Fdd's overnight brief

September 17, 2018

In The News


The U.S. on Friday sanctioned a Thai aviation firm for working with Iran’s blacklisted Mahan Air, part of a larger campaign to shut down an airline Washington has accused of ferrying weapons and warriors into Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad. – Wall Street Journal

US President Donald Trump slammed Friday a former US Secretary of State John Kerry, who served in the White House during the Barack Obama administration, following Kerry’s admission that since he left office, he had several meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. – Ynet

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Sunday accused Twitter of closing accounts of “real” Iranians, while allowing anti-government ones backed by the United States. – Reuters

Iran said on Saturday that Kurdish activists attacked its embassy in Paris and it accused French police of arriving late on the scene. – Reuters

Europe should take action to neutralize the consequences of the U.S. decision to quit a 2015 Iran nuclear accord to ensure its own long-term economic interests, Iran’s Foreign Minister said in an interview published on Saturday. – Reuters

Iran’s OPEC governor said on Saturday that Saudi Arabia and Russia have taken the oil market “hostage” as U.S. President Donald Trump seeks to impose fresh sanctions on Iranian oil sales. – Reuters

Eli Lake writes: Iran’s Kurds are also wise to refrain from responding in kind to Iranian aggression. The West, however, need not show such restraint. The U.S. and European leaders should schedule a summit with a delegation of Iranian Kurds to discuss how the free world can help their struggle. Iran’s leaders would certainly get that message. – Bloomberg


Israeli missiles are suspected to have struck an Iranian arms shipment at Damascus airport late Saturday, the latest in a string of attacks aimed at eroding Tehran’s military foothold in Syria. – Wall Street Journal

Syria has been holding off, at least temporarily, on an offensive to retake the last major opposition stronghold in the country, as tensions grow between Turkey and its ally Russia. – Wall Street Journal

For international powers, primarily Russia and Turkey, Idlib is one of the last opportunities to deepen or preserve their influence in Syria as the country moves into a postwar phase. – Wall Street Journal

Syrian military air defenses downed several missiles that Israel fired in an act of “aggression” near Damascus airport on Saturday, Syrian state media said. – Reuters

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday said she could not rule out a longer-term deployment of German forces in the Middle East, amid a broader debate about a role for Germany in possible military action Syria. – Reuters

They dug trenches around towns, reinforced caves for cover and put up sand bags around their positions. They issued calls to arms, urging young men to join in the defense of Idlib, the Syrian province where opposition fighters expect to make their last stand against Russian- and Iranian-backed government troops they have fought for years. – Associated Press

U.S.-backed Syrian forces entered an eastern village held by the Islamic State group where intense clashes are ongoing on Saturday, a day after the extremists reportedly killed 20 fighters, the forces and a war monitor said. – Associated Press

More than 300 doctors and nurses rallied Sunday in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib, urging the international community to protect them against an expected offensive by President Bashar Assad’s forces. – Agence France-Presse

N. Mozes writes: The Syrian regime has declared that the only acceptable outcome is its retaking of the territory – whether by means of what it refers to as reconciliation agreements, that is, surrender on the part of the rebels, or by means of all-out war until it triumphs. Following these declarations, the regime is unlikely to allow Al-Joulani and HTS to remain in areas under regime control. – Middle East Media Research Institute


Congress underscored its disapproval of Turkey imprisoning U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson on Thursday by temporarily banning transfers of F-35 joint strike fighters to the NATO ally. – Washington Examiner

Most construction workers who were detained after protests over labor conditions at Istanbul’s new airport were released on Sunday, the city’s governor said, but a union leader said hundreds were still held and more protests were likely. – Reuters

An ex-soldier sentenced in Turkey after joining a Kurdish armed group has said he is “begging” for the UK government to help him. Joe Robinson was given a seven-and-a-half year jail term after volunteering with the YPG, which was fighting so-called Islamic State in Syria. Turkey regards the YPG as a terrorist group. – BBC News


A Palestinian teenager on Sunday fatally stabbed a 45-year-old Israeli-American man in the West Bank, according to U.S. and Israeli officials. – Wall Street Journal

The United States revoked visas for the family of the Palestine Liberation Organization ambassador, the envoy said on Sunday, the latest development in the worsening relations between the Trump administration and Palestinian leadership. – Reuters

The United States will not present its long-awaited plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace any time soon and is instead trying to unilaterally change the terms of reference for any future proposal, a senior Palestinian official said on Saturday. – Reuters

An Israeli opposition lawmaker on Sunday called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to dismiss his ambassador to the United States for failing to report sexual assault allegations against a top Netanyahu aide, ballooning an already embarrassing scandal for the Israeli leader. – Associated Press

A busload of IDF soldiers was attacked after mistakenly entering the Kalandiya refugee camp outside of Jerusalem on Sunday, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said. A female officer and two soldiers who were in the vehicle were wounded by stones, the IDF said. – Jerusalem Post


The Iraqi parliament elected the candidate of a pro-Iran list as speaker on Saturday, paving the way for the formation of a government more than four months after legislative polls. The country has been in political paralysis since the May 12 ballot, but the election of a speaker is expected to solidify new parliamentary alliances. – Agence France-Presse

German forces will be needed in Iraq for a long time to help rebuild the country’s military as it struggles to ensure that Islamic State militants do not regroup in underground cells, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said on Sunday. – Reuters

Sadek Ali Hassan writes: There are clearly many potential pathways for the Iraqi government and its allies to follow in order to alleviate the crisis Basra currently faces. The challenge lies, rather, in the productive implementation of these plans and a long term commitment to sustaining the province. – Washington Institute


Yemen’s armed Houthi movement said it had launched a ballistic missile toward a Saudi Aramco oil refinery on Friday, but Saudi air defense forces said they had intercepted and destroyed the projectile. – Reuters

A air strike by the Saudi-led coalition against a radio station in Yemen’s Houthi-held port city of Hodeidah killed four people on Sunday, residents and medical sources said. – Reuters

The U.N. humanitarian aid agency says it’s agreed with the rebel-run government in the capital of war-torn Yemen on a “medical air bridge” to evacuate civilians for medical treatment. – Associated Press

Middle East & North Africa

Saudi authorities are seeking the death penalty for three prominent clerics, rights activists and a government official said, testing the unwritten code that has kept the kingdom’s rulers in power. – Wall Street Journal

Echoing some of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, authorities in Egypt are taking aim at an alleged barrage of “fake news” they say is meant to sow division and undermine the rule of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. – Associated Press

Hanin Ghaddar writes: Washington and European governments should be prepared to delay their acceptance of any new Lebanese government that includes Hezbollah figures, particularly in the security realm. […]Finally, the revelations about Syria’s role in the assassination should put an end to the notion that Bashar al-Assad can be part of his country’s political future. – Washington Institute

Korean Peninsula

The U.S. is convening a multinational coalition to significantly expand surveillance of ships smuggling fuel to North Korea in violation of United Nations sanctions, American military officials said. – Wall Street Journal

With denuclearization talks between the U.S. and North Korea stalled, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is set to visit Pyongyang on Tuesday in a bid to revive diplomacy after a summer of challenges. – Wall Street Journal

Fresh doubts are emerging about the potency of a U.S.-led sanctions campaign aimed at crippling North Korea’s economy and forcing the country to end its atomic-weapons programs, as denuclearization talks have stalled. – Wall Street Journal

North Korea accused the United States on Friday of circulating “preposterous falsehoods” after Washington charged an alleged hacker for the North Korean government in connection with major cyberattacks, including a 2014 assault on Sony Pictures Entertainment. – Washington Post

North Korea is making nuclear fuel and building weapons as actively as ever, the publicly available evidence suggests. But he [Kim Jong-un] now appears to be borrowing a page from Israel, Pakistan and India: He is keeping quiet about it, conducting no public nuclear demonstrations and creating no crises, allowing Mr. Trump to portray a denuclearization effort as on track. – New York Times

When President Moon Jae-in of South Korea sits down Tuesday with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, for their third summit meeting, they will share a common goal: fashioning a political statement this year declaring the end of the Korean War. – New York Times

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Monday that he will push for “irreversible, permanent peace,” and for better dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington, during “heart-to-heart” talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this week. His chief of staff, however, played down the chance that Moon’s summit with Kim will produce major progress in nuclear diplomacy. – Associated Press

Eric Talmadge writes: When South Korean President Moon Jae-in travels to Pyongyang this week for his third summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he will have two major tasks: He needs to keep Pyongyang’s talks with Washington on denuclearization from breaking down so that his own efforts at rapprochement can continue, and he needs to speed up a series of inter-Korean cooperation and engagement projects to keep frictions with the North low and his domestic critics at bay. – Associated Press

Duyeon Kim writes: Everyone wants peace on the Korean Peninsula. But what does “peace” mean and how is it achieved? This is where it gets tricky and political, dividing the hawks and the doves. It might be even more difficult for the United States and North Korea to agree on what peace means, including the meaning and implications of all of the interim steps, like a declaration ending the Korean War. – War on the Rocks


President Trump’s economic conflict with China is set to escalate this week, as the administration plans to unveil fresh tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese products entering the U.S. and Beijing debates new ways to retaliate against U.S. corporations doing business in China. – Wall Street Journal

A Japanese submarine held a military exercise in the South China Sea, Japan’s Defense Ministry said Monday, in a challenge to China, which has made broad territorial claims in the region. – Wall Street Journal

Today, China is hoping that Wall Street will once again use its political heft to soothe tempers in Washington. But as President Trump ratchets up the trade war with Beijing, Wall Street’s words are falling on deaf ears. – New York Times

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s iron grip on power depends on healthy support from the nation’s exploding middle class, and now that middle class, angered with Trump’s escalating threats, expects their leader to respond with strength. This could make finding a compromise to end the escalation even more difficult. – Washington Post

A top Chinese general attended the opening on Monday of a regional armed forces health forum organized by the Chinese and U.S. militaries, as the two sides set aside friction over trade and territorial issues such as the South China Sea. – Reuters

Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa began a three-day visit to China on Sunday, Pakistan’s military said, days after a Pakistani minister stirred unease about Chinese Silk Road projects in the South Asian nation. – Reuters

China accused Taiwan’s spy agencies on Sunday of stepping up efforts to steal intelligence with the aim of “infiltration” and “sabotage”, and warned the island against further damaging already strained cross-strait ties. – Reuters

Robert D. Kaplan writes: The repression of the Turkic Uighur Muslim community in western China—including the reported internment of up to a million people in secret camps—is a key part of Beijing’s new imperial policy. Only by understanding the dynamics of Chinese empire can one grasp this brutal campaign. – Wall Street Journal

Christopher Balding writes: As the trade war between the U.S. and China drags on with new tariffs and no end in sight, we need to ask ourselves: What do they want? A fundamental objective for both is to become less reliant on the other. The trade war should thus be reframed as a conscious uncoupling. – Bloomberg

Jonathan E. Hillman writes: Five years ago, President Xi Jinping unveiled the Belt and Road Initiative, a vast investment scheme cloaked in the rhetoric of cooperation that was designed to pave the way for China’s transition to great power status. Instead, it has become a roller coaster that Beijing itself is struggling to control. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

South Asia

Protesters demanding anti-fraud measures shut down the offices of Afghanistan’s election commission in three of the country’s major provinces on Saturday, just weeks before a vote for Parliament, the latest symptom of a political logjam that could turn violent amid a raging war with the Taliban. – New York Times

Afghanistan’s poorly armed and underpaid police are usually on the frontlines against Taliban militants and they lost 90 men defending the strategic city of Ghazni last month, underlining chronic weaknesses that are likely to face further tests. – Reuters

Vinay Kaura writes: The U.S.’s troubled relationship with Pakistan continues to be eroded by crisis after crisis. Leave alone the pretense of any strategic convergence, the two countries are finding it difficult to maintain even a transactional relationship. If events surrounding a short visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Islamabad are any indicator, it will not be easy to reduce the trust gap in bilateral ties. – Middle East Institute


Russian warships held drills in the Bering Sea which separates Russia from Alaska, part of Moscow’s biggest military maneuvers since the fall of the Soviet Union, footage aired by the Ministry of Defence showed on Friday. – Reuters

Putin may indeed have involvement in some shadowy schemes, but is he micromanaging every suspected poisoning, computer hack and influence campaign? Experts say not necessarily. Instead, they say Putin and his entourage may be sending out signals about what he wants, and ambitious officials and individuals scramble to interpret and fulfill them to win his favor. – Associated Press

Two Russian spies arrested in the Netherlands on suspicion of targeting a Swiss laboratory are also being probed over an attempted cyber-attack on the World Anti-Doping Agency, an official said Saturday. – Agence France-Presse

The United States and Russia continue to be at odds with each other over a military verification treaty, to the point where no flights have been conducted in 2018. The latest issue with the Open Skies Treaty came to light earlier this week, with Russian officials saying the U.S. has refused to clear its planes for overflight of U.S. territory. – Defense News

Leonid Bershidsky writes: The two-faced nature of the Russian state isn’t about the mysterious Russian soul or the complex national character, its dark violence finely counterbalanced by a soaring intellect. There is no balance between the thugs and the intellectuals: There is a clear hierarchy, an unambiguous understanding of who works for whom. – Bloomberg


European Union leaders will hold their first serious discussions on Brexit since March at a summit in Austria on Thursday as both the U.K. and the rest of the bloc step up preparations to reduce major economic disruptions if a deal isn’t reached. – Wall Street Journal

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization embodies a “vital trans-Atlantic bond,” its secretary-general said Friday, arguing the alliance is based on values that must withstand economic and political disputes among its member states. – Wall Street Journal

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Macedonia on Monday with a warning that Russia was attempting to meddle in a referendum, including by spreading disinformation, to change the Balkan country’s name and open the door for it to join NATO. – Reuters

The two suspects in the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal have nothing to do with Russian President Vladimir Putin or the government, a Kremlin spokesman was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying on Sunday. – Reuters

Switzerland has demanded that Russia cease any spying activities on its territory after two suspected espionage cases came to light in recent days. – Reuters

A Spanish district court has annulled a BDS resolution passed by the municipal council of Ayamonte, a town in the country’s southwest, banning any association or economic agreement with Israeli companies and organizations. – Jerusalem Post


Niger, a poverty-stricken nation perched on the southern belt of the Sahara, is rapidly being transformed into one of the world’s most strategic security hubs. Its capital has become ground zero for a multibillion-dollar Western project to halt the migrant trail from West Africa toward the Mediterranean and combat the expansion of jihadist activity across the Sahel, the semiarid region south of the Sahara. – Wall Street Journal

Federal prosecutors have quietly dismissed charges against a former Senegalese government official who had been accused of conspiring with a representative of a large Chinese energy company in a bribery case. – New York Times

The United Nations condemned a “direct attack” on its peacekeeping mission in South Sudan after a government soldier shot and wounded a Nepalese peacekeeper on Saturday. – Associated Press

Chadian army helicopters killed two civilians in bombing runs over a gold mining town along the Libyan border, where government forces have clashed with a fledgling rebel movement, a family member of the victims and an intelligence official said. – Reuters

The Americas

U.S.-Canada trade talks are poised to come to a head this week, as negotiators bear down on their next deadline amid President Donald Trump’s threats to cut his largest export market out of the deal. – Bloomberg

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said in his first interview since taking office in April his government could not talk with U.S. President Donald Trump as long as Trump’s administration kept its “abnormal” attitude toward the Communist-run island. – Reuters

Mexico’s incoming government has rejected a Trump administration proposal of funding to speed up and increase its detention and deportation of US-bound Central American migrants. – The Guardian


Lockheed Martin has scooped up a contract, worth up to $7.2 billion, for the latest batch of next-generation GPS satellites. – C4ISRNET

Beyond the 77 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters authorized by the 2019 defense policy bill, congressional appropriators are adding another 16 for a total of 93. – Defense News

When a nation wants to join the United States in operations against insurgent forces, but can’t afford a high-end fighter aircraft, a light-attack plane coupled with an information networking package is what the U.S. Air Force can offer them, according to Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein. – Air Force Times