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Blackwater USA | Daily Brief

Syria

  • Facing backlash from Kurds and their sympathizers for handing northern Syria over to Turkey, Pres. Trump vowed to “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it does anything “off limits” to the Kurds (which it probably will).
  • Trump’s administration says the U.S. withdrawal will only involve a small number of troops in northern Syria—as few as 25—which makes it sound like Trump’s intent may actually have been limited to one specific area or operation, as opposed to all of northern Syria as the media interpret.
  • Regardless, Kurdish officials say they had no advance notice of the announcement, and they’re now scrambling to react.

China

  • The U.S. added 28 Chinese companies to the same naughty blacklist Huawei is on, citing their involvement in the poor treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang. However, the Commerce Department was quick to say this has nothing to do with the U.S.-China trade talks that start this week. (WSJ article with more detail pasted below).

Hong Kong

  • Protesters apparently shone lasers at Chinese army barracks on Sunday—and received a stern warning from the PLA as a result. That marks the first notable interaction between demonstrators and the PLA since protests started in June.

Afghanistan

  • Both of Afghanistan’s top two presidential candidates—Pres. Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah—are signaling that they won’t accept defeat in last month’s election, so we’re likely in for another drawn-out power negotiation.
  • An explosion at Ghazni University wounded 20 students; the Taliban hasn’t claimed responsibility yet.
  • I’ve read a lot of outcry about the prisoner-swap deal that saw 11 Taliban—including a senior leader caught red-handed with around one ton of opium—walk free, in exchange for three Indian construction workers. That may mean that future prisoner swaps will be put on hold.

Pakistan

  • PM Khan is heading to China to meet with Pres. Xi and talk about Kashmir and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the $60 billion Pakistani branch of the Belt & Road infrastructure project. Analysts say momentum on the CPEC has slowed—perhaps in part because of concerns over Pakistan’s large and growing debt load. Khan likely wants to reassure Xi that Pakistan’s economy is fine, and ask for an edict to hasten construction on the CPEC.

Iraq

  • Foreign Policy had a great essay on the roots of the current protests in Iraq—pasted below.

In Iraq, Protesters Are Sick of Corruption and Foreign Influence (Foreign Policy)

The firing of a wildly popular general who led the fight against ISIS has set off demonstrations that could threaten the country’s stability.

Few Iraqis relish widespread recognition and support as much as Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi. Though he’s relatively unknown outside of Iraq, Saadi’s contributions to fighting terrorism in Iraq have been highly significant in ridding the country of the Islamic State. Suddenly, late last month, Saadi was unceremoniously stripped of his position in the Iraqi Army and transferred to an administrative role in the Ministry of Defense. The demotion of the celebrated general outraged his many supporters and triggered some of the deadliest protests seen in Iraq and the Middle East in recent years.

A tall, slim, and graying figure, Saadi has a commanding presence that appeals to many Iraqis. The three-star general was appointed to lead Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service, a highly trained unit dubbed the “Golden Division” for its recognition as Iraq’s elite force. The service, initially created through support from U.S. Special Forces, developed a reputation for being filled with nonsectarian and multiethnic nationalists. The unit has continued to receive training from U.S. forces throughout the war against the Islamic State. Prior to the Mosul offensive in 2017, 300,000 Iraqis applied to join the unit, with only 1,000 making it through the joint U.S.-Iraqi training academy.

The Golden Division was tasked with being on the front lines throughout the military campaigns in Mosul, fighting under only the Iraqi flag, compared to the mainly Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) frequently fighting under sectarian banners. Such differences resulted in the banning of the PMF by then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi from operations in Mosul and Tal Afar. Being visibly on the front lines, ridding Iraq of a hated enemy, resulted in Saadi gaining a cultlike hero status among Iraqis

Being visibly on the front lines, ridding Iraq of a hated enemy, resulted in Saadi gaining a cultlike hero status among Iraqis, especially when compared with the politicians occupying Baghdad’s Green Zone, who are widely perceived as corrupt and paralyzed. A statue of Saadi was even erected in Mosul commending his role in its liberation.

The fact that Saadi and his division frequently received training from coalition forces likely ruffled some feathers among Iraq’s pro-Iranian elite. Unlike the Golden Division, the PMF, under Hadi al-Amiri, received their training from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Gen. Qassem Suleimani.

The concerns about Saadi’s close relationship with the U.S. military were exacerbated when Saadi was found to have visited the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Saadi said he “had one visit to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to get a visa to speak about terrorism at Harvard.” It’s a plausible claim, as he had spoken at the university a year earlier on a similar panel. Despite continually risking his life to combat the global threat of terrorism, Saadi, as an Iraqi citizen, is limited to yearlong U.S. visas only and must reapply annually.

The mounting apprehension of Saadi’s relationship with the United States—and likely pressure from Iran—resulted in the dismissal of Saadi from his position in the Counter-Terrorism Service and his transfer to a desk job. The move could indicate the effective dismantling of the Iraqi Army as the PMF seeks to increase its influence across the nation, possibly by putting forward a pro-Iranian general to replace Saadi. Mindful of Saadi’s military strength, Iraq’s government could have viewed his widespread public approval as a worrying sign of the prospect of a military coup.

Protesting his innocence, Saadi—in an unusual move for military personnel—took to Iraqi satellite media to reject his dismissal. Saadi, describing his treatment by the Iraqi government as an “insult” and “punishment,” lost some empathy from supporters as he publicly protested a direct order from Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

The cult status of the general, however, meant Saadi’s dismissal resonated among Iraqis, and Iraqi youth responded by taking to the streets and social media to air their disapproval. Numerous social media posts endorsing the general can be found across Iraq’s social media, with messages of support trending across Iraq’s internet. At the protests, many held posters of the ousted Army official.

The protests have had a markedly strong Shiite presence, with slogans commemorating Shiite religious figures being chanted throughout the streets of Baghdad, indicating a strong resentment toward Iranian interventionism in Iraq by the Shiite community—similar to the sentiments expressed by protesters who attacked the Iranian consulate in Basra last year.

Now, Saudi Arabia is seeking to stoke these tensions. Seeing an opportunity to topple what it perceives as a pro-Iranian Iraqi government, Riyadh has begun to use social media platforms to perpetuate the violent protests in Iraq. Creating bots to target Western media outlets, tweets from pro-Saudi users asking to “save the Iraqi people” and push “Iran out” were posted despite an internet blockade in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, which has a long history of using social media influence to crack down on dissidents, is now attempting to spread anti-Iranian sentiment in Iraq.

The situation is quickly deteriorating, and Iran is not the only target. A diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that rockets were fired into Baghdad’s Green Zone and landed near to the U.S. Embassy during the internet blockade, indicating these protests are against any foreign interventionism in Iraq, be it Iranian, American, or Saudi. These protests have had a strong sense of Iraqi patriotism, with the activists referring to the movement as a “civilian movement,” suggesting a post-Islamist movement in Iraq growing from the “traumatic experience of sectarian violence,” as the researcher Zahra Ali put it.

Writing for Foreign Policy last year, I predicted that should underlying grievances persist, further outbursts of violence could be expected. Now, the unifying factor of a common evil in the Islamic State no longer exists, and Iraqi patriotism does not continue to extend to include support of the government, deemed to have achieved nothing for the people of Iraq. The root causes of grievances in Iraq have never been addressed; when heavily armed and trained fighters return home to a lack of jobs and housing in a country suffering from widespread corruption, that is a recipe for civil unrest.

Saadi’s cause proved to be the final straw for Iraqis. It provided the outlet for Iraqis to revolt against the ruling elite in their central government. With many countries functioning at a deficit, Iraq’s government budget recorded a surplus between 2018 and 2019 of 8 percent of its GDP. But such economic progress has not translated to improved public services, job opportunities, or security for the majority of Iraqis, as corruption is heavily discernible throughout Iraq’s ruling elite, consigning Iraq to being ranked the world’s 13th most corrupt country.

Reforms privatizing many of Iraq’s industries have continued to devastate Iraq’s public sector and have not promoted job opportunities in Iraq, as Iraq’s employment rate dropped to a record low of 28 percent in 2018. One in four of Iraqi children continue to live in poverty, while families struggle to find stability. The abundance of Iraq’s natural resources has failed to support its citizens, producing a lack of electrical infrastructure, access to clean water, and effective health care. In some parts of Iraq, 90 percent of school-aged children are not in the education system.

Similar to the protests of the Arab Spring, this largely Shiite-led movement lacks any well-defined direction, leadership, or a clear set of demands, leading Abdul Mahdi to refer to the protesters as “rioters” and belittle the legitimate grievances of Iraq’s citizens.

Similar to the protests of the Arab Spring, this largely Shiite-led movement lacks any well-defined direction, leadership, or a clear set of demands, leading Abdul Mahdi to refer to the protesters as “rioters” and belittle the legitimate grievances of Iraq’s citizens.

The fact that members of the powerful Iran-backed PMF, who could potentially instigate a civil war, have not yet become involved suggests that Iran disapproves of the protests and, to its benefit, continues to support the status quo. Protests in Sunni-majority cities in Iraq have yet to come to fruition, as their inhabitants are either living in camps or fear stigmatization as terrorists.

Iraq’s government under the premiership of Abdul Mahdi, just short of a year old and heavily influenced by the political wing of the PMF, has responded violently. Applying both curfews and internet blockades, the government’s clampdown has resulted in about 100 deaths and thousands of injuries in the protests.

Further polarizing the Iraqi protesters, Abdul Mahdi said on Facebook that he vows to “to learn the reasons” behind the protests, despite his government being the source of grievance, as protesters exclaim, “The people want the collapse of the regime.” Abdul Mahdi’s immediate violent response to the protests, compared with former Prime Minister Abadi’s response to protests, suggests that this government fears the civil unrest could topple its leadership.

For too long, Iraq has been a playground for regional influence and interests. The protests should remind the government whom it is ultimately accountable to, after having become far too complacent over recent months, basking in the post-Islamic State world of ostensible security.

The ruling elite have been detached from the harsh realities of everyday life in Iraq. The grievances that paved the way for Iraq’s sectarian violence in 2007, the civil unrest of 2011, the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, and the Basra protests have yet to be addressed. Coupled with rising U.S.-Iranian tensions, the effective dismissal of Gen. Saadi should serve as a reminder that the solution for Iraq is major reform to counter corruption and support public services for an increasingly frustrated population.

U.S. Adds Chinese Firms to Blacklist, Citing Repression of Muslim Minorities (WSJ)

Washington says decision isn’t related to this week’s high-level trade talks

The U.S. added 28 Chinese entities to an export blacklist Monday, citing their role in Beijing’s repression of Muslim minorities in northwest China, just days before high-level trade talks are set to resume in Washington.

The action, which the U.S. said wasn’t related to trade talks, was nonetheless likely to disturb Chinese officials already incensed over what Beijing sees as U.S. support for an increasingly disruptive pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

“I think the Chinese are probably going to see a connection, even if the administration says there isn’t one,” said Matthew Goodman, senior adviser for Asian economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “It’s going to complicate the discussions this week…the timing is going to be awkward for the Chinese.”

Targets of the action include video-surveillance and facial-recognition giants Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology, Megvii Technology Inc. and SenseTime Group Ltd. The decision by the Commerce Department to add the firms to its “entity list” alongside telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co.—which was added in May—means suppliers will be barred from providing technology that originates in the U.S. to the Chinese firms without a license.

The newly identified entities “have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups” in northwest China’s Xinjiang region, the Commerce Department said.

A spokesman said the move was unrelated to trade negotiations.

Western scholars estimate more than one million Turkic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities have been arbitrarily detained in China’s Xinjiang region in the past few years.

The U.S. will also add the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau and 19 subordinate entities to the entity list, along with Chinese firms Dahua Technology Co., IFLYTEK, Xiamen Meiya Pico Information Co. , Yitu Technologies and Yixin Science & Technology Co., the Commerce Department document said. The new policy will take effect later this week.

A Hikvision spokesman said the company “strongly opposes today’s decision by the U.S. government” and that the firm “respects human rights and takes our responsibility to protect people in the U.S. and the world seriously.”

The other companies couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Responding to the possibility of such a blacklisting in May, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman accused the U.S. of “using national powers to smear and oppress certain Chinese companies. We firmly oppose that and our position is consistent and clear.”

While highly symbolic, the Commerce Department’s action is unlikely to have a major practical impact on the Chinese firms, which rely on plenty of non-U.S. suppliers and have had months of advance warning to diversify their supply chains away from U.S. companies. The export controls also won’t prevent American companies from selling certain goods made outside the U.S. to these firms, as they have been doing with Huawei.

Even before Monday’s developments, people following the U.S.-China trade negotiations said China is unlikely to offer deep concessions on subsidies, state-owned enterprises, forced technology transfer or the sensitive digital-trade issues that were on the bargaining table in the spring—all thorny issues that have bogged down talks for months.

It is more likely the discussions will focus on a more limited set of issues, one of the people said, such as the agricultural purchases, intellectual-property protections, modest relief of Chinese tariffs on America exports and more market access for financial or other foreign firms.

Talks between the two countries for a sweeping trade deal hit an impasse in early May; while talks have continued, little progress has been made toward an accord, and most observers have narrowed their expectations of what negotiators may be able to achieve.

President Trump, speaking Monday at the White House at a signing ceremony for a trade deal with Japan, said there is “certainly a good possibility” of a big trade deal with China, adding that a partial deal is “unlikely.”

But hopes of a broad deal have been complicated by a range of U.S.-China issues that have exposed underlying tensions—including a flap that ensued after the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets tweeted support for the Hong Kong protests. Last week, Mr. Trump publicly called on China to launch an investigation into political rival Joe Biden, after a similar request of Ukraine spurred Democrats to launch an impeachment inquiry.

The White House’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, told reporters on Monday that the president wasn’t suggesting a probe of Mr. Biden could be a factor in trade talks.

Beijing contends that the U.S. is trying to arrest its advancement on the global stage, and it has responded to U.S. tariffs over the past year with tariffs of its own on American agriculture and a sharp reduction in its farm purchases.

The one recent bright spot has been Chinese agricultural purchases. Chinese buyers bought more than 1.5 million metric tons of U.S. soybeans in the last week of September alone, according to U.S. data, some of the biggest purchases in more than a year.

In August, China purchased nearly $1.5 billion of total agricultural exports, including $945 million of soybeans, according to a Commerce Department report, the best month since January 2018.

The figures are some of the most encouraging since the U.S.-China trade war got under way.

“Soybeans are a barometer for how the whole thing is going,” said Jim Sutter, chief executive of the U.S. Soybean Export Council. “I think we’re just now building up momentum again.”

Even so, these purchases will need to be sustained well after this week’s talks to lead to a sustained recovery for U.S. farmers, a key constituency for Mr. Trump that has been battered hard by the trade war.

U.S. negotiators might need to give ground to keep the purchases coming, including easing some restrictions on Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant that the U.S. has identified as a national-security risk, said Michael Hirson, the practice head for China at the political-risk consulting firm Eurasia Group.

“I think to keep the ag purchases, the likely concession on the U.S. side is postponing these upcoming tariff increases, and some kind of modest gesture on Huawei,” Mr. Hirson said.

On Oct. 15, the U.S. is set to raise tariffs to 30%—from 25% now—on nearly $250 billion worth of goods. More tariffs kick in Dec. 15, with 15% levies on $156 billion in Chinese imports, including smartphones and other consumer goods.

Deputy-level U.S. and Chinese officials began in Washington on Monday, followed by talks between Mr. Trump’s top negotiators, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and China’s top trade envoy, Liu He, beginning Thursday.