues. The bilateral meetings come right after Beijing’s celebrations last week of 70 years of Chinese Communist Party rule, as well as last month’s global gathering at the United Nations. Let’s run through the issues at stake. – Foreign Policy 


Western security officials have now concluded that these operations, and potentially many others, are part of a coordinated and ongoing campaign to destabilize Europe, executed by an elite unit inside the Russian intelligence system skilled in subversion, sabotage and assassination. – New York Times 

Russia and China will sign a cooperation treaty aimed at combating illegal content on the Internet this month, Russia’s state communications watchdog said on Tuesday, an example of deepening cooperation between the powers. – Reuters 

Russia’s security council said on Tuesday it was important to avoid hindering the peace process in Syria, following discussions with President Vladimir Putin, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. – Agence France-Presse 

Kremlin-directed operatives opened champagne when Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, according to a communication disclosed in a new Senate Intelligence Committee report outlining Russia’s sweeping social media efforts to help him win. – Bloomberg 


An anonymous official in Boris Johnson’s office told broadcast reporters on Tuesday that negotiations with European leaders over Brexit were “essentially impossible” after the British prime minister concluded a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. – Washington Post 

The prospects for a Brexit deal appeared to fade further on Tuesday, as British and European officials traded barbs over who is to blame for the stalemate in talks. – Wall Street Journal 

Germany warned on Tuesday of a repeat of the chaotic influx of migrants that caught the European Union unprepared in 2015, as Greece and Cyprus sounded the alarm over a resurgence of arrivals from neighboring Turkey. – Reuters 

Democrats on Tuesday issued a subpoena to U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland hours after he failed to show up for a scheduled deposition before three House committees. – NBC 


Al Qaeda’s West Africa affiliate on Tuesday claimed responsibility for coordinated, deadly attacks last week on two army bases in central Mali, it said in a statement. – Reuters 

An American pastor who was critical of Rwanda’s government has been deported from the country after being arrested for allegedly “disturbing public order.” – Washington Examiner 

The battle for political and economic influence between the U.S. and China is playing out across Africa, and Beijing’s growing presence is troubling Western policymakers, experts say. – CNBC

The Americas

Some of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s electronic surveillance activities violated the constitutional privacy rights of Americans swept up in a controversial foreign intelligence program, a secretive surveillance court has ruled. – Wall Street Journal 

Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno moved his government out of the capital as protests against his austerity measures continued to grow on Tuesday. – Washington Post 

Police in the Canadian city of Hamilton, located about 40 miles (64 km) southwest of Toronto, are investigating anti-Semitic graffiti that was left outside the city’s Beth Jacob Synagogue over the weekend. – Arutz Sheva


Top Democratic lawmakers strongly urged the Trump administration on Tuesday against expected action to withdraw America from a landmark treaty which allows the Russian military to be monitored from the air. […]“Withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty would be perceived as casting further doubt on the status of the United States commitment to Ukraine’s security and would advance the Russian narrative that the United States is an unreliable partner in the region,” the letter reads. – Defense News  

The Navy put more money on contract with less effort from its personnel in Fiscal Year 2019, the service’s acquisition chief said today, showing that the service is moving in the right direction in fielding new capabilities more efficiently. – USNI News 

Small businesses are increasingly being targeted digitally by nation states, according to Department of Defense officials, who say more must be done specifically to evaluate and reinforce the security of contractors battling cyberattacks. – Fifth Domain 

Brig. Gen. Gregory Gagnon and Lt. Col. Nishawn Smagh write: The traditional crew-to-aircraft model for exploitation must fast forward to today’s information environment. The Pentagon has shifted its guidance to this new reality. The Defense Department recently declared information a seventh core function, and the Air Force’s formal ISR flight plan maps a course for digital-age capabilities to turn information into intelligence. […]The Department’s focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning in this realm remains stable and necessary. The next step is to retool how we task, organize, and equip both intelligence collection and analytic crews. – C4ISRNET 

Michelle Van Cleave writes: It’s time U.S. counterintelligence went on the offense. Hostile intelligence operations are not uncontrollable forces of nature. Some can be deterred, and all have vulnerabilities that can be exploited given sufficient time, resources and creativity. […]America is paying the price. It’s not only the high cost in lives lost, which have been tragic, or treasure taken. It’s the uncertainty interjected across the U.S. defense infrastructure, American diplomatic initiatives, intelligence efforts, global competitiveness and now even our democratic institutions—today and for decades to come.  – Politico 

Long War

Authorities in western Germany said they were holding a Syrian man suspected of hijacking a truck and ramming it into traffic on Monday night, injuring eight people. – Wall Street Journal 

An Islamic terrorist already serving a life prison term for a bombing in New York City was convicted Tuesday of multiple counts of attempted murder and assault stemming from a shootout with police three years ago. – Associated Press 

France must develop a “society of vigilance” in its fight against the “Hydra” of Islamist militancy, President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday, as he paid homage to the victims of a deadly knife attack at the headquarters of the Paris police. – Reuters 

Trump Administration

The White House on Tuesday said it would not cooperate with the House’s impeachment inquiry of President Trump, arguing that the probe “violates the Constitution, the rule of law, and every past precedent” in an escalating standoff with an unbowed Congress. – Washington Post 

The Senate committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election said on Tuesday that the Kremlin’s best-known propaganda arm increased its social media activity after that vote, adding to concerns about foreign meddling in the current 2020 campaign. – Reuters  

A new report from the Senate Intelligence Committee highlighted the Obama administration’s failure to properly warn and work with Twitter and Facebook to battle Kremlin-backed trolls interfering in the 2016 election. – Washington Examiner 

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators urged President Donald Trump on Tuesday to warn the public about efforts by foreign governments to interfere in U.S. elections, a subject he has largely avoided, and take steps to thwart attempts by hostile nations to use social media to meddle in the 2020 presidential contest. – Associated Press

Former Rep. Trey Gowdy has agreed to a request from the White House to assist President Trump as the Democrat-led impeachment inquiry moves forward. – Washington Examiner 

The federal prosecutor running the Justice Department’s review of the origins of the Russia investigation has expanded the inquiry that critics have panned as an effort to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller’s work. – Washington Examiner 

The top House lawyer told a judge on Tuesday that Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into President Trump may go beyond the president’s dealings with Ukraine. – The Hill 

In its second report detailing the Russian government’s sweeping disinformation campaign on social media leading up to the 2016 election, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence offered a bureaucratic platitude to combat the problem: improve information sharing between social media companies and the federal government. – Federal Times