Fdd's overnight brief

September 19, 2018

In The News


When President Trump announced in May that he was going to withdraw the United States from the nuclear agreement that the Obama administration and five other countries negotiated with Iran in 2015 and reimpose sanctions on the country, the decision was fraught with potential disaster. […]But the policy has been effective without either of those nasty consequences, at least so far. – New York Times

An Iranian government-aligned group of hackers launched a major campaign targeting Mideast energy firms and others ahead of U.S. sanctions on Iran, a cybersecurity firm said Tuesday, warning further attacks remain possible as America re-imposes others on Tehran. – Associated Press

Donald Trump sees next week’s main session of the United Nations General Assembly as a chance to condemn Iran for spreading what he’s called “chaos and terror” through the Middle East. But many key U.S. allies will likely use the global forum to present Trump himself as a threat to world peace. – Politico

Iranian Kurdish militants who were targeted by Iranian missile strikes earlier this month at a headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan have declared intentions to step up their activities against the Islamic Republic of Iran. – Voice of America

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is concerned by threats to crude supply from large producers such as Iran, the group’s top official said. – Bloomberg

Tyler Stapleton and Saeed Ghasseminejad write: With its economy reeling and its currency in free fall, Iran hired a new central banker in August to restore public confidence. President Hasan Rouhani appointed Abdolnaser Hemmati to replace Valiollah Seif as the governor of the Central Bank of Iran (CBI). Hemmati has a long history of laundering money and violating U.S. sanctions, just as Seif did. Neither the United States nor European governments should be fooled into believing that Hemmati is any sort of reformer. – The Hill


Syrians disagreed Tuesday about what a new Russia-Turkey deal means, casting into doubt whether it will ultimately prevent a potentially devastating war for control of the Syrian province of Idlib. – Washington Post

Both Syria’s government and its opposition welcomed the Turkey-Russia deal declaring a de-militarized zone around the major rebel stronghold Idlib, saying Tuesday the agreement stemmed more bloodshed. – Associated Press

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says the shootdown of a Russian military aircraft by Syrian forces complicates relations between President Bashar Assad and the Russian government but has “no effect whatever” on the U.S. campaign to defeat Islamic State fighters in Syria. – Associated Press

Iran’s U.N. ambassador is calling the Russia-Turkey agreement on the last major rebel stronghold in Idlib the “right step” toward fighting terrorism and restoring peace to Syria without hurting civilians. – Associated Press

The U.S. military had no involvement in the planning or execution of Israeli airstrikes that led to the mistaken shootdown of a Russian surveillance aircraft by Syrian regime anti-air batteries, resulting in the deaths of all 15 aboard, a U.S. coalition spokesman said Tuesday. – Military.com

Nicolai Due-Gundersen writes: Gazprom is already described by some as a state-within-a-state, boasting control of one fifth of global gas reserves. Should Russia deepen its activities in Syria through Gazprom, it will be exporting Gazprom’s corporate military to an already politically complex and fragile region. Perhaps this complication will erode Syria’s stability further. – Business Insider

Middle East & North Africa

Islamic State is staging a resurgence in chaotic Libya, claiming more than a dozen attacks in the North African country this year and threatening to disrupt the flow of oil from one of the world’s most significant suppliers. – Wall Street Journal

Israeli police say officers have shot and killed a Palestinian who attacked a Jewish worshipper in Jerusalem and then charged at them. The attack occurred on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. – Associated Press

An international rights group on Tuesday decried the prosecution of 24 Yemeni Bahais, including women and a teenager, by a Houthi rebel court on espionage charges. Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of research, said the group fears the Bahais could receive the death penalty amid “flagrantly unfair proceedings.” – Associated Press

David Ignatius writes: As we looked this week at the old photographs of beaming U.S. presidents grandly mediating between adversaries, what was happening in today’s Middle East? Russian President Vladimir Putin was cutting a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to avert a catastrophe in Syria and carve up that country in a peace of the tyrants. – Washington Post

Karen E. Young writes: Now, Egypt’s reforms face an unexpected challenge from the reform agenda of its most important political and economic allies, Saudi Arabia. The knock-on effect of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan for economic modernization could force El-Sisi to deepen spending cuts and seek more expensive borrowing. The way out for the president is to make bolder changes, to cut the Egyptian economy loose from the restricting ties to the state, and its all-powerful military. – American Enterprise Institute

Korean Peninsula

North Korea agreed to allow outside inspectors to visit its missile test site and said it would be open to decommissioning its nuclear-enrichment facility, a bold gambit by Kim Jong Un that is aimed at breaking an impasse in negotiations with the U.S. and keeping engagement with Seoul on track. – Wall Street Journal

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged Wednesday to visit Seoul for the first time but made no concrete promises on the dismantling of his nuclear program at the end of a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang. – Washington Post

President Donald Trump said on Tuesday a U.S. trade deal with South Korea has been fully renegotiated and may be signed at the United Nations, where leaders have gathered for the 73rd session of the General Assembly. – Reuters

Evan Ramstad writes: The popularity pattern for South Korean presidents is always the same: high at the start and then drifting down, usually near the end of the first year, and never getting back to where it was. The reason for that drift is also the same: discontent with the economy. And now, it looks like the pattern is happening to President Moon Jae-in, though a bit later than the first anniversary of his May 2017 election. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


The Justice Department ordered two leading Chinese state-run media organizations to register as foreign agents, according to people familiar with the matter, as U.S. officials ramp up efforts to combat foreign influence operations and toughen their stance on a variety of China policies. – Wall Street Journal

As China’s technology industry and government tangle over regulating new technologies such as drones and self-driving cars, the World Economic Forum is stepping into the fray. The forum will expand its Beijing office to include a “Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” […]at its annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump is confident that the United States is winning its trade war with China. But on both sides of the Pacific, a bleaker recognition is taking hold: The world’s two largest economies are in the opening stages of a new economic Cold War, one that could persist long after Mr. Trump is out of office. – New York Times

US President Donald Trump on Tuesday accused China of seeking to influence knife-edge midterm congressional elections by taking aim at his political base in the economic giants’ rapidly escalating trade war. – Agence France-Presse

Walter Russell Mead writes: Ironically, this is exactly where “communist” China stands today. Its home market is glutted by excess manufacturing and construction capacity created through decades of subsidies and runaway lending. […] Nor can China’s massively oversized infrastructure industry find enough projects to keep it busy. – Hudson Institute

South Asia

Now it is the Islamic month of Muharram, a sacred time for the Shiites that peaks Thursday with Ashura, marking the death of revered Shiite martyr Hussein in 680 A.D. It is also a date favored by the extremist Islamic State group to unleash terrorist attacks against a community it sees as heretical. – Washington Post

Pakistan’s new government introduced what it called an emergency budget just weeks after coming into office, introducing spending cuts and tax increases to grapple with budget and trade deficits. – Wall Street Journal

The United Nations said leaders of Myanmar’s military should be prosecuted for genocide of the Rohingya minority in a landmark report Tuesday that criticized the world body’s own agencies for not doing enough to confront the government over human rights. – Wall Street Journal

Military ties between China and Pakistan are the “backbone” of relations between the two countries, a senior Chinese general told Pakistan’s visiting army chief, days after a Pakistani minister stirred unease about Chinese Silk Road projects. – Reuters

Pakistan’s new prime minister, former cricket player Imran Khan, is in Saudi Arabia as part of his first official overseas trip. – Associated Press


Russia blamed Israel on Tuesday for the loss of a reconnaissance plane downed accidentally by Syrian forces reacting to a raid by Israeli jet fighters, but leaders of the two countries quickly worked to defuse further tensions, underscoring the desire of regional powers to prevent escalation. – Wall Street Journal

A member of Pussy Riot, a Russian punk group that has drawn the spotlight for its flamboyant anti-Kremlin protests, was likely poisoned with an unknown substance, according to German doctors, the latest in a string of similar cases involving critics of the Kremlin. – Wall Street Journal

France’s envoy to the United States on Tuesday accused Moscow of spreading fake news after Russia’s Defence Ministry said a French frigate in the Mediterranean had launched missiles on Syria. – Reuters

Charles Sauer writes: The more U.S. companies are engaged in global trade and finance, and in the energy sector specifically, the stronger and more competitive they become. Putin wants to weaken the United States. Sanctions that sideline U.S. companies will strengthen his hand. However, if U.S. companies maintain their leading role in sectors such as the energy industry, it is Russia that will pay the economic price. – Washington Examiner


After months of pushing for a permanent U.S. military presence in Poland as a bulwark against Russia, the Polish president offered President Trump a new incentive tailored to his real estate sensibilities: naming rights. “I would very much like for us to set up a permanent base in Poland, which we would call Fort Trump,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said Tuesday in a joint news conference at the White House. – Washington Post

European leaders will gather Wednesday for a summit to put summer tensions over migration behind them and to set up the last stretch of talks for a Brexit deal. – Agence France-Presse

Europe should lessen its dependence on Russian gas and diversify energy sources, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry said Tuesday at a summit to improve ties between eastern Europe and the U.S. and the European Union. – Associated Press

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, declared a new willingness Tuesday to rethink the “backstop” provision that Brussels and Dublin insist is needed to prevent the recreation of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. – Politico


An Italian priest has been kidnapped in a part of Niger where a number of extremist groups are active, the West African nation said Tuesday. – Associated Press

Burundi, beset by accusations of crimes against humanity, threatened on Monday to withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council and sue its critics. – Reuters

With “staggering brutality,” South Sudan government soldiers and allied militia targeted civilians by raping them, burning them alive, running them over with armored vehicles and hanging them in trees even as the government pursued a new peace deal to end a civil war, a new Amnesty International report says. – Associated Press

The Americas

The peace accords signed in 2016 by then-President Juan Manuel Santos and the rebels were meant to bring an end to five decades of fighting. […]Behind the agreement, though, loomed a fear: That many of the thousands of fighters granted amnesty under the pact might sour on civilian life and pick up arms again. It has already happened. – New York Times

U.S. business groups sought Tuesday to increase pressure on the Trump administration to retain the existing structure of the North American Free Trade Agreement, urging U.S. officials to avoid advancing a new version of the pact that includes Mexico but not Canada. – Wall Street Journal

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said Tuesday he may have to suspend a planned trip to the United Nations next week because of concerns his opponents would try to kill him if he travels abroad. – Associated Press

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., warned Canada Tuesday that the Republican leadership will not wait much longer before it pushes forward with consideration of President Trump’s trade deal with Mexico. – Washington Examiner


With the fiscal year winding down, Senate lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a multi-agency appropriations deal that would prevent a government shutdown and give the Defense Department its full-year budget on schedule for the first time in a decade. – Military Times

The Army has changed its acquisition plan for its Indirect Fire Protection Capability — designed to defend against rockets, artillery, and mortars as well as cruise missiles and drones — in a variety of ways. Now, before Congress hands over the money for the program, it wants more details on how the service will proceed and how much funding it will actually need. – Defense News

Austal USA and Lockheed Martin were awarded contract modifications to build the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2018 batch of Littoral Combat Ships, the Pentagon announced on Tuesday. – USNI News

Congress loves buying littoral combat ships, but when it comes to the packages of sensors and systems that make the ships useful, lawmakers have been less enthusiastic. – Defense News

The Air Force wants to grow to 386 operational squadrons, but leaders acknowledge it still lacks a concrete plan to take that from dream to reality. – Defense News

A lightweight system designed to hunt down and neutralize enemy unmanned aerial systems of any size can be modified to fit on a tactical vehicle or even a commercial-model pickup truck, staff with research and development company SRC Inc. said this week. – Military.com