90-day extension

In December, the U.S. granted Iraq a 90-day extension on the original 45-day exemption on some Iranian sanctions. Iraq made a case that they needed an exemption to some of the Iran sanctions because otherwise the Iraqi economy would suffer. This was especially true with Iraqi dependence on Iran for electricity and natural gas imports.

Safe from attack

Israeli intelligence believes Iran is moving all its upgraded missiles to Lebanon because it is believed that the upgraded facilities there would be safer against an Israeli air attack.

Fake protection

Russia has done Iran a favor in Syria by allowing them to use Russian flags on Iranian and Hezbollah bases. Israel publicly complained to Russia about this, but Russia refuses to halt the practice. The Israelis have ways to verify if the presence of a Russian flag at a base or compound actually indicates the presence of Russians, as it has long been known that the Russians share location information for all their forces in Syria to ensure they are not hurt by an Israeli air, missile or artillery strike.

Death to Israel

Iran’s Foreign Minister gave an interview with French media in December when he declared that Iran was not intent on making war with and destroying Israel, and that the call for “death to Israel” was all about the fact that Iran believed Israel would self-destruct — a controversial statement in France and Iran. Many French leftist politicians back the idea that Israel is the aggressor in the Middle East, while, in Iran, the Foreign Minister found himself sharply criticized by his own government where most senior clerics interpret “death to Israel” to mean that Iran will do the destroying.

Refused action

In December, the UN agreed that the Hezbollah tunnels into Israel existed, but refused to take any action against Hezbollah or Lebanon unless a resolution also condemned Israel for regularly flying over Lebanon in recon missions or to launch missiles at targets in Syria. The head of UN peacekeeping backed action against Hezbollah because the tunnels were, clearly, a warlike act that took place and, literally, under the noses of the UN peacekeeping force on the Israel-Lebanon border; two of the 80-foot-deep tunnels cross the border. Hezbollah can launch attacks on Israel, but when Israel responds, it is condemned for aggression.

Gutsy move

In December, some Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) ships fired rockets off Iran’s west coast near where a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was patrolling. The IRGC also flew a UAV near the carrier. Two years ago the IRGC boats would have gotten closer, but the Americans have become more aggressive since then, even to the point of opening fire on boats that got too close.


At an UN-sponsored conference in Switzerland to decide who shall be on the Constitutional Committee to create a new constitution for Syria, diplomats from Russia, Iran and Turkey reached a stalemate. The three nations could not agree on several dozen of the 150 committee members.

Bomb plot uncovered

Albania expelled the Iranian ambassador and another Iranian diplomat after the two were connected to a plot to kill Israelis by bombing a 2016 World Cup soccer qualifying match in Albania between Albanian and Israeli teams. These expulsions are part of a Europe-wide investigation into Iranian terror plots in Europe and the Iranian use of their diplomats, who have diplomatic immunity, to organize the attacks.

A way out

Russia quietly withdrew from a $30 billion agreement with Iran to develop new Iranian oil and natural gas deposits. Russia does not want to broadcast that it is complying with sanctions against Iran, a decision that was made several months ago. There was another reason, though, for the Russians to shut down this project: the Russian national oil company had taken on too much debt and its foreign lenders were insisting on reductions in obligations. The renewed sanctions on Iran gave Russia a way out, allowing them to get back in at a later date.

Troop withdrawal

In December, President Trump, in keeping with a campaign promise, announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria; however, no timetable was given. This campaign promise arose from the fact that, since the 1990s, there have been a growing number of overseas military operations undertaken by different administrations and that these operations, initially described as short term, never seem to end.

Can’t hide it

Local security forces in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province displayed a large number of captured Taliban weapons that were manufactured, quite recently, in Iran. The provincial governor accused the Iranians of supplying the Taliban with weapons.


Investigations in Egypt of recent IS members who were arrested and prosecuted revealed that they had financial support from local sources, often Egyptians who support their campaign of violence. There are still many active IS members who received training, usually in Syria when IS had training camps there.

Could escalate

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei openly called on the IRGC and everyone supporting the government to brace themselves for even more widespread and violent anti-government protests. Many Iranians fear the growing protests could escalate into a major uprising and rebellion.

Border defenses

Israel has created a new army reserve battalion to improve defenses along their 79-kilometer-long border with Lebanon. With the increasing threat from Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, plus the discovery of five — and destruction of four — Hezbollah tunnels in December 2018, the Israeli Defense Forces revised its security measures for the border.

Changing attitudes

A sign that Thailand’s pro-China attitudes are weakening occurred as a Thai court acquitted a Chinese couple of visa violations and allowed them to stay, even though China requested that they be sent back to China to be punished for their pro-reform activities. In the past, Thailand’s military government promptly carried out China’s requests to return dissidents, but most Thais, even in the military, were never very enthusiastic about becoming too dependent on Chinese good will.

Causing trouble

It has become quite obvious that U.S. sanctions are causing quite a lot of trouble for Iran’s religious dictatorship. Many members of the senior clerical families have pointed out that the unrest Iran has been experiencing since late 2017 has spread and grown more intense. Part of the reason is the impact of U.S. sanctions; but there is also the anger of most Iranians at their inept, corrupt and unelected rulers.

Necessary evil

An Israeli military and diplomatic delegation met with their counterparts in Russia to work out details of future cooperation in Syria, especially in regard to Israeli operations against Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon. Russia has never agreed with the Iranian goal of trying to destroy Israel, as Russia sees Israel as a valuable ally in the region. Iran is considered, apparently, a necessary evil for Russian operations in Syria.

Ballistic missile test

Iran conducted another ballistic missile test and this one featured something new: a Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) warhead. MIRV warheads not only deliver more separate weapons, but are more difficult for anti-missile systems to cope with. MIRV warheads have never been used for anything but nuclear weapons. Iran made no announcement of this test because it violates the 2015 sanctions treaty. By the end of the day, the U.S. openly condemned Iran for this test, on which Iran refuses to comment.

The French will remain

France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced that if U.S. troops left Syria, the smaller number of French special operations and support troops would remain. The French also said that they and the U.S. were in agreement on the need to protect the Syrian Kurds from Turkish attack.


Israel discussed with the U.S. the implications of pulling U.S. troops out of Syria. The Israelis concluded that the U.S. supported whatever Israel did in Syria to defend themselves, agreeing that Iran was desperate to cause some damage in Israel and would do anything they thought they could get away with. The U.S. pointed out that the revived sanctions were working — something that had more support in the U.S. than keeping their troops in Syria.

Unwilling Turks

Although the U.S. is preparing to pull their 2,000 troops out of Syria, their support remains for the large force of Syrian Kurds who did most of the fighting to destroy the Islamic State’s presence in eastern Syria. The U.S. withdrawal was dependent on Turkey’s willingness to continue the fight against IS in Syria, but the Turks backed off from doing that and are unwilling to negotiate with the Syrian Kurds.

Inspector General

Russia has been very helpful in providing military and technical trainers to improve the combat and support skills of Syrian troops. The latest effort in this area is to help set up an Inspector General (IG) service that would regularly check units for their readiness and conformity to army regulations. More importantly, the IG would report on actual or suspected corruption, which is still a big problem in the Syrian military. This effort won’t necessarily reduce corruption in a major way, but it is good for morale.

Reduction of forces

Iraq confirmed that there has been a reduction in foreign troop strength. At the start of 2018 there were 11,000 foreign troops in Iraq, many of them involved with fighting the Islamic State forces along the Syrian border and, a year later, there are about 24% fewer foreign troops in Iraq. That number is expected to decline.

Iran displeased

Much to Iran’s displeasure, Iraq’s President Barham Salih met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Iraq, the first time the Jordanian had been in Iraq since before Saddam was overthrown in 2003. Later, Salih spoke with the Saudi Crown Prince on the phone for the first time. Jordan offered military and intel cooperation to improve security along their mutual border as well as economic opportunities, while the Saudi leader offered economic aid and any other joint projects the Iraqis might be interested in, as well as cooperation with mutual security needs.

Security zone

U.S. and Turkish negotiators have agreed to a 32-kilometer “security zone” on the Syrian side of the Turkish border that will be free of Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) or any other American-controlled Kurdish or Syrian fighters. There are still disagreements over who will monitor and maintain order in this security zone. Inability to agree on that keeps preventing implementation of such a zone.

Find & destroy

An Israeli military intelligence official said that Iran had apparently shut down all missile factories in Lebanon, apparently because of Israel’s success in finding and destroying them.

Corruption and incompetence

In addition to economic problems and continued threats from Iran and Islamic terrorists, many Iraqis remember that it was government corruption and incompetence that enabled the Islamic State to so easily grab control of a third of Iraq in mid-2014. The government says it is aware of the problem and plans to do better with rebuilding the country, an effort that will cost hundreds of billion dollars to accomplish. Fear that corruption will cripple reconstruction is not unexpected; Iraq has long been one of the most corrupt nations in the region.

Bad publicity silenced

Israel is still able to carry out air strikes on targets in Syria despite the presence of the most modern Russian air defense systems, but Israel wants to keep the details secret as to their tactics. This silence also favors Russia, who doesn’t really want the bad publicity that Israel has the ability to neutralize Russia’s latest air defense systems. That way Russia can continue to sell its S-300 and S-400 systems.

Making a comeback

South Korea is making a comeback in shipbuilding, an industry it led until 2012 when it was overtaken by China. In 2018, however, South Korean firms surpassed China in new orders, and that was mainly because South Korean shipbuilders are seen as leaders in the construction of more complex transports, in particular liquid natural gas vessels.

Quality vs. quantity

Although China still leads the global shipbuilding industry overall, with their lower prices and gradual improvements in quality, their prices are not as low as they used to be because a growing labor shortage has driven wages up. Long term, China can learn to compete on quality but that is not something that can be achieved quickly. When it comes to moving liquid natural gas or offshore drilling for oil, buyers tend to go with the most reliable shipbuilders, even if it costs a bit more. Moreover, Chinese shipyards have some unique financing and management problems that may get a lot worse.


China has invested a lot of money and effort into expanding its merchant shipbuilding industry, as a way to improve its warship building capability. In 2006, China produced about a quarter of the world’s merchant shipping, while South Korea was in first place, producing about a third. It was then believed that China would take first place in the next 5-10 years.

Sending a message

In January, an Arrow 3 anti-ballistic missile test was conducted in southern Israel against an air-launched rocket that returned to Earth at the same speed as a ballistic missile warhead fired from Iran and the test warhead was intercepted. This test had been planned for some time and wasn’t carried out just to send a message to the Iranians — but it did that as well.

Clash prevention

A Russian military delegation to Israel completed several days of meetings with their Israeli counterparts to refine procedures and agreements between the two nations to prevent accidental clashes in Syria.

Iran’s refusal

Russia and Syria are making plans to triple the size and capacity of the Damascus International Airport but they cannot proceed as long as Iran has facilities in or near the airport, and while Israel keeps attacking Iranian warehouses and other targets in the area. Israel refuses to halt these attacks unless Iran leaves and stops using the airport, which Iran refuses to do.

Placating followers

Hezbollah’s leader says his organization will continue building tunnels in Lebanon, just as they have done since 2005. The available evidence indicates that neither is probably true, but that’s the sort of thing Hezbollah leaders say to placate their nervous followers.

Impact on tourism

There is hope in Egypt that the Islamic terror attack in December against tourists will not have a serious impact on tourism, which is up 42% from 2017 and has long been a major part of the economy and source of employment for many Egyptians. The prompt Egyptian response to the attack seems to have reassured most current tourists and those planning to visit, but any attack can be the one that triggers an aversion response and keeps tourists away for years, even if the government promptly restores security.

Bully next door

Most Iraqis see the Americans as the good guys, and the Iranians as the bully next door and, often, just down the street, because pro-Iran People’s Mobilization Forces (PMF) commanders are being more aggressive with the army and any Iraqis who openly oppose Iran. This is especially true of Sunni Arabs and Kurds. The growing number of murdered Iraqi politicians is attributed to Iranian death squads, which Iran denies, but it is something the Iranians do everywhere.

Changed its approach

Israel has changed its approach to the war against Iran in Syria, attacking Iranian targets day and night, and taking credit for each one. Senior Israeli political and military leaders are even using the Internet to remind the Iranian IRGC commanders that they are losing and are unable to do anything about it — a deliberate attempt to destroy the myth that the IRGC created about how IRGC forces are about to destroy Israel. IRGC mercenaries in Syria have had success fighting the IS and other Islamic terrorist rebels, but not much else.

Iran’s embarrassment

Israel convincingly points out IRGC’s lies and calls the IRGC “incompetent and an embarrassment to Iran,” something that a lot of Iranians agree with.

Threatening war

Iran’s allies Hezbollah and Hamas have both threatened “war with Israel,” but such threats are not made without Iran’s permission. That has long been Israel’s main fear, that Iran would support a simultaneous attack by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza. Israel believes Iran will wait until it has built a significant force of fighters and rockets in Syria before trying such an attack. Iran, however, is more calculating than most Islamic terror groups and knows that such an attack would, at best, cause a lot of damage but would not destroy Israel. The repercussions for Iranian forces in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza would be considerable.

Sympathizers deported

Egyptian officials deported a second German citizen within a week who was trying to join IS in Sinai. Both German men were of Egyptian ancestry and held dual Egyptian-German citizenship, and both were held and interrogated before being expelled. It is much more difficult to seek out IS in Iraq or Syria now and Egypt is seen by Western Muslims as the best available place to join; some succeed, most do not.

Rocket intercepted

An Iranian long-range rocket was fired from southern Syria at Israel and was intercepted by Iron Dome before it could hit Israel’s Golan Heights. Israel immediately retaliated with a daylight attack on Iranian targets, followed by overnight attacks.

An accident?

Ghodratollah Mansouri, Iran’s commander of IRGC forces in northeastern Iran, was reported to have accidentally fatally shot himself in the head while cleaning his pistol. Mansouri began his role as IRGC forces commander in 2014 and his command included the city of Mashhad, long a very pro-government area. This changed a year ago when Mashhad was the scene of the first anti-government demonstrations that continue.

Hindering movement

Egypt’s government again imposed a curfew in some parts of the Sinai in an effort to make it more difficult for Islamic terrorists to move at night. The nationwide “state of emergency” — similar to martial law — was also extended until mid-April, which was an unpopular decision for obvious reasons.

Permission granted

Syria gave Iraq permission to attack Islamic terrorists in Syria at any time, without prior permission. Iraq had already been doing this, especially when they had intel about where the Islamic State forces were gathering and needed to carry out an air strike quickly. Iraqi ground forces sometimes moved across the border in response to Syrian-based IS forces attacking or regularly crossing into Iraq.

No popular support

With U.S. troops leaving Syria, the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) are depending on the U.S. and Russia to keep the Turks out of the northeast. The SDF is willing to keep fighting IS remnants in eastern Syria as long as they don’t have to worry about a Turkish attack. Ominously, the Turks have reinforced their forces facing the SDF, but figuring out who might attack, or support, the SDF now is not easy. There is not much popular support in Turkey for any operation that would get a lot of Turkish troops killed in Syria.

Aviation crisis

Britain had an aviation crisis when someone allegedly flew a drone near the runway of London’s Gatwick airport. Over 100 people, including police and airport pilots, spotted the drone from 19-21 December. Some drone sightings near airports turn out to be a plastic bag being blown about, but this was apparently the real deal. Initial efforts to deal with the situation failed and over 140,000 passengers had their flights delayed or cancelled — and cost over $66 million. The drone operator was never identified.


Many news items courtesy of strategypage.com & James Dunnigan. All material ©2019, StrategyWorld, Inc.