Fdd's overnight brief

April 10, 2020

In The News


Iranian-backed militia pose a “significant” threat to U.S. forces in Iraq, the State Department’s top diplomat for the Middle East said on Thursday, about a week after U.S. President Donald Trump warned of an attack by Iran or its proxies. – Reuters

Iran’s Supreme Leader called on Iranians to create the sense of Ramadan in their homes, since public gatherings are banned as the country tries to contain one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks. – Reuters

Iran has temporarily released British resident Aras Amiri on furlough, Amnesty International said on April 9. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Amnesty International says it believes more than 30 prisoners have been killed by Iranian security forces amid rioting over fears of contracting the coronavirus. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in a speech on Thursday said the coronavirus situation should not cause distraction from “enemy plots”. – Radio Farda

Iran’s health ministry on Thursday said 117 new deaths from the novel coronavirus took the total to 4,110 in one of the countries worst hit by the pandemic. – Agence France-Presse

Tom Rogan writes: Saudi Arabia deserves credit for announcing a unilateral two-week coronavirus-related cease-fire in Yemen. But in encouraging its Houthi allies’ intransigence, Iran has proven it deserves no American sanctions relief. […]Saudi Arabia has shown here why it remains an important (if imperfect) American ally. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has shown that he remains a devoted enemy — not just of America and Yemen, but of humanity at large. – Washington Examiner


Syria on Thursday dismissed a report by a global watchdog that said Syrian jets had carried out a series of chemical attacks on an opposition-held town, under orders from the top military command. – Reuters

Josh Rogin writes: The world has stood by for years without bringing real pressure on Assad for these most horrendous of crimes against humanity. If there were ever a time to press that case, it is right now. And if Assad can’t be persuaded to free these poor souls, perhaps the people torturing them will realize that’s the only way they can survive. – Washington Post

B. Lana Guggenheim writes: Many Syrians, including medical professionals, have fled the country. Constant and deliberate aerial bombardments by Russia and the Assad regime have destroyed hospitals, schools, and the logical sites to shelter in place — homes. […]What is now a few months of agony, economic distress, and rising death rates could drag on for years unless something is done to manage the crisis. The international community must wake up — again — to what’s happening in Syria. – Washington Examiner

Tom Rogan writes: Ultimately, Trump is the one who any action depends upon. Assad is protected at the U.N. Security Council by Putin’s veto power. And Britain and France aside, the Europeans are good only for hot air. But Trump can and should act here. And the OPCW has given him a new reason to do so. – Washington Examiner

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Iran uses Syria to transfer precision guided munitions to Hezbollah. It also supports the Syrian regime in the regime’s battle against Turkish-backed Syrian rebels. The Shayrat airbase is important to the regime. […]The Shayrat base is a strategic location and for Iran’s weapons transfers it is an easy way to bring weapons closer to the frontlines in Idlib or to move them via Hezbollah posts in Qusayr down the Beka’a valley. Now the Syrian regime and its Iranian allies will have to repair the runways. – Jerusalem Post

Sam Heller writes: As ever, it is debatable whether the elimination of HTS and adjacent jihadists in Idlib would actually be enough for Russia. Moscow might just go on to insist that all militants who resist Syrian state authority are terrorists who must be crushed. Still, Russia continues to insist publicly on steps to combat HTS and other internationally designated terrorist groups, and to extract promises from Turkey to that effect, including the new March 5 protocol. Now this leaked al-Farghali recording may indicate that this type of Turkish-Russian accommodation is more viable than at any time in the past several years. – War on the Rocks 


Mr. Kavala has become the most prominent political prisoner in Turkey, and as he himself ruefully acknowledged after his rearrest, his case is a prime example of the state of injustice in Turkey today under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. – New York Times

Turkey is supplying medical equipment to Israel, including face masks, protective overalls and sterile gloves to help the country fight the Covid-19 outbreak, following years of frosty ties. – Bloomberg

Can Dundar writes: Journalists and activists in Turkey already know to pack their bags or plan for an extended stay in prison when the president files a criminal complaint. There is no independent judiciary that could uphold the rights of political prisoners. And very soon, there will be plenty of room in Turkey’s prisons to house even more political prisoners — when they all should be immediately freed. – Washington Post

Zvi Bar’el writes: The pandemic, so it seems, is an excellent political opportunity for Erdogan to make it clear to the public that he is only one who can rescue them. Those unwilling to adopt this theory, still criticizing the leader, may end up in interrogation rooms or behind bars, as has already happened to several dozen citizens who dared criticizing the government on social media. – Haaretz


Hamas-run security forces have arrested several peace activists in the Gaza Strip on treason charges after they took part in a web conference with Israeli activists, officials said Thursday. – Associated Press

The Hamas terror group has relayed a proposal for a prisoner exchange with Israel, with Egypt as a mediator, a Lebanese newspaper reported Thursday. – Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed regional issues over the phone on Friday. – Jerusalem Post

Jonathan S. Tobin writes: Trump not unreasonably believes Netanyahu and the Israeli right are beholden to him for a number of reasons, including his rejection of the Iran nuclear deal. Any noises from Jerusalem that seek to justify annexation on the grounds that he is a lame duck are bound to infuriate the president. […]All that adds up to a likelihood that any move toward annexation until the pandemic subsides will generate the kind of negative response from the president that Israel has never experienced under Trump and which could potentially sour relations during second term, should he get one. – Haaretz


The political impasse has undermined the Iraqi government’s ability to tackle a looming economic crisis as oil revenues dry up due to a plunge in global demand resulting from the pandemic. […]Meanwhile, the country has increasingly become a battleground for Washington and Tehran. – Wall Street Journal

Iraq’s designated prime minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi said on Thursday that arms should only be in government’s hands. – Reuters

Michael Knights writes: Baghdad will no doubt have ground rules and reasonable expectations of its own, which the United States should observe. For one, unless U.S. forces are attacked inside Iraq, they should not target Iranian operatives and Iran-backed militias there. And absent evidence of Iraqi sanctions violations, Washington should commit to re-extending its waivers in continual 120-day tranches. […]Finally, U.S. officials should do everything they can to ensure Iraq gets its fair share of international relief—or even more considering the remarkable vulnerability of its public health and economic systems, whose stability holds major implications for wider regional security. – Washington Institute 

Saudi Arabia

Canada is lifting a moratorium on issuing new arms-export permits to Saudi Arabia and has secured “significant improvements” to a highly secretive $10 billion contract to sell Riyadh light armored vehicles from a Canadian subsidiary of General Dynamics, Canadian officials said Thursday. – Washington Post

A Republican U.S. senator introduced legislation on Thursday to remove American troops from Saudi Arabia, adding pressure on the kingdom to tighten its oil taps to reverse the crude price drop that has hurt domestic energy companies. – Reuters

A symbolic 60,000 tonne cargo of Russian wheat has set sail for Saudi Arabia from a Black Sea port seven months after conditions were set to allow the trade, three sources told Reuters on Thursday. – Reuters

President Donald Trump said a tentative agreement between Saudi Arabia and Russia to cut global oil production is a “very acceptable agreement.” – Bloomberg 

With Saudi Arabia and Russia agreeing on the contours of an unprecedented plan to slash crude output, President Donald Trump is on the verge of getting the global oil deal he wanted — without taking steps to ratchet down U.S. production. – Bloomberg  


The coronavirus pandemic may help end one of the world’s nastiest wars. That hope appeared this week when the main combatants in Yemen, the poorest Arab country, laid out their visions of the path toward peace. – New York Times

War-torn Yemen reported its first case of coronavirus Friday in a southern province under the control of the government, raising fears of an outbreak in a country with few resources left to respond. The announcement comes on the second day of a unilateral two-week ceasefire announced by the Saudi-led coalition supporting the government in what it said was a move to help fight the pandemic. – Agence France-Presse

Elana Delozier writes: The apparent unflinching resolve of Saudi Arabia to get out of a destructive war now in its sixth year could well prove to be the domino that triggers a real peace process. The terrible threat posed by the coronavirus, ironically, offers a way forward; it is critical that the parties take advantage of these unique, face-saving, and time-bound conditions to engage in talks and reach a lasting settlement. – Foreign Policy

Elana DeLozier writes: The Houthis could conceivably apply this formulation to Saudi Arabia, while Riyadh could use it against Iran. According to the document, various joint commands will oversee the ceasefire in cooperation with the UN, whose coordinating role is stated in very explicit terms—probably owing to the Houthi view that the Saudis cannot be a combatant and mediator at the same time. – Washington Institute 

Middle East & North Africa

The coronavirus has been widely described as the most significant event to hit humanity since World War II, with every corner of the globe feeling its impact. And just as the world order changed fundamentally after the war ended, so too is COVID-19 expected to create a new world order once the virus fades. Except, perhaps, in the Middle East, where – according to Amos Yadlin, the director of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies – the virus has not hit as hard, at least until now, as it has in other parts of the world. – Jerusalem Post

Ben Fishman writes: Haftar is only as strong as his ability to monopolize the distribution of arms and funds in the east; changing those supply lines would substantially weaken him. […]Such a diplomatic sequence and political intervention will be difficult to orchestrate without a strong American initiative — an effort that has been lacking at senior levels for the past year. But absent a dramatic change, it is likely that Libya’s civil war will still be raging in April 2021. – The Hill

Jason Pack and Sami Zaptia write: Jibril’s passing closes a particular chapter in Libya’s post-Gadhafi history. Libya is still looking for leadership to unite its myriad competing political factions. Yet, the coronavirus pandemic is likely to sow further divisions and facilitate an uptick in the country’s civil war, while the Western world’s attention is turned inwards on fighting the virus. Like so many countries today, Libya is in need of a unifier and not a divider. Study of Jibril’s checkered legacy should serve as a cautionary tale for all those whose hubris allows them to imagine governing without compromising. – Middle East Institute 

Korean Peninsula

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw another military drill, state media reported Friday, ahead of a meeting of the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, which is going ahead despite the coronavirus pandemic. – Reuters

A defector who served as a senior official in the North Korean government has dismissed Pyongyang’s claims that the nation remains free of the coronavirus and warned that it could kill as many people as the four-year famine of the mid-1990s. – Telegraph

South Korea is the first major country to hold a general election in the throes of a coronavirus crisis. That may turn out to be a boost for its president, Moon Jae-in. […]The easing Covid-19 tally has helped Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea rebuild support battered by an economic slowdown, corruption scandals involving presidential aides and resurgent tensions with North Korea. – Bloomberg


Trump administration officials on Thursday sought to revoke federal licenses used by China Telecom Corp. to do business in the U.S. as part of a broader campaign to curb global Chinese technology interests on national security grounds. – Wall Street Journal

China has placed enormous pressure on foreign journalists during the novel coronavirus crisis. Bureaus have emptied as U.S. citizens have been forced out, while international travel restrictions have kept journalists from reentering the country. But if Beijing’s intention was to limit scrutiny of its coronavirus response, it has only partially succeeded. – Washington Post

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is increasingly being held to account for his organization’s stumbles at the outset of the coronavirus epidemic as critics around the world home in on his alleged collusion with China’s dishonesty about the outbreak. – Washington Examiner

China is the greatest national security threat facing the United States, according to Attorney General William Barr. – Washington Examiner

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the U.N. Security Council on Thursday that the coronavirus pandemic is threatening international peace and security[…]. Diplomats said the Security Council was initially blocked from issuing a statement or adopting a resolution by U.S. insistence that the origin of the virus in China or Wuhan be included, which China objected to. – Associated Press

Eli Lake writes: China’s gaming of international institutions is neither a response to America nor a reflection of its own autocratic impulses. It’s simply what authoritarian regimes do. Open societies support rules-based systems that benefit the world. Closed ones support rules-based systems only when it’s convenient. – Bloomberg

Mihir Sharma writes: This is when the developing countries that Beijing has spent years wooing will learn whether China can act like a true global leader. Sending a planeload or two of masks won’t be enough. […]It might have ignored China’s clumsy efforts to rewrite the narrative of its virus response and to promote conspiracy theories about the pandemic’s origins. But it would have to be given a genuine reason to do so. So far, China’s leaders have offered little more than platitudes and propaganda. – Bloomberg

Ryan Girdusky writes: Much can be done in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic to protect Americans from future outbreaks. It’s possible that under President Trump’s direction, Peter Navarro could help move supply chains home. Nonetheless, the U.S. will always be vulnerable to China so long as our leaders are committed to the ideologies of globalism and neoliberalism. It’s up to either our leaders in Washington to reform themselves or to voters to elect new leaders in both parties who refuse to subscribe to that broken ideology. – Washington Examiner


Macroyan, a corruption of the Russian word for “micro-complex,” offers a micro-history of Afghanistan’s four decades of war. Built for pro-Soviet Afghan elites, Macroyan Kohna today is a worn but vibrant neighborhood of middle- and upper-class Afghans who have reinvented it as a shabby chic refuge. – New York Times

The Islamic State said it was behind a rocket attack against Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. – Washington Examiner

Five employees of a state-owned bank have been killed by Taliban militants in the western Afghan province of Herat, police officials said on April 10. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

The Pakistani government has called on Afghanistan to hand over the captured leader of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), an affiliate of the extremist group Islamic State (IS). – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

South Asia

Indian and Pakistani troops in disputed Kashmir are engaged in their most frequent cross-border fighting of at least two years, official data shows, even as both nuclear-armed rivals battle surging coronavirus outbreaks. – Reuters

Pakistan’s military said Thursday its troops shot down a small Indian spy drone after it violated the country’s airspace in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. – Associated Press

A roadside bomb exploded near a Pakistani paramilitary vehicle in restive southwestern Baluchistan province Friday, killing two soldiers who were clearing the area for fencing the border with Afghanistan, two intelligence officials said. – Associated Press


Taiwan accused Chinese internet users of spreading fabricated expressions of remorse in a coordinated effort to paint Taipei as the source of a campaign of racist abuse against the head of the World Health Organization. – Bloomberg

China has accused Taiwan of “venomously” attacking the World Health Organization (WHO), seeking independence and conniving with internet users to spread racist comments, after the WHO chief said racist slurs against him had come from the island. – Reuters

Southeast Asian ministers will hold a special video conference on April 14 to discuss how to combat the coronavirus pandemic, Vietnam’s foreign ministry said on Thursday. – Reuters

Last week’s collision between a Chinese Coast Guard vessel and a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands exposes Beijing’s “charm” and “coercion” strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic, regional experts say. – USNI News


Russian President Putin has no plans as of Thursday to discuss oil markets with U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s leadership, a Kremlin spokesman told Reuters. – Reuters

The Chinese Communist Party quickly backed off a campaign to accuse the U.S. Army of manufacturing the coronavirus, say defense officials, but disinformation emanating from Russia continues. – Washington Examiner

The Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based global research and analysis group, says its operations will not be affected by Russia’s decision to add it to its list of “undesirable organizations.” – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

U.S. Air Force fighter jets intercepted two Russian patrol aircraft near Alaska on Wednesday, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) announced. – The Hill 

Tom Rogan writes: Finally, this is about playing to the domestic base. Putin views his ability to broadcast strength as a critical ingredient of his continued power. And whenever Putin can get his military close up to the U.S. Military, his media propagandists are happy to advertise it. In short, this is just another day in Alaskan airspace. – Washington Examiner

Steven A. Cook writes: Analysts expect that the oil war may come to an end during Thursday’s meeting of OPEC+. Either way, one likely outcome of this episode will be an end to the idea that Moscow will play a significant role in establishing a new regional order. […]We are in such a moment now, which is why those searching for a new order should not mistake the apparent strengthening of Saudi-Russian ties in the previous few years for anything other than a function of decay, not a feature of an emerging and novel global system. – Foreign Policy


European Union finance ministers agreed Thursday night to a plan calling for more than half a trillion euros worth of new measures to buttress their economies against the onslaught of the coronavirus, but dealt a blow to their worst-hit members, Italy and Spain, by sidestepping their pleas for the bloc to issue joint debt. – New York Times

Canada and France this week denied that donations of masks from Huawei would influence their decisions on whether the Chinese firm plays a role in their 5G rollouts. – CNBC

Tom Rogan writes: There’s a familiar and increasingly problematic trend here for the EU. Just as Hungary pushes the limits of EU rules on immigration, autocracy, and individual freedom, some of the most powerful EU member states are undermining a common European mission even as they say it is a top priority. […]The simple lesson: the nation state continues to matter, a lot. – Washington Examiner

Sophia Becker, Christian Molling, and Torben Schutz write: In order to prevent the loss of critical capabilities and infrastructure within NATO, the US should immediately start working with its European partners to preemptively plan for increasingly tight budgets. […]The way ahead is clear: As ambitions for European strategic autonomy become wishful thinking in light of the current crisis, allies should focus on retaining NATO’s strategic autonomy as a whole. – Defense News 

Helen Lewis writes: Starmer’s acknowledgment of the party’s failure will stop this gaslighting. His decision to confront the issue, repeatedly and openly, also suggests that he wants to be a different kind of leader from Corbyn. […]Britain’s Jewish community, Starmer’s colleagues, and his Conservative opponents will all be watching closely. For Starmer’s Labour, the issue of anti-Semitism will endure as a test of his values—and his competence. – The Atlantic


African leaders have rallied around the Ethiopian head of the World Health Organization (WHO) after U.S. President Donald Trump criticised the United Nations agency and threatened to withhold his country’s contribution to its budget. – Reuters

Chad’s army said on Thursday it had killed as many as 1,000 Boko Haram fighters and lost 52 of its own soldiers in a 10-day old operation that followed the jihadist group’s deadliest-ever attack on national forces. – Reuters

African officials warned Thursday that if the coronavirus pandemic is left to spread on the continent, the rest of the world will remain at risk for COVID-19. – Fox News 

The coronavirus pandemic will plunge sub-Saharan Africa into its first recession in 25 years as global trade contracts in the commodities on which many of its economies rely, the World Bank has warned. – Financial Times

Matthew Taylor King writes: Only decisive American leadership can deliver debt relief at a speed and scale to save lives and restore livelihoods in Africa. A U.S.-backed campaign at the United Nations would have the best chance of forcing China to agree. If the crisis deepens, creditors could also consider providing health budget support or extending debt forbearance to hard-hit economies beyond Africa. American generosity would be remembered for generations. – Wall Street Journal

The Americas

Congress keeps war powers resolution from White House until they can come back to town and try to override an expected veto from President Trump. The measure, which would limit the president’s ability to take military action against Iran without approval from Congress, passed the House 227-186 last month after passing the Senate with a bipartisan 55-45 vote after the U.S. strike in January that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. – Wall Street Journal

Saudi Arabia and Russia agreed in principle Thursday to lead a 23-nation coalition in massive oil-production cuts after a monthlong feud and a drop in demand due to the coronavirus crisis devastated oil prices. But following more than 11 hours of negotiations, Mexico abruptly exited the talks, jeopardizing a final pact. – Wall Street Journal

Attorney General William Barr believes the Russia investigation that shadowed President Donald Trump for the first two years of his administration was started without any basis and amounted to an effort to “sabotage the presidency,” he said in an interview with Fox News Channel that aired Thursday. – Associated Press

The Trump administration on Thursday announced it expelled more than 6,300 migrants along the U.S. southern border in March, sending them to Mexico or their home countries under a public health directive that officials say allows them to override immigration and asylum laws to curb the spread of the coronavirus. – CBS News

Mike Gonzalez writes: A fiercely independent country, Mexico bristles every time it perceives its own sovereignty as being violated. It has the right to feel that way. And so does the U.S.  Since 1790, the U.S. has managed to complete its Census without assistance from the Mexican embassy. It should be able to do so again in 2020. – The Hill


The Justice Department is tracking disinformation campaigns worldwide by Russia and China aimed at sowing divisions over the coronavirus crisis, according to John Demers, head of the department’s national security division. – Bloomberg

The Senate’s sergeant-at-arms is seeking industry assistance with insider-threat and privacy assessments for Senate networks, according to an April 6 solicitation. – Fifth Domain

Laura DeNardis and Jennifer Daskal write: The pandemic also lays bare the many vulnerabilities created by society’s dependence on the internet. These include the dangerous consequences of censorship, the constantly morphing spread of disinformation, supply chain vulnerabilities and the risks of weak cybersecurity. – Fifth Domain


As far back as late November, U.S. intelligence officials were warning that a contagion was sweeping through China’s Wuhan region, changing the patterns of life and business and posing a threat to the population, according to four sources briefed on the secret reporting. – ABC News

The first candidate in the running to replace the Army’s RQ-7 Shadow unmanned aircraft system had its first soldier-operated flight in a capabilities assessment on April 7. – Defense News

Persistent Systems will receive $25 million to upgrade hardware for the Wave Relay Tactical Assault Kit (WaRTAK) program, which provides multi-domain communications and situational awareness to Air Force convoys, the company announced April 8. – C4ISRNET

This summer, the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate is hosting an event where owners and operators of critical infrastructure, manufacturers of commercial GPS receivers, and civil industry stakeholders can see how their equipment holds up under a spoofing attack. – C4ISRNET

Melanie Marlowe writes: The concern in Congress and elsewhere is that critical mission-specific characteristics might get lost in the shuffle. Public reports and budget documents hint that the mission may be down-scoped, weakening its focus to chiefly hypersonic gliders at the expense of ballistic missile threats already here today — effectively taking the “B” out of HBTSS. – C4ISRNET