Fdd's overnight brief

April 23, 2020

In The News


President Trump said Wednesday that he has directed the Navy to “shoot down and destroy” Iranian gunboats that “harass” U.S. ships, and U.S. officials said the threat was meant to warn Iran not to repeat what the Pentagon described as a provocative encounter last week in the Persian Gulf. – Washington Post  

But while the outbreak continues to ravage the country and its economy, the Revolutionary Guard and its allies are seizing opportunities amid the crisis to expand their already powerful base while also cracking down on public displays of discontent, Western intelligence officials and Iran analysts said. – Washington Post

The U.S. should withdraw its forces from the Middle East and focus on Covid-19 cases among its military, an Iranian defense official said, in the country’s first response to a tweeted threat from President Donald Trump to target any Iranian ships confronting the U.S. Navy. – Bloomberg 

Senior Pentagon officials said on Wednesday that President Donald Trump’s comments on Iran were meant as a warning to Tehran, but suggested that the U.S. military would continue to abide by their existing right to self defense instead of any changes to their rules. – Reuters  

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday called for Iran to be held accountable for the launch of a military satellite, adding that he thinks the action defied a U.N. Security Council resolution. – Reuters 

Iran is preparing to reprise the saber-rattling and aggression that brought the United States to the brink of a clash in the Persian Gulf last year, according to U.S. sources and analysts. – Washington Examiner 

The U.S. is still prepared to engage in talks with the Islamic Republic of Iran without preconditions, State Department Spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told Kayhan Life in an interview. – Kayhan Life

Iran’s launch Wednesday of a military satellite that it says will be used to conduct “intelligence warfare” against the United States violates international accords and represents a significant step forward in the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile program, U.S. officials told the Washington Free Beacon. – Washington Free Beacon 

Yonah Jeremy Bob writes: If the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ launch of a “military” satellite on Wednesday was as successful as they say, many analysts are saying it could be a significant leap forward in its capability to deliver a nuclear weapon – once Iran decides to cross the nuclear threshold. […]the jury is still out on what exactly the IRGC accomplished on Wednesday, but a successful launch replacing past failed launches does shift expectations about potential Iranian nuclear capabilities going forward. – Jerusalem Post 


On Thursday, she got her wish, when Mr. Raslan and another former Syrian security officer went on trial in Germany on charges of crimes against humanity committed in the early days of Syria’s civil war. – New York Times

Residents of a northeastern Syrian village blocked a road and threw stones at a U.S. military convoy Wednesday forcing it to leave the area, state media and an opposition war monitor reported. It was the second such incident in the region in two months. – Associated Press

The Trump administration is being challenged to reveal how many troops the US has in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – and to explain why it stopped publishing those figures more than two years ago. – The Guardian


Turkey began releasing tens of thousands of prisoners last week to stop a spiraling coronavirus outbreak from racing through its overstuffed jails. But Selma Altan, who is 71 and especially vulnerable because of a respiratory condition, was among a group of prisoners left behind, charged with what human rights groups say are political crimes. – Washington Post

A shipment of protective equipment brought to Britain by the RAF was supplied by the Turkish government after the UK’s plan to buy supplies from a private company descended into chaos. – Financial Times

Soner Çağaptay and Deniz Yüksel write: The lessons from interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are that it takes a long time to build a democracy. Turkey under Erdoğan suggests that it also takes a long time to destroy one, and perhaps that this is not possible after all. To this end, he may have inadvertently created some of his challenges. This is why we are hopeful regarding Turkey’s democratic future. – Center for European Policy Analysis


When the missile exploded near the black Jeep Cherokee, three Hezbollah operatives leapt out and ran for cover. A moment later, appearing to know they had time, they returned to get their bags, and strolled away before a second missile obliterated the SUV. No one was killed or wounded in the Israeli attack on the Hezbollah team in Syria last week, but that was the point. – New York Times  

In an unprecedented move, the Palestinian ruling Fatah faction has published the names and photos of three Israeli journalists, accusing them of “incitement” against the Palestinian Authority leadership. – Jerusalem Post  

Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security agency has arrested three terrorists who were planning a bomb attack at Jerusalem’s main sports stadium, the Israeli news site Walla reported on Wednesday. – Algemeiner

The Hamas terrorist organization praised the ramming and stabbing attack which was carried out on Wednesday by a 25-year-old terrorist at the Kiosk checkpoint near Abu Dis, just east of Jerusalem. – Arutz Sheva

Some Palestinians are convinced that the oil-rich kingdom is responsible for a hashtag that has recently been trending on Twitter titled, “Palestine is not my cause.” Others believe that some Israelis may also be involved with the anti-Palestinian smear campaign. – Jerusalem Post

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted that the US may consider providing the Palestinians with additional financial assistance, above and beyond the $5 million in humanitarian aid it has already pledged due to the COVID-19 pandemic. – Jerusalem Post 

David Makovsky writes: In theory, a broader government should enable Israel to make favorable progress on several fronts: extricating itself from its reliance on pro-settler factions, which have held the balance of political power since 2015; reaching wider constituencies in key foreign countries; and restoring bipartisan cooperation with Washington. Yet the looming July 1 annexation deadline puts all of these potential gains in peril very early in the new government’s tenure. – Washington Institute 

Middle East & North Africa

On Feb. 21, Lebanon reported its first coronavirus infection. […]Somehow, this messed-up country, teetering on the brink of economic ruin and political chaos, has done something right when it comes to the coronavirus. – Washington Post

Egypt’s parliament approved on Wednesday amendments to the country’s emergency laws that give expanded powers to the presidency and the military prosecution as authorities try to counter the new coronavirus outbreak. – Reuters

Libya’s internationally recognised government is focused on trying to push its enemies out of artillery range of Tripoli after making advances in the main western battle fronts last week, the interior minister said. – Reuters

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: Accordingly, a meaningful strategic dialogue between the United States and Iraq must address all three of these sets of issues – or ghosts – politics and governance, economics, and security. It cannot continue to be focused on security, and particularly on ISIS. Iraq must find its own answers in each case, and the United States cannot help an Iraq that cannot unite or act to the point where it can help itself. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Sarah Feuer writes: The crisis may hold another silver lining: with Algiers distracted by virus-related imperatives, it will be less likely to make any sudden, provocative moves in its longstanding conflict with Morocco over Western Sahara. At the same time, continued instability will undermine the counterterrorism cooperation on which Washington has relied in pursuing its regional interests. […] Washington needs to plan for a scenario in which Algiers may no longer be able to help preserve such regional security interests, most of which will long outlast the coronavirus. – Washington Institute

Korean Peninsula

With North Korea saying nothing so far about outside media reports that leader Kim Jong Un may be unwell, there’s renewed worry about who’s next in line to run a nuclear-armed country that’s been ruled by the same family for seven decades. – Associated Press

Two constant threads that have run through the history of North Korea: Rule by the Kim dynasty, and speculation about the health of its secretive leaders. – Bloomberg

Consumers in North Korea’s capital this week have been “panic buying” food staples, causing some store shelves to empty, according to a news service that specializes in the country. – Bloomberg 

The military’s No. 2 uniformed official on Wednesday said he has no reason not to assume that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is still “in full control” of the country. – The Hill

As questions linger about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un following a recent surgery, Pyongyang has left no doubt it intends to keep flexing its military muscle with its latest round of air and land-based cruise missile tests, Asian experts at the Wilson Center said last week. – USNI News

Nicholas Eberstadt writes: Mr. Kim might continue to test new weaponry designed for offensive combat in the Korean Peninsula: Epidemic or not, North Korea fired a series of short-range ballistic missiles in March. And if he still has the resources, he might push ahead with his plan to threaten the United States mainland with nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. But if Mr. Kim and his entourage cannot manage North Korea’s coronavirus crisis, they might have even more trouble on their hands than they realize. – New York Times 


The alarming messages came fast and furious in mid-March, popping up on the cellphone screens and social media feeds of millions of Americans grappling with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. – New York Times

The Chinese government is ramping up efforts to curb emerging social unrest in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak as the country faces an economic downturn that could leave millions of people unemployed. – Bloomberg 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States has called on China to permanently close its wildlife wet markets, citing links between those markets and zoonotic diseases. – Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hit out at Beijing again on Wednesday over the coronavirus outbreak and accused it of taking advantage of the pandemic to bully neighbors, even as he welcomed China’s provision of essential medical supplies. – Reuters  

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China on Wednesday of failing to provide samples of the new coronavirus needed by scientists to track the evolution of the pathogen. – Washington Times

The Chinese Foreign Ministry mocked attempts to sue the country’s government and ruling Communist Party over the coronavirus, saying health officials have been forthcoming with details of the disease throughout the crisis. – Washington Times

Hal Brands writes: It is essential that the U.S. compete vigorously, both to protect its own interests and because it is hard to imagine a mercantilist, autocratic party-state leading a stable and cooperative world order. Yet the prospects for dealing with future pandemics or other transnational challenges will markedly improve if Washington and Beijing can avoid letting their rivalry preclude collaboration where their interests align[…]. The goal of a modestly improved multilateralism is to work within these constraints. – Bloomberg

Kenneth Quinn writes: While there is no concrete evidence that the coronavirus originated from this facility, a point emphasized by China, there is reasonable speculation that, given such breakdown in security, unintentional transmission of the coronavirus to a human likely took place inside that research center. […]The American diplomatic corps sustains a rich history dating back to the Revolutionary War. Those two foreign service officers who reported from the Wuhan Institute of Virology have added a new chapter to this legacy. – The Hill

Ken Langone writes: When the public reads news accounts that bestow ridiculous praise on the Chinese government, or that imply readers are dupes for doubting that regime’s ham-fisted propaganda, they are highly likely to discount or reject anything else those publications report about the pandemic. […]America needs the fourth estate at its very best right now. That means unwavering objectivity. It means taking a pause on the usual sniping and sneering. It’s time to get our head in the ballgame and start playing like we are all on the same team. – National Review

Thomas Jipping writes: The COVID-19 pandemic is in full swing, and information about China’s actions is only beginning to unfold. There likely would be extensive hearings, and Congress no doubt will consider the possibility of sparking legal developments that could increase legal exposure in other countries for the United States or its citizens. […]Nonetheless, the American people need to know how China contributed to the pandemic that is so deeply affecting everyone and what can be done to hold Beijing accountable. – The Daily Signal


Clashes between Afghan forces and Taliban militants killed dozens nationwide over the past 24 hours, authorities said on Wednesday, even as the United States tries to broker peace talks between the warring sides. – Reuters  

U.S. President Donald Trump and Qatari leader Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani agreed in a phone call on Wednesday on the importance of the Taliban reducing violence in Afghanistan, the White House said in a statement. – Reuters 

Top members of the Afghanistan government’s negotiating team say they are optimistic a peace deal can be reached with Taliban, despite a rocky start to the talks and numerous obstacles to an agreement in a nation exhausted by four decades of conflict. – Washington Times


Police charged two teenage boys with the murder of a 70-year-old man who was hit on the head by a brick thrown during one of the antigovernment street protests that rocked the city last year, the most serious criminal indictment to be brought over the unrest so far. – Wall Street Journal 

Pakistani authorities asked the country’s highest court to reimpose the death penalty for a British national accused of kidnapping and killing Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, after a lower court had overturned the 18-year-old murder conviction earlier this month. – Wall Street Journal 

Officials in Taiwan are attempting to turn their success in battling the coronavirus at home into a geopolitical win. Taiwan is competing with China on pandemic aid diplomacy in defiance of Beijing’s efforts to isolate the self-ruled democratic island that it claims as its own. The island is promoting itself as a model of democracy to try to undercut China’s own campaign to use the crisis to tout the strength of its authoritarian system. – New York Times 

The Philippines filed a diplomatic protest against China’s creation of two new districts to administer islands in the disputed South China Sea, its top envoy said. – Bloomberg

Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai pleaded for help for his flagship newspaper the Apple Daily, as advertising income slumps to almost nothing due to political retaliation and the Covid-19 pandemic. – Bloomberg 

Malaysia called on Thursday for disputes over the South China Sea to be resolved by peaceful means, amid a standoff between Chinese and Malaysian vessels that a U.S. think tank said had been going on for months. – Reuters  

All member nations of the World Health Organization (WHO) should support a proposed independent review into the coronavirus pandemic, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday, further threatening strained ties with China. – Reuters 

Warships from the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the US Navy (USN) have come together for drills in the South China Sea, amid fresh tensions in the disputed maritime region. – Jane’s 360

Michael Mazza writes: The Tsai administration should be forthright in describing China’s growing military threat and categorical in explaining what is necessary to counter it: more defense spending and a much-expanded military reserve system. – Global Taiwan Institute


U.N. officials said the General Assembly rejected two resolutions on the coronavirus pandemic Wednesday, one from Russia and one from Saudi Arabia. It was the second defeat for a Russian resolution on COVID-19 by the 193-member world body. – Associated Press 

The U.S. is investigating whether traders with inside information on Russia’s negotiations with other oil producing nations made hundreds of millions of dollars from illegal wagers on crude price swings, according to two people with direct knowledge of the matter. – Bloomberg  

The U.S. ambassador to Russia has criticized what he calls the Russian government’s lack of action to protect journalists who have received threats of retaliation from Russian officials or face criminal charges considered trumped up by their supporters. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Ivana Stradner and Max Frost write: Despite NATO’s overall military superiority, it has a weak hand in the Balkans, and Russia continues to outmaneuver it there. NATO must quickly signal that it remains steadfast and, having decided to admit it, that North Macedonia is an integral member of the alliance. If NATO fails in its support of new members like North Macedonia, the chances have just risen that it will be met with Russian aggression—hybrid or conventional—that may just mean the end of NATO as a credible alliance. – Foreign Policy


Spanish police have captured a former British rapper who was on the run after fighting for the Islamic State (IS) jihadist movement in Iraq and Syria, officials and media said. – Reuters

The Trump administration is poised to announce an expanded diplomatic presence in Greenland and a new assistance package for the vast island aimed at thwarting growing Chinese and Russian influence in the Arctic. – Associated Press

The German government has condemned an anti-Semitic incident that took place during an online Holocaust memorial event organized by the Israeli Embassy in Berlin. – Associated Press

Antisemitic graffiti featuring swastikas and Nazi references has been found scrawled on two buildings in Heidelberg, southwest Germany. – Jerusalem Post  

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, on Wednesday criticized the U.S. for blocking an Iranian request for a loan from the International Monetary Fund. – Politico 

German defense officials have finally admitting to their vision of buying a few dozen upgraded F-18 fighter jets, citing transatlantic ties as one of the reasons for the pick. The 45 Boeing-made planes would replace a portion of the country’s Tornado aircraft, taking on the sensitive roles of delivering U.S. atomic weapons under NATO’s so-called nuclear sharing doctrine and clearing enemy enemy air defenses for follow-on waves of aerial forces. – Defense News

EU monitors have identified a “trilateral convergence of disinformation narratives” being promoted by China, Iran, and Russia on the coronavirus pandemic and say they are being “multiplied” in a coordinated manner, according to an internal document seen by RFE/RL. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Iain King and Jason Gresh write: As President Zelensky battles on three fronts at once, it is vital that the West continue to support him, including giving him latitude to determine what is best to protect the sovereignty of Ukraine. As governments worldwide increasingly turn inward to solve their domestic challenges, it becomes all the more important to put Western assistance to Ukraine on track to empower it to confront its challenges directly. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Donatienne Ruy writes: The response to this once-in-a-century crisis will shape the European Union for years to come and either strengthen it or cripple its credibility in the eyes of its citizens. EU and national leaders must understand this to prevent the latter scenario from materializing. […]Political decisions were made that created the complex and unstable construction we see today in the European Union, in full display amid the Covid-19 crisis. Member states and EU leaders must conjure up new political thinking to solve this crisis. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Peter Rough writes: Nonetheless, given American sacrifices for Europe’s security, it is a jejune accusation. It is inevitable that coronabonds, or a similar scheme, would end in tears for Europe, at which point the continent will expect their offshore-balancer angel from the West to rescue them from the quicksand. […]Of course, Europe could always maneuver into the arms of China, like Italy. Death by quicksand or indentured to China: Neither is a pleasant future to contemplate for our closest and oldest allies. Better to urge them to climb down to reality. – National Review


Cameroon’s President Paul Biya has acknowledged that the military massacred innocent people, including women and children, in a northwestern village in February after the government first denied it. – Associated Press 

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) urged member states on Wednesday to help struggling Muslim states combat the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in Africa. – Reuters 

Katherine Zimmerman writes: The land that stretches across western Africa hosts a network of Salafi-jihadi groups that is expanding as local conditions deteriorate. […]Conditions in the Sahel region make the operating environment complex, even without the presence of Salafi-jihadi groups. The Sahel borders the Sahara desert, and the population is seminomadic. Trade and migration routes connect the region, and communal identities—especially ethnic identities today—and relationships are crucial. – American Enterprise Institute

The Americas

Argentina said it didn’t make foreign debt payments coming due on Wednesday—starting a countdown to a possible default next month unless authorities and bondholders can restructure tens of billions of dollars in sovereign debt. – Wall Street Journal

Across the world, from Chile to Mexico, Britain to remote Malawi, countries are racing to find—or build—their own ventilators. The coronavirus pandemic has sparked a fivefold rise in demand and a global bidding war for the breathing devices, with the unit price on some models now doubling to about $45,000, industry executives said. – Wall Street Journal

The United States will assess if the World Health Organization is being run properly following President Donald Trump’s pause in U.S. funding to the global body, the acting head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said on Wednesday. – Reuters 

The Trump administration on Tuesday ordered Chevron Corp. to “wind down” operations in Venezuela by Dec. 1, barring the California-based oil giant in the meantime from drilling or exporting, as the U.S. increases pressure on President Nicolás Maduro to give up power. – Associated Press

As the coronavirus crisis threatens to overwhelm health care systems and devastate fragile economies across Latin America, China — where the deadly pathogen first emerged — now wants the region to see it as the hero, not the villain, in the fight against the pandemic. – Washington Times

William C. Danvers writes: While the U.S. government is rightly focusing on the dramatic impact of COVID-19 domestically, it is imperative that we also be ready to respond to the global devastation this virus will leave in its wake. […]The United States should take full advantage of institutions such as the WBG as part of its important global leadership role. – The Hill

Kori Schake writes: Just as the 9/11 attacks changed the definition of national security and redirected the course of U.S. policy for two decades, so likely will the dire consequences of America’s unpreparedness for the global pandemic cast a long shadow across government policy. And they should. […]Strengthening our civil service — its competence, integrity, skills and scope for action — is one of the best investments we could make in public safety. – Bloomberg


Google reported Wednesday that it had tracked at least a dozen foreign government-backed groups attempting to use information around the COVID-19 pandemic to target cyberattacks at the health care sector and the public. – The Hill

The Justice Department on Wednesday said it had notified domain hosts about hundreds of websites that were attempting to exploit coronavirus concerns to scam or compromise network security. – The Hill

A co-chairman of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission said April 22 that the fiscal 2021 defense policy bill could include about 30 percent of the group’s cyber policy recommendations. – Fifth Domain 

A bipartisan group of senators wrote to the top U.S. cybersecurity officials asking them to step up monitoring, warnings and, if needed, counterstrikes against a host of foreign hackers targeting the U.S. health care system and pharmaceutical companies through cyberattacks. – Roll Call 

Patrick Perry writes: The time is now to modernize and update the DoD security approach. Agencies should adopt and embrace a cloud native “as-a-service” SASE model that will not only address Federal teleworking challenges, but also provide a “future-proof” scalable security solution. – Fifth Domain


The Navy is revamping its approach to building weapons elevators on Ford-class aircraft carriers, after finding that each of the 11 unique elevators is generating its own unique set of lessons learned. – USNI News

By embracing data and developing the Naval Sustainment System and Performance to Plan frameworks for aviation readiness, Miller said, the Navy had 340 more aircraft flying in March 2020 compared to March 2019, including 90 more Super Hornets. – USNI News

The FFG(X) program is a Navy program to build a class of 20 guided-missile frigates (FFGs). Congress funded the procurement of the first FFG(X) in FY2020 at a cost of $1,281.2 million (i.e., about $1.3 billion). […]The Navy estimates that subsequent ships in the class will cost roughly $940 million each in then-year dollars. – USNI News

The U.S. Air Force is in the early stages of developing strategies to “mitigate” the damage expected to occur to Global Positioning System capabilities following the Federal Communication Commission’s approval of a spectrum request by Ligado Networks, according to the service’s top uniformed officer. – C4ISRNET

Trump Administration

As President Donald Trump faces rising disapproval of his coronavirus response, he’s reviving the heated rhetoric that got him elected — blaming China, threatening Iran and, especially, cracking down on immigrants. – Bloomberg

The Trump administration is mulling cutting back on its intelligence ties with countries that criminalize homosexuality in an effort to press those nations to change their laws, according to acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell. – The Hill 

John Prendergast and Sasha Lezhnev write: When the United States places sanctions on a rogue businessman or corrupt corporation, the expectation is that significant financial consequences will result. Some targets of those sanctions, however, are devising tactics to skirt the measures and continue with their dirty business as usual. […]How Gertler’s efforts play out will have significant implications for U.S. foreign policy and, more broadly, for international justice. At risk is the efficacy of targeted network sanctions and global anti-money laundering approaches, two of the most important policy tools the United States has in creating leverage for change. – Haaretz