Fdd's overnight brief

September 24, 2018

In The News


President Trump and his European counterparts square off at the United Nations this week on key policy issues dividing old allies: the fate of the Iran nuclear agreement and how to constrain the Islamic Republic’s regional ambitions. – Wall Street Journal

Iran has begun a diplomatic push against European and Arab countries it says supported or harbored people linked to a terrorist attack that left 25 people dead and fueled Middle East tensions. – Wall Street Journal

President Donald Trump is willing to meet with Iran’s Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations this week, said U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo — even as another top official took credit for the U.S. sending Iran’s economy into free-fall with crippling sanctions. – Bloomberg 

The deputy head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards warned U.S. and Israeli leaders on Monday to expect a “devastating” response from Tehran, accusing them of involvement in an attack on a military parade in the city of Ahvaz. – Reuters

A video circulating on the ISIS-affiliated Amaq News Agency claims to show three of the four assailants accused of carrying out a deadly terrorist attack on an Iranian military parade. – CNN

On the same day Arab separatists killed at least 25 people in an attack targeting a military parade in southwestern Iran, President Donald Trump’s lawyer mounted a stage in New York to declare that the government would be toppled. – Associated Press

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Sunday dismissed Iran’s assertion that Washington and its Gulf allies were to blame for a deadly parade attack and said Tehran should look closer to home. – Reuters

Ahead of the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the country’s government is allowing more criticism to bubble up to the surface. Analysts say that may serve as a relief valve in this nation of 80 million people, which already has seen widespread, leaderless protests rock the country at the start of the year. – Associated Press

Adam Taylor writes: In the hours after a suspected terrorist attack on a military parade in the Iranian city of Ahvaz on Saturday left more than two dozen dead, countries around the world offered their sympathies to the victims. Some analysts wondered, however, why there wasn’t a stronger response from the United States. – Washington Post


A military alliance between Russia and Iran to back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is giving way to an economic rivalry as Syria’s war winds down, a contest Moscow is leading. – Wall Street Journal

Tensions between Russia and Israel reignited Sunday after Russia’s Defense Ministry issued a harsh critique of Israel’s role in the downing of a Russian plane in Syria last week, despite previous efforts to smooth over the rift. – Washington Post

As the chief backer of Syria’s embattled opposition, Turkey now faces a perilous task. It must disarm its rebel allies in Syria’s Idlib province, under a new agreement with Russia, and eliminate the hardcore jihadists in their midst. – Washington Post

Turkey will take action east of the Euphrates river in Syria and impose secure zones as it has done in the northwest of the country, President Tayyip Erdogan said in comments broadcast on Turkish media on Monday. – Reuters

Two insurgent groups rejected a deal reached this month between Russia and Turkey to establish a demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib region with one saying Sunday that the agreement aims to “bury the revolution.” – Associated Press

Assaf Orion, Anna Borshchevskaya, and Matthew Levitt write: In the longer term, the combination of U.S. pressure and Israeli military action could pose a dilemma for Moscow[…]. So long as Iran and its agents—especially foreign fighters—are active in Syria, U.S. policy should be to contain the Assad regime and oppose steps that would strengthen it. – Washington Institute

Maxwell B. Markusen writes: The United States and the international community must shape a new approach to Syria that is focused on the trends that will destabilize Syria far beyond the battle for Idlib. Counterterrorism priorities, humanitarian concerns, economic growth (or lack thereof), and the presence of non-state military forces will determine the levels of future instability and conflict in Syria for years to come. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Turkish authorities are sending signals that an American pastor facing terrorism charges could be released next month, raising fresh hopes in the U.S. that the polarizing dispute will soon be resolved. – Wall Street Journal

Turkish authorities ordered the arrest of 61 soldiers from the navy and land forces, including senior officers, for suspected links to a U.S.-based cleric who Ankara says orchestrated a 2016 failed coup, state media said on Monday. – Reuters

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday he would work on improving political and economic ties with Germany during a visit to the country later this month. – Reuters


Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza, is stepping up protests at its border with Israel to signal frustration with stalled talks with its neighbor, prompting new deadly clashes with Israeli forces. – Wall Street Journal

On Sept. 10, the Trump administration ordered the PLO to close the office within 30 days[…]. With two weeks remaining before the deadline, the Palestinian employees have left for the West Bank city of Ramallah. Other workers, almost all of them Americans, are already out the door or soon will be. – Washington Post

Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, said Thursday that were his country to have an embassy in Israel, he would put it in Jerusalem. “If Kosovo were recognized by Israel, I would open the Kosovo Embassy in Jerusalem,” Thaci explained during an interview with Vizion Plus in Albania. – Washington Post

Gaza’s Hamas rulers say their indirect cease-fire talks with Israel have halted. – Associated Press

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has denied U.S. claims the Palestinians have refused to enter peace talks with Israel. – Associated Press


Youssif believes the attack was part of what she and other activists describe as a campaign of intimidation and arbitrary detentions by powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias and political groups that control Basra, a city of more than 2 million people in southern Iraq’s Shiite Muslim heartland. – Associated Press

Bilal Wahab and Barbara A. Leaf write: The torching and sacking of the Iranian consulate and militia offices in Basra seemed like a warning from a populace that is fed up with lousy governance, with Iraqi politicians acting beholden to a predatory neighbor, and with the continued dominance of Iranian-created militias. Such uncertainty and surprises may well continue as government formation steams ahead. – Washington Institute

Hashim Al-RIkabi writes: As popular demonstrations in the south escalate further each summer, the next Iraqi government should address the root causes of this unrest. Otherwise, it risks the existence of the post-2003 system. One such cause is corruption, which could be addressed by adopting several anti-corruption measures […] all of which have been successfully utilized in other countries. – Washington Institute

Middle East & North Africa

Turkey’s economic crisis has heightened concerns in Egypt about whether the Arab world’s largest country—which is wrestling with some of its worst economic woes in years—is positioned to withstand falling confidence in emerging markets world-wide. – Wall Street Journal

At least 115 people have been killed and 383 injured in month-long clashes between rival factions in Tripoli, Libya’s health ministry said on Sunday. – Reuters

Ahmad Majidyar and Lama Al Jarallah write: Followers of the faith claim that they have been subjected to increasing harassment  since the Houthis’ rise to power in 2014, and they attribute that to Iran’s influence over the rebel movement. […]while the United Nations and other international human rights organizations often condemn and report on systematic persecution of the Baha’is in Iran and Yemen, little has been done to mitigate their suffering or hold to account those responsible for their harassment. – Middle East Institute

Korean Peninsula

North and South Korea plan to scale down military forces along their border under an agreement this week that promises to lower tensions but which has fanned concerns about whether the changes compromise battle-readiness. – Wall Street Journal

As North Korean leader Kim Jong Un works the diplomatic channels from Seoul to Washington, one Asian leader finds himself out in the cold. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly expressed his determination to meet Kim and “break the shell of mutual distrust.” So far there is nothing on the horizon. – Washington Post

Top U.S. diplomat Mike Pompeo said Sunday that economic sanctions on North Korea won’t be reduced until it completes “denuclearization” after leader Kim Jong Un offered to close the North’s main nuclear site in exchange for U.S. concessions. – Associated Press

In the year since Trump’s searing, debut U.N. speech fueled fears of nuclear conflict with North Korea, the two leaders have turned from threats to flattery. And there’s fresh hope that the U.S. president’s abrupt shift from coercion to negotiation can yield results in getting Kim to halt, if not abandon, his nuclear weapons program. – Associated Press

The comments reflect the optimism that’s trickling out in the wake of last week’s summit between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in. But many hurdles remain, as both countries are technically still at war and conducting business with North Korea is heavily restricted by United Nations sanctions. – Bloomberg

South Korean President Moon Jae-in faces a formidable task during meetings in New York this week with Donald Trump and other world leaders: convincing skeptics that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is actually serious about giving up his nuclear weapons. – Bloomberg

The agreements struck by leaders of North and South Korea at this week’s summit are important steps, which have the potential for significantly reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. But ongoing verification that the agreements are being adhered to will be needed, according to experts. – Defense News

Dan Blumenthal writes: The Trump administration went further than previous administrations in assembling a global-pressure campaign […]. Trump also went further than any president with his personal diplomacy. The administration is thus on firm ground return to an amplified version of maximum pressure, global threat reduction, and the general weakening of Kim. It gave peace a chance and learned that Kim will not give up his weapons or proliferation voluntarily. – The National Interest


In a fundamental shift, the Trump administration has formally described China as a “revisionist power” and “strategic competitor” in the past year. China has been saying similar things about the United States for even longer. But as relations have deteriorated in recent months, many Chinese are now asking if their country is really prepared to take on the world’s most powerful nation. – New York Times

Chinese officials have summoned the United States ambassador in Beijing to denounce the United States for imposing economic sanctions this past week on a Chinese military organization for buying equipment from Russia, according to Chinese state news reports on Saturday. – New York Times

The Vatican said Saturday that it had reached a provisional deal with the Chinese government to end a decades-old power struggle over the right to appoint bishops in China. It was the Communist country’s first formal recognition of the pope’s authority within the Roman Catholic Church in the world’s most populous nation, Vatican officials said. – New York Times

One of the most senior Uighur officials in the Chinese government is being investigated for corruption, the Communist Party’s anti-graft agency said Friday. […]The 57-year-old Bekri is a member of China’s ethnic Uighur minority, a mostly Muslim group concentrated in the country’s west. International human rights groups have been highly critical of China’s treatment of the group. – Washington Post

President Trump says his trade war with China will protect America’s dominance and derail Beijing’s plan for technological and economic supremacy. But […]American tech and telecom companies are warning that the industry’s growing reliance on products made and assembled in China means they are more likely to be casualties, not victors, in the skirmish. – New York Times

The trade war is not about trade. The trade war is about the United States trying to contain China and undercut its rise. That’s the increasingly common theory percolating in Beijing these days after President Trump slapped another, even bigger, round of tariffs on Chinese goods — and prompted China to retaliate with its own levies on U.S. imports. – Washington Post

China scotched trade talks with the U.S. that were planned for the coming days, according to people briefed on the matter, further dimming prospects for resolving a trade battle between the world’s two largest economies. – Wall Street Journal

Fred Hiatt writes: When it comes to China, Americans are victims of an insidious kind of censorship that stunts the debate they hear and read in nearly invisible ways. […]If, with the Xinjiang Initiative, more of them engaged with the public, awareness of China’s crimes would rise. – Washington Post

Seth Cropsey and Jun Isomura writes: China, to achieve its goal of global superpower status by the mid-twenty-first century, has sought to contest and change the status quo across the Indo-Pacific region[…]. In the face of a rising PRC challenge, the United States and Japan have in recent years streamlined and strengthened their security cooperation. – Hudson Institute


Seventeen years after the United States went to war in Afghanistan, the Taliban is gaining momentum, seizing territory, and killing Afghan security forces in record numbers. Last week was especially bad, with more than 400 killed, according to an account by diplomats. – New York Times

The Maldives, the isolated scattering of islands caught in a geopolitical struggle between China, India and the West, were thrust into more uncertainty Sunday when voters appeared to have ousted the country’s autocratic president. – New York Times

The U.S. State Department has congratulated the Maldives’ on its peaceful democratic election. Opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih declared victory in Sunday’s vote, which was widely seen as a referendum on democracy in the nation that was holding only its third multiparty democratic elections. – Associated Press

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he had constructive talks on trade with U.S. President Donald Trump in New York on Sunday ahead of the second round of trade dialogues between the two countries this week. – Reuters


New sanctions on Russia, announced this week by the U.S., are meant as messages to other countries to curtail their purchases of Russian weapons, experts said. The U.S. on Thursday rolled out a number of sanctions measures implementing legislation signed last year that targets Moscow’s intelligence operations and defense industry. – Wall Street Journal

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was detained again on Monday for allegedly violating protest laws while he was being released from a 30-day jail stint on the same charge, his associate said. – Reuters

Moscow may abandon a project to build a space station in lunar orbit in partnership with U.S. space agency NASA because it does not want a “second fiddle role,” a Russian official said on Saturday. – Reuters


After being confronted, even mocked a bit, at a meeting of European leaders in Austria this week, Prime Minister Theresa May told her country on Friday “we are at an impasse” in negotiations over Britain’s departure from the continental union. – Washington Post

Voters in northeast Switzerland voted Sunday to ban burqa-like, face-covering veils in public, a sign that even in a country where religious tensions are low compared with other parts of Europe, questions of religious expression and cultural integration remain controversial. – Wall Street Journal

Pope Francis warned against historic revisionism and any rebirth of anti-Semitism that fueled the Holocaust as he marked the annual remembrance Sunday for Lithuania’s centuries-old Jewish community that was nearly wiped out during World War II. – Associated Press

Anne Applebaum writes: It is ironic that the Russian invasion, originally intended to punish Ukraine’s Western-oriented government, has pushed the country in a dramatically different direction[…]. Ukraine is an excellent reminder of how violence can have unexpected consequences — and of how a short-term victory can lead to a longer-term defeat. – Washington Post


One person died and another was injured in two car bombs that exploded in the heart of the Somali capital on Saturday and the Islamist group al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attacks. – Reuters

A U.S. military airstrike has killed 18 al-Shabab extremists after U.S. and local forces on the ground came under attack in southern Somalia, the U.S. Africa Command said Saturday. – Associated Press

A dozen crew members on a Swiss cargo ship have been taken hostage after the vessel was attacked by pirates off the coast of Nigeria, according to the company that owns the ship. – CNN

At least 14 civilians and four soldiers were killed on Saturday in a six-hour attack by rebels on the town of Beni in eastern Congo, the army and local officials said, disrupting efforts to contain an Ebola epidemic in the area. – Reuters

The Americas

U.S. and Canadian officials trying to reach a deal on NAFTA are “very likely” to hold informal talks on the sidelines of a major U.N. meeting in the next few days, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Sunday. – Reuters

Cuba’s new president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, arrived in New York on Sunday for his first trip to the United States, where he will denounce the decades-old U.S. trade embargo on his country at the U.N. General Assembly, state-run media reported. – Reuters

A Chinese naval ship has traveled to Venezuela for the first time, following a visit by President Nicolas Maduro to Beijing this month, where he had been looking to gain China’s support for the Latin American nation’s struggling economy. – Reuters

Ecuador in 2017 gave Wikileaks founder Julian Assange a diplomatic post in Russia but rescinded it after Britain refused to give him diplomatic immunity, according to an Ecuadorean government document seen by Reuters. – Reuters

Cyber Security

After months of criticism for lacking a cohesive federal approach to cybersecurity, President Donald Trump’s new national cybersecurity strategy, released Sept. 20, has been largely met with praise from former government officials, business executives and political opponents. – Fifth Domain

Law enforcement officials, who participated in the exercise hosted by the cybersecurity firm Cybereason, said that they would have likely postponed the vote if the exercise was a real event. The simulation was a test run of what intelligence officials fear is a worst case scenario for the upcoming mid-term vote. – Fifth Domain

The Strategic Capabilities Office is under new management, and its new director intends to doubledown on the agency’s emphasis on artificial intelligence. – C4ISRNET

The Navy awarded Northrop Grumman a cost-only modification valued at $9 million related to its work on a portion of the Navy’s premier electronic warfare system. – C4ISRNET

The White House has drafted an executive order that would push federal antitrust and law enforcement agencies to probe the business practices of social media and other internet companies, according to Bloomberg. – Reuters

Gary J. Schmitt writes: A key question going forward is whether the administration and its cyber forces will be able, in the strategic parlance of days past, to establish “escalation dominance” as the competition heats up — that is, as the US applies its cyber capabilities to China and Russia and they perhaps react with even more aggressive attacks of their own. – American Enterprise Institute


Congress sent a message this year that it wants the Navy to build amphibious ships, and it’s going to put up the money to do it. Overall the Navy’s shipbuilding account got a $2.2 billion boost over the $21.9 billion it asked for, but amphibs fared especially well in the deal. – Defense News

The Navy will continue its stand-down of unmanned MQ-4C Triton operations in the wake of a crash in California until the investigation into the mishap is complete. – USNI News

The Air Force is developing smart bombs that detonate differently depending on the target. These “Dialable Effects Munitions” could turn up the blast to devastate an enemy camp or turn it down to kill a single terrorist without hurting nearby civilians. – Breaking Defense

A year ago, Army officials were touting a plan to increase the force by 7,500 soldiers in fiscal year 2019. That didn’t happen. Today’s active duty end strength stands at 476,000, the head of personnel management at Army headquarters told reporters on Friday. If that number sounds familiar, it’s because it’s last year’s end strength goal. – Army Times

Trump Administration

When Trump makes his second presidential appearance at the United Nations this week, Haley will still be a central figure, and their close rapport is likely to be apparent. She is among a select few Cabinet aides who speak frequently and directly with the president, a sore spot for some White House officials. – Washington Post

For Mr. Trump’s advisers, the biggest risk at the United Nations General Assembly this year is the reverse of what it was last year: not that he will be dangerously undiplomatic, but that he will be overly enthusiastic about engagement with wily adversaries. – New York Times

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is at the United Nations this week for a marathon round of talks, he will be joined by a cadre of special envoys who have been chosen to spearhead diplomacy on some of the world’s most vexing issues. – Wall Street Journal

Federal prosecutors have stepped up their investigation of prominent Washington attorney Gregory Craig for work he conducted at his former law firm on behalf of the Ukrainian government in 2012, an effort coordinated by Paul Manafort, according to people familiar with the matter. – Washington Post

A former top White House official has revised her statement to investigators about a key event in the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, after her initial claim was contradicted by the guilty plea of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to people familiar with the matter. – Washington Post

President Trump on Friday walked back his order earlier this week to declassify information in the ongoing probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, saying Justice Department officials and others had persuaded him not to do so for the time being. – Washington Post

With rising unilateralism challenging its very existence, the United Nations convenes its annual meeting of world leaders Monday and will try once more to tackle problems together as a community of nations, addressing threats ranging from Mideast conflicts to the effects of global warming — and also encouraging the glimmer of hope over the nuclear standoff in North Korea. – Associated Press

Robert Kagan writes: President Trump may not enjoy majority support these days, but there’s good reason to believe that his “America First” approach to the world does. […]But they may have to start facing the fact that what we’re seeing today is not a spasm but a new direction in American foreign policy, or rather a return to older traditions — the kind that kept us on the sidelines while fascism and militarism almost conquered the world. – New York Times

James Gibney writes: The test facing those gathered for this year’s General Assembly is as pressing as it is daunting: to make the UN fit for purpose in an era of surging nationalism and mounting geopolitical tensions. – Bloomberg