Fdd's overnight brief

September 13, 2018

In The News


The Trump administration has signaled a new phase in its confrontation with Iran, threatening to retaliate for attacks by Iranian-backed militants in Iraq, even as it moves to avoid a potentially messy public split with allies over President Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. – New York Times

When President Trump withdrew the United States from a landmark nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in May, critics warned that the move would reset relations with Tehran to the pre-2015 pattern of mutual recriminations and entanglements by proxy — all the while leaving Iran poised to swiftly scale its program back to pre-agreement levels. After four months, that is exactly what’s happening. – Washington Post

Former Secretary of State John Kerry admitted Wednesday that he’s met with top Iranian officials in hopes of salvaging the scrapped nuclear deal — as he slammed the Trump administration for trying to further “isolate” Iran. – New York Post

A Iranian former vice president was sentenced to six and a half years in prison on Wednesday for threatening national security and other charges, the Tasnim news agency reported. – Reuters

Iran has between 3,000 and 4,000 active centrifuges, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said Wednesday, according to the Tasnim news agency – still within the limit allowed under its troubled nuclear deal with world powers. – Reuters

An Israeli Cabinet minister says if Iran chooses to continue pursuing a nuclear program it will face a “military” answer. Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz was responding Wednesday to the Iranian nuclear chief’s warning that the Islamic Republic’s program stands ready to build advanced centrifuges and further enrich uranium.- Associated Press

Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency is reporting that a court has sentenced a close ally of former hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to six-and-a-half years in prison. – Associated Press

Iran reportedly tricked suspected supporters of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) into downloading a wallpaper mobile phone application that allowed the government to spy on them. – Newsweek

Krishnadev Calamur writes: The statement is part of a larger U.S. pressure campaign on the Islamic Republic that picked up speed last May when President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran. […]The goal, the Trump administration says, is to get Iran to change its “behavior” to that of a “normal country.” – The Atlantic


A UN commission on Wednesday called on rebel groups in Syria’s Idlib province to leave urban areas to protect civilians from any looming regime assault. – Agence France-Presse

Syrian government forces fired chlorine, a banned chemical weapon, on a rebel-held Damascus suburb and on Idlib province this year, in attacks that constitute war crimes, United Nations human rights investigators said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Turkey has stepped up arms supplies to Syrian rebels to help them stave off an expected offensive by the Syrian army and its Russian and Iran-backed allies in the northwest near the Turkish frontier[…]  – Reuters

The Pentagon says Russia will bear responsibility for the resulting humanitarian crisis in Syria if the Moscow-backed Syrian military attacks the northern city of Idlib. Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman, says the U.S. and its allies are concerned about the deadly consequences if Syrian President Bashar Assad, with support from Russia and Iran, launches an offensive against Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in Syria. – Associated Press

Tom Rogan writes: If, as is highly likely, Syrian President Bashar Assad uses chemical weapons against civilians in Idlib province, Syria, President Trump should order significant military retaliation against his regime. That retaliation should not seek regime change, but rather Assad and the world’s education of American intolerance of weapons of mass destruction being used against civilians. – Washington Examiner

Joshua S. Block writes: The decision by Israel to step up the involvement in a conflict it had hoped to avoid was partly informed by security concerns. But it was also grounded in genuine revulsion over the Assad regime’s industrial-scale killing with the help of the world’s most hideous weapons. – Washington Examiner


Russia will deliver its top-line air defense system to Turkey by the middle of next year, according to officials from both countries, as Turkey moves ahead with the purchase despite threats by the United States to cancel its own sale of F-35 fighter jets to its NATO ally. – Washington Post

The Turkish secret service staged an operation deep in the heartland of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad to capture and bring back to Turkey the prime suspect in a 2013 bombing, officials said Wednesday. – Agence France-Presse

Matthew Reisener writes: While America’s relations with Turkey have certainly suffered of late, they are not yet beyond saving. Erdoğan’s recent electoral victory, the fragile state of Turkey’s economy, and the decreasing need for American involvement in the fight against Islamic State create a real opportunity for both sides to meaningfully repair their alliance before further deterioration occurs. – The National Interest


The European Parliament is set to vote on Thursday on a resolution that condemns Israel for the pending evaluation of the illegally built West Bank Bedouin herding village of Khan al-Ahmar, and warning that it set a dangerous precedent for another 46 such communities in Area C. – Jerusalem Post

The UN said Wednesday that the situation in Gaza was “catastrophic” after 11 years of “economic siege” and warned that Washington’s decision to halt assistance to “Palestinian refugees” would create “more misery”. – Israel National News

IDF troops recently uncovered an explosive device placed by Gazan terrorists adjacent to the security fence in southern Gaza, an IDF source said. In the incident, which occurred during the past week, the terrorist squad sought to injure IDF soldiers and disrupt their activity in the area. IDF troops disposed of the explosive device and thwarted the attempted attack against IDF soldiers. – Arutz Sheva

A former senior adviser on Middle East policy to US President Donald Trump was preoccupied by the growth of Hezbollah and the threat it poses to Israel, according to Bob Woodward, a veteran journalist out with a new book this week on the Trump White House. – Jerusalem Post

Editorial: But recent reports coming out of Washington give us hope. It is clear that the present American administration is thinking outside the box, and that has to be commended. Whether the idea being floated of a confederation between Jordan and the Palestinians can get off the ground is still to be seen – it’s not even official yet. But something new, something different, has to be tried. Oslo had potential 25 years ago. It still does today. – Jerusalem Post

David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner write: Today, however, the Oslo process is moribund, having produced neither a peace agreement nor a Palestinian state. About its only lasting substantive achievement is the Palestinian Authority[…] – New York Times

Robert Satloff writes: In this environment, what is remarkable is not the setbacks Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking suffered but the considerable successes it achieved. To some, this claim strains credulity; after all, a quarter century after the famous handshake between Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Yasser Arafat, leaders of the two sides are not even on speaking terms. But that political breach masks a deeper, more enduring strategic reality. – The American Interest


Twitter Inc. shut down the account of a prominent Iraqi militia leader after he was accused by the U.S. government of inciting violence against American diplomats in Basra, where the U.S. consulate came under a rocket attack. – Wall Street Journal

Violent protests in the Iraqi city of Basra have all but ended U.S.-backed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s chances of winning a second term and shattered Washington’s hopes of shaping the next government. – Reuters

Kimberly Kagan and Frederick W. Kagan write: Such a conflict could lead to the collapse of the Iraqi state and allow Islamic State to re-emerge. It also could allow Tehran to consolidate control over the government in Baghdad while targeting American personnel throughout the country. A weak American statement telling Iran to control its proxies in response to two instances of mortars fired at U.S. facilities shows a lack of seriousness. Washington must act now to manage this crisis and deter further Iranian attacks. – Wall Street Journal

Michael Rubin writes: Whatever threat Iranian-backed militias may be, the White House should not interpret the incident only through the lens of its Iran fixation. The protests in Basra have been a long time coming. […]Absent these reforms, however, whoever becomes prime minister, Basra might be the sign of things to come. – Washington Examiner


Despite attacks that have killed dozens of civilians at a time, the Trump administration on Wednesday certified that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are doing enough to minimize the deadly impact of their military campaign in Yemen. – New York Times

Democratic lawmakers blasted the Trump administration on Wednesday for standing by the conduct of its Persian Gulf allies in Yemen’s civil war, saying a new U.S. endorsement overlooked attacks on civilians and other actions that have deepened a humanitarian crisis. – Washington Post

A Saudi-led coalition resumed its assault on a Yemeni port city controlled by Iran-backed forces as United Nations-brokered peace talks stalled and the Trump administration rebuffed U.S. lawmakers’ efforts to cut American support for the three-year-old war. – Wall Street Journal

Ishaan Tharoor writes: In Washington, opposition has been mounting to Saudi Arabia’s ruinous role in Yemen’s civil war. […]But the Trump administration is endorsing the coalition’s apparent efforts to cut down on such deaths. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “certified” to Congress that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had shown “demonstrable actions” to limit casualties in their campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels. – Washington Post

Michael Knights writes: However, for all the horror of the Yemen war, it is vitally important that U.S. policymakers and legislators do not lose sight of the strategic outcome the war was intended to avert — namely, the establishment of an Iranian-supplied “southern Hezbollah” on the Arabian Peninsula, flanking the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and Suez Canal and posing a new missile threat to Saudi Arabia and Israel. – The Hill

Middle East

The U.S. Treasury Department has targeted the leader of a Libyan militia with sanctions for directing attacks on oil facilities in the country, it said in a statement on Wednesday. – Reuters

Israeli security officials strongly denied on Thursday a report saying Saudi Arabia purchased Iron Dome missile defense systems from Israel. – Haaretz

David Pollack writes: From the limited evidence available, it appears that these shifts in Saudi views of both Israel and Jews are very real, even if not universal. They may well have long-term effects on Saudi policy, yet there is no sign that they will yield any dramatic shifts in public opinion anytime soon. And their ultimate impact will depend on how they interact with a multitude of other factors affecting the kingdom’s stability, capabilities, and intentions. – Washington Institute

Korean Peninsula

The US and allies are days away from launching a new effort to more publicly expose North Korean violations of sanctions aimed at curbing its nuclear and missile programs, two defense officials tell CNN. – CNN

Earlier this year, 550 Yemeni asylum seekers landed on the resort island of Jeju, putting many South Koreans in the unfamiliar position of being forced to accept outsiders who many believed had no right to be there. […]Protestors took to the street to demand the deportation of the refugees; hundreds of thousands more signed an online petition calling for them to be removed. The rest of the world reacted in outrage to the alleged racism of the Koreans. – CNN

Victor D. Cha and Abraham M. Denmark write: Barely three months after they met in Singapore, President Donald Trump says he’s happy to sit down again with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. One might justifiably ask why, given how little the North has conceded since their last tete-a-tete. There is room to make tangible progress, however, if the U.S. first rethinks its negotiating strategy. – Bloomberg


Members of Congress sent a letter on Wednesday to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross pressing him to impose limits on the sale of certain technologies by American companies to Chinese companies or agencies. The lawmakers argued that Chinese security forces might use the technologies for overbearing surveillance and other human rights abuses. – New York Times

An SUV slammed into a central China crowd Wednesday evening, killing nine people and wounding at least 46 others in what officials called a deliberate attack. Authorities arrested the suspected driver after he plowed the red vehicle through a busy public square in Hunan Province around 7:30 p.m., the local government said in a statement. – Washington Post

The Trump administration is giving Beijing another chance to try to stave off new tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese exports, asking top officials for a fresh round of trade talks later this month, people briefed on the matter said. – Wall Street Journal

The majority of American companies in China say they are hurting from the escalating US-China trade spat, reporting increased costs, lower profits and stepped-up scrutiny, a survey showed Thursday. – Agence France-Presse

China warned Wednesday that protectionism threatens global growth and cautioned “individual countries” against isolationism, in a veiled reference to the deepening trade spat between Washington and Beijing that is being closely watched across Asia. – Agence France-Presse

Trump administration officials have sent a proposal for a fresh round of trade talks to the Chinese government, according to a new report Wednesday. The move follows several weeks of rising tensions between the two sides as President Trump has suggested ratcheting tariffs up to cover more than half a trillion dollars in Chinese goods. – Washington Examiner

At least 11 people were killed and dozens more were injured after a car rammed into a crowd of people in Binjiang square in the central city of Hengyang on Wednesday evening. – Business Insider

South Asia

Pakistan’s new government is pushing China to establish factories and poverty-alleviation initiatives in Pakistan instead of solely the big infrastructure programs that so far have dominated Beijing’s high-profile overseas investment program, Pakistani officials said after talks with Chinese officials. – Wall Street Journal

Wednesday marks a new era for the war in Afghanistan and the young people who make up the bulk of enlistees. It is the first day someone born after the terrorist attacks can enlist, at age 17, and begin a path to serve in the seemingly endless war launched in response to those attacks. That is a mind-bending prospect; troops were once partially motivated to enlist because of the attacks. – Washington Post

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: The US needs to openly assess the full range of factors that actually shape a major counterinsurgency in a failed state, and not just cherry pick favorable or politically desirable areas of reporting. It also needs to bring reporting on the war into balance and fully assess the weaknesses and failure of the Afghan government, the civil as well as the military side of the war, and the ability of Afghan leadership to achieve meaningful unity and fully win popular support. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


The leaders of China and Japan met Wednesday for the first time since last year and said relations were warming, a development Tokyo officials attribute to the pressure both feel from President Trump. – Wall Street Journal

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday robustly defended the jailing of two Reuters journalists who were reporting on the Rohingya crisis, as she hit back at global criticism of a trial widely seen as an attempt to muzzle the free press. – Agence France-Presse

Japan’s main opposition leader said Wednesday that the nation’s prime minister is papering over differences on trade and other issues with President Donald Trump, and that could ultimately hurt the U.S.-Japan alliance. – Associated Press


It turns out that the two countries never signed a peace treaty after World War II — and the world would probably have forgotten about that unresolved chapter of world history were they not seeking peace now. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe brought the issue back into the spotlight Wednesday when they suggested that they would seek common ground for an official peace deal more than 70 years after the end of hostilities. – Washington Post

A top Russian politician said Wednesday that it’s wrong to blame U.S. or Russian astronauts for damage done to the International Space Station. “It is absolutely impermissible to cast a shadow either on our cosmonauts or U.S. astronauts,” Russian deputy prime minister Yuri Borisov said, according to TASS, a state-run outlet. – Washington Examiner

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday that Moscow is ready to do what it can to break the impasse in relations between Russia and the United States, and is taking seriously US President Donald Trump’s willingness to forge a normal dialogue, though anti-Russia sentiment in the US establishment was a hindrance. – Reuters

Mark Galeotti writes: In a way, that’s the whole point. Vostok is not just a big military-training drill—it’s a massive psychological-warfare operation and a geopolitical gambit, being undertaken by Russia as it regains much of its martial mojo and its ability to mount and coordinate complex operations. […]This exercise is part of what I have called “heavy-metal diplomacy”: Russia’s use of its military to overawe and misdirect the West. – The Atlantic


The European Parliament issued a rare admonishment of a member state, with lawmakers saying Hungary was becoming an authoritarian state in the heart of Europe that encourages nationalists across the continent to follow in the same path. – Wall Street Journal

The men accused by Britain of trying to murder a former Russian spy are not criminals, President Vladi­mir Putin said Wednesday, reversing his government’s previous claims that the names given to it by London were meaningless. – Washington Post

British, French and German fighter jets simulated flight interceptions over Western Europe on Wednesday as part of NATO drills to deter Russian planes from entering allied airspace and to showcase European efforts to integrate their air defenses. – Reuters

The European Union extended on Thursday by six months sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian individuals who undermined the independence of Ukraine, a statement for the EU Council said. – Reuters

Poland, the biggest former communist country in the European Union, said it will oppose any sanctions imposed by the bloc on fellow member Hungary, accused of floating EU rules on democracy. – Reuters


The top U.S. diplomat for Africa welcomed a rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea ending two decades of hostility but said concerns over Eritrea’s human rights record hindered cooperation with Washington. – Reuters

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir signed a peace agreement with rebel factions in the Ethiopian capital on Wednesday to end a civil war that has killed at least 50,000 people, displaced two million and held up the country’s progress since it gained independence seven years ago. – Reuters

John Prendergast and Brian Adeba write: The peace deal signed today between the government of South Sudan and armed opposition groups has significant shortcomings that could easily lead the country right back to full-scale war. […]Today’s agreement is at its heart simply a crass division of the spoils between the rival factions with the biggest guns. – The Daily Beast

The Americas

President Trump has promised for years that Mexico would pay for a vast border wall, a demand that country has steadfastly refused. Now, in the Trump administration’s campaign to stop illegal immigration, the United States plans instead to pay Mexico. – New York Times

U.S. and Cuban officials will meet later today in an effort to determine the method and motive behind mystery incidents in Havana that have injured American diplomats. – Associated Press

Jonathan S. Tobin writes: You would think that even President Trump’s critics would be cheering the announcement that the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights will look into evidence about anti-Jewish activity at Rutgers University. […]But the reaction speaks volumes about the way partisan loyalties and hostility to Israel have altered the discussion about anti-Semitism. – New York Post


The Marine Corps’ F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters are the only ship-based fixed-wing aircraft in the Middle East right now, and service leaders say the new jets are ready to handle any fight in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan they may be tasked with. – USNI News

Two Russian nuclear-capable bombers accompanied by two fighter jets were identified and intercepted by two F-22 Raptor fighters with North American Aerospace Defense Command on Tuesday “west of mainland Alaska.” – Washington Examiner

After several years of employment, officials believe now is the time to make adjustments to the Department of Defense cyberwarriors’ training and teams. “We’re at a point in our maturity with the cyber mission force that it is time to go back in and review a couple of different things,” Maj. Gen. John Morrison, the commander of the Army Cyber Center of Excellence, told Fifth Domain during an interview in August. – Defense News

The two biggest manufacturers of military aircraft have been busy marketing new versions of their fighter jets to the U.S. Air Force, but the service’s top official told Defense News in an exclusive interview that it’s not actually interested in purchasing either of them at the current moment. – Defense News

The F-35 fighter jet was slated to fly into operational testing this month, but that entry date will be pushed back a couple months as the Pentagon’s independent weapons tester waits for the latest software to be delivered. – Defense News

Japanese Aegis destroyer Atago detected and shot down a short-range ballistic missile in space Tuesday in a joint test with the U.S. Navy using the SM-3 Block IB missile, according to a release from the Missile Defense Agency. The test, which took place at Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands in Hawaii, was designed to test the installation of the capability in Atago’s combat system, the release said. – Defense News

Long War

Islamic State attacks in the West fell steeply in 2018 compared with the previous four years, the first time the number has fallen since 2014. But the number of attempted attacks remained steady, suggesting that the group remains committed to carrying out catastrophic harm. – New York Times

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair will warn on Thursday that the threat from Islamist militants is growing and the current approach for tackling the threat will fail unless there is a global strategy to tackle the roots of extremism. – Reuters

An Afghan national who left seven people, including two British tourists, badly injured after he attacked them with a knife and an iron bar in a popular Paris area has been charged with attempted murder and detained, a judicial source said Wednesday. – Agence France-Presse

Trump Administration

Lawmakers pushing to more aggressively counteract Russian election interference dismissed a new White House effort to punish foreign election meddling as inadequate on Wednesday, pledging to try to secure a vote on more punitive legislation. – New York Times

Judicial Watch announced Wednesday it filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against DOJ in the hope of obtaining more details on how Christopher Steele, the British ex-spy who wrote the infamous Trump dossier, funneled any intelligence he gathered to the FBI. – Washington Examiner

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said Wednesday the panel has found “no hard evidence of collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia, but left open the possibility that it still could as it investigates Russian interference in the 2016 election. – Washington Examiner