Fdd's overnight brief

September 18, 2019

FDD Research & Analysis

In The News


The Trump administration announced that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would fly to the Persian Gulf on Wednesday to discuss a response to an attack on Saudi oil facilities, as Iran’s supreme leader ruled out any direct talks with the United States. – Washington Post

Top senators expressed caution about possible U.S. military retaliation against Iran for its purported role in attacks on Saudi oil facilities, amid concerns that any strike could sharply escalate hostilities in the region and get America mired in a broader Middle East war. – Wall Street Journal 

President Trump appeared to be softening toward Iran. He had broken with his administration’s leading advocate of confrontation, signaled a willingness to meet personally with his Iranian counterpart, and reportedly considered relaxing some sanctions. But Iran, American officials say, responded with violence.  – New York Times

The Trump administration is weighing a range of options for a retaliatory action against Iran, including a cyberattack or physical strike on Iranian oil facilities or Revolutionary Guard assets, U.S. officials and others briefed on the deliberations told NBC News. – NBC News

An attack on Saudi oil installations that halted half the kingdom’s output could harm French diplomacy meant to avert feared U.S.-Iranian conflict, diplomats said after President Emmanuel Macron’s top envoy held talks in Saudi Arabia. – Reuters

U.S. surveillance satellites detected Iran readying drones and missiles at launch sites in Iran before Saudi oil facilities were attacked on Saturday, according to two Defense Department officials. – NPR 

Vice President Mike Pence briefed Senate Republicans in a closed-door meeting Tuesday on the oil field attack in Saudi Arabia and how the United States could respond, calling for America to “restore deterrence” of Iran’s attacks in the region. – Washington Examiner 

As President Donald Trump decides whether to strike Iran, the specter of his past military interventions is looming large over the choice before him now. Trump is reluctant to take military action in the Middle East because he wants to live up to his campaign vows to reduce foreign entanglements, according to multiple people who speak with him regularly. – Politico

Iran’s president and foreign minister may skip next week’s high-level meetings at the United Nations as the U.S. has yet to issue them visas, the Islamic Republic’s state-run news agency reported Wednesday, as tensions remain high in the Mideast over an attack on a crucial Saudi oil installation. – Associated Press  

Iran has acknowledged for the first time that it holds three Australian nationals on suspicion of spying, marking the latest cases of those with Western ties being detained in the Islamic Republic amid tensions between Tehran and the U.S. – Associated Press

Kathy Gilsinan writes: The conditions John Bolton laid out in May for the use of “unrelenting force” against Iran, namely an attack on U.S. interests or those of its allies by Iran or its proxies, have long since been satisfied; but Bolton is gone now and no one knows where the real line is. All of which suggests that Iran and its allies may well keep walking up to it. And if for some reason they stumble over, it seems neither the Iranians nor the American people will know ahead of time what could start a war. – The Atlantic 

Arabian Peninsula

U.S. and Saudi military forces and their elaborate air-defense systems failed to detect the launch of airstrikes aimed at Saudi Arabian oil facilities, allowing dozens of drones and missiles to hit their targets, U.S. officials said. – Wall Street Journal 

The fallout from the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities and the specter of military escalation are set to dominate the annual United Nations General Assembly when world leaders gather in New York next week. – Wall Street Journal 

The United States and Saudi Arabia lack virtually any allies as they consider how to respond to this weekend’s attacks on Saudi oil refineries, raising doubts about whether the Trump administration could build any coalition for military action in the region. – Politico

At a weapons exhibition in July in Yemen’s Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa, military officials whipped silken sheets off what they said were newly-developed drones and missiles. – Reuters

The Pentagon is preparing a report on who was responsible for the weekend attack on Saudi oil facilities and intends to make it public within 48 hours, a U.S. defense official said. – Bloomberg 

Editorial: But the basic point stands: Unless the Saudis are willing to act in defense of their own interests, Iran will continue smelling blood in their oil. The most appropriate action here is the simplest. Saudi Arabia has been attacked by Iran in a flagrant breach of international law. It has the right to self-defense, and both Saudi Arabia and America would benefit from its choice to use it. – Washington Examiner 

Adam Taylor writes: For the time being, however, the country may have to learn to make better use of what it has already. New purchases from the United States could take years to go through, especially given a Congress increasingly suspicious of Saudi Arabia and export restrictions in place on some of the more advanced U.S. technology. There may not be any handouts from the White House. Though Trump pushed the Saudi military to make more purchases, he suggested Monday that the United States did not have an obligation to protect the kingdom — and that if there was a conflict, Riyadh would again foot the bill. – Washington Post

Donald L. Luskin and Michael Warren writes: The attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure last weekend took out about half of the kingdom’s production capacity. Yet the market reaction was muted, with global oil prices rising only to where they were in May. […]Iran comes out a winner only in the sense that it will have mostly gotten away with a heinous terrorist act. The real winner will be the U.S., which can thank Riyadh for supporting prices at the same time as America takes the lead as the world’s largest and fastest-growing oil producer. – Wall Street Journal 

Jon Gambrell writes: The assault on the beating heart of Saudi Arabia’s vast oil empire follows a new and dangerous pattern that’s emerged across the Persian Gulf this summer of precise attacks that leave few obvious clues as to who launched them. Beginning in May with the still-unclaimed explosions that damaged oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, the region has seen its energy infrastructure repeatedly targeted. Those attacks culminated with Saturday’s assault on the world’s biggest oil processor in eastern Saudi Arabia, which halved the oil-rich kingdom’s production and caused energy prices to spike. – Associated Press


At least 10 militants were killed in airstrikes on Monday night by unidentified aircraft on pro-Iranian militias in Albukamal in Syria near the Iraqi border, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. – Jerusalem Post 

In northern Syria, prisoners are filled to the point of bursting, with foreign ISIS fighters. They want to return to their home countries, but nobody wants them. CBS News was given rare access to one of these prisons, the first time a television crew has been allowed in. – CBS News

Oula A. Alrifai writes: Iran’s economic and political influence in Syria is only deepening, all toward the goal of providing strategic depth for Tehran’s exercise of power at home and abroad. Even amid intensified U.S. sanctions, the Islamic Republic has managed to conduct business in the Middle East and “bring in foreign currency through the scale of crude [and] non-oil goods,”[…]. Because events like the Rebuild Syria exhibition are part of this dynamic, the U.S. Treasury Department should pay closer attention to them. In particular, it should monitor the activities of companies that may be violating U.S. sanctions orders. Washington should also push its allies and the wider international community to hold off on full-scale reconstruction in Syria until true political transition has been achieved. – Washington Institute


Lawyers for Metin Topuz, a U.S. consulate employee in Turkey on trial on espionage charges, applied in January to the European Court of Human Rights, a person close to the matter said on Tuesday, a day before his next court date. – Reuters

Cyprus’ president says fears among Greek Cypriots that Turkey still wants to call the shots under a deal reunifying the ethnically split island nation is hampering peace efforts. – Associated Press

Mark Episkopos writes: Although Ankara continues to play its  procurement cards close to its vest, the Turkish defense industry has at least expressed preliminary interest in the Su-35 as an interim solution until it’s own, fifth-generation “TF-X” fighter enters serial production: “We are in the early stages of our talks with Russia [on fighter purchase]. Su-35s can become an interim decision for us. We need to hold extensive talks on various topics,” Turkish Undersecretary of Defense Ismail Demir said on a Turkish news outlet earlier this month. – The National Interest


Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his main rival commanded a majority after Israelis voted Tuesday, exit polls suggested, possibly opening a period of uncertainty over Israel’s next government as conflict flares between Iran and U.S. Mideast allies. – Wall Street Journal

Pitching his case as a David-versus-Goliath fight, a Dutch-Palestinian man went to court in the Netherlands Tuesday seeking damages from two former Israeli military commanders for their roles in a 2014 airstrike on a Gaza house that killed six members of his family. – Associated Press

A Lebanese judge issued an arrest warrant Tuesday for a Lebanese American who confessed he’d worked for Israel during its occupation of Lebanon for nearly two decades, Lebanese judicial officials said. – Associated Press

Ram Yavne and Harry Hoshovsky write: Although recent polling indicates that more Jordanians are open to closer ties with Israel on technology, counterterrorism and containing Iran, a substantial segment unfortunately still view Israel as the greatest threat to their nation’s stability. In this regard, deep-rooted mistrust at the ground level remains the largest impediment to enhanced cultural and business ties. – Jerusalem Post 

Yossi Mansharof and Jason M. Brodsky write: While such a dynamic could strain Israel’s relationship with the White House, as President Trump seeks a diplomatic achievement, a strong U.S.-Israeli alliance remains a core domestic political priority for his administration. In the end, this is a moment of testing for the Trump-Netanyahu relationship, with Israeli interests remaining a wild card. The prospect of Trump meeting with Rohani is already looking dim due to the extremely high price the Supreme Leader set for it: halting U.S. sanctions. […]Thus, deadlock between Washington and Tehran won’t easily turn into détente even if Trump and Rohani do find a way to meet in New York. – Haaretz 

Korean Peninsula

South Korea said on Wednesday it had approved plans to drop Japan from its “white list” of countries with fast track trade status, responding with a tit-for-tat move that intensifies a growing diplomatic and trade spat between the two countries. – Reuters

Josh Rogin writes: Although his foreign policy ideology might not align perfectly with Trump or even Pompeo, Biegun has proved himself to be a team player willing to take on tough jobs. If confirmed, his job will include helping to manage the State Department and representing Foggy Bottom at the NSC Deputies Committee meetings. – Washington Post

Robert E. Kelly writes: Could Trump find a strategic argument to win over skeptics? Not unless he could convincingly clinch a deal with North Korea, which significantly reduced that country’s threat to the South, Japan, and the United States. Worse, given North Korea’s long history of duplicity, few people would accept any deal at face value, insisting that North Korea change first and sustainably before “earning” a USFK withdrawal. – The National Interest


Huawei, which is at the center of a titanic struggle over whether Chinese companies can be trusted with U.S. data, will defend itself for the first time in a U.S. courtroom this week. – Washington Post

President Trump said China has started to buy U.S. agricultural products, and signaled optimism that his administration will be able to sign a trade deal with China before the 2020 presidential election. – Wall Street Journal 

Economic activity in China cooled further in August, testing Beijing’s tolerance for slower growth as it seeks to ease trade tensions with the U.S. – Wall Street Journal 

The United States is considering how it will confront China during the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations next week over its detention of some 1 million Muslims in a remote region, as some diplomats warn that U.S. leadership in global institutions is waning and China’s influence is growing. – Reuters

Long before President Donald Trump threatened to cut off Huawei’s access to U.S. technology, the Chinese telecom equipment maker was pouring money into research that reduces its need for American suppliers. Huawei’s founder says instead of crippling the company, the export curbs are making it a tougher competitor by forcing managers to focus resources on their most important products. – Associated Press 

A Chinese envoy will head to Washington on Wednesday to prepare for trade negotiations. – Associated Press 


President Ashraf Ghani stepped out of an armored car, accepted bouquets from costumed schoolgirls and strode onto the stage of an outdoor campaign rally just before noon Tuesday, beaming and raising his arms as thousands of people cheered and waved miniature Afghan flags. […]Less than an hour afterward, in Kabul, the capital 35 miles south, a second suicide bombing near the U.S. Embassy and the Afghan Defense Ministry killed 22 people and wounded 38, officials said.  – Washington Post

The Taliban promised Washington during months of negotiations that the United States would never again be attacked from Afghan soil. Such a pledge would have included al-Qaida, which planned the 9/11 attacks from inside Afghanistan. Yet jihad, or holy war, and a shared history continue to bind the two militant groups, and there’s no evidence of a break in relations between the long-time allies. – Associated Press

The United Nations Security Council unanimously agreed on Tuesday to extend a U.N. political mission in Afghanistan after last-minute talks overcame a Chinese threat to veto if there was no reference to Beijing’s global Belt and Road infrastructure project. – Reuters

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had no more than 20 minutes to study a draft accord between the United States and the Taliban on pulling thousands of U.S. troops out of his country, but upcoming elections could put him back at the heart of talks to end decades of war. – Reuters  

Iran held talks with a delegation from Afghanistan’s Taliban, the Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday, a week after peace talks between the United States and the Islamist insurgents collapsed. – Reuters

On the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Taliban organization) issued a statement in which it expressed its anger at the U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel the U.S.-Taliban peace talks. The negotiations, nine rounds of which had been held in Doha, with a peace pact about to be signed – were cancelled by the U.S. president, who announced the cancellation in a series of tweets, after an American soldier was killed in an attack by Taliban militants. – Middle East Media Research Institute

South Asia

Forty-four members of the U.S. Congress have urged President Donald Trump’s trade representative to restore trade concessions to India, saying the withdrawal of the privilege had led to retaliatory tariffs from New Delhi which were hurting U.S. industry. – Reuters

India’s foreign minister said on Tuesday that the part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan belongs to India and that he expected New Delhi to gain physical control over it one day, as the two countries again traded barbs over the disputed territory. – Reuters

Tom Rogan writes: We should welcome President Trump’s attendance at an upcoming Houston rally by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It might seem silly, but this rally will serve real foreign policy interests. […]Bound to the rule of law, India’s population offers great market potential to high-value exporters in the U.S. software and high-technology industries. India can help create tens of thousands of new well-paid American jobs. If a rally doubles down on these opportunities and a most important prospective friendship, then, well, “Howdy!” – Washington Examiner 


Hong Kong democracy activists presented their case before a congressional commission Tuesday for tougher U.S. action, including possible sanctions, to counter China’s steady erosion of the territory’s freedoms, as momentum builds in Washington for a more robust response. – Washington Post

The Trump administration is racing to announce limited trade deals with Japan and India before the end of the month, as President Trump tries to score some wins amid a protracted trade fight with China. – New York Times 

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has canceled plans to meet with the leader of the Solomon Islands to discuss development partnerships after the Pacific island cut ties with Taiwan in favor of China this week, a senior U.S. official said on Tuesday. – Reuters

David Ignatius writes: What’s profoundly moving is that the Hongkongers are openly defying mainland China, which in 1997 promised “one country, two systems” but is widely seen to have reneged. A former official explains why he became disenchanted: “I thought we were on the same railway line. Hong Kong was ahead of the mainland, but we were headed to the same destination (of freedom). I don’t believe that anymore.” This is a brave, noble movement. It needs leaders who can decide what success looks like, and seize it now, while they’re winning. The road darkens ahead. – Washington Post

S. Frederick Starr writes: If President Tokayev persists in his cautious but publicly declared effort to reform and open Kazakhstan’s governmental system, it will doubtless have a significant impact across the region. […]Indeed, countries that consider themselves friends of Kazakhstan should find ways to support the reform process, or at least not to impede it. By doing so they will be helping to unlock the biggest landlocked area on earth and to transform it from a zone of mutually hostile authoritarian states into region of modern, open, and self-governing societies. – Atlantic Council


Russian border guards have detained two North Korean boats in Russian territorial waters in the Sea of Japan after one of them attacked a Russian patrol, local media cited the Federal Security Service (FSB) as saying on Tuesday. – Reuters

A Russian man who allegedly shot dead a former Chechen insurgent in Berlin last month has not said a word to investigators in the more than three weeks since he was arrested, amid suspicions the Russian state could have been involved in the hit. – The Guardian

Garry Kasparov writes: When the West sends these all-is-forgiven messages to Russia, Putin immediately exploits them to show Russian elites that he’s still the big man, that only he can get sanctions lifted — and that he’s not going anywhere. Instead of deterring Putin from further acts of aggression, whether it’s election interference or invading a neighbor, such appeasement tells him only that there’s no reason to change his ways. What is needed is a united front of democratic nations declaring that Russia will never come in from the cold until it abandons its repression at home and its malign adventures abroad. – Washington Post


Prime Minister Boris Johnson was accused Tuesday of “unlawful abuse of power” in a high-profile court case about who runs the show in Britain: Parliament or the prime minister. The Supreme Court is hearing challenges to Johnson’s contentious decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks — an unusually long break, coming just before Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union on Oct. 31. – Washington Post

Just as the United States is seeking less frosty ties with the new leaders of the European Union, French President Emmanuel Macron has seized the helm of European diplomacy, filling a vacuum left by a distracted Britain and a weakened Germany. – Reuters

The European Union’s outgoing president, Donald Tusk, on Tuesday urged the bloc’s members to back entry talks with North Macedonia and Albania, saying they had lived up to their tasks and Europe would not be stable without the Balkans in the European Union. – Reuters


U.S. Africa Command announced Tuesday that two suspected al-Shabaab militants were killed by a U.S. airstrike in the country’s Lower Juba province after attacking a Somali government patrol. – The Hill

South Africa has apologised to Nigeria over a spate of xenophobic attacks which led to a spike in tensions between the two countries. – BBC

Grant T. Harris and Michael McFaul write: The United States cannot deter the revisionist power Russia while at the same time disengaging from the world. Across Africa, many leaders still eagerly seek deeper engagement with the United States. Doubling down on these relationships would serve U.S. national security broadly, as well as help effectively counter Russia. A smarter U.S. strategy in Africa would bolster a more successful policy in containing Russia. – Washington Post

Latin America

President Nicolás Maduro ’s authoritarian government, long a practitioner of tight state control of the economy, has quietly and cautiously begun implementing free-market policies to tame hyperinflation and correct an economic contraction worse than America’s Great Depression. […]the measures are giving some life, even if limited, to the economy Mr. Maduro controls, despite a raft of U.S.-led financial sanctions and dozens of nations deeming his leadership illegitimate. – Wall Street Journal 

Venezuela’s opposition-led congress stood by Juan Guaidó on Tuesday, saying he will be the crisis-wracked nation’s interim president until Nicolás Maduro’s grip on power has been broken. – Associated Press

The deputy of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó has been released from prison. Edgar Zambrano was detained in May on treason charges for supporting a failed uprising on 30 April organised by Mr Guaidó. – BBC


Lockheed Martin has placed its bets on hypersonic missiles, using golden shovels to break ground surrounded by cotton and corn fields in Alabama on Sept. 16 for new facilities to develop, test and produce the weapons. – Defense News

Work on the U.S. Army’s next-generation landing craft, the Maneuver Support Vessel (Light), is well underway, the company building the boats announced Tuesday. – Defense News

The command in charge of U.S. military logistics worldwide on Tuesday triggered one the largest surges of its aging sealift ships in decades, a critical test of the country’s ability to move heavy equipment overseas in the event of a major conflict. – Defense News

Senate appropriators have a message for the Air Force: Make early warning missile satellites a priority. – C4ISRNET

The Army unveiled details about one of its newest units designed to help the service compete with adversaries below the threshold of war. The shape of the Intelligence, Information, Cyber, Electronic Warfare and Space (I2CEWS) detachment, part of the service’s multidomain task force, has evolved since first conceptualized. – Fifth Domain

U.S. Transportation Command started the largest turbo activation of the ready Reserve Fleet since 2003 to stress-test the military’s ability to quickly deploy the cargo ships required for a massive troop movement. – USNI News

Bob Scales writes: But one thing is certain: any doctrine founded on a false premise cannot be sustained. The services are fortunate in that multi-domain doctrine is still evolving somewhere along the temporal highway short of the point where units are formed, and systems funded. By all accounts the capabilities of the Army’s big six priorities for weapons, (Long-Range Precision Fires, Next-Generation Combat Vehicles, Future Vertical Lift The network, Air & Missile Defense and Soldier Lethality) remain viable regardless of which side of the duality they serve. – The National Interest 

Long War

A Texas teenager has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for recruiting fighters on behalf of a Pakistan-based terrorist organization. – Associated Press

A defense attorney is seeking a court-ordered psychiatric or psychological exam for a man accused of planning an Islamic State-inspired attack at a shopping and entertainment complex near Washington, D.C. – Associated Press

The U.S. military’s digital team tasked with targeting ISIS is now focused on providing agencies intelligence that will help identify specific individuals and that will limit the group’s financing. – Fifth Domain

Facebook on Tuesday teamed up with the London police as part of a ramped-up effort to thwart live-streams of terror attacks such as the New Zealand mosque massacre. – Agence France-Presse

In the face of criticism that Facebook is not doing enough to combat extremist messaging, the company likes to say that its automated systems remove the vast majority of prohibited content glorifying the Islamic State group and al-Qaida before it’s reported. But a whistleblower’s complaint shows that Facebook itself has inadvertently provided the two extremist groups with a networking and recruitment tool by producing dozens of pages in their names. – Associated Press 

Trump Administration

Foreign investors who want to put money into U.S. businesses that rely on sensitive technology, infrastructure and data could face greater national-security scrutiny under proposed rules released Tuesday by the Trump administration. – Wall Street Journal 

President Trump revealed his short list of candidates to be the next U.S. national security adviser, citing a number of current and former administration officials to succeed the recently departed John Bolton. – Wall Street Journal 

Thomas J. Duesterberg writes: All of these steps would relieve momentum for a global recession and free up the U.S. economy to grow unimpeded, spurred on by the administration’s tax, regulatory, and energy policies. At the end of the day, our continued economic dynamism is the most important tool in winning the global competition with China. – National Review