Fdd's overnight brief

September 10, 2019

In The News


It is becoming increasingly clear just how effectively the Trump administration’s campaign of economic sanctions is shredding the Iranian government’s balance sheet and damaging the underlying economy. – Wall Street Journal

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran destroyed a facility this summer where it had conducted secret nuclear-weapons experiments, the latest volley in his campaign imploring world powers to heap more diplomatic pressure on Tehran. – Wall Street Journal

A tanker released from Gibraltar despite U.S. objections that it was carrying crude to Syria has unloaded its oil, a top Iranian official said, after the ship dropped anchor near a Syrian port. – Wall Street Journal

Iran’s U.N. ambassador is accusing the United States of violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by modernizing its nuclear weapons instead of moving toward disarmament. – Associated Press

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday he could meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and that he had no problem with such an encounter. – Reuters

The U.N. nuclear watchdog told Iran on Monday there is no time to waste in answering its questions, which diplomats say include how traces of uranium were found at a site that was not declared to the agency. – Reuters

Iran responded furiously to Israel’s revelation that it uncovered a Previously unknown nuclear facility, accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of marching to war at all costs. – Times of Israel

China has blamed the United States for tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and called for world powers to stick to their 2015 deal with Tehran. – Associated Press

Kenneth Bandler writes: While European nations are seeking economic cooperation with Iran and ways to keep alive the problematic nuclear agreement that the US has withdrawn from, Iran’s menacing end-runs must be monitored and effectively countered. The Hamas-Iran dalliance should not be ignored. – Jerusalem Post

Joseph I. Lieberman writes: Whether you were for or against the Iran nuclear agreement in 2015 won’t matter on Inauguration Day in 2021. The Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign is working. I hope Democrats will recognize that inconvenient truth, and use it to find a way to a new and better agreement instead of reviving the flawed, old one. – USA Today


Preparing the diplomatic ground for possible action against Hezbollah’s precision missile program in Lebanon, Israel’s mission at the UN informed the Security Council on Monday that Hezbollah is operating a facility for the production of these missiles in the Bekaa Valley. – Jerusalem Post

In light of the recent tension between Israel and Hizbullah, there has been criticism in Lebanon against the organization itself, and also against the leaders of the state, for backing Hizbullah and enabling its actions. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Hillel Frisch writes: Hezbollah has not only paid in blood to prop up the Syrian regime. It faces a more uncertain future in Lebanon itself as a result of that support. Under such circumstances, restraint is a reasonable response. – Algemeiner

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah writes: Both Israel and Hizbullah are interested at this time to contain the events, but any skirmish can suddenly turn into a major military confrontation, with Israel focused on destroying the existential threat created by the precision missile program. – Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs


The discovery, seen by Associated Press journalists over the weekend, was the 16th mass grave found in Raqqa since IS militants were driven out in the summer of 2017. Even as Raqqa’s people gradually rebuild, the graves found in houses, parks, destroyed buildings are a grim reminder of the horrors perpetrated by the militants and the massive violence inflicted on the city to remove them. – Associated Press

Unknown warplanes targeted an arms depot and posts of Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border, killing at least 18 fighters in a nighttime attack, Syrian opposition activists said Monday. A Syrian security official said Israeli jets staged the airstrikes, but denied there were any casualties. – Associated Press

Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias fired rockets at Israel from Syria on Monday but they fell short, the Israeli military said. – Reuters

Air strikes hit a part of northwest Syria for the first time since a ceasefire was declared 10 days ago, a war monitor and rebel group spokesman said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Ron Ben-Yishai writes: The missile launches from Syria that were spotted by the Israel Defense Forces on Monday morning were probably a failed attempt by Iran to exact swift revenge for an attack attributed to Israel against targets on the Syria-Iraq border. The shooting, most likely insitgated by Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, could indicate a change in its pattern of response. If in the past, the Iranians waited, prepared and tried to hide their fingerprints – now there is an immediate response. – Ynet


Turkey, which for eight years has welcomed millions of Syrian refugees, has reversed course, forcing thousands to leave its major cities in recent weeks and ferrying many of them to its border with Syria in white buses and police vans. – New York Times

Turkey’s defense ministry says two top U.S. military officials are in Turkey for talks over a planned “safe zone” in northeast Syrian. – Associated Press

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Monday that the Trump administration was considering imposing sanctions on related to Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense missile system, but no decisions have been made. – Reuters

Relaunching talks to reunify ethnically divided Cyprus encountered another obstacle Monday when Turkey’s foreign minister said Greek Cypriots had to agree Turkish Cypriots would have decision-making parity in governing the country before negotiations could resume. – Associated Press

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the populist leader of Turkey, hinted Wednesday night that he was interested in acquiring nuclear weapons. His speech was aimed at a nationalist audience at home, but the sudden talk of a Turkish bomb has rattled many of Turkey’s allies and neighbors. – The National Interest


The Israel Defense Forces said Tuesday morning that one of its drones had fallen in the Gaza Strip overnight. Palestinian media reported that the drone was shot down and was seized by the Hamas terror group. – Times of Israel

An Egyptian security delegation entered Gaza to follow up on ceasefire talks with Israel on Sunday, just hours after the Israel Air Force struck Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for an earlier drone attack against an IDF humvee positioned along the border fence. – Jerusalem Post

Israeli security forces thwarted an attempt to smuggle materials to produce military uniforms into the Gaza Strip, the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) said in a statement on Monday. – Jerusalem Post

The UN accused Israel of killing and injuring “peaceful” Palestinian protesters at the Gaza border, when it opened the 42nd session of its Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday. – Jerusalem Post

Matti Friedman writes: No single episode has shaped Israel’s population and politics like the wave of suicide bombings perpetrated by Palestinians in the first years of the 21st century. Much of what you see here in 2019 is the aftermath of that time, and every election since has been held in its shadow. – New York Times


Loud explosions were reported early Tuesday at a warehouse in Iraq apparently used by an Shiite militia, seemingly the latest of a string of attacks targeting Iranian-backed groups in western Iraq and eastern Syria. – Times of Israel

Renad Mansour writes: Until now, the de facto PMF leadership has been satisfied with its hybrid security, political, economic and social role on the ground, leaving formal politics to the formal leadership. The latter, however, may be unable to protect the PMF from Western aggression. If so, Muhandis and his colleagues may reconsider their understanding with the formal state leadership. – Washington Post

Nancy Ezzeddine and Erwin van Veen write: Re-organizing control over the Popular Mobilization Forces Commission, professionalizing and reinforcing the Iraqi Federal Police and Army at the local level, and working with charters as “service level agreements” in which local government and Hashd groups agree on socio-economic performance objectives can help strike a better balance between inclusiveness and supervision. This way, evolution towards a Lebanese Hizballah-type situation, in which political vetos easily stifle national development and autonomous coercive capabilities crucially limit the reach of the state, may be avoided. – War on the Rocks

Middle East & North Africa

The world’s largest crude exporter has no plans to change its oil production policy, Saudi Arabia’s newly appointed energy minister said Monday. But the abrupt leadership change from OPEC’s kingpin could complicate the cartel’s task of mopping up a global crude glut as it meets this week, insiders said. – Wall Street Journal

The Hamas terror group said Monday that Saudi Arabia earlier this year arrested a Palestinian man who used to manage its relations with Riyadh. – Times of Israel

Brian Hook writes: The U.S. government is shedding light on Iran’s culpability and its hegemonic aims. As we strive to constrain Iranian expansion in Lebanon, Syria, the Golan Heights, and Iraq, we must also prevent Iran from entrenching itself in Yemen. The world must come to terms with Iran’s ambitions and counter them, or the Iranian Crescent will soon enough become a full moon. – Wall Street Journal

Ben Fishman writes: Convening yet another conference on Libya is a recipe for continued political stagnation, unless it addresses concretely the issue of illegal arms imports. Neither warring side has reached the point where it will prefer a political compromise to ongoing war, especially given the increasing divisiveness in the country. Therefore, the only way to alter the potential for renewed political negotiations is to begin draining each side’s source of weapons and materiel. Washington is best positioned to lead such an initiative. – The Hill

Geoffrey Aronson writes: Trump is not the sole author of the dramatic changes in U.S. strategic thinking witnessed since the Iranian revolution ended the alliance between Washington and Tehran. But his invitation to China may well be remembered as a turning point in Washington’s retreat from the Gulf. – Middle East Institute

Korean Peninsula

North Korea said it is willing to resume nuclear talks with the United States later this month provided Washington changes its approach — then followed up the offer by firing two more missiles, a reminder of Pyongyang’s continued weapons development. – Washington Post

Former U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman, one of a handful of Westerners to have met North Korean head of state Kim Jong Un, and a friend of U.S. President Donald Trump, said on Monday he thought the two leaders could work out a deal. – Reuters

Jay Solomon writes: North Korea and Israel, though separated by two oceans and 5,000 miles, have been engaged in low-intensity conflict and high-stakes spy games for more than five decades. For the Jewish state, Pyongyang has presented a remote, yet existential, threat due to its repeated transfer of nuclear and missile technologies to Israel’s sworn enemies in the Middle East. […]The lesson for North Korea was that it could proliferate, in the Middle East and elsewhere, and get away with it. – Tablet Magazine 


Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Monday that President Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports were having no impact on the United States economy, an assertion that was at odds with a raft of increasingly gloomy economic data and industry surveys. – New York Times

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. has long ruled the world’s biggest online shopping market in China—and many expected it to have conquered other markets by now. Instead, Alibaba, like many Chinese tech giants, has found how hard it is to translate domestic domination into international success. – Wall Street Journal

China will win the trade war with the U.S., and eventually wean itself off its reliance on American technology, a strategist told CNBC on Monday. – CNBC

Daniel W. Drezner writes: Still, there were three overarching themes to the trade commentary. First, there is a mutually beneficial agreement to be cut on everything except 5G. […]Second, the odds of such a deal getting cut are small. Both sides are dug in, and the ability of both sides to credibly commit at this juncture is hampered. Finally, distrust is high and rising while multiple channels for the two countries to reassure each other have dissipated. That is a recipe for a long, messy, costly trade war. I was told that there was more anger at the last CDF because the trade war had just begun. This time around, both sides appear to have moved beyond denial and bargaining to depression. – Washington Post


President Trump declared that talks were dead between the U.S. and the Taliban, the insurgent movement in Afghanistan, and warned the U.S. could do “certain things” that would cost millions of lives in a move to end the war, a step he said he doesn’t want to take. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump’s decision to call off the bilateral talks has abruptly altered that political dynamic, putting Ghani in the spotlight at a moment of national crisis that cries out for leadership and all but guaranteeing that the presidential election will be held as planned on Sept. 28. – Washington Post

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says the Islamic State extremist group remains resilient in Afghanistan despite “a high pace” of operations against it by government and international forces. – Associated Press

With the peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban now over following an attack that killed a U.S. soldier, the American military said they expect to increase operations against the terror group. – Washington Examiner

If President Donald Trump’s now-canceled plan for secret talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents on U.S. soil was stunning, the date chosen was perhaps even more so: days before the anniversary of 9/11, the reason for the war they were going to talk about ending. – Associated Press

The U.S. military is likely to accelerate the pace of its operations in Afghanistan to counter an increase in Taliban attacks, a senior U.S. general said on Monday following Washington’s suspension of peace talks with the insurgents. – Reuters

Donald Trump took the presidency vowing to bring his deal-making savvy to American foreign policy, yet his love for grand gestures and personal diplomacy has fallen short with North Korea, China and the Mideast. Now Afghanistan can be added to the list. – Bloomberg

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said America needs to keep forces in Afghanistan for now to prevent terrorists including al-Qaeda from regrouping and posing a threat to the U.S. – Bloomberg

Editorial: America’s enemies and rivals should know by now that, even when this president would very much like a deal, he’s not going to take a bad one. Too bad the Taliban, at least, needs another lesson. – New York Post

David Ignatius writes: The opportunity for peace in Afghanistan is too precious to squander with a not-fully-baked, premature agreement. Just in time, Trump sent Khalilzad back to negotiate a better one. That spares Trump a Camp David embarrassment, but more important, it opens the way for a better peace pact that might really curb terrorism. – Washington Post

Uri Friedman and Kathy Gilsinan write: In truth, Trump’s cancellation of the Camp David meeting and suspension of peace talks reflect a reality that was evident well before a bomb detonated near the vehicle of Sergeant First Class Elis Barreto Ortiz: The peace process and proposed agreement rest on an exceedingly shaky foundation. The writing for this move was on the wall, and this weekend the president essentially tweeted it out.  – The Atlantic

James Stavridis writes: If the Taliban are unwilling to accept a peaceful outcome – including a full cease-fire while negotiations are underway – the U.S. should walk away from the table. Artificial deadlines would be a tragic mistake. The NATO allies should continue to support our Afghan partners with a limited military mission and sufficient funding to keep the military pressure on the Taliban. That is the only path to a lasting and just peace. – Bloomberg

Neville Teller writes: This time they miscalculated badly. On learning of the death of Sgt. Elis Angel Barreto Ortiz, Trump canceled the meeting and called off peace talks entirely. Justified as it is, this move smacks of Trump’s “Art of the Deal,” which is to maintain the initiative and keep the other side on tenterhooks. For Trump to achieve his aim of withdrawing from Afghanistan, negotiations will have to be resumed sooner or later. – Jerusalem Post

Jonathan S. Tobin writes: There’s more to achieving America’s objectives or ending a war where the other side intends to go on fighting than signing a piece of paper. President Trump’s pull-back from the brink of repeating Obama’s mistakes may strike Democrats as undignified, but it is far better than sticking with a deal that would have been a humiliating defeat for US interests. – New York Post


China expressed anger on Tuesday after German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas met prominent Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, saying that no foreign country had a right to interfere in China’s internal affairs. – Reuters

Hong Kong’s embattled leader warned the United States on Tuesday not to “interfere” with her government’s response to the city’s pro-democracy movement, after fresh protests called on Washington to ramp up pressure on Beijing. – Agence France-Presse

The freshly elected lawmakers of the tiny Pacific country of Tuvalu are set to choose a prime minister against a backdrop of China’s efforts to erode the region’s traditional support for Taiwan. – Reuters

Comparing the struggle of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters to the role of Berlin during the Cold War, activist Joshua Wong told an audience in the German capital that his city was now a bulwark between the free world and the “dictatorship of China”. – Reuters

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Monday anti-government protests in Hong Kong were “not an internal” Chinese matter and that the United States should offer at least moral support to the demonstrators. – Reuters

Solomon Islands said on Monday that its diplomatic ties with Taiwan were stable, giving the assurance even as China woos the Pacific nation with a development fund if it switches alliance from Taipei to Beijing. – Reuters

Myanmar’s army said on Monday it had dropped a criminal complaint against a religious leader who told U.S President Donald Trump the military was oppressing Christians, days after the United States voiced concern about the lawsuit. – Reuters

Laura Rosenberger and Zack Cooper write: China is using U.S. social media platforms to manipulate how people around the world, including Americans, perceive issues of importance to the party-state. Right now the focus is on Hong Kong, but it won’t stay there. Our elected leaders can get ahead of the curve and close the vulnerabilities China’s information operations will exploit. To preserve the vitality of our free and open democratic process, they should — and now. – Washington Post

Joseph Bosco writes: But China’s renewal of its false claims now constitutes a challenge to the diplomatic integrity and credibility of the United States and other governments — and a test of Beijing’s success at blatant disinformation. That is so whether China’s complaints and accusations derive from genuine paranoia on the part of an insecure dictatorship, or from clever posturing to keep the West on the defensive. In either case, it requires an appropriately firm response from Washington. – The Hill


Decades ago, the C.I.A. recruited and carefully cultivated a midlevel Russian official who began rapidly advancing through the governmental ranks. Eventually, American spies struck gold: The longtime source landed an influential position that came with access to the highest level of the Kremlin. – New York Times

In a previously undisclosed secret mission in 2017, the United States successfully extracted from Russia one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government, multiple Trump administration officials with direct knowledge told CNN. – CNN

The party of Russian President Vladimir Putin has suffered big losses in Moscow elections as candidates endorsed by his arch-rival won almost half the seats, authorities said Monday. – Associated Press

Leonid Bershidsky writes: Sunday’s local elections in a spate of Russian regions, including the country’s two biggest cities, showed that there’s no way to beat a cardsharp while playing by the rules. […]The undeniable message for the Kremlin was that people in the city that sealed the Soviet Union’s fate in 1991 are tired of its methods. – Bloomberg

Dara Massicot writes: An updated military doctrine in 2020 would most likely be the last doctrine that Gerasimov will approve as chief of the General Staff, as he has been in the position for almost seven years. If the next doctrine will indeed be Gerasimov’s swan song, he might be able to leave his mark on the future direction of Russian military strategy through the next decade. – War on the Rocks


The White House delayed a package of military assistance to the new government in Ukraine, and has yet to schedule a White House meeting for its new president. After abruptly pulling the previous American ambassador out of Kiev when conservatives questioned her political loyalty, President Trump has yet to nominate a successor. – New York Times

France’s foreign minister said on Monday Europe and Russia should try to overcome their mutual distrust and work toward improving relations but that it was still too early to lift EU sanctions against Moscow. – Reuters

Rick Noack writes: It remains to be seen what Johnson’s place in political history will be, but so far he has hardly looked victorious. Within only a few weeks as prime minister, he has already lost the first series of key votes in Parliament, his parliamentary majority, the goodwill of Conservative Party moderates — including his own brother — and the patience of E.U. leaders. – Washington Post


Nigeria plans to repatriate at least 600 of its citizens living in South Africa after recent attacks in and around Johannesburg that targeted Nigerians and other African immigrants and left at least 10 people dead. – New York Times

At least 29 people were killed in Burkina Faso’s troubled north on Sunday after a food convoy and a transport truck were attacked, the government said. A “terrorist” attack on the convoy killed 14 civilians, while the truck hit an explosive device in Sanmatenga province, killing 15 people and wounding six, it said in separate statements. – Reuters

Former South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar is due to make a rare visit to the capital Juba on Monday and meet President Salva Kiir, officials said on Monday, raising hopes for progress in a stalled peace process. – Reuters


Amid fears of attacks against the 2020 election, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) within the the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is making progress in its efforts to gain state participation in its cybersecurity programs, according to its director. – Fifth Domain

China’s flagship telecommunications company could be barred from India over security and domestic economic concerns. – Washington Examiner

Facebook and Instagram on Monday blocked the social media accounts of two Italian neo-fascist groups and some of their activists because they had violated the platforms’ policies against spreading hate, Facebook said. – Reuters


The U.S. has reached a new “Sputnik moment” in which the military must act to keep the nation’s competitive advantage in space against adversaries such as Russia, China, and to a lesser extent, Iran and North Korea, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Monday. – Associated Press

The Navy has a more straightforward path to developing and fielding unmanned surface vessels than many critics realize, according to the admiral in charge of building them. – USNI News

As the Pentagon increasingly views space as a war-fighting domain, leaders resurrected U.S. Space Command to provide a more singular focus on space. – C4ISRNET

As more robots move onto the battlefield, DARPA wants those machines to work together, learn from each other to do better and move away from actions which cause regret. To spark research into this area, the Pentagon’s blue sky projects wing launched “CREATE,” or “Context Reasoning for Autonomous Teaming.” – C4ISRNET

For nearly two weeks aboard Camp Pendleton, California, the Corps and Naval Surface Warfare Center put a remotely operated AAV through two weeks of testing, according to a release. The remotely operated AAV successfully carried out 22 surf zone crossings and 13 open water transits, according to a release. – Marine Corps Times

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper intends to implement changes from his review of Defense Department organizations on a rolling basis, rather than waiting until the review process is completely finished, according to the department’s top spokesman. – Defense News

Most Americans want the United States to maintain strong alliances overseas, but not through foreign arms sales, a key tactic used by the Obama and Trump administrations. – Defense One

Mackenzie Eaglen writes: As former Defense Secretary James Mattis testified just over a year ago, the military has operated under 1,000 days of debilitating continuing resolutions for the past decade. This has harmed operational readiness and degraded the ability of the Pentagon to prepare for future threats. Congress needs to solidify the new norm of on time funding and let the political fight over the wall get hashed out in a fight separate from that of doing their most basic task of keeping the government open. – The HIll

Brent D. Ziarnick writes: It remains to be seen how quickly Air Force Space Command, soon to become an independent space service, will act on the report’s recommendations, but the report offers a first clear and comprehensive path for the Space Force’s development. – The Hill

Richard Fontaine writes: Surely it’s true that difficult choices about priorities must be made. But it is also true that the United States cannot compete with China and Russia while at the same time minimizing or dismissing other critical threats, especially those that animate the public more than worries about great-power trajectories. How to balance these worthy priorities in a manageable and sustainable way will be the overarching challenge for U.S. foreign policy. – Foreign Policy

Long War

British authorities have foiled 22 attacks since March 2017, three more than previously reported, Scotland Yard’s most senior counter-terrorism officer said on Monday. – Reuters

Noah Feldman writes: In an important constitutional decision, a federal district court in Virginia has held that the government must give people on the Terrorist Screening Database, better known as the “watch list,” the opportunity to challenge the evidence that put them there. History will someday find it astonishing and outrageous that it took 18 years after the Sept. 11 attacks to restore this kind of procedural protection of people’s right to travel unmolested. Yet, late as it is, the decision also demonstrates that careful constitutional reasoning can reach common-sense conclusions — and make the government comply. – Bloomberg

Tom Rogan writes: President Trump’s designee as ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, met with a Russian deputy foreign minister Oleg Syromolotov in the intelligence capital of Vienna, Austria, on Monday. Deputy Secretary of State Sullivan’s mission: get Russia’s improved engagement with U.S. counterterrorism efforts. […]Ultimately, however, this is positive realpolitik. The U.S. and Russia are keystone adversaries. But at least on counter-terrorism, both nations recognize that cooperation offers mutual dividends. – Washington Examiner